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Standing up for students' rites

  • 12 November 2008

How 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