Forming Good Men: What Works

Reflections on the "What Works" conference on raising boys, engaging guys, and educating men.

Raising Boys Engaging Guys Educating Men

By Angus Kirk McClellan '05

Dr. Thomas Sowell once wrote, “Each generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

How to guide these uncivilized youths into becoming good men and good citizens was the theme of the recent “What Works” conference on educating young men, held in Crawley Forum on July 25, 2014. The conference was an off-shoot of the What Works book published this year by the College. Authors, professors, and others led the discussions with school administrators and educators, explaining realistic guidelines on how best to prepare young men to lead dutiful, virtuous lives. Males, the general conclusion was, need an education tailored to their habits and nature. “Men and women are not the same,” said speaker Dr. Abigail Norfleet James, author of Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel and Learn in School. “People who are opposed to single-sex education say that the differences between boys and girls are totally created by society. Until you have spent time in a third-grade classroom, you have no basis to say that.”

Her words echo those of Cicero, Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher, who wrote in De Republica, “Our people have never wished to have any system of education for the free-born youth which is either definitely fixed by law, or officially established, or uniform in all cases.” For boys to develop their natural and particular strengths, they need an education that fosters those inherent and distinct qualities.

But what exactly is education? And what exactly is a good man and good citizen? Philosophers have pondered these questions for thousands of years, and based on the discussions of the day, it is safe to say that most of the speakers and audience members would agree upon some basic tenets.

Plato said that education is the pursuit of wisdom and virtue. Dr. Russell Kirk explained in Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning, on which he spoke at Hampden-Sydney in 1978, that “wisdom means apprehension of enduring reality; virtue means the development of strong moral principles and habits.” That wisdom includes investigations of great literature, languages, history, government, the arts, and scientific theory, in order to better understand, act, and respond to the world around us. The classical virtues include prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. One might add modern versions of Roman virtues that T.S. Eliot observed in Virgil’s poetry: labor, or self-reliance and ownership through manual work; and pietas, or duty to self, family, ancestors, country, and the Almighty.

Boys must learn to gain wisdom and exercise virtues to resist natural inclinations toward vice and depravity to become good men. They must bring order to their souls to become good citizens. It is only then that they can free themselves from the shackles of bodily appetites to help bring ordered liberty to society as a whole. And it is parents, teachers, peers, and positive male role models who must perform their own duties to instruct them. “We are not born for ourselves alone,” said Cicero. Guiding young men along this path of ethical and intellectual disciplines is rocky, but boys can find sure footing if their elders clear their ways early to light the path toward productive and purposeful lives.

Raising Boys

“Turn off the TV and the computer,” said Dr. James. Boys tend to have weak verbal skills. The American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that boys’ watching television and playing computer games—even so-called educational television and language-based computer games—are detrimental to their verbal development, inhibit their ability to concentrate, and encourage learning disabilities. Instead, “There is only one practice that has been shown to increase a child’s verbal skills: reading to them. Read to them every day.”

Boys also need physical education. “Allow [them] to take risks. For boys, motivation depends on either competition or risk, and if neither exists, they are not interested,” she wrote in her essay. Boys need to be free from parental input and oversight. They need to roughhouse.

“Everybody sweating. You need to make them sweat,” said retired Brig. Gen. Doyle D. “Don” Broome, Jr., president of Hargrave Military Academy. Broome knows that through manual labor and physical exertion, boys learn how to coordinate their bodies to gain a sense of ability and confidence, which leads to accomplishment. 

Overbearing “helicopter parents,” as Dr. James called them, hovering over their sons, are toxic to a boy’s development. If they cannot take trivial risks early, to learn and understand their limits, then they may take foolish risks as young men, at great cost. If they are sheltered from the outdoors, if they never get hurt, if they never acquire a sense of self-reliance, then they will become emasculated, full of fear and uncertainty, often looking for an authority figure to solve their problems and make decisions for them.

Dr. James lamented the passing of the days before “no-touch” rules on playgrounds; before “zero-tolerance” gun policies resulted in boys’ expulsions for bringing certain toys to school; before “safety” became the rallying cry for parents to confine their boys to shadowy basements, staring at the flickering lights of television sets with their eyes wide and their jaws agape.

“Parents need to let boys become men,” she said. “They’re terrified that they’re going to let their children get themselves into physical trouble. Then [the boys are] going off to college with zero background on how to become men.”

“Without the experience of strife, pain, and temptation, there can be no advance in self-knowledge, no development of spiritual and natural strength,” Dr. Kirk wrote.

Competing with peers, solving physical and ethical problems on their own, and finding their courage in the face of adversity are crucial for boys to begin understanding the world around them and to begin distinguishing right from wrong—to gain wisdom and to exercise virtue.

