Trump, Boys Schools, and The Invisible Knapsack

I was doing some spring-cleaning last week, when I found this 11 year-old “A Day” video. It’s a spoof of the then popular TV show, “The Apprentice.”

When the boys in college film created this back in 2005, I never ever thought that somehow, someday, someway, the object of their satire would be a leading contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.  Life can surprise you that way. More on this in a minute.

First, though, I want to begin this morning by admitting that I thoroughly enjoy working at a boys school. I attended one myself, so I’m biased, and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in two terrific boys schools for the past 23 years. I enjoy the games, the plays, the concerts, and shows. I enjoy assemblies, even when the Friday morning games don’t quite work as well as we’d planned, or even on those cold Monday mornings, when 700 high school boys try to warble through “Morning Has Broken” in a way Cat Stevens might not recognize.

I like to tell prospective parents, especially those who are worried about sending their sons to an all boys school, that we are like a” Big and Tall” store. If you are 6 foot 6, you might find a suit at Harry Rosen (if you can afford it!), but you are much more likely to find one that fits at a “Big and Tall” store because that’s what they specialize in. I believe the same holds true for a place like UCC. The people who choose to work at a school with almost 1200 boys tend to really get boys. As our school hymn regularly reminds us, the folks who work here are or at least aspire to be “slow to chide and swift to bless.” And God bless them for that!

A few years ago, I happened to be at a Prep assembly, when they were celebrating the grade 7 soccer team’s championship, and the team captain, instead of simply offering a speech, he sang a song he had written especially for the occasion as a tribute to his team, a song based on the melody of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive.” I remember thinking, as I sat there in the back of Weston Hall, that song would be a lot harder to sing if there were even one adolescent girl in the audience. So part of the charm of this place is just the joy of boys themselves, boys who aren’t burdened with the kind of posturing that can sometimes affect the culture of a coed school.

As much as I enjoy boys schools in general and UCC in particular, though, I don’t need to tell you that life is a co-ed experience, and somehow or other, part of our job here is to prepare you for that world. This is becoming increasingly important in a culture where there is a growing concern about how men treat women.

If there is a silver lining in after-wave shocks of the headlines surrounding Ray Rice, Jameis Winston, and Bill Cosby, it is that we have had important conversations about violence and football, and about how celebrities are treated by the judicial system, and about why victims sometimes keep returning to their perpetrators.

I confess that it is not easy to talk about these issues in a manner that won’t seem way too preachy or in a way that suggests men are intrinsically evil. It seems off kilter to do this, especially at a school that so public touts its belief in boys. A belief we all stand by.

So while I don’t want to stand on a soapbox this morning, given where we are today, we all have to admit that our society has a long way to go before men and women are treated equally and ethically.

This may sound a bit remote for some of the younger boys in Laidlaw Hall this morning, but for the older students, especially those of you in IB2, these issues will become very real to you, especially within the next six months. My hunch is that almost everyone in grade 12 will have a meeting early next fall with some university official, where someone on your campus will talk about campus rules regarding sexual activity and sexual assault. No good school can ignore these issues any more than they can avoid drug and alcohol use and how all of these issues tie in to student behavior. But the facts are the facts and the latest research says that as many as 1 in 4 women is a victim of abuse.

My friend Rick Melvoin, the long-serving head at Belmont Hill Academy, a boys school very much like UCC, recently talked to his boys about all of this, and he tied his comments into Peggy Macintosh’s ground breaking research. Thirty years ago she wrote that some people in our society have unconscious advantages over others. Her research suggested that white people have this over blacks; that men have it over women, and that in terms of gender, men carry with them, something she called “an invisible knapsack” in which we all hold, unconsciously, all sorts of male privilege.

I confess that have not always been aware of this knapsack.

Macintosh, though, points out that men move with ease through society in ways that women can’t imagine. Men earn more money, are stronger physically, dominate corporate CEO and board positions, and populate the halls of government, and we do this while leaving the bulk of child care to spouses. Again, this privilege, Macintosh believes, is unconscious. It is simply our life. Welcome to our world.

