Monday, October 18, 2010

Feminization of Education? Nah, dearth of critical thinking.

This week the Globe and Mail published a small article called “Five Reasons Why Boys Are Failing.” A friend of mine sent me the link to the article and, as I read it, I was more and more astounded. Here are the five reasons boys are failing:
1. Role Models
2. Video Games
3. The Boy Code
4. Developmental Differences

And, wait for it,

5. The Feminization of Education

I’m going to speak to the last point, but I have to say that one of the things that concerns me about this article (which is written about elementary school and high school boys specifically) is its dearth of critical thinking.

Don’t get misread me. I’m not implying that I don’t want boys to do well in school. I am, however, certainly implying that this article suggests the shift to more single-parent homes, the emergence of stars as role models, the masculinization of “toughness,” and the size of one’s brain cannot be the only factors in an individual’s education. If the system isn’t working, it isn’t working for everyone. The underlying message in this article seems to be that if these five issues are solved boys will do better.

Huh. Which boys? Where? Boys in Hobbema? Boys in Bella Bella? Boys in the G.T.A? Boys in Yarmouth? But I digress.

OK, let’s look at section five: This section is accompanied by a still from the 2008 film remake of Anne of Green Gables. Referred to as “the darling of English teachers everywhere” Anne of Green Gables is also a good way to stop boys from wanting to read. Well, as performance artist Dayna McLeod has shown, Anne can also make you gay. So watch out.

The argument in this section claims that boys don’t like flashbacks, but prefer linear narrative; they don’t relate to their English teachers who are “mostly all women,” and they prefer male protagonists. Disregarding for the moment the lack of evidentiary support here’s my issue: making declarative claims about choice seems, oh, I don’t know, presumptuous at best. At the worst it is myopic and deterministic. These claims shut down the potential for making choices, they disregard those boys (and men!) who don’t prefer linear narrative (or girls and women who do...), and most insidiously, these claims assume that a teacher—male or female—isn’t teaching his or her students the critical thinking skills they need to think through a text’s construction.

The Globe article is by no means the first to talk about the feminization of education. As one of the commentators notes, Christina Hoff Summers has been writing about this for a while. Yes, this C.H.S...

I’ve only started to touch on the myriad of issues here. As I see it this article indicates a gendering of education that is binary, Anglo-centric, and dangerously conservative. But maybe I’m being grouchy. What do you think?

16 comments:

  1. Funny that those very videogames that boys can't get enough of frequently have plots rich in flashbacks and other non-linear storytelling techniques.

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  2. I bought the G & M on Saturday, but couldn't get past the front page. Selfishly, I wanted to enjoy my breakfast without having to choke on misogyny. EW, thanks for reading & responding, especially when you were sick. The front page photo (of McMaster U's welcome session for new medical school students, showing a *shocking* six young women in the front row of a lecture hall) & caption, "Where are all the boys?" is a visual representation of the girl-hate that generates these kinds of articles in the first place. With your indulgence, I would like to provide an answer to this front-page challenge based on the observation skills I have developed over the course of my feminized education. Question: Where are all the boys? Answer: In the second row. Cropped out of the picture to the right and the left. This image, which focuses its gaze on six young women in lab coats, mini skirts, pointy shoes and bedazzled purses at their feet, is meant to terrify the masses: who are these flighty, Twilight-loving tweens about to take over the world, or at least the hospitals?

    Now I've moved past the front page and have started my Monday with the article. What a load of crap. At the risk of sounding like an 'up-by-their-bootstraps' kind of neo-liberal, I want to suggest the following: girls know that they have to work hard to get A's. They know that they have to write neatly, speak clearly and not get into fist fights if they want to have any hope of ever being taken seriously. As Abraham notes, "it's still a man's world. Men run the vast majority of countries and companies, and even when women have the same level of education, men still bring home more bacon" (A17). Rather than blaming women English teachers for choosing girl books (which, by the way it's figured in column 2 of A19, girl books seem to be super tricky ones that expect students to keep going even if there isn't "action in the first few pages" and plots that are non-linear with extra hard narrative strategies like "flash backs") that don't capture the imaginations of boys (hate for lady English teachers, hate for girl books), let's understand that popular and even underground culture cultivates the impression that if you are a dude, then you will be the hero; even if you are a slacker loser, you will still be the hero. And, conversely, almost every aspect of global culture cultivates the impression that if you are a girl, you will very rarely do anything important--even if you are very diligent and smart--besides create a welcome distraction, a loyal companion, or an evil foil for the heroes, who are dudes.


