24 May 2009

For the sake of our young men, it's time to reconsider virtue

As a college teacher for the years between 1989 and 2008, I find this article on the state of men in universities very, very intriguing.

What's so intriguing? The report shows that college men are pressured to be stereotypically "masculine" without doing the hard work of getting a good college education. In other words, they are expected to be Rambo and Steven Hawkings by nature not effort. In fact, any effort they might put into becoming Well-educated Men is seen as decidedly "gay" or feminine by themselves and their struggling peers.

How did this happen? The report is fuzzy on this question. My guess is that there is a combination of factors.

First, the feministization of college campuses places men in a position of repressing their masculinity publicly and overemphasizing it privately (dorms, frats, etc.). Men are oppressed into being "feminist" in class by ideologue profs and campus administrators. Then, the more extreme forms of outrageous masculine behavior (binge drinking, fighting, sexual aggressiveness) are indulged when the nannies aren't around.

Second, part of the feministization of our campuses involves the repression of classically positive male virtues (virtue means manliness, not that virtue is exclusively masculine, of course!). Courage, temperance, fortitude, etc. are cast as overly intellectual and anti-emotional. This leaves courage to be practiced as bravado. Fortitude becomes aggression. Temperance becomes weakness.

Third, for the most part adolescent males have no one to teach them how to be virtuous men. Who do they have in the popular culture to look up to? Rappers, professional wrestlers, ambiguous superheroes, gangsters, rapist/drug addicted/narcissitic athletes?

As an academically successful teenager with little or no interest in athletics, I can witness to the pressures guys like me came under when it's time to play ball. I still bristle at suggestions that men who don't play sports are somehow less masculine, less than Real Men. Competition is part and parcel of the game to go up and "be a man." In religious life, men are constantly admonished to suppress competitive impulses in favor of vaguely defined and practiced concepts like "cooperation" and "collaboration." Of course, there's healthy and unhealthy competition. A friendly yet fierce game of cards or football or pool is a good thing. But without the virtue of sportsmanship, the game becomes an occasion for domination and ridicule.

Sometimes the solution is make everyone a winner just for playing. Sometimes the solution is to play without keeping score. No winners means no losers. More often than is strictly healthy and helpful the solution is to direct competitive energies away from actual competition and toward exercises that attempt to produce something like a community project or a corporate ministry. In my experience, these are futile efforts precisely because they are attempts to suppress individuality into an amorphorous whole. There's nothing inherently wrong with a community project, but these projects rarely call on men to be men and often require that the men involved suppress natual tendencies to stand out as individual talents.

One thing I have noticed about college-aged men is the need to prove themselves, to find a way of showing themselves and their peers that they are competent, even expert at something. Even among highly educated and accomplished men there's a tendency to wrestle in the pack to be the Alpha Dog. If this tendency is not civilized by the classical virtues and scored according to the rule of sportsmanship, the competition and aggressiveness gets ugly fast. Spend an hour on Youtube watching videos of stupid stunts performed by young men to prove their bravery and physical prowess. You will come away thinking the gene pool is being properly drained.

I was put in the unfamiliar role of Alpha Dog during my time as a Team Leader in an adolescent psych hospital. My guys were all violent sex offenders with criminal records. It took me about two days to realize that appeals to rules, regulations, and their desire to leave the hospital alone would not keep order. This non-competitive liberal quickly saw the light. I had to "bust heads" and demonstrate that I had the "right to lead" in virtue (!) of my superior strength and determination. Oddly, even with their increased aggression and lack of socialization, the boys on my unit were far better behaved than the girls. Why? The boys seemed to recognize and respect order because it gave them the necessary sense of security their wounded masculinity needed to function. The girls thrived on chaos. They were unfased by a show of strength. Immune to threats of consequence. They had no pecking order, no allegiance to the group. Every new arrival to the group threw the whole group into chaos for days. For the boys, there was a very short period of struggle until the new arrival found his place and thrived. So long as "Mr. Powell" or his equivalent on another shift was present to set the proper order, the boys chugged along in their treatment plan. The second shift team leader was a therapeutic liberal. He indulged the boys. He did not enforce the rules. And he was seen by the boys as weak and easily manipulated. His shift on the boys' unit was almost always in chaos. They acted out in order to force him to impose order. He never did. And the result was twice as many injuries and restraints on his shift.

What's my point? Boys/young men are natually competitive and aggressive. When I was a feminist I followed my radical feminist friends and called this tendency "testerone poisoning." But there's no good reason to consider these natural inclinations poisonous. They are most definitely dangerous to the individual and the group if not channeled by healthy competition and properly practiced virtue. The differences between my freshmen men in the public university and the private university are telling. Granted, the public university had no sectarian affiliation and the private university attracted more intellectually gifted men. The big difference between the two? Not a religious code that constrains or punishes misbehavior but rather a cultural expectation that virtue rules passion. American universities twist themselves into knots writing and implementing speech codes, behavior contracts, and rules against barbarism because they are ideologically disinclined to teach the classically western virtues. They limit themselves to forbidding what they consider anti-social behavior and promote what they consider politically correct behavior. It is no accident that P.C. attitudes and behaviors favor aggressive feminist ideals, ideals that are almost always entirely emotive in nature and arbitrarily defined and enforced. The movie "Fight Club" was a run-away hit among college men for a reason: it spoke directly to those impulses and inclinations that feminist P.C. culture wants to eliminate.

