Biology in the News Explained

Adapt public education to individuals, not demographics

The genetics-solves-everything crowd is continuing to have an influence on society that threatens to set Americans’ notions of equality back decades. I still believe these attitudes are cyclical, but it is always depressing and disturbing to be in the regressive part of the cycle, with no hint of change in sight. The target now of course is public education – always in the sights of extremists, whether it involves adding prayer, subtracting science, or the current fad, teaching kids their gender roles, as if society weren’t taking care of all of these things adequately outside the classroom.

Dr. Leonard Sax’s website is called “Why Gender Matters”. His publications have such objective scholarly titles as “Reclaiming Kindergarten: making kindergarten less harmful to boys” (Psychology of Men and Masculinity, American Psychological Association, 2(1):3-12, 2001), which like his other writings set up an absurd dichotomy between boys and girls as if they are unrelated species. He claims that for boys, but not girls, kindergarten is “a series of alienating failures and humiliations” and implies it is thus the end of their academic careers. Many women competing for professional jobs (requiring extended education) with men would be surprised to hear that all males’ spirits were crushed in kindergarten, given that they are still pretty much running society.

The problem with our educational system is not that “no one is teaching them how to be men and women” (from Sax’s website) but that we are using blunt instruments, such as standardized testing, which saps what little autonomy teachers had in the classroom before NCLB. This means they are unable to address differences among individual students in development times of different skills. Yes, that variation exists, but using gender as the blunt instrument to guide education reform is even worse than using a standardized test. On top of it being a pointless exercise to assume anyone’s academic strengths and weaknesses at a given age can be assessed using their appearance, it also reinforces so many stereotypes that so many of us had finally begun to move past, and furthermore gives them false “scientific” credibility. This type of “science” is no different from attempts a century ago to demonstrate through physical qualities that blacks were less intelligent than whites.

This blog has previously summarized the alarming trend of claiming genetic origin for every trait anyone can think of, and why the papers supporting these ideas tell us absolutely nothing. The problem of the other type of research cherry-picked by Sax to support his agenda is that it studies already-developed human beings. Anyone who has raised a child should understand the intellectual dishonesty of claiming that behavioral traits possessed by a baby or toddler are clearly genetic. Humans are social creatures, programmed from birth to learn from other humans how they should behave. That includes identification with a particular gender, and all the traits associated with it in a particular society. Brain development does not occur in a vacuum, but is affected by experience. Brain-scan differences even in a newborn can not be determined to be genetic, because the newborn’s brain started developing nine months before.

Most important though, the differences found are minor and slight – meaning it is unlikely that they are biologically significant. From the Times magazine article:

Sax initially built his argument that girls hear better than boys on two papers published in 1959 and 1963 by a psychologist named John Corso. Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent a fair amount of energy examining the original research behind Sax’s claims. In Corso’s 1959 study, for example, Corso didn’t look at children; he looked at adults. And he found only between one-quarter and one-half of a standard deviation in male and female hearing thresholds. What this means, Liberman says, is that if you choose a man and a woman at random, the chances are about 6 in 10 that the woman’s hearing will be more sensitive and about 4 in 10 that the man’s hearing will be more sensitive. Sax uses several other hearing studies to make his case that a teacher who is audible to boys will sound too loud to girls. But Liberman says that if you really look at this research, it shows that girls’ and boys’ hearing is much more similar than different. What’s more, the sample sizes in those studies are far too small to make meaningful conclusions about gender differences in the classroom.

Why is it now acceptable to use “science” to foster people’s underlying prejudices about gender, but no longer about race? Apparently there is some sort of hair-splitting going on in the minds of these “scientists” that of course skin color and other associated traits tell you nothing about what is going on in someone’s brain, we know that now, so forget about that. But different genitals, now that clearly must be correlated with brain function. Especially the genitals of pre-pubescent humans!

It is especially insidious that the idea being promoted is just a new version of “separate but equal”, which as anyone knows who is at all familiar with history, means anything but. Sax’s motivation is clear. He has been on a crusade for years to convince people that public education is biased against boys because most of the teachers are women. (Of course, who is responsible for that? Surely not the men who over the ages told women that the only profession they could have was teaching, since obviously it is such an undesirable job. Surely not the principals and superintendents who for some reason are still overwhelmingly male, and oversee overwhelmingly female teaching staffs. But I digress.) He does a clever job of convincing people that he cares about girls too, but this concern is nothing but pandering to get people to buy into his system of segregation.

It’s truly a shame, because for completely opposite reasons, single sex classrooms in public schools can be a good idea. For instance, in the context in which many kids are more interested in what the kids of the other gender think of them than the academics going on in class, single-sex classrooms can remove a major distraction. Because it’s a good idea for kids to learn to relate to the other gender socially, it seems that the best situation is some, perhaps not all, single-sex classes in coed schools. It also does help remove some teacher biases which have usually been documented to favor boys (not girls, as Dr. Sax claims) in their participation. But if, as Dr. Sax claims, the majority of schools going to single-sex classes are basing their new paradigm on his “genetics” theories, then we are in big trouble, because it will make many of the gender prejudices that have sunk below consciousness openly acceptable again.


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