Toxic article in the NY Times?

Here we go again.  At least this time is isn’t about Hillary Clinton.  Instead, “Teaching Boys and Girls Separately” focuses on the work of Leonard Sax, a family physician who is not trained in education or neuroscience.  But, the NY Times tells us, Sax claims that boys and girls are neurologically very different, so different in fact that they should be educated very differently.  “Sax’s book and lectures also include neurological diagrams and scores of citations of obscure scientific studies…”

After nearly four pages of anecdotes that support Sax’s view  and lots of statements about the vast amount of research being done on the differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, the article brings in Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch at N.I.M.H.  Since he, and the other genuine experts cited are quite likely to be right about what the science shows, Sax’s views should be rejected:

Giedd says, is that when it comes to education, gender is a pretty crude tool for sorting minds. Giedd puts the research on brain differences in perspective by using the analogy of height. “On both the brain imaging and the psychological testing, the biggest differences we see between boys and girls are about one standard deviation. Height differences between boys and girls are two standard deviations.” Giedd suggests a thought experiment: Imagine trying to assign a population of students to the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms based solely on height. As boys tend to be taller than girls, one would assign the tallest 50 percent of the students to the boys’ locker room and the shortest 50 percent of the students to the girls’ locker room. What would happen? While you’d end up with a better-than-random sort, the results would be abysmal, with unacceptably large percentages of students in the wrong place. Giedd suggests the same is true when educators use gender alone to assign educational experiences for kids. Yes, you’ll get more students who favor cooperative learning in the girls’ room, and more students who enjoy competitive learning in the boys’, but you won’t do very well. Says Giedd, “There are just too many exceptions to the rule.”

Would we see an article on an advocate of child beating that waits until page 4 to tell us that the experts say it would yield unacceptable results? One might think that there’s a difference here, that single-sex schools are not harmful. But the question we are focusing on is not about the practice; it is about the rationale. And that can be harmful:

In two studies, using both correlational and experimental designs, we found as predicted that the biological gender theory was linked to stronger gender self-stereotyping tendency (as reflected by greater endorsements of negative feminine traits and slower reaction time in denying stereotypic feminine traits).

“Beyond nature and nurture: The influence of lay gender theories on self-stereotyping.”
Coleman, Jill M.
Hong, Ying-Yi
Self & Identity; Jan2008, Vol. 7 Issue 1, p34-53.

Since I haven’t read Sax’s work, I cannot present my own analysis. However, the following review from might serve as a warning for those of us who – as I have – encounter references to Sax in professional conversations.   It looks like we’ve got Baumeister all over again:

I could not believe the consistent slant of sexism in this book. Let’s start with Sax’s statement that women would receive pay equal to men, if they only had the guts to ask for it, like men do. He sights a study about how often recent males grads ask for raises as opposed to female grads who don’t usually ask. What he never even considers is the response of the employer. Do women who ask for raises get them as often as men? Are men who ask viewed as “ballsy” by their employers while women are viewed as “needy and grasping”?

Sax concludes that women are biologically designed to take fewer risks than men and we need to be trained in “dare taking” as young girls, because being too cautious can be detrimental to our success in the business world. Women should be trained against our nature, so it will go better for us. Oddly enough, when later he makes a case that most “normal” men are biologically designed to associate aggression, violence and rape with arousal and sex there is no suggestion that perhaps men should be trained against this nature. Girls should be trained at an early age to jump off chairs onto mattresses but boys don’t need to be taught that violence against women is not acceptable sex practice. That is the way men are made. Girls should be taught how to say “no” more firmly.

Any respect I had for Sax at the beginning of this book was lost by his lack of insight into his own gender bias. He repeatedly looks at research and studies at a surface level that serves his own agenda, never asking the deeper questions of a thinking man (OR woman). If this book and Sax represents the frontline in the emerging science of sex differences, we’re in big trouble people.

No, it is not the frontline in any emerging science of sex differences.  The Times article would have been better as one about the misuse of science in developing educational practices.

20 thoughts on “Toxic article in the NY Times?

  1. I encourage those interested in learning more about the many sex-related differences in the brains of both animals and humans to read the relevant article by me either in the May 2005 issue of Scientific American, or the June 2006 issue of Nature Neuroscience Reviews.

  2. Thanks, Larry! Readers can find your Scientific American article here.
    I hope my post did not seem to deny that there are sex related differences, even from day one; that would seem to me incredible, though not every one would agree. My concerns are, rather, about matters such as these:

    1. Given the so-far identified beginning differences, how responsible are they – as opposed to the physical and cultural environment – for related later differences.
    2 How much are later differences due and due solely to earlier ones.
    3. How are wise social policies informed by the answers to 1 and 2.

