Our pursuit of success vs. our boys

By Jim Van Der Pol, Kerkhoven, Minnesota — We are not doing so well with our boys. I know this because I used to be one. Statistics says that boys are twice as likely as girls to suffer and die from physical abuse. They are four times as likely as girls to commit suicide. Learning disabled boys outnumber girls, two-to-one.

Simple observation tells us that most boys reach manhood able to express one emotion only, that being anger. Half of all marriages fail, and in far too many of those failed marriages, the man walks away from the children. Our incarceration rates are now approaching seven per thousand of population, up from a mere one per thousand just 30 years ago. The large majority of prisoners are male. Prison building is our other growth industry along with the construction of suburban McMansions. We have a big problem.

Michael Gurian says in his book The Wonder of Boys that boys are tribal. They need to work together in groups. They need to have a leader and be given the opportunity to lead, and they need to sacrifice for the good of the group. This seems right to me.

He goes on to say that they need three families, loosely defined as the nuclear (parents, primary caregivers, brothers and sisters) extended (aunts and uncles, grandparents, trusted teachers and friends) and the community (neighborhood, culture, church groups, government). It is obvious to any careful observer that our modern life, with its extreme emphasis on economic “success” and money, has pretty much destroyed the first, scattered the second, and twisted many elements of the third group into something that cannot be much good to anyone.

Gurian thinks we can glue these three “families” back together with the broken pieces we have lying around. To his credit, he knows that this repair job cannot take place unless we back away from our obsession with financial success. But he goes no further in exploring what that changed economy might look like, and what effects it would have on our lives together. He assumes that someone else, experts in the financial field I suppose, will see to that.

Well, if we look around, we will see there are no available experts, only us. We shall have to take up the effort ourselves, and see what we can make of it. For me, it can only start with my own growing up, a subject about which I have thought long and hard.

This farm, when I grew up on it in the fifties and sixties was, unbeknown to me, in the midst of transitioning from a traditional farm to a modern one. But it was early enough in the process that I still got to learn to work in the company of older men. I suffered all that raucous teasing, joke playing at my expense, abrupt ordering around and expectations that I would grow up enough to hold up my end that go with a boy doing vital work with uncles, grandfathers, fathers, neighbors and hired hands.

Little did I know this life was disappearing. I remember the growing shock as I got away from the farm and began encountering first a few, and then later a flood, of young men who not only didn’t know what their fathers did for a living, but didn’t much respect them for whatever they did do. Far too many of them were unable to respect themselves.

It is crucial that boys’ work with the older generations of males have economic value. Wendell Berry makes that point ring in many of his essays. My interest here is in how we begin to get to where we need to go from where we are.

Our usual way of dealing with the past is simply to dismiss it as sappy nostalgia. But in the case where we had something that worked, even for a minority, and we refuse to revisit it or take up the effort of reconstructing it because it is anti-modern or off-trend, we are well beyond sappiness. We are into the careless disposal of young people simply because we are too mentally and emotionally lazy to care. It ought to be obvious by now that the reduction of human meaning to the economic and the financial – those principles of which the modern society is so proud – is one of the most destructive forces we have ever unleashed upon ourselves.

The key insight is that we best bring about the future we want by living as if we were in that future now, in the present. I assume that an agriculture that causes its community to shrink, that degrades its environment, dilutes the quality of its food production, that destroys the families who farm, is itself a failure, no matter how rich a certain few farm operators get to be.

So a farmer who cares about this tremendous loss, this waste of boys, will need to take steps to see that what he does control moves him and, by extension, all of us, in a good direction. Farmers control businesses, and it is a common assumption in business that control of the health of the business comes through careful examination and change where appropriate in the expense column. Just as the money spent as the result of careful judgment has a tremendous impact on the bottom line, it also affects the mental and emotional health of those concerned with the business, the impact upon the environment and, I would suggest, the future for all people connected with that business, however loosely.

When a farmer looks at the purchase of any new technology, for instance, he would not often think that by doing so he is lining the pockets of the global economy, and that this is money leaving the community. If he finds another way to get some of the work done such as hiring a custom operator, changing farming practices to make heavy horsepower less necessary, or a change in the methods of the farm’s animal production, he may be able to change the farm toward a more people-, community- and, especially, kid-friendly operation.

We have long assumed that the move toward the future is a move toward technology. It is only lately that we have begun to see this also means a move away from on-farm management and toward centralized control. Now we must see it in a larger context as a move away from people as well, and especially the people that matter most: our neighbors, friends, and offspring.

The most important lines in the Schedule F are about custom hire, hired labor and the support of the farm’s people. It is in these areas we can most improve our farms’ financial health and the health of society at large, impacted as it is by everything we do on our farms. We can only save our boys – and girls, too, I suspect – by needing them. It is all about the choices we make.

Jim Van Der Pol grazes and direct-markets pork, chicken and beef from his farm near Kerkhoven, Minnesota.