Our theme this evening--“Manhood and Womanhood Today”--is undeniably vital and important. We’re reminded of this simply by looking at the news, reporting, and political opinion-making each day. More than this, if we have eyes to see and ears to listen, we realize that an emphasis on manhood and womanhood is everywhere in culture and literature, back even to the dawn of human cultures and civilizations.
Although the various origin stories of people groups are distinct, many share a focus on the first man and first woman, messages about their purposes, and suggestions about both potential rifts and paths toward harmony. The creation story of the Diné or Navajo, for example, shows the first man and first woman in conflict through a number of trials until they come to live together in harmony. The Judeo-Christian account of creation in Genesis goes beyond the goal of mere harmony to intimacy. It notes the not-goodness of man being alone and the creation of two complementary sexes, both made in God’s image. In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is asked about divorce, he draws on the Genesis account (“Have you not read?” he asks), and he emphasizes this picture of intimacy between man and woman in marriage.
Beyond reflecting on understandings of the origin of men and women, many people for centuries have emphasized important coming-of-age ceremonies for boys and girls, markers that help to truly make them men and women. Think of the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah for Jewish boys and girls, or the vision quest practiced by the Lakota Sioux and other Plains Indian tribes.
Through the ages, many works of literature and art--from plays of Shakespeare to popular western movies--have continued to focus our attention on what might at first seem to be a simple issue, but which is in fact quite complex--what it is to be a good man or a good woman.
But when we look at many areas of American life in our time, we find a curious thing. If you were to do a study of how American colleges and universities over the past two decades or so have addressed all the various issues relating to the broad topic of human sexuality, you’d find that a focus on manhood and womanhood is almost completely absent. There’s very little reverberation from what has intrigued untold millions about cultural origin stories and coming-of-age rituals, from the literature focused on manhood or womanhood that reaches campuses today.
What might explain this development? As I thought about this question recently, three possible explanations came to mind.
The first is that perhaps people believe that we’ve solved this issue by now. Maybe past generations of human beings needed to focus on characteristics of manhood and womanhood, noting both the potential for conflict and the paths toward flourishing together, but not us. Even as these words come out of my mouth, they do sound ridiculous, don’t they? Certainly, this possible explanation for our state of affairs doesn’t hold up.
A second possible explanation is that we believe that reflection on manhood and womanhood, on what it means to be a man or a woman, is not as important or relevant anymore. Perhaps we think this might have been a legitimate topic of interest for earlier ages, but not for us. If there’s anything to this in explaining our state of affairs, it’s a classic example of what’s been called “chronological snobbery.” We might even call such a perspective “cultural insensitivity” when we think about generations upon generations of Lakota elders and preachers and rabbis and mothers and fathers and readers of Shakespeare and Jane Austen and countless others who have thought it wise and profitable to think about the topic of manhood and womanhood within their communities.
This brings me to my third and final possible explanation as to why so little attention is paid to the topic of manhood and womanhood on college and university campuses in recent years. It’s because the topic is too controversial and divisive. It’s simply too hot, not worth the effort to try to address. I suspect this is probably the most influential of the three explanations I’ve noted here. I’ve experienced a little bit of this myself in recent weeks as I’ve spoken to people about this event. When matters relating to human sexuality come up today in much of the media, popular culture, and higher education, we’re accustomed to hearing about secondary or tertiary matters, such as gender, gender fluidity, notions of femininity and masculinity, stereotypes, and the like. We’re not as accustomed to hearing about essential, first-order matters like manhood and womanhood, despite our forebears for generations paying attention to them.
But trying to avoid the potential for controversy at all costs brings with it its own risks and dangers. One of them is the trend toward smaller, narrower, less consequential conversations targeted at narrower audiences that agree with us. Contemporary observers of higher education have noted this trend recently. With the opportunities and resources we’re given in the College Honors Program at Messiah College, we certainly try to push back against this unfortunate trend, and to strive toward the goal of truth-seeking conversations about matters of significance, including the topic of this evening’s panel discussion.
Although the roots of our theme run deep, we live in interesting and often changing times regarding the experiences of men and women and the relationships between them in all areas of life--personal, educational, and professional. In some areas, we see continuity with the past. The glass ceiling is still in place in parts of the corporate world and political system. Recent revelations from the #metoo movement have exposed men’s violence and callous mistreatment of women.
But we also see and experience sea change in this area. Women today outpace men at almost all levels of education. Working-class men are falling behind, disproportionately hurt by economic trends. Sex-segregated groups and schools are disappearing. The Boy Scouts are no more and Sweet Briar College is on life support. “Toxic masculinity” is the subject of heated debates. Polyamorous or open sexual relationships have public advocates. And marriage and fertility rates in the U.S. are both declining.
Certainly, we have much to talk about this evening, and two very well-suited panelists--Dr. Agnes Howard and Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar--to lead our conversation. We are grateful that they have come to seek with us.