    (To be continued...) I can't stop...

    T.L. Cowan
    Assistant Professor
    Women's & Gender Studies & English
    University of Saskatchewan

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  3. Hey, I haven't even read Anne of Green Gables!

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  4. @ Matt: SHREWD observation, my friend! Wonder how that slipped by the authors of the G&M article?

    @ T.L. (Who, by the way, is responsible for my awareness of the fabulous work of Dayna McLeod: thanks friend!): Your reaction is so similar to mine and, frankly, chimes very much with one of the reasons Heather cites for starting this blog--the total lack of women among the super-elite CERCs.

    I should also give a should out to V.M.D-R and C.I. for sending this article my way. Thanks!

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  5. Obviously, I should have just submitted an article to you!

    Here's the rest of my Monday rant:

    I see all sorts of students doing well in my classes: the common denominator is that A students are the ones who do the work, who proof-read their assignments, who do compelling research, who come to class, who keep up with the readings and who ask questions when they don't understand a concept. While certainly there are reasons why some students will have fewer barriers to success than others, it's not a mystery how to be successful in school. If boys need to be "pushed" (A17) more than girls, maybe it's because this boy-and-man-centred culture leads them to believe that they'll get ahead just by being dudes, no work required. I suggest that most girls are not under that illusion.

    If the education system is slightly inclined to provide encouragement to girls by way of indicating that if they work hard, they will win, well, I don't think that serves much of an explanatory function for why boys "fail," especially when we consider that almost every aspect of global culture that isn't produced by education consultants provides encouragement of all forms to boys (though often without the 'work hard' part). Basically, girls know that if they want to get their degrees, they have to have their shit together. Perhaps the only thing (white) boy students need to succeed are little sticky notes taped to their lockers and fridges: "Dude, get your shit together." And frankly, all of this ink and energy spent on worrying about boy students and their self esteem and under-achievement, well, it's just another way to diminish the achievements of girls and to blame (single) mothers and women teachers for ruining this boy generation (even if the experts cited in the G & M article claim that's not what's going on in their concern for boy students - I call BS). In a nutshell, this whole white-boys-failing trope is just another way to undermine and hate women and girls.

    And, as you point out, EW, here we're only talking about gender. What are the ways that a racist, colonial culture also makes it necessary for racialized students to ignore, and/or fight against, almost every version of brown and blackness in news media and popular and underground culture in order to believe that they can succeed in the educational system? EW, you are right. This article is dangerous, as is so much of news media analysis, because of its lack of critical thinking; it either refuses to acknowledge, or (and this is my suspicion), is incapable of acknowledging the complexity of a set of issues that it takes up in order to pad the G & M's newly-colour-rich pages with reactionary, poorly conceptualized pulp.

    Happy Monday.

    tl

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  6. I found it super strange that someone by the name of "Kate hammer" was the author, or poster of this lack of information.

    The sad part is, I know too many people who are going to pick that up, and start saying "change the curriculum so feminine books aren't allowed". Which makes me wonder what counts as feminine literature? Or, worse "get rid of women teachers, they are destroying our children".

    I just sat through my childrens lit prof talking about how much he hated Anne of Green Gables when he was a kid, and how much he loves it as a man for its complex story line, and absolutely important choices that little Anne had to make. Last time I checked, aren't sons more expected to stay and work in the family business instead of going to school to get degrees?
    But I digress. The part about that article that bothers me most, is that it is a blatant attack on women and girls. It reminds me of the poster that was posted on the second day this blog went up (though that was a satirical poster, and this seems less funny). Where is the article that states that women are just as good as men at math, its only social conditioning that influences young girls to think they are bad at math, which has been studied extensively. Where is the article that is actually citing good sources to back up miss Kate hammers opinions. I saw no psychological study that says that all boys will like books with more action in them. No empirical record of study where any of her claims are backed up.

