Thursday, June 21, 2018

Agency Makes Boys Manly, and that’s a toxic word

What is agency? Agency is having and exercising the power to do the things you want to do. It is more than the wrestling of a man’s rational and passionate selves. It is also what Hegel called his thymotic self, what Nietzsche called his demand for dignity, what Fukuyama described as his demand to be recognized and to assign value to things. Man has agency when he not only has the cognitive faculty of decision-making, but has a full chest. He decides what is moral, valuable, useful, and acts accordingly.

What is not agency? I recently asked my brother if he thinks his 13-year-old son has agency in learning, and he told me (rather defensively) that he most certainly has. There are electives at school,
and he has selected orchestra and Spanish. Will you wear the blue shirt or the red shirt? is not agency. Will we start with math or Bible? is not agency. These are pretending at agency in an environment of pre-determined opportunities and potential outcomes. And while stylized choices make a good practice for smaller children, a few years later, they insult the emerging man.

What turns a boy into a man? 

I ask this question anticipating the now-ubiquitous prickly response to these words. Man. Manly. Before Harvey Mansfield and a resurgent social movement had to reclaim manliness, I was trying my own experiments on our pre-teen sons. My husband was away for months at a time in Army training, becoming a Ranger, and then deploying to Iraq. I worked among international professionals who shot condescending remarks at the always-pregnant American mom whose husband believes in fighting terrorism. And I sensed that my boys were on the brink of something alien to me, something that would take several leaps of faith to find. 

She's a bad mother.
Nobody applauds the mother-bird when she throws her young out of the nest, especially if he tumbles and falls. We reserve the worst judgment for her. We’re ready to applaud when he soars splendidly upward, but we close our eyes to the awkward process that brings this about. So, too, with the minute-by-minute coordination of kids’ time; hundreds of permission slips; opt-outs for PG movies; zero-tolerance policies; and the de-risking of kids’ playgrounds. I looked around me at other Army children--pudgy, hypo-allergenic, addicted to video-games--and I wondered, who will fight the next war? (If you’re cringing at my honesty, Condoleezza Rice made the same observation).

So I tried a few things. I didn’t ask anybody’s permission, and to be honest, a lot of this was probably terrible parenting. In Cambodia in 2011, I put our then-11-year-old son up to swimming across the Mekong River in a charity competition with me and other athletes. I sent our boys on an unaccompanied trip to Mongolia to live with a family I'd only heard of through a friend. I left my oldest son in Bishkek for a month in a woman’s apartment whom I had just met to work as an intern for an American company when he was 15. And at 16, I sent him to Shanghai to study, and he got lost in the train station for 24 hours. As the mother-bird watching her chick fall (or not getting any response to calls for 24 hours), I can say this is a really terrifying process.

But I believe that what was kicking-in within my sons’ chests when they fought against the current, or navigated an airport, or found the way to Xinxiang, was an instinctive agency. I will make myself survive. I can figure this out. And I believe that this agency can only be unlocked when there are real choices and real risks.

Now I am guiding the first clusters of teenagers in BreakAway Learning, and we message each other almost constantly. There is a recurring theme. Which online course should I take first? Which biology book should I read? Which pages should I start with? How much should I read today? These are 17 and 19-year-olds. And while I’m glad to make preliminary searches on Udemy and Coursera, to provide the Scribd subscription so that they have access to an e-library, I want them to take charge. Decide which course is more interesting. Decide which tutorial is more helpful. If a book is poorly organized or not captivating, put it down. Overcoming a deeply-ingrained view of education as an externally-applied process to which one passively conforms is turning out to be a very difficult transition for many of our teens. They are trained to believe in an intelligent machinery that has planned their education and linked it to a future pathway, that the utility of content and the promise of later reward are certain. What is required of them, they have been told, is to FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS.

The great betrayal: We have no further plan for you

School administrators and the education industry work up to a climax that precedes the fall from the
Tell me what I should do after the clapping, mom.
nest, and therefore, absolve themselves of any guilt when the chick flutters hopelessly down. The boy is reminded to sit still, to keep his hands to himself, to follow directions, to perform when asked to perform. He achieves stylized successes in de-risked scenarios where only a handful of outcomes were possible from the start. If he’s a good boy, he gets into college. In college he takes more classes, including on many campuses required core courses that strive to remold his errant worldviews toward a more ‘socially conscious’ reality that at the same time admits little room for disagreement, cannot be opted-out, and tends to view his emerging manliness with suspicion or downright scorn. The hallmark event is graduation.

But what comes next? Here is the great betrayal. Noone within this self-enclosed system has any relationship to the real world. No one knows what this empty-chested man will do with himself when he is 24, 27, 32. Will he start a small business? Enlist in the armed forces? Marry the girl whom he got pregnant? In other words, will he MAN UP?

How can we expect it, when the words themselves are toxic?

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