Why not just abolish boys' schools?
February 25, 2009
By Mike Wills
If you want a scary look at some damaged male psyches, then search the blogosphere at the moment for the comments flying around on school initiation practices.
The newspaper revelations of brutal and humiliating behaviour by matrics at Parktown Boys High in Johannesburg have sparked a froth of defensive indignation about traditions, "making a man of me", "building character", "good for house spirit" and "we're not a girls' school".
All of these old boys seem to have persuaded themselves that being forced to strip in the middle of the night, rub Deep Heat into your genitals and then be belted by cricket bats is actually a life-enhancing experience for a teenager.
The extent to which boys' school and varsity initiation practices take place and are overtly or covertly accepted in our society is bewildering to me. Such things exist to a varying degree all around the world, but we seem to be global leaders in these disturbing rituals.
Of course, very few institutions these days will actually use the word initiation and their leaders will, often too loudly, protest that such things never happen any more, but the reality is that in many instances it is still being done under another name.
Senior students continue to believe they have the tacit approval of the school or koshuis to put new arrivals through physical and emotional "tests" and then swear them to silence.
The majority, especially those who are physically strong, sail through this phase and would attest to quite enjoying it, but there are plenty who don't have such an easy ride and there are many parents across the Cape who have faced the same dilemma as Pene Kimber, the mother who blew the whistle on the Parktown incidents.
They know their child has been physically or psychologically as-saulted and yet to report such an event will bring unbearable consequences on the boy himself. Understandably, most choose to remain silent and hope the damage done, ultimately, isn't too great.
I seriously question the wisdom of Kimber in taking her story to the media, which never represents the best forum to deal with a child's problems, and I see little value in the engagement of the likes of the Human Rights Commission - but the level of snarling vitriol being directed at the mother for her outspoken stand is startling and deliberately intimidating.
Somewhere in those muddied male minds the reputation of a school is more important than the health of an individual boy, and pride in a koshuis, house, hostel or school is both exaggeratedly important and achievable through the infliction of pain and shame.
On a deeper psychological level they have a warped notion of issues like power, masculinity, violence and conformity.
While I have great sympathy for the tough task facing heads of schools or universities at the moment, I suspect some of them haven't really grasped this nettle.
They believe there is a half-way house, that there are some good things buried within initiation practices and they will justify this by referring to a boy's deep need for identification. They also think that the process is intrinsic to their institution's identity - it will be a different, less distinctive and somehow diminished place without these time-honoured traditions.
And they sometimes don't listen to the sounds of silence - no one's complaining, therefore there is no problem. They are then surprised when the issue explodes on them.
Potchefstroom Boys' High principal Martin Cartwright is one who has confronted the problem, saying: "You have to stop it entirely. There is no middle ground."
Cartwright restructured his hostels along age lines to reduce bullying and initiation. He acknowledges that it has affected things like house spirit and that it's been an uphill battle "because traditions don't die easily", but if he can reduce the climate of fear and intimidation within the school then he will have made it a better place for new boys, if not for the nostalgic old boys.
No one can expect a school or koshuis to totally eradicate this kind of behaviour. In the over-used and abused expression, "boys will be boys" - they will do daft and humiliating things and display poor judgment. There are always going to be kids who take unhealthy advantage of the heady power they have, briefly, in their hands.
But the institution must never condone such behaviour nor turn a blind eye to it. No one should try to pretend it doesn't exist nor can it be buried in euphemisms and secretly codified into accepted practice.
The easiest solution, of course, would be to abolish boys' schools altogether. As far as I'm aware, co-educational establishments don't have these problems. Girls look on such behaviour with a bewildered disdain that a few more men would do well to learn to imitate.
Opinion two: same source
Telling initiation from abuse
* Probe into initiation after student injured
* Matie initiation rites decline, says varsity as inquiry into injury begins
* Cape bid to regulate initiation schools
* Parktown High boys whipped and beaten in initiation rite
* Teacher and 12 matrics suspended over school initiation
* Pupils show support for initiation bullies
* Initiation to stay - Parktown principal
* Students expelled from residence after 'hazing'
Initiation is fine as long as it's positive. It has been with mankind as long as people have lived in groups and celebrated rites of passage: from youth to adulthood, from being single to being married, and upon admission to religious groups, clans, tribes, universities, schools and sports teams.
The importance of positive initiation can hardly be over-estimated. Properly managed, it welcomes the newcomer; shores up his confidence; fosters a bond between the new members and the old; explains the systems in place and their core values; spells out principles and priorities; clarifies the realities of seniority, leadership and responsibility; and advises on behaviour, understanding of tradition and the necessity for two-way respect.
Things go wrong in schools when misguided authorities and senior pupils pervert the role of initiation.
It becomes a means to humiliate and abuse, physically and psychologically. It ignores positive options, embraces the negative and trivialises the concept of corporate pride. Alienation from the heart and soul of the school dominates.
Notions of inclusivity are bypassed and sensitivities brushed aside. Indoctrination insists that only through the experience of personal suffering at the hands of stronger and older pupils is the attainment of adulthood possible.
This is bizarre. Who can seriously support the view that commends the violation of the weak by the strong? The whole point of civilised societies is that the strong protect the weak - as Robert Browning might have asked, "or what's a heaven for?". But in schools where unacceptable behaviour is rationalised as "tradition", group pressure sustains a cycle of irrational cruelty.
When parents who truly care about their children complain, they elicit facile and insulting responses from professional people who ought to know better: "we've all been through it"; "you're being overprotective"; "it's not serious".
In calls I have received there have been tales of broken noses, broken collar bones, damage to the genitals, extreme physical exertion, random punching in dark rooms and constant insults.
In this context, the matter of sexual interference needs to be seriously addressed - it occurs frequently and may indicate perpetrators themselves have been sexually abused. (I think I am right in saying that sexual molestation of minors by anyone 18 or over is paedophilia.)
I have had contact with a number of previous perpetrators who say they are haunted by what they did to others, two of whom indicated they would "give anything" to apologise to those they harmed.
All schools need to turn towards sensible and sensitive approaches to those in their care. Parents have not invested mere stocks and shares; they have invested their own children, their most precious assets.
It is the school's obvious duty to protect them and provide an environment in which they can realise their potential, grow in confidence and make a contribution to their new community.
Before their children enter the school, parents should insist on a detailed report of what tradition means, what initiation involves and how these fit into the school's mission statement and culture.
They must seek confirmation that no victimisation will follow exposure of ill-treatment of any pupil.
When bullying is uncovered, heads must avoid the absurd tactic of hiding behind shameful and fatuous protestations. They should state unequivocally that new pupils will be safe from abusive behaviour, that parents can rest secure in the assurance that those who inflict dangerous initiation on any member of the school body will be punished.
For their part, parents should counsel their children to listen and look, more than make pre-emptive comments about their new school.
Leadership must be conceived as service - prefects and seniors educated in mentorship. Along with accepted disciplinary measures, positive reinforcement should be employed to underpin the relationship between older and younger pupils.
This is not news to enlightened schools which operate in this way already. Genuine leadership ensures that young boys grow into men without applied malice; there are enough challenges in any school to promote strength in the face of adversity and development into maturity. Those seniors who do not buy into the concept of enlightened leadership should not be appointed as prefects.
Parents should counsel their young sons that under no account must they repeat the negative initiation of their early years.
All it takes to break the cycle is for one brave leader to say: "Enough. No more. From now on our traditions will be built on mutual regard and team spirit. We are all members of the same family." There needs to be networking, close co-operation with parents and the media, alertness to transgressions, perhaps an organisation to help those in need. This is only the start.
# Jardine is an educator and former school principal