Tina K. Russell

March 1, 2008

Seperate, but Equal

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:15 pm

Single-Sex Public Education – Children and Youth – Schools – Gender – New York Times


Here’s a New York Times Magazine article on a crusader for single-sex education. I cannot express how fundamentally I am against this, but the bottom line–the gut issue–for me is that I am transsexual, and I would have been put in the wrong class, where I would have languished, been bullied, and ultimately probably dropped out or killed myself. I’m not merely being melodramatic; transsexual suicide rates are estimated to be ghastly, and I just feel bad for the little kid me trapped in that horrifying alternate universe where single-sex education has spread across the country.

Nevermind that any of the muddled figures showing that single-sex education may help are irreparably tainted by the fact that parents who send their kids to such schools tend to be–quelle shock–more actively involved in children’s lives. What gets to me is that… this guy uses brain research to justify teaching boys and girls differently, to the point of putting them in separate rooms and using entirely different sets of methods. What happens to kids like me, who just don’t fit in? I don’t know.

It’s irrefutable that there are biological differences between women and men, and America is facing something of a boys’ crisis in education, with girls considerably more likely to graduate high school and go to college. But it you’re using brain studies to write your lesson plans, you’re missing the goddamn point. Those are, like Supreme Court cases, meant to isolate very small phenomena and make very specialized observations on very specific tendencies. Importing those wholecloth, from the lab to the chaos of a classroom, is a recipe for disaster. And I nearly barfed at his talks about how boys need to be active, whereas girls need to have time to ponder the subtle things. Do girls not need to be active and engaged? Do boys not need to learn to slow down and understand difficult concepts? Certainly, these are mere tendencies, but this crusader–whose name, all right, is Dr. Leonard Sax–seems to think they are absolute, Berlin Wall-like divisions.

And the real blow to my heart came when he said that it is futile, and frustrating, when you attempt to teach a five-year-old boy to read. I could read at five, you ass. I actually learned to read at four, which is thought to be impossibly early. And yes, my birth certificate says I’m a male, ordaining that I would drink beer, slack off, and have mindless sex during college (and women are unimpeachable on any of those vices, of course). The bigger problem here, though, is that he is attempting to prescribe a full set of educational methods to half the population at a time.

Well, I will say that perhaps that is preferable to the typical method, which is one set of educational methods for the entire population, regardless of how they respond to it. Looking to brain research while ignoring the students in front of you is bad, but ignoring both is probably worse. So, though perhaps he has made a breakthrough in dividing the classroom, long thought (incorrectly) to contain a monolithic bloc of children, into two categories, we really have a long way to go.

The truth is that we need to divide the classroom into one damn category per student. I was horrified when I read that Dr. Sax praised a teacher who had once comforted (or attempted to comfort) a student by saying to him, what would his dad think of him, misbehaving in class? Would that make him proud? Obviously, this was meant to be a Tim Allen manly-bonding moment. Growing up mislabeled as a boy, I never would have responded to that (besides, my dad was always plenty proud of me, whatever I was doing). It just chills me to my core because he could have really hurt that child’s feelings. Maybe the boy responded to it positively, I don’t know. But the strong implication here is that this was an approach he was recommending for boys–all boys–and that is unacceptably cold.

What else is there? He glorified the old tradition of the boy going from the fancy boys’ school to the fancy girls’ school and asking pretty young Jane out on a date, as opposed to the more casual dating we have now, which he summarizes (incorrectly) as consisting of blowjobs. I got angry because I don’t like that tradition… at all. First of all, what about gay kids? That formulation assumes everyone is heterosexual. But then…. I’m timid, and venturing into the other sex’s domain would probably be too much for me, whether I were a girl at a girls’ school or a student at a boys’ school mistaken for a boy.

But the biggest thing that bothers me about this romanticization of the old Golly-Gee-I-Brought-You-Flowers style of dating (the one where only one night a year were girls permitted to ask boys to a dance) is because I rather like the new universe where it’s accepted wisdom that the best way for relationships to happen is for the two parties to get to know each other. You know, discover each other, become friends, see if they get along… get close. That’s not possible if requests for personal interaction are done like diplomatic entreaties, and the only two settings for a relationship between a girl and a boy are “going steady” and “zero.” (You could argue that, sure, boys and girls can be just friends in any setting, but it’s discouraged–heavily–in single-sex settings by the nature of the setting itself, and I don’t like that.) I’m sickened by the old idea that boys and girls should be kept separate except for specific situations… it casts a shadow over ordinary male-female friendships, and makes people assume they “must” be dating or there’s something “between” them. The main problem, though, is that it prevents ordinary interaction between boys and girls, exchanging of ideas and methods of learning. It’s true that boys and girls, on the whole, tend to learn differently, and that’s why it’s best for them to be together: if they learn different ways, they’ve probably learned different things, and they’d probably each benefit from the exchange.

