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Girls and boys.

February 11, 2011

A frequent subject of comment in the media is the apparent gender gap in education. Boys, we are told, are falling behind: girls perform better than boys in almost all subjects and at all levels. This is supposed to constitute a crisis in itself and be a major contributory factor to the broader ‘crisis of masculinity’. A number of explanations are offered and attendant upon them is usually at least the implication that feminism has ‘gone too far’ or ‘got it wrong’. Clearly the issue provides ideological fuel for anti-feminists. Interestingly socio-economic background is a much more reliable predictor of a child’s academic performance (i.e. rich children do better at school than poor ones) but this is largely ignored by commentators despite the fact that it is a much easier issue to address (yes, I’m talking about wealth-redistribution). In fact I might be tempted to argue that the whole ‘crisis of masculinity’ issue is a way to avoid discussing what is in fact a class issue. Over the last few decades it is proletarian work-patterns and lifestyles which have changed most and led to a crisis of class rather than gender identity. Of course the current most popular lie is that class is no longer important so this is never properly addressed. My main point is, however, to do with education.

A common reason given for the academic gender gap is that our education system has become feminised. Schools cater too much to girls and so do not provide a boy-friendly environment. This is apparently a result of feminism’s attempt to encourage female education and led to a change in schools in order to favour girls. Boys are more active, we are told, less good at concentrating and sitting still, so a static and quiet classroom disadvantages them but allows girls to thrive. This is such a common myth that we tend to simply accept it but stop for a moment and think. In reality classrooms are far more active and dynamic than they used to be. When girls were routinely excluded from education the classroom style was far more rigid and static. A Victorian classroom was an environment which a US Marine would find tough (think of Dickens’ Gradgrind or Wackford Squeers). Apparently though, an educational style which produced Shakespeare and Darwin is not suited to the needs of boys. It seems striking that a system which was considered to work for centuries only becomes a problem when girls are introduced and, against all expectations, do rather well.

The gender gap in schools is most clearly seen in English and subjects which require linguistic ability. This, we are told, is due to girls’ natural superiority in these areas and the explanation is often dressed up in some half-understood neuroscientific jargon. Happily this fits with old stereotypes about women talking more than men, being more social, etc. It is worth looking a little more closely at this. Language acquirement begins shortly after birth. An astonishing aspect of children is their ability to learn, in only a few years, any of the languages which our species has invented. One thing that lies behind this is the fact that the brain continues to develop after birth (in fact well into adulthood). This flexibility means that not only are children capable of great feats of learning, but also makes them very sensitive to environmental factors. It is through hearing language that children learn to speak and, as a general rule, the more language they are exposed to the quicker they develop linguistic ability. This process happens in the first few years of life, before a child starts school. Studies have found huge ‘word-gaps’ between different children below age five, i.e. some children have heard many more words than other children, and this seems to be correlated with academic performance in related subjects. In the case of learning to read, an ability which is essential to the rest of academic life, being read to as a child seems to provide a huge advantage. (As an aside, I would suggest that not reading to your children is only slightly less abusive than not feeding or cleaning them.) It seems obvious to me, though I am not aware of any studies, that parents speak more to girls than to boys. This is anecdotally true (I know that’s not the same as actually true) and without evidence I would not be prepared to accept contradiction. Assuming that this is the case we can see that differences in the home will manifest as differences in school but have little or nothing to do with inherent difference.

It seems to be a human trait to read into children our dominant cultural myths; the original sin of Christianity, the innocence of the Romantics and today gender difference. Among parents this often becomes self-justifying. Gendered behaviour is noted when appropriate (‘she talks all the time’, ‘he likes playing with cars’) encouraged and then seen as natural. As a result a parent might justify interacting less with a boy because ‘he likes playing on his own’. There have been studies that show parents to be more lenient to boys who behave aggressively than to girls and I am sure similar differences could be found for a range of behaviours. In my own (admittedly limited) experience I do not see gender appearing naturally. I know one boy of seven who talks incessantly (no social or linguistic problems there) but, interestingly his mother feels she should apologise for his garrulousness. She does not feel that need with respect to his equally talkative sister. The primary school aged children I know exhibit a range of behaviours which are arbitrarily related to their sex. They are, however, very aware of what the gender expectations are in terms of hairstyle, make-up, etc. To them a man with lipstick would be highly unnatural, but a girl displaying aggression is quite normal. In our obsession with gender we not only warp children’s unique personalities but also completely fail to see them as they actually are.

