Saturday, October 28, 2006

Experiments In Sexism

Says Kevin Drum, on single-sex public high schools:

As with so many issues in education, my first reaction is that experimentation is a good thing. Give it a try and see how it works. If it turns out as badly as Brad suggests, we can always kill it later.

I'm concerned that Brad Plumer is right, and that the goal of the experiment isn't going to be test scores going up or girls becoming scientists. What the authorities in some parts of Louisiana seem to want from single-sex education is character education designed to generate aggressive boys and meek, submissive girls. The Happy Feminist had the goods on this issue a while ago, when she described the theorizing behind some of their single-sex education proposals.

As Amanda said, "the guidelines are so ludicriously opposed to actually educating girls that they suggest that junior high school girls “learn” math by counting petals on flowers, while boys are being taught actual algebra."

47. Mr. Murphy explained that the approaches the Southside Junior High School would utilize were based on the work of Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian, two popular writers on gender differences...

58. In Why Gender Matters, Dr. Sax explains that because of sex differences in the brain, girls need real world applications to understand math, while boys naturally understand math theory. For instance, girls understand number theory better when they can count flower petals or segments of artichokes to make the theory concrete.

This part filled me with a special horror:

62. In Why Gender Matters, Dr. Sax explains that "anomalous males" -- boys who like to read, who don't enjoy competitive sports or rough-and-tumble play, and who don't have a lot of close male friends -- should be firmly disciplined, should spend as much time as possible with "normal males," and should be made to play competitive sports.

And so they will make high school an absolute hell for the smart nerdy boys who will write the software and develop the medicines of the future. Apart from the fact that I had a lot of close male friends with whom I played Magic a lot, I was more or less a paradigm "anomalous male." So was my friend Peter, now a physics grad student at MIT who has been awarded patents on photonic crystals. (I designed a really good blue-white Meekstone deck for him, I'll have you know.) The same for a lot of my male friends at Harvard, who are now populating the math, physics, and computer science graduate departments of the world. Plans like this would be a disaster for smart people of both genders.

Read Happy for more of this stuff. The idea of the states as laboratories in which you should conduct a bunch of experiments, from which wise leaders will pick the strategies that work and set aside the ones that don't, requires the leaders to be right about what counts as successful experiments. But if people out in the states see the perpetuation of ancient and terrible gender roles as a criterion of success, they may evaluate educational policies on that basis, and not on whether they turn out more capable students.


Mary said...

As much as I hate to contribute to sexism in the world, and while I agree that the "flower petal" example is horrifying, I do think there is some validity in the idea that how we relate to knowledge might be different. As an English teacher, I know that boys tend to do better with literature that appeals to their experience (don't we all?) As a horrible math/science student, and a substitute teacher now, I still see examples given that relate largely to the male experience (e.g. a middle school math class im which an example of a "360" in skateboarding was used to illustrate a geometry concept.) While some girls skate, my observation is that it's still largely a male experience. As a middle-aged female, my friends have reported, and it's been my experience, that we have done better with female math teachers. i think it would not be a bad idea to consider that males and females do approach the world and learning somewhat differently. It's probably best to avoid letting males define how females relate to the world, or it might be all flower petals and Barbie Dream Houses or whatever. I agree that there is danger in the single-sex idea, but also potential. It's important to really think about this and make sure we don't throw away the baby with the bath water.

Neil Sinhababu said...

That's interesting, Mary. Do you have any more specific thoughts about what made the female math teachers better for you and other women? I suppose that when it comes time to talk about applications of math in the real world, examples are helpful, and maybe female teachers give women better examples, as in the skateboarding case. But I'd think that such situations aren't especially common in math, since a lot of it is abstract enough that specific cultural references aren't necessary.

Mary said...

I tried to think carefully about this, and I can really only tell you that, as I was growing up, there was sometimes (or we perceived) a level of condescension when we needed further explanations of scientific or mathematical concepts, or if something might be potentially repugnant (a biology teacher telling us not to act all girly and squeamish when it was time to dissect a frog...although in college a male professor respectfully let anyone who so chose to forego the cat dissection.) While I agree tht higher level math is abstract enough that perhaps real world applications don't apply, such examples do apply when laying the foundations. For example, geometry is used in everyday life--cooking, remodeling, landscaping.