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Standing up for students' rites


High school boysHow does Western society assist a strong and healthy transition of its young men into adulthood? Recent media exposure of how some young men celebrated the end of their years at secondary school caught my attention. I was interested less because I knew the school than because of the critical issues that were raised.

Where are the rites of passage that help our young men become adults in our society?

Over a number of years I have witnessed and participated in initiation ceremonies for young Aboriginal men in the western desert. These are rituals that support the social transition from boyhood into adulthood and which publicly define and celebrate that process.

Our rituals in Western society are less clear. Getting a driving licence, being able to drink in a pub, having an 18th or 21st birthday are often important ingredients. One can also die for one's country at 18.

But where is that moment, experience or ritual when young men realise that adult responsibilities as well as privileges have come upon them? Where is the social celebration and process that helps a boy become a man?

I do not want to suggest that leaving school is a rite of initiation but, like many other important transitions of life in our western society, it is a 'rite of passage'.

The concept of 'rite of passage' can be helpful in explaining significant life transitions. In our society there are many. Leaving home, entering the workplace or university, getting married, can all be significant life transitions. There are also others, just as challenging, such as learning to live with chronic disease, facing retirement, and moving into a nursing home.

As rites of passage they offer a process, and the potential, for personal transformation because they take the individual into a new relational and social context and into the possibility of a deeper experience of oneself.

For such a transformation to occur, they require us to let go the security of a previously known and experienced world, and allow ourselves to be carefully inducted into a new one. Christian symbols and meanings around 'dying' and 'rising' apply here.

Sometimes we manage these transitions without the help of others; at other times their help can be critically valuable and important.

The transition of young people from their many years of life at school to life after school is a significant rite of passage. It is the formal end of the first part of their life and the beginning of a new journey into adulthood.

As with other significant life transitions it brings with it fear and excitement. Fear is associated with leaving behind what has become safe and familiar. Excitement is associated with the promise of the unknown and what lies ahead.

I believe we can learn from Aboriginal rituals and apply their wisdom to our various Western 'rites of passage'. Ancient rituals remind us that those experiencing transition cannot control the process by themselves. Nor can they manage it by relying on those who are sharing it with them. Those leaving school do not, nor can be expected to, know what to do at such a time.

Ironically, also, those who have taught them, including teachers and parents, cannot be expected to take responsibility for what lies ahead.

What is needed is a process of transition and the company and wisdom of those who have already made that transition. They know what it means to let go and to be inducted into a new social space and place. This can then become a transformative experience.

The change that occurs in any rite of passage is always personal and social. It promises to link the person with their community in a new and deeper way.

As a culture, Western society has much to discover about the challenges offered by its various rites of passage. It also has much to learn about how to help these rites become transformative experiences, not simply moments of fear and risk. Above all, it needs to discover how those who have made such transitions can assist those who are about to make them.

Brian McCoyDr Brian F. McCoy, SJ, is NHMRC Post Doctoral Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University. He is the author of Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008).


Topic tags: brian mccoy, rites of passage, xavier college, muck-up day, schoolies week



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Existing comments

confirmation was such a ritual. When I was 12 (and had probably not reached "puberty" yet) I got a whack in the face from the bishop. It was not very hard. My father used to slap me harder in the face, on quite a number of occasions. I never knew why - maybe he was trying to "make a man" of me.

Surely you are not suggesting that initiation rituals, in a "primitive ritual" (e.g. circumcision, and getting teeth knocked out) are likely to be less barbaric than things that go on at Schoolies, or things that go in with footballers in nightclub toilets.

richard | 12 November 2008  

Students' rites or rich kids' rites? Seems like a convenient face-saving exercise trying to compare young Aboriginal men with privileged private school boys endowed with the Jesuit ethic of social justice and service. Why does no one stand up and analyse how the media portays young men in Sydney's west when they run amok? I guess we the media confirms our prejudices when it happens 'out west' - but when it occurs on hallowed ground we feel the need to anaylse and rationalise.

Brendan | 12 November 2008  

Brian has brought some thought to the present practice of society looking on in fear or favour at the annual spoiling of our young potential responsible citizens.

Ray O'Donoghue | 12 November 2008  

The Sacrament of Confirmation could be the 'rite of passage' into Christian adulthoon (for young men and women). To carry the Light of Christ out to others, to be examples of Christ to others---is indeed a rite of passage. Joseph Martos, who wrote a great book on the sacraments, once said that Confirmation could indeed be that Rite. He stated, that 'if we don't use that sacrament to celebrate the arrival at adulthood, we will have to invent another sacrament to celebrate that passage.'

Little Bear | 12 November 2008  

There's something to be said about rituals marking someone's rites of passage. In our culture, I can't think of many situations where a young person is singled out, surrounded by family and mentors, and had their special place reinforced. At most graduation ceremonies, young people are seated among their peers, spoken to as a group, and sent out as a group. But what rites are there for them individually? Even confirmation is done as part of a group in most cases.

The answers may not be in emulating the rituals of ancient peoples, but are there things we can do for young people to recognise each of them individually? To help build their individual self-worth, and give them a greater sense of themselves as they go out into the world? Our societies are much larger, but that shouldn't be used as an excuse to reduce the way we care for and nuture our youth.

Joseph Vine | 12 November 2008  

I wish that students were given the right to have Mass and the sacraments performed properly without a whole lot of interference from the 70's generation of priests.

Let's get the rites of the Roman Church fixed up before we are given too many more rights. We are getting there, I must say however. The Y generation can't stand the boring priests of the 70's.

Brent Egan | 13 November 2008  

This is the key sentence of Brian's article: "What is needed is a process of transition and the company and wisdom of those who have already made that transition".

Sure, we can learn from Aboriginal rites of passage, but I don't think it is helpful to borrow wholesale from them, but to perceive their underlying intent and where we can, invent rites of passage that are appropriate for the boys we work with. I help to run a community-based outdoor education program that joins a community of young men with older mentors & outdoor pursuits.

These outdoor activities provide the separation from the boys' normal context, risk and an element of pain - all rites of passage rely on these things. The mentors (hopefully!) provide the "company and wisdom of those who have already made that transition".

It's not a perfect initiative by any means, but it is an efort to shape non-institutional rites of passage. I hope that some of these youg men will eventually experience the more historical rites of passage of the church, but in the meantime, we need to adapt these to the culture we find ourselves in.

Dave Fagg | 27 November 2008  

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