When my little brother, Gus, was in third grade, he insisted that everyone—ranging from my parents to his teachers to his friends—call him “Ripley” after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” movie series. Gus was a huge science fiction fan, and he considered Ripley to be the ultimate protagonist: a brave and cunning lieutenant who consistently out-fought and out-smarted a dangerous alien race.
At the time, I questioned Gus and his name change based on the fact that Ripley was female.
“Why are you changing your name to a girl’s name?” I asked him, “Do you want to be a girl?”
“No, I don’t want to be a girl. I just want to do what Ripley does,” he replied.
As a seventh grader, I remember feeling frustrated with Gus and his inability to acknowledge the inherent differences between himself and Ripley.
The nature of biological differences between the genders is a hot topic in education. On Sunday, the New York Times published “Should Boys and Girls be Taught Differently: The Gender Wars go to School” an article that examines biological arguments set forth by certain advocates of single-sex education. Author Elizabeth Weir distinguishes between two camps of single-sex education: those who are in favor of separating boys and girls because they are essentially and biologically different, and those who “favor separating boys and girls because they have different social experiences and different social needs.”
Some advocates like Leonard Sax claim that there are biological differences between the sexes like “girls hear better than boys” and “boys are better than girls at seeing action. ” Sax uses these claims to justify not only separate classrooms for boys and girls but also separate curricula.
Sax points to Foley Intermediate School, a public school in Alabama that offers separate classes for boys and girls, as an exemplar of single-sex education. At Foley, fourth grade boys study snakes in science class, while fourth grade girls conduct science experiments related to cooking fried chicken.
This type of single-sex curriculum based on "biological differences" between the sexes is dangerous. The Foley program not only ignores the power of social norms but also reinforces traditional gender stereotypes cleverly disguised as "scientifically-based" assumptions about gender . According to Sax and his line of reasoning, should we only teach boys how to play chess because male chess players have traditionally performed better than females?
Although I am critical of the Foley program and Sax’s claims, I am in favor of certain forms of single-sex education that challenge gender inequities. Certain types of single-sex education programs like girls’ chess academies and tournaments have the potential to dismantle as opposed to reinforce gender stereotypes. By motivating and empowering girls to try their hand at traditionally male-dominated sports, these programs may shed new light on claims regarding the “biological differences between the sexes.”
Looking back, I am now impressed with Gus and his rejection of gender stereotypes. By “becoming Ripley” Gus not only rejected traditional gender stereotypes, he also questioned the extent of biological differences between the sexes. Why should we assume that all girls are interested in cooking, that all boys want to learn about snakes, or that all children should only model themselves after real or fictional characters of the same gender?
What do you think about the pros and cons of single-sex education, and about the different arguments surrounding these programs? Please leave your comments and thoughts below.