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The Emma Willard School Questions Old Assuptions

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Four years ago, the Emma Willard School's principal, Robert C. Parker, invited the Harvard University