Choice came from deep needs, but where did the needs come from?
-- Dick Francis, Hot Money
Morris spent a year and a half doing fieldwork in a couple of high schools, one larger, urban, and predominantly black, the other smaller, rural, and predominantly white. He says that he began expecting to explore "intersections of class, gender, race, and place" but soon discovered "the gender gap and concentrated my analysis on that topic" (184). His observations brought back memories that sometimes shook me deeply. For example, the "clownin'" role some young men adopted, which gave status to youths who didn't excel at either academics or sports, recalled to me my own clowning in various contexts, including school. Unlike Morris's clowns, though, I got good grades. But certainly I was (and still am) gratified if I could make people laugh. "Book smarts," which are at best viewed ambivalently by most of Morris's male informants, were always important to me, because I had them. But they also defined a gap between me and most of my peers; making them laugh gave us something in common, however tenuous.
Getting good grades was acceptable for male students, Morris found, as long as they didn't exert any visible effort to get them. If they studied, they pretended they didn't; if they had trouble with a subject, they couldn't ask a teacher or anyone else for help. Studying was classified as girl stuff, asking for help even more so. If they were lucky, their parents could help them at home. As a result many of them were torn between the need to maintain face by not seeming to care about schoolwork, and the need to maintain the grades to keep themselves eligible for official school sports, and from there to seek athletic scholarships to college -- not so much for the stake of a degree, but as a stepping stone to the grail of professional sports.
This hit home for me, because though I did get good grades (and in fact, for what it's worth, graduated second in my class, in a school about the size of Morris's small rural high school), I almost never did homework. I did most of my assignments during study hall, and I always made sure I had at least one study hall period each day, so evidently I didn't worry about losing face by being seen doing schoolwork. I'd established from childhood that I wasn't interested in sports, nor in proving my manhood in other ways. It was only when I came up against geometry class in my sophomore year, as I recall, that I had to take assignments home because they took more time than I had in study hall. In my senior year I had a couple of long papers to write, which I also did outside school hours. Usually at home I read, wrote, watched TV, taught myself to play guitar, and daydreamed about making my own telescope. I didn't have much of a social life then, but learning guitar and listening to pop music changed that somewhat: it gave me another shared interest with some of my peers. But I now see that it was important to my own self-image not to do homework. If I hadn't had a head start in most areas -- math was the exception -- and an excellent memory, I'd have had to work harder, or my grades would probably have suffered too. I still perceive myself as lazy, because the intellectual tasks I assign myself don't feel like work; I read far more than most people do, for example, but if I didn't enjoy it I probably wouldn't do it as much, and I'm more conscious of the books I haven't read, but want to, than of the books I have read. I'm just not interested in driving myself that much: if something becomes too difficult, I usually simply drop it. So I found myself identifying with Morris's underachievers, and realizing how much I've relied on my intellectual gifts. It was a chastening recognition.
Another point of contact was conflict with rules. A recurring theme in Learning the Hard Way was that the young men spent a lot of time and energy just rebelling against all the petty rules and regulations that school imposes. In a section titled "Rules Are for Girls," Morris notes,
Although lack of attention to schoolwork directly impeded boys' academic progress and outcomes, other factors affected their academic careers more indirectly. One concerned their tendency to get into trouble and to demonstrated behavior that openly defied or cleverly manipulated school rules. As research has shown, taking risks and flouting conventions are often interpreted as constituting masculinity... In my study, boys generally expressed and exhibited disdain for strict rules. However, the schools were saturated with such rules, which tended to place boys at odds with school-sanctioned comportment and activities. For example, I asked Kevin if he ever thought about wrestling for Clayton's [that is, the small, mostly white rural school] school team since he enjoyed boxing and had told me in elaborate detail about how he wrestled with his friends and older family members. He replied, "No, I don't like that many rules. I'd rather be street fighting ... They'll let you go at it for a while before they break it up" .Here too I realized that I wasn't as different from other boys as I'd always liked to think. I was clever enough to avoid disciplinary action, choosing to back down when an administrator delivered an ultimatum -- ordering me to cut my hair, for example. (This was in the late 60s, when "long hair" meant a Beatle cut that half-covered the ears; administrators today would probably drop to their knees and thank God for students who wore their hair that short.) But I still pushed at the boundaries. So sissies aren't necessarily more docile than "normal" boys; we just break different rules and conventions. (This one did, anyway.) And I wasn't so driven by the need to resist that I confused trivia of mainly symbolic import, like hair length, with more important issues -- which didn't come up in my high school career. My main concern was getting out of high school and going to college, where things would be different and better; so I expected, so they were.