Most of this applies to the Church as well. Why are male religious orders that demand strict discipline, theologial conformity, and allegiance to the community thriving? Orders that promote laxity, theological creativity, and individuality are dying. Yes, the impulse to conformity can be dangerous if not properly tempered by a healthy sense of self, but a healthy sense of self quickly devolves into indulgent narcissism if it is not reined in by a clearly articulated and vigorously enforced duty to the whole. The idea is to grow as an individual within the identity of the group. The moment the individual is dissolved into the group or the group becomes a loosely associated collection of individuals, the dangers become more and more apparent and abuse is more and more likely.

What do we have as a regulative force? As a commonly shared and understood core? Virtue! I believe the rapid decline of religious life (and by analogy, university life) in the west is directly tied to the suppression of virtus-based formation and the rise of therapeutic formation. We replaced the classical virtues with ego-centered therapies. Needs trump duties. Wants trump obedience. Wishes trump realities. And in both religious life and university life we are left with the illusion of autonomy guided by little more than our unguided passions. Can anyone say "sex abuse scandal"? Can anyone say "binge drinking"? If there is any doubt that male aggression and competition are natural to the creature, ask yourself this: why have we failed to successfully end the worse examples of masculine abuse through speech codes, conduct contracts, and years of politically correct indoctrination in the culture and the public school system? Why haven't we seen an end to date rape, binge drinking, fighting, cheating, racism, etc.? My guess is that the energies that produce these destructive behaviors are not being respected for what they are: natural inclinations. Rather than provide young men with productive channels to expend these energies we grasp at rules, regulations, laws, and public ridicule in an effort to suppress them. Without a virtuous means to be competitive, aggressive, sexual, etc. they turn to vicious means. And we all suffer for it.

Time to reconsider the virtue of virtue? You bet. The sooner the better.


  1. I have been thinking the same thing for a long time. Praying for you quick elevation to the purple.

  2. Thanks for this, Fr. I've got a son entering 1st grade in the Fall, so I just may save this article and pull it out every now and then.

  3. Thank you, Father. My own experience in college, seminary, and religious life compels me to agree with you.

    It would seem to me that presenting young men with the "challenge" of the virtues in their formative years would be a way to attract them to the practice of the moral virtues, as well as to the intellectual life. When they see the VIR in virtue, the concept will appear less like a set of arbitrary rules and more like something to make them truly manly.

    Thanks again, Father.

  4. Father,
    The "Fight Club" mentallity has reached the grammar school level. Youngsters in my community are being led into "fighting cells" of by anonymous adults who discourage them from positive things like church attendance, Scouting, and organized sports, striving for good grades, by convincing them that these will "make you gay".
    This is accompanied by attitude shifts to the negative including disrespect for parents and other authority, reinforced by the "music" of pounding drums of obscenity encrusted rap and related genres.
    So far, the police seem reluctant to come to assistance of parents.

  5. I am writing from an Air Base in Iraq. I am 56, a very old soldier surrounded by (mostly) young men who live by that pack animal instinct, for good and ill. My wife is a college prof. It's clear to me returning to this life after a quarter century as a civilian that many boys would thrive if they had a real test of their courage at 18 instead of the silliness of frats. I think sports teams can provide this, but only to the best of them--for the rest, idiocy. I brought my kids up to face real danger. I think your virtue program must also have real goals and real danger to thrive.

  6. My grandfather used to say almost the same thing in the early 1950's. I guess things never change!

  7. I agree with Neil. Any attempt to catch the attention of young men must be linked to real goals and real danger.

    How about a call to arms for the redemption of mankind? What about the realization of the Kingdom that is above all kingdoms? There is a craving in the hearts and minds of most all young men for a chance to experience Camelot. Help them to see the majesty, beauty, awesomeness of Zion's Holy Mountain. Help them to grasp the divine love that embodies eros as they have only dared to imagine it in their most secret heart of hearts. Show them that there is an epic struggle taking place right here, right now, in real time, in real space. Show them a battle more grand, more glorious, more fantastic than all the CGI in Hollywood could ever portray in all the epic movies ever produced. Do this, step aside and hold your breath in prayer. Do this and the world will be turned upside down.

  8. Anonymous3:59 PM

    Great read Sir!

    I posted something like 'Righteousness as a Virtue of Desire' and I got labelled all sorts of names as the mud went flying. Eventually, I was coerced out of a Network Social Forum.

    My guess is some young folks may have reached an ireversible stage of changing their minds when ruled and encouraged by peer pressure.

    I made a suggestion to involve peer guidance in these social networking groups, indirectly giving advice on morality and 'real men'. Then again, who am I to make such a suggestion!

  9. Wow. Great article, on an important topic. Undoubtedly, we must also remember, the many and often-powerful external (Social)
    factors. Male images are usually
    portrayed as one-dimensional. Oddly, Female ones are depicted as all-knowing, versatile, and subtly
    superior. Man, in his truest reflection of his Creator?