On Monday The Telegraph website posted an article by Dan Bell, arguing that the ‘Good Lad’ workshops recently introduced into a school in Oxford, aimed at teaching boys about sexual harassment and violence, were ‘the latest in a mushrooming series of initiatives in which ideologically-driven activists are being invited into schools, driven by the belief that boys need to be re-educated to prevent them from becoming a threat to women.’
Bell proceeded to list other similar initiatives aimed at what he described as the ‘indoctrination’ of boys, in which he claimed the emphasis was on ‘imposing an ideological worldview that first and foremost sees young men as potential abusers and perpetrators.’ In Bell’s opinion, these campaigns offer a glimpse of ‘an increasingly pervasive culture of toxic feminism in schools’ that is ‘weighing down boys with a collective sense of guilt and shame’ and are part of ‘a drive to make shame and guilt a formal part of boys’ education’.
The article left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve often been critical of what writers such as Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes describe as the ‘therapeutic’ turn in education, the increasingly fashionable trend for using schooling as a way of delivering moral messages about ‘wellbeing’, whether it’s healthy eating or so-called ‘emotional literacy’. I’m suspicious of such initiatives, firstly because they are often profoundly anti-educational, tending to deliver ‘appropriate’ messages for students to passively absorb, rather than promoting the questioning approach to knowledge that should be at the heart of any truly educational process. Secondly, there is the vexed question of who gets to decide what these ‘appropriate’ messages are, and the power this puts in the hands of schools, local authorities and ultimately the state to regulate children’s thinking.
But thirdly, I tend to think that delivering pre-packaged moral messages to schoolchildren is simply ineffective. At a recent seminar on gender equality in Helsinki, I was rather alarmed to hear a representative from the Finnish education ministry talk about plans to introduce anti-sexism as part of the compulsory school curriculum. I remember a colleague telling me about his daughters’ experience of being exposed to anti-racist education programmes at their inner London school in the heyday of the GLC. He said they could certainly parrot the ‘correct’ messages but were deeply cynical about the whole process, regarding it as just another part of the compulsory, and resented, curriculum. There’s a risk that such programmes are about as effective as the pious religious messages inculcated by high-minded teachers in the Victorian era.
So there’s undoubtedly a danger that school-based programmes on sexism may actually turn boys off the whole subject. And Dan Bell’s catalogue of examples certainly includes some dubious practice. But are those examples typical of what goes on in these initiatives? I happen to know some of the people involved in one or two of the campaigns that he cites, and I believe he misrepresents their work. The work of the Great Men project, for example, can be much better described as starting a conversation with boys on the subject of gender equality, and enabling them to articulate their own thoughts and feelings, than any kind of ‘indoctrination’, or attack on boys.
As it happens, on the day that Bell’s article appeared, I was visiting a Youth Offending Service in south London, to talk about our recent research on the role of gender in work with vulnerable boys and young men. I was heartened to hear that reading about the research had inspired staff to organise their summer programme for boys around the theme ‘What is a man?’ They’ll be using art and media to encourage teenage boys at risk of offending to explore their thoughts and feelings about masculinity. For young men trying to work out their own sense of identity, while subject to powerful peer pressures to conform to kinds of ‘hypermasculinity’ that are damaging not only to girls and women, but also to their own wellbeing, this kind of work can be invaluable. Indoctrination? Hardly.
A final point. Dan Bell is the Features Editor of the online magazine, insideMan, which claims to promote ‘pioneering conversations about men and boys’. In some cases it undoubtedly does. But just as often it provides space for articles that appear to be part of an anti-feminist backlash and men’s rights agenda. When I was invited to write for the magazine about the Helsinki seminar mentioned above, some of the comments I received in response certainly fell into that category. So yes, we should certainly ask questions about the motives and agendas of organisations that are invited into schools to deliver moral messages to young people. But we should ask the same questions about the writers of newspaper columns, especially when they appear to select the most salacious and sensational examples in order to tar all anti-sexist initiatives with the same brush, and risk undermining the excellent and necessary work that many are doing to support boys in exploring positive ways of being a man.