Monday roundup: no more pencils, no more books edition

Done your back-to-school shopping yet?

Busy day here at the ranch, but there’s lotsa news and views in the education world.  Read on to hear more about online education, the availability of technologies like pencils and crayons in some Colorado classrooms, and the aggressive pR0nification of student life at some elite colleges:

  • Via Inside Higher Ed, It turns out that you can’t fool more than a third of the general public all of the time, but college presidents are much, much better at fooling themselves.  According to a Pew Research Center study on “The Digital Revolution and Higher Education,” here’s the verdict on “[t]he Value of Online Learning. The public and college presidents differ over the educational value of online courses. Only 29% of the public says online courses offer an equal value compared with courses taken in a classroom. Half (51%) of the college presidents surveyed say online courses provide the same value.” 
  • But of course, it’s possible to have “Excellence Without Money,” right?  The State of Colorado and a “scholar” at the Hoover Institution argue that money can’t possibly fix the problems we have with P-20 education.  They’re shocked, shocked at the implication that money has anything to do with the quality of education we offer through our schools and universities!  (Funny how money fixes problems for banks, and car manufacturers, and hospitals, and no one ever patronizes them by calling it “throwing money” at their problems.) 
  • Meanwhile, back in Colorado’s rural elementary schools, here’s just one fourth-grade teacher’s lived experience:  “Some of the most compelling testimony for the plaintiffs came from Matthew Keefauver, a teacher in Cortez who choked back emotion at times describing how poor his students are and how his district doesn’t have enough resources to help them.  The free lunches and breakfasts at school are frequently the only meals they have, he testified.  ‘They actually race to the classroom in the morning for breakfast because some of them are so hungry,’Keefauver said.  He paid for his fourth-graders’ field trip to a local archaeological center out of his own pocket.  ‘It’s kind of an expensive thing, but I started a business on the side literally to use some of that money to enrich things in my classroom,’ Keefauver said, explaining that herbs he sells at the farmers market also buy pencils, crayons and other items his kids’ families are too poor to buy themselves.”  Who do these fourth-graders think they are, demanding expensive technologies like personal PENCILS and their own CRAYONS for their classrooms, and luxuries like field trips?”  Cortez had better examine Mr. Keefauver’s test scores to ensure that his students are making their Adequate Yearly Progress, because clearly it will be all his fault if they don’t.
  • And finally, via commenter Shaz, we have a lament from Lisa Belkin about the pR0nification of college life that even high-achieving women collaborate in.  (Ariel Levy wrote about this in much greater detail in Female Chauvinist Pigs a few years back, as some of you may recall.)  Much as I agree that the absence of young feminist outrage is disappointing, this seems like nothing new in feminist history.  Nineteenth-century suffragists were also appalled by the middy-blouses and the co-ed badminton and bicycle-riding in vogue among their New Women granddaughters and daughters; New Women were shocked by the bared-knees, jazz music, and petting enjoyed by their flapper daughters, who were in turn shocked by (and maybe a little envious of) the miniskirts and birth-control pills enjoyed by their daughters and granddaughters.  Having been a college student in the 1980s and early 1990s, I recall quite clearly conversations about how my generation saw itself as “postfeminist” and we were accused of blowing it again already, according to the Second Wavers.  (Does anyone else remember those conversations about whether Madonna was feminist or antifeminist?  That sure was big back in 1987, along with our hair.)

My bet is that college students today will end up mostly just embarassed by their behavior (not to mention their hairstyles!) in ten years’ time or less, when they enter the paid workforce and rediscover why all that feminism they should have learned more about might be useful when they see how the world outside of schools and universities operates.  The success that young women have had in the past fifty years in going from a minority to a majority of college and graduate students shows how successfully the world of education has levelled the playing field, by and large, for women and men.  The first meaningful experience with discrimination most young women have will occur after they enter the workforce and see men with less education and less experience paid more and  promoted ahead of them.  (This is not to say that our students don’t experience or haven’t witnessed sex bias–rather, that the first time sex discrimination hits home tends to be in the workforce and not at school.  As Belkin’s article suggests, until one sees the material effects of discrimination, those 7,000 years of patriarchy can seem pretty theoretical.)

