Maritzburg College Speech Day
Friday 14th October
“When we were thirteen or so my friends and I had this game. We’d go down to the basement where it was completely dark, and each of us would find a hiding place, Then someone would start the game by turning out the lights, and we’d try to hit each other with darts. You’d think you heard someone make a noise, and you’d come out of your hiding place throwing darts – but cringing because you were fair game too. There would be complete silence, and then you’d hear someone yell “Ow!” One time we turned on the light and a guy had a dart dangling from his cheek, just below his eye.
After that we wore goggles.” - Charlie, New York 1960, quoted by Michael Gurian
Michael Gurian calls this boy energy. With the influx of testosterone (up to 6 shots a day) perhaps boy energy is at its greatest during the ages of 13-18. I still vividly remember twelve years ago as I stood transfixed near the side of a field watching as seemingly fully grown men launched into each other at what I later learnt was the 1XV rugby trials. It was my first immersive experience of a largely all-male environment and I recall thinking what possible need could these boys have of a school counsellor.
This energy can also be quite creative. Last year some of our boys told me they had an app that recreated the sound of the school bell that they could use to get out of certain classes early. A few years ago when a game called Counter Strike was very popular some boys managed to create the entire Michaelhouse as a virtual backdrop to the game. The problem is perhaps that we focus so much on this energy that we think that is all boys are. You, young men, are far more than that though. Over time as a school counsellor I have realised how difficult it is being a young man today. Isaiah says “…even youths grow tired and weary and young men stumble and fall.”
We live in a world of change. I have more computational power in my pocket than was used to put a space craft on the moon. With augmented reality I can play Pokémon Go, which coincidently reached is first 50 million downloads in only 19 days. To put that in context, it took TV 13 years to reach an audience of 50 million, the iPhone 3 years, Instagram 2 years and Angry Birds Space, 35 days. Change is so quick that it is estimated that 65% of people in school will hold jobs that don’t even exist yet.
South Africa is influenced by all these factors yet has its own issues to deal with. It is in a state of flux. We don’t even know if there will be tertiary education available next year. You as matrics head off into an uncertain future, but one thing we can be fairly certain of is that it will not be easy. There are two things though that I believe will stand you, as young men, in good stead and keep you in good shape as you leave this place. These are the two points that I want to share with you now.
Firstly I want you to be educated.
Last year I visited the National Gallery in London. I noticed a group of seven or eight young men and one young woman. All were smartly dressed, the men in open collar shirts with clean cut hair. One of the young men was standing in front of the group explaining the painting behind him. About 15 minutes later in a different part of the gallery I noticed the same group again. This time a different young man was talking about another painting. The third time they appeared yet another of the group was doing the talking. At the end of his speech, an older woman who was clearly in charge of the group gave them some feedback and then sent them off with instructions to meet later at the Noel Coward Theatre.
She sat down next to me and so I took the opportunity to ask her who the group of young people were and what they were doing. She explained that they were a group of soldiers who has been identified as having leadership potential by their senior officers. They were up for their board interviews to undergo officer training at Sandhurst but the army had recognised that because this particular group of people had not been to university they were at a serious disadvantage to the other candidates. The army then provided, at its own expense a 6 week ‘crash’ education course, involving current affairs, global politics, history, public speaking and a three day trip to London to look at art, plays, museums and the like. In other words the British Army recognise the value of a broad education for their leaders over and above training.
What does this mean for you? It means don’t restrict what you do after school to training alone. Many people even make the mistake of going to University to be trained. Jonathan Jansen was speaking to Russell Loubser the then head of the Jo’burg Stock Exchange, about how universities must train students for the workplace. Loubser replied, “No professor," he said, "you educate them. I train them."
In other words training happens when you get into the work place. Education is what should be happening at University level. Dr Max Price, the Vice Chancellor at UCT says, “You are going to live to around 100 years and will have three to four career changes over the course of your life. However you will only be full time at university once. You need to do a degree that offers you a broad education and a good foundation.” Dr Price actually advises that you should not do the BCom or the LLB (Law) degree in the belief that is too narrow, suggesting instead either the BSc or a BA as your foundational degree as that will give you skills that will last across a long period of time and that are transferable across a wide range of careers.
The BA comes in for a lot of stick of course. You may have heard a number of jokes around it, “…what's the difference between a BA degree and a large pizza?" A large pizza can feed a family.” Such comments are built on the misunderstanding that you do a degree to get trained as opposed to educated. As Jonathan Jansen says, “A good BA would have given you the foundations of learning across disciplines like sociology, psychology, politics, anthropology and languages. A good BA would have given you access to critical thinking skills, appreciation of literature, understanding of cultures, the uses of power, the mysteries of the mind, the organisation of societies, the complexities of leadership, the art of communication and the problem of change. A good BA would have taught you something about the human condition, and so something about yourself. In short, a good BA degree would have given you a solid education that forms the basis for workplace training.”
