The Agonist Journal

When I was a boy, I detested school, and because I love learning, I still detest it, especially in its current instantiation, from silly and harmless jingles in kindergarten to sillier and downright toxic jingles sung by doctoral candidates and their professors. Allow me to give one of the several reasons why.

"The whole of rational life, as Milton conceives it, is an agon, an adventure, a fight. We must fight. It is for us of the essence of virtue, whether physical or intellectual."

To do so I shall call upon a man whom I would prefer to have as a theological enemy than a thousand tame souls as friends. On June 14, 1643, members of the new Parliament in London, dominated by the Presbyterian enemies of the established Church, shortly before they would abolish the episcopacy, set themselves up as new overseers of the minds of men, passing an ordinance to license the press. John Milton, as yet still friendly to their general aims, soon entered the lists “for the Liberty of UNLICENC’D PRINTING,” as reads the frontispiece for his published speech, Areopagitica (1644).

The speech was so named, as Milton’s readers well knew, for the Areopagus or Hill of Mars atop the city of Athens, where Saint Paul preached, “for all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). It was the Athenian arena for disputation, a Madison Square Garden for the mind.

Milton’s disillusionment with the Presbyterians was yet to come, when, exasperated by their self-serving behavior, for the delights of political power and privilege had gone to their heads, he would write, “New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.” In Areopagitica he addresses them in a friendly manner, friendly but firm, to call upon their manhood—their virtue—and to remind them what the reasoning power is for. “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book,” he writes, for “who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye,” and if such banishment should apply not to one book alone but to the general ideas therein, it would “[slay] an immortality rather than a life.”

It is not that all ideas are equally true, or that all men are equally wise and honorable. Rather the whole of rational life, as Milton conceives it, is an agon, an adventure, a fight. “When God did enlarge the universal diet of man’s body, saving ever the rules of temperance, he then also, as before, left arbitrary the dieting and repasting of our minds; as wherein every mature man might have to exercise his own leading capacity.” Milton intends the word exercise in its Latin sense: a military drill. So does he praise the man who will not shirk the danger of falling into error, whether of the body or of the mind, but takes on that danger and fights. “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,” says he, “unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” Again he has Saint Paul in mind: “I have fought the good fight,” says Paul, seeing his martyrdom at hand (the Greek is ton kalon agona egonismai). “I have run the race to the finish, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim. 4:7).

We must fight. It is for us of the essence of virtue, whether physical or intellectual: “Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.” It is bracing, this trial, for “our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion.” If a man accepts a thing passively, says Milton, without having exercised his mind, he may become “a heretic in the truth,” such heretics as, I say, our schools are established to produce. But “where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” England should arise, “a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks.”

School as I knew it was dominated by women, and so now, at least in numbers of students, are colleges and universities, or whatever things they are that still go by those names. When I was a boy, I had no idea that school could be otherwise. I did not attribute my detestation to women. I was not yet conscious of the profound differences between the sexes. I felt the burden of those differences nonetheless, and so in my developing masculine nature I was checked at every pass.

I did not rebel against rules, per se. Rules are also of the essence of the fight, the agon. The rule against the personal foul makes football possible. The rule against allowing yourself to be hit by a pitch makes baseball possible. When boys invent games, a thing that boys and men do all the time, they establish clearly demarcated rules, which everyone agrees to hold as inviolate and above all personal desires and feelings. So I did not mind entering the church in the middle of morning Mass when I arrived early at my Catholic school, taking my place in the pew with my classmates, boys on the right of the aisle, girls on the left. The Mass itself commemorated the greatest agon of all, and was a structure of laws, a game of worship. I intend no disparagement by so calling it.

What I hated was something else: rules without the fight, seat-belts for the spirit, a security blanket for the mind. Women take care of small children, and small children need to be kept safe. To do that task in the company of other women, they establish not law but etiquette, not the civil but the domestic. It is requisite for our happiness, perhaps even for the survival of the race before the industrial revolution, that it should be so. Applied beyond the home or the intimate social setting, however, the etiquette grows oppressive, and the domestic loses its character, its homeliness, and bids fair to undo itself and, paradoxically, render the civic more savage and intolerant. “The female of the species,” protecting her cubs, is, as Kipling says, “more deadly than the male.” Hence, as Lincoln observed, it was going to be harder to reconcile the women of the north and south after the Civil War than to reconcile the very men who had sweated and strained to kill one another.

I am not saying that only boys hated that status quo. But the only children who loved school were girls, and no boy I ever met loved it. Why should they? We were trammeled up in body and mind both, with either niceness or bad temper as far as the eye could see; in a brightly colored holding tank for nine months, with nothing to fight for, no mountains to climb, no seas to master. We were mothered or step-mothered. We were not fathered. We made up a social group, and more often than not it was an anti-social group. We did not make up a brotherhood. For men become brothers in arms for the sake of the fight, and fighting was not allowed.

What that implies for boys possessed by real genius, I will discuss shortly. First I should like to note that the school etiquette, No Fighting, is peculiarly female and renders the exercise of intellectual virtue impossible. Consider the difference between the “safe space” and the boxing ring. Our colleges promote the “safe space” lest people who perceive themselves as weak should be made to defend what they do, what they affirm, or what they deny. The whole idea of such a thing is inimical to the masculine. You must defend yourself: you must fight, by the rules of the fight, and if you do not, you are a coward. If you are beaten in a fair fight, you must graciously acknowledge it, or you are scorned as a sore loser. If you are beaten in a fair fight for truth, you might change your mind. Truth is the object, and in the pursuit of truth, your needs and feelings are of no consequence. It does not matter on the football field which quarterback needs more to win the game, or which coach is a nice man.

When students or professors organize themselves into a slogan-shouting mob, even if it is a polite mob, a mob not intent upon bodily harm, they violate the rules of the quest for truth, because slogans are not rational propositions, and mobs are not persons possessed of a mind. When students or professors claim that to criticize them in certain ways is to commit violence, even lethal violence, against their persons and their right to exist, they shut down the pursuit of truth entirely. To use Milton’s words, they kill reason in the eye. When students or professors seek blood—when they attempt to cast out of their midst the person who has so offended them, they are not true fighters but cheats, sneaking a razor under the wrestling suit, or spoil-sports, blowing up the boxing ring with a stink bomb. It is the weakling’s way not to fight but to weasel out of the fight.

How far we are from the medieval university, the original intellectual fight club, we may consider, when no conceivable proposition regarding God and man, virtue and vice, escapes the notice of Thomas Aquinas and the essentially agonistic structure of the articles in his great summae. Thomas is celebrated for his capacity to state the opposing position more powerfully than the opponent himself could, and for defeating it anyway. It was not men of straw he leveled to the canvas with his thundering right cross, Sed contra! So also the medieval examination was a fight, in the presence of masters and of spectators who wanted to enjoy the competition, and the stakes were, according to their faith, infinite—nothing less than the salvation or damnation of human souls.

Which brings me to the peculiar feature of the masculine genius I have in mind here. We must fight, or we lose heart. Progressives themselves used to understand the distinction. So the radical British jurist Frederic Harrison, after praising women for their “tact, subtlety of observation, [and] refinement of mental habit,” their “rapidity, agility, and sympathetic touch,” went on to predicate of man “a greater capacity for prolonged attention, intense abstraction, wide range, extraordinary complication, immense endurance, intensity, variety, and majesty of will.” I need not assent to every one of Harrison’s predications—I am not sure about the wider “variety” of a man’s passions. In the main, though, he is correct, and, allowing for the very occasional outlier, the intellectual habits he notices in men would be either useless or dangerous for the mother of a baby to possess. The mother must be sensitive to any small threat in the vicinity of the child; she must be sensitive and quick to react. She is the generalist, because, as Chesterton suggested, she must bring to the child the whole world; and I will add that she must do so for several of her children at once, children of different ages and inclinations. She makes the home a variegated garden.

The man is not so. He sees a mountain and wants to blast a tunnel through it. Pascal, said his sister, played with conic sections as other children played with toys, in what we might now call an abstraction almost autistic in its intensity. Thomas Edison found school impossible, so his mother took him out of it, and after she taught him to read, he was self-taught, and as a man quite self-absorbed, sleeping only a couple of hours a night, and often upon his laboratory table, not bothering to go home to wife and children. The football coach is absorbed in the movements of twenty two players simultaneously. The epic poet holds ten strands of plot and motif in suspension at once, as does the director of a movie, the composer of a symphony, the chess master, and the computer programmer. Michelangelo cashiers his helpers, obliterates his first attempts to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and then reconceives the whole, alone, flat on his back on the scaffolding sixty feet from the ground. The basketball player Jerry Lucas sets himself to memorize the Manhattan telephone directory, while keeping in his mind a running tally of every statistic for every player, teammate or opponent, in every game he ever played. Milton himself conceives and executes Paradise Lost in the temple of his mind, because his eyes were dark; and so absorbed was he in this field to conquer, this song to build, he dreamed in composition, and when he awaked in the morning cried out to his daughters, his amanuenses, lest the lines he fashioned in his sleep vanish from his memory.

