Feminism and Education
To the Editor:
In “Feminism & Thought Control” [June] Michael Levin doesn’t tell the half of it. Textbook editors deliberately distort American cultural history in order to advance the new orthodoxy.
For example, in a 1979 American literature text from Scott, Foresman, there is a study question which goes roughly: “Edith Wharton was the first woman to achieve critical and financial success as a writer. What factors made it difficult for women to succeed as writers before this time?” Since Edith Wharton first achieved success in the 1890′s, the editors with one stroke have created non-persons out of all the successful women authors, essayists, poets, lecturers, etc., who had virtually dominated American popular literature since Sarah Hale was made the first editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1839.
This might be simple illiteracy on the part of the editors, since they seem to have been chosen for political rather than scholarly reasons, but it is interesting to note that the authors have uncovered a number of unpublished diaries and suffragette speeches to represent women before Edith Wharton’s time. Except for Emily Dickinson, of course. She fits the thesis because she did not publish during her lifetime, having been discouraged by a male editor. That he did publish dozens of other women is conveniently ignored.
Within a movement which highlights the achievements of women, why the conspiracy of silence about their literary achievements in the 19th century? I suspect it is because of the myth that male-dominated society has suppressed female creativity, and all those female poets, novelists, and editors from that male-dominated century are too hard to explain.
This particular series of textbooks is governed by a strict quota of half-male and half-female, half-white and half-minority selections, and the result is wildly uneven quality in the selections. In the American literature text, the dominant American classics have to be presented. and there are selections by Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Mark Twain, etc., all male. But in order to get the quota right, the students are led to believe that white males stopped writing literature after World War II. . . .
Richard A. Davis
To the Editor:
. . . Michael Levin’s anti-feminist diatribe is so full of unwarranted assumptions, misstatements, and grudges that it is impossible to note all of them. A few selected observations follow:
Textbooks do reflect reality when they imply that women work (yes, as accountants), that men mother, and that families are not abnormal if they do not have two parents.
Feminists do not deride motherhood.
The passive voice is not necessarily “awkward,” and it may be appropriate and elegant.
Feminists don’t “want to play by their own rules and yet win the game,” as Mr. Levin says, they want some of the rules changed. Even the NFL recognizes the need for reform.
The theme of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is not the authors’ “dissatisfaction with male lovemaking”—to say so is trivial and reductive.
Courses in Women’s Studies are not “easy” relative to other college courses (has Mr. Levin read Virginia Woolf and Engels lately?).
Women’s Studies advocates are not confused; they want women to study all fields of knowledge and they also want a reappraisal of the subject matter of traditional fields, where appropriate. Courses in women’s history serve as means to these not incompatible ends.
Children certainly do “learn two things at once” without stress, and whether we like it or not, they absorb implicit messages about gender, identity, and values even as they read for other information.
To curriculum design, Mr. Levin evidently prefers the “free-market system,” in which not educators and publishers but advertisers and investors determine the portrayal of sex roles and stereotypes for us. When marketing researchers discover a new market—the professional woman and the househusband, for example—they readily enough devise new images by which to manipulate it. Surely educators should have a comparable freedom to shape our consciousness.
Many teachers, and not only ideologues, believe that education “manipulates,” not in the sense of brainwashing but of influencing. Education changes people. If this seems subversive, it is hardly new; Socrates was an early radical pedagogue. Mr. Levin’s vague faith that “authors [can] be judged on purely educational grounds,” if it is not bad faith, is naive. Would he have us abdicate responsibility for selecting the values and ideas that we teach? While transmitting facts (for instance, that men nurse and women work in factories), we should encourage self-reliance and “sensitivity” in children of both sexes. Instead of becoming “neuters,” they might gain more freedom to make better informed choices about how to live together. Mr. Levin defends his flanks manfully against an Orwellian Big Sister feminist conspiracy, a straw woman, really: but his maneuvers only confirm that sexism is a sign not so much of thought control as of the absence of thinking.
Franklin and Marshall College
To the Editor:
. . . I will not gainsay Michael Levin’s quotes (albeit out of context) from the various guidelines. I do, however, object to his tone of ridicule and his apparent dismissal of the need to redress an imbalance which has limited the horizons and options of women throughout history. Textbooks have been shown to convey images and ideas which influence the thought and behavior of students. What they omit, as has been made clear in studies of the treatment of Jews in texts and curricula conducted by the American Jewish Committee, has an equally profound effect on student perceptions. When Macmillan urges that “women and girls should be shown as having the same abilities, interests, and ambitions as men,” it is an attempt to include a graphic presentation of options for women and girls which have hitherto been closed to them. As one who has been involved in efforts to eliminate Jewish stereotypes (many of which may be shown to have “some truth”) from textbooks, I cannot understand Mr. Levin’s objection to Silver Burdett’s attempt to eliminate, or at least mitigate, sexual stereotypes. Furthermore, I am not sure that, as stated in the article, “any pediatrician will testify that girls are usually more orderly than boys” (no age indicated), but I am acquainted with many college housemothers and camp directors who will testify to the opposite proposition.
Mr. Levin’s concern that the image of women projected in books adhering to the new guidelines does not reflect reality is unwarranted and unfair. Since women have not been shown in any but traditional roles in the past their portrayal in new roles can be an effective means of confronting the social change which is indeed part of today’s reality. I would hope that the guidelines’ declared position against patronizing the traditional role of women might be implemented more effectively than indicated by Mr. Levin’s critique. However, in view of the vast number of textbooks and stories that are still available (and still being read) which illustrate what has been regarded as traditional roles for women, the current introduction of other options in stories and texts is only a beginning. Surely, no male self-image will be tarnished by reading about the creative energy of Christina Katerina: little girls, on the other hand, who—because of past sins of literary omission—may never have been aware of such a female paradigm might indeed be limited by the lack of a role model.