    For example, recent research, reported in a journal of the American Psychological Association, indicates that girls’ inferiority in some mathematically relevant spatial abilities come close to disappearing after 10 hours of interactive computer game playing. Environment seems at least capable of playing a major role.

    This sort of result is one reason why many of us are dismayed by Baron-Cohen’s views about innate differences, at least as we understand them.

  3. I’d say Sax is far worse than Baumeister: whereas the latter was (if memory serves) careful to highlight the significant overlap between two slightly different distributions, Sax appears to prefer sloppy claims of the form “Boys like X, girls prefer Y”, as though these tendencies were universal.

    That fourth-page excerpt (on Giedd) jumped out at me too; it should have featured at the forefront of the article.

  4. Thanks, Richard. My memory of the Baumeister, I just realized, is certainly imperfect. I think you are right about his understanding of how one draws conclusions about populations from the data. In this respect, it is puzzling, and in fact even shocking, that the NY Times is highlighting Sax’s claims.
    I do think some of the themes Baumeister and Sax take up are at least similar – on, for example, the most important factors to cite in explaining who succeeds in the competitive workplace.
    Still, the differences are telling. A few dismal hypotheses about the NY Times article occur to me. For example, perhaps the author thinks that all anecdotes have equal evidentiary value? some are from scientists and some aren’t, but really they’re all just stories?
    It it’s as bad as that, I might despair.

  5. My daughter’s school district almost implemented the program of Sax and Gurian two years ago. In fact, it got as far as using taxpayer dollars to send Louisiana schoolteachers to his “Gender Institute” in Colorado. Eventually, the ACLU got an injunction. It was NOT voluntary here; the district told parents their neighborhood school would become single-sex and there were no options.

    Michael Gurian is someone I knew when I lived on his side of the country. He has no background in science. His B.A. is in Journalism and he has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing – which is what his gender theories are! He is not even a real counselor or doctor or biologist (he is technically a “registered counselor,” which in WA State is simply ANY peer counselor – no training is required, and the counselor must get waivers from each “patient” explaining that this “counselor” has no actual training).

    What breaks my heart about this article is that EVERY WAY that they describe boys APPLIES PRECISELY to my daughter. She has an auditory processing disorder. She always learns by being active. It’s the only way she can learn! When she was little, we were lucky to get a partial scholarship to a private school that taught via a good variety of methods. Now that she’s in public school, she is struggling. Taking away ALL of the ways in which she learns best and then giving those methods to the boys ONLY would be so unfair – we’ve been fighting to GET those methods for her her whole life!

  6. Welcome ceejay 1968, and thanks for these details. Did you get any sense of why people were falling for it?

    Your daughter is fortunate to have aware, caring parents!

  7. I totally agree that the NYTimes author waits far too long to bring in Giedd’s voice of reason. Nonetheless, I thought she did a pretty fair job of mapping out the two camps behind current-day same-sex classrooms. Interesting too, that advocates of same-sex classrooms who base their support on selectively-chosen and misappropriated brain research, do so as a way to save the boys. In other words, the brain-based advocates come from a political position that believes boys are being left behind. On the other hand, supporters of single-sex education, who root their position in the social realities that produce gendered advantages and disadvantages, stem from a feminist and social justice perspective. What do you make of this?

  8. Julie, interesting observations. I’ve been principally concerned with (1) the misuse of science that is left unquestioned for far too long in the article and (2) the accompanying gender stereotypes that are supposedly found in this science.

    It also seems to me true that we have an unjustified confidence in our ability to understand others, which understanding we too often adapt from the cliches in our society. Designing education seems to me absolutely a wrong arena for indulging ourselves in this ill-grounded confidence.

    So I think the article is potentially harmful and badly misguided.

    But what about the difference in motives you point to? I haven’t really myself studied this area. I went to an RC girls school at a time when many adults just thought it was sensible to keep adolescents away from “the other sex” as much as possible. I also went to a girls’ college at Oxford which had been instituted principally because the men wouldn’t allow women into their places, and the early single sex women’s colleges in the US may have been for the same reasons. So there have been a number of different reasons for single sex education, some of the based on the exclusion of women elsewhere.

    However, while not a motive, the idea that girls are disadvantaged in mixed sex schools has in fact been a constant at least in my quite long lifetime and way before. Not so the idea that mixed sex schools work against boys’ biological profile, except for the argument that girls distract them.

  9. I know there are some advantages to girls in having all-girl spaces. Perhaps it’s the same for boys.

    I might not object if a limited number of public schools were experimentally single-sexed, as long as parents had the choice about whether or not the child goes that route AND as long as the two groups were NOT taught differently (the proposed plan here failed both of those tests).

