When Asshats Attack: David Brooks Tries To Link Poetics, Pedagogy, and Gender
I don't have Times Select, but I tracked down the recent David Brooks column thanks to Alexander Russo at This Week in Education. So, that explains the lagtime. But let's have a look.
Researchers in Britain asked 400 accomplished women and 500 accomplished men to name their favorite novels. The men preferred novels written by men, often revolving around loneliness and alienation. Camus's ''The Stranger,'' Salinger's ''Catcher in the Rye'' and Vonnegut's ''Slaughterhouse-Five'' topped the male list.
The women leaned toward books written by women. The women's books described relationships and are a lot better than the books the men chose. The top six women's books were ''Jane Eyre,'' ''Wuthering Heights,'' ''The Handmaid's Tale,'' ''Middlemarch,'' ''Pride and Prejudice'' and ''Beloved.''
Here's one thing I don't get: are we really willing to concede that "The Handmaid's Tale" is "a lot better" than "Catcher in the Rye"? Um, I'm not. (I'm also not willing to agree that "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" aren't about "loneliness and alienation", as much as they "describe relationships". The two categories seem impossibly exclusive.)
It's fascinating how Brooks feels that, in order to set up a biological argument (it's coming) for why boys need to be educated with kid gloves, he must concede that books by women are just better. As if men can't read or write with sensitivity, thereby proving that men/boys are just not cut out for this sort of literary study at all. I'm not one for, "sexism is cool as long as we make men look like morons in the process" thing (see my obsession with the "bumbling dad" of contemporary television).
There are a couple of reasons why the two lists might diverge so starkly. It could be men are insensitive dolts who don't appreciate subtle human connections and good literature. Or, it could be that the part of the brain where men experience negative emotion, the amygdala, is not well connected to the part of the brain where verbal processing happens, whereas the part of the brain where women experience negative emotion, the cerebral cortex, is well connected.
Boys are not "insensitive dolts who don't appreciate subtle human connections and good literature", nor are they biologically predisposed against literature. They are socialized into a particular relationship with study and with literature and art. Some of them are probably never going to care for literary study; they are human beings after all. I've known anomalous girls and women who were perfectly content never to read another book upon leaving school.
This wouldn't be a problem if we all understood these biological factors and if teachers devised different curriculums to instill an equal love of reading in both boys and girls.
The problem is that even after the recent flurry of attention about why boys are falling behind, there is still intense social pressure not to talk about biological differences between boys and girls (ask Larry Summers). There is still resistance, especially in the educational world, to the findings of brain researchers. Despite some innovations here and there, in most classrooms boys and girls are taught the same books in the same ways.
Does the failure to "acknowledge" so-called "biological differences" between the brains housed in male or female or other bodies actually in any way preclude us from implementing programs which would allow different books to be taught in different ways? Ezra Klein innovates:
On the great David Brooks debate, can I suggest a compromise? Let kids read what they want. Give them a list of books to choose from and allow them into the classes, or into the groups, that are studying books they'd actually like to read.
Better yet, have a mix. Everyone can be forced to read a few particular texts (would it kill everyone to read some Shakespeare?), but interspersed among them would be books of choice, from a list so as not to unduly burden the teacher. I had a classes like that sometimes and it worked rather well.
What I Read In High School:
Genesis and Exodus
weird compilation of Greek Myths
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever"
William Faulkner's "Barn Burning"
(my choice from a list, others were by men I think) Their Eyes Were Watching God
Romeo and Juliet, plus the sonnets into infinity
The Great Gatsby and what's that Fitzgerald story about the gold mountain?
unit of seemingly random poems, all by men (Gunter Grass, Frank Marshall, Yeats, Eliot, some poem about chess I never saw again in my life)
(poetry collection choice of my own) Maya Angelou's Collected
Bless Me Ultima
short story called "The Tree" but not the H.P. Lovecraft story ... I think it was by a Latin American woman
Macbeth, plus more of the sonnets
Things Fall Apart
Six Characters in Search of an Author
The Woman Warrior
The Things They Carried
poems by Yusef Komanyaaka
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
House of the Spirits
Senior Year- only did part of a year and my English credit was a creative writing course.
Breakdown, not including the Bible stuff or the Greek Myths: 6 of the long works were by women, 2 of which were my choice. 12 of the long works were by men, none my choice. Short stuff- 2 by women, 8 by men. My favorites, at the time, were the Hurston, Hong Kingston, Shakespeare's sonnets, and Marquez. (Strangely, I quite liked the Dickens and Achebe as well, on the former I was completely alone among my classmates.)
I didn't have a shred of the Austen-Bronte-Bronte-Eliot club. Nor did I have Hemingway (Tim O'Brien might argue himself to the contrary), though Fitzgerald stopped by, as did Faulkner. I may be missing some things, it wasn't yesterday. I feel like we got a decent gender mix, though naturally it would have been nice to have a more equal ratio. I think they could have done better at selecting, but really, I sort of think that, if people don't feel they can get into anything on this list, they don't like reading or all their teachers suck, or they're in a class or family environment that simply distracts them too much from the texts to get anything out of them.
These are the most commonly-taught works in American high schools:
Romeo and Juliet
To Kill a Mockingbird
These don't seem particularly "gendered", relative to most fiction, though only one is by a woman. I, personally, felt like Great Expectations was sexist, but that was a long time ago and I have no idea what I'd think now.
Anyway, back to the argument. Does it make sense to assign books on gender lines, even if there is biological difference? No. Here's why: everyone would benefit from more agency in their education, especially when it comes to things that, like or not, are often taste-driven like literature. The logical extension of the "boys should be taught Hemingway and girls should be taught the Brontes" is that girls who want to read about bullfighting end up stuck reading about life and love on the moors, and boys vice versa. If the biology of sex were either/or that might work, but, even if you believe in the whole "brain-sex" thing, you realize that most folks are somewhere in between Mars and Venus. Also, if kids want to challenge themselves, why not? Because the language is more contemporary, Hemingway probably seems to kids like an easier choice than George Eliot.
Another thing: is the difference between the Eliot-Austen-Brontes clique and the Hemingway-Faulkner-Fitzgerald gang really as much about gender as it is about when they were writing? What about Stein or H.D. or Cather? And does Dickens really differ so entirely from the women Brooks bemoans? Is it possible that boys aren't really asked to step out of their own situations and daily imaginations as much as girls are? Or that "boys' games" (war, catch, etc) and "girls' games" (Barbies, dress-up, etc) actually prepare these kids for different experiences of art and literature? (And I'd be hard-pressed to believe boys and girls just "naturally" biologically play such different games - I think the very parameters of play are socialized by gender just about from birth.)
And one more thing. In high school I asked a teacher why our study of poetry was basically just haphazardly mixed in between our considerations of Great Novels and she told me it was because boys hated poetry. So, maybe our curriculum is already skewed toward alleged sex differences more than we usually consider.
I'm curious though: what was your favorite assigned literary work in high school?