I’m often accused of making sweeping statements in my writing; as if one were always required to produce a table full of numbers and statistics to underpin one’s thoughts. On the contrary, theory is grounded in thinking – not just numbers and balance sheets and calculations. However, there is often an interesting intersection between what the theory proposes and what the empirical evidence tells us. The behaviour of the men who attend boys-only schools, and the cultural practices that are an indelible part of the boys-school experience, clearly highlight the problems of masculinity and male-centric and dominated spaces – as proposed in theory.
At the centre of the latest scandal involving a boys-only school, a father in the Free State has removed his 15-year-old son from the prestigious St Andrew’s school in Bloemfontein. This follows alleged abuse and bullying – the victim is alleged to have been violently attacked on more than one occasion. This story is interesting because the violence wasn’t merely confined to the actions of a few bullies; the violence took place during initiation rituals. Initiation rituals, and the broader culture and traditions associated with boys-only schools, provide the greatest evidence of why we need to re-consider masculinity and how we see, educate and love men.
In such male-centric and dominated spaces boys are taught about what it means to be a man and how to behave and live as a man. Beyond promoting a culture of violence and abuse, the effect of institutional culture is to promote discipline, outdated standards of masculinity and heteronormativity, and subservience to the institutional culture. Instead of allowing young men to discover who they are on their own, a collective culture is forced upon them – one which suits their fathers, teachers and people who cling to gender essentialism. There is no space, no freedom to live as one truly is. In these schools, individuality dies at the hands of an institutional culture which values collectivism, muscle and toeing the line.
Kameel Premhid, an Old Boy from a boys’ school in KwaZulu-Natal, clearly outlines the problems of the institutional culture of collectivisation:
“Allowing for difference is important. And schools must be safe environments in which the right to be different must be protected. A failure to do so only engenders more problems. It incentivises underground activity which is itself risqué because boys do not want to be found out. Be that in something as serious as their sexual orientation or as unimportant as a penchant for singing classical music. Most of them know they have to lead a double life for fear of being outed – the start of a possibly unending round of psychological and physical torment.”
The ethical feminist Drucilla Cornell has developed the concept of the “imaginary domain” – the space in which one can claim one’s sexual and gender identity. In the “imaginary domain” exists the freedom of every person to choose how to live, love and be – away from the stifling gender constructs shoved onto us by society. This freedom is categorically important if we truly believe that people are equal and are ethically and morally allowed to determine the outcome of their own lives. Unfortunately, this freedom cannot co-exist with the institutional culture prevalent in boys-only schools. And the freedom to be as one chooses certainly cannot exist in a space where violence and abuse is utilised as a weapon to enforce power relations and collective subservience to the institutional culture present.
Unlike Premhid, who believes that boys only schools can change and serve as a means to challenge male violence, sexism and chauvinism, I believe that boys only schools are not transformable into spaces where freedom (the “imaginary domain”) can co-exist. This is because these schools are dominated by the like-minded – teachers and students who have grown up in a world where men have been denied the right to live free from the confines of society’s stereotypes and demands.
Where there is no difference, and difference is suppressed, how do we inculcate a culture of individuality and freedom?
Maybe the best way to ensure difference is to flood the halls of boys-only schools with young women. Maybe we need to start exposing pupils to ideas and ways of thinking which do not restrict them. We can begin to challenge the ideology of masculinity and what it’s doing to South Africa’s men. And while we’re at it, we can tell their fathers and mothers off for supporting a syndicate of institutions built on exclusion and restriction.