Gender question in education: theory, pedagogy, and politics.
Reviewed by Tara Goldstein
Department of Curriculum
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto
This rich volume of essays has been put together by four feminist philosophers of education - two from Canada and two from the United States - who tell us that the work in their book reflects more than two decades of philosophical inquiry. While reading through the essays, the reader gets the sense that Ann Diller (Education, University of New Hampshire), Barbara Houston (Education, University of New Hampshire), Kathryn Pauly Morgan (Philosophy, Women's Studies, Bioethhics, University of Toronto), and Maryann Ayim (Education, University of Western Ontario) have been talking to each other about issues of gender and education for a long time and what they have done in this book is summarize the thinking and questions that have emerged from years of dialogue and discussion so that others could listen in on their latest conversations.
The essays are organized into three parts, providing readers with multiple points from which to enter the authors' conversations. The first part focusses on theoretical questions that can be raised in discussions of gender and education, the second part moves back and forth between theory and practical questions of pedagogy, and the third part applies theory to specific problems of educational practice and politics. The group of essays of that focusses on theory begins with an essay by Ayim and Houston that examines what it means to talk about sexism in education from a philosophical point of view. All four authors write from a "gender-sensitive" perspective on education which was first suggested by Jane Roland Martin in a presidential address to the Philosophy of Education Society in 1981. Fifteen years ago, Martin's gender-sensitive critique of the standard idea of the educated person "electrified and, in some cases, horrified" her audience with its argument that the traditional ideal reflected a male cognitive perspective which did harm to both men and women. Moving from a philosophical analysis of what sexism and sexist education looks like to a discussion of what can been done about it, the authors offer the reader a set of three possibilities as to how issues related to gender discrimination might be taken up theoretically. Ayim discusses the possibility of a traditional form of education in which girls and boys are taught their own clearly differentiated, socially determined gender roles; Morgan outlines an education that aims to abolish all gender differentiation from our schools and classroom practices, and Houston argues for the adoption of a "gender-sensitive" form of education that attempts to challenge gender bias by developing a critical awareness of the meaning and evaluation people attach to gender. Morgan then moves the discussion beyond these first three educational alternatives by inquiring into the possibility of using androgyny as an educational ideal to challenge sexism in the school system. Part one ends by raising the question of whether it is, in fact, helpful to try to theorize gender at all. In the last essay in the first part of the book, entitled "Theorizing gender: How much of it do we need?," Houston examines educational proposals that reflect postmodern discussions around deconstructing the concept of gender.
Having provided the reader with a sophisticated but accessible introduction to many of the central theoretical debates about the role of gender in education, the authors include two other sets of conversations that focus on ways to envision anti-sexist educational practice (Part 2) and ways to address a variety of practical political issues (Part 3). As a reader who works in the field of teacher education, it was the set of essays on pedagogy in Part 2 that engaged me the most. In their "gender-sensitive" search for new educational models, the authors focus on the possibilities associated with an "ethics of care" that has been put forward by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings. The essays included in this set summarize the central tenets of an ethics of care and then move on to explore how an ethics of care might be applied in a classroom within the context of feminist pedagogy. Here the discussion centres on two paradoxes feminist teachers encounter when they attempt bring nurturant models of education, such as an ethics of care, into their classrooms: the paradox of critical nurturance and the role model paradox. Readers interested in discussions of feminist pedagogy and teaching as nurturing will find these paradox dialogues fascinating. Personally, I was more taken with Kathryn Pauly Morgan's essay on the ways our current pedagogical practices continue to perpetuate what Ann Diller calls "gendered forms of educational empowerment and disempowerment." In her essay, Morgan deconstructs three myths that continue to hide the many ways that education remains inequitable: the universality myth ("or why does everything [still] seem to be mostly [white] men's studies?"), the coeducation myth, and the myth of educational equality of opportunity. What is particularly important about Morgan's essay is the way she locates her examination of gender as only one of the many "ideological and material axes of power" that need to be investigated in our attempts to create and sustain anti-discriminatory educational practices in classrooms and schools. The highlight of the essay, for me, was Morgan's diagram of "intersecting axes of privilege, domination and oppression" (p. 107). Morgan believes that "each of us occupies a point of specific juxtaposition on [the axes of domination, privilege and oppression] and that this point is simultaneously a locus of our agency, power, disempowerment, oppression and resistance" (p. 106). In order to challenge particular arrangements of power that currently stand in the way of achieving genuine educational equity, Morgan believes that educators need to understand their own positioning on the various axes of her grid. Simply put, educators need to understand the ways in which we wield power and the ways in which we do not. Such an understanding allows us to think about ways to use the power we do have to work towards equity in education as well as how we might be (unintentionally) reproducing arrangements and practices that maintain the status quo. In choosing to exclusively examine the ax of gender in terms of the myths that "camouflage the naked facts of educational inequity" (p. 106), Morgan, nonetheless, makes sure to emphasize the necessity of looking at the ways the axis of gender interacts and resonates (or does not resonate) with other axes such as race, class, sexual orientation, ability, and religion in producing educational inequities. This is, I think, an important feature of her work - a feature that is often missing from work that looks at "the gender question in education" and from work that examines anti-sexist classroom practices.
The Gender Question in Education is a book to talk back to. My copy is full of notes in the margins - notes that raise questions about a point the authors are making, notes that remind me of my own teaching practices and experiences, notes that push me to reflect upon my own ethics of teaching. Books to talk back to are books that engage and books I want to share with my students. I plan on sharing some of these essays with my own students.
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|Publication:||Resources for Feminist Research|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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