Texts taught in school and sexism

(108 Posts)
sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 10:46:57

I am a teacher, and refuse to teach Of Mice and Men to pupils because of the blatant misogynistic attitudes inherent within it (it is also because of the casual racism flung around.)

A primary colleague tells me they teach Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree to year 3 pupils. Again, sweet story as it is in some respects it is crammed full of casual racism and sexism - "No, you can't do that, you are a girl," sort of attitudes.

I am wondering if I am being unreasonable, I recognise it is in the context of a particular time but my argument is we cannot expect young kids to fully appreciate this and we are teaching them that these attitudes are okay and acceptable because of when they happened.

What do you think? smile

KoreRenati Mon 06-May-13 15:05:51

"OMAM's is implicit rather than explicit and therefore (I think) more damaging"

IMO the ones with implicit rather than explicit sexism are actually the best ones to start discussions about, getting the kids aware of the subtle ways it can be made to seem acceptable.

VerySmallSqueak Mon 06-May-13 15:11:14

I have PH on my bookshelf waiting to read.

Like you choco I perhaps will now give it a go,thanks to this thread.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 15:12:52

I don't think it's the case that I am refusing to teach any text with outdated gender roles.

The problem is, I can have as many discussions I like, explain it is not acceptable, tell them how wrong I believe it to be - but they will still see a woman dismissed as a "tart" because of how she chooses to dress, and with other (and I think) better alternatives available on the curriculum, I do not choose to teach a text with this as a part of it.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 15:13:13

Very - hope you enjoy it, I love it! smile

chocoluvva Mon 06-May-13 15:13:29

Less pressure to look amazing - to show a lot of flesh if you're female, spend a lot of time on personal grooming, be muscular and smooth if you're a man.

Less pressure to achieve in all areas of life.

An unrealistically high expectation on men to have a stiff upper-lip.

Less pressure to be a perfect parent; to provide extra-curricular activities for our children, to be endlessly patient, to label them and measure them.

I think that different times and cultures usually have advantages that we don't realise in a similar way to new technology enabling things but also taking things away from us or generating an expectation that we do/have X/Y/Z

KoreRenati Mon 06-May-13 15:20:24

I know that when I read OMAM at school that wasn't the message I got from it, a good teacher was able to put the text into the context of the time it was written, she even got the less academic members of my class talking about how things had changed, so it is possible. And I do find it a bit lazy to just avoid it.

I do think it is more important to talk about books like OMAM which don't make it clear that the language is wrong, because the kids will spend much of their lives being bombarded with negative and harmful stereotypes which also won't be treated as wrong, and we need to give them the tools to see it for themselves without the text telling them what they should think. Much as TKAM is a fantastic book, what we really want is for kids to read it and know the racism is wrong without needing Atticus and Scout to point it out.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 15:23:23

It's hardly lazy, Kore - I do an alternative with them that is MUCH longer!

I have certainly been in lessons where the racist attitudes have been challenged by kids and teachers alike but I have never once witnessed anybody objecting to the way the women are viewed by the men. And I understand why - it is time, it isn't a coursework question, it isn't going to crop up on the exam, so why would you?

chocoluvva Mon 06-May-13 15:27:37

I see your problem.

Less pressure to look amazing - to show a lot of flesh if you're female, spend a lot of time on personal grooming, be muscular and smooth if you're a man.

Judging by Curley's wife and by the descriptions of men and women, I don't think this is true. I don't think it's true of the 1920s more generally, either.

Less pressure to achieve in all areas of life.

In the middle of the Great Depression? Less pressure to achieve?!

An unrealistically high expectation on men to have a stiff upper-lip.

Yep, I'll grant you that, possibly ... is this 'better'?

Less pressure to be a perfect parent; to provide extra-curricular activities for our children, to be endlessly patient, to label them and measure them.

I don't see how you get that from this book and I certainly don't see how you get it from 1920s America.

I get that I am talking about a book you've said you don't remember much about, but I do think it matters. You're assuming (I think?) that something in the past must be better than today and that we must be able to point fairly to positives and negatives. But that falsifies the past, and constructs a fake image of a time that never existed. It's this sort of image of the past that people trot out time and again when they're justifying how, back in the day, sure, we didn't have equal opportunities but wasn't everyone happy?

I think it is deeply irresponsible to say that if you don't know it's true and if you can't point to specific examples.

