So let’s talk a little bit about the good news first. Imagine the American educational system in the 20th century was the envy of the rest of the world. Everyone wanted to be like the United States. What was it? Was the educational system so innovative and advanced? Were we on the cutting edge of educational practice? Not so much.
What made the system so phenomenal was the assumption, based on our social and political ideologies, regarding whom was going to get this education. And, eventually, that meant...everyone. Yes, everyone deserved an excellent education as both an expression of our democratic philosophies and in order to support that system as well. This understanding was not without its fits and starts, not without its court battles and protests and political brawls. Inherent in the 20th century discussion about education was that it was as close to a human and civil right as you could get without being explicitly stated in our Constitution and; therefore, the society at large had a responsibility to educate everyone and educate everyone equally. This does not sound like such a radical idea now, but at the turn of the 20th century, most educational systems outside the United States were deeply caste and class driven, and certainly misogynistic.
As the shackles slowly started to come off for women and for other minority groups, the societal benefits were undeniable and obvious. In regards to women, what happens when you take more than HALF of the species and place them more firmly and positively into the cultural, economic and social human arena? Only good things. For more on this idea, read the brilliant,The Race Between Education and Technology, by Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz.
School is the garden of eden for girls who receive all of the cultural and communal messages about what it means to be a girl and ultimately a woman. Stay in line, stay in your lane, do not cause a ruckus, and you will be rewarded.
So the good news is that, in the 20th century, more women graduated from high school than men. Currently, we have a higher college graduation rate for women from college and advanced degrees, and all professional school applications for women in all fields is growing and swelling. Women rock school. On average, they just do better, perform better and finish school better than most men do. However, I’m going to argue that this turns out to be a mixed blessing based on our educational assumptions and what we value in our students overall.
Schools, in their current configuration, thrive on order. As many educators and thinkers have pointed out, we still function in an industrialized version of education meant to largely prepare its citizens for an industrialized economy. No longer does our country function economically this way, but our schools have been slow as snails to change and have not truly pivoted. This type of huge cultural shift is so difficult because generation after generation of Americans are used to a certain way of seeing school and experiencing school which then drives how we, mostly, want school to look for our children, even if our own experiences were less than optimal. It is human nature to gravitate to the comfortable as a definition of normal.
Creating order in a factory means that the person who has widget A needs to be AFTER the person who is holding slot B because widget A needs to go into slot B. The order is key. In an industrialized model, everyone needs to know their place, needs to know their task and should not be making decisions on their own about where they stand in the assembly line, and definitely not questioning how the system works or what it produces.
If school is based on this model, order is defined as maximal obedience. Do as you're told, be in the right place at the right time, do not cause disruption and do not make any independent decisions without permission of the factory manager (the teacher). Stay in the box, follow the rules, and you will be rewarded and liked.
This model coincides magically with how we socialize and reinforce stereotypes for women. School is the garden of eden for girls who are receiving all of the cultural and communal messages about what it means to be a girl and ultimately a woman. Stay in line, stay in your lane, do not cause a ruckus and you will be rewarded.
Yes, girls rock school. But, in its current configuration, at what cost? Many forms of obedience should not only be rejected as positive educational values, but they should be discouraged and not tolerated, just as much as we would a child who is acting out in a disrespectful manner and disrupting class. This is not an either/or formula. Girls can thrive in school without feeling that being obedient, passive and non-assertive are positive values.