What does this all mean for you? Let me suggest that there are parts of our culture that reinforce this distortion. Which takes me back to Donald Trump. One small part of this off-kiltered world-view has to do with something called “the objectification of women.”

I don’t need to tell you how deplorable the Republican nomination process has been with the kind of name-calling and sexual innuendo that seems like it was taken right out of the pro wrestling circuit. But last week, I was reminded of an old “Seinfeld” episode, one where Elaine tells Jerry, “Sometimes when I think you’re the shallowest man I’ve ever met, you manage to drain a little more out of the pool.”

Last week, the political pool ran bone dry when candidates started using social media to display pictures of the candidates’ spouses, as a way of promoting their campaigns. Melania Trump, Donald’s wife, is a former model –or as he might say, “a big model” — and the Trump campaign sent out an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz next to a glossy shot of Melania. It was a not at all subtle way of saying, “Vote for me because my spouse is more attractive than his is.”

I mention this to you now, just to point out that you are coming of age  in an age riddled with contradictions. It’s a time when –even though you will hear a lot about the push for equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of gender, orientation, or race – you will still see today’s politicians try to portray their spouses as eye candy. It’s also a time when indigenous women are missing or murdered, and shows like “Dateline” have very little if any interest in covering their plight. It’s a time when countries like Germany, for example, are rolling out “women only” train cars as a way to minimize the threat of assaults.

And while all of this is happening, you’ll soon be heading off to universities where some of your future classmates may assume you have misogynistic tendencies because, after all, you did attend an elite boys school. How do you get yourself ready for all of this?

I don’t have an easy answer for you, but I suggest that, even as we are bombarded by media messages, messages suggesting that women are defined by their physical appearances, and messages that imply that men always will be in charge, we need to start by examining our own attitudes and behaviours.

David Brooks points out that, “Wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.”

Let me confess my own ignorance: I didn’t always buy Peggy Macintosh’s argument, but I now understand that it’s impossible to see and understand what’s inside that “invisible knapsack” until you first believe that it is actually there.


22 thoughts on “Trump, Boys Schools, and The Invisible Knapsack

  1. Are the students at UCC aware of Owen Labrie of St. Paul’s School?

    Also, every grade 11 & 12 student & their parents should watch “The Hunting Ground.” Although the film focuses on sexual assault on university campuses in the States, it is applicable to students who plan to study in Canada, US, or elsewhere. Now available on Netflix.

  2. Bravo! Hear, hear! You do a fine job of addressing the most timely of topics. Sure you want to leave Canada and come back to a country where Donald Trump may well be one party’s candidate for president? O tempora! O mores!

    Am I wrong to hear an elegiac note in the first part of your talk, as you describe the charms of an all-boys school? Your affection comes through.

    I often think that if we in coed schools were retrograde enough to make it our mission (as it was in the old British schools) to produce young ladies and gentlemen, in the most idealistic sense of those old honorifics, we would be doing something worthwhile. Trump is a graceless, gross bully. The Zuckerbergs and Jobs of our time are brilliant but callow and notoriously abrasive to their colleagues. Our culture celebrates achievers but doesn’t know how to think about character. But I am going all David Brooks on you.

  3. A well-worded reflection on a touchy, polarizing topic that is becoming more and more relevant. I hadn’t considered the perspective of students from boys’ schools. And, in turn, what others assume about an education at a boys’ school.

    We don’t have the answers (this year has been one big lesson on this for me)! Must count for something that we are aware of our ignorances and are striving to better inform them.

  4. An excellent piece. I like the title, the text, and the implications of the text. And that I have a daughter in 2nd year university just adds to my appreciation that you’ve put these thoughtful and strong ideas into words.

  5. In your piece, I think the fact that you imply that somehow the grade 7 captain would be uncomfortable to sing his song, or not do it at all, if the audience was not all male, or that it was a “guy thing only” are EXACTLY THE PROBLEM. It shouldn’t matter. You have at a minimum, intrinsic bias, if not blatant bias.