I find it particularly difficult to swallow about the Great Depression. My overwhelming impression is that it was an incredibly difficult time to live in. People were dying - actually starving to death - in what should have been some of the richest countries in the world. The pressure to achieve must have been appalling. I simply don't believe there was less pressure on physical appearance, either - this is the era when women bound their breasts to make themselves look flat chested, dieted and ruined their health, and when vaginal douces that burned them were being put on the market. This is when black women were being sold 'skin-lighteners' that were toxic (and yes, I know this still happens but it shocks me).

I'm not denying it's good to look at the past and not be uncritically negative but why be uncritically positive?

chocoluvva Mon 06-May-13 15:57:44

I'm not being "uncritically positive". I'm really glad I have the choices and freedom I have now. And often think how awful it must have been to have to endure the attitude that women are 'the weaker sex'. Or to be denied an education or access to books.

My point is really that no culture is completely 'bad'/wrong or more difficult/less moral than the one we live in now.

My point about parenting today is a comment on how in some ways it's more difficult than it used to be. Eg, my mother used to be amazed at the amount of measuring/testing/comparing of our babies, compared to when she had babies and thought it produces anxiety and pressure on mums. I was using it as an example of a way in which our culture of today is (probably) not better than in the times before it - therefore of 1920s America. FWIW, I can see no justification in poverty ever, but that doesn't mean that an economically well-off society is without its problems. People, usually females starve to death in our society too - as a result of eating disorders.

I just always feel uneasy at thinking we're superior to people in times gone by on the grounds that we're more enlightened. I think that can lead to being uncritical of our own society.

Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I do see that you're not being uncritically positive in the sense that you're not glad of our choices today.

I agree no culture is completely bad or immoral compared to our own and it'd be arrogant to think so.

I'm sure there are bad things about today and good things about the past - I was never saying anything different.

But which things? It matters. Otherwise we are lying about the past for no good reason, and that is disrespectful to people who lived then, and it lulls us into a false sense of security too, by making us stop examining what really happens in different cultures and societies.

Doesn't comparing your mum's feeling about her children with 1920s America sort of blur the past into one indiscriminate mass?

chocoluvva Mon 06-May-13 16:43:23

I suppose, any time before something changed - I don't know when the 'new' phenomenon of measuring, comparing etc started - but before that IYSWIM, would be the same in regard to that one thing. FWIW, the generation of women before us were encouraged to spend longer in hospital probably resulting in getting more rest (not much access to hospitals in the 20s of course) than women are now and in my granny's time, women were encouraged to spend most of their time in bed for about three weeks after having their babies - a sister/mum/neighbour would look after the washing, cooking, change nappies, pace the floor with the baby and 'bring it to the breast'.
I'd imagine that 1920s women would have had similar support - assuming they survived childbirth - there's the rub.

I suppose it would be great if the OP's pupils could have a visit from someone who was alive in the depression or from someone who has experienced segregation in a history or PSE class.

But what does this have to do with Of Mice and Men?

Isn't this more blurring history into one big mass?

I'm not nit-picking for the sake of it, I'm trying to explain that if you say the OP should teach her class what was good in the society described in the book, then it needs to be concrete. Otherwise ... what is the point of it?

I don't think Steinbeck is thinking of women who stayed in bed for three weeks after the birth while everyone else helped out. If you taught that to a class and they went on to read Grapes of Wrath they would feel - justifiably - that you had lied to them about how bad things were in this era. I am aware you are talking more generally, about some aspects of the past that may have been good. And I don't disagree that some aspects of the past were good, and I never did disagree.

What I have an issue with, is giving children a misrepresentation of the past that whitewashes over the struggled women genuinely had to face. It is dishonest.

I think I'm explaining really badly why this bothers me. Basically, I think that we're conditioned to think that historical 'facts' are things like names of kings and dates of battles. In effect, it's male-dominated history. And we're also conditioned to look for 'women's history' in social history. And it is obvious why we do that. But then, we have a responsibility to treat social history as facts too, or we're starting off a process where children will associate male-dominated history with fact, and history of women (and minorities) with subjective opinions, with vague blurry suggestions that seem to apply indiscriminately to all sorts of different periods.

Darkesteyes Mon 06-May-13 17:41:25

I remember being really pissed off with the book i had to study for GCSE English at high school in the 80s And so were the other girls in the class.
It was Lord of the Flies. Not one female character in the book. Not one.
Its a pity that i wasnt aware of the existence of Savages by Shirley Conran at that point.
I could have brought that into school and said "Can i study this instead"

UptoapointLordCopper Mon 06-May-13 18:12:59

FWIW I agree with the poster who said that it's the implicit and casual sexism that makes a book doubly worth teaching. Many women today don't face explicit sexism - in fact that is even illegal(!!) sometimes. hmm But it's the implicit sexism that is so insidious and disempowering (is that even a word?). Teach OMAM!