    As we know, “separate but equal” tends to really mean “separate and unequal,” and that is what I think these “biology” driven agendas are really about. They aren’t just trying to segregate boys and girls, but are trying to teach them differently based on gross generalizations they assume work best depending on the students’ gender. I have a long rant up about this and how it relates to my child at my blog, but, basically I’m still asking, what happens to a girl who has an auditory processing disorder when she is forced into a program that assumes girls learn best through lots of listening and talking? I’m certain my child is not the only girl like her!

    As for why it was going to be implemented here until the ACLU stepped in (as the request of a girl’s parents), first of all, the officials did not open the issue to the public. They made the decision and announced it shortly before the start of the school year. Most parents, however, seemed to be supportive. Why? Well, as the New York Times article points out, this trend is spreading quickly in the most socially conservative parts of the country, which is where we currently live. I think parents like the idea of boys and girls being separated and I think the MAIN reason is because adults are oh-so scared these kids will actually, you know, want to have sex or something!

  10. Thanks, ceejay – readers should know they can get to your blog by clicking on your signature.

  11. Julie said, “…brain-based advocates come from a political position that believes boys are being left behind… [those] who root their position in the social realities that produce gendered advantages and disadvantages, stem from a feminist and social justice perspective. What do you make of this?”

    This seems to be true. I come from a very strong feminist and social justice perspective. Imagine my surprise when I found recently, that as early as nursery school, school is biased in favor of girls. It was shocking for me to see with my own eyes, that contrary to all my previous beliefs, it was actually boys who were being left behind in the classroom setting. I have two very young sons. Consistently in the classroom, the norm is the behavior that tends to be associated with girls. When the norm, or that which is expected, is the behavior that is more often shown by girls, boys become seen as abnormal, have “behavior” problems, etc.

    The fact is that, nowadays, real scholarly learning is supposed to take place earlier and earlier in the classroom. The new reality is that kindergarten is becoming full day 8:30 to 3, just like 1st grade and up. A child in most districts who goes to kindergarten is expected to learn to read and write words and sentences. Children spend a lot of time sitting, trying to write, coloring, being talked at by one adult to a large group (say 22 or more) of children. The birthdate upon which one is supposed to go to kindergarten has not changed. Many children enter at age 4 and turn 5 during the kindergarten year. Children are no longer learning the fundamentals of the social world in kindergarten, as they once were, such as how to stay in line, how to play cooperatively, etc. The fundamentals are now done in preschool which children typically go to at age 2, at least in my area. Furthermore, recess — meaning a free time to move about, play, jump, and climb and do pretty much whatever you’d like — is being cut or whittled down practically every where you go. And, television (with children sitting in auditorium seating) is routinely substituted for outdoor play time if there is inclement weather. So, there can quite often be absolutely no time for free movement and play during a day that is over 6 hours, for 4 year old boys and girls.

    By the way, what results from a “new scholarly kindergarten policy” is that you have parents holding their boys back a year because they worry that their boys can’t handle the new kindergarten. They want to give their boys an extra year’s advantage. Girls are held too, but boys are held far more often. And the end result of this is that the parents that have NOT held their boys back have even more cause for concern, because the age norm in the class has become skewed to make their boy children the youngest. This leads to a greater disadvantage for these boys. Not only might they exhibit their typical boy behavior (for example, the need to move around, weak fine motor skills compared with girls, inability to draw or write near the level of girls, etc.) but in addition, they are also the youngest children in the class.

    In any case, I just get the feeling from many of the postings that I’ve read on this thread that perhaps none of you actually have very small children right now in today’s public schools, and none may in particular have very small boys. I think you really need to see what is happening in today’s classrooms before throwing out the idea that boys are not at a disadvantage. From my perspective, they very much are from what I have seen.

    I am not saying that we should adopt Sax’s single sex education programs. I am saying merely that we need to appreciate today’s context. If we do we will see that indeed children that exhibit behavior that is more typically associated with boys are definitely at a disadvantage in today’s schools.

  12. Philosopher Queen, I’m not sure about where your comments about having a young child, which at least one of us does, are meant to take us.

    If the problems are really due to the fact that boys are innately so different, it would surely show up earlier.

    Many schools in the past were very rigid and disciplined; if it isn’t in general possible to discipline that many boys any more, we should try to figure that out.

  13. As others have pointed out, there’s too much overlap between the sexes to justify sorting students by gender into learning styles.

    This makes me wonder, though, at how effective it might be to identify broad learning styles in children early on (I’m under the impression that such styles are established early and remain fairly constant) and then creating separate class sections for students of each style.

    For example, if there are Type X and Type Y learners, there would be “Chemistry II for X learners” and “Chemistry II for Y learners”.

    Teaching to diverse learning styles within a single class — moreso than teaching to diverse levels of preparation and ability — strikes me as one of the core difficulties to teaching effectively.

    Maybe I’m off-target with all this, but logistics aside, what do you think? It seems a good way to deal with bias and help students meet their potential.

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