Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Stupid by conviction

I spent the day in London, dashing between Kingston University in Surbiton and Bush House for BBC World Service.

I'll write on the substance of the conference tomorrow as well as the radio discussion, because both were fascinating (even though I missed half of the conference because of my dashings to and fro).

In The Times today, a short article by Nicola Woodcock about research claims that 'Girls as young as four believe that they are cleverer and more hard-working than boys.' And, she adds, 'they also manage to convince male classmates of their apparent superiority by the age of eight.'

The article goes on:

From the first year of primary school they [girls] think they are more intelligent and better behaved than boys. Although boys in the first years of school try to stick up for themselves, by the age of eight they are resigned to thinking of themselves as naughtier, less able to focus and not as good at their schoolwork.

'Adults endorse this stereotype,' think the female researchers, considering that, '[t]here are signs that these expectations have the potential to become self-fulfilling'.

Of course it may be so: maybe boys are more stupid, and maybe everyone thinking so and expecting them to be is proof that they are. And maybe there is history to this. But there used to be a certain redemption for them even through their disability or, as it may be, unwillingness, to conform, and to perform the acts that schools and parents deem to be the only signs of intelligence. They might have deployed their own peculiar intelligence in refusal and rebellion. They might, for example, have fiddled in a bored and alienated sort of way with miscellaneous parts of their environment and become excited by possibilities. They might have devised things, or invented things, or turned over ideas in that fixed-attention sort of way they have when they finally do get interested in something, and some of these things might have been bad or even wicked, but others might have been clever and even wonderful.

And maybe the world, in its heart of hearts, knew this, and understood that this was how the world had come to be as it was. That this was why the world had plumbing and clean water and public transport and complex instruments and strange but fascinating games; that it was why they had medicine and astrophysics and the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, as well as gangsters, murderers, weapons of mass destruction and the whole range of political systems including the very best and the very worst. So, knowing this capacity, and recognising that it wasn't primarily to do with being well behaved in primary school, or paying proper attention to the things the lady teacher was expecting them to do (because they are practically all lady teachers), that is to say things, and ways of doing things, that they were frankly not very interested in but which were the official values with which they were presented, and by which they themselves were evaluated, the unofficial world might have thought, yes, but they might become worthwhile and oddly dynamic in some other way, and allowed for that possibility.

And it is also possible that by not allowing for that possibility, by regarding boys simply as stupid wastes of space with no talent and no application, and as nothing but that, the world might find that boys conclude that it is only the violent, criminal and vicious alternatives that remain to them as acts of non-conformity; after all, by eight they are convinced they are too stupid to be anything else but misfits, and that they are potentially criminal anyway.

On the other hand that may not be a bright prospect for anyone, including the smug little eight year old girls.


Mark Granier said...

I remember noticing, on the bathroom door of a friend's ex-wife's house, a new agey (and only partly jokey) tract listing the ways in which men are relentlessly, hopelessly terrible. It just about stopped short of declaring that all men are evil. What saddened me about this was that my friend's 8 or 9 year old son lived in this house, along with his older sister. I don't think the mother was intentionally cruel (and she was quite a warm and charming person to talk to); I think she just missed the connection. Had that tract been written from a misogynistic (rather than misandristic) perspective, its stupidity would have been obvious.

George S said...

Sometimes it must seem I am labouring this point, Mark, but it keeps arising in things I read from day to day. Do you know the Doris Lesing story?

"I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed...I was in a class of nine- and 10-year-olds, girls and boys, and this young woman was telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men. You could see the little girls, fat with complacency and conceit while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologising for their existence, thinking this was going to be the pattern of their lives.

Lessing said the teacher tried to "catch my eye, thinking I would approve of this rubbish".
She added: "This kind of thing is happening in schools all over the place and no one says a thing."

Nicole S said...

The ugly side of feminism. Tell women they are being grossly sexist and they say it is their turn, as if that makes it OK. I have a feeling though that young men don't take it too much to heart and are often just humouring women. I hope so, anyway.

George S said...

Well, Nicole, they have been having their turn since the mid-seventies. That's thirty five years now - my entire adult life. I am tough and successful enough to take it - and am lucky to be loved by someone I love in return.

We'd better hope that the young men 'don't take it too much to heart'. My hunch is that it has sunk to the bottom of their hearts and that they have been carrying that weight around for a long time. It's not really funny. They don't actually see it as funny, and the results are evident now and will intensify. We are developing generations of excluded unsocialised men with no role in life. But that is chiefly because they are told they have no role, and that whatever it is they can do or desire to do, is worthless. See the Doris Lessing remark above. And the incident Mark describes.

And we are not talking about young men here, but about four to eight year olds. I'm not sure they get the irony of the situation.

Mark Granier said...

