Putting the Shoe on the Other Foot

I’m struck by how regularly I come across reporting in the media that contains obvious and unquestioned prejudice.  My mental test to detect this kind of prejudice is to switch the named group to see if we would find the same phrasing acceptable if it were applied to another group.  Since the truth of the claim is usually irrelevant to the prohibition of certain phrasings as offensive, the test is not whether the claim is true for another group but whether it would be unacceptable regardless of its truth.

I thought of this recently when the CBS Sunday Morning show had a segment on how boys were doing significantly worse in school.  Kenyon College’s Dean Jennifer Delahunty was asked to help explain this phenomenon and here is what she said: “There’s a kind of anti-intellectualism of young men that really bothers me, that it’s not cool to be smart. That it’s not cool to be engaged. That it’s not cool to do your homework. That bothers me.”

Sociologist Michael Kimmel offered this: “Boys think that academic disengagement is a sign of masculinity. The less you can do in school, the less connected you are, the less interested you are, the more manly you are.”

For all I know these are true explanations and boys really are suffering academically because of a cultural mindset that associates masculinity with anti-intellectualism and opposition to academic effort or engagement.

But let’s apply my little test to see if we might find this phrasing acceptable if it were applied to explaining why girls do worse on some academic outcome.  Let’s just switch the words so that the experts said: “There’s a kind of anti-intellectualism of young women that really bothers me that it’s not cool to be smart. That it’s not cool to be engaged. That it’s not cool to do your homework. That bothers me.” or “Girls think that academic disengagement is a sign of femininity. The less you can do in school, the less connected you are, the less interested you are, the more feminine you are.”

A CBS reporter would never quote experts saying this as a plausible explanation for why girls were doing worse academically.  That would have to be explained by discrimination — factors outside of the control of girls.  But for boys saying that the problem is their masculinity is perfectly fine.

Obviously, there are acceptable prejudices in our society.  The problem is not the existence of those prejudices, since some may in fact be supported by evidence, but that there is a wide-spread dogma about which prejudices are acceptable based on nothing having to do with evidence.  I guess I would say that there is a kind of anti-intellectualism among reporters that really bothers me, that it’s not cool to think critically about their prejudices.

5 Responses to Putting the Shoe on the Other Foot

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Another dimension of foolishness in these comments is that they treat the permanent features of human nature as dysfunctional manifestations of recent and local conditions. When was it cool to be smart? Maybe for about five minutes in the 13th century, when Ockham’s critique of Aquinas reached #1 on the charts, but that’s about it.

    They’ve been trained to think this way, of course, because it creates the illusion that these conditions can be changed.

  2. Barry Stern says:

    Right on, Jay. I saw this segment, too, and scratched my head. No evidence presented whatsoever. Since we’re into theories, mine is that today’s education is not experiential enough, particularly in high school — too much theory, not enough action, teamwork, exposure to adults in the real world doing real things to accomplish big goals — the kinds of things that attract boys. One such program that is truly effective with boys is described below (from article written a couple of months ago):

    There’s so many reports these days on the unresponsiveness of schools to expensive efforts to reform them that it might be time to kick back and reflect on the most important thing going on in the country this weekend — -the NCAA “March Madness” basketball tournament. I suggest we run schools for teenagers much like coaches run the four teams that made it to finals.

    Imagine, for example, an educational program called Fast Break that applies the principles of sports teams to learn fundamentals and keeps getting better as the players (instructors and students) coalesce as a team. The program would be a module in the school curriculum, an intensive 5-8 hours a day pre-season training that gets students ready for the “season”. To ensure rapid learning and develop in students a compelling vision of success, courses would be team taught, cross-disciplinary, computer-assisted, highly experiential and applied. Coaches (teachers) would always would be available to counsel and give pointers. Like members of a sports team students would help one another succeed. Indeed, even if they made good academic progress, they wouldn’t graduate unless they demonstrated good teamwork and willingness to exceed expectations.

    Actually, Fast Break exists. This 300-hour model concentrated into 8-12 weeks was developed by Focus:HOPE in Detroit in 1990, replicated in Los Angeles with a National Science Foundation demonstration grant in 1995 and expanded in Michigan and Alabama in 2000 with state funding. Students typically make 2+ grade-level gains in reading and math (1-2 WorkKeys levels) in just 2-3 months, and they obtain employable skills in computer applications, as well as teamwork, customer service, conflict resolution and other job readiness skills. The model has been very successful in helping young adults in Detroit, Los Angeles, Flint and other communities move ahead to career entry positions or college. Employers and colleges are highly satisfied with the graduates, describing them as “self-starters” who learn fast and can collaborate effectively within and across work groups both ‘live’ and virtually.

    Fast Break attracts young people and persuades them to work hard because it operates much like a high performing sports team. The program emphasizes teamwork, daily practice of fundamentals, daily feedback on individual and team performance, effective time management, continual communication among staff and students on how and why to do better the next day, continual opportunities to integrate theory and practice and to apply skills in game-like (“real world”) settings, expectations of helping fellow teammates to improve, and the targeted use of technology to diagnose and improve abilities and communicate results instantly to those professionals who are accountable and to owners (boards and taxpayers) who foot the bill.

    Members of the best teams like the best companies want to be driven, want discipline, want to exceed expectations, and want to be part of a group with a higher purpose and winning mission. Moreover, they want to stay together long enough to produce excellence. Sustained time together in search of a noble cause also helps teenagers and young adults develop what they want most of all—good friends.

    The Haberman Educational Foundation (www.habermanfoundation.org) invites school districts to team with us to change the lives of thousands of young people in the next 18 months. Write us or reply to this post if one or more of your high schools is willing to leave the factory model behind and try Fast Break instead for the target group(s) of your choice.

  3. Kim Williams says:

    I was curious as to why this bothered you so much? I wonder as well about that with the previous group of middle schoolers that I had. I wished there was some true research on this regarding all students. I wonder how much of it is due to technology, such as video games, especially if play began at an early age.

  4. If it were truly political, I think the obvious answer would simply be that girls are smarter and better students. As a wise man once said, “I don’t know, ask a girl.”

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