But pantomiming gang rape in a formal entertainment meant to honor high-achieving Princeton grads?  Srsly?  Here’s my so-not-with-it, ridiculously predictable condemnation of the fun that college kids these days like to have: 

Late last spring, Princeton hosted 1,300 alumnae for a weekend celebration of progress called “She Roars.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor was there. (Justice Elena Kagan could not attend.) So was Meg Whitman, former chief executive of eBay, and Wendy Kopp, chief executive and founder of Teach for America, as well as two members of Congress, a few best-selling authors and heads of corporations and universities. The first night, student a-cappella groups performed, and for one song the all-male Nassoons serenaded one lone member of the all-female Tigerlilies, who pretended to have wandered, lost, onto the stage. Keeping the rhythm, the men pantomimed unzipping their flies and thrusting their pelvises.  In an essay in The Christian Science Monitor soon afterward, the singer Tina deVaron, who was in the audience, compared the performance with mimed gang rape, and told the story of her own rape by a fellow student when she was at Princeton in 1973. What the performers onstage that night saw as ribald fun, she wrote, was at the root of statistics like “one in four women will be sexually assaulted on a college campus.” 

The response to Ms. deVaron was as mixed as that to my student interviewers. Many readers were appalled and wondered where these students’ parents had gone wrong. Others saw it as no big deal, and even suggested it was a response to the prissiness of earlier generations, who saw every male and female interaction as symbolic rather than fun. 

Now, that’s just tacky at best, and outright aggressive when one considers the eminence of the audience and the history of coeducation at Princeton.  (Would Princetonians put on a show for high-achieving male grads that pantomimes raping men?)  But what the hell do I know?  I just turned 43, and I keep forgetting that gender and sexuality have no history and sex was invented sometime in-between Nirvana’s Nevermind and the final episode of Friends.

18 thoughts on “Monday roundup: no more pencils, no more books edition

  1. “7000 years of patriarchy can seem pretty theoretical.” Nice piece of phrasing! The aggressive defense of “ribald fun”: the right to have it, the need for more of it in the world, its transparent utility as a corrective for the various “prissinesses” of past eras, and stuff like that there, is one of the lamer causes that tend to get embraced–generally after somebody “misconstrues” whatever it was that just happened. Pretty pathetic too.


  2. The balance of women co-eds may have tipped, but I’d bet the balance of male administrators, faculty and donors hasn’t — and they set the tone and provide the bankroll for all the partying, including telling their sons how to ignore all that PC nonsense. If they’re there for only four years, and just about any offense can be paid off, what does it matter?

    And, I’d bet the lure of having men attend these colleges with so-called “parity” gender demographics would be the freedom to be traditionally masculine and irresponsible — the privileged male form of affirmative action, where one acts at one’s worst, instead of better than any potential competition. They *need* to be bad boys, the poor darlings, because we do so much better academically…. it’s like asking AA students to perform blackness as ghetto culture to provide diversity (which is another enforcement of misogyny and violence as destiny), instead of letting them be themselves….


  3. We bought our school supplies weeks ago (eldest daughter is an office store fanatic and has her binders all prepared, stowed in the backpack with pens, pencils, programming calculator and the works all ready to go). I might go back because I’ve devised a cunning plan that requires index cards. . . .

    As for the Princeton story? There isn’t enough facepalming in this world to convey my utter disgust that behaviour like that would be thought of as ‘fun’. I will share it w/high-achieving eldest to help promote her feminist edge and also so she’ll know a good reason to cross pricey Princeton off of her university admissions wish-list!


  4. the first time sex discrimination hits home tends to be in the workforce and not at school

    I duuno. I know students who read the difference between the sex ratio in their classes and the sex ratio among their professors as a result of sex bias in the academy. I think the key is whether or not students have the tools to do the analysis. Often, especially for undergraduates, they do not.

    I had some long conversations last year with a student who, because she had always been harassed at work, just figured that was the way things went. She knew it was not appropriate but did not understand that she had any power to do anything about it.


  5. I read the Lisa Belkin piece this morning, and share some of your thoughts. (I don’t think, BTW Janice, that Princeton is unusual — it’s just that Belkin is a Princeton grad writing primarily about Princeton.

