When it comes to values, private boys schools can do better

The recent debate about the role of private boys schools has overlooked the conversation about values we should be having.

When I first read the news a few weeks ago that a deputy principal at Trinity Grammar in Melbourne was fired for cutting a student’s unruly hair, I was confused. I couldn’t understand the attention being paid to what seemed like a fairly mundane dispute about how a private boys school enforces its uniform policies. Why was this news?

However, it very quickly became apparent that something more was going on. This wasn’t just an internal dispute lead by some rich parents with law degrees. It was a clash over the values these institutions held so dear.

A false dilemma

Having attended a school just like Trinity (I know, such a surprise), the conflict is all too familiar. In my time, it was one that pitted the upwardly mobile middle class families aiming to send their sons to a school that will maximise their talent, against the entrenched patrician lineages for whom entry to these schools is almost a right of passage. It’s a battle about what these all male schools represent, and whether they should aim to instil a sense of character in a group of young men who are unlikely to have faced many truly character-defining moments in their life. After all, implicit in the criticism of Trinity Grammar as an, “ATAR factory,” that fired a longstanding staff-member because of, “political correctness,” is the assumption that the traditional values he represented were desirable to begin with.

While I was at school, this battle was still working itself out. It was evident in the awkward assemblies, where one bright kid after another would be paraded in front of the school to receive an academic award, while the entire football team stomped their feet in over-zealous congratulations, half applauding, half mocking the achievements of their peers. It was further evident in the fact that these institutions maintained exceptional academic averages that poorer-resourced schools could only dream of, despite the fact that many students had no interest in purely academic pursuits. This, most of us knew, was because the teachers at these schools were the best paid and best resourced in the state, and thus were well positioned to take advantage of a (flawed) VCE/ATAR system to lift up even the poorest performing students.

But regardless of the advantages these schools provide in terms of access to higher education, there is still an expectation from a certain group of parents they will provide something more to young men: character. The uniforms, the sport, the assemblies, the religious affiliations, the pomp and circumstance, the rules about haircuts (I’m not even broaching here the further issues that arise when such ideas are applied to young women). These are the ‘old world’ solutions to the eternal issue of how to try to provide some regiment, some order, and some respectability to the lives of privileged individuals for whom such things seem unnecessary. For these parents, an overwhelming focus on academic excellence inhibits these schools from carrying out their real mission: instilling young men with something approximating values.

Unfortunately however, it’s increasingly clear that this whole debate is premised on a false dilemma. There is no trade off between academic success and character building, because the mere fact of attending a private, all male institution shapes ones character, by design or otherwise. As such, the real question for these single sex schools isn’t whether they should focus more on academics, but rather whether they should challenge the problematic masculine ideals that their institutions embody. As essential as these concepts may once have seemed, they represent an outdated response to a different era of societal expectations. To move beyond them, these schools will need to challenge their old world values.

A question of values

I saw these ‘values’ everywhere. I saw it in a culture that emphasised strength over emotional intelligence. I saw it in the sex education that failed to grapple with the struggles of those who were queer* or questioning. I saw it in the speeches about bullying that ignored the very real cases of homophobia, racism and misogyny that were so common, in favour of platitudes about helping out your friends. I saw it in the fact that I spent 6 years in an institutions surrounded by many friends of immigrant descent, without ever understanding, let alone celebrating, their cultural backgrounds.

These are not the values the youth of today. Rather, they are the values of an influential group of parents, donors, and school administrators. They are the ‘sound values’ that conservative politicians fear our schools are missing, because they’re too concerned with political correctness. Yet they are values that completely ignore the real issues that plague young men in Australia: a disproportionate number of male suicides (especially amongst queer* men), a horrific epidemic of domestic and alcohol-fuelled violence, and an alarming rate of sexual violence in our universities.

This is not to say that these values are unique to such establishments. Nor should we demand that private boys schools attempt to turn all their students into feminists. But they do need to recognise the unique opportunity they have to challenge the damaging masculine ideals that they perpetuate. To deal with the challenges of modern masculinity, we will need an educational framework that values compassion, respect, diversity, tenderness, and emotion. We will need to provide space for frank discussion of sexuality, gender, and culture. What tentative steps have already been made in this area are promising signs that all this is possible, if we are able to move beyond the traditional notions of what educating men should look like. The alternative is to continue excusing such toxic masculinity as just another case of ‘boys being boys’.

Schools like Trinity should be leading this charge to redefine masculinity in the 21st Century. As it is, they are failing to confront the question of what it is to be a man in today’s world, let alone what it is to be a man who respects women, or a queer* man, or a man of colour, or even just a man who understands their own privilege. Neither academic success, nor an old world sense of character, can paper over these flaws.

With privilege comes responsibility

It may seem out of place for someone like me, who has benefited from the wealth of opportunities available at these schools, to critique them. These institutions are, of course, better able than most to prepare their students for the challenges they will face in the world. However, with this privelege also comes a responsibility to question what values they’re really instilling in the group of young men who will pass through their class-rooms, and what more they could be doing.

Facing up to this crisis of masculine identity will take far more effort, and likely generate far more controversy, than a mere inquiry into the enforcement of uniform policy. But for the sake of these young men, and for the mark they leave on our society, it’s the right thing to do.

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