With Friends Like This…

An opinion column by Caitlin Flanagan in the NYTimes today, entitled “Hysteria and the Teenage Girl,” maps out for us why it is that girls experience “hysterical reactions” to stress more often than do boys, especially in the pressure-filled teenage years.  She lists separate episodes in which groups of girls or young women from various cultures—two batches of female American cheerleaders, 900 Arab girls in the West Bank and some female Israeli soldiers, communities of Tanzanian schoolgirls—apparently fell prey to shared (contagious?) psychological reactions to stress, exhibiting “Tourette’s like” behaviors, compulsive laughter, or fainting with no apparent physical bases. Flanagan sees here a version of the recurring psychological distress and domestic conflict that many parents of teenage girls she encounters routinely report. Thinking about these seemingly related phenomena compels Flanagan to assert to her readers that boys and girls are different and ultimately, to quote a neurologist’s finding that, “These girls will get better, they just need time and space.”

My own teenage daughter read the column and, with evident disgust (which I suppose, could have been induced by hysteria) said of Flanagan: “It’s like she is just saying ‘Who cares what happens to teenage boys!’ She doesn’t bother to find out why these girls reacted this way, or what other factors might have been involved…the only common feature was their craziness!”

“Girls look weak and susceptible,” she added, “Flanagan makes them look like delicate creatures!” Even at 16, provoked by such insults perhaps, she got it. To treat these females’  behaviors as “extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms” you’d have to be (in my daughter’s words), “looking for extreme behaviors only in girls, just refusing to see anything boys did as hysterical or extreme!”

She said it better than I could have and made me realize why a critique of Flanagan’s points belongs in a blog about STEM equity: Because Flanagan so blithely denies that social structures may set girls up to see themselves as less sturdy than boys, promoting such stress reactions.

Moreover, essentialist expectations of female weakness and incapacity like those Flanagan broadcasts might precondition girls to see themselves as innately physically or psychologically vulnerable. Her perhaps sincere sympathy for the suffering girls in fact  perpetuates such disempowering myths, not least by utterly ignoring the social, educational and economic inequities with which so many young women live.

Are some, or even most, teens emotionally vulnerable? Of course. Do conditions of impending adulthood, or poverty, or war, put people (of any age) in a position of psychological unsteadiness? Without question. But the presumption that we should not be surprised when girls or women reveal such vulnerability because it is inherent in their femaleness is to set the cause of women’s rights, and equal participation in social and cultural institutions of all kinds, back by decades.  Read this quote from the column and see if you agree with me that this might have been exactly Flanagan’s intention:

“Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition. It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away.”

“Won’t seem to go away”?? With folks like Flanagan treating psychological upset as gender-derived, primarily biological, and devoid of social or political cause,  it’s no wonder.

Obama, STEM, and the Rebranding of Community College

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama took another step in his effort to rebrand community colleges.  He sees the nation’s two-year colleges as playing a big role in preparing those who will work in emerging high-tech manufacturing industries.   Putting worries about his job-creation strategy aside for a minute (I’ll believe we can tax corporate outsourcing when I see it happen),  the speech did a good job of casting the American two-year college as home to sophisticated, cutting-edge science and technology skill and knowledge.

This message counters old stigmas associated with two-year technical programming, and I think it holds some promise for more inclusive STEM education writ large. Obama is associating community colleges,  at least rhetorically, with the promised science- and tech-based manufacturing resurgence…that is, with technical novelty and innovation. We are meant to leave behind our image of utilitarian “vo-tech” uplift,  and start picturing classrooms full of intellectual energy and achievement.  I could be caught up in the glow myself, of course, but it feels like the President is leveraging our cultural tendency to venerate high-tech in order to bring new respect to its students and teachers, even or especially in what has previously been seen by elite Americans as a second-best educational sphere.

In particular, Obama praised industry/school partnerships in which firms send employees to school for training or retraining in emerging technical fields.  He welcomed as his guest Jackie Bray,  who had found a renewed career through one such program run by Siemens at its Charlotte, NC,  “Energy Hub,” and although it remained a pretty vague directive, he called on Congress to provide the resources that would support such initiatives across the country.

And, he did all this early in the speech, when the largest audience could be guaranteed to hear it.

We mustn’t forget, of course, that job-focused education is not an unalloyed good, and that the possibility of transfer into bachelor’s programs must be built into the two-year curricula if we are sincerely to pursue educational and job equity in America. Four-year and graduate schools increasingly become options only for the affluent and we must not paper over that trend with feel-good rhetoric; people of limited economic means are turned away from the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees as a matter of course in this country, as this blog often points out.

What is more, industrial clean rooms function on the same managerial premises as assembly lines: modern manufacturing jobs are not necessarily any more secure or lucrative for the rank and file than were jobs in the “old tech” economy.

Nor is high-tech employment a guarantee of satisfying work. Repetitive, heavily mechanized or automated tasks performed by workers using nanolithography or bio-assay instruments can be as mind-numbing as those performed on shopfloors of a century ago. No job should deny those holding it the possibility of intellectual reward and creativity.  The history of manufacturing labor shows few employers making a priority of that concern and without it, STEM-focused education-for-jobs loses much of its sheen.

But let’s focus for now on Obama’s ongoing effort to cast community colleges as sites of exciting, immersive student experiences in technical fields. This is a significant rebranding that helps more than simply those individuals who may find jobs directly through programs like Siemans’.  It also moves us away from a stubborn habit we have in America of seeing two-year colleges and technical curricula as the preserve of those unable to “make the grade.”  This could recast the credentials offered by two-year schools,  and thus the opportunities of community college graduates as they move out across the nation’s higher-ed and employment spheres.  New labels are not enough, but they can help.