As a scho
ol teacher and then headmaster in the same school for 33 years, I have seen hundreds of Icaruses burning to try it, fly it, smoke it, pinch it, jump down from the skylights into the diving well of the school.

These are the boys, not the merely well behaved, that I have learned to trust.

Richard Hawley
is the Headmaster of Cleveland's University School, where he began teaching in the fall of 1968. Mr. Hawley is also the founding president of the International Boys' Schools Coalition and has written more than a dozen works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including the novel Headmaster's Papers, which won a number of literary prizes. His non-fiction works include Boys Will Be Men and Papers From The Headmaster: Reflections on a World Fit for Children.

A former faculty member at Middlebury College's Breadloaf Writers Conference, he lives with his wife and three daughters in Hunting Valley, Ohio.
Contact Richard Hawley at:


Summer/Fall 2001

A Man's Life:
When Men Are Free to be Good
The most passionate working men, the most devoted fathers and husbands, the men most willing to serve without material reward, have been those who, as schoolboys, were most inclined to press safe boundaries.

by Richard Hawley

One of the features of a genuinely good deed is that it is deliberated on and freely chosen, not compelled. Carrying out such a deed in the face of risk and discomfort has long been considered admirable, even heroic.

At this historical moment we stand in some danger of forgetting this feature of goodness, especially as it bears on male goodness and decency.

Understandably, if not always wisely, cries have arisen over the past half century to save the future of the planet from the continued ravages of what has come to be called the Patriarchy. World wars unprecedented in their destructive sweep, genocidal holocaust, environmental despoliation-this is not a cultural record easy to defend. Freely arrived at or not, there have been too many terrible choices. Nor can it be denied that they have been men's choices, reflecting a world in which men composed and directed the world's political-military-industrial complex. Indeed all the past century's fascists and totalitarians were men, as were the forces that served them.

The understandable error is to see male strength and passionate resolve as the heart of the problem and thus to try to eliminate those qualities. The error, of course, lies in equating strength and resolve with their misapplication. To commit this error blinds one to the fact that male strength and resolve also directed the past century's victories over fascism and totalitarianism.

So we must be more discerning. We must understand that the aim of culture should not be to weaken men to the point of harmlessness; the aim should be-and historically has always been-to educate their strength and resolve to great and humane purposes.

The future of civilization may depend on seeing this distinction. Again, the goodness, the value, in the resolve to serve humane purposes lies in deliberately and freely choosing to do so. Yet to recognize the value of deliberate choice requires the recognition of a still more anterior value. This value is as elusive to define as it is crucial to a man's full realization. It might well be called radical freedom, if that is helpful in defining a condition in which one is fully aware of being outside the constraints of any learned or traditional expectation. It is an interior territory expressed metaphorically as deep wilderness or open sea. It is the territory in which, at least for the moment, one has the range to do anything, to indulge the cruelest perversion-or to save the polis. It is an Archimedean point outside of action from which meaningful action is conceived.

It is from out of this wild state that the moral agent steps forward to make socially valued gestures. It is from such territory that the atomic bomb researcher Louis Slottin stepped after making a deadly laboratory mistake at Los Alamos; within seconds of his error he manipulated the radioactive material before him with his bare hands so that only he, and none of his fellow researchers, would perish.

Louis Slottin is a genuine historical figure. He made this beautiful and fatal gesture in 1946. But the condition out of which he moved—that radical freedom—is utterly out of time. God alone knows what was ringing in Slottin's ears as he resolved to act selflessly in crisis, but the ring is familiar. It is likely to visit each of us at least once. It is the wildness stirring young David's heart as he declines King Saul's armor and heads off with his sling and handful of stones in the direction of the Philistine champion, Goliath. It is the wildness ringing in Odysseus's ears as he decides not to avoid the sirens and their fatal song, but lash himself to the mast and hear it through.

A college friend of mine played center on the football team. A little small for the position, he was badly beaten up on most game days. The prospect literally nauseated him as each fall weekend approached. He also confessed to me that he knew he would be battered less if he simply snapped the ball and, in effect, lay down. It was when he carried out his assignment-snapped the ball and reared up to block-that he took hit after bone-crushing hit. He knew, in his deep freedom, exactly how to avoid the pain, and each week he reared up to receive it.

The interior wild from which we make our most consequential choices, precisely because it is wild, is dangerous; it is by no means reliable.

There are, of course, heart-warming stories emanating from that wild: Huck Finn deciding finally he will endure what he believes could be eternal hellfire in exchange for the continued liberty of his Negro raft-mate Jim. But the interior wild is not a safe, heartwarming place; truth be told, we are apt to slip and perish in our wild freedom.

We are especially prone to do so when we are young. This would explain the enduring power of the mythological figures of Icarus and Daedalus. In the interior wild, impulses are fully felt; they can talk back to caution and restraint. Icarus chose his fatal flight just as surely as Lindbergh chose his successful one. The moral point of the Icarus myth is not to keep impulsive youth on a short leash, although the myth does raise the practical issue of what is likely to happen if youth is allowed access to deep freedom.

