Sunday, March 21, 2010
Of Toilet Training and Equal Rights
Call my teaching philosophy reactionary conservative, but I am a believer in students coming to class on time and prepared. (Whether students should have to go to class is one thing. Once they are in class, let us conduct a proper one.) Being prepared means having pen and paper or a laptop to take notes. It also means being able, barring unforeseen accidents or emergencies, to sit for forty minutes without needing to leave to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. (When I gave double period lectures at Ohio State, I was careful to give a five minute break in middle). To my shock, I have learned from an experienced educator, whom I have the utmost respect for, that, as a matter of policy, one is supposed to grant female students, because of their special needs, unlimited bathroom privileges (even knowing that this privilege is being abused). This strikes at what I understand as the bargain of civil rights that, among other things, allows women into my classroom to get an education in the first place.
Being given equal rights and being treated as an equal means taking on the responsibilities taken for granted by the rest of society. For example, as the Jews of Napoleon's Sanhedrin would point out, Jews, by taking on the privileges of being equal citizens, also take on the obligations of serving in the army, taking on socially "useful" trades and making the necessary "reforms" of their religion to remove any hatred or bias against their gentile countrymen. As I so often point out in my classes, Jews gaining equal rights was not simply a matter of gentiles becoming more liberal and finally agreeing to give Jews what they "deserved." There is a bargain being made here; this is not a simple offer and their might be good reason to turn down this Enlightenment offer of emancipation. The same thing applies to women. Women are now being given the opportunity to be equal citizens, go to school and get jobs. I think this is a good thing and fully support it. The flip side of this is that women are expected to take on the same responsibilities of men.
If I were teaching history in the year 1800 to an all boys class, I would do so on the assumption that my students, barring serious emergencies, were capable of sitting in class for forty minutes without having to go to the bathroom. Those incapable of holding in their bladders are probably not fit to be in school and should probably go back to being serfs and working in the fields (where they will probably die of famine or the plague). It is interesting to note that early factory regulations had to include specific clauses telling adult male workers that they were not allowed to relieve themselves on the work floor. This was a generation of people raised on farms and used to being able to take care of their bodily functions at will. Toilet training is not something natural, but it is necessary for living in the modern society.
Over the past two hundred years we have had the women's rights movement and largely as a result of this I am now teaching a class in which there are women. As a John Stuart Mill feminist, I welcome girls into my class as "one of the guys." The same basic assumptions that I have about guys also apply to them though. It would not be an excuse for a girl to say that as a girl she has a "smaller brain," is intellectually inferior and therefore should automatically get a letter grade higher. (It is funny to read nineteenth century literature and see women unashamedly recues themselves as they are "mere weak women.") If she, as a girl, is intellectually inferior then we must admit that women's rights were a mistake and this girl should leave my class and go "back" to working in a kitchen and raising children. Similarly, a girl is only in my class in the first place because we assume that she can control her basic bodily functions. If she cannot then she has no business using her feminine situation as an excuse. On the contrary, if this is indeed a feminine problem and not just the general human laziness of one individual, she should acknowledge the failure of the women's movement and recues herself to the kindergarten classroom or to where societies that have thought of women as simply large children have usually dumped them, the kitchen.
It should be noted that concern over the female ability to control bodily functions are at the heart of women being exempt by the rabbis from various religious commandments. This "leniency" for women has, in practice, served to place women in a secondary position in that it relegates them to a position of outsiders. The man is taken as the norm and the female is the oddity to be worked into the system. The rabbinic formulation is that "women are exempt from time-bound commandments." It is taken as a given that these commandments are at the heart of normative Judaism and not extra duties to be placed on men.
It is perfectly plausible, if we are going to assume that women really are not capable of controlling their bodily functions and this is not just a matter of female students taking advantage of gullible male teachers, to say that girls should be taken out of mainstream schools. They could have their own schools, with classes they can come in and out of as it suits them; they could even take a week off once a month. We would not have to worry as to whether they are actually learning anything. Everyone would know that these were not real schools and were not meant to actually offer an education, but finishing schools meant to give "MRS" degrees. Even if this was the case, I would still wish that any girl who proved to be an exception to this rule would be allowed to attend a real school, with real classes, to get a real education. My classroom door would certainly be open.