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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Gender and Sex -- full circle

There was a time when I talked in courses about language and sex meaning to be talking about similarities and differences in how males and females talked. And then feminists beat me about the head and shoulders and said I needed to be using the word "gender," not "sex" when doing this. And now in my morning paper, David Brooks has an article relying on a book Called "Why Gender Makes a Difference" by Dr. Leonard Sax, who though doing no research himself, seems to think that he has read enough and observed enough in treating patients (I hope I have his credentials or lack of same right) to say that there are differences in male and female brains that require that they be taught differently. This use of "gender" brings us full circle back to when I was bullied by feminists into using the word "sex" for things having to do with genitalia and intercourse and sexual preference and that sort of thing and "gender" for something more like social roles. And now Sax is using "gender" to mean "sex."

We definitely need a distinction along the lines that my feminist friends were trying to draw between sex and gender. Genitalia differences do not exactly correlate with behavioral differences. There are aggressive men and aggressive women and passive men and passive women. We fall along continua in many aspects of human behavior with men and women perhaps disproportionately populating one or the other end of a continuum.

Clearly Dr. Sax means to be using male and female "gender" to refer to people with different kinds of genitalia, not different social roles. If he were using the word "gender" and "sex" the way language and gender experts urged then his book would have to be titled "Why Sex Makes a Difference" and that would generate very wrong expectations in the reading public. Interestingly, Brooks notes that in the 1970's gender was perceived as a social construct but "it turns out that it is not a social construct." Actually, all that has happened is that we now, if we follow Sax, with Brook's endorsement, have two words for sex, namely "sex" and "gender," and no word for gender. No actual intellectual progress has been made.

I am one of the legion of academics and others who shudder when physiological differences, specifically genetic differences, are used as explanations for differences in human behavior or used by social engineers who propose to treat people who are physiologically different differently. Brooks takes note that heads can roll when people talk about differences in males and females in this way, citing the experiences with the outgoing president of Harvard. We know how badly things can go wrong when people begin to treat physiologically different people differently (not counting, of course, clearly legitimate cases -- I shall, for instance, never require treatment by a gynecologist). Nazi Germany provided a great number of different sorts of examples of this including restricting the vocations women could pursue predicated on some asinine theory of the proper role for women in a greater Germany. And now our medical doctor wants us to segregate males from females and teach them using different techniques. Dr. Sax takes the view that both sexes/genders can excel in any subject so he avoids the pit that the Harvard president fell into.

The idea that boys and girls should be taught in different schools or different classes will, of course, have the inevitable effect that boys and girls will learn even less about each other than they already do and that isn't good. Already, males and females have trouble enough communicating. Brooks expresses dismay that after all the brain research that has been done "in most classrooms boys and girls are taught the same books in the same ways." I am not at all astonished that everyone is ignoring what brain researchers have learned or think they have learned. I will be honest and say I have not looked closely into this research but I will bet good money that inferences as to such cognitive abilities as our ability to learn to read or to do mathematics or physics etc. can be supported by brain research. I am very skeptical of most claims by journalists about research by scientists.

Brooks notes that we could do some good assigning boys books they are interested in and girls books they are interested in. Hell, my mother, a junior high school librarian, did that kid by kid back in the 1950's. It doesn't take brain research to figure out that if you want a kid to learn to like reading then give him or her something to read that they might like.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Good to see you again, L_G. Thought you might have gone missing.

I suppose I am just echoing you when I ask the following questions:

If people really think that we need more options to accomodate different learning styles, why would they not simply propose that?

If women tend to prefer one style to another, there will presumably be more enrollments in the classes that accomodate that style. If some men feel they are predisposed to learn better from the same teaching style, why should they not join, too?

What does segregation of sexes add to the mix?

Is this just another case where people imagine they can keep their universe pure and untainted by isolating themselves?

9:22 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Researchers believe that men and women have brains that are very different in their chemical makeup.
BSTc research

Gender or Gender identity have the same meaning as the word sex when used in the context of identifying the physical and psychological aspect of being a male or female. Sex and gender are synonyms and are accepted as such as long as the context is identified as such.

Read through this and get really confused,overwhelmed or bored. Perspective on Differences

11:03 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

A real problem arises when politics enters into the "definition" (i. e., statement of approaved usages of) words. That is what happened when gender politics arose.

At some point, if not now, we will have genetically determined differences among humans in brain structure. The question arises as to how we use that information. Malicious people will use it maliciously. Do-gooders will misuse it with the best of intentions. But I return to the fact that we fall along continua of cognitive abilities no matter how we cut up the sexes/genders and races (with interbreeding among humans adding to the complexity) and thus the right thing is probably to do nothing but to have our teachers be senstitive to student intrests and apparent abilities. The problem with the latter is that teachers bring in prejudices that skew perceptions of abilities.

7:25 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that people's expectations would be different if he had changed the title. If you put "gender" on a form for people to fill out, then they won't use the lame joke "yes, please."

I think he's probably right that in general women learn differently than men. Of course there are differences between men and women. It would be ridiculous to think that the only differences between men and women is physical, just like it would be ridiculous to think that the various human races are different only cosmetically. But just because on average a group is different from another group does not mean that you should treat them differently. That approach would be terrible, because all individuals learn in different ways (some people love Professor A while others hate him and love Professor B). It could also have much further-reaching implications.

A much better solution would be to expose all students to many different teaching styles, and each one of them will learn better from one of those styles. But as far as I know, educators have known this for decades. I went to a university where half the students were in education, and I remember them talking about learning styles and theory and so forth. They had a complete grasp of this. So what the hell did the author think he was trying to add to this knowledge?

9:25 AM

 
Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

This reminds me of the good-ole-bad-ole days here! "I am woman, hear my different brain waves roar!"

(Hi, "anonymous"! A rose by any other, eh! Maybe a warning next time about potentially non-work-safe links?)

LG+Kelly seems the best approach: Do nothing divisive and potentially damaging and teach teachers to be more sensitive and utilise a wider variety of teaching styles.

(Kelly, is that joke really that lame? I've spent years trying to come up with an equally smart-ass response for 性別! :)

9:45 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

It wasn't lame the first time I heard it. Or the second time. But by now, it definitely is.

はい、または私剣が付いているあなたの頭部を断ち切る

I'm sure the grammar is wrong . . .

10:06 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are the subjects of endocrinology or gender studies something that should set off alarms?

3:49 PM

 
Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Kelly, the lameness probably explains why I still like it. I'm known among friends as a connoisseur of oyaji-gyaggu, "Dad Jokes"...the kind of groaner your father might tell and then chuckle to himself over for hours. :)

"Yes, or I (will) cut off your head, you who are wearing a sword." ?!?

(Beware the Babelfish, my son, the clause that catches...)

Anyway, it's the thought that counts, right? (My decapitation, eh? :)

(Anonymous, no, of course not. But I could see some tool in the computer center claiming I was perving porn on the basis of the pictures! They wouldn't bother trying to read the text.)

12:22 AM

 

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