Engaging Guys

In adolescence, boys often seek guides or mentors. A recurring theme throughout the conference was the importance for young men of role models, or heroes, with whom they can engage—for example, we need more male teachers in the classrooms, said Dr. James. They need someone to emulate. Broome stressed the need for mentors to instill a sense of “moral courage” in young men. Without principled guides, boys may wander aimlessly through the darkness of moral uncertainty.

Boys are drawn to strong, upright, courageous, and skilled men who define clear lines between good and evil. If they find no leaders, then too often we see them imitating the impudence of degenerate hip-hop stars, or searching for parcels of truth in the vapid poetry of an inebriated Jim Morrison. As Kelly Johnson, editor of A Better Man, wrote in her What Works essay, “And so began the age-old duel between parents and pop culture for the hearts of young men.”

“They need someone they can talk to, someone to sit down with,” said Gen. Broome.

Adolescents who have caught glimpses of virtue often have a keen eye for a man who is worth following. “I want to be Pericles,” President Chris Howard said, referencing one student’s aspiration to “bring truth to the people.” The student said that at the College’s Sophomore Vocational Reflection Project, a program to help underclassmen identify their passions and determine their career paths. 

What Works SpeakersIt is part of the “Good Men Plan” at Hampden-Sydney, which Director of Residence Life John Ramsay ’05 discussed during the three-man panel “Every Good Man, a Hero,” at the conference. It is a series of discussions and workshops on campus focusing on citizenship, manhood, and intellectual enrichment, among other topics.

Dr. James W. Frusetta, associate professor of history at Hampden-Sydney, also sat on the panel. He spoke of a study in which young men discussed whom they believed to be the heroes in their lives.

In the video Dr. Frusetta presented, James Woodward ’15 told the story of his brother pulling a friend, who had split his scalp open, out of a river by diving into the rapids. “I just thought that was so cool, that my brother would just think ... ‘I don’t care that there are rapids, this is something I’m going to do no matter what.’ ” That is courage.

Boys who are educated and understand courage recognize the virtue in acting on it: In early July 2014, for example, student Thomas “Worth” Osgood ’16 saw a tractor trailer overturn on I-95. Osgood jumped over the guard rail and ran over to the cab while fuel poured out around him, the engine still idling. He pulled pieces of the broken windshield away and dragged the driver out to safety. “When someone is in potential peril,” he said, “you have to do something.”

Based on the results of a survey Frusetta displayed at the conference, the most common answer for everyday heroes whom boys follow was simple: their fathers.

Fathers must be present, “physically,” as Dr. James said, and they must be good men for their sons to continue in their footsteps toward wisdom and virtue. “Wisdom was handed down in a game of catch, a day of fishing, or in long hours working together in the yard. It came in the form of family dinners, neighborhood block parties, and church picnics,” wrote Johnson.

It is through good examples that boys learn how to be men. But adolescents sometimes are misguided into believing manhood is synonymous with masculinity, said speaker Dr. Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland, a sociological exploration of adolescent development. They mistakenly look to immature friends for guidance and support. He wrote in his essay on the confusion between “timeless virtues and inauthentic performance.”

“You have 18-year-olds trying to prove their manhood to 19-year-olds,” he said. Too often in our society we see young men lighting themselves on fire or throwing themselves down stairwells, confusing reckless buffoonery with genuine courage. One might notice that instead of protecting the weak, we see adolescents beating innocent bystanders unconscious in the streets. Instead of helping ladies in distress, we see young men congratulating themselves on the number of women they’ve conquered. These hollow exhibitions of virility are more akin to those of pack animals than gentlemen.

Boys must know the qualities that define men of character. It is not a man’s ability to dominate others that makes him a good man; it is his ability to control and guide his passions and powers, his propriety and restraint, and his adherence to an enduring moral code, by which we can gauge his manhood. When asked by a mother how to raise her young son, General Robert E. Lee told her, “Teach him he must deny himself.” 

Gen. Broome repeated the need to lead young men by proper example as one of the surest ways to prevent them from following the skewed path to a distorted moral structure. Until they leave home, that primarily is the good father’s responsibility. His role is the protector and provider for the household, which includes providing moral guidance. If there is no father, they need positive, male role models.

Once their sons leave home for higher education, parents must largely entrust the further development of their young men to the professors, administrators, and students at the college of their choosing.

Educating Men

In Book XIX of The City of God, Augustine wrote, “The peace of the irrational soul is the harmonious repose of the appetites, and that of the rational soul the harmony of knowledge and action.”

The sage of Hippo is referring to the need for men to bring their souls into order. By controlling his appetites, by obedience to eternal law—and by doing not merely what he wants, but what he ought—a man can obtain peace and certitude within himself. It is through this ordering of the soul that we have order in society. The ordering of individuals brings order to the whole, as Kirk describes in The Roots of American Order.