    1. Thanks for the pushback.

      I could be wrong about this, but my experience has been that most early adolescent boys are more comfortable taking this kind of risk – the risk of singing in public – in a single sex school.

      While the avoidance of these kinds of risks in a coed environment isn’t necessarily a good thing, I believe it is how human development plays itself out during the teenage years. (We could spend quite a bit of time discussing whether or not the root of this is biological or cultural.)

      Single sex environments aren’t right for everyone, of course, but I do believe that there is a little less posturing in a place where there are no members of the opposite sex to impress.

      At the risk of sounding defensive, (Ok. Maybe I am just a little…) I don’t think my description of the assembly is so much a betrayal of my own bias as it is a reflection of the adolescent reality I’ve experienced.

      1. Is the writer saying that it is not “ok” for a adolescent boy to be embarrassed to sing in front of girls — orr is he saying that your accepting this reality is the problem?

        I think we can be all for gender equality without having to teach men and women the same way. The two genders go though development at different stages — this is a fact — while we don’t want to raise boys who are scared of women, it is important to give boy opportunities to express themselves without the added fear of embarrassment.

        There are fundamental differences between men and women and we should not try to fit either into one group. Let’s give them the opportunity to develop in the way that is best for them.

      2. I might agree with the critic that you do have a bias (you work in a boys’ school.)

        That being said, I assume you are familiar with adolescent boys and the issues many of them face.

        Regardless of whether you have a bias or not, 13 year old guys are rarely the types to make themselves vulnerable. Has the reader been to a middle school dance?

      3. I am the “critic” reader. I went to the same all boys Jesuit Prep school as Dr. Power. I have raised three daughters. I chaperoned more co-ed middle school dances than I can remember.

      4. Didn’t you mean to add, “And I have been an admirer of his for decades”?

        And having raised three daughters DOES make you an authority in my book! Bravo!

  6. Jim, I was lucky to have experienced the assembly, on Tuesday, when you read this to the 700+ boys in attendance. I have been grappling with my own privilege over the last 15 year since I graduated from UCC, and have been wondering if male/economic privilege is acknowledged there today. I was surprised and impressed when it was at the centre of your remarks.

    We have a long way to go to make our societies just and good. We all believe education is part of the answer.

    Your remarks, hopefully echoed through the culture of UCC, are a step in the right direction.

  7. I think it a tragedy that single-sex education is practically a relic. I believe in it! It makes so much sense.

  8. I really think you should write for the NYT…
    Thanks. Your message is so heartening and made me quite emotional as I was reading it. There’s something so loving about men speaking up for women.

  9. I like it a lot… Love the last line.
    Yes, masculinity does seem to be a privilege, but there is also responsibility/ burden that comes with it. (yes sounds real cheesy).

    Any sort of action in university/college will be put under a microscope and because you are a male you will always be seen as the perpetrator and never the victim.

    The most recent 30 for 30 is a great example of this. The elite Duke lacrosse team ( much like UCC boys) were easy to hate— it appeared that everything in life was given to them on a silver platter. People were willing then— and a probably more willing now given the social climate — to punish and discipline apparently successful boys/men because they can. It is their way of evening out the playing field. My take home message however is not that the duke administration and community failed those boys and their coach (that much is obvious), but that the team put themselves in a situation where they were vulnerable. They made decision— hiring strippers— that perpetuated the “patriarchy.”

    While hiring strippers and rape are certainly not on the same scale of egregious offences, the idea that women are for entertainment and pleasure opens up the door for other allegations. If people think you view women as objects of entertainment, Rape no longer becomes an outlandish idea. Need to always take the high ground because even grey areas can easily be manipulated…

    All of this only really makes sense if you have seen the recent 30 for 30 “Fantastic Lies.”

