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.