National Post

Thursday, June 27, 2002

Feminist shifts focus to boys

A psychologist who pioneered work on educating girls finds boys face similar difficulties in life: 'Cultural crisis'

Anne Marie Owens
National Post

The New York Times
"It's true that I'm not generally the boys' speaker," says psychologist Dr. Carol Gilligan.

Having Carol Gilligan deliver the keynote address at an international conference on educating boys would only have been suggested in jest or as the height of self-punishment 20 years ago.

The Harvard psychology professor became a feminist celebrity almost overnight after writing In a Different Voice, a book that set out the gender-based differences in moral judgment and moral reasoning. Harvard University Press aptly describes the 1982 work as "the little book that started a revolution." The book's suggestion that girls were being silenced by male-dominated society by the time they reached adolescence sparked more than a decade of gender equity acts, girl empowerment campaigns and self-esteem initiatives.

Today, Dr. Gilligan, who was once named Ms magazine's Woman of the Year and whose high profile among feminists helped Harvard land a US$12.5-million gender-studies grant from Jane Fonda, will be delivering the keynote address to launch the International Boys' Schools Coalition conference in New York City.

The conference, which draws boys' educators from around the world, will be exploring a wide range of issues facing boys in schools today, particularly some of the significant findings about how boys learn and how the education system can help boost their achievement.

The fact Dr. Gilligan is kicking off the conference with her talk this morning says much about the current boys' movement among educators and also about what the controversial feminist has uncovered since she began talking about girls all those years ago.

The alarming statistics about how poorly boys are faring in schools have drawn interest from academics, educators and politicians on all sides, and are just as likely to be supported by tax-cutting enthusiasts as they are social psychologists intent on reclaiming society's lost boys.

"It's true that I'm not generally the boys' speaker," says Dr. Gilligan, laughing. "It was always, if they wanted someone to talk about girls, I was the girls' speaker."

She is typically "the gender person," paired with someone to talk about race, or "the girl person," paired with someone to talk about boys. This time, of course, she is the boy person, which she says is refreshing, and not such a stretch as it might first seem.

After she finished In a Different Voice, Dr. Gilligan began investigating whether the struggles she documented with girls in adolescence were the same kinds of difficulties boys were encountering in early childhood, during their later pre-school years.

She saw girls showing tremendous resistance as they entered the male-dominated grown-up world, "an initiation that involved significant losses for them," resulting in eating disorders and all sorts of image problems in adolescence. "Since boys are more at risk psychologically in late-pre-school, aged 4, 5, 6," she wondered, "was something similar going on with them. Were they also experiencing a resistance?"

During this next research phase -- the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology, Boys' Development and the Culture of Manhood -- Dr. Gilligan and her team began observing young boys and talking to them and to their fathers.

She writes about one aspect of this research in her new book about the psychology of love, The Birth of Pleasure.

"I discovered what was really a true dilemma for the fathers: If they supported the qualities they love in their boys at this age, their spunk, their out-there quality ... they felt they would put them at risk [from other boys, from society's expectations]." Yet, she found, if they squelched those very qualities, the fathers knew from their own experiences that they would be putting their sons at risk for future emotional damage and an inability to connect.

"This question really raised difficult issues for them."

Dr. Gilligan says she is interested to find out whether these boys' educators face the same dilemmas as the fathers she has interviewed in her research:

"I will be suggesting to them that the school should be responding very creatively to these issues, it should not be coming down on one side or another -- coming down on one or the other side involves real losses for these boys and for society."

Her research also looks at how society has responded to the emotional and developmental changes boys face in childhood, and whether the extraordinary numbers of boys diagnosed with attention deficit disorders, involved in violence or failing in schools somehow reflect "a cultural crisis over the norms and values that have traditionally been associated with masculinity."

She will also be challenging her audience to think about why it is that they have a boys' school, at a time when there are so many coed schools: "If you have a boys' school right now, you have to think about why you're having all boys and what it is you are doing differently. Because it goes against the norm, there has to be a reason."

But she sees it as positive that the newest wave in education has seen some public schools switching over to single-sex classes as a way to boost concentration, reduce distractions and even enhance student performance.

"I think people are still trying to figure out how to deal with real differences between boys and girls. We're still experimenting.... These kinds of things are exactly where we should be right now, I think.

"We should be asking, 'What actually is good co-education, and does it involve, at some point, different routes for boys and girls?' I think that's something we have to explore."

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