Friday, January 20, 2006

Barely able to write their names in the dirt with a stick

One of the areas where boys are falling behind is in their verbal skills.

And this is causing them to fall behind everywhere else, because you can't get very far in school, or in life, if you can't express a complex thought.

You have to be able to read and write well.

Steve Israel's article in the Sunday Record looks at this problem, but he accepts some contentions from one of his sources, anthropologist Helen Fisher, that I disagree with, hotly.

Think of it this way: Centuries ago, a man went out with a rock to slay a buffalo. He had to develop the physical skill to judge the distance between him and the animal. He had to learn to focus to kill the beast with one blow. This is what men did for thousands of years. They learned aggression and focus.

Meanwhile, a woman stayed home with her baby. She nursed her child. She watched for snakes. She taught her child to speak. When the man came home, she cooked the meat. She learned to do several things at once. She learned to communicate, to figure things out.

"Words were a woman's tools," says Fisher.

And a woman's tools are now needed to thrive in school and the world - a world that has changed so much, so quickly, that it relies less on physical strength and aggressiveness and more on processing information and cooperation.

Ok, in lazy, armchair Richard Leakeyesque moods brought on by a trip to the museum or an article in a doctor's office copy of Psychology Today, I'm halfway persuaded by images of silent men approaching a mastodon and convivial parties of women gathering nuts and berries that men might have learned the value of keeping your mouth shut more than women needed to.

And it's been my experience that when a group of men get together to work on a project they talk or don't talk as the mood strikes them---when they do talk the talk is about the tools being used or about past jobs like this one (men telling each other stories)---and when the group at work is predominately women (I'm talking about my experience here. I can only experience groups of women that are only predominately women. Every group of women I've ever been part of had at least one man in it.) the conversation is non-stop and about everything under the sun except, sometimes, the job at hand, which still gets done and done well and done right.

So from my experience I could characterize the talk of men as being laconic and mainly process-oriented and the talk of women as being more verbose, descriptive, and insight-driven, and I could conclude that I'm seeing the ancient dynamic at work still and agree that it appears that women are just naturally more comfortable, fluent, and creative in their use of words and that this translates into higher verbal skills and higher verbal scores on tests.

But I'm not a fan of evolutionary arguments to explain current cultural conditions, like the fact that American men don't tend to open up in their conversation the way American women tend to do, because we don't know. There's not enough evidence of what people were doing before they started writing down the history of what they'd been doing. From the point where we do have written evidence, lo and behold, most of the writing is by men!

Where did they learn that trick?

Fisher says "Words are women's tools," and rocks and sticks were men's and while women talked and invented civilization men stood around beating rocks together and hitting each other over the head with sticks and that's why boys today are having such trouble. The primary tools of human intelligence---words---are above their biologically innate capacity to handle.

This is just the old argument that women are biologically geared not to be able to think in three dimensions and reason linearally---that is, they can't do math---turned on its head to flatter girls in a way that is actually insulting to them as well as boys. We don't need to do math anymore. We need to talk about how we do math.

I know a lot of women writers, poets, lawyers, journalists, bloggers, and other professionals whose success has depended on their having to be highly skilled in using words who wouldn't like to hear that they didn't have to work all that hard at it because they were evolutionarily designed for their jobs, that words are "women's tools" and they just throw them around as easily and naturally as men throw rocks.

And those hunting parties of supposedly silent men? They did not include small boys.

The small boys were with their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters learning which nuts and berries to pick and, incidentally, how to talk.

Meanwhile, back in the stone age, banging rocks together had a purpose we now call tool-making, a creative act, not an aggressive one. And as an anthropologist Fisher must know that most hunting cultures built religions around the hunt, with a result that religion has traditionally had---art!

And this art was created by and for men.

While the women were inventing civilization over in the berry patch, men were re-inventing it around the campfire and on the cave walls.

Probably at no time in the whole of human existence could men get by with just a few grunts and by making a couple of crude drawings in the dust with a stick.

However it was back in the ice age, men did not spend all their time chasing after mastodons and women did not spend all their time gossiping.

When they weren't out hunting, men whiled away their free time doing what hunters do now to while away theirs. They told each other stories.

In every culture at every point in time the ability to tell a story has been as valued by men as it has been by women. The talent for describing a process, for teaching somebody else how to do a job, has been as important a quality for a man as it has been for a woman.

And once upon time, and not that long ago a time it was, a cultured young man, that is one fit for the company of other men, needed to know how to write a decent sonnet, dash off a decent letter, tell a decent story, and give a decent speech.

All this is to say that for thousands of years, whatever our innate biological differences, the cultural pressure on boys was for them to be just as gabby as their sisters.

Something changed.

Majikthise gets there first: Kevin Drum linked to an article by Richard Whitmire in the New Republic that examines boys' declining literary and verbal skills in depth. I was planning to post a reaction, and still might, but Lindsay Beyerstein beat me to the punch and she and her commenters have an excellent discussion of it going here.

Go here for Drum's take.


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