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“Big Boys Don’t Cry:” An Obstacle to Educational Transformation

The E-Word and Educational Transformation

When Mark Somerville and I are were working on A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education one of the hardest things to acknowledge was the degree to which the transformation of education for the 21st century was profoundly emotional at the level of individuals and profoundly cultural at the level of organizations.  Fairly early in our work together (2008 or 2009) there were big clues that this was the case, but it took us a long time before we mustered the courage to use words like love, trust, courage, and connection to describe the essence of the needed transformation.  We wrote about this earlier (here and here), but even still we find widespread resistance, especially to the E-word (“emotion”).

A Tweet: “Big Boys Don’t Cry” or #BBDC

I was reflecting on this resistance one evening (in a twitter chat; join us 8pm ET most Wednesdays, hashtag: #BigBeacon), and I blurted out a tweet in reaction to a chat conversation about the emotional content of transformation.  I wrote, “Big Boys Don’t Cry” (#BBDC) and in a flash the strong cultural resistance to the emotional transformation of education (particularly engineering education) became crystal clear.  The idea that we might acknowledge emotion directly in education runs up agains a taboo for men (in many cultures).  From an early age, men are urged to suppress their unhappiness, sadness, or other negative emotion that leads to the emotional display of crying.  Sometimes this is done with understanding and concern, but oftentimes boys are shamed if they do cry, and the shame continues until they stop.  The fierceness with which some of the suggestions of A Whole New Engineer is confronted became clearer.

The Martial Origins of #BBDC

I started to wonder about this cultural practice.  Why are young boys shamed into suppressing their emotions, really denying their emotions?  It seemed likely that this practice had martial origins.  Young boys (not even teenagers) were recruited to defend their families, clans, cities, nations for much of human history at a young age.  The primary requirement of a young boy to serve this role was (1) a willingness to carry a weapon, (2) to suppress his emotions, and (3) go to battle and be willing to sacrifice his life for the good of his social group.  In this way, #BBDC makes a lot of sense, but it also begs us to ask whether there are more developed ways to deal with emotions at a young age–to deal with emotions more generally.

2 Possibilities: Women & Emotions or Coaching & Emotions

Of course, I’m not recommending a world full of blubbering men (any more than A Whole New Engineer recommends engineers without analytical training and rigor, although this misinterpretation of the work is often put forward as a way to bypass the discomfort of many of its suggestions).   And yes, we do still ask young men to sacrifice themselves in warfare, but we don’t do it as early as we once did (or fortunately, as frequently).  Aren’t there other ways of dealing with emotions than shaming young men?

I think so, and I raise two possibilities: (a) the way we deal with women and emotions and (b) the way we deal with emotions in coaching:

Women & emotions. I hesitate to step into gender at all, but the expression is “big boys don’t cry,” and subjectively to me it seems as though there are a different set of cultural practices (in many cultures) of dealing with young women and emotions that have considerable more tolerance for emotional display and for the understanding the importance of emotional awareness.  Possibility: Perhaps in the 21st century, the emotional training of young men could learn something from the traditional emotional training of young women.

Coaching & emotions.  One of the things that was liberating to me about taking training as a coach was the permission given to both coach and client to step into emotional discomfort and reflect on it and understand it as a way to manage it.  This seemed to me to be the opposite of the #BBDC approach and seems key in living with presence in a centered way.  Possibility: Perhaps the approaches of coaching can be used at earlier ages with the idea of developing emotional intelligence rather than suppression.

Of course, these aren’t the only possibilities, but reflecting on the taboo against emotion in engineering education (really, higher education more general) should be a productive line of investigation and practice that should lead to greater possibilities for authentic educational transformation.

David E. Goldberg is a trained leadership coach ( and president of Big Beacon ( based in Douglas, Michigan; he is also a noted computer scientist, civil engineer and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He resigned his tenured professorship in 2010 to work full time for the transformation of engineering and education. He can be reached at deg@bigbeacon.

Goldberg published A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education in October 2014 (with co-author Mark Somerville and writer Catherine Whitney). The book is available from ThreeJoy Associates and in hardcover and all major e-book formats.

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