This intensity, this agony as I might call it, does not imply that the man in its grip is a genius pure and simple. Most are not, simpliciter. But is not only, as psychometricians have shown, that the standard deviation for intelligence in males is greater than it is for females, so that males dominate at the extreme ends of genius and idiocy. They also, I am persuaded by observation and by the lives of engineers, artists, composers, inventors, movie directors, chess masters, and others, manifest a greater degree of variance across the fields to which intelligence may be applied. The brilliant composer may be only fair at calculation. The brilliant mathematician may be slow of speech. Here is the point: they may well fail in school. Such people will find it stifling to have to divert their attention and their energy from the single object of their love to those things that frustrate them, or that they feel are of no consequence, regardless of how worthy the things may be in themselves. Give the boy who loves machines a car to work on and beneath, but do not then one hour later ask him to read The Secret Garden. He needs the liberty of his passionate desire.

Genius, especially in masculine form, is not a comfortable thing to be around. It is not safe. In males it is an arrow, a sword, an ax, a catapult, a thrust into the unknown, a blow against the impossible. It wrecks things. It must, to clear a space to build. We are not now talking only about cognition. We are also talking about aggression, conquest. I was a juggernaut of memory and number and language when I was young. Had any of my teachers noticed it and allowed me my liberty, I might have learned Latin and calculus by age twelve, rather than spending nine months of the year in a stifling room, doing nothing, conquering nothing. However slothful and dispiriting schools then were, they were regular havens of sanity by comparison with what young males must endure now, with little enough liberty for the action-craving of their bodies, and less liberty for the dynamism of the mind.

For when the works of male geniuses are despised, and when the boy is given little more than feminist oatmeal to consume, seasoned with cinnamon sugar and rat poison—a Handmaid’s Tale here, and rainbow Angels in America there—what is there in the world for him to conquer? If he is given Milton, Milton stands up to him and against him as a challenge, a command. Milton, like Samson, cries out, “Young fool, come and try your strength with me! I have sounded heaven and hell.” But he will not encounter Milton, not now. Melville, that cartographer of the dark latitudes and longitudes of the human soul, is difficult, pointedly difficult, as a harpoon is sharp and not easy of heft. Melville cries, “Come, young fool, you who know nothing of the world and nothing of man. I do not promise to teach you any tidy lesson that you can log and set aside. I come to bring you danger, and the world.” But he will not encounter Melville. Thomas Aquinas says, calmly, “You know, in your heart, that you know nothing at all. Let us be honest. I will teach you. But you must think. You must use words with exactness. I will show you when an argument is sound and when it is not. But beware. Thinking is neither easy nor safe. Will you walk with me along the precipices, where an error in fact or in reasoning on either side leads to destruction?” But he will not encounter Thomas.

Yet he must wrestle with these men. He must, or he will die inside, and so will his culture. But he cannot do so in schools and colleges as they are now constituted. For the whole tenor of higher education now is hostile to hostility, and fearful of the agon. Its aim is not truth but etiquette writ large: the enforced propagation of what all the socially presentable people must hold and say. It does not thresh out the matter, and winnow truth from falsehood. It threshes the soul of man, and lets the resistant kernels fall. It gathers the chaff instead, that blows where the wind blows.

If you had asked me, thirty years ago, whether a coeducational college, without religious faith to remind people that truth must be sought above comfort and pleasure and sociability, could still be devoted to the agon, providing the arena for the masculine spirit to rouse itself and enjoy the good fight, I would have knit my brows and asked, “Why not?” I was young then, and the arena had not yet been entirely made over into the drawing room—though it was well on its way. I now believe that it is practically impossible. Women do not want it that way.

Therefore men must clear the space for the arena all over again. We need real universities, not vicious and expensive finishing schools. We need men who are unafraid to fight with their minds, and who, covered with dust and sweat and bleeding from the nose, acknowledge the essential goodness of the fight, and give honor to the worthy opponent, who may end up becoming the dynamic and mind-stretching friend. I believe that if men would but build the all-male intellectual enterprise and do so without apology, it would of itself adopt the character I have described. It would be agonistic and freedom-making, bracing and bold. And to all who would fear such a thing—the norm for all literate cultures until recently—I say this. If we do not hate the truth, we have nothing to fear from men devoted to its pursuit. If we are not skulkers, envying the great work of those who do what we cannot, we have nothing to fear from men inspired to conquest. The proper way to receive Milton or Melville is with gratitude, for they are men who have enriched us all.