In fact, a monolithic environment is terrible for productivity; ask any HR director (and if you’re a woman, you might want to look into engineering, a field that shoots itself in the foot repeatedly by failing to attract the women who could change the industry). Any feminist, like me, who admits that there are differences between men and women (after all, if there weren’t, there wouldn’t be transsexuals) ought to be opposed to mandatory single-sex education for that reason alone.

In fact, the one case study in that article that my blood doesn’t boil over is the women’s public high school in Harlem. First of all, it’s a high school, so kids already have a good amount of self-awareness and self-sufficiency, and have already been socialized to a great extent. (In fact, I think we ought to give teenagers more responsibility and, by extension, power over their lives, so they don’t become restless and rebellious and are instead engaged, productive, and respected by us snarky adults. But, that’s another post, and implementing this idea would require adults to stop treating a) children like precious mineral ore and b) teenagers like dirt, neither of which, no matter how critical they are to society, will happen in 10,000 years. Okay, I’m being cynical… but it’s a concern of mine.) The second thing about this Harlem women’s school is that it’s voluntary… parents have to send their kids to this school, so it’s not attempting to wrench single-sex education into bread-and-butter public education, which cannot handle the logistical load nor the social consequences. But I’ll admit readily that my unease toward single-sex education stems mainly from the fact that I’m transsexual, and I wasn’t out in elementary school, and I would have been put in the wrong category, where I would have languished. To this day I’m really bitter whenever I see feminist events celebrating girls–“Girls Rock,” “Rock and Roll Camp for Girls,” etc.–not because they’re bad, because I imagine they are, in fact, quite good, but because I was immensely jealous of them when I was a kid. I wanted to sell some damn cookies. I stopped playing schoolyard soccer in middle school because the boys were getting older and more competitive, and I just wanted to kick a ball around and have fun. I started hanging out with the girls, who would bounce a volleyball around a circle and just talk.

(Note that there are plenty of boys who hang mostly around girls, and vice versa, and that doesn’t mean they’re transsexual or anything. I just want to point out that rigid categories leave people out, which is hardly “no child left behind.”)

So I’m saying that gender differences are present, and they are palpable, and single-sex education forced upon me would have been the worst thing in the world for me. I’m even skeptical of voluntary single-sex education, imagining a young boy who thinks he might be gay or transsexual being put in an all-boys school by a rowdy father who wants to make a man out of him (see the most recent episode of The Boondocks). When something upsets the little kid inside of me, I go into a fire-dragon rage and look to bust somebody up. …In a perfectly Quaker, non-violent way.

‘Cause if you’re messing with little kid me… you’re messing with me.

P.S. In case you don’t get my argument, this should be enough to turn you off Dr. Sax’s movement, forever.

On that November day in Foley, Ala., William Bender pulled a stool up to a lectern and began reading to his fourth-grade boys from Gary Paulsen’s young-adult novel “Hatchet.” Bender’s voice is deep and calm, a balm to many of his students who lack father figures or else have parents who, Bender says, “don’t want to be parents. They want to be their kids’ friends.” Bender paused to ask one of his boys, who said he was feeling sick, “Are you going to make it, brother?” Then he kept reading. “ ‘The pain in his forehead seemed to be abating. . . .’ What’s abating, gentlemen?” The protagonist of “Hatchet” survives a plane crash and finds himself alone by an insect-infested lake. Bender encouraged his boys to empathize. They discussed how annoying it is, when you’re out hunting, to be swarmed by yellow flies.

Meanwhile, in Michelle Gay’s fourth-grade class, the girls sang a vigorous rendition of “Always Sisters” and then did a tidy science experiment: pouring red water, blue oil and clear syrup into a plastic cup to test which has the greatest density, then confirming their results with the firsthand knowledge that when you’re doing the dishes after your mother makes fried chicken, the oil always settles on top of the water in the sink.

Buh-arf. If you want to continue this anecdote, by the way, rent But I’m a Cheerleader. There, it continues.

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