|Our Society Does Not Need a New Tradition of Passage to Manhood
Most often, manhood is interpreted as the condition of being an adult male as distinguished from a child or female with the characteristics of manliness. Historically, most societies celebrated a transition from adolescence to manhood with a variety of rites or initiations. Michael Thompson in his essay “Passage to Manhood” raises the same issue. A consultant, child psychologist, and an author, Thompson starts the essay by describing his conversation on the plane with a 17-year- old boy heading for a summer camp. The boy claims that the challenges he is going to meet in summer camp will help him discover his manhood in community and become a man. The writer wonders if a fifty-day canoeing trip can be considered a passage to manhood. He concludes his essay that any test that requires commitment and courage, anything one does out-of-doors that strips one down to the essentials: safety, companionship, a shared sense of mission will force adolescents to think what it actually means to be a man. He also expresses regret that American culture has no universal ritual for helping boys move from boyhood to manhood. However, our society does not need any ritual or initiation for a boy to become a man. Transition to manhood should be decided by every man on an individual basis, and only the individual has the right to consider himself manly enough or mature enough to belong to the manhood.
Thompson writes that doing well in school and having bright college prospects doesn’t hold the key to manhood, “School didn’t address his hunger to be a man, not even playing sports.” The emphasis on “hunger to be a man” focuses on the wish of an adolescent to be officially recognized to become a man. Our society has quite a variety of sports that helps our boys acquire such important skills as team spirit, leadership, and responsibility. Moreover, there is a very popular organization of Boys Scouts, which helps our boys grew into responsible men by meeting challenges and acquiring such important skills as basic survival skills, overcoming difficulties, and many other skills important on the path to manhood. Completing the challenges helps our boys boost their self-esteem and be become truly responsible men. It also provides our boys with male leadership on the path to manhood.
Thompson writes, “Every boy yearns to be a man, and traditional societies always took boys away from their parents to pass an initiation rite. We no longer have such rituals, but boys still wonder: What is the test, where do I find it, how do I pass it, and who will recognize that moment when I pass from boyhood to manhood.” However, even if our boys wonder about the test, there’s no such test in life. Though it is a well-known fact that historically, most societies celebrated a transition from adolescence to manhood with a variety of rites or initiations, close look at these rites will make one shudder in disgust and question the very sensibility of these rites, where boys experience pain, have to perform dangerous actions that may result in death, and even commit murders. For example, for ancient Spartans, becoming a soldier was the only way one could be recognized as a man. Military training began at age seven when boys would be taken from their families and placed in the Agoge system. For the next 10 years Spartan boys learned the skills necessary to become a trained killing machine. When a Spartan youth turned 18, he completed his training. To graduate and be recognized as a man in his community, the boy had to undergo a cruel rite of passage called the krypteia. The young man would be sent to the countryside with only a knife and his wits. His object? To kill as many state-owned slaves, called helots, without being detected and return to his school in one piece. The young men would often hide during the day and make their attacks at night. In order to complete this rite of passage successfully, the young man had to call on all the training he received in the Agoge. After successfully completing the krypteia, a Spartan man was expected to marry and continue killing for the state. It is just one historical example, but the one that makes us wonder if one should learn to kill to be considered man. I don’t think so.
Thompson also writes that “We fail to provide a meaningful, challenging path that speaks to the souls of a majority of boys.” According to him, rites of passage were clearly delineated in nearly every culture as one of the community’s most important rituals and hence our society also needs to come up with our rite of passage to give our boys bragging rights to call themselves men. The question, however, if our society needs to follow historical examples. Lots of such rites were to make boys go through pain and danger without demonstrating emotions or expressing fear. Do our boys need to experience unnecessary pain like the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood of the Australian Mardudjara Aborigines, called circumcision and sub-incision where boys had to go through lots of pain? Shall we put our boys in danger by requiring them to hunt and kill an animal, like the rite of passage to manhood, Maasai Lion Hunt, in Kenya and Tanzania? Our society does not need heinous and dangerous rites to tell our boys to go through to become and be recognized by the society as men.
Thompson is absolutely wrong that our society should provide a clear-cut path to manhood. There’s plenty of evidence in a great number of historical societies where boys have to go through torture, pain, danger, and even be accidentally killed. Yes, we have to raise our boys to become responsible men, but our society does not need to submit our boys to cruel and dangerous rites to let them know they became men. Every boy will decide the moment of becoming a man individually, while sports and healthy physical activities may help our boys mature and acquire necessary skills to make a successful transition to manhood.