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 18:45:51

<shudder> I'd rather stick pins in my eyes, seriously grin I can't stand the novel, even without all the casual racism and sexism in it.

The problem is, you just don't have the time to discuss in any great detail the underlying insidiousness of it. I much prefer the alternatives.

I don't mind Lord of the Flies, although my colleague and I both wonder if it would have been different if there had been female characters in it. Unfortunately Darkest, we would have to say no - as it isn't on the syllabus!

rosabud Mon 06-May-13 22:27:36

I'm sorry but you have completely misunderstood OMAM, completely misunderstood Steinbeck and completely misunderstood how to be an English teacher.

OMAM, yes it is about loneliness and the depression - loneliness caused by racism, sexism and economic injustice.

Steinbeck didn't use words like "bitches" and "nigger" because he was an ignoramus who didn't think about things too deeply! He was an extremely intelligent, left-wing intellectual, one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, and he was using these words to make a point!!

If you don't have time to discuss the major themes of the novel, then you are not teaching properly.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 22:35:43

Well I'm not teaching OMAM 'properly' no, because I'm not teaching it.

Rosa, I haven't used the word ignoramus. I have explained my views on the text and why I don't believe it to be a good choice for this age group, and that I prefer teaching other texts. I'm not sure why that has prompted you to be so rude to me?

Minione Mon 06-May-13 22:38:49

Erm, I'm an English teacher and have taught OMAM
More times than I care to remember. One of the main themes I, (and the vast majority of my colleagues) discuss is the treatment of women. It is my understanding that Steinbeck wants the reader to empathise with Curley's wife, the whole importance of her having no name and that she is Curley's property is again a point for discussion. I'm sorry, you just seem to be missing the point of the novel and I find it strange that you don't seem to be able to teach this novel in tge same way as I have for the past 12 years. What do other members of your department think?

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 22:43:02

Yes, Curley's wife is discussed in the context of her having no name and no identify. My main objections are the terms used to describe women (I've listed them up the thread) - I don't like teaching it, so I don't.

Other members of my department teach it, presumably because they like it and the terms used to describe women don't bother them. I don't like it and the terms do bother me, so I don't. grin

Minione Mon 06-May-13 22:52:05

I don't like the terms used to describe women but sadly they are still used. When I teach the text I point out how this is wrong, how the men speak about and treat women is wrong. How the only women in of mice and men are either viewed aswhores or mother figures, and how they only see women in these two ways. This is deliberate on Steinbeck's part, they ate the characters' beliefs not his. I think students can get a lot out of the text but sadly some sexist attitudes do still need to be challenged.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 22:52:39

At any rate it has been a really interesting discussion, thank you for the points raised everyone. I'm going to bed soon, I would really appreciate it if future posts didn't make personal remarks about why I am clearly lacking in intellect and a terrible English teacher to boot; I don't think either of those statements are remotely justified, but I don't think my dislike of OMAM would be evidence for or against in any case.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 22:54:46

Minione, thank you, I was typing as you were posting. I absolutely agree that these attitudes need to be challenged but I must admit that my feeling in OMAM is that they are not - the characters are cold, unpleasant and unlikeable because (I feel) of their attitudes to women, and for this reason I dislike teaching it.

rosabud Mon 06-May-13 23:37:05

I wasn't rude to you but I was very blunt. I was blunt because I feel very strongly that pupils should not be taught English by those who do not understand how texts work and who do not understand how to teach pupils to analyse the texts critically. I know that you did not call Steinbeck an ignoramus but by saying that he casually uses sexist and racist language, you imply that he is ignorant and you have misunderstood that, in fact, it is the opposite, that he uses this language on purpose to make a point - and this point is the main theme of the novel.

I did not say that you are a terrible English teacher but you are not an English teacher that has a good understanding of your subject.

ravenAK Mon 06-May-13 23:47:39

'I'm sorry but you have completely misunderstood OMAM, completely misunderstood Steinbeck and completely misunderstood how to be an English teacher.'


Sorry - you've completely missed the point. OM&M is a fantastic novel to use to discuss sexism. I use it for the extended reading CA too, & the task we do is to analyse Curley's Wife's role in the novel.

I won't pretend I'm not a tad bored with it after teaching it for 14 years (I'd prefer to do LOTF) but you really have fundamentally misunderstood the text.

I hate to be so negative towards a fellow English teacher, but bloody hell...sad.

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