Boys Will Be Boys

Excerpted from Jim Jump’s Chapel talk, presented in Upper School Chapel on January 30, 2017

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Whenever I prepare a chapel talk there is a moment where I ask myself, “What made you think this was a good idea?”  Normally that feeling goes away–not so much today.  Today I want to tackle a subject that is important but also hard to talk about, and I’m far from sure that I’m the right person to address it.

Last fall there were three separate instances where Ivy League athletic teams had their seasons suspended or even cancelled.  All of them resulted from off the field scandals involving crude and vulgar language about females, and a couple involved racist and homophobic language as well.

In November the nationally-ranked soccer team at Harvard had its season cancelled when the team was within reach of both an Ivy League title and an NCAA tournament bid after discovery of a team tradition involving a Google doc where team members rated the attractiveness and physical attributes of each member of the women’s soccer squad.

A week later the wrestling team at Columbia had its season suspended and several members removed from the team, and in December the men’s swimming and diving team at Princeton had its season cancelled.  Both involved text messages sent by team members that included comments both racist and offensive to women.

In medicine three cases with similar symptoms in a short period of time would raise suspicions of an epidemic and a search for a contagion.  You don’t get into an Ivy League school without superb academic credentials, so it’s not lack of intelligence, but rather lack of judgment or even lack of character.  Is there something about the culture of college athletics that leads to this kind of behavior?

Of course there are far more prominent and egregious recent examples of this kind of behavior.  Back in October the Presidential race was thrown into an uproar when a 2005 audio tape emerged in which President Trump, himself an Ivy League graduate, seemed to brag about inappropriately touching women.  It didn’t end up impacting the election result, but even supporters of Trump found the comments troubling and offensive. Several of you who were preparing to represent Trump in the debate here on campus asked out as a result of that revelation.

As offensive as the Trump comments were, so was the defense offered by some surrogates in the Trump campaign.  They claimed that the comments were just “locker room talk,” something that all males engage in.

If the comments themselves were deeply offensive to women, including those in this room, the claim that all males routinely engage in that kind of language should be deeply offensive to all of us who are male.  It suggests that “locker room talk” is normal guy talk that all of us engage in, and that’s just not the case.  Following the release of the Trump tape, a number of professional athletes including LeBron James spoke up against the claim that that kind of language is normal in locker rooms.

The “Locker Room Talk” defense is a version of the statement that “Boys Will Be Boys.”  It is important to emphasize that “Boys Will Be Boys” is never a compliment.  It is either an indictment or an excuse.

Over the past 50 to 60 years the social landscape has changed dramatically with regard to the roles of men and women.  From a male perspective, this can be seen most clearly in two iconic TV series, both set in fictional towns named Springfield.  Back in the 1950s, “Father Knows Best” was a number one hit show.  It is hard to imagine a show with that title today, when fathers on TV on generally buffoons and the butt of jokes, best represented by Homer Simpson.

Prior to 1970, many of the nation’s best colleges, from the Ivies to U.Va. to Virginia Tech, were not open to women.  I talked last week with a St. Christopher’s alumnus who was a member of the last all-male class at U.Va.  Today there are only three all-male colleges left (Hampden-Sydney, Morehouse, Wabash).

Coeducation has benefitted colleges, women, and the nation.  Washington and Lee became a national-caliber liberal arts college after it began admitting women, and I remember talking to a professor at Randolph-Macon who opposed coeducation until he began teaching girls.  He said they weren’t any smarter but that they worked harder.  Today 58% of the students in college are female, and two years ago women earned more Ph.D’s than men for the first time in history.

So what does this mean for you?  It means that you will go to college into a world more complex and challenging than mine was. Through Title IX the federal government has put colleges on notice that they must deal more aggressively with sexual assault and sexual harassment.  But for now the rules of engagement are different.  Does yes mean yes, and when does harmless flirting cross the line into harassment?  Beyond college, many of you will have female bosses, both at work and at home.

 And what does the changing world mean for St. Christopher’s?  Boys’ prep schools sometimes get a bad rap, assumed to be incubators and breeding grounds for producing sexism and arrogance.  As humans all of us are capable of making decisions we’re later ashamed of, and as Mr. Abbott has observed, five teen-aged boys together may do something far stupider than any of them would do on their own.  But just as there are educational benefits to being in a boys’ school environment, the greatest benefit may be in the realm of social and emotional development.

More than 100 years ago, Dr. Chamberlayne is supposed to have said, “We may not all be scholars, but we can all be gentlemen.”  I think that statement still provides guidance today, although the definition of what it means to be a gentleman is different in the 21st century.  At one time being a gentleman had to do with one’s social class and about gestures like tipping one’s hat or holding doors for ladies.

The International Boys’ School Coalition, of which St. Christopher’s is a member, currently has a group discussing what it means to be a gentleman in the 21st century.  I am not a member of that group, but here are some things I think are part of a modern definition of gentleman.

1) A 21st century gentleman is self-aware.

Joe Ehrmann, the former NFL All-Pro defensive tackle who was a “Journeys to Manhood” speaker at St. Christopher’s a year ago, has said that the concept of “Being a Man” carries with it traps, in that manhood is too often equated with athletic talent, the ability to make money, and sexual prowess. A gentleman doesn’t fall for these limiting and false definitions, but pursues his own personal journey to and definition of manhood.

2) A 21st century gentleman has empathy.

The St. Christopher’s Second Century Vision lists empathy as one of the essential qualities for leadership.  Empathy is the ability to walk in another person’s shoes both intellectually and emotionally.  That is not easy, because at some level all of us believe that the way we see the world is the way that everyone should see the world.

Empathy is particularly important in our relationships with females.  Just as we have the traps identified by Joe Ehrmann, females grow up deluged with messages that say that their worth consists of how attractive they are rather than who they are.  A gentleman doesn’t contribute to those false beliefs, and also recognizes that women are still not fully equal, being paid on average 20% less for doing the same job.

3) A 21st century gentleman sees women as peers and equals.

A century ago being a gentleman was about protecting what was often referred to as the “weaker” or “fairer” sex.  Today being a gentleman is about supporting and appreciating females for their strengths and talents.

When the members of the Class of 2015 returned to campus during Christmas break to meet with members of the Board and administration, several of them made comments about wishing they had developed what they called “organic” friendships with girls at St. Catherine’s when they were here.  You have the opportunity to benefit from their advice.

4) A 21st century gentleman is heroic.

It has been said that every male is looking to find the hero within himself.  Being a hero doesn’t mean wearing a costume or saving the world from evil, unless you’re into that sort of thing, but rather doing the right thing whether in public or private, and looking for ways to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

It’s not enough to refrain from offensive language yourself.  You must also be willing to stand up to others when they express views that are vulgar and offensive, or help others when they are most vulnerable.  You never know when you may be called into action.  A couple of years ago, a St. Christopher’s student on an overnight visit to a college campus intervened when he encountered a student at a fraternity party attempting to take advantage of a young woman who was inebriated.  It would have been easy for him to do nothing as a visitor to the campus.  I’m glad he had the courage to do what was right, and hope that all of us would step up in a similar situation.

A St. Christopher’s education is about more than the kind of student you are, it’s about the kind of person you are.  It’s about preparing you not only for college, but also for being a good husband, a good father, a good son, a good brother, and a good citizen.  It is my hope that all of us will give attention to our relationships with the women in our lives, even when those relationships are not easy because we don’t understand them and they don’t understand us. Let’s engage in language and behavior about which we are proud and not embarrassed.

And may we remember the wisdom of the French, who say simply, Vive La Difference.


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