Crowther Centre blog
We know reading is good for us. Reading for pleasure, particularly fiction, is correlated with higher standardised test scores across all academic subjects, including maths (yes!).
Reading builds vocabulary, which in turn improves comprehension. Readers, not surprisingly, tend to write better than non-readers. But can reading also help us foster a culture of positive masculinity?
There is some evidence that reading promotes empathy and tolerance. And there is no doubt that reading and telling stories teach us about the world. In the Afterword to his novel Ransom, author David Malouf explains that his ‘primary interest is in storytelling itself – why stories are told and why we need to hear them’.
In our English classes, when we read with the boys, we are giving them the opportunity to explore their world from different perspectives, and through this, enable them to start to form a sense of who they are and what they stand for.
Our Year 12s, for example, are studying Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. This novel was published in 1958, just before Nigeria’s independence.
It explores the devastating effects of trying to ‘live up’ to narrow, ‘traditional’ notions of masculinity. Of his main character, Okonkwo, Achebe writes, ‘Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.’
Through the depiction of Okonkwo, boys can see the limitations of a life motivated primarily by ensuring one’s true self is hidden at all costs. He is unable to form real relationships as intimacy requires the courage to be vulnerable.
Ultimately, the boys see Okonkwo as a tragic figure; isolated, prone to bouts of violence and subsequent self-loathing, unable to live up to his own unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a man.
Another Year 12 text, David Malouf’s retelling of The Iliad, Ransom, explores the power of authenticity in a different way. When King Priam travels to the camp of the great warrior Achilles to ask for the return of his son Hector’s body, Priam’s power lies not in his position, or dignity, or wealth or any other external trappings.
Instead, it lies in his willingness to show his humanity. The great king gets down on his knees, ‘just as you see me, just as I am, to ask you, man to man, as a father, for the body of my son’.
When Priam finds the courage to expose himself as ‘one poor mortal’, Achilles is forced to recognise their shared vulnerability and return Hector’s body for a proper burial.
Reading, telling stories and talking together, allow our boys to experience the world from the perspective of others. They are able to feel the emotions of another human being. They learn that there are other ways of being.
And maybe, hopefully, they learn that at the heart of positive masculinity is the courage to be truly authentic; to be enough ‘just as I am’.