Darwin Ate My Homework

David Brooks had an interesting op-ed in Sunday's New York Times and republished in my local paper's op-ed section. I'd love to link to it directly, but the New York Times has apparently decided to hide a good chunk of their content from anyone who isn't a paying subscriber. So, instead, here's a link to the "Pearl Jam Message Pit," the only search engine result I could find that includes the full text of the article. For those too lazy to read the article there, here is the jist of it:

There are three gender-segregated sections in any airport: the restrooms, the security pat-down area and the bookstore. In the men's sections of the bookstore, there are books describing masterly men conquering evil. In the women's sections there are novels about ... well, I guess feelings and stuff.

The same separation occurs in the home. 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."

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. It could be that women are better at processing emotion through words.

[...]

Young boys are compelled to sit still in schools that have sacrificed recess for test prep. Many are told in a thousand subtle ways they are not really good students. They are sent home with these new-wave young adult problem novels, which all seem to be about introspectively morose young women whose parents are either suicidal drug addicts or fatally ill manic depressives.

I can certainly sympathize. In elementary school, I was an avid reader, mostly of books that my mother helped me find at the local library. For whatever reason, as I grew older, at the end of middle school and the beginning of high school, I stopped reading for pleasure, and found that the books we were required to read for school were boring, irrelevent, and just plain awful.

Even our teacher admitted to us, after we read Wuthering Heights, that the book didn't make much sense to her, either. I refused to even read The Great Gatsby past the first chapter or two. It's not that I wasn't interested in matters of the mind - I was interested in math, at least. It's just that the words of 18th century female authors - about romantic relationships involving wealthy, aristocratic men and women living in societies rigid with class distinctions - didn't do it for me as an adolescent male, interested in video games, pornography, and action movies involving Chuck Norris. It wasn't until my senior year of high school - which I skipped and spent instead at a religious seminary in Israel, killing time by reading Nabokov's Lolita, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, and every book by Mario Puzo I could find, instead of learning Talmud as I was supposed to be doing - that I rekindled my interest in reading. Later, discovering politics sealed the deal. Were I to go back and read those same books now that I was supposed to read in high school, I would probably appreciate and get much more out of them at age 25 than I did at age 15.

But all of this is besides the point. My personal anecdote could demonstrate that I am an insensitive dolt who doesn't appreciate subtle human connections and good literature, and that's probably a pretty good description of most 15-year-old males. It could also demonstrate that this is the way biology made me. Or it could demonstrate that this is the way society made me.

I don't have a personal stake in any of these conclusions. And David Brooks doesn't convince me that I should.

It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture.

It could be that biology makes me dislike Jane Austin and Emily Brontë. Or, the social constructivists might be right, and it could very well be the case that I dislike Jane Austin and Emily Brontë because the culture and society in which I live teaches me to dislike Jane Austin and Emily Brontë.

This nurture/nature debate isn't just academic; Brooks and others like him want us to conclude that the proper response is, as Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett describe it, "a complete overhaul of American education based on gender, saying that boys are wired differently from girls, learn in different ways and may just need their own schools." But unless we know whether these differences are innate or whether they are socially contructed, we have no way of knowing whether we should be separating the boys from the girls or whether doing so would just be reinforcing the very same stereotypes that created these differences in the first place.

Further, as Rivers and Barnett argue, the alleged differences between boys' and girls' academic performance aren't as clear-cut as the advocates of single-sex schools would have us believe:

The boy crisis we're hearing about is largely a manufactured one, the product of both a backlash against the women's movement and the media's penchant for continuously churning out news about the latest dire threat to the nation. The subject got a big boost last year when first lady Laura Bush announced that she was going to turn her attention to the problems of boys.

But those problems are hardly so widespread. The alarming statistics on which the notion of a crisis is based are rarely broken out by race or class. When they are, the whole picture changes. It becomes clear that if there is a crisis, it's among inner-city and rural boys. White suburban boys aren't significantly touched by it. On average, they are not dropping out of school, avoiding college or lacking in verbal skills. Although we have been hearing that boys are virtually disappearing from college classrooms, the truth is that among whites, the gender composition of colleges is pretty balanced: 51 percent female and 49 percent male, according to the National Education Association. In Ivy League colleges, men still outnumber women.

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Somehow I didn't realize

Somehow I didn't realize that F. Scott Fitzgerald was an "18th century female author".

Learn something new every day.

Doesn't there seem like a

Doesn't there seem like a contradiction in discussing the neurological roots of male/female differences, and then saying they might be purely cultural?

The absurd belief that gender differences are purely cultural has no place in a world of MRI's and modern science.

That Brooks article sucks.

That Brooks article sucks. Maybe men don't like jane eyre and whatnot because they're written for women and deal with themes that women think about more frequently. It doesn't matter if the difference is biological or cultural, people are going to prefer reading material that speaks to their own experience.
I think its also stupid to say that biological differences mean there should be two seperate educational systems. Biological differences are a tendency, not a certainty. Maybe there is some biological difference that tends to make men like sports and women like feelings, but growing up I fucking hated sports and would have gone god damn crazy at a school that tried to reach out to me with a typical male education. I think the key to a good educational system is a broad variety of educational styles and topics that lets kids find a place where they can flourish.

Patri: In theory, couldn't

Patri:
In theory, couldn't the neurological differences be caused by differences in environment, specifically in the way young boys and girls are treated?

Doesn’t there seem like a

Doesn’t there seem like a contradiction in discussing the neurological roots of male/female differences, and then saying they might be purely cultural?

No, because it appears that childhood cultural influences can produce structural differences in adult brains.

But unless we know whether

But unless we know whether these differences are innate or whether they are socially contructed, we have no way of knowing whether we should be separating the boys from the girls or whether doing so would just be reinforcing the very same stereotypes that created these differences in the first place.

The job of schools is to teach the subjects. It's not to bend over backwards to avoid reinforcing stereotypes. Speaking from personal experience, I believe that I would have benefitted more with a different reading list from the one I got. Not necessarily a reading list of my own choice, but still a different one from the one I got. Maybe that would have reinforced the stereotype that is me. I don't particularly care.

Dave, He might as well have

Dave,

He might as well have been one, given the subject matter. Same shtick, different hair styles.

Patri,

I don't see any contradiction in discussing both culture and neurology and asking which, if any, cause or contribute to reading tastes. As I said, I have no horse in this race, but I remain skeptical of both sides' claims. I remember excitedly arguing with a sociology professor a few years ago when he made absurd claims about the social construction of gender, and treated this cause as if they were uncontroversial common knowledge. At the same time, I get that same excited argumentative feeling whenever I read a conservative pundit claim that these neurological gender differences are just obviously the cause of X or Y. It's silly for either side to claim that any observed social phenomenon is purely cultural or purely neorological, when it's usually either some mixture of the two or we lack sufficient evidence to isolate and test one or the other.