I do not know Bret Kavanaugh, nor do I have any idea what Georgetown Prep, his high school, was like. I attended an all-male boarding school (The Hill School, in Pottstown, PA) and graduated in 1978. The school taught me explicit and implicit values. What I remember most about my late adolescence was that the values I was taught were not enough for me, that I needed bigger lessons, more durable lessons, lessons that would help me grow up and become a better man. When I decided to apply to and accept admission to Swarthmore College, some of my classmates teased me because The Insider’s Guide to Colleges mentioned that Swarthmore had a gay student organization. The teasing stung, but I knew that one of the reasons I chose Swarthmore was because it was a more open community, and that it would expose me to ideas that were foreign to an all-male campus.
We were never taught explicitly about what women were like, and perhaps that’s not a surprise given that it was the late 70s, and teaching boys—boys who lived at school with each other and without women—would’ve been tantamount to a revolution. What we learned about women came mainly from pornography or word-of-mouth; neither of those sources were particularly well informed. The female characters in our literature classes were the attendant characters in Shakespeare, The Glass Menagerie, Emperor Jones, and later in an Ethics class, the mother in Mishima’s Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Certainly there was literature that would’ve helped address some of these issues: Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Virginia Woolf, others; but we stuck to books like Billy Budd.
On reflection, maybe there were enough lessons in those books to teach us about how we should behave in the world. The lessons of the handsome sailor have always resonated with me. There was—is—a better way to be. There was—is—also a darker impulse, based in part on jealousy, and then something unmistakably evil. Each of us carries a Claggart—a heart of darkness—in us, whether we like it or not, and if we don’t wrestle with that presence in our daily lives, and set it back where belongs, then we will be susceptible to those darker impulses.
But how helpful it would’ve been, to learn about how women thought, not just about sex, but about how they felt about their lives, and about us, and what they expected from us. Those lessons came later, and not easily. Maybe they don’t come easily for anyone, whether they spent their adolescence in an all-male environment or not.
The first yearbook I saw at my school featured Christian Nestell Bovee’s quotation: “Our first love and last love is self love.” I’m not sure whether the boys who chose that quotation meant it as an ironic statement or an actual claim of principle. But we were taught to love ourselves. That could be a selfish kind of love, when you are at the center of your own universe all the time. It took me years to knock myself out of that center, to learn how to lead as a form of service, not simply a form of heroic self-proclamation. We spend so much time as adolescents and young men planting our flags declaring ourselves, and declaring our desires, that we forget that there are other flags, other desires, and other selves beside our own. We think our anger is the most important anger. Our selfishness the most important selfishness. Our success the most important success. And of course, and in some ways it is. But when we live that way, we don’t think and we don’t consider. We become islands.
And so we end up 17, thinking that we can have whatever we take for ourselves. Or we end up 35, or 50, or 70, with that same notion stuck in our brains. We enter a kind of Hobbesian world, where the strongest take what they want from those who are weak, where life is short, nasty, and brutish unless you are strong enough, successful enough, rich enough, to define the world on your own terms. The only way to succeed against such impulses is to be like Billy Budd the handsome sailor, excellent on your own terms in a way that is beyond grosser manly definition. A glowing exemplar. Untouchable. And yet, fatally flawed.
In time I would learn other lessons, and they were among the most valuable lessons I ever learned. I learned to complicate my world, to see beyond my immediate desires, to see into the world. I learned this from teachers who were women from classmates who were women, from the authors who were women, from philosophers for women. They deepened my understanding of the world.
I cannot help but wonder what my life, and the lives of the young men with whom I went to school, would have been like if we had received those lessons then, from our male teachers. I am well aware that some people—and not just men—will hear lessons from women differently, less seriously, because it is not a male voice speaking, because it is not a voice that is endowed with wealth, and worldly success. This is a loss, a fatal and horrible loss. Our world is made up so much complexity so much richness so much that is valuable. When we exclude ourselves from seeing these things because we are men, who once were boys, we fail. We fail the women in our lives, and we fail ourselves
I don’t know Bret Kavanaugh, but I know something of the world of boys and men. We have an obligation to be better, to expect more, to not hide behind the “boys will be boys” mantra of the excusers and justifiers. We did learn to be better. And we did not. We own this one, and so does he.