  10. Bravo Jim, thank you for this. And believe me the backpack is there. A few stories from the other side of the gender divide:

    Like you, I am a fierce believer in the power of gender-based experience. I cannot explain the joy in feeling a baby (my baby! our baby! a real baby!) grow and kick and wriggle around in my tummy, the delight in laughing with women about hair and body issues, the dread I experience in shopping for anything, never mind bathing suits, and the sense of self I grew into while at an all female college, Smith.

    Maybe unlike you, I have also experienced some pretty big rocks in my backpack specific to my gender. I have had a boss tell me that if I lay down on the couch in his office he would give me a bigger bonus, I have been coached on being softer and less intimidating to clients, I have experienced date rape before that was even a term, I have had people co-opt my intellectual capital and rephrase it in appropriately manly terms and that manly tone of voice that drew praise to them, and not to me, the author of the ideas. And darn it, despite my best efforts, I still experience goal conflict.

    So, as you embark on becoming head of a coed school I hand over to you the gender sensitivity baton. I know you have it in you and I know you will do a wonderful job of observing, understanding, and sharing what it is like to be human with your new cohort.

  11. Jimmy Boy –

    Your comment: “. . . , given where we are today, we all have to admit that our society has a long way to go before men and women are treated equally and ethically.” has to be the biggest understatement of the last millennium.

    For a recent notable example, just look at the women’s US soccer team new lawsuit about the substantial monetary and other forms of favorable treatment given to the US men’s soccer team (which did not even make the Olympic cut).

    Both the US and Canada until relatively recently had laws that held women were no more than “chattel” or property owned by men.

    Women in the US and British Commonwealth countries only obtained the right to vote until the 1930’s and thereafter. Suffragettes had to dispel the notion that women were somehow not capable of deciding what candidate was best for an elected position (translation – women will wield power and influence if they vote that will be taken away from us men).

    As you recognize, violence against women around the world continues unabated. When I was in Africa just 9 years ago, it was still the ordinary practice in Tanzania in the Masai tribes for women to be genitally mutilated.

    You suggest that your students take the first step of at least believing there is an “invisible knapsack” (a 30 year old idea) ? Come on, who are we kidding? We have to do better than that.

    I can speak from experience from our own all boy Prep experience, but I expect it is much the same for UCC students, but it is my belief, that today, 1 April 2016, these young men openly and knowingly carry a 50 pound bag of privileges. And why not keep it until someone takes it away because those privileges in the knapsack result in men having more power and money and control in society than women. Indeed, some define and measure their “masculinity” in this way.

    History shows that power, money and control are not given up easily.

    It took a divisive civil war, the Emancipation Proclamation and an Amendment to the US Constitution before the issue of the ability to own slaves in the US was resolved. It then took almost another 100 years, and the efforts of those such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and many others, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1966, before black Americans could sit at the same lunch counter as whites in the US.

    There is a body of research that shows that the best way to break down cultural, racial, gender and other differences between people is to have a very diverse group work together over a period of time toward a common goal as part of a team (often in combination with competition against other teams). (Doesn’t that sound like schools?)

    Time after time, the result is that by working together in close quarters with people much “different” than themselves, people begin to see and focus on the sameness of their colleagues, and not their differences. This is why large companies pay millions of dollars each year for corporate retreats at which days and days of “team building” exercises are conducted and sensitivity to “diversity” is discussed.

    So what, you may ask, is my take away?

    You say: “I don’t need to tell you that life is a co-ed experience, and somehow or other, part of our job here is to prepare you for that world.”

    Over time, as I have raised three daughters, it has been my experience that it is much harder, and probably impossible, to teach boys in a single sex school (especially one that goes from elementary through high school levels) to take off voluntarily that 50 pound backpack of privileges.

    I am now convinced that it is better for both young and adolescent boys and girls to go to school together because the environment is more conducive to learning to live peacefully in the co-ed world recognizing they are both different but also equal

    As a result of interacting with girls for years in and out of school, your grade 7 soccer captain who sang his victory song to his team would not have cared whether there were female students present or not.


  12. Jim make sure when you arrive at your new school you include my email address for your messages. always enjoyable and a worth while digression from business complexities

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