If you are not going to Varsity, then take a course, read a book, watch a play, have a conversation, study a biography, meet people who are different to you, take any opportunity you get to travel. Warren Buffet, one of the world’s most successful business men, when asked what the ingredients of his success were, said “As a child and even today, I read voraciously, I read everything in sight”. His friend Charlie Munger said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time.”
Not everyone will get the opportunity to study at University, but the point is, take every opportunity you can to get yourself educated in whatever way that you can so that you can be men of understanding, thought and culture and that will serve you well in whatever field you are in.
Secondly, I want you to seriously consider what it means to be a man.
Today it seems that his journey to manhood is fraught with difficulty and danger. Steve Biddulph, a family therapist in his book, ‘Manhood’, says many men struggle with close relationships – 40% of marriages break down and divorces are initiated by women 4 out of 5 times. South Africa has one of the highest rates of father absence in the world (Stats SA, 2011). Internationally, one in three women experiences violence at the hands of a male partner (State of the World's Fathers report, 2015), and rates of domestic violence are very high in SA. We know too about the high incidence of rape in our country.
One night a wife found her husband standing over their new baby’s cot. Silently she watched him. As he stood looking at his sleeping, new-born infant she saw on his face a mixture of emotions: disbelief, doubt, delight, amazement, enchantment, scepticism.
Touched by this unusual display and the deep emotions it aroused, she wandered what he was feeling. With eyes glistening, she slipped her are around her husbands.
‘A penny for your thoughts’, she whispered.
‘I just don’t see how anybody can make a cot like this for only R 349.00’
Men have just as great an array of emotions as women. The problem is of course that society, through a complex but thorough process, teaches us as males, from an early age that emotions just aren’t manly. The more a boy is told this, the more stressed he becomes by emotional responses, his own or others. This will cause him to avoid and/or bury emotions. One does not have to look too hard to see the devastation this causes in relationships and the family, the building block of society.
Why is this? Well according to Joe Ehrmann a former NFL defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts, it is because boys and young men get the wrong messages about what it is to be a man. Joe says you can narrow it down to three key messages or myths about masculinity that are out there.
- The first is that to be a man, you must have athletic ability. You must be good at sport and/or being physically strong. The bigger and stronger you are the more of a man you are. Any cover of Men’s Health will tell that story.
- Secondly, you must be an economic success. You must compete and dominate in the boardroom and in business. Money and wealth is a sign that you are a successful man. Movies such as ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ make this point well.
- Thirdly, the message seems to be, that being a man involves sexual conquest. A recent example is New Zealand scrum half Aaron Smith, who was caught cheating on his partner when seen disappearing into a public toilet with a young woman just before catching his flight to Durban. Also in the last few weeks we have seen Donald Trump’s 2005 leaked comments, where he boasted about sexually harassing/groping women.
So what does it mean to be a man? Joe Ehrman said, “One, it's your capacity to love and to be loved. Masculinity ought to be defined in terms of relationships. Second thing, it ought to be defined by commitment to a cause.” In terms of relationships you are going to need other people in your life and if you are going to be good at getting on with other people you are going to have to get skilled at understanding other people’s emotions and understanding and expressing your own.
In his article ‘Perils of a Macho Culture, in which he tackles the high incidence of rape in South Africa, Jonathan Jansen says to fathers, “First, teach your boy to cry from an early age. Learning to express emotion in a safe and positive way, rather than through aggression and retaliation, goes a long way to healing the woundedness of men in our society. He goes on to say,” reprimand bad male behaviour in public so your children know there is right and wrong.”
Last week Donald Trump defended his comments about groping women as ‘locker room talk’. A range of sports stars called him out saying that such comments had no place anywhere including changing rooms. The New Zealand Rugby Union suspended Aaron Smith for his misconduct. Holding other men accountable for their actions towards others is something that is needed to change a macho culture.
So as we come to the conclusion, where does that leave us? Joe Ehrman’s second point about being a man was about commitment to a cause. So he says, “All of us have a responsibility to give back, to make the world more fair, more just, more hospitable for every human being.” I would like to rephrase that and summarise my talk today by saying we need to focus on being significant rather than successful. Making a pile of money, getting a ball over a line, between the posts, into a hole in the ground, might, might, make you successful but it won’t make you significant. For the All Blacks winning 17 games straight makes them successful but it does not change the world or make it better in any way (in fact for us here in SA, it made life considerably worse last Saturday). It is insignificant.
Mother Teresa once said that if you want to change the world, go home and love your family. It is a good place to start being significant. Make a difference in the lives of those around you, whom God has put in your path. Hopefully, your career, will also be an opportunity to significantly better the lives of those around you. ‘Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall’.
You are going out into a difficult world and into a nation that faces significant problems. If you face up to those challenges and aim to be significant, you are going to trip up. There is a saying that those who haven’t failed are those who haven’t tried. But you are not on your own. Isaiah goes on to say that yes, young men stumble and fall, “but those that wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will rise on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
That is my prayer as you go out into your world as educated, relationally strong and significant young men.