Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mean Girls

As I began wrote this post, I found it spiraling out of control. I realized that I had a lot to write on this topic, and that trying to fit it into a single piece wasn't going to work. Consequently, I've broken this into three posts, all of which are only moderately meandering.

A while back, the wife and I were shopping for school supplies at the almighty Wal-mart. As she searched for the perfect spiral-bound composition book and I sought a two-pocket folder that didn't look totally lame, I came across a brightly-colored binder with a childish drawing of a rocket. Looking closer, I read the words "Boys are stupider...send them to Jupiter."

Now, normally, I'd just be irritated at the unnecessary ellipses and the fact that a semicolon would have better set off the independent clauses (as some of you might have noticed, I am a militant supporter of the semicolon). This time, however, I was irritated by the message. As I searched through the binders, I found several similar covers, all equally upsetting (albeit free of inappropriate ellipses). There was the one that pointed out that "Boys are smelly":
And another one advanced the novel suggestion that "Boys are dumb":

Later, when I got home, I found out that the creator of these nasty little notebooks had gotten in trouble over another logo, which thousands of retailers had pulled from their shelves after Glenn Sacks led a protest against it. Here's what it looked like:

Okay, I admit that I have been known to engage in the occasional episode of bad taste, but there was something about this that made me really queasy. A big part of it had to do with the target demographic; while these notebooks might be ironically flirtatious if carried by college-age women, Wal-mart was marketing them to elementary-school aged girls. They were at child-eye level, mixed in with the Care Bears, Sponge Bob, and My Pretty Pony merchandise.

Not to get melodramatic, but I can easily imagine what it would be like for an insecure third grade boy to see this notebook in class. I found it hard to believe that people were actually putting these messages out there. Yet there they were, on sale at the Wal-mart.

This dovetails nicely with recent studies showing that boys are beginning to seriously underachieve in elementary and high schools. Apparently, the structure of a traditional classroom, with its emphasis upon self-control and independence, is not ideally suited to boys. According to this article from the Voice of America, 70% of poor or failing grades go to boys, and boys are far more likely to exhibit learning disabilities. For that matter, boys apparently lag about a year behind girls in terms of maturation.

When I first started teaching, academia was still in the grip of a nationwide struggle to improve the performance of girls in school. I was given numerous pamphlets and textbooks that instructed me to actively encourage my female students. I was taught strategies for increasing female involvement in the classroom, and advised to intensely focus on "drawing out" my shy co-eds. I remember being impressed at the level of attention given to student welfare; as far as I was concerned, the gender issue was secondary to the concern of increasing student engagement and being sensitive to student needs.

A decade later, the situation is rapidly reversing, and I'm not too impressed with the public response. Admittedly, I'm a little sensitive about this, as I was diagnosed with a learning disability in third grade. Like many other boys, I found it hard to organize my work and concentrate on my teachers. Years later, I discovered that I was not alone. In some school districts, as many as 40% of all students were diagnosed as either learning disabled or gifted and talented, which means that almost half of all students were unsuited for the mainstream classroom. The vast majority of these "learning disabled" kids were boys.

Admittedly, I have a problem with the entire issue of learning disabilities, but, apart from that, the diagnoses are so gender skewed that I have to wonder if this problem is sexism masquerading as science. If so many boys can't function in a standard classroom, mightn't there be a problem with the classroom, not with the boys?

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  • Perhaps these attitudes would eventually impact the marriage rate, compelling an even greater proportion of young women to eschew marriage for career and singlehood.

    Can you imagine the outcry if the company had chosen to--randomly (I'm a big favor of the dash but not so much of parenthetical commentary)--choose an African American boy?

    It'd be okay but... did you see any books derogating girls in any way? Nope.

    By Blogger Matt, At February 20, 2007 at 1:15 PM  

  • Why is it acceptable for the ever-righteous WalMart management to sell things like this to little girls when they streamline their movie and music selection for "moral quality?" Surely a little flesh is less harmful than degrading an entire gender.

    By Blogger monicker, At February 20, 2007 at 1:38 PM  

  • Ok...I love the David and Goliath stuff, but I agree that it should not be in the hands of little kiddies, who can't quite understand that it's a joke. I doubt the moms would buy their little girls the "Mt. Me" tees, would they?
    As for the classroom issues, it's so screwed up. In an ideal world, schools would recognize that each child has a different way of learning and be able to break it up into groups of similar learning styles!

    There are issues beyond that...oh, I could get into it, but I have no answers.

    By Blogger Claudia, At February 20, 2007 at 4:46 PM  

  • I still have a long list of boys that I would like to throw rocks at. I am working on it in therapy.

    By Blogger mist1, At February 20, 2007 at 7:36 PM  

  • Matt-
    Don't even get me started on the racial skewing in liberal orthodoxy!

    You're preaching to the choir. Personally, I'm a big fan of skin and raunchy lyrics.

    Having attended a single-sex school for a couple of years, I'm nervous about that approach, but it seems like it might be the ideal answer.

    Personally, I'm a huge fan of T-shirt hell, but I'd never endorse it for school age kids!

    I'm sure they all deserve it. Besides, acknowledging the problem is half the battle.

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 20, 2007 at 10:05 PM  

  • And another reason why Wal Mart sucks!

    Your response is appropriate. I recognize that womens studies lagged and women were second class citizens. But women's lib was about equality and currently I see a scary trend.

    My son was often refered by his teachers as an absent minded professor. I was urged to take him to a specialist. There is nothing wrong with him. It's the system. When we have average people teaching the mainstream, genius isn't always recognizable. Apparently it looks disorganized and unprepared.

