The Magazine

WHEN BOYS WERE BOYS

Oct 20, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 06 • By DAVID FRUM
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Courage, the Greeks believed, is the chief of all virtues, because without it the other virtues are all useless. We now, in late-20th-century North America, still pay lip service to the value of courage. But the truth is, when we talk about it to boys, we often do so in the most off-putting possible contexts: Think of that boy who found the courage to remain enrolled in ballet. Very commendable, unquestionably -- but not very likely to be a convincing exemplar of manliness to many 8-year-olds.


In our eagerness to direct boys toward pacific amusements, though, we forget that -- whatever we say about it -- boys live and always will live in a world of terrifying brutality. A friend of mine who attended a British boarding school said that from his earliest days there, he realized that he could never tell his parents the truth about what it was like: They would find it too frightening. Think of your own childhood. When your parents asked what happened that day at school, did you ever dare really tell them? What would they do about it -- except make a shrieky fuss that would only antagonize the bullies who lurk in every playground worse than ever?


Violence is very real to boys, and they need codes by which to understand and regulate it. Books that describe boys who are ready to fight, who aren't afraid of fighting, but who never strike first and always fight fair guide boys in ways that the "anti-violence" curriculums now being taught in every public school never will. The contemporary grownup world has a bad habit of lumping together all boyish physical conflict and play as "violence" and trying to suppress it all -- as if playing space pirates in the schoolyard were the first step on the slippery slope toward gang membership and drive-by shootings. The old adventure stories, for all their ridiculousness, linked ideals of gentleness and fairness in their readers' young minds to equally powerful ideals of heroism and manliness. We, by refusing to admit that the two ideals can have anything to do with each other, end by telling our boys that they must choose between being a milquetoast and a thug.


Every year, more than 2 million boys are born in the United States. The job of civilizing them is not an easy one, and, by all indications, American society is succeeding at it much less well than it did 70 or a hundred years ago. Radio stations, television, and the culture of the streets bombard them with images of manhood drawn from the most bestial parts of our nature. The schools and the publishing companies attempt to counteract these vicious images with a counter-image so prissy that one wonders how a boy with even half the normal red corpuscle count can possibly stand it. Which is how America has come to be a society in which half of American men abandon their wives, while the other half stand in football stadiums crying, hugging, and vowing to Keep Promises.


I don't know whether, in this post-literate society, even the very best books can do much to counteract our failure to find a compelling definition of manliness for our sons. And even if books mattered as much as they once did, it would still be doubtful how much good they could do in a society so fanatically committed to androgyny that its military trains its elite units to stop their ears to the screams of tortured women, and every video arcade offers boys the opportunity, for just 50 cents, to kick a lady martial artist to death electronically.


Still, for whatever good they can do, the old books are there: Horatio Hornblower and Tom Sawyer, The Black Arrow and Ivanhoe, Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers. Thanks to an enterprising Floridian, you can bulk the reading experience of your children out with writers of the second tier, like Henty and Stratemeyer. Henty's snobbery and racism may be hard to take; Stratemeyer's books may be too visibly cranked out on the assembly line. But they serve to remind us that there is very little wrong, and very much that is right, with letting boys be boys.




Contributing editor David Frum is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.