Which cultures, pagan or Christian, made a point to raise boys to become strong and healthy men, fit to work hard, marry, raise children and unite with their fellow men in teams to hunt or fish on the open sea, drive herds of large animals, fight enemies, dredge harbors, dig canals, clear fields, hew stone from the earth, lay roads, raise up public buildings and otherwise secure the common good?
Which cultures, pagan or Christian, provided boys with men to train them and teach them, with rites of passage to mark that they had left childhood behind, to be accepted publicly as men in full?
That is an easy question to answer. All of them. No exceptions.
That we are here to ask about it testifies to what they did. Mankind would not have survived otherwise. Look about you, even in our time, and remove, one by one, every house, building, automobile, road, appliance, fuel line, telephone pole, train, ship, plane — you see the point. Feminism is conceivable only in that post-industrial world, wherein most people are conveniently far from the hard and dangerous physical labor that makes their ease possible. We do not need most men to dig and plow or to hoist quarter-ton stones on a pulley and sledge. But we do still need men, the same kinds of beings who in other ages and other circumstances would have done those things.
Human nature has not changed. The nature of boys and men has not changed. Good teachers work with and not against the nature of their students. We Roman Catholics believe that such nature, though compromised by original sin, is God-ordained and good and that grace does not obliterate nature, but elevates it, purifies it of its dross and perfects it. That includes the nature of boys.
For this reason I wrote Defending Boyhood. I am not saying that our shabby neglect of boys is the worst feature of our political, cultural and ecclesiastical confusion. I don’t need to make that case. Nor do I imply anything about our treatment of girls, or about other measures we might take to assist the poor or to fill our churches with child-rich families once more and our rectories with young and energetic priests.
I think I am on sure ground, though, when I say that without strong families, the poor tend to remain poor, bad neighborhoods grow worse, schools become places of violence and chaos and futility — and the spires of churches come down. You will not get those strong families if you do not raise strong men. It is not the only thing you must do, not by a long shot, but it is necessary. And you will not get strong men unless you pay attention to boys. And that means, as I have suggested, working with and not against their natural inclinations.
What would that look like? I believe we know as a society but do not want to admit it. If boys had the running of a school, we might expect more competition, not less. We might expect more physical risk, not less.
We might expect more hierarchy, not less, but hierarchy that makes obedience cheerful and life-affirming; not a pecking order, but a team order, a platoon order, a priestly order. We might expect the intellectual order of numbers everywhere; I have sometimes said, half in jest, that all you need to know about the nature of boys you can glean from the back of a baseball card, if you have the imagination for it. We might expect to read books that, beyond the inevitable passages of rascality and mischievousness, will inspire the boys to high and manly things: to bravery, diligence, plain dealing, chivalrous generosity to women and children, cleanness of heart and duty before man and God.
So I have wanted to remind men of what they know. All men were boys once. In our time we need that reminder, because boys get no help from the “culture” or from their schools. I used to say that we feed the boys a diet of Little Women and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and then we are surprised to see that they are not terribly interested in reading. How about giving them tales of adventure, such as the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper or the classic boy-to-man story Kim by Rudyard Kipling?
Would that it were so nowadays. It is not just that we do not give them the strong food their souls need. We give them what is downright toxic. The boys are made to celebrate, against their nature, what is sick and what must put the vulnerable at risk by sick and destructive suggestions. For many boys are vulnerable. They are the slender ones who have no father at home and no coach at school. They are the late bloomers who are overshadowed by the boys who have matured earlier and who doubt their manhood. They are the ones who have “graduated” from the ordinary pornography — evils according to nature — to the dis-ordinary — evils against nature. They are the ones who so long for masculine affirmation, they will seek it wherever and however they can find it.
It is not, I hope, a mark against you if you attend to one thing necessary but not to others. The world of sexual liberation is a singularly lonely one.
Young women have reason to resent and fear the opposite sex; when everybody is doing bad things sexually, do not expect lilies and roses. Young men reciprocate the resentment, if not the fear. The Church has the answer, but Churchmen are afraid to preach it. In a world of bituminous sands and tar and slime, no one smells fresh and no one looks clean.
I hope that Christian women will raise their daughters to be fit wives and mothers. It will not happen by mere growth of flesh, not in our bad time. My object here is to see to the boys and to urge men to take up their duties of instruction.
And men must do it. Women were never boys, and women are not men. The best of intentions cannot make up for experience in the flesh and the bones.
But in our schools, stocked with some teachers who invite drag queens to read queen stories to little boys, we cannot assume even healthy intentions, let alone the best. This is a job for men, it is urgent, and the work is ready to hand. To it then, my brothers.
Anthony Esolen, Ph.D., is a faculty member and writer in residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire.