Sunday, October 7, 2012

A defence of segregation by gender in comprehensive secondary schools.

Themed review of Education, Gender and Anxiety by Jenny Shaw [i]

Jonnie Comet
2 December 1996

  For some years, and especially since the early 1970s, the issue of a ‘hidden curriculum’ in schools which favours the cultivation of desirable male traits at the expense of the education of girls has produced heated discourse. In her intriguing book, Education, Gender and Anxiety, Jenny Shaw, lecturer and professor of sociology at the University of Sussex at Brighton, makes a case for a psychoanalytic approach to better understand the effect of gender differences in school-age children.
  Gender differences are clearly evident in the patterns of girls’ and boys’ reading, in the sex-stereotyped and polarised subject choices at the secondary level, and in the debate between coeducational and single-sex schools. The author maintains that ‘Some gender differences should not necessarily be eliminated and that not all are equally pernicious or disturbing’.  This is a view I have always held as well, and for me so the book made for intriguing and even riveting reading.
  Ms Shaw gives two firm reasons for her psychoanalytic approach. First, the benefit of formal, conscious and visible discrimination is giving way towards informal, and thus invisible, unconscious division which makes this kind of approach appropriate.  Also, the approach will be adaptable to the variation and fluidity of gender issues.  Anxiety is at the heart of gender-related differences, and the way the sexes uniquely defend against it create preconditions for gender differentiation.  The author assumes five broadly interconnected themes to consider in her analysis:

1. Unconscious processes and anxiety affect learning.
  Social factors in classrooms affect a child’s ability to learn, especially in reading and at lower levels. Early group interaction will prove crucial throughout the child’s further educational development. In response to anxiety the sex and gender roles of those in a child’s preferred group almost invariably homogenise after about the first full year of schooling.

2. Teachers are not only legally but emotionally ‘in loco parentis’.
  Teaching and parenting are interdependent. The parent-child relationship is imprimatur of later relationships; its nature will govern all other associations with adults and authority figures which the student will make through young adulthood. The sexes have discernible differences in relating to male and female parents and teachers.

3. School subjects can be compared to other areas of childhood learning.

  The similarities extend to the first childhood experiences with coping alone, which contributes to the growth of an autonomous individual. Infancy can be likened to adolescence– both are major growth periods characterised by moves from dependency to independency.  Choosing academic subjects becomes very important as the student encounters anxiety about decision-making in general.  In secondary school teaching changes from being person-based in primary school to being subject-based, and so attitudes about school change from being based on student-teacher relationships to student-subject ones.

4. The gender dynamics of groups are a major consideration.
  Single-sex subcultures can become subversive, vying for power with the teacher’s authority. This raises two important questions: are schools more important as disseminators of subject information or as training ground for social interaction? –and, since ‘gender’ is an abstraction, and sexual polarity is often arbitrary, is it fair to make ‘gender’ the more significant issue?

5. Where gender is an educational problem, anxiety is greatest, and vice versa.
  This is the root of the author’s thesis; and it is her firm belief that viewed psychologically, the construct of gender differences may be more a reaction to anxiety than a cause of it.

