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Being What You Are

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IT WAS ONE of those rare moments in a Harvard lecture hall. Donald Bell, assistant professor of History, scheduled to deliver a lecture on European social history, put aside his notes, and with eyes shining, began to talk about his family. That day he exclaimed, his wife had given birth to the couple's first child. Bell proceeded to tell his class about the delivery, in which he had participated by "coaching" his wife through labor. He spoke of his tremendous joy at the birth, and of the pride he felt in being a part of his wife's achievement. "Having a kid is just great," the professor gushed. "You should all try it sometime, too." Bell's surprised audience broke into loud applause.

The class was pleased at the news of the birth, but they were also cheering Bell himself for breaking the unwritten rules of professorial conduct, which preclude any emotional openness in the presence of the students. Bell is down to earth in a way that academic giants like Stanley Hoffmann and Walter Jackson Bate can never hope to be. Few students seem to know or even like the best and brightest of the Harvard faculty. Unflappable, omnicompetent, unremittingly rational, the Harvard prof remains--with a few exceptions--cooly unapproachable.

And decidedly male. Not only are most Harvard professors men, but all of them face a similar pressure to conform to a kind of academic machismo. Because the Ivy world often resembles a jungle where only the "eminent" survive competitiveness, implacable devotion to the duty to publish, and very, very hard work are at a premium. The pressure is, in short, to adopt the traditional male virtues. And if professors feel such pressure, the experience of Harvard students could scarcely be any different. Hence the fevered Gov section debates, the struggle to survive 24 hours a day in Cabot Library, the unfocused but undeniable compulsion to get ahead that so many Harvard men (and women) feel.

Donald Bell doesn't believe in the traditional American conception of manhood that colors virtually every aspect of our lives, from Cambridge classroom to Texas taproom. That's why he shared his feelings with his history class, and that's why he has written Being a Man: The Paradox of Masculinity. In today's changing world, Bell argues, the traditional image of the unemotional, super-competent male achiever is both outmoded and destructive.

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This is an increasingly popular and provocative notion, but Bell fails to explain why. His book, based on the anecdotal evidence of 100 conversations with various white-middle class men is intended as a "progress report" on the changes in man's concept of manhood brought on by the women's movement and the vaguely defined technological-economic changes of the 60s and 70s. This is a mushy premise to start from inevitably it produces mushy conclusion. Here they are: Men today are torn between their desire for more equal partnership; men want close male friendships, but find emotional intimacy vaguely embarrassing; men must learn to talk about their emotional problems and to negotiate everything with their wives. Get the idea? You should--there's nothing terribly original or controversial in Being a Man Bell seems content to leave us with one of those "there are no easy answers" admonitions.

That's probably the best Bell could have hoped for in any case. He is trained as a social historian, not as a sociologist or psychologist. Being a Man is pop sociology--but pop without any snap or crackle. That's too bad, because Bell's training need not have been a liability. In his chapter on male Friendships. Bell makes the interesting point that his historical investigation have revealed a view of male friendship among nineteenth century men quite different from that of today's men. But he fails to develop that observation, even though it hunts at the kind of insight that might have added to the book.

The heart of Bell's exposition, however, is a breathtakingly frank account of his personal struggle in redefine manhood. Indeed, at times the interviews with other men and allusions to psychological studies seem like a scientific vencer for what may be Bell's deeper purpose. You get the feeling that must of the book is no much rationalization for Bell's desire to analyze his own life.

He reveals the intimate details of his teen-age sexual fantisties and experimentation, he speaks candidly about his relationship with his father, and he invites his readers to examine the intricacies of his two marriages and one divorce. The discussion is as scientifically fruitless as the rest of Bell's case studies, but it has the advantage of immediacy, and thus has far more substantial emotional impact. Here is the former football star struggling to understand his wife's demands to share in child care and housework; here is the aspiring professor putting aside his own career goals to enable his second wife to realize hers. Here, above all, is a sensitive young man daring to be honest with himself and to seek out meaningful changes in his own way of life so that others might benefit. Thus, if Bell's definition of the "paradox of masculinity"--that in a changing world men must seek self-created notions of manhood, rather than rely on traditional models--seems frustratingly ambiguous, it is because Bell himself is still unsure of the answers. He has yet to finish growing.

So although it essentially fails as a work of sociology. Being a Man merits consideration as an exemplary story of courageous self-examination. In Harvard's competitive hothouse, unquestioned adherence to a narrow concept of "the male virtues" flourishes. Introspection, a more fragile flower, requires fresher air. And Being a Man is a breath of fresh air. If Harvard men read it, they may begin to reappraise their values--the first step toward enriching their lives.

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