Thursday, February 09, 2012

I oughta know better...

I'm about 30 pages into Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens's The minds of boys: Saving our sons from falling behind in school and life (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2005), and I have no earthly idea how much more I'll be able to read. It's tendentious, fatuous, and overwritten, relying primarily on anecdotal evidence to prove its points, and when more critical evidence is given it's given second-hand, safely filtered through reference to other texts and not to the studies those texts rely upon.

Bluntly, it's pap.

Why read it? I thought I'd try to get a grip on views contrasting with that of Cordelia Fine (see this post), who holds that the biological bases for gender differences are blown entirely out of proportion, and that acculturation more than anything else is responsible for differentiation of gender, including differentiation in intelligence and academic performance. Gurian's name shows up an awful lot as one of the giants of biological determinism, and he's written stacks of books on gender difference, so I thought I'd check him out.

His website's not particularly promising, listing scant credentials relevant to the books he writes and boasting membership in three professional organizations, one which doesn't exist, one whose website hasn't been updated in seven years, and another which appears somewhat reputable. I'm not sure I'm one to lobby the former objection, having just finished a book in an area I'm not "credentialed" to write, but I would think that one of the foremost "authorities" in gender difference, its ramifications, and its ameliorations, should have some sort of post-graduate degree in psychology, neuroscience, or at least counseling or social work. Gurian's most advanced degree is an M.F.A., and before that he holds a B.A. in philosophy. In fact, his most promising claim to authority is his unwavering insistence that he has authority: his website is a fantasia of self-promotion, and he mentions his own institute on just about every other page of the book I've begun.

About that book...its primary thesis is that our schools are in crisis (his words, not mine): boys are falling behind and failing in disproportionate numbers...and it's because our educational system does not take into account crucial differences between the ways boys and girls learn. Truly this is a crisis, Gurian insists: "Yes, we're sorry to say, there really is a crisis" (p. 20...did I mention the text is nothing if not inflammatory?). The extremist language he uses to introduce numerous "statistics" (none properly cited and all treated uncritically) "proving" boys' educational crisis is particularly chauvinistic: for all his righteous indignation you'd think that it's men and not women who for the last several centuries have been underserved by Westernized educational systems. Once or twice he throws us a bone and insists that he has equity in mind: "Calling attention to the college problem for males is not to decry an individual's particular qualities, nor to lament women's successes in increasing their college attendance, wages, and financial independence from males" (pp. 27-28). Such mots ring hollow, however, and I can't help but come away feeling that a hundred years ago Gurian would have been a phrenologist, palpating female skulls in order to point out their "obvious" mental deficiencies.


I'll read on, but I can't see this getting any better...

UPDATE: I'm on page 39 now, and can't help sharing this bit of nonsense: "Research in the 1990s clarified ways in which our schools fail our girls, especially in areas of math and science, the dynamics of self-esteem in the classrooms, and computer design instruction. Because our culture recognized a girls' crisis, it has addressed those problems and to a great extent has changed things for the better as far as teaching girls is concerned."

Yay, according to Michael Gurian sexism in educational practice is now over! It's a thing of the past, a problem we're no longer wrestling with. I'm so happy to live in a post-sexist, post-racial America, where we're all colorblind, a black man can be president, and the mathematical sciences are roundly dominated by women.


Miss Maggie said...

I think you should read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

DocTurtle said...

@Maughta: It's about that level of discourse. Srsly.