  Ms Shaw author slyly likens the sex-stereotyping ‘hidden curriculum’ to the DOS computer system which lurks under her ‘Windows’ operating platform– no matter how prettily camouflaged it may be, it is still there as the basis for interaction.  Instead of Windows’ ‘Band-Aid’ approach what may be needed is a sweeping change to a new programme, a fresh start with a whole new idea.
  This, however, is admittedly unlikely. The unconscious curriculum which helps girls thrive better in primary school because of strong identification with female teachers will create problems at the secondary level where maths and science in particular are often taught by men.  Sociologist Raphaela Best notes the presence of a ‘third curriculum’ which encourages boys at this male-dominated level to be tough and hard and ‘macho’ at all costs. Girls of the same age must walk a tightrope between an emerging interest in sexuality and the social pressure to refrain from pursuing that interest. For them it is a lose-lose proposition, as Shaw notes, ‘Heterosexual codes and patriarchal power limit and constrict girls and women, whilst they enhance the power available to boys’.
 Thus, the concept of same-sex subgroups becomes recognised as a primary issue in social, and educational, interaction.  School as an institution does not tend to resolve the issues with same-sex association but to justify them, often ineffectually and without comprehending why. The author notes that ‘covert ability groupings in formally mixed-ability classes are often single-sex de facto’. She contends that classroom teachers do not intend to push any policy which exploits sexual divisions, but they recognise the dynamics of any institution are founded in the formation of effective subgroups and that gender divisions facilitate this process. One problem with the dynamics of these single-sex subgroups is that a group, which views itself as vastly more important than the inclinations of an individual, is challenged by the formation of pairs of friends. Any child who forms a friendship with a member of the opposite sex (read that: outside the group) will be viewed as a threat to the established order and will almost inevitably be chastised by what is commonly called ‘peer pressure’, here in its most apt connotation, until he or she toes the line and rejoins the group on its terms, thus circumventing any possibility of an individual’s survival without it.
  By these and other means the formation of single-sex subgroups in schools serves to reinforce the gender identity and therefore maintains and promotes the ideology of heterosexuality.  The author states: ‘The belief in coeducation is essentially an “innocent” one; it assumes that contact between the sexes can and should be asexual and without conflict…. When voluntary, informal separation takes the place of [prescribed] formal segregation within coeducational schools it may indeed be performing the same function, but through sex segregation, not without it’. [italics added].
  According to the author, the present public has almost universally embraced coeducation whilst educational professionals are returning to support single-sex schooling, largely due to statistics which illustrate how well single-sex schools do, particularly in the academic achievement scores for day schools for girls.   But there is an overriding agenda which is driven more by subjective anxiety than by empirical data. She asserts, ‘The adversarial and long-running debate about same-sex schooling needs to be understood as a defence against thinking about sexuality and about the sexuality of the young in particular’.  She cites ‘the subversive potential of sexuality’ as a defence mechanism forms the ‘deep structure of the debate’.  Much of the argument is based on irrational fear or unrealistic expectations. Separation is promoted both to avoid heterosexual union and to develop control, and also to ensure heterosexual choice in the long run through the establishment of gender identity; but coeducational schooling is promoted to avoid homosexual union and to leap-frog a volatile stage in adolescent development.   It is a paradox.  The author’s view is that the ‘dogged’ popular support for coeducational schools despite empirical evidence that coeducation is not ‘particularly harmonious’ is a naïve utopianism which, rather than to advocate an ideal, serves to prevent advocacy of its opposing position.  A prime defence of coeducational schooling is that social separation of any kind encourages ignorance and fear (Ms Shaw calls it ‘fantasy’). Support for same-sex schooling includes the idea that academic excellence can be better ensured without the distractions of the opposite sex. Other considerations typical of the debate have included:

1. Keeping boys from becoming too ‘soft’ through ‘feminine’ influences.

At boys’ schools, staff nurses and even wives of faculty are kept present in photographs, etc., but kept physically removed from students except in very limited and controlled circumstances.  ‘Leadership’ is promoted as a uniquely masculine province. There is a militaryesque regimen of expectations, behaviour and consequences. The punishments common in older boys’ schools have been justified as educational: if you as a patriarch will one day mete out punishment, you have to know what it feels like.

2. Literary ‘fantasy’ about teachers.

  The author notes that ‘school stories’ are a long-established subset of English-language literature and traditionally most popular with girls. Much of it is anti-teacher and heavily caricatured, especially in single-sex settings. She notes: ‘For women the images of teachers are of bizarre, obsessional neurotics whilst men are either ineffective but lovable fools, or sadists. And until Robin Williams played the charismatic teacher in the film Dead Poets’ Society, there was no popular image of the teacher as a romantic hero’. [ii] The author suggests that teachers in general pose a sexual treat to children. Teachers are intended to be asexual, yet the fantasies of brutal sadist and innocuous mentor which are exemplified in literature are in fact both equally unrealistic extremes.

3. Political and fundamentalist concerns.

  There is no fair correlation between progressive political affiliation and either support for or opposition to same-sex schooling. Any supporter of either same-sex schooling or coeducation may be ideologically conservative or progressive, yet an increase in interest in same-sex schooling is most often equated to a ‘rise’ of conservative fundamentalism.   In Britain the issue of Anglo-Muslim parents’ school choices bears a distinct resemblance to the American debate over including so-called ‘traditional values’ in public schools.  Just because some members of the growing Muslim population in Britain lobby to support same-sex schools does not mean they wish schooling in general to become increasingly fundamentalist. In fact the vast majority apparently do not; but the anxiety subsists.

4. The ideology of sexuality.

  The arguments over same-sex schooling tend to centre on the fears associated with heterosexuality in general and male sexuality in particular. Ms Shaw states: ‘The most common prevailing notions of femininity and masculinity are based firmly and exclusively on heterosexual difference, a difference that has to be maintained’.  These notions support and contradict both coeducational and same-sex schooling. The author suggests that any notion of a fluid or ‘polymorphous’ sexuality can make nonsense out of either arrangement.

  This is the point which begins to establish Ms Shaw’s own view. She asserts that of sex and gender, gender is the more important since it is not a biological fixture but a sociologically-defined concept and therefore appropriate for concern in schools. But some aspects of sex cannot be passed off as gender issues. ‘The case is made [that] the idea of sex differences is of something clear and unproblematic that can be manipulated,’ Ms Shaw writes, meaning, to produce a concrete and positive educational benefit.  ‘It was only when the ideas of sex differences and sexuality became recognised as various and variable that the rationale for either type of schooling falls apart, whether it is based on educational or sexual grounds’.  The perceived lack of stasis about sexuality and sexual identity forms the core of new debates about the virtues and drawbacks of both coeducational and same-sex schools, and this issue, like the one of educational excellence, essentially serves more to legitimise anxieties and pose idealistic solutions than to face facts objectively and recognise what they suggest.
  The author concludes by suggesting that further sociological research may not be the appropriate answer to the problem: ‘If there is indeed a relationship between anxiety and gender divisions within education it is because unconscious factors permeate the feelings and behaviour of teachers, pupils and parents alike’.   In the end the fact that school tasks such as reading, maths, computing, etc., produce gender-differentiated responses is incontestable– the question remains, however, as to why.   The author’s thesis is that differences in the emotional development of each sex cause different timings and types of responses to school demands because, socially and psychologically, the defence mechanisms employed by each sex are different. She acknowledges that if this is accepted as definite a whole new range of research must be undertaken to cope with the ramifications.
  If anxiety and reactions to it create certain problems for schools it may well be due to insufficient attention on the part of administrators to the experiences of teachers and students.  Teacher-proof methods proposed by administrators tend to de-skill teachers and eventually lead to wash out. [iii] Teachers and students cope in strikingly similar ways: males retreat into hardness and ‘boys’ clubs’; females resort to idealising the models of perfection they have formed of nurture-figures. Increased emphasis on standardised testing will surely illustrate the various differences between male and female performance in crises.  These differences have to be fully addressed.   Simply recognising that girls do better than ever on tests is not the resolution; the question remains of how gender is a factor in educational performance. Ms Shaw illustrates that the problem may be masked by its own hidden curriculum, purporting to maintain a self-defeating status quo: ‘If boys and girls typically face different crises at different stages then an educational system which does not take this into account but expects both sexes to proceed through that same system at the same rate may well contribute to covert discrimination’.
  This is something I have always believed and makes a prime case for the value of same-sex education.   It does not matter which sex is superior in which subject at which stage.  All evidence suggests that the sexes are sufficiently different to justify different treatment at certain developmental stages.  If it is true, for example, that girls outperform boys of the same age in reading comprehension, might it not be detrimental (and therefore discriminatory) to expect either sex to conform to an academic programme which can only fairly accommodate the learning level of the other sex?   If girls tend to wash out in certain subjects, unconsciously ‘dumbing’ themselves down to what they believe are social expectations, might it not just be because they feel frustrated at not being able to perform at their best and receive due rewards in a curriculum focused at the boys’ performance level?
  These kinds of questions prompt debate; but in my view the fact that such questions can be raised at all is reason enough to consider alternate forms of education to the conventional American coeducational, comprehensive, mass-production model of schooling which has been the norm since 1945.  When educators are calling for educational reform perhaps some serious consideration should be given to the differences in learning rates and styles between the sexes, and that public funding, if necessary, should be provided for same-sex schools on more than a numerically-insignificant trial basis.  In my opinion it is well worth the effort, sociologically as well as financially.  Until the public accepts that same-sex schooling might represent not negative discrimination but rather a progressive opportunity for the full self-actualisation of all students, I submit that we are allowing the types of subjective anxieties Ms Shaw discusses to manipulate our thinking and in the meantime failing in what ought to be our prime objective: to provide the highest possible calibre of education for our young people.

* * * 

__________________________________[i] Shaw, Jenny; Education, Gender and Anxiety. 1995: Taylor and Francis, London. ISBN: 0 7454 0101 6.
[ii] teacher as a romantic hero - I must note here that to overlook Sidney Poitier’s character in the 1966 adaption of E R Braithwaite’s 1959 teaching memoir To Sir, With Love (my personal favourite) seems a glaring oversight for a British educator –and note too that the story portrayed an urban, comprehensive, coeducational school. –JC
[iii] Teacher-proof... wash out - In Australia, for example, the common complaint among educators is that the State-prescribed curriculum removes teachers from decision-making processes concerning subject matter and instrctional strategy; Ms Shaw would doubtless conclude few sweeping changes in educational policy like the adaption of single-gender public-school classes would be popularly accepted there. –JC

1 comment:

  1. I 'reviewed' this book under Google Books --