When my student knocked on the door and said he wanted to speak to me about something I became slightly nervous. In my experience thus far, when a student leaves lunch to come and speak with you about a “private” matter, it is typically not about something positive. The private conversations I’ve had with students have covered topics from academic hardship to physical abuse taking place at home, and as I let this student in I worried a bit, hoping that whatever his problem was I could be the solution. “Well Mr. Arthur, I’ve been thinking a lot…” I sat down, “…and I want to change my senior project topic to patriarchy.” My heart dropped as I exhaled. Patriarchy? In my philosophy class, we spent the last two weeks before Christmas break discussing social institutions and oppression. My students have had the pleasure of watching and analyzing a wonderful lecture from educator and public speaker Tony Porter and reading excerpts from books written by great thinkers such as bell hooks. We’ve discussed gender roles and the shaming we experienced as children when we stepped outside of those gender roles. We’ve even discussed the ways in which women participate in the perpetuation of patriarchy in American society and how this particular social construct fuels the homophobia we see in our communities.
Needless to say, patriarchy was not a foreign concept to me. In fact I introduced this student to the topic. But never did I consider that our conversations would encourage any student to become so eager to know more about this complex concept that it would become the focus of their independent research project. I was incredibly excited and the excitement in his eyes nearly knocked me off of my feet.
Like many of my male students, this student talked about the behaviors he consciously performed as a means to conform to the idea of being a man. These young men spoke candidly in our class discussions about the very fact that they hide pain, fear, and suffering because they have learned that these things are contrary to manliness and in the face of their equally candid female classmates, my male students even spoke about the need to regard or at least appear to regard women as sexual objects.
Why? Why did my students have to wait until six months before their high school graduation to have a safe space to share these things? Why had no one ever challenged my boys to rethink their definition of a man and for the young women in my classroom to think about the idea of womanhood in new ways? Why had no one told my football players that it was ok and in fact awesome that they disagreed with homophobia? Why aren’t we as educators, leaders, parents, mentors, activists, adults in general, encouraging youth to have more conversations about these complicated issues that they are sure to face?
The enthusiasm I saw on the face of that student when I told him that I would be his advisor for his senior project on patriarchy in America and our email correspondences over the holiday break are all the evidence I need to believe that our youth want to be intellectually challenged. They want to be given the permission and encouragement they feel they need to be imaginative and creative in their thinking. They want, desperately, to explore their world, their identities, and to investigate the very topics on which even we as adults are often silent. This to me is education in its purest form. This isn’t a process by which we fill the heads of youth, but a process in which we present to them the framework for critical thought and a deep understanding of the need to explore the world. In doing so, we neglect our selfish and egotistical interest of positioning ourselves as the stewards of answers and provoke the minds of our children enough to make them eagerly inquisitive.
My student will not only be successful in understanding manliness and patriarchy, but he will, through his work, be personally changed as the ideas he will encounter will develop his mind and his understanding of self. It has been my honor to be a part of this process for him and I am thrilled about the possibilities that rest before him and other students who are in search of truth.