I just discovered a recent op-ed by David Brooks entitled “Honor Code.” He imagines Henry V in today’s schools, which Brooks portrays as coddling and feminizing. Overall, Brooks claims that today’s educational system, from kindergarten to college, promotes more feminine ways of learning, and either forces out vigorous boys like Hal, or drugs them into being little Hamlets. Here’s a key paragraph:
Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.
This piece reminds me of Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness, which argues “that manliness seeks and welcomes drama, prefers times of war, conflict, and risk, and brings change or restores order at crucial moments. Manly men in their assertiveness raise issues, bring them to the fore, and make them public and political—as for example, the manliness of the women’s movement.” At various points, it’s fairly clear that Mansfield too sees honor as the masculine ethic—even though he’s clear that women (such as Thatcher) can embrace and master it as well. In 2009, I presented a paper entitled, “Honor: The Ethic for Real Men?,” which I plan on including in my book. So lots of people are converging on these ideas.
Any opinions out there about Brooks’ piece? Is the default masculine “code” the “honor” code? Is his description of it fair? Is a decline of honor-mindedness (emphasizing cooperation and therapeutic values instead of competition and agonistic values) denaturing males?
Miles Taylor said:
I agree that a decline of honor-mindedness is denaturing males, but would disagree that it has the only claim to being a masculine code. I also would argue that a decrease of masculine codes is an okay thing (but not an inherently good move either).
There is a clear decline in competition and (more readily apparent) recognition of status in the pre-K to B.A. track for American students; as a student I was taught to value cooperation over competition and equality over status. Bully’s are seen as an example of status and ‘old masculinity’ and are actively worked against by authority figures; yet they are, incorrectly, identified as the shining example of status or recognition of status. Competition in sport is fine, but we are goaded to disfavor being recognized for accomplishments when that recognition would influence others negatively; this obviously doesn’t work, but it is the motivation that educational authorities tend to idealize.
Fair-competition for status when status does not entail a strong leadership role or power over others is not the only code ascribed to for people who want to be masculine. Drives for brutality and aesthetic ignorance come to mind now, but time is running short for me, so I will carry on.
I value equality, or in the least a chance for egalitarian status for those who can manage it; though, working with Dan has given me value to non-authoritarian status. So at the behest of this dissonance (whether real or imagined), I take the middle path. Masculinity is ingrained into the nature of human males because of a need for it throughout our evolutionary history (this is a whole argument I also don’t have time for right now), but there are downsides to this masculinity. Reinforcement of gender roles and the tendency for status to slide toward authority rather than being a symbol purely of glory are what I see as being prime deficits.
The reinforcement of gender roles is detrimental. It promotes abuse for people who do not conform to their preconceived roles or for those who are already in their roles, but fail to meet the conditions asked of them. It denies those who would be good men, who are females and it denies those who would be good females, who are men. This is in and of itself a reinforcement of gender roles, but I think the gist of it is that masculine (and feminine) codes stop people from being who they would be best at being.
People seek pleasure and authority grants a greater chance at gaining pleasure. Status makes is easier to gain authority as well. Since people seek that which brings them pleasure, and authority can grant some pleasure, people will seek it. As status is a method of asserting authority, and that which grants authority will be sought after, status will be sought after for the purpose of gaining authority.
And now I have to run to work with thoughts unfinished, but I’ll close with this: despite the deficiencies of masculinity and the chance that honorable status has of slipping to undue authority figures, honor is a worthwhile and important ethic (for many more reasons than I can give now) to live by. Can what I have said above be tempered by a more sophisticated understanding of honor?
I believe that too much time is spent seeking out the true nature of manliness without looking at the processes by which boys become men. If we accept that humans are social, then we also accept that there are social norms in laying claim to being treated as a man rather than a boy. This has often been ritualized, but the neutering of society in today’s Western world has played havoc with gendered claims as explored in the seminal works of Peristiany and Pitt-Rivers. Community-building and cooperation is a necessary facet of group-building. If we read our Simmel, however, we also find that agonism and conflict-seeking behavior is as well. As we integrate with one group, we disintegrate with an other/others and vice versa at the exact same time through the exact same act.
It is a travesty that an in-depth understanding of honor has been eroded in our society as we seek inclusivity and tolerance of difference, we nullify the importance of sameness and the strength of resolve in persons united in vision. This is not universally true, as I would argue that the Republican party and high-level investment bankers engage their respective spheres with a unified vision of what ought to be whether or not society at large agrees with them.
Getting back to the key issue, however, I believe that effective pedagogy includes a mixed method of motivation. Students should be learning how to cooperate, how to compete, how to communicate, and how to investigate. By honing these skills, they will develop skill sets at different levels that they will then develop or not as their individual paths take them. In the end, the competitiveness of honor in gaining prestige, in the economy of esteem, in the penance of shame, and in the defense of face are all social facts and are inescapable in a social system. Groups have a vested interest in the actions and dispositions of their members because of the reciprocal and symbiotic nature of affiliated honor, but the status quo elites are more likely to remain in power if both the establishment of precedence for new forms of honor and effective rebellion against the status quo value system is minimized. Therefore, diminishing competitive spirit (of at least compartmentalizing it) is likely.
I suppose that the neutering of society is hitting male hierarchization hard in a visible way, but I am loathe to say that it is denaturing men so much as denaturing humanity. There will be competition. There will be strife. There will be conflict. Therefore, stressing only compliance, cooperation, and conformity is going to lead to nothing more than an increase in structural violence and oppression of the mass by the elites who represent the exception to the norms of society.