There is one explanation for the academic gender gap which is never suggested and I think its absence from popular discourse is indicative of the prejudices which prevail. Perhaps girls/women are just more intelligent than boys/men. This idea upsets so many of our preconceptions that it almost inconceivable. Nobody is surprised when prestigious scientific journals like the Daily Mail publicise claims that the opposite is true as this is still what the culture implicitly believes. I would contend that the attention given to the academic gender gap is largely a result of our expectation that the difference should go the other way.

For my comments on learning to read I am drawing on Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf.


From → Education, Gender

  1. Sam permalink

    You are so full of shit, I wish you a place to burn in hell. Here’s what your disgusting kind did to me:

    Alienated me because I was male, told I was inferior in every shape or form since I was 3 years old, they made me distraught enough to try and pull my dick off, I was graded down for arguing with the teacher about her feminist views, she even said it was for that reason to the whole class. I couldn’t ever be alone from girls, they would throw shit at me curse at me and one time one of them kicked me in the nuts for no reason. Schools engineer girls to win and boys to fail. At one school I went to, it was mandatory for kindergarteners to learn about women’s body parts before they learned to fucking read. Boys were read stories about heroines, destroying any self esteem we had boosting the girls so that they would shit on us. Just you even suggesting that girls are more intelligent than boys is hideous. All I can see in a girl is a bitch who is obsessed with fake tans and ruining men’s lives. You should be ashamed of yourself for the writing of this article, and I’ll even argue with you. Reply how women are definitely smarter than men. Your ego cannot take doing otherwise. THERE IS PROOF THAT GIRLS ARE GIVEN HIGHER QUALITY EDUCATION THAN BOYS WHETHER YOU BELIEVE IT OR NOT YOU HIDEOUS FUCKING WITCH HARPY!

    • I have decided to allow this on the grounds that it might be ironic. If it isn’t, I wouldn’t like to add to my interlocutor’s already rampant paranoia by censoring his comment. Also it seems to rather prove my last point (which was not, incidentally, that women are smarter than men, simply that nobody ever claims that they are, despite the evidence of school grades).
      I wonder what ‘my kind’ is. This is the first time I’ve been called either a witch or a harpy which is quite exciting. Isn’t being told to burn in hell a kind of honour? I’ll have a nice chat with Dawkins when I’m there. Hope you enjoy Narnia, Sam, or wherever it is you think you’re going.

      If this is genuine then I feel I must be doing something right.

  2. Alecto permalink

    In the academic sphere it is acknowledged pretty widely that there is no significant variability in intelligence on sex or ethnic lines. The only significant variability that does occasionally appear is in favour of females possessing slightly higher intelligence than males, but this is not consistently replicated.

    With regard to language, there is some evidence (I am fairly sure), cross-culturally, to suggest that females tend towards higher linguistic competence. You attempt to account for this with gender differentiation in rearing, which is certainly possible (and eminently, if unethically, testable) but don’t really give a reason why it should be the case that females are considered more talkative and hence talked to more, even just within our culture, but more particularly cross-culturally.

  3. “You attempt to account for this with gender differentiation in rearing, which is certainly possible (and eminently, if unethically, testable)”

    It could be surveyed fairly easily and we could establish at least whether such a difference existed.

    I’m not sure how widespread the myth of female talkativeness is but my understanding is that research has shown very little difference in adults (small enough to be explained by social expectations). I also don’t know how long the myth has been around. Perhaps under a patriarchy which sought to silence women any woman who spoke was speaking too much. Therefore all women spoke too much.

  4. There is a study which found mothers conversing more with infant daughters than with sons.

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