Why a boys' school?

By Fr Martin Wallace, O.P., Headmaster of Blackfriars Priory School, Adelaide.

Since the 1970s, boys' schools have seemed to many parents an anachronism. First of all there was a rush to co-education. Then came the claim that girls often did better in girls' schools - that they were often disadvantaged in the co-educational environment. There was some empirical evidence to support this. So the idea quickly got around that if girls were disadvantaged by co-education, boys must be advantaged. Thus an urban myth was born: that single-sex schools are better for girls, and co-education is better for boys.

It ain't necessarily so!

First of all, it is not true that a disadvantage for girls corresponds to an advantage for boys. For example, if the boys are "pushing out" the girls from maths or science, they are probably missing out on music or literature or art. When one part of a community suffers, everyone suffers.

Secondly, it all depends what advantages we are looking at. A lot of the disadvantages boys suffer have to do with social skills, self-image, self-understanding. Studies which showed advantages for girls often looked only at a range of academic skills: too narrow a measure of disadvantage.

Finally, things have changed in co-education. Educators are well aware of the criticisms made by researchers, and have introduced strategies - even special classes and programmes - for girls to better their lot in co-education. Rightly so. The only trouble is that sometimes this has left the boys feeling that they are left out, or even "a problem." That is why I have coined the phrase, as a sort of motto, "Boys are beaut!" This is my colloquial Australian way of saying that boys deserve an education which is designed for boys and which values boys. Boys don't always have it easy. The statistics are well known: more boys are incarcerated, more boys fail at school (particularly in literacy-related subjects), more boys are violent, more boys suicide than girls.

Boys are not without special needs: they just have different needs to girls.

Yesterday I came across a boy vigorously tearing up a rather nicely illustrated exercise book, and consigning the tattered remains to the waste paper basket. A little horrified at the destruction, I asked him, "Why are you doing that?" "This isn't good work for me now!" he retorted: "I can do better than that. That's last year's work!"

I admired both his zeal and his confidence. I hope he is right about his current work, too. But I couldn't help wondering whether he was falling victim to what I believe is a particular trap for boys: measuring one's worth solely by what one produces. Producing things seems to be a particularly masculine trait. Whether because of our genes or our social training, for thousands of years, "work" in the sense of getting or producing, has been the dominant concern of males in most human cultures; "nurture", and often doing creative things with what the men brought home, was characteristically a pursuit of women.

Nevertheless, in primitive societies, and even quite sophis-ticated ones down to the time of the technological revolution, there was a kind of balance between these two. Indeed, it was particularly a mark of higher culture when men developed (as the craftsmen and artisans of the middle ages, for example) the ability to appreciate what they could produce, to contemplate beauty. Hand-in-hand with this often went a development also of the more powerful or "masculine" roles of women - such as we see in medieval women like Blanche of Castille, Joan of Arc or Catherine of Siena. In other words, in society, but also in individuals themselves, there was a genuine balance of these so-called masculine and feminine qualities. For the medieval, art imitated nature. It was possible to produce the technological marvel of Chartres cathedral, for example, only by contemplating the beauty of nature and seeking to enhance it. The technological revolution changed all that, and the contemplation of beauty was one of its first casualties. In the 17th century, Francis Bacon had the grand design to "restore and exalt the power of man himself, of the human race, over the universe" - a universe now less to be contemplated than conquered.

Technology has entranced us for over two hundred years now with what it can produce - and the results certainly have been stunning. For a long time, the dominance of men in society became almost total. Those men were expected to be "bread winners", their wives to care for the children. Longer school, the need for flexible labour and new types of training, meant that a boy rarely learned his craft from his father. The home was the woman's domain, but outside it was a "man's world", and even God - who might at least have proved resistant to manipulation from technology - was expelled from it. Men had retaken Eden - but was it really paradise?

The feminist movement of this century has sought to redress the balance in one way: women have demanded, and are getting, equality with men in public, business and technological life. As the social commentator Hugh Mackay pointed out in Reinventing Australia, however, while women have changed their attitudes drastically in the last twenty years, men have moved very little. For boys, I suggest, this can be disastrous. Not only do they often have (as they have had for two centuries now), images of a "man" which focus on what he produces, but it seems that women have also acknowledged the "truth" that work of that kind is what really matters. Add this mentality to high youth unemployment, and it is not difficult to see why young men lose self esteem.

The message of Jesus, of course, is altogether different. Recall the incident when Martha complained that her sister Mary was listening to Jesus, when she should have been helping with the work. Jesus replied: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." Or again, to his disciples: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." People are valuable in themselves, not merely for what work they can do. Our very being is the first reflection of God's glory. The aged, the handicapped, the sick: each of these is a human being made in the image of God. The urge to create flows from it, for God is a Creator: but it must never replace it.

Unless the current reappraisal of the role of women is accompanied by a deep reappraisal of the role of men, unless men learn affectivity, inter-dependence and self esteem independent of production, our society is headed for a great deal of trouble. We see it already in the angry and destructive sub-culture of vandalism, violence and drug abuse which envelops and sometimes destroys young men in Western countries. Please do not misread my comments. Most of our families have chosen a Catholic school precisely because they want their sons nurtured and cared for. Our fathers are, by and large, not distant bread winners, uninvolved in their sons' lives. To make a point, I have drawn on the extremes, and spoken from statistics in generalities. Yet the point is urgent. Our boys need different images of masculinity to those stereotypes I have discussed, stereotypes which abound in popular culture, in music, films and even games.

To begin with, we need to let our boys know we like them; that they are as worthwhile human beings as any others. Boys are as talented and as generous, as compassionate and as respectful, as loving and as lovable, as strong and as vulnerable as anybody else. In the justified push to adapt curriculum to encourage girls, boys have sometimes felt pushed aside, their needs forgotten. Sometimes, they need to hear a few positives about themselves: hence the Blackfriars' philosophy, "Boys are beaut!"

No doubt, there are advantages and disadvantages in both co-education and single-sex education. The existence of single-sex schools gives parents (and their sons) a choice.

Originally published in the Blackfriars School Newsletter. Martin Wallace can be contacted at:

Email: mwallace@adam.com.au

Blackfriars Priory School
PO Box 86
Prospect SA 5082

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