Something I once learned

One of the more important things I learned in college was both unintentional and painful, and so I wanted to spend a few moments reliving it here. As I have said before, writing this blog is a form of therapy for me.

It was the Spring of 1987, and I was taking the last of the “freshman seminars” that I was required to take. There was a long list of available courses, and probably some really interesting topics, but I somehow wound up in a Philosophy course having to do with gender and science. Maybe it met at a time I wanted, since I made a point of keeping my afternoons free for going to the beach, or a ball game, or whatever it is that college students do in the springtime.

The class met in a study room in the main library, so on the first day I walked into the room and sat in an empty chair at the end of the table. After about ten minutes or so, the instructor arrived. She was in her twenties (a grad student, obviously), and she walked into the room and said “It’s not surprising that the only two males in the class are sitting at the ends of the table.” I made eye contact with the other guy, surveyed the nodding of most of the females in the class, and realized that we were in for a long ten weeks.

I didn’t enjoy the class at all, but I did learn something, and that’s probably more important. What I learned is that gender-specific language is not a good thing, because it sends messages to both males and females about their expected roles in society. I had never given it a second thought before, but I finally accepted the premise that gender-neutral language–of the “he or she” variety–was a more thoughtful way to proceed.

I mention this because, in the process of going through a drawer in the office today, I came upon a book titled “Children’s Literature in the Curriculum” by one Dewey W. Chambers. The book was copyrighted in 1971, which means that it was written for the people who would be teaching me when I was a child. I’ll give a few sentences to show where the book–and the society that produced it–was at 40 years ago.

” The teacher will be effective, indeed, when she speaks of the books she offers from firsthand experience.” (page 67)

“The children’s librarian is always a good source of information. She often knows what books are available locally to aid the teacher in developing her program…” (page 66)

So this author seems to believe that a generic, unnamed teacher or librarian must be female. But what about men, in this author’s view?

“The illustrator is a communicator. He…tells the story in a medium different from the author, but his story telling is every bit as real.” (page 115)

“The painter concentrates on…his art as a way of communicating to the world his thoughts and wishes. The composer of music uses his medium to do the same.” (page 105)

So painters and composers and illustrators are all men, according to Dewey W. Chambers. Why else would the sentences be worded in this way?

But the most insidious part of this is the way that the individual child is invariably refered to as “he” and “him,” as in:

“The social studies textbook simply does not begin to satisfy the curious child.  It cannot possibly answer his questions…” (page 41)

‘It is often not enough to have many sources available to the youngster to help him learn.” (page 94)

Does the absence of a reference to the student as “she” or “her” cause teachers to treat boys and girls differently? I can see how it might.

But getting back to the freshman seminar for a moment, it seemed like every time I opened my mouth or wrote a paper in that class, I was just going to be wrong. But I also learned something valuable, and now–whenever I run across examples of this subconscious gender bias–I change it into a more expansive “he or she” type of a construction. As the father of two young daughters, I have to believe that this is helpful, both for them and for society as a whole.

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