    Is the media now taking it upon itself to tell young boys that they have to be uninteresting, big and dumb oafs like on TV. (reminded of every sitcom from "the Simpson's" to "Family guy" to "the world according to Jim") I wonder, from two weeks ago seeing a "women and power" section of the newspaper talking about the disparity of wages and job positions (just lightly touching on the undervalue of childcare in the workplace) in men and women in high areas of influence, and now this.

    I am reminded as to why I don't like watching the news, or reading newspapers. Perhaps I should go back to my little bubble of "oh there was an earthquake where?".

    All I could say when I first read the article is "what the hell is this". My critical reasoning skills still incline that to be the summation of my total reaction.

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  7. This article is only the beginning in a series that lasts week long. Today's front page headline: "The Endangered Male Teacher."

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  8. I'm in the middle of reading through the September 1925 issue of Western Home Monthly, and stumbled across a completely apropos opinion piece written by Emily Murphy under her pen name "Janey Canuck" on the subject of the law in Manitoba that prohibited married women from teaching. I'd like to shared the following quote with you:

    "The whole crux of the trouble lies in the fact that the profession is much more remunerative than formerly. School-teaching used to be a 'woman's profession' and unworthy of serious male effort. Those were the days when the woman teacher was only 'a school m'arm,' and very poor prunes indeed.

    When the profession became better paid, the unemployed male decided of a sudden that this was a 'man's job' and that boys were in sore need of a teacher who was capable of leading in athletics. Just that!"

    The reasons may have changed, but the cultural prohibition against women in positions of power or prestige remains.

    On another note, I'd like to mention how much difficulty I've had responding to these articles and being made to feel as though me belief in equity and my feminism are being deliberately pitted against one another in a way that vilifies feminism alongside the "feminine" in general (e.g. "feminized" education and female teachers). I do not glory in the downfall of boys, and I do believe that we need an education system that is sensitive to difference no matter how that difference is manifested. But an article that blames Anne of Green Gables for ruining male intelligence? I dunno, maybe somebody should send Ben Lefebvre a memo.

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  9. What depresses me is that this stuff is still being written. I remember reading articles like this 20 years ago. And I still stick by my position that this is backlash.

    People (we, feminists...) worked hard to improve the education available to girls and women. We fought to get women admitted. To get girls education to be basically the same as boys education in terms of content.

    So, yes, compared to earlier historical periods, the proportion of girls/women doing well in education is high. But that's what happens when you start to dismantle (white, European, etc) male privilege.

    Of course the other thing that is going on in the Anne of Green Gables example is an assumption that teaching English is all about learning to read. And reading enjoyable things. Cheryl's comment suggests that the reason it is used is because of the deeper themes it opens up. When did "liking" it (or not) become relevant to whether it is educationally worthwhile?

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  10. @ Everyone: What engaged comments.

    Here's what worries me is the outpouring of binary gender concerns. In addition to the little article that set me off, in addition to Magrit's mention of the latest G&M title, there's also the present cover of Macleans. In fact when I check my mailbox this morning Dalhousie Magazine has an article entitled "Gender balance in the student body." Here's the tag line: "Increasingly, seats in university classrooms are being filled by female students. Why?"

    In addition to the astounding sexism (why shouldn't girls be in school? Do no women play video games? etc.) I'm reminded again of the lack of qualifying research: who are these boys? How does race figure in? Where is the class analysis?

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  11. I'm reminded of a cartoon sketch published in The Gazette when I was working at McGill in 2006 (April 10, 2006) that showed a row of boys waiting in front of the registrar's office with Playboy magazines and the tagline: "The upside is we might have found a way to reverse the drop-out rate among boys...."

    The sketch was mocking McGill's presence in Playboy, however, it draws attention to "failing" boys, even at the university level.

    I'm also reminded of U of A President, Indira Samarasekera's comment on the missing "males" to run our companies.

    http://www.edmontonsun.com/news/edmonton/2009/11/02/11611186.html

    My primary concern is that this "missing male" discourse places the blame on women and feminism.

