I work hard to listen carefully to my students. It shows respect for them and respect for girls’ voices, it gives me a chance to learn from and about them, and it gives me the chance to be a role model to them. Yet I confess, on occasion, I do deliberately interrupt them. One such occasion is when they say “We all think…” and I will interrupt to ask who “we all” is and how they know “we all” think that way. They rephrase, “My two friends here and I think…” and I go back into active listening mode. One of the highlights of the 2009-2010 Humanities 7 class was one February when a student said, “Most of us think…” and then looked at me slyly and said, “Did you notice I said ‘most of us’? (I smiled and nodded) See? I have been listening to you!”
My impatience with generalizations goes back a long way and runs deep. I remember taking my son (now 19) to play groups when he was three and listening to the other parents there (all moms). And I noticed there was a world of difference in how I reacted to statements like “Men don’t help with child care” vs. “Far too often, women still end up spending more time caring for children then men do.” The underlying sentiments are substantially similar. But one phrasing sits as an immutable pronouncement from on high which renders invisible an entire subset of a group of people, while the other expresses a general tendency even as it acknowledges variance.
Recently, one of my online friends shared a Christina Hoff Sommers article with me entitled “How to Make School Better for Boys.” The article intrigued me as father to a son even as it put me on my guard as a gender activist and girls school educator. Ms. Sommers didn’t disappoint on both counts, from one perspective pointing out the genuinely disturbing statistic that “Women in the United States now earn 62 percent of associate’s degrees, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and 52 percent of doctorates.” Yet, in painting a picture of college admissions officers increasingly desperate to recruit men, she writes that “Officials at schools at or near the tipping point… are helplessly watching as their campuses become like retirement villages, with a surfeit of women competing for a handful of surviving men,” a statement that is deeply disturbing on a whole different level. And she completely dismisses the reality of a stubbornly persisting gender wage gap (for one example, men earn significantly more than women right out of college) by stating, “Even those who acknowledge that boys are losing in school argue that they’re winning in life. But the facts are otherwise.” I have no doubt that we need to take a hard look at how many schools are doing many boys a disservice. But I also have no doubt that broad generalizations that overstate her case and misrepresent those with differing perspectives are not helping.
The 2007-2008 Humanities 7 class entered our school at the tipping point between the perception that boys did better at school than girls and the perception that the opposite was true. Intrigued by newspaper headlines at the time, they designed a unit whose theme question was, “Are girls smarter than boys?” and engaged in research involving a number of other middle schools. Their findings – neither girls nor boys are inherently smarter, but it is more socially acceptable for girls to do well in school – both mirrored what would come to be the consensus explanation for the phenomenon and presaged an ever-increasing gender gap in schools.
The key phrase here is “in schools.” The achievement gap between boys and girls has widened in the last six years, and we are indeed at the point where many colleges are struggling to recruit men. That is unquestionably a concern. Yet, the existence of what Rachel Simmons calls “The Curse of the Good Girl” is unquestionably one of the factors in this phenomenon, and it shows girls are no better served by the current situation than boys.
What does this mean to us as students, teachers, parents, and alumnae/i of a girls school? I believe it means committing to the mission of our school, allowing and encouraging our students to develop their authentic selves and voices free of gender boxes and stereotypes (including those that Curse them), allowing and encouraging the same of ourselves. I believe it means encouraging all schools to reflect our mission with their own populations. I also believe it means working toward a society that will also recognize and react to who people actually are than whom they are perceived to be. And finally, I believe it means understanding that institutionalized patriarchy is not going anywhere anytime soon, and that hurts all our children – girls, boys, and also the often invisible population of people who do not identify according to the traditional gender binary.