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    Tuesday, June 13, 2006

    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:

    Freshman Year-
    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
    The Crucible
    Romeo and Juliet, plus the sonnets into infinity
    The Odyssey
    The Great Gatsby and what's that Fitzgerald story about the gold mountain?

    Sophomore Year-
    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
    Frankenstein
    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

    Junior Year-
    Six Characters in Search of an Author
    The Woman Warrior
    The Things They Carried
    poems by Yusef Komanyaaka
    Pedro Paramo
    Chronicle of a Death Foretold
    House of the Spirits
    Hard Times

    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
    The Odyssey
    Great Expectations

    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?

    7 Comments:

    Blogger The Goldfish said...

    My favourite was John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos which is of course Science Fiction, but it is a great read. Worst one was The Go Between; I was at an all girls' school and the book is about the sexual awakening of an eleven year old boy - we just giggled and cringed throughout.

    I became ill at fifteen and out of school. Studying with a home tutor I did get to choose from the list. Captain Correlli's Mandolin got on that list shortly after it was published, so I leapt for that and loved it.

    A funny thing about the choice issue though; my home tutor taught some Plymouth Brethren children who had been taken out of school for religious reasons. They refused point-blank to study The Importance of Being Earnest just because of Wilde's sexuality, but they were keen to do A Midsummer's Night Dream, because Shakespeare is very old and was bound to be completely innocent in content. Hmm...

    11:24 AM  
    Blogger EL said...

    I know- Midsummer Night's Dream is something I studied in the 6th grade, but, naturally, a good half of it was purposely aimed right over our heads.

    I've never heard of The Midwich Cuckoos, actually. Fascinating that you got to study sci-fi. Wish there was more of that.

    12:15 PM  
    Blogger antiprincess said...

    Catch-22. I was all over that shit.

    those crazy greek plays - Medea springs to mind, and the Oedipus plays.

    I dug most poetry - The Naming of Parts (Henry Reed), a lot of cummings I enjoyed.

    I didn't like Joyce so much, as I recall, and wasn't such a fan of Dickens. Totally missed the Bronte thing. I'll think on it some more.

    I may not have mentioned it before, but I really dig your blog.

    8:25 PM  
    Blogger Jean said...

    Native Son and---heh---Wuthering Heights.

    But...Hawthorne...I couldn't even think that name for years, not because of anything he did, but because of the way they taught him.

    8:19 AM  
    Blogger EL said...

    AP,
    Catch-22 , I should really read that. I think it was one of the options on those lists to choose from, but I didn't take it, and still into adulthood have managed not to read it.

    It would have been fun to read Medea in high school. Fun in a weird way, but still.

    I also had no idea they tried to get kids to read Joyce in HIGH SCHOOL! High expectations. I hope it was Portrait of the Artist and not Finnegan's Wake. :)

    And thanks for the compliment - so glad you dig it!

    Wow, Jean, your school seems cool to teach those texts. Not that I'm a huge lover of Native Son, actually, but I imagine studing a book like that in high school would have brought up a lot of interesting conversation.

    9:34 AM  
    Blogger damion said...

    EL... my love for you knows no bounds...

    I think that my favorite works I was assigned in high school were:

    1: A Tale of Two Cities - Dickens
    2: The Scarlet Letter - Hawthorne

    I was assigned very few women authored texts... this was the 80s.

    And I HATED - Silas Marner - Eliot

    But, I was a voracious reader in high school, reading much more than what was assigned. I cannot even begin to list these works, but favorites included:

    The Color Purple
    Sybil
    The Exorcist

    1:37 PM  
    Blogger EL said...

    I love the thought of teenaged Damion curled up with Sybil and The Exorcist!!!! :)

    8:30 PM  

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