Each year I ask my Senior students to consider the following question: Is Chivalry dead in American teenage culture?
Typically, even after a two week unit on Chaucer and other Medieval literature, during which we address the concept of Chivalry and all its elements--Justice, Faith, Largesse, Humility, Loyalty, Courage, Franchise, Prowess, Defense, and Nobility--the majority of them are only able to muster: Chivalry is dead for some teenagers, but not for others. These students then highlight how some teenagers hold doors or volunteer to be chivalric, but that those who are rude to teachers (or other elders) do not behave chivalrically. (In my class, Chivalry also functions as an adverb.) Essays by these students revolve solely around the element of loyalty (or kindness in their modern perspective), and for that reason are quiet flat to read. (And yes, they butcher the pronoun 'some' in the writing, making the essay vague as well as unoriginal.)
Occasionally a student successfully identifies possible reasons why American teenagers seem void of chivalric understanding and capability. An eloquent commentary about Chivalry as a learned behavior that identifies a cultural shift away from serving a greater good and toward individual dominance transpires to show the student's awareness that the world just isn't what it used to be. These essays stand above the previous example, but because they usually end with a trite claim that 'the world would be a better place if we all were a little nicer,' the cliche' squelches the argument.
And then there's the student whose perspective completely blows me away; a student whose depth of thought and understanding of culture far surpasses that of his or her peers; a student whose argument about the death of Chivalry compels me to question my own position on the topic.
This year a student presented such a claim. The student--let's call him Dan--asserts that "Chivalry has become a concept absent in today's teenage culture and women are to blame....Whatever causes the increased promiscuity of females has made men lower their ideals of how to treat women. Whether is it the media or just social pressure to accept the new 'norm,' when women lower standards of lady-like behavior, men will follow...If ladies refuse the lifestyle of loose dating and actually require guys to treat them right, they will get what they want. What women fail to realize is that they hold the key to chivalry being reinstated in society."
Being a liberally minded, 'I am woman, hear me roar' kind of gal, my first response to Dan's position was that of annoyance. How dare he place the blame for this problem on solely women when men hold equal responsibility in dating and relationships. And then I reread the essay again and again and even again; the more I read it, the more logical it sounded.
Promiscuity and equality are not synonymous or contingent; having one does not mean accepting the other. The Women's Rights Movement was founded on the principles of equality for women in regard to taxation, employment, property ownership, legal rights and responsibilities and other politically and professionally driven desires. (Want to know more about Women's Rights? Read The Declaration of Sentiments.) Nothing in the historical documents indicates a correlation between these rights and the practice of Chivalry; yet many women, myself included from time to time, confuse gentlemanly behavior with domination and control, assuming that allowing (and even expecting) a man to treat a woman according to the fairness of her sex negates the progress made for women in the past 150 years when in fact, if what Dan declares is true, women hold the key to Chivalry in society.
If only all women could agree that females set the tone for equality and Chivalry; in that prospect lies great power--a manner of power that could change American culture in ways more profound the the Women's Rights Movement ever imagined.