“Toxic Masculinity”: An Open Letter to a “Prestigious” Private Boys’ School

Gender identity is constructed from societal perceptions of what it means to be a boy or a girl, and these stereotypes manifest themselves in the daily behaviour of children.  To best serve boys, educators must understand their common behaviour as a reflection of the backdrop of societal perceptions of masculinity.  It also works to combat these stereotypes so that boys can be the full expression of themselves…[B]oys are able to explore, in safety, the breadth of the human condition….In this school, culture, artistry and creativity are not labeled as “feminine”….These goals become more realizable in a culture that presupposes that one can be much more than what can be offered by the limiting stereotypes of masculinity. 

— “A School for Boys”, St. Andrews College Viewbook


There are a myriad of programs, policies, and practices that drive our approach to educating boys; all of these contribute to the building of an inclusive and safe culture and to the development of morally conscious, thoughtful, and happy boys. 

This development of a culture that helps boys to develop healthy understandings of the many ways to be a man has required a revision of the way we think about boys’ education in general. In the past, boys’ education was thought to have purpose because of fundamentally “essentialist” assumptions about the differences between boys and girls. For example, many popular books about how to best educate boys tag into the idea that boys’ brains are somehow different than girls’ brains, and this serves as justification that in the absence of girls, teachers can cater to the unique needs of boys. 

What has emerged from the scholarship over time is the understanding that gender identity is primarily a “construct” rather than something fundamentally essential. This is to say that individuals, be they boys or girls, seem to perform their gender based on their personal experiences. So many factors seem to participate in how individuals derive their unique gender identity, and these include family dynamics, what they see in the media, and how the people in their respective worlds behave.  

These new insights into gender identity have significant ramifications for all boys’ educators. This is because we are discovering that what we say about masculinity, and how we say it, has an impact on shaping boys’ understandings of what it is to enact healthy masculinities. The use of the plural here is intentional because there are many ways to be a man. Some of those ways are what society define as “toxic” in nature. Obvious toxic attributes can present as being disrespectful to others, aggression, and arrogance.  

We are finding that boys’ school cultures that are overly hierarchical, conservative, and hyper-rational are not healthy for young men. Additionally, the celebration of the hyper-masculine and the hyper-competitive serve to reinforce conventional and ultimately limiting notions of masculinity. One example of our school’s response to these understandings is our dedicated time to participating in the arts. These weekly sessions provide boys with opportunities to explore the arts in settings that encourage creativity, freedom of play, and the imagination rather than focusing on grades and academic expectations.  

We continue to engage in a careful review of the language we use; our culture, rituals and symbols; the way we teach boys to use technology; the way our health and wellness initiatives support healthy understandings of masculinities; the way our classroom practices impact boys’ understandings of themselves; and, the way we help our community to understand our vision for boys’ education. Our understandings of gender as it pertains to education will continue to inform our approach and seem to provide an affirmation that done well, all-boys’ education can be a force for good in the world. As a community, we are collectively responsible to look carefully at the way we educate boys, and to interrogate past assumptions about what it means to be educators of boys. There are so many opportunities for us to engage in the future such that our students become their most human and compassionate selves. 

— “Why a School for Boys”, St Andrews College Website



Kevin McHenry

Headmaster, St. Andrews College


Dear Dr. McHenry,

After reading Mr. Paluch’s “A School for Boys” in the SAC Viewpoint, and the same language in “Why a School for Boys” on your website, I wondered whether they had been inspired by some Muse (unrecognized by Hesiod) whose special genre is politically-correct cant and cliché.  Leaving aside the fact that both statements read like an undergraduate essay assigned in a Women’s Studies class, the postmodernist theory there rehearsed, that gender identity is “constructed from societal perceptions” — rather than innate — , has been empirically refuted since the time when the youthful Achilles, dressed by his overprotective mother as a girl to avoid conscription in the Greek army, was flushed out by the martial toys Odysseus pretended to peddle.  Western myth, literature, and history are full of cognate examples of a mother’s or nurse’s attempts to “socially construct” a safe and secure feminine persona for her charge, only to learn that nature will not permit it. Indeed, whenever a “socially constructed” feminine persona does temporarily take hold — as in the case of Aeneas in Dido’s Carthage or Antony in Cleopatra’s Egypt — it is invariably an occasion for pity or mirth.  Are you sure you want to re-engineer your boys in this way in order to “combat male stereotypes”?

As a teacher of classical, medieval, and Renaissance literature, I am appalled at the cultural despoliation that your dogma of “toxic masculinity” portends.  The Western Tradition is gloriously replete with examples of male valor, uncomplaining endurance, and selfless generosity (Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Socrates, Cicero, Jesus, Boethius, to name a few).  What do you intend to do with that tradition:  revise it out of the curriculum, for fear that Socrates’ manliness in the face of suffering and injustice might make your boys feel unsafe?

The amputation of the Western cultural heritage in the name of progressive gender theory will do a great disservice to young men and women alike, and the vilification of masculine virtues as “toxic” or “stereotypical” will only end up by crushing what Plato called the spirited part of the soul, responsible for all noble action, clean out of your boys.

Surely you must realize that the majority of parents, many of whom are better educated than you, have no appetite for the ideological snake-oil you are force-feeding their children, especially as it has only been through their exercise of those “hyper-masculine”, “hyper-competitive” virtues of hard work, perseverance, and risk-taking that they have been able to afford the exorbitant fees charged by St. Andrews.

Harley Price, M.A. (Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto), A.M., Ph.D. (Princeton University)

Lecturer, retired (Department of English, University of Toronto)

Instructor (School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto)