The Feminization of School

boy with raised hand in classrommI’ve been saving up some articles over the summer to share with you. One bothered me so much that I have been thinking about it for some time. Years ago, our son and I were in a community theater production of Oliver Twist. It was before we discovered his voice – the voice which allowed him to go to the American Boychoir School (which has just closed, sad to say). He tried out for the part of Oliver, but because he was going to be gone for 10 days in the middle of rehearsals, the director decided to put him in a smaller role which did have several lines and to make him the understudy for the boy playing Oliver. There was some thought that they would make the lead character a girl as there were few boys who tried out, but eventually the part was given to a boy who did a great job. However, at one school in the UK, the school went ahead and cast a girl as “Olivia Twist.”

The mother who wrote the article pointed out that boys did try out for the main part, but the teacher who was directing the play had decided early on to give the part to a girl in the interest of equality. The article was written several years after the event because, over time, the mother realized the effect that this event had on her son. In trying to even the playing field so that students have equal access, the school actually did the opposite, by creating a situation where boys felt that either they were not good enough for the role, or that girls needed help to be as good as the boys. The son of the writer told her that the female teachers usually called on the girls for answers and so eventually he stopped trying.

The second part of the article that flabbergasted me was the writer’s description of how the school treated her verbal, sensitive son who, at 5 years old, liked to talk to adults. Because the boy was not exhibiting what the school assumed was normal boy behavior, running around the playground (in her words) like a headless chicken, the school decided that the boy must be autistic and had him evaluated. The mother was concerned, but pleased when the expert agreed that the boy was not autistic. Her point was that the boy was being judged on his gender, not on his behavior. Not all boys and not all girls are the same – teachers who look at a child who does not fit the stereotype as somehow different, or developmentally challenged, need to learn what the ranges of normal behavior do, and do not, include.

As a 7th grader, I was tall and academically strong, but I was also socially awkward. I didn’t learn how to get along with my classmates until I went to a girls’ school where I could focus on becoming comfortable in my own skin. Had there been boys around, I know I would have retreated further and further into books instead of finding out what I could do. At my 50th high school reunion, my classmates were somewhat surprised at the woman I have become, but I was on my way when we graduated because of the choices that I was allowed to make at school.

We can guess at the skills that a child will have when he or she grows up, but we do not know for sure what that child will become. Children need the opportunity to develop in many ways; when teachers make assumptions about a child’s interests, skills, and abilities, they limit that child’s future. The article that is referenced here states that since almost all teachers are female, the teachers assume that girls are the norm and that their style is the best way to learn. That’s bad enough, but then when they give girls advantages on the theory that girls need extra help, they hurt both boys and girls. Girls, because they assume that they do not have sufficient skills to succeed; boys, because they assume that their skills are not good enough.

Some years ago, there was a big push to interest girls in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses and, as a result, around 10 years ago, the percentage of women graduates from US universities with degrees in mathematics was close to 50%. Last year, that percentage was only 42%, indicating that women are again not choosing to major in technological areas. Why should that be true, when so much effort has been put to encouraging girls in these areas? I think that it’s this very effort to “help” girls that has them thinking that they need this extra help. If schools actually treated boys and girls as equals, this would’nt come up.

So … how to treat children as equals? That’s the bedrock question question. Instead of equalizing treatment, school has tried to create equality by giving girls extra help in STEM and by giving boys extra help in verbal tasks. The result seems to be that girls are less interested in science and boys less able in reading and writing. We need to rethink this push for equality and start teaching children on their own merits.