As a school teacher and then headmaster in the same school for thirty-three years, I have seen hundreds of Icaruses burning to try it, fly it, smoke it, pinch it, jump down from the skylights into the diving well of the school. Their ears have been ringing. Sometimes they are ringing with the lure of pleasure, infamy, fast gain, short cuts, an easy way out. They could do it, they could really do it, and it would be utterly, perhaps thrillingly wrong—yet sometimes they declined, did better, did right. These are the boys, not the merely well behaved, that I have learned to trust.

If there is no genuine moral action without wild freedom, and if wild freedom promises no safe outcomes, there will be abiding worry and doubt. Worry and doubt may mount to the point that some will want to deny access to the wild state-or even deny its existence. It is not hard to see this tendency at work, especially as it attempts to correct, re-engineer, medicate, and otherwise rein in men from excursions into their deep natures.

Again, de-naturing or softening the male is not a promising remedy for problematic male behavior. Not only does such weakening prevent men from realizing themselves as moral beings, it also does not, by any observable measure, appear to work. Elementary school classrooms "sanitized" of martial or otherwise heroic male images, symbols, and stories have no more produced a generation of kinder, gentler boys than have highly elaborate sexual harassment policies and "speech codes" created a golden age of civility in colleges and universities.

Indeed, when the dust settles on the cultural record of the past half century, it will, I believe, be noted with interest that the combined forces of so-called "political correctness" were accompanied not by a reduction, but by a sickening eruption of male aggression, incivility, and misogyny. While historical causation is not always easy to establish, it is past time that consideration be given to the kinds of desperate expression that arise when one's deepest nature is denied.

When the established culture denies what is deep and elemental within, the ensuing gestures of complaint are not pretty. There arises something like a mighty, vulgar, "Oh, yeah?" And we are apt to get comics like Andrew Dice Clay, poets like Dr. Dre, citizen-soldiers like Timothy McVeigh. The ugliest "male" behavior may be due less to uncontained wildness, than to the denial of the wildness from which visions of great beauty and saving civility have always sprung.

From my perspective, the most passionate and convinced working men, the most devoted fathers and husbands, the men most willing to serve without material reward have been those who, as schoolboys, were most inclined to press safe boundaries.

If we are to be fully human, or ever good, we must acknowledge at least the internal reality of wild freedom. Moreover, we must be on the alert for those who would deny access to it. Those who would deny access include all who would prevent the telling of true stories. A boy's sense of deep freedom cannot be affirmed by Huck Finn's if schools ban the book.

For indeed, Huckleberry Finn has been banned in some schools, ostensibly because the racism realistically depicted (and which Huck heroically transcends) is too abrasive for some contemporary sensibilities. More often than it is banned, Huckleberry Finn is simply excluded from the syllabus. The same cast of mind that is nervous about cutting Huck loose on the Mississippi is also worried about Harry Potter's unfettered wizardry-to the extent that, at least in South Carolina, he is forbidden in the schools.

Historically, males have tacitly-and only rarely explicitly-reminded themselves of their deep nature in voluntary associations, whether schools, clubs, fraternities, or scouting groups. The era that has rushed to break up such associations has been motivated by more than perceived economic or social inequities. There has been a deeply rooted but unacknowledged assumption of male toxicity. If they are allowed to band together, they will get worse.

But even more than his ability to associate freely, the male's inclination to restorative solitude has been held in suspicious regard. The age of Togetherness with its presumptive social and psychological benefits has not looked kindly on anybody's wandering off from the herd to reflect.

British psychiatrist Anthony Storr makes a telling point about the value of solitaries and solitude. In his book, Solitude, he set out to demonstrate the positive, even essential, value of solitude in life. He illustrated his theme by drawing on the lives of famous solitaries, such as Gibbon, Locke, Newton, and Pascal. And while he did not set out to investigate male behavior, he inadvertently did so, as nearly all the world's notable solitaries have been men.

Moreover, male solitude, like male pleasure in association, is not a defensive drawing apart, not a retreat, not a failure or fault. It is rather, a re-immersion in that realm prior to culture and company that I have called wild freedom.
Entering that realm has always been a reunion, not an escape. Storr cites Admiral Richard Byrd's own account of his 1934 expedition to Antarctica:
Took my daily walk at 4 p.m. today in 89 of frost...I paused to listen to the silence...The day was dying, the night was being born-but with great peace. Here were imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it!

...It was enough to catch the rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man's oneness with the universe. The conviction came that rhythm was too orderly, too harmonious, too perfect to be a product of blind chance...It was a feeling that transcended reason; that went to the heart of man's despair and found it groundless.

This is the voice of a man alone, alone in the wild. He is not in retreat; he is rather in the fullest communion with his world and with his kind. More important, he is a man we can count on.

Let's, please, make room for him.

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