Thursday, July 29, 2010


I know this guy (we'll call him M) who's always seemed like a fairly OK guy. He's easy to talk to and has a habit of reading books that are interesting to me, and vice versa. I see him around town or campus occasionally, and we always stop and chat. So the other day I ran into him with a couple other mutual acquaintances, and we had this little conversation that eventually somehow turned to the whole Male Studies debacle. The other two just sort of rolled their eyes at the arguments made by Male Studies advocates but then had little else to say. But M wouldn't let the topic drop, and proceeded to mansplain to us how the current "climate" in academia serves to "disenfranchise" men. For real, you guys. He even referenced Christina Hoff Sommers, repeat winner of the Little Miss Colluder award. (OK, there is technically no such award, but there should be.)

Little Miss Colluder

So, anyway... My first reaction was "Disenfranchised? Are you kidding? Look who's disproportionately getting tenure. Look who occupies all the top administrative positions on most campuses. Disenfranchised? Seriously?" This response was met with some decisive but uncomfortable agreement from the other two participants in the discussion, but seemed unpersuasive to M. But since none of us seemed to be in a mood to argue, we wrapped up the conversation and headed our own separate ways. It was kind of depressing to walk away realizing that my seemingly well-informed and progressive friend was actually a bit of a douche.

Mister Not-Even-Close
But it also got me thinking about this alleged dynamic in education that favors girls and women. And I thought perhaps my initial response, although totally accurate and germane, didn't quite address the whole story. I mean, it's undoubtedly true that people who are already in academia experience this gender divide that clearly privileges men. And it's also true that male graduates are somewhat privileged when they first enter the job market; experiencing a certain amount of (probably unconscious) preferential treatment in the interviewing/hiring process and often starting out with higher entry-level salaries. But it's also true that this measuring of economic outcomes is not the only measure of whether or not academia serves men and women equally.

You've probably heard men's rights activists yammer on about how primary school is tailored for girls, who naturally sit quietly and passively all day long, are inherently cooperative and good listeners and not at all boisterous or curious or creative, like all boys inherently are. And since institutional schooling rewards passive learning and good rule-following, girls will automatically do better, right? Except, of course, that these tendencies have more to do with gendered socialization than with biological tendencies. And there's often a rather large disconnect between how well a student does in school and how well they do in the job market.

But more importantly, this just speaks to a problem with school in general. For children of all genders. We say we want our educational system to foster creativity and innovation and intellectual vigor and independence and curiosity in the adults these kids will become. And then we do everything we can to make them into "good listeners," which is code for passive rule-following sheep. And that's pretty much the opposite of the curious, creative, intellectually adventurous ideal that gets so much lip-service.

Don't get me wrong - I think good listening skills are essential in numerous ways. Constructive dialogue cannot occur without good listening. But when educators and parents talk about good listening, they almost always mean "you, the child, should shut up and listen to me, and then should unquestioningly do whatever it is I told you to do." And this is pretty much the opposite of the kind of listening skills involved in the open, respectful, reciprocal communication that we hope our kids will be capable of as adults. In other words, if teachers and parents don't listen to kids, then why the fuck would we expect kids to listen to us? And the sad reality is, adults often don't listen to kids, because we're so often preoccupied with the plethora of tasks (educational, social, household, etc) that need to be accomplished on a daily basis, or because we don't see them as humans that merit the respect involved in looking someone in the eye and listening to what they're saying.

But what does this have to do with gender? Obviously allowing for curiosity and creativity and physical interactivity and critical thinking in schools benefits both boys and girls. And to the extent that we forbid these things, academia disenfranchises students. But not just the boys. So maybe it's this problem with our school system that M and the rest of the school-is-bad-for-boys party are trying to articulate, but somehow it's going wrong and becoming a gender thing. If schools are set up to cater to the characteristics that girls are socialized to have, then that's a problem with both the gendered socialization and the educational model. But the results are still the same. Whether or not the boys struggle more than the girls at any educational level, men still come out ahead of women economically and politically. So saying that academia disenfranchises men not only seems willfully ignorant of the economic and political realities; it's also an incredibly douchey attempt to defend one's own privilege.


  1. Anonymous7/29/2010

    We say we want our educational system to foster creativity and innovation and intellectual vigor and independence and curiosity in the adults these kids will become. And then we do everything we can to make them into "good listeners," which is code for passive rule-following sheep.

    This is so dead on. I want to print this out and take it to one of the parent-teacher town meetings they do in our district.

  2. Lizzay7/29/2010

    Um, yeah. He's definitely a fauxgressive.

  3. I wonder what they mean by "disenfranchised." If you hold more positions of power in an institution, how can you be disenfranchised by it?

  4. MelbaToast7/30/2010

    I've heard the argument about school requiring "feminine" behavior patterns before, and it always seemed strange to me that the response is "oh the poor boyz!" How about "oh the poor kidz!" Everyone needs to be stimulated in multiple ways, not just to learn the material we want them to learn, but in order to thrive.

  5. I'm of Chinese descent on my mother's side, and my grandma told my sister and I once that the ancient belief in Chinese culture was that women naturally took small delicate steps and didn't enjoy rigorous physical activity. Of course, this was because upper-class women had their feet bound, so they couldn't do things any other way. Years later I realized that it's a good example of this kind of circular reinforcing feedback loop. You believe women naturally have some characteristic, so you impose an artificial means of enforcing that characteristic, and then it turns out that women do indeed have that characteristic. Except that lower-class women didn't have small feet and take tiny delicate steps, since their feet were left unbound so they could work in the fields and serve in the kitchen. But that didn't prevent people from viewing it as a universal feminine feature.

  6. Anonymous7/30/2010

    This kind of backlash is a close relative of the reverse racism bullshit that motivated the Sherrod debacle. As soon as your privilege is threatened in any way, you resort to extreme claims. Whatev.

  7. Minerva7/30/2010

    Puke! Why do so many guys who seem progressive turn out to be such chumps when it comes to feminism?

  8. Anonymous7/30/2010

    It's such a depressing dynamic, and it's happened to me more times than I can count unfortunately. Why isn't a progressive attitude in one area of your life contagious to all the other areas?!?

  9. dirtyhippie7/30/2010

    I think your points about our school system are spot-on. To me it's all a symptom of the institutionalization. Anytime you institutionalize something the predominant concerns become streamlining practices and efficiency and ease of management. You've noted this before concerning the way pregnancy and childbirth are done in the US. I think the same applies to education. The concern is no longer what would be best for the people you're serving, but how to make it easier on yourself and more homogenized. And docile rule-following sheep are just easier to handle in large groups.

  10. Anonymous7/31/2010

    Yeah, the institutionalization thing seems to be the key here. But you still have to talk like you're interested in these lofty goals in order to put a good public face on it.