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Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The War Against Boys/Girls: time for a ceasefire?

I was first in public school in the late 1960s through the 1970s, back when Sav-On Drugs still had a "Boy's Toys" and "Girl's Toys" aisle. All through Elementary School and into Junior High (now known as Middle School) there were very different roles that girls and boys were being groomed for. The Women's Movement might have been in full swing, but behind the chain-link fence there wasn't a peep about how things were changing. Back then, the expectation was that boys would grow up to take the world on, and girls...well, girls would be mommies.

Now we are in a very different world. The mix of female to male on College and University campuses is now at roughly three females for every two males, even after factoring out the "returning woman student" population. (A population which I myself belong to, although not for the reasons that made most women drop out of College in the first place.) Boys still score a few points higher than girls on the math portion of the SAT, although now girls even get better grades in actual math classes than boys do. And in subjects like English and Social Studies and Foreign Languages, girls continue to have an enormous edge and are pulling away alarmingly from their peers who have a "y" chromosome.

With facts like these floating around, even from people who don't have an anti-Feminist axe to grind, I found that sitting in my Education 203 class today listening to my teacher read a segment of the book "Life In Schools" by Peter McLaren was like listening to a voice from the past. And yet, this was the 4th edition of the book, published in 2003. To wit:

Classroom sexism as a function of the hidden curriculum results in the unwitting and unintended granting of power and privilege to men over women....
....[N]o curriculum, policy, or program is ideologically or politically innocent, and that the concept of the curriculum is inextricably related to issues of social class, culture, gender and power. This is, of course, not the way curriculum is traditionally understood and discussed in teacher education. The hidden curriculum, then, refers to learning outcomes not openly acknowledged to learners, because to do so would undermine the social universe in which capitalist schooling thrives in its reproduction of labor-power for the transnational capitalist class.*

Power to the people right on, baby!

(Dusting off the patchouli incense ash, peppermint wrappers and granola from my hair, I continue.)

Anyway, I had read some discussion of the current situation we find ourselves in, and resolved at that point to read "The War Against Boys" by Christina Hoff Sommers and write a few entries in my "Reading Journal" from that. Luckily most of Ms. Sommers' work was neatly sommerized (pun intended) in an article in the Atlantic Monthly from about a year before the book was published. I also found something disturbing about Ms. Sommers: she is a fellow of the notoriously anti-Feminist American Enterprise Institute. Ick.

Googling further, I found an interesting article by Michael Kimmel from Tikkun Magazine which was written to partially refute the Atlantic Monthly article but which supported the data which couldn't be easily explained away. Yes, boys seem to be slipping at the same time girls are succeeding as never before in school, even in areas girls had a history of weakness, like math and science. However, Kimmel also pointed out that sexism in school was still alive and kicking.

Then I found another article, this time from Reason Online, from their February 2001 issue. The article, by Cathy Young, seemed to have an authentic "third voice," at once criticising both Sommers and her critics. It's a thoughtful read, although the call at the end for school vouchers struck me as being put there as a sop to the editors of this Christian Science Monitor of big-"L" Libertarianism rather than something Ms. Young actually believed in.

I suggest you read all three articles. I intend to sit down and read the lot of them and take lots of notes. I think Ms. Young's calls for more individualization, not less, in the pursuit of teaching children and teens is perhaps the best solution for this problem of swinging pendulums. Misogynist teaching is bad. So is Mis-andro-nist teaching, for want of a better word. Stressing differences is just as bad as trying to fit all kids into a one-size-fits-all unisex pedagogy. It's time to put the pendulum to rest.

* Life In Schools: An introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education by Peter McLaren is ©2003 Pearson Education, Inc. Excerpt from book reprinted under Fair Use provisions of the Copyright Act.