What interested me about the rule-breaking of Moore's high school boys was that they often aspired to join the military or professional sports. Any kind of organized sport is hemmed in with Byzantine webs of rules, and the military even more so. The purpose of military basic training is precisely to break the will of a recruit, and the penalties for rule-breaking are far more severe than anything these guys encountered in high school. The rules are likewise even more dominated by chickenshit than high school discipline, though much school regulation is merely a milder form of obsessively trivial control of students' behavior and dress. It's a commonplace of the "war against boys" theme today that schools used to be more accepting of boys' innate messiness and stupidity, but the fact of the military (to say nothing of a glance at educational history) shows this is nonsense.
In early modern England, both in homes and schools, across the boundaries of social class, the birch rod - as administered by parents, servants, nurses, tutors, or teachers - became the conventional instrument of retribution. Both boys and girls were expected to be unremittingly deferential to their elders and were beaten routinely for a great range of offenses: disobedience, obstinacy, laziness, a missed stitch, a flubbed Latin conjugation. And the punishments varied enormously in severity, from a gentle hand slap to prolonged, violent whippings that sometimes resulted in the death of the child. For the determined castigator, the child’s hand, mouth, face, and buttocks (either naked or clothed) were fair game. In addition to the birch rod, a ferula - a wooden slat with a large rounded end and a hole in its middle - could be used to raise a large and painful blister. Lawrence Stone notes that in the grammar schools (which drew a far greater number of boys than they had during the late Middle Ages) the standard method of administering the rod required one active and two passive participants: a boy would be beaten “with a birch” by his master “on the naked buttocks while bent over and horsed on the back of another boy.” Even in universities, young men were regularly submitted to public whippings, floggings over a barrel, or detention in the stocks [David Savran, Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture (Princeton, 1998), 17-18].School has always been more about teaching submission to authority than it has been about cultivating the independently thinking person. What has changed is that in developed countries schooling is now universal, and everyone is expected to last through at least twelve years of it. Well into the twentieth century, schooling for most Americans ended with the eighth grade or earlier. Boys who chafed at the petty regulations could and did drop out, and there were other job options for them. (I was amazed when I read Harpo Marx's autobiography, in which he told of dropping out of school -- if I recall correctly -- in the second grade. But that was around 1900.) One of schooling's primary functions has been to sort the students who learned easily from those who couldn't; those who couldn't were simply jettisoned. Now that students aren't allowed that way out, schools need to adjust their methods, to teach rather than sort; but that's not likely to happen.
Why, then, do these young men, driven to "aggressive verbal or physical outbursts, often in defiance of school rules," follow their "self-made path to manhood" (Moore, 42) into new institutions that will repress them even further? In some cases they aren't aware of the constraints they'll face: like young women who marry to escape their mothers' control, thinking that marriage will give them freedom, but discover they exchanged a mistress for a new master, some young men may think that the military or professional sports will be freer than school. Others, perhaps, know that they'll be testing their wills against that of the hierarchy; others masochistically wish to be dominated. Others simply believed the TV recruiting commercials and the movies.
When it was still possible to earn a living and support a family without a high school diploma, let alone a college degree, young men could survive without submitting to a full course of schooling. But school was never "boy-friendly." Girls didn't outnumber boys as college undergraduates until recently because they were excluded from college, and when they could no longer be excluded, they were discouraged from achieving. Once the barriers came down, young women flooded into academia, and young men had to compete with them, for the first time. The self-imposed and enforced Boy Code hobbled them from competing very effectively. If the Boy Code really is innate and immutable, then males are in trouble -- or, since not all males conform to the Boy Code, those males who can't study, who must let themselves be intimidated from studying and learning by fag discourse, will face Darwinian selection.
That's one of the contradictions Moore discusses, though he doesn't put it in quite these terms: boys are allowed to be "smart," even "book smart," as long as they don't seem to work to achieve it. Hard work is only manly and valued if it's physical work. Men are supposed to be tough, independent, impervious -- but in fact they are vulnerable to, and dependent on, the recognition of their manhood by other males. Contrariwise, girls' achievement, achieved by studying, is depicted as less valuable, less real. As Moore puts it, their perceived weakness and docility left them free from the restraints that hobbled boys: they could study and do well in school without their femininity being called into question. But far from accepting the dependence on males that traditional femininity mandates, many of these girls were determined to go to college and support themselves. The one girl from either school who told Moore that men should be sole providers in families (she planned to marry a professional athlete) still studied and prepared to go to college, because as she acknowledged with bleak realism, a husband might dump her.
Not all boys are trapped in the self-defeating and self-destructive Masculine Mystique Moore describes. I believe that even those who are entangled in its coils can outgrow it, just as girls increasingly reject dependence on male providers. But they need to know just what they're trapped in, and encouragement from adults as well as peers to let them know that change is possible.