As for “the gap between how boys and girls actually behave in the real world and the way they behave in these books,” that gap is narrowing as women widen their horizons. In any case, I doubt that the gap would upset this generation any more than its parents were disturbed by the gap between the idealized family of “Dick and Jane” and the families they knew.
I am aware of some of the excesses which are the inevitable result of trying to raise consciousness and achieve equal treatment and a more balanced picture of women in today’s society. However, using ridicule and reducing a basically serious effort to cope with a changing society to theater of the absurd does a disservice to the publishers who developed the guidelines and the authors who use them. Surely the success of the women’s movement in this area should not be denigrated, especially since, as the author points out, “the long-term effects of feminist ideology in education are yet to be measured.” I believe when the accounts are all in, the net effect will be an enrichment of human relations through a fuller use of human potential, female and male.
Academy for Jewish Studies Without Walls
American Jewish Committee
New York City
To the Editor:
I am not an active feminist, yet I read Michael Levin’s article with a growing irritation and sense of female chauvinism. To rid textbooks and curricula of sexism is no more dangerous a thought-control campaign than was the effort of the Catholic church to rid its books and liturgy of anti-Semitism. Both are examples of institutions trying to undo erroneous and harmful messages. . . .
No, Mr. Levin, I never doubted that “he who hesitates” could refer to me; but at the same time I know that the masculine “he” became the generic because males were in the mainstream, and females were not. Those using the generic were men talking to men, because women weren’t expected to say anything important. It’s about time that we attempted to erase this implied message, and there’s nothing inherently awkward about saying “one who hesitates,” just as there is nothing awkward in the use of the passive voice. In addition, since Mr. Levin prefers the exact use of words, there is no more obvious place than a logic book, where exactness is not just preferred but imperative, for “all men” to be changed to “all humans” who are mortal.
If indeed the publishing companies have gone too far in expurgating their books of sexism, Mr. Levin does not prove it with the above examples. I for one am sorry that the publishers did not go even farther. I would have had them invent a new pronoun for the third person singular that is both masculine and feminine. Mr. Levin would cringe at the newness of the sound. Does he truly not understand that most of that which sounds awkward to him is merely that to which his ear is not accustomed? Does the word “chairperson” sound as awkward today as it did seven or eight years ago? Only to those whose experience is extremely limited or whose resistance to change is extremely strong.
New York City
Michael Levin writes:
To Richard A. Davis: I didn’t tell a quarter of it. Massachusetts, Iowa, California, and other states all mandate “bias-free” education in their school systems, including the elimination of “stereotypic language patterns” in the classroom itself. This is nothing less than total war against the human past.
To Victoria Middleton: I’m sorry, many (most?) feminists are hostile to motherhood (and perhaps frightened by it), and the guidelines reflect this. I’m sorry, there are no child psychologists who think that being raised without two loving parents is a good idea—indeed, when they are not marching toward a glorious future of flex-time and day-care centers, feminists often whine about the stress suffered by female-headed families and implore the government to do something about it. And I am most sorry that Women’s Studies are easy and worthless. I cherish a copy of a Women’s Studies final from a local campus which consists of the question, “What did you get out of this course?” The Women’s Studies program at the University of Indiana invites students to write papers on “your own attitude toward menstruation.” Big Sister is here, as anyone can verify who is willing to wade through the feminist propaganda about education and virtually every other human activity that pours out of the Departments of Education, Human Services, Labor, and Justice.
To Gladys Rosen: Like Miss Middleton, you are concerned that girls break free of their “traditional roles” to “use their full potential” under the guidance of non-traditional “role models” and so on and so on. This sounds so lame, I suppose, because it isn’t easy to work up enthusiasm for censorship. I’m sure you think feminist propaganda is a good thing—censors generally think that what they are after is sufficiently important to override free expression—but the rest of us will need something better. Especially since this talk of “role models” belongs to the category of made-up facts; we have only the fantasy that inside every little girl is a feminist, or at least an Amelia Earhart, ready to break out. I should note Macmillan’s special recommendation that authors show Jews being athletic. Quite apart from questions of veracity, how is this to be done—pictures of boys with sidelocks and skullcaps running in the backfield?
To Dorothy Dubin: I should like to know what evidence there is that conventional textbooks are erroneous, and even harmful. It is a great confidence trick of the age that feminists can portray all womankind as somehow crippled, and yet never be pressed for any hard evidence that this is so. Speaking of evidence, how do you know that “those using the generic were men talking to men, because women weren’t expected to say anything important”? Are you privy to what went on in the minds of our cave-person forebears? Really, feminists seem to take television as some sort of paradigm of reality, confusing reality with its representations.
Let me make one final observation. Libertarians have long worried that lodging education in the hands of the state—the force monopoly—would invite the state to indoctrinate its young captive audience. In the past I have thought these fears overdrawn—in part because I am a product of the New York City public-school system, which in the 40′s and 50′s gave me the best education anyone could hope to receive. But it now seems that feminism is the ideology which has realized libertarian fears. The feminists are using the power of the state to compel the attention of children. This could not have happened had public schools not existed. What remains unclear to me is whether feminist thought control is an aberration, or whether some sort of thought control is the inevitable consequence of state control of education.