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HIStory : masculinity and history in an independent boys' school.

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Boys do not learn history in isolation. They learn history in genderised and genderising institutions. Many all-boys’ schools construct their own particular kind of masculinity that is unique to the school. This may be the result of the needs of the particular clientele or may have been constructed over time or in the case of long-established schools it may even be a by-product of a by-gone era. Thus the construction of masculinity is strategic. Few studies have sought to highlight the impact that masculine gender construction plays in boys’ understanding of history particularly within the context of an independent boys’ secondary school in South Africa. The subjects of this study were all born in 1991 or 1992 - at the time of this country’s political and educational transformation. In growing up they have known nothing but a democratic South Africa and their history education has been entirely in keeping with Outcomes Based Education (O.B.E) and that of the official history curriculum as outlined in the National Curriculum Statement (N.C.S) – History. However, these boys have also grown up male in this democratic South Africa characterized by, amongst other things, gender equality. What this study sought to uncover was how boys’ understanding of history interplays with the construction of their personal and collective masculine identity. Furthermore this study also sought to understand whether boys in learning history come to some understanding of a just sense of masculine construction. Using the script of the play The History Boys as one of the mirrors against which I held my study, I also made use of the post-structuralist Lacan’s (1949) Mirror Stage model to make sense of the data generated by my research. Immersing myself in boy-centred research I made use of a bounded case study using a purposive sample. The qualitative methods of narrative inquiry and focus group interviews were used to generate the data that was then coded and analysed using open coding. In addition I drew on the epistemology of the pro-feminist theorists in order to frame my research. Ultimately this case study sought to give voice to boys’ experiences in order to investigate the impact of masculinity on their understanding of history and how history education in turn informs the boys’ masculine identity. Through an intertwining vine of unofficial history made up of influential role players such as family members and friends, the school as a masculine regimenting agent and official school history over both primary and secondary schools, the boys of this study sometimes found themselves to be lacking because they did not measure up to the ideals of the traditional hegemonic form of masculinity. At other times, through their study of official history, these boys were able to dominate other boys because of their possession of historical knowledge thus formulating their own hegemonic masculinity as embodied in the history boy. Masculine hierarchies were therefore found to be constructed by institutions, teachers, subjects like history and boys themselves. The official South African history curriculum is a transformative one that seeks to achieve an appreciation of gender equity and a sensitization to power dynamics at play in a constantly evolving South African society. However, the institution in which the boys found themselves is not evolving. It is a traditional one that essentially aims to maintain old-fashioned or “time honoured” values. These independent school history boys learnt many contradictory lessons on what it means to be a man from the independent boys’ only boarding school in which they all found themselves as well as through official school history. These contradictory lessons all led to the conflicting and ambiguous notions of what it means to be a man. This in turn led to the creation of the hegemonic masculine form of the history boy that is established towards the top end of the masculinity hierarchy within this South African independent boys’ school.


M. Ed. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2013.


Boys--Education--Social aspects--South Africa., Masculinity--South Africa., Teenage boys--Education--South Africa., Private schools--South Africa., Theses--Education.