    As I was reading I was also thinking about contemporary fashion. I suspect that this is a chicken/egg thing, but there is a lot of fashion focus now on “sexy”. And I’m struck at the low necklines of even supposedly “work” clothing. Seriously, I’ve never needed a camisole under work clothes until the last few years. This too shall pass, but I think it makes all the messages much more complicated.

    I was also curious about Belkin’s last line, about what she though we (i.e. the parental generation) could learn from the students. It wasn’t entirely clear.


  6. Heh. I agree, Susan. Maybe we could learn how to go without camisoles? And, yes: sadly it’s not just Princeton, or Yale, or Duke. I will say, though, that Baa Ram U. seems pretty democratic when it comes to fashion, in that it doesn’t appear to me that men and women dress notably differently during the day. T-shirts, jeans, and Baa Ram U. sweatshirts are pretty much what everyone wears. (Caveat: I’m not around when they’re getting dressed up to go out drinking, so this may not in fact be a point of difference.)

    Truffula raises a good point that I think is perhaps inflected by her position as a scientist. I’m sure women in the sciences see and hear a lot more bias and discrimination than I ever did in humanities classes, where women are usually equally represented.

    I guess my main point is that it’s only when discrimination is 1) unavoidable because you can’t quit your job precipitously and 2) demonstrable in the paycheck and other job perks that it becomes more important to most young women.


  7. As a Princeton student, I’m not entirely convinced that Belkin presents a good sense of what gender dynamics are like on campus today. If anything, I’d say gender dynamics are worse in the classroom, where it’s more difficult to avoid a sense of (I hate to say it, but) aggressive male entitlement that asserts its right to speak over everyone else, including the (especially if female) professor, and that carries itself with the kind of dominant “leadership” attitude that the most competitive, prized accolades like the Rhodes are designed to reward.

    On the other hand, there is more than one student culture at Princeton, each sending its own message about what the academic and social expectations for men and women are. Of course, this is confusing, but it’s also rather optimism-inducing: those of us who would rather focus on our studies never have to encounter the environment that rewards pelvic thrusts, the misogynistic behavior of fraternities, and the pursuit of the “MRS degree.” (Though this is a rather hollow 21st-century girl’s refrain, I will note that I have never heard of an eating-club initiation where only women, not men, were expected to remove their clothing. And I find it difficult to believe there wasn’t a lot of coed clothing-removal going on in universities a few decades ago!) Politically, a lot of action has been taken behind-the-scenes to improve things since the recent release of a rather troublesome report by the Committee on Women’s Leadership (, and we all benefit from having a progressive administration with some strong female role models and extraordinarily dedicated student feminist activists working to make things better.

    Just like anywhere in the world, women’s equality in name doesn’t equal women’s equality in mind or deed. And Princeton, just like anywhere else, has a long way to go. But I’m concerned about a NYT way of reporting this fact that focuses overwhelmingly on universities with “brand names.” Other universities, as well as, significantly, communities of young people who don’t go to college, seem to be just as unaware (if not more) of the existence of feminism, and just as unable to articulate a sense of inequality or alienation.


  8. The New York Times exists to stoke equal parts desire and fear in the hearts of bourgeois parents w/r/t “name brand” schools. It’s not a bug–it’s a feature!

    Agree with your points, Emily. The “no means yes, yes means anal” boys at Yale last year weren’t representative of the whole campus, I’m sure. But it’s indicative of the kinds of subcultures that a university tolerates or even encourages. But to be sure–elite universities are hardly the only offenders. They’re just the names that will guarantee the clicks and the page views for the newspaper. (And also, see above: desire and fear, desire and fear, repeat.) That’s the main reason the Times (and most other newspapers) won’t report on the same behavior at Baa Ram U.


  9. I share your feelings about the NYT essay, and indeed I share Belkin’s own sense of uncertainty about what, if anything this “means” for feminism today. I give her credit for not jumping to the conclusion that young college women’s sexxxxay behavior is necessarily a sign that feminist awareness is losing ground. . . but I’m uneasy, too.

    One idea that’s worth throwing out there: especially when it’s schools like Princeton we’re talking about, some of the overt flaunting of one’s sexuality might be chalked up to young women who were nerds in high school realizing that they have bodies, and can attract male attention with them — and generally experimenting with what that means and with what kind of relationship they want to have to their bodies and their sexuality.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t real dangers inherent in that, or that it isn’t awfully convenient that they’re expressing their sexual desire in ways that are sanctioned by the patriarchy. But female bodies can be tough things to grow into, and it takes many people (both men and women) a while to figure out how to negotiate their own and other people’s desire. So my optimistic read is that for most the young women profiled in this article this is just an early stage in a longer process.


  10. There’s one huge difference in the prissiness scale described from the suffragettes through birth control. Those all involved increasing amounts of sex, as in “people who want each other.” A modern equivalent ratchet up in the scale would be if teenagers had sex in public and us old fogeys were squeamish.

    But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, somehow, it’s suddenly “prissy” to object to crimes.

    It’s no part of the prissiness scale when someone starts talking about harm. There’s no both-wanting-each-other about it. It’s nothing to do with sex, and involving sexual organs doesn’t change that. (You might as well say torture is art because hands are used to do both.) Pointing out the horribleness of conflating harm and sex is not prissy. It’s obvious.

    My question for the historians here is: when and why did so many people somehow forget that sex isn’t a crime and crimes aren’t sex? Seriously. How did that happen? I’ve lived those decades, and that transition into perversion happened while I wasn’t looking. And I really, really, really hate it.


  11. “But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, somehow, it’s suddenly “prissy” to object to crimes.”

    Megadittoes, Quixote. Since when is youthful exuberance = harassment, mimed and obscene sexual assault in front of women who, being as “powerful” as they are, would have sat through at least one HR briefing about protecting underlings from the behavior they witnessed in an event in their honor?

    As powerful as they are, if they didn’t object, they truly suck as bosses, and should be fired. And, if they are supposedly as important a group of alumnae that could be solicited for gifts, they should have told their Princeton minders that not one red cent gets contributed by them, or their friends, until they and the larger female campus community get a meaningful (i.e., with sanctions attached) apology. QED.


  12. but, on more important matters… what really bites about school supply shopping is that the real sales start after school starts — the requirements get spread early in the month, but the deep loss leaders don’t show up until late….


  13. Gay Prof had a post a while ago about the lyrics of the songs played at the gym, and the overwhelming number that were by and about women/girls getting so drunk they didn’t remember what happened next. Gay Prof speculated, accurately to my mind at least, that this has something to do with trying to frame a socially acceptable context for women wanting sex, and that our society still really only wants passive (unconscious) women.


  14. Great points, everyone. Love esp. Flavia’s and Quixote’s observations.

    As to Quixote’s question about sex/crime and crime/sex, it seems to me from a casual survey of the past 400 years in North America that those lines have always been intersectional. What changes is that some “sex crimes” have been decriminalized (same-sex activity, for example), whereas other kinds of sex crimes continue to be defined as normative heterosexuality (rape, coercion, etc.) Still other “perversions” have been redefined as crimes, like the rape of a child. (In colonial Anglo-America, child victims of sexual assault were ususally presumed to be equally guilty of the “fornication,” and are accused of “tempting” their rapists. Ick.)

    That’s my 7:30 a.m. off-the-cuff, packing-my-schoolbag, running-to-catch-the-bus analysis, anyway. Other scholars, feel free to comment on/criticize/add to the mix!


  15. Pingback: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” « More or Less Bunk

  16. I’m having a really hard time imagining the process that goes into presenting a simulated performance of gang rape as fit entertainment for some of our society’s most prominent female leaders. The sheer unconsciousness of these men in their privilege is breathtaking.


  17. Interesting, Historiann, that children used to be slimed with the same defensive dreck now reserved for women. The mind reels.

    As to your other point about sex and crime having always been confused, I’m sure that’s true in reality. But something feels like it’s changed in the acceptability of crimes against adult women. Unlike crimes against other big stereotyped groups — blacks, Jews, gays — crimes against women are funny. As Linden says, the sheer unconsciousness, it burns. I’m pretty sure that back in the day those crimes were unmentionable, not funny. Then again, maybe I just didn’t have my finger on the pulse of adult thought.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.