Boys Will Be Boys, Do Men Go To Wabash?

by Kyle Long '07

April 10, 2008

Ten students and one freshly turned-out alumnus met last summer to talk about a question that is fundamental to a Wabash education yet is rarely articulated: What does it mean to be a man?

"But those don’t count."

"Why not? Don’t they mark a transition from one social
status to another?"

"Yeah, but anyone can get a driver’s license or go to college. Plus, if you fail the test, you can retake it. If you drop out of school, you can always go back. They aren’t difficult rites, or even masculine. They don’t have penalties like the Samburu male rites of passage."

"He’s right. The Samburu knew when they became men. We don’t. Our society doesn’t have any widespread male initiation rites. We just get older without necessarily becoming men."

"What about at Wabash? Do you become a man while you’re here?"

I admit that when I asked that question of 10 Wabash students comparing the rites of passage of traditional African peoples to their own culture’s, I expected a flurry of machismo, perhaps supplemented with admissions bromides ("Boys will be boys, men go to Wabash" comes to mind).

"Of course Wabash students are men, or at least they become men by the time they leave here," they should have exulted.

But I hadn’t given my students enough credit. For they replied first with a long pause of the most introspective silence I’ve ever had the joy of witnessing. The stillness of the room—for what seemed like ages—contrasted the surge of activity in their brains: Am I a man? If not, will I become a man? How? What is a man? What is a good man? What experiences have made—or will make—me a man?

Naturally, the silence eventually ended and we began to sort our way through those and similar questions, just as we had done several times this past summer. Male Rites of Passage was the theme of the third meeting of The Summer Masculinity Seminar, a course I hosted on the topic of men and masculinity, sponsored by the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts.

The seeds for the seminar had been planted in March and April during a short series of dinner discussions and follow-up interviews I completed with departing Wabash seniors for a research project about the College’s qualities as BOTH an all-male and liberal arts institution. During these talks it became clear that some students desired deeper conversations about men and masculinity. These students expected such matters to be addressed more fully at a college for men.

The Summer Masculinity Seminar was my experiment to test these claims and to determine—if Wabash students are indeed interested in further exploring men and masculinity—when discussions about this topic would be more helpful and in what form.

A Men’s Studies Scholar?

We began in June, and what better way to start? No tests, no papers, no grades. The students didn’t even receive course credit. How could they? I’m not a men’s or gender studies scholar. I don’t have a Ph.D. In fact, only a few months before the seminar began, I had been taking classes with some of my new students. As a recent alumnus with no prior experience in the rising academic field of men’s studies, let alone teaching experience of any kind, I had my hands full.

I soon realized that if I was going to be able to effectively answer in a timely fashion the questions driving this inquiry, I had better get to work. I literally attempted to become a men’s studies scholar overnight.

Fortunately, that was not entirely necessary. I did become somewhat well-read in the field; competent enough anyway to develop a sufficient syllabus. The course operated much like C&T: Entirely discussion-based, each meeting focused on a certain subtopic of men and masculinity (sexuality, friendship, violence, etc.) facilitated by one or two readings to be completed beforehand. Employing the Socratic method proved advantageous for both me and the students: A lecture from me on the debate between the biological basis and social construction of gender would have been laughable, but because discussions centered on asking questions and not endorsing particular viewpoints, students were indifferent to my meager credentials. Besides, it was not the impartation of facts, accretion of new material, or choice of readings that mattered to me or to the students. What mattered were the conversations.

A Question for the Grand Conversation

"Only in close conversation can you do the best learning in the world. Action is easy. Conversation is hard."

This was President White’s challenge to the Wabash Community —to engage in the "grand conversation"—in his first Chapel Talk in August 2006. Ten months later, ten Wabash students and I began a conversation about the subject which is so fundamental to a Wabash education, but which is so rarely articulated: What does it mean to be a man? Better yet, what does it mean to be a good man?

Was it hard?

You bet.

These are not easy questions. The history of Western civilization is littered by the defining and redefining of the ideal man. And in Crawfordsville alone, countless generations of Wabash students, faculty, and administrators have grappled with interpreting and re-interpreting what it means to be a gentleman. With only six 90-minute meetings, we had to cover a lot of ground in not a lot of time. Students struggled to adapt to the lexicon that infuses gender studies literature and is a distraction, at best.

If I were to conduct the seminar again, students would read fewer such scholarly texts and more classic wisdom on the art of manly virtue from history’s great thinkers.

So was it the best learning in the world?

That is a harder question to answer.

The seminar left the students strongly ambivalent. Each voiced gratitude for the opportunity to have these conversations, but opposing their appreciation was a strong sense of confusion; they came away with more questions than answers. Several students pointed out that although they felt that the course helped clear up where they stood personally on certain aspects of men and masculinity, they did not really learn anything definitive.

Indeed, the seminar required quite a bit of unlearning. None of these students had consciously evaluated what it means to be a man, yet all of them brought their subconscious, preconceived notions on the subject. Soon our conversations began to loosen whatever blind grips they may have had on their beliefs.

This experience is not altogether uncommon for a college student in or out of the classroom. Noteworthy instead was that the seminar’s focus on inquiry very rarely rendered a student’s beliefs overturned, just less secure. This irresolution made them very uncomfortable. And perhaps rightly so. Now they have questions where before there were rote answers. These Pandora’s box sentiments from the students are encouraging and point not only to the success of the short seminar, but also to the great potential these conversations could have to inform the actions of Wabash men during their years at the College.

But do you become a man while you’re at Wabash?

Here’s what my students said. Campus and fraternity rituals help relieve that liminal feeling held by so many other adolescent males, while the Gentleman’s Rule challenges the student to balance freedom and responsibility, and faculty and upperclassmen serve as mentors. Guided by these circumstances, some students said that yes, they were men, while others admitted they were not.

Still, a few were not sure. The jury is still out.

A more prudent observer might suggest that these guys are not far enough removed from their Wabash experiences to even answer that question. But a good liberal arts education teaches us that sometimes questions are more important than answers. As Dean of the College Gary Phillips says, "At the heart
of the liberal arts is the question—the act of learning to question, of living with the question as unfinished business, of loving the question."

Is becoming a man, like a liberal arts education, a lifelong process? If so, the results of the Summer Masculinity Seminar suggest that the question "What does it mean to be a man?"—a question intertwined with the very notion of a college for men—is worthy of more intentional inclusion in the grand conversation that is Wabash.*

Kyle Long is a research associate with the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash. Contact him at longk@wabash.ed


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