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  12. Blogger will want this broken up...

    I’ve been following research regarding boys in education for the last two years (since my son entered the school system). Some of the work, Peg Tyre’s The Trouble with Boys for example, is excellent and compelling. Public libraries have had a lot of success with non-fiction reading clubs for men (male users generally borrow non-fiction) and I would suggest that non-fiction is just as appropriate for learning to read as fiction. A diversity of material is always good, but if your high schoolers can’t get behind Catcher in the Rye, give ‘em Into the Wild (I think a large number of non-fiction writers might be offended by the idea that fiction is better for developing skills in critical thinking and analysis)

    As a boy, I was quite bored with the reading at school. My first real memory of reading is when I was summarily disciplined for reading the Lord of the Rings in grade three when it was inappropriate. Children's fantasy or children's novels in general, often suggested by well-meaning teachers and librarians of both genders, never interested me. Only four teachers ever understood my interest in reading, (and only one or two university professors, and only a handful of grad students, hence why I often feel excluded from my peers). In hindsight, I see the gender mix is even in that account.

    My own son's experience has been different (so far); he's fine academically, ahead of the curve in reading and math, but not so great with fine motor. That said, he isn't easily contained by the structure of a class. I've seen good and not-so-good teachers over the course of his two years. Teachers whose idea of physicality is quiet, structured play and teachers who understand that anything quiet and structured isn't play at all. I wouldn't be surprised if my son didn't go to university, not because he's not smart enough, but because he appears to be a triangle in a land of square shapes.

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  13. and part II:

    The issue of gender, I would argue, really masks the big problems in education and any discussion of male vs. female learning really reflects the fact that the education system, from primary to post-secondary, is poorly-designed and executed with a series of assumptions that don't hold well.

    There are a lot of questions we need to ask: How do we teach the unteachable? Would different classrooms work better? Is the role of early education content or socialization? Where does the body fit into the models of education? Why are we sitting? What would or might be the result of having gender parity among teachers? What would primary school classrooms be like with two teachers, one male and one female? Why do we, as a society, so willing to underfund education? Why do we use grades as incentives when we know they don't work (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html)? Who benefits from grades? Why do institutions support them? How do we, by teaching in those institutions, act as oppressors or encourage negative stigmas regarding intelligences other than the academic kind?
    Treating education as a protracted University entrance process is not an effective model of education or, I would suggest, humanity (http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html).

    Every semester, I use the first week of classes to explore learning styles with my students. In every "university" class I've taught, the demography of the classroom has been what Education scholars predict it would be: a large number of Logical Learners, a few Practical Learners, and then a very low percentage of Imaginative and Enthusiastic learners.

    In the "outreach" courses I teach--evening and weekend courses in which the students are largely adults learners who the system flushed out years ago--the demographics are radically different. On Tuesday nights, I teach a class of over 50% Enthusiastic learners. In my daytime classes, I've never had more than 10% of that style. Many of these people have deep anxieties over their experiences in schools and the teaching I've been doing has been very rewarding, but also very different, requiring different kinds of teaching, emotions, and content.

    Those students who earn A's in our "mainstream" courses are often the students the system has been molded to and are a self-fulfilling prophecy. As university instructors, who are a product of a system founded on folklore and assumption, if we are truly radical, cannot teach the way we like to be taught; if we are really going to teach, we have to reach out--from primary to post-secondary--to a much larger idea of humanity than male and female. Such discussions are band-aids on a much larger problem, akin to Zizek's discussion of charity, capitalism, and poverty.

    Sorry to get manifesto-e, but this is the stuff that keeps me up at night.

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  16. I just wanted to point out that at the end of Anne of Green Gables, Anne gives up her entrance scholarship to university to stay at home and take care of Marilla. Anne sacrifices her ambitions, also, to support Gilbert in his pursuit of an education--to become a doctor. If anything, the book puts forth a message that encourages women to stay at home and support their man's pursuits. In this novel, boys, not girls, get the message that they'll succeed--and have their women to support them too.

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