“Young men operate best when there are clear right and left limits,” said Gen. Broome. He understands that young men often need to be trained to recognize that there is an absolute right, and there is an absolute wrong. To become a good citizen, a young man must know how to function in a society that has clear-cut rules. Part of higher learning is instilling an understanding of these rules into a young man so that they may become part of his character. There can be no ambiguity.

“Let me tell you about the role of relativity in our honor system,” said Alexander C. Cartwright ’13, Ph.D. candidate at George Mason and panel speaker. “There is none.”

Cartwright was reiterating the words he spoke to the incoming freshman class when he was the Student Court chairman at H-SC. At the conference, he expounded on the importance of the Honor Code and the student court system.

Dr. Michael Kimmel"You are a liar, or you are not. You are a thief, or you are not. You are a cheater, or you are not. You are a Hampden-Sydney man, or you are not,” he emphasized.

In a republic, the people govern themselves. And so it is through the Student Court and by the Honor Code that students enforce the law among each other, training to become good citizens.

Hampden-Sydney men pledge that they will not lie, cheat, or steal, “or tolerate those who do.” After signing their names to the pledge, “The rule followers are also the rule enforcers,” said Cartwright. If an individual starts to ponder the idea of violating the code, he may look to his left and his right, and see that others are following the rules, and so will refrain from committing his 

offense. Those other individuals are doing the same. This reciprocal “positive feedback,” as Cartwright said, helps ensure that individuals stay within the norms of proper behavior. Over time, if they hadn’t already, those parameters become instilled in the individual, and he becomes more virtuous through the ordering of his soul.

When asked by audience members how to instill a sense of honor in middle- and high-school students, members of the panel stressed the need for schools to adopt honor codes. Students should participate in an official ceremony to help imprint on their minds the importance of their signatures on the pledge.

Instead of demanding unreachable perfection, as Kimmel had suggested, the Honor Code provides means for redemption. Young men often fall from moral ideals.

“It allows students to take responsibility for the mistakes that they make,” said audience member Mrs. Chris Mazzola, head of the upper school at St. Anne’s Belfield in Charlottesville. They can accept punishment as a lesson in understanding boundaries, using the experience to better themselves. At H-SC, violations of the Honor Code often result in mandatory suspensions, after which, his debt paid, the boy may return to join his classmates on campus.

Disregard for enduring moral order chains a man to his bodily appetites. It is only in an unfettered landscape that a man is free to make real accomplishments, to do what he ought, not merely what he wants. To be great, young men must be educated in the virtues of discipline and self-restraint. 


The responsibility to raise boys, engage guys, and educate men falls largely on parents and positive male role models. These individuals must take active roles early in boys’ lives, before pop culture and puerile companions lead them into the depths of moral depravity from which they may not emerge. Some parents, however, may feel

Speaker Dr. Eugene Hickock ’72, former U.S. deputy secretary of education, was appointed Pennsylvania secretary of education in 1995. While in Harrisburg, he spent time with state teachers unions, school board members, school administrators— “stakeholders,” he called them—in meetings, trying to get input and support for change to fix broken parts of the Pennsylvania education system. Little, if any, progress was ever made.

Dr. Hickock realized that the true stakeholders—taxpayers, parents, teachers, students—are those who usually have the individual students’ best interests in mind. They did not worry about keeping their positions on the board, or ensuring that organization members get enough vacation hours, for example. They wanted children educated properly. But parents needed encouragement.

“They didn’t feel like they had any ownership,” he said. “They felt completely apart from their school, in many places where they need it the most. To know you own your own destiny, to know that this school is your school, that child is your child—that is the beginning of being able to shape the school and the child.”

“If you want policy change, you have to get involved,” said Gen. Broome.

By the end of the conference, the administrators, teachers, and parents had a better understanding of the concrete steps they could take to mold boys into good men. No television or computer games—read to them instead; avoid overbearing supervision by allowing them to take physical risks; encourage physical labor and allow roughhousing; educate them on moral virtues through discussion and by example; be a mentor; provide an honor code; and get involved in their schools and curriculums.

These and other steps are needed to repress the rising tide of moral relativism that pervades our culture, to reverse the damage that pop culture and pseudo-education inflict on undeveloped minds. The next generation of boys is growing into men. As it is the parents’ right to have them educated as they see fit, it is also their duty to see them through. As we should all strive to be reflections of virtuous men of the past, we should endeavor to illuminate the proper paths for our sons. All told, it is the man in the mirror who must act.

Free What Works Book

More topics on raising boys, engaging guys, and educating men are available in the What Works book released in conjunction with the conference. Speakers who attended the conference wrote some of the featured essays. Articles include: “What Can Parents Do to Encourage Boys to Learn?”; “What Skills Do Boys Need to Excel in School?”; and “Why Do Young Men Still Want to Learn to Be Good Fathers?” Order your free copy of the What Works book.