Thanks George, just read that article. The dangerous stupidity of that woman in the class (presumably the teacher) is depressing but Lessing's attitude is refreshing; in this case Less(ing) certainly = More (sanity).

The flipside would be Greer's extraordinary article (about 15 years ago) in which she actually declared that 'all men are rapists...' and added, almost it seemed as an afterthought, thought if not in deed (or words to that effect.

But what gives me hope is the number of very sane women I've met. In fact, all my women friends would, I am sure, have absolutely no time for that teacher or her ilk (and such people really are an 'ilk'!).

George S said...

But what gives me hope is the number of very sane women I've met. In fact, all my women friends would, I am sure, have absolutely no time for that teacher or her ilk ...

Most women are very sane indeed. What is more they are very nice, very intelligent and I like them and, generally, they like me. But it's like the girl student who asked me for advice on a dissertation some years ago in which she was making the case that the world would have been much better without the male of the species. She was very nice, very intelligent, and didn't mean me, the man she was asking for advice. Nor did she mean any of the male students she was studying with. Nor any of the male staff. Indeed, I doubt she meant anyone at all. It wasn't an idea that applied to persons.

The trouble is that it is persons who receive the idea, which is never directed at them, just at their kind.

I think it is very like saying: I do think the world would be better off without Jews. Not you of course. Nor Freddie. Or Jemima...

But then of course one of the things Freddie and Jemima and I have in common is that we are Jews.

It's hardly ever a personal thing, but it doesn't have to be. It just has to be a climate in which the most charming and best intentioned people simply live and breathe.

And it is the climate. The teacher mentioned by Lessing is just a downpour in a rainy country.

George S said...

ps For Jew subsitute blacks, or Asians, or gays, or the disabled... it really makes no difference.

Except it is half the human race.

And it has never occurred to me, nor to most men - and it certainly does not appear in print or schools or degree courses - that the world would have been better off without women. Of course it wouldn't.

Instant death.

Mark Granier said...

Sure George, and I agree about the racism analogy (racism, sexism... it all wells up from the same poisoned reservoir, a bountiful supply). But I meant women who actually are my friends and/or relations, as opposed to acquaintances or all the charming women I have met once and never again (so cannot vouch for one way or the other). Charming intelligent people of either sex can be astonishingly numbskulled about particular matters, but I know my women friends and none of them have come out with any sweeping misandristic statements or opinions, and if they had I'd remember. Of course, they may be secretly harboring these notions, but I'm not quite ready to embrace that kind of paranoia just yet.

George S said...

I think we should beware the 'paranoia' tag Mark, because it is simply the signal for 'let's not talk about any more, just in case'.

I haven't said that specific women were thinking any such thing in any specific way. Of course not. That's not the way it works for us as adults. For us, it is simply a kind of back stop to prevent us saying or even thinking anything that might be misconstrued, even by ourselves. We have internalised a rule and the rule, like all rules, is not entirely negative. It does however make honest discussion of male character, identity, energy, desire and sexuality impossible for now, because any phenomenon is likely to be instantly moralised into the accepted pattern.

'Your desires are bad', is simply a form of repression like any other, but in a politicised climate where the default position is that one is a faulty being, it is hard even to talk about it. So the internalisation has its problems. Civilisation is repression, according to Freud. Yes, but different things are repressed at different times, with different effects.

This is, to some degree, a theoretical issue for adults but not so for children. For children it does quickly become a genuine form of paranoia in which fear of punishment and exclusion leads to alienation and rejection.

That is what Lessing observed, it is what you observed, it is what I have observed, what the researchers point to, and what school results actually show in the case of boys. They're outside. Being spirited creatures they are likely to react by saying, Very well, outside is our home. Isn't that what happens in many cases?

You say you know no women like that but you yourself have quoted the case of your friend, the mother with a son confronted with the old male is bad rule. I am sure she herself is nice and intelligent and would not consciously seek to humiliate men in general, nor her own son in particular. It is simply - as you yourself say - that she doesn't connect obvious facts, such as the tract, with the likely effect on her son.

It is when people no longer make such connections that the harm becomes almost invisible. It is distilled into the very air. No one means harm, not really. Not everyone is harmed. But we breathe the air. The harm is done to those who have known no other air.

Surely that is clear from the evidence? My own principle is not to put up with it and simply point it out when it happens, if some particular event reminds me of it. Even that can be hard work of course, and not without a shiver of fear.

Mark Granier said...

'You say you know no women like that but you yourself have quoted the case of your friend, the mother with a son confronted with the old male is bad rule.'

Actually, I didn't know my friend's ex-wife very well, only to speak to in passing. I don't think she was even in the house that time (we were probably collecting his daughter).

But we're broadly in agreement here George. Such politicised air is certainly harmful, and I do think it's worth taking note of these incidents; in fact, it would be good to see a proper public debate about this, to try to haul the whole snarly thing out into the light.