Teenage boys will not be freed from the bog they are immured in by new-fangled modifications and medications, but by old-fashioned reason and remedies. Boys today suffer from despondency, lack of direction, and a masculine identity crisis, overwhelmed as they are by widespread feminization, relativism, pornography, and cultural collapse. The quandary is rooted in a neglect of male nature, and a return to real attentiveness is requisite before there can be any renewal in male character.
Meanwhile, boys remain under siege. They live virtual lives. They underachieve and underperform. They don’t go to college. The men they become are often crippled by passivity and insipidity, cheating church and country of priests, fathers, laborers, and leaders. One solution lies in making education lively enough to bring boys back to life. A revival of Catholic boarding schools for high-school age boys is central to this solution, for it allows life and education to be liturgical, imparting the greatest impetus, the truest direction, and the richest culture—which is the foundation of a happy life.
What Makes a Boarding School Good?
The field of education is thirsty for the wisdom of tradition. What is required is not necessarily holding to particular historical forms, but recovering what is essential in historical forms and returning to eternal principles. In popular culture, there is a polemic against tradition and authority, often cloaked in shrewd rhetoric or sheer repetition, but the mantra is communicated loud and clear. Catholics must rise to defend the wisdom of tradition and show its relevance, beauty, and vitality. One arena for this restoration is the lost tradition and wisdom of the boarding school.
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The idea of a boarding school does not simply presume resident students. Neither does it presume a reformatory for juvenile delinquents. Good boarding schools lead students in an ordered rule of life. If teenage boys are to be rescued from apathy, cynicism, and mediocrity, the following characteristics are indispensible:
- Catholic moral, intellectual, and liturgical tradition
- classical education with poetry, music, the imaginative arts, and natural sciences
- total abstinence from computers, cell phones, iPods, iPads, television, etc.
- competitive athletic programs involving contact sports
- facilities that are simple and Spartan in a rural setting
- Benedictine balance of daily prayers and daily chores
- small student body and a faculty of friends
If a renaissance in Catholic education is to take root and flourish, the necessity of these principles have to be acknowledged. A blind and reactive insistence on rationalist fundamentalism may be attractive in the short term, but will ultimately lead to failure because it does not address what Scripture calls the heart, the deepest spring of reason and desire. A boarding school that keeps these precepts can open the shut-up hearts of boys to the realms of wonder and wisdom in a familial yet formal arena geared towards providing teaching moments in the structure of every hour of every day. Within this structure is the potential for Catholic culture—a sense of community and the charity, service, and sacrifice that flow from living and learning with others.
Why is Boarding School Good for Boys?
Boys need nourishing culture. They need retreat. They need pilgrimage. They need to have and share an intense experience of the good in order to be moved by the good. A good boarding school responds directly to the maladies of modern boyhood, creating a lively culture and educating as a way of life. Certainly, parents are the primary educators and the home and family provide his initial cultural formation. A boarding school cannot replace this, but it can complement and complete it. When boys become adolescents they are much more aware of, and in need of, the social life of their peers.
There is a long-standing tradition in schooling that favors single-sex education. It is a model that was accepted by societies for centuries and preferred by many saintly educators. Boys and girls live and learn better when they are educated separately, especially once they reach adolescence. Besides that they are different and deserve different approaches, pacing, and even different courses of study, boys and girls, when educated together, greatly distract one another. This is especially true for boys. Such distraction—whether from girls, entertainment technology, or popular and pernicious media—retards education, which strives to build up good habits through continual and concentrated engagement. Boarding schools can provide such continuity because they render education a continuous, focused, habit-forming thing.
A boarding school rooted in the Catholic, classical mode of learning is good for boys damaged by the utilitarian ugliness of modernity because it allows for withdrawal from the prevailing culture into a traditional culture reinforced by peers. True masculine education educates the whole man, and, to do this effectively, asceticism is required—a withdrawal from the rampant impediments to growth and health. A boarding school provides a wholesome, safe “micro-culture” in which boys reinforce each other in virtuous formation, preparing to enter the wider culture outside. There is a need for the positivity that such intensive, immersive education provides. Boys can only grow and thrive when they are given high ideals and the hope that they can bring these ideals into being in their world, despite the careerism and sarcastic nihilism of the current culture.
Boarding schools should focus on discipline that blends the militaristic and the monastic, thus addressing the issues that boys vie with most. If boys lack drive, give them independence and responsibility. If boys are isolated and neglected, let them taste the camaraderie of community through athletics and shared activities. Boys can only profit by leaving behind large coed classes and learning in a concentrated male environment where they are free to be masculine, and where their masculinity is addressed and cultivated. The common struggle between the rigor of school and the relaxation of home disappears at boarding school, for school and home become a single entity, focused on enacting the good. Boarding schools are intrinsically appropriate for boys since the male trajectory involves breaking away from home to search for adventure and occupation—a trajectory often impeded by the unnatural, defeatist influences of the world.
How is Boarding School Liturgical?
The rhythms of a rightly ordered Catholic boarding school are liturgical because they frame out and measure the interplay of God and man, body and soul, mind and heart. The liturgy is the purpose of Christian life made present in time—it is participation on earth in the life of the blessed. The end of education is to free men from the seeming urgency and finality of worldly ends so that they may pursue beatitude. Thus the liturgy is intimately connected to education. It has an irreplaceable centrality in a school since only the liturgy can open the school to the divine world, thus protecting it from the everyday world that continually threatens.
The liturgy is a school of praise. Education aims to open students’ eyes to the True, Good, and Beautiful not as lifeless subjects in a textbook, but as objects worthy of praise. The environment where such habits can be formed and fostered is best achieved in a boarding school where life can be liturgical: a life of praise and participation, providing direct and decisive remedy against the lethargy so prevalent among teenage boys.
A boarding school loses power in pedagogy, however, without strong spiritual leadership built upon liturgy and the sacraments. One of the main points of a Catholic boys’ boarding school is to allow Holy Orders to sound its call. Key to this is the role of a priest. Boys need a model they admire and want to emulate, presenting the priesthood as essential and meaningful. No boy aspires to be an ineffectual nice guy. In a boarding school, the example of the chaplain is crucial. A virile chaplain dedicated to God and the good of others can plant seeds that come to fruition as a boy matures.
Boarding schools that are rigorous, vigorous, and devoted to Catholic excellence and cultural enjoyment draw boys to maturity—an important goal in any boy’s education when the prevalent plague is a refusal to grow up. Boarding schools offer lost boys the chance to find themselves by revealing who they are—their strengths, their weaknesses, their place in a community of friends, and their role in the liturgy of eternal life unfolding in time. Ultimately, teenage boys respond well to challenge and competition, to facing fears and rejoicing in achievement with friends, and boarding schools provide this as no other school can in a secure environment. In the end, boarding schools are better for most boys because they are hard; and since they are hard, they make boys happy—which is the secret of any real education.
Editor’s note: In the image above is a rugby match between Llandover College and Christ College, Brecon, Wales in 1965. (Photo credit: Wales News Service)