Last night's episode was about schools, and separate ones for girls and boys. The first schools shown were ones that had all boys' classes and all girls' classes; and right away, my antenna went up. It isn't just because I wouldn't have enjoyed the girls' classes, what with the emphasis on group work, but because gender essentialism is at its heart a rudimentary theory that refuses to take into account how society shapes the individual. I'm not fully a nurture advocate. I don't subscribe to the idea of a tabula rasa state. If nothing else, my sisters would have rid me of that notion right quick. But I do believe that our interactions within our society can modify our behaviors, and can influence the way we respond to and react with the world - and from incredibly young ages. From the moment girls and boys leave the womb, we as a society gender them. As the study "Maternal behaviour and perceived sex of infant" tells us, how we react to an infant is determined by what we presume to be the gender of the infant. In the experiment above, a group of mothers interacted with "Beth", and another group of mothers interacted with "Adam". The babies were described differently, and given different toys to play with depending on their gender. But "Beth" and "Adam" were really the same infant; those in the study projected their own beliefs about gender and babies onto "Beth-Adam". So too do the teachers highlighted by Nick News react to the students based on their own assumptions about gender. The social studies teacher claimed that he would find himself slipping into "Dad-mode" (paraphrased) while interacting with the girl class, but "Drill Sergeant" when interacting with the boys. That is a behavior that emerged based on what this teacher saw, and how his own perceptions of the situation influenced the situation. He became gentler with the girls, because that is what we are culturally indoctrinated to do. He became more authoritative with the boys, for the same reason. This reasoning - that girls are more docile, more temperate, more emotional, and more eager to please while boys are rambunctious and rowdy and disruptive - is based at least in part upon our social narrative. And it crops up in the darnedest places, like an article about presidents' children and why so many have been girls, theorizing:
"Campaigning and raising sons are mutually exclusive. Campaigning requires lots of travel, enormous amounts of time in the public eye and months and months of sitting down quietly and listening to the same guy talking while wearing your good clothes... ...It's torture on adults, let alone children. But it's worse for boys. Try this experiment: next month ask your son to be on his best behavior in front of other people, from now until November 2009... ..."Boys are generally more competitive, risk-taking and defiant, which makes them less manageable," says Meg Meeker M.D., author of Boys Should Be Boys and Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters... ...The Obama campaign was noted for its discipline, its rigor, and its self control: three things most young boys are not noted for. Of course, Obama didn't take Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, everywhere he campaigned. But long fatherly absences make the boys even more likely to be unhelpful. "If dad's away on the campaign trail a lot, [boys'] tendencies towards defiance and impulsivity are exacerbated," says Meeks."
This is the kind of attitude that is reflected in the separate classes with separate teaching styles for the two genders. But let's look at this logically, starting with the idea that campaigning and raising sons are mutually exclusive. Duh. You know what else is mutually exclusive? Campaigning and raising daughters. Because campaigning is a long ass job, and it sucks up a lot of time and energy; it requires the campaigner to be away from home for huge swaths of time. Without being home, and without having time to devote to the kids, a person cannot parent. Thus, the idea that it is only in the case of boys that parenting and campaigning is mutually exclusive jut isn't realistic. As is asking a child to be on his or her best behavior in front of other people through an entire year. It isn't going to happen. There will be a meltdown at some point; and the younger the child, the sooner that meltdown will probably happen. Because kids - boys and girls - aren't going to be able to do that, to sublimate their own desires and own responses in front of other people for an entire year. And parental absence won't do any child any favors, because feeling like you've been abandoned and your daddy isn't there to do all those things he did before is going to create a less than ideal situation no matter what gender the child is.
But there's this: boys may be more defiant and more impulsive and more rowdy on places like campaign trails and classrooms because there is already the expectation in place that they will be. This is not an attitude they encounter only on campaign trails and classrooms, but at home and in public as well. "Boys will be boys", and so boys are socialized into a certain role. We as a society expect boys to be rowdy, so we see them as rowdy. Kind of like how if you get a red car, you are more likely to notice the red cars on the road to the point where it appears that red cars are suddenly more prevalent; but in reality, we are just attuned to red cars and so are seeing more of them. We become drill sergeants, and in some cases we become more permissive. And because we have this idea in our head of how boys behave, evidence to the contrary - like moments of sweetness or calmness or emotionality - are either swept under the rug or we correct that behavior with the likes of "boys don't cry". Same thing with girls. I have no doubt that some girls are naturally passive creatures. But if boys are rowdy and girls are sweetly attentive - if boys prefer to compete and girls prefer to work cooperatively - then when a girl is rowdy or a boy likes group projects, they are deviating from the norm. They are more likely to be subject to negative reinforcement; and their behavior and their personalities do not threaten the overall meme of "boys=this" and "girls=that". That is the problem with the essentialist argument in a nutshell; it is concerned with demographics and not individuals. And these types of classrooms only reinforce the notion that girls are from Venus while boys are from Mars; they indoctrinate kids with the idea that boys and girls are so incredibly different that they are almost foreign to one another; that girls and boys really and truly can never understand each other.
There are other public schools experimenting with the all boys and all girls system. And in situations where the teaching styles are not tempered by gender but by student or class, I have less of a problem. There have been studies done, and the studies concluded that sometimes same-sex schools are better and sometimes mixed schools work better; but that seems to be because of the already existing quality of the school itself. A prestigious all girls school is going to be better than a mediocre mixed school. But the issue still remains, as one girl forced into an all girl class said, that the world is not gender divided. Girls and boys both need to learn how to interact in "work" environments; and schools, along with teaching academic subjects, also facilitate social learning. We learn how to stand interacting with people we don't like, we learn how to work with people of differing viewpoints, and we (hopefully) learn how to work through embarrassment over doing things like reading poetry in class in front of a group of people who may contain a crush-worthy subject. Because that's life.