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Educating Boys: or Why Latin Disappeared

Educating Boys: or Why Latin Disappeared
It is no secret that schools have become a feminized environment. It wasn't always that way. There was a time where school was a form of contest and a rite of passage marking you a man.

This is part three of an ongoing series which takes an extensive look at Walter Ong’s “Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality and Consciousness.” You can find parts one and two here:

What Is a Man? Introducing the Idea of "Contest"

What Is a Man? Introducing the Idea of "Contest"κρῠπτός·May 3Read full story

Boys Will Be Boys: Facing the Contest

Boys Will Be Boys: Facing the Contestκρῠπτός·May 8Read full story

Universities have been around as institutions since the 1100’s.  In some ways they seem not to have changed much at all.  Yet, we all know that in many ways they are one of the primary engines driving the culture war.  Schooling in the broadest sense has become quite feminized over the years.  It wasn’t always this way.  So what is a masculine education?  In comparison to martial training or learning the trades, academic training in general doesn’t seem like your typical repository for manly pursuits.  So what does academics look like when it is aligned with the male bias towards contest and combat?

What makes the university such a cultural bellwether is that some of the biggest changes have happened in these seemingly timeless institutions, especially in the 20th century.  We picture the campus protests which began in the 1960’s as the marker for when cultural struggle came to the universities.  In truth, those protests were a sign that the struggle for the universities was pretty much over.  Contest had largely disappeared from these institutions and their teaching methodologies.  Prior to the 1960’s, schooling and learning were deeply agonistic activities.  The teacher was your enemy.  He, and he was almost always a he, was your combatant.  This contest between teacher and student was at the heart of the game that was the ritual of boy’s schooling.  Yes, the teacher was the enemy, but he was also at the same time your guide, mentor and counselor.  He shepherded you through the transition from boyhood to manhood.Subscribe

One of the ways that boys were shaped into men was through the enforcement of discipline.  It meant in practice the imposition of many trivial, even meaningless rules.  The point was the rules themselves.  The point was to interiorize the habits of self-discipline.  But it was also part of a larger game.  As we discussed in the previous pieces in regards to tight knit, seemingly suffocating communities, is that these rules help shape your identity by giving you something to push against.  The teacher and his many rules became the foil against which you rebelled.  This contest between teacher and student, played out through rebellion and pranks, shaped you and formed you as students into a band of brothers, giving you deep ties that would last a lifetime.  This teacher-student contest is documented back to even ancient times.  Not only was it the fire that forged a brotherhood, it was also a testing ground where you proved yourself intellectually.

“In the earlier culture, contest and high stress operations suggestive of contest marked a variety of phenomena at first seemingly unconnected: the dominance of rhetoric and dialectic or logic in the curriculum, the use of a language other than the mother tongue, acquired only by males and under stress situations, for all formal intellectual work, the total male population of academia, the vigorous and often brutal discipline of students, the dominantly agonistic teaching procedures, the constant recycling of all knowledge, even that acquired by reading, through the agora of public oral disputation, the programmatically combative oral testing of knowledge.”

Today, the teacher must be your friend.  This creates a harmful confusion in the student, especially among the boys.  The unrest of students in the 1960’s can be traced to a loss of disciple resulting from the influx of female teachers at the high school and university level whose disposition was and is towards befriending the students.

The problem was two-fold: mixed gender schooling and the introduction of “objective” standards of grading.  Such grading methods seemed more scientific, more fair.  They even appear “competitive.”  But grading systems are a form of indirect evaluation.  They are largely irenic in nature, non-competitive.  They give the illusion of competition without actually having the rough and tumble of direct confrontation and contest.  At best, grades are a competitive gloss on a largely irenic form of teaching, a kind of afterthought tacked on at the end of the semester.  In the past, everything was organized around combat.

“The agonistic of the past resulted from a disposition to organize the subject matter itself as a field of combat, to purvey, not just to test, knowledge in a combative style.”

This agonistic nature of education persisted into the 1800’s and in some places well into the 20th century.

The height of agonistic learning in the west was in the Late Medieval and Renaissance universities where a student was not taught to be objective about knowledge.  Because writing was expensive, most learning was via memory.  The way to cement ideas into memory was to verbalize them over and over while fighting over them.  You were taught to take a stand in favor or against a particular thesis or to attack the thesis of another.  This approach of attack and defense was at the heart of teaching philosophy, law, theology, physics and even medicine.  You would defend thesis about everything including logic, grammar, rhetoric, lexigraphy.  Anything which could be fought over was fought over.  They learned through intellectual battle.

Knowing in a predominantly oral culture requires memory.

“An oral culture cannot remember by formulating something first and then memorizing it afterward.  Once words are said, unless they are said in a way that is itself memorable, they are gone for good: there is nothing there to return to for memorizing.”