    My daughter is also very smart and was put into the gifted programs. The only thing I have to say about those programs is the fact that it is average people trying to teach above average students in an insanely average way.

    I think with all the gender studies that have gone on someone would have figured out that Boys ARE different from girls and different learning styles and environments for them isn't necessarily a bad thing.

    By Blogger Pickled Olives, At February 21, 2007 at 9:15 AM  

  • Two points:

    1. I have a pink vest and pants set with the 'Boys are Stupid' line on them. In the UK (where the brand originates) they are marketed at adults and sold in adult lingerie departments. They are meant to be ironic and faux naive.

    2. Boys underachieving in Education is a huge issue in the UK and one that I have very mixed feelings about. Much of the debate centres around the way current qualifications are course work based, not exam based - apparently boys can't deal with course work. Personally, I'm not convinced the problem lies in the classroom, more in the wider culture and the expressions of masculinity it exhibits.

    In my experience, girls want to get on and work hard to achieve exam results that will set them on the path to career success. Many boys prefer to strut and brag and not work because it's not 'cool'. They tend not to do as well as the girls. The boys who do work hard, achieve equally well.

    I hate any move that advocates treating different sexes differently when most of our behaviour is defined by our gender, not our sex.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At February 21, 2007 at 1:36 PM  

  • Olives-
    How funny that your son was called an absent-minded professor. I was, too. Of course, I actually became an absent-minded professor, so there you are!

    1. I think that "Boys are stupid" would probably be cutely ironic on an adult woman. My problem, of course, is when they're marketed toward children.

    2. With regard to your second comment, I don't completely agree. You may be right about the larger culture and it's expressions of masculinity, and I think that underlies your subsequent comment about the impact of gender versus sex. Ultimately, whether gender, sex, class, race, or any societal aspect is a major formative influence upon the individual is moot. The point is, we treat these aspects as if they are fundamental realities. In so doing, we create a self-fulfilling prophesy. At the end of the day, it matters little if boys act poorly because they are genetically inclined to do so, or if they act poorly because of society's messages about what it is to be a boy. The conclusion is still the same.

    Personally, I've found that boys and girls, gays and straights, tend to perform (and underperform) in roughly comparable numbers. However, I teach older kids, and one might argue that differences, whether genetic or cultural, that are striking in children become less so in adults.

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 21, 2007 at 7:09 PM  

  • I think that anything which divides people into separate categories, boy, girl, straight, gay, black, white, whatever, should be avoided with children as much as possible to give them a chance to figure out who they are in a non-antagonistic environment.

    We live in a highly competitive society, and while it could be argued that this encourages high achievement, it also causes tremendous pressure in people who are really too young to be subjected to it. It also pits kids against each other, which is never healthy, instead of teaching them to value the contributions of others.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At February 21, 2007 at 11:02 PM  

  • I've got two prepubescent boys and I can honestly attest, "Boys are Smelly."

    How about a new line of products? Walmart is Smelly. Walmart is Stupid. Set Walmart on Fire.


    By Blogger Lee, At February 22, 2007 at 9:59 AM  

  • Hmmm, to be honest, I'm not in favour of any measures that create barriers between groups and treat them differently - especially at school. Education theory is a bug bear of mine anyway. As a classroom practitioner, I was supposed to incorporate strategies in lessons to; 1. enagage boys, 2.engage girls, 3. engage those with a myriad of 'learning difficulties', 4. use differentiation to engage all levels of ability, 5. engage the 'gifted & talented' with extension exercises, 6. accommodate all learning styles. Oh and I was expected to get through a curriculum as well. And deliver 15% better exam results every year. In five 35 minute lessons a week. What a load of horse shit.

    Personally, I think there's a balance between the teacher trying to accommodate the needs of ALL pupils and monitor individual learning, and the pupils taking responsibility for their own learning and realising that in life, you get out what you put in.

    I don't know many jobs where they give a shit if you've got a learning difficulty, are male/female, have a predominantly visual learning style, or are gifted and talented. They pay you to do your job and it's up to you to do it. Sometimes, I think Education loses sight of this.

    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At February 22, 2007 at 11:37 AM  

  • Lee-
    I have a complex relationship with Wal-mart. I know it's bad for me, but I just can't bring myself to break it off.

    I'm with you on the boys, but I think my daughter could give them a run for their money. How about this slogan: "Kids are Stinky."

    I've had some of the same problems that you indicate. I guess my response is just very different. I'm not sure about single-sex education. On one level, it seems to create a demonstrable level of social retardation in its students. On the other hand, it also seems to help some of the kids.

    I also know that, for all the shortcomings of the ultra-conservative Catholic single-sex school I attended, I also learned very effectively in its classroom environment.

    Ultimately, the one-room schoolhouse environment that you describe, which I have also had to deal with from time to time, is not the most effective for either student or teacher. The class is too slow for one group, too fast for another, and ultimately insufficient for all. I understand your concern about barriers, and the class warfare that they encourage, but there has to be some solution that addresses both of our problems effectively.

    Where's John Dewey when you need him?

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 22, 2007 at 4:57 PM  

  • My favorite is:

    "I like boys. Every girl should own one."


    By Blogger Just D, At February 23, 2007 at 5:56 PM  

  • Oh, I bought the 'boys are dumb' open for my son. I guess that wasn't a very motherly thing to do, huh? ;)

    By Blogger PARLANCHEQ, At February 23, 2007 at 11:23 PM  

  • Parlancheq-
    Actually, I think that might be the coolest response I could possibly imagine. Well done!

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 24, 2007 at 11:55 AM  

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