Friday, March 09, 2007

Who civilises men?

The modern university is now largely justified in economic terms, either as a recruiter of fee paying overseas students, or as a means to develop labour productivity.

Both sides of politics seem to agree on this. In a recent ABC debate, the Minister for Education, Julie Bishop, said that:

Well, education at the tertiary level is an international enterprise. We're in a global marketplace for students, for academics.

Her counterpart, Labor's Stephen Smith, thought this attitude not economic enough:

This Government is living in the past. We've got to strike out for the future. We've got to strike out for the future with a fundamental change of attitude. Education at every level is fundamentally important to our productivity, to our capacity to compete.

It was something of a relief, then, to read an account by Anthony Esolen of his visit to Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia (via Turnabout). Esolen isn't just concerned about the economic aspect of education, but about culture and character.

Hampden-Sydney College is a rare thing, an all-male campus. Esolen was pleased to find that the young men he met at Hampden-Sydney had a well developed sense of honour and brotherhood. He found that the young men, in their masculine environment, developed "timocracies" - by which he means organisations based on a love of honour.

Esolen believes that Sydney-Hampden has preserved a more traditional understanding of the university as compared to the modern economic view:

At Sydney, though, something remains of the old meaning of the word "college" -- a group of people, in this case all of them men, who may have come together in the first place for all kinds of reasons, but who are made one, made brothers, by the common course of study, the venerable traditions of the school, and the polities of honor into which they are brought and in which they thrive, personally and intellectually.

It's a far cry from "college" as commodity.

Esolen goes on to make another significant point. It's his experience that boys educated in institutions like Hampden-Sydney are more likely to develop polities based on timocracy, and to be influenced positively in their character by this, than those in mixed-sex environments. This leads him to challenge the idea that it is women who civilize men. He writes:

Women do not in fact civilize men; they domesticate men, as I've said before. Men civilize men. There's a difference.

What is that difference? A soldier in a cavalry unit who spends most of his time in barracks or under the skies, may well be more civilized, more trained to think of and to act for the common good, to command other men or to obey, than many a high-priced lawyer or even college professor. He's not domesticated, though, and his new bride at first might find him pretty hard to live with.

On the other hand, men who live comfortable lives apart from other men, taking no initiative for the common good, considering only their wives and children and not the welfare of anybody else's children, never to be relied upon in time of public need, may be domesticated but not civilized. You might find plenty of men of the former sort at the inception of a great nation. You will find plenty of men of the latter sort at its decline.

It's an argument worth considering. I think perhaps my father's generation might fall into the domesticated but not civilised category. They were generally good family men, but they didn't seem to take a wider responsibility in the defence of their own tradition.

I wonder, though, if men will continue to be even domesticated, let alone civilised. There are larger numbers of men now, it appears, who have made the decision not to devote themselves to the welfare of a wife and child.

So perhaps the plea to men will have to be, not only to become more civilised in their commitments, but more domesticated too.


  1. Having just read over my post, I think Esolen leaves out one significant matter.

    Men are, I think, civilised by women in terms of the mother love they receive as young boys. I do believe that this positively influences the later development of masculine character, particularly as it relates to women.

  2. It's neither men nor women who civilize men, but both, working together in their proper ways and times.

  3. Believe it or not, I actually agree (in parts) with both of you on this one. Particularly with your comment Jaz.

    Mark, I spent a couple of years in a boys only school and was actually going to blog about it today (tho for different reasons).

    I think this is the entry that we have come closest to agreeing on, although there are parts that we disagree on.

    Men are, I think, civilised by women in terms of the mother love they receive as young boys. I do believe that this positively influences the later development of masculine character, particularly as it relates to women.

    Initially I’d agree to a large extent Mark - though I suspect that it tends to get eroded when a boy transcends into the world of strangers and finds (through experience) that unlike his mother (or sister), that there are those that would ‘use’ him – uncooperatively.

    Unlike his mother.

    Ultimately – I’d say it’s a man’s responsibility to ‘choose’ civility in the best interests of himself & his family. His initial experience with his mother & father should serve as a foundation of ‘what is right & harmonious’.

    It is increasingly more difficult thesedays for men to mimic the ‘gentleman’ of yesteryear, for the simple fact that women have announced that those types of ‘civilities’ toward them are no longer required. At the very least, they may be interpreted as sexist. The question arises, that if ‘civility’ (with relation to women, children, etc) is being re-fashioned (or often discarded) in our current culture – then exactly, how does one define a ‘civility’ that encompasses any central method of conduct?

    About the most ‘civil’ thing a man can do (after he has left home especially) – is make sure he conducts himself in a fashion that would not embarrass himself or his family.