The Unspeakable, that is to say, evil acts of murdering twenty children and six of their defenders has left me–like everyone else, the president included–speechless. Evil does that. Awe does that. As poet Adrianne Rich put it, “Language cannot do everything—chalk it on the walls where the dead poets lie in their mausoleums.”
But we do communicate in words and after the shock wears down a bit, one struggles for understanding and for learning from this horrible event. Politicians are beginning to talk again about gun regulation vs NRA and especially regarding automatic weapons, which are the weapons the killer used on his mother and all the kids. And that conversation is long overdue.
But I want to talk about something else. If you look at all the perpetrators of this kind of violence whether in Aurora or Happy Valley or Virginia Tech or Tucson or Newtown what they all have in common is this: They were all young men. What is it about young men that makes them so prone to such violence?
I recall once being at a gathering and sitting with Melidome Some, the spiritual teacher from West Africa, when a young man got up and started raving and ranting at everyone in the room. Melidome leaned over and said to me: “See what happens when young men do not have rites of passage.” Melidoma should know for if you are familiar with his story, in a nutshell it is this: He was kidnapped as a boy from his tribal village and taken many miles away to a Jesuit seminary where other boys had also been kidnapped. He received a fine education but at the age of sixteen he threw one of the Jesuits out a second story window. Conclusion? He didn’t have a “vocation” to be a Jesuit. He left and walked home, a very long hike through jungles. When he arrived he was very angry—not just at the Jesuits but at his tribe who never came to rescue him. Two years of anger and hostility in the tribe passed and finally the elders came to him and said: “You are impossible to live with. You are full of rage. This year you will take the rite of passage you missed with the thirteen year olds.” So, at the belated age of 18, he took that rite of passage which was quite severe; of the sixty-five youths who went into the jungle with five elders, four or five did not survive it.
But Melidoma did survive it and it made him a man who could deal with his rage but also his vocation, how he was to be an active and contributing member of his community or tribe. Much of Melidoma’s teaching is about the value of a rite of passage especially for boys. And what happens when rites of passage are absent.
Part of a rite of passage is leaving one’s home, one’s mother and one’s father, as it is a presage to becoming a mother or father one day. It also includes incorporating one’s own capacity for motherhood internally instead of projecting it on to women in one’s life. It is of significance I believe that Adam Lonza shot his mother first. This woman who did so much for him, who even home schooled him as a sophomore, who taught him how to use weapons (in what seems like a clumsy but well meaning way to appeal to his ‘masculinity’) was the first to receive his full frontal rage. All the adults he encountered at the school whom he shot were women—the principal, the psychologist, the teachers. And they all bravely stood up to him to defend the children.
Education has become very womanly in our culture. In California today, 84% of teachers are women. Where are the men? Men are less and less drawn to teaching because the pay is so modest but also because as youngsters they rarely see men as teachers and educators. See, The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do by Peg Tyre. The effort to define educational success by exams feeds girls more than boys who more often then not learn by doing and by bodily action rather than by sitting in desks seven hours a day and, if fidgety, being diagnosed with a “disease” and often given drugs for it. Boys are two times more likely to be “diagnosed” with so-called “attention-deficit-disorder” than are girls. And four and a half times more likely to be expelled from school. 58% of college graduates in America last year were women and only 42% were men and the gap keeps growing. Four times more teenage boys commit suicide than teen-age girls.
Furthermore, the late and great E.F. Schumacher wrote that the number one purpose of education, the bottom line so to speak, is about values. How at home is our education system in talking about Values? If we are not talking about values, then we are presupposing that the consumer-driven, “get to the top” value system of our culture is reasonable and sustainable and healthy and indeed what life is all about. Many people complain that in a pluralistic society and education you cannot talk about values because religious differences (or the difference of having no religion) arise. But I have laid out a value system in my book called The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human, that I have tested in public schools and that has been appreciated by Muslims and Christians, Jews and atheists. I call it the “10 C’s” and I think it takes us beyond religious differences and into a deep conversation about shared values. I offer the list here: Cosmology (and ecology); Creativity; Contemplation (calming the reptilian brain); Compassion; Chaos; Critical thinking; Courage; Community; Ceremony and celebration; Character development.
Among the values we need to talk about is this: What constitutes healthy manhood? When is a boy a man? What is the meaning and meanings of being a man? Is carrying a gun manliness? Is power over others manliness? Is being number one manliness? Is angry revenge manliness? Our culture and its promotional industries offer their answers to these questions but I have tried to address the deeper and more archetypal meanings of masculinity in my book, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors for Awakening the Sacred Masculine. We need to be teaching such matters in our so-called school system. We are rarely doing so.
I am not just talking about teachers when I talk about education. I once sat at the headquarters of WASC, the body that accredits all the schools including universities of Western United States, and listened to the head honcho tell me: “If you had $five million your new school would be on a fast track for accreditation. We just did that for a fundamentalist college that had $five million in cash.” I said to myself, “so if Hitler walked in the room with $five million in his pocket his school would be accredited on the spot?” No values. None whatsoever. But the values of the “market place,” of consumer capitalism. Shame, shame shame. Education needs reinventing from the inside out. Who accredits our so-called accrediting bodies? And what values are discussed and/or taken for granted there? Are any of the “10 C’s” in the mix? And if not, why not? I was struck at that meeting that the head honcho never asked a single question about the content of our education, that is, about values.
And so, while reflection on this horrible event continues, I recommend not only a discussion about ‘gun regulations’ but going much deeper. Our schools are failing us in so many ways. Our families and religions (whose rites of passage have become quite wimpy) are failing us also. We need to consider the multiple ways in which youngsters learn, especially boys, and quit cutting money for the arts and sports. We need to address: 1) rites of passage and 2) Creativity as being at least as important as exam preparation and testing and 3) Values including the values education itself is committed to (is the Great Unspoken Value to make us all Consumers in a consumer-driven economic system?) and 4) what masculinity (and womanhood) means.
To do these things is not only to create “violence prevention”; it is also to create a new society. One that puts community before competition and values of justice and sustainability before those of materialism and its very narrow version of success. One that honors stillness and our capacity for contemplation and not just “racing to the top” and competition. One that values Creativity over memorizing answers to tests.
Matthew Fox is author of 30 books on culture and spirituality and is visiting scholar at the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe, New Mexico.