Because the intensity of the rough and tumble of verbal combat, the intensity of it, the demands it makes, ensures that the material will stay fixed in one’s mind.  An oral culture thinks its thoughts mnemonically, in ways that are conduce to being remembered.  Proverbs are not quaint and interesting ways to compose ideas.  They are essential.  Clichés are the essence of the predominantly oral mind, its backbone.  Constant repetition is essential for retention.  This is why the old stories, deep in meaning, are poetic, are sung and use stock phrases over and over again.  It at once layers meaning, adding subtle variations and nuances, but most importantly it cements the knowledge in memory.  And because the ideas, the story, the poem, the saying are familiar and well known, you did not differentiate yourself so much on original content, but on the virtuoso nature of your performance in reciting what is known.  This excellence in argumentation was as much a matter of how you combined both performative skills with the arrangement of form and content on the fly, in the heat of argumentation.  You demonstrated singular mastery of the material.Subscribe

As literacy takes hold, one is able to do citations or give readings which are not the same thing as recitation from memory.   Giving a reading is also much less combative.  Orality cultivates combativeness and peacocking in the performance.  Plato himself in the Phadreus (274) expresses reservations about writing, calling it “improper” as it would reduce the living word to lifelessness.  The Socratic method itself is one of dialogue.  Political leadership generally requires oratory skills.  This biases politics to men with their booming voices that can be heard by large crowds unamplified.  Both Greece and Rome subordinated writing to the oral and this subordination persisted up to the introduction of the printing press.  One of the key differences between leadership and mere management falls on this line between orality and literacy.  Even as the printed word and with it literacy grew in importance, the universities remained deeply oral in their orientation.  They generally did not use writing to test intellectual achievement.  There were no “papers.”  All testing was done by means of oral exams or public disputations.

The Renaissance is said to begin around 1420 and it lasted until roughly the end of the 1500’s.  The printing press was invented in 1440.  So this era saw the introduction of print into a largely oral culture.  This period still favoured polemical oration geared towards persuasion to action ahead of more “scientific” investigation.  Even when the humanists were writing, they did so with an eye to oration and not merely writing for writing’s sake.  This bias towards orality remained strong up to the end of the 19th century and in pockets here and there up to the 1960’s by which time it was gone pretty much everywhere.

Print, argues Ong, is a form of indirect speech, and is thus by its nature more irenic, more feminine.  Once you have the printed word being spread widely, it also makes possible things like the policy manual.  Indirect evaluation instruments like IQ tests are only possible in a world where print is ubiquitous.  Once you cross over into a predominantly print society, your relationship to knowledge and even your understanding of ability changes.  An IQ test in an oral culture is inapplicable and largely an irrelevant test.  It is a thing of and for societies in which the printed word is dominant.  It may be argued that the printed word made possible the scientific revolution.  But at the same time, it adapted knowledge and learning, making its production a thing of abstraction, removed from the person and in many ways indirect.  The very introduction of the printing press begins the process of accommodating knowledge, learning and testing to a more irenic, feminine sensibility.

This leads us into a discussion of the role of Latin in western academia and its associations with masculinity.   In the western context, from the fall of Rome up until the 1960’s when its last vestiges finally disappeared, the education of men has been associated not just with the learning of Latin, but instruction in Latin and the use of Latin as the language of academia.  It final disappearance marks the end of agonistic education in the west.  Until quite recently, all education, not just academic, but the trades as well, was exclusively for boys and was an integral part of the process of how boys became men.  You will remember from part two in this series (see link above) that this involved moving a lad out from under the influence of the world of women, brining him intentionally into the world of men.  This IS the education process for men.   The whole point of education when it comes to boys is not just the learning of skills or knowledge, but rather, it is the process whereby boys are transformed into men.  Again, and this cannot be underscored enough, education was the process of separating boys from women specifically so as to turn them into men, teaching them how to be men.  Education is the process of imparting to boys the secret knowledge of men (which we also talked about in part two).

To that end, all education, whether you were learning the trades or engaged in academic work, involved physical stress and mental challenges.  At some point, usually early on, there was a “boot camp” experience.  You passed through these challenges to earn your place.  Learned Latin, in the academic world, was part of this male ritual, this all male world, this secret knowledge that helped initiate you into the world of men.  As Latin disappeared from common speech, it ceased being people’s “mother tongue.”  It is telling that no one has a “father tongue.”  In the academic world, you would be separated from your mother, thrust into an all male environment and given Latin instruction.  To learn any other subject, you had to learn Latin.  The learning of Latin was a hardship, a struggle, especially for boys.  It is not that girls cannot learn Latin.  The female affinity for language means it might even be easier for them than for males.  But because it is less natural for the boys generally, it meant that you had to force them to do it, often with the switch.  In mixed schooling, it is not so much that there is the necessity to punish girls, it is that girls don’t want to be witnesses to the harsh measures necessary to teach and train boys to be men.

The use of the switch was a symbol for the kind of harsh and severe discipline that was meted out for behaviour problems and rules violations.  This created a posture of struggle in overcoming the hardships of learning.  The boys were set in constant competition against the teacher and each other.  But the learning of Latin opened you up to the whole world of classical stories, many of them heroic and violent.  These became part of the lens through which the boys came to understand themselves and the world.  They were brought into this world of heroes, the world of men.  All education, even academics, was part of the process of toughening boys up.  School was a kind of survival course that shaped them into men.  This, of course, created a strong esprit de corps, generating deep bonds that endured throughout life.  Boys had a common enemy with which to do battle, the teacher.  They all shared the hardships of learning, making them into a band of brothers.

The Latin word for school is “ludus,” meaning a training place, a place for games, for play, war by means of war games.  School in Latin is training for life, a game which soon becomes all too real.  Life for a man is struggle, a battle, a war.   You began to understand what was ahead for you already in school.  There was no safe cocoon.  You were thrust into the battle by being forced not just to learn Latin as a nicety.  Latin was the language of all academics.  This notion of “academic languages” is not unique to the west.  Both China and India had formal academic languages that were intertwined with the world of men.Subscribe

Once girls and then women became a part of schooling, once there was mixed schools, the entire focus of education changed.  Not only did the purpose of education change from that of forming boys into men, the point of it all shifted to the skills being learned and the knowledge being imparted.  Education was adapted to the intrumentalized bourgeoisie world.  Education became about the utility of the content.  The point was things like “literacy” and learning one’s numbers.  Are people learning the skills they will need for their careers?  This focus on utility combined with the introduction of females into the schooling environment meant that very quickly Latin was set aside as the language of instruction and academic discourse, then as a required subject.  The agonistic method of disputing thesis was dropped in favour of less combative forms of instruction and evaluation.  Written tests.  Standardized tests. “Objective,” indirect methods such as grading were introduced in place of oral exams and public disputations.  Physical punishment was eliminated.  Girls don’t want to watch boys being punished and you can’t teach boys Latin without the use of a switch.  Once corporal punishment began to disappear, so too did the rest of what made education the means by which boys became men through the schools.

There are almost no books written in Latin by women.  This is not because women are not capable of learning Latin and writing in Latin; rather, the use of Latin was not part of their world.  Latin was integral to the secret world of men, part of men’s secret knowledge.  Latin was the medium of their world of ceremonial combat over ideas.  With the rise of feminism and the inclusion of the feminine impulse in schooling generally, and more specifically in the university, the idea of school as a male rite of passage was phased out.  If we want to point to a significant part of the male struggle today it is that there are very few rights of passage where boys are intentionally brought through the transition from boy to man.

By the 1960’s this change was universally complete.  With this shift, the relationship with the teacher changed.  Now teachers want to be liked by their students.  Teachers want to be seen as a friend of the student, on their side in the learning process.  For boys, this creates a confusion.  In the university context, this befriending of students changed the power dynamics and focus of conflict in the educational institutions.  With the teacher-student battle largely eliminated, conflict was shifted towards “the system.”  Teacher and student would become united in activism against first of all the university administration, then later the administrative systems of society itself.  Attacks would become ideological.  In the older male dominated world of education, the conflict, even with the teacher, had a ceremonial, ritualistic character to it.  Nothing was personal.  It was just what men do.  They fight.  As the educational context became more feminized, the attacks became more personal, the politics of personal destruction.  Out goes ritual combat.  In comes “mean girls.”  These changes then filter out over the whole of society.

Whereas men will establish rules of engagement, both spoken and unspoken, and fight to secure boundaries and territory, the fights are often not to the death and often ritualistic in nature.  Men will establish territory and their place in the hierarchy and thus create peace with their neighbours.  Once women entered the political arena beginning with the schools, these conflicts lose their ceremonial nature.  They cease to be a game, becoming instead a life and death struggle.  Whereas a man will establish territory without the need to eliminate the threat of the enemy, women are looking to establish “safety” and thus generally feel a much stronger need to eliminate threats, often using men as their proxies.  What this means sociologically now that this dynamic of men establishing boundaries within which women feel safe to raise children is expanded out of the private realm of women to the whole of society, is that all things must be brought under this desire to establish safety in a totalizing manner.  Ideological conformity becomes but one measure of this impulse. Wrong think becomes a threat, an elimination of safety.  The vigorous intellectual combat of the all male school environment makes women feel unsafe and threatened and so intellectual conflict must be eliminated and the ideologically unaligned must also be eliminated.  Society slowly becomes characterized by the devouring mother.  Male rites of passage have almost been entirely eliminated, thus the proliferation of the “man-child.”  These man-children are now used as proxies in women’s desire to make society “safe.”

There really are no solutions to this.  Beginning with the printing press, the modern world as we know it was built by the proliferation of knowledge it brought about and the changes it induced in the way we think.  It allowed greater degrees of abstraction and analysis of what was known.  This unleashed and powered what would become the scientific, industrial and technological revolutions.  But reading also brings a greater interiority, self-possession and inwardness.  Silent reading changed us in ways that were not apparent.  Essentially, the building of the modern world beginning with the printing press necessitated the feminization of the world.  The two come together.  You cannot introduce the changes which made the modern world what it is without those changes also at the same time shifting the world away from one centred on male conflict and contest.  There are no scenarios wherein you keep the modern world as we know it and re-orient the gender roles to something healthier and more balanced.

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