One of the most important aspects of the modern conservative movement has been its fight against the new liberal ethos that actively seeks to undermine and dismantle the family unit. In his 2017 book, Cheap Sex, Mark Regnerus shows how the state of marriage and monogamy is at an all-time low. But perhaps the most perverse position held by the new dogma is that fathers don’t matter. Here are just a few examples. Recently, Mary Eberstadt wrote a brilliant and heart-wrenching essay about the effects of fatherlessness on America’s youth. Perhaps the scariest few lines from her essay read:
Six decades of social science have established that the most efficient way to increase dysfunction is to increase fatherlessness. And this the United States has done, for two generations now. Almost one in four children today grows up without a father in the home. For African Americans, it is some 65 percent of children.
The issue is real, and the conservative movement is right to fight so fiercely to reverse this pendulum swing. But what until then? What social institutions are in place to guide today’s fatherless children?
I myself am a child of divorce. I have no relationship with my father. I recognize that it is in my interest to have no relationship with him (he was emotionally abusive), yet I also realize that I am disadvantaged because of this absence. When my parents got divorced, I was a junior in high school. For a very hormonal seventeen-year-old boy, this was detrimental. Who would be there to help me navigate manhood? Who’d tell me how to ask a girl out? Who’d be there to discuss sensitive topics with me? Who’d show me how to shave or change a flat tire? Not my father. Instead, I bought a book. A damn book. The book was helpful, but obviously no substitute for a father.
Of course, there are social institutions whose mission is to help vulnerable children. The Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, for example, does incredible work connecting young children with a positive role model. But a father is so much more than a positive role model; he is more than an individual who can talk politics and sports over a beer. A father is supposed to offer perspective and wisdom, guidance, and advice. For young adults like myself (I’m twenty-four now), having a fatherly figure who can provide these and more is invaluable and necessary if one hopes to have the best chances of success in life. So what can be done?
To answer this question, I need to tell you about Doc, my high school English teacher. How a man who majored in history at a small Catholic liberal arts college ended up teaching English at an Orthodox Jewish high school is an entertaining story, but I won’t get into that now (Doc always referred to it as “career planning at its finest”). However it came to be, I took two years of English from Doc, and I credit him with molding me into the writer I am today. But my time in his AP English class would constitute the least of our relationship.
Doc was always open and vulnerable. He never shied away from engaging the class in discussions ranging from politics to religion. He was always proud to say he’s voted for as many Republicans as he has Democrats. In a school town hall discussion that is forever seared into my mind, he shared with us the story of his son, then struggling with addiction. Most teachers wouldn’t dare mention their personal email address, let alone share something so intimate. In fact, another Orthodox Jewish high school that my friends attended in another state had a policy that teachers and rabbis could have no contact with students outside the classroom; the exchange of phone numbers was forbidden.
Doc wasn’t the type of teacher who clocked in and clocked out. He didn’t teach subjects; he molded students. By being open, vulnerable, and willing to share, Doc allowed me (and others, to be sure), as the Mishna in Tractate Avot writes, to “drink in [his] words with thirst.” Doc became a fatherly figure to me.
In the six years since I graduated from high school, I haven’t lost touch with Doc. Just a few months ago, I was on a long car drive, alone, thinking about life. In particular, I was thinking about my dating life. The prospect of dating haunts me, as it does many other children of divorce. Those of us who have been surrounded by failed relationships are nervous to start their own. But Doc—well, he was probably one of the most happily married men I’ve ever met. I’d seen it firsthand; his wife also taught at my high school. I saw the way they interacted, the way they spoke of and to each other. So, on that long drive, I called Doc. I asked him, as a son would ask his father, for advice on dating. He gave me the best advice I’ve ever received.
Students at both the high school and university level spend more time with their teachers and professors than they will with their own family. There are teachers and professors who care deeply about their students and not just their subjects; there are many Docs out there. But in today’s society, it seems that more and more educators are setting a deeper line in the sand demarcating student/teacher relationships. In some instances, this line is ordered by the powers that be in the Ivory Tower, worried that even the slightest gesture could be misconstrued and result in disastrous outcomes. But the deeper that line is buried, the more we occupy ourselves solely with boundaries, the more young people at the most vulnerable stage in their lives will be left alone to navigate the raging waters of life without a North Star to guide them.
Just imagine if all the male professors and teachers who read and write for this blessed journal, who deeply care about the plight of the fatherless, actively sought to mentor their students in the most important subject: life. Imagine if, at the beginning of every term, you each announced, and then demonstrated, your openness and willingness to help your young, impressionable students navigate this next chapter in their lives. Imagine if a group of professors, informally or even formally, created a “mentorship” program, similar to that of Big Brothers Big Sisters, to help nurture those fatherless students. Who cannot be inspired by reading of how students at the University of Chicago so eagerly clung to Professor Leon Kass and his late wife, Amy? The students were thirsty for them, not just their course syllabi. Imagine how much better your fatherless students’ lives will be if they can find a fatherly figure. Imagine how much your life will be enriched when, years later, you are invited to your pupil’s wedding. Doc will surely be at mine.
The fury of the fatherless, as Eberstadt described, is real. I live it. But not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for the fatherly figures in my life. We need social institutions to help care for fatherless men, especially as they enter into their college years. I have set forth but one imaginative idea. Perhaps some readers will find it compelling. Some will surely have other ideas. But the bottom line, my plea and hope for our country and for the many without the right fathers, is this:
Everyone deserves a Doc.