Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Women, Men, Boys, Girls, Equality and Freedom

Petula Dvorak wrote a column today titled In the push for gender equity, turnabout is not fair play.

Dvorak doesn't discuss how society has changed -- for the worse -- in the past three or four decades. In her column she focuses on equality between men and women and how males are doing in school. She should consider more.

Let's begin by taking a look at schools and boys. She wants boys to buckle down more and work harder. That seems to be the solution to every problem today. Work harder and longer -- not smarter or more imaginatively. Unfortunately, this approach has seemed to many to have reached and exceeded its practical limits. Humans get tired. They perform much less well when tired. Check out Stanley Coren's Sleep Thieves and William Dement's The Promise of Sleep to see the toll that too little sleep is taking on our society.

Schools have changed since I was a child -- and some people think for the worse. When I was young, schools were much smaller and more connected to their communities. This allowed parents to work with teachers much more effectively. School populations were not so large that students and teachers were overwhelmed. Some thinking indicates that humans cannot effectively relate to very large groups of people. That's why in today's mega high schools, students break apart into various subgroupings that too often fuel ugly conflicts. After Columbine, a geek website known as Slashdot posted discussions titled Voices from the Hellmouth. The discussions focused on how miserable school had become for young geeks.

Some people tell us there is an epidemic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the schools. Others tell us school has become too regimented with too little freedom -- the kind of freedom I and others enjoyed as children. This phenomenon seems particularly bad regarding boys. One Mensa friend tells me half the boys in her sons' schools has been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD or some variant. That allows the people who run the schools to administer Ritalin to said boys to make them quieter and less troublesome. I've met her sons. They seem OK to me -- but then I see them at science fiction conventions where freedom is encouraged.

If our schools were performing well overall, Dvorak might have a stronger point. Unfortunately, too many people -- especially people I know through either professional associations such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics or social organizations such as Mensa seem to think our schools are not performing well.

There have been some experiments where schools have been made smaller -- sometimes just be reorganizing the school into several parts in the same building. These experiments seem to work better than today's large high schools. There have also been some experiments where recess -- free time -- has been increased with positive results.

There are two trends in our larger society that cause me quite a bit of concern. First is the growing inequality in our society. The second is loss of personal freedom. They seem intertwined. I wonder if Dvorak has ever worked in a place dominated by a male abusive bully who sometimes promotes women into positions of power -- and then uses them to dominate more independent people. Too many of us have.

While greater equality between men and women is to be desired, let's also think about equality of all persons and the freedom to live their own lives.

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