Msnowe's Blog

You Learn Like a Girl

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on April 9, 2010

If they could work together...

m.snowe comes across this pitch every now and then. The story goes like this: presentation of data on how females are doing well in school, and at an increasing rate. Then the comparison with male classmates. Then the question of just what must be done to “even the scales” on how we teach both sexes, as if this debate is all about bringing educational performance rates to a 50/50 ratio. Fine. It’s great to constantly revisit anything that has to do with the way we approach pedagogy, and what works, and what decidedly fails.

Enter Nick Kristof and his Op-Ed piece for the Times on March 27. m.snowe is not wont to criticize a man who has used his weight at the NYTimes to illuminate ongoing injustices against women across the globe. But hey, if those who seem to be on our side get things wrong, they should be told, for everyone’s sake.

The first paragraph:

“Around the globe, it’s mostly girls who lack educational opportunities…Yet these days, the opposite problem has sneaked up on us: In the United States and other Western countries alike, it is mostly boys who are faltering in school.”

The first sentence is completely accurate. Traditionally, and still in many (mostly developing or third-world countries) women lack the educational opportunities of their male peers. This means that governments, social systems, and familial customs prevent females from access to education, or only provide a certain degree of education that they feel is “fitting” for women, as compared to greater opportunities available to men.

But the second sentence already reveals Kristof’s either innocently skewed or intentionally incorrect bias: The opposite of girls lacking educational opportunity is not boys “flattering” in school. The true opposite would the denial of educational opportunity for boys. Historically, females have been denied access to education, regardless of their attitude for intense study. This is diametrically opposed to being given the same opportunities and not performing on an equal level. The only thing that has categorically changed in terms of men’s education is the (hopefully) equal access given to female peers. Boys aren’t being denied any type of education based solely on their sex–they are not performing as a group in comparison to women as a group. Both groups are being provided with the same opportunities. It’s up to each individual male or female to achieve. Even if Kristof is referring to this opposite as a “gender gap” between males and females in reading skills, this initial implication of unfair advantage to women is a complete falsification.

Kristof says:

“The latest surveys show that American girls on average have roughly achieved parity with boys in math. Meanwhile, girls are well ahead of boys in verbal skills, and they just seem to try harder.”

Again–same access to educational opportunity. Women seem to “try harder“? Is he tiptoeing around implications of aptitude, and merely saying that like a woman’s ability to say, stay home and clean house, women also have a higher tolerance for mundane, uninteresting tasks? Oh, thanks. What a compliment! So, like especially “gifted” children, perhaps all men are just so advanced they can’t stand the “mundane?” Please.

m.snowe isn’t sure what Kristof wants to imply about women with that quote, but he makes his opinion clearer when he says this:

“Some educators say that one remedy may be to encourage lowbrow, adventure or even gross-out books that disproportionately appeal to boys. (I confess that I was a huge fan of the Hardy Boys, and then used them to entice my own kids into becoming avid readers as well.)

Indeed, the more books make parents flinch, the more they seem to suck boys in. A Web site,, offers useful lists of books to coax boys into reading, and they are helpfully sorted into categories like ‘ghosts,’ ‘boxers, wrestlers, ultimate fighters,’ and ‘at least one explosion.'”

Another “disproportion,” according to Kristof: that boys inherently prefer ‘gross-out” books. While Kristoff sights actual data about educational performance at the beginning of his OpEd, he has now shifted into decidedly un-quantified territory–a scary land of gender bias.

With this statement, Kristof is making the unfair leap that boys and girls always like different things, that girls like “boring” (Kristof’s characterization) things, and boys unanimously appreciate blood, guts, and gore. Sure, some boys like that, just like some girls like Barbie dolls. But is that nature or nurture? And classroom by classroom, there are many boys who are drawn towards more traditionally “feminine” tastes, and vice-versa for females. While Kristof suggests that the Hardy Boys books are a good place to start with your sons, m.snowe can tell you she grew up devouring those stories, as well as the Hardy Boy-Nancy Drew Super Mysteries, and she’s a she.

As much as Kristof is clearly trying to help boys with his article, he is reinforcing stereotypes that ultimately restrict both gender’s ability to expand and explore during their education. Sure, make “gross out literature” more available if you want to encourage more reading for kids (of Both genders) who like that kind of stuff–because there will be boys and girls who like it. But, don’t intentionally try to steer boys to it and away from other things they might truly enjoy. Telling boys and girls what they “should” like is doubly dangerous–they will either feel stifled and constricted by their lack of choice or feel ashamed and question themselves for not liking what “they should,” and also possibly feel the need to hide their true feelings out of fear of being an outcast.

Also, one minor note that m.snowe would like to point out. The article also includes this:

“Mr. Whitmire argues that the basic problem is an increased emphasis on verbal skills, often taught in sedate ways that bore boys. ‘The world has gotten more verbal,’ he writes. ‘Boys haven’t.'”

As an important aside, it is a common misconceived notion that men speak fewer words than women in the course of their days and weeks. This has been proven false; both men and women verbalize around the same amount of words per day or week.

Has Kristof ever thought for a second that characterizing the current state of education as a segmented problem of the sexes only exacerbates the problem he thinks is at hand? His last sentence tells it all in terms of his own gender bias, and what he thinks about allowing boys and girls the option to choose for themselves what they want to like:

“If that means nurturing boys with explosions, that’s a price worth paying.”

To m.snowe, this means war. She’s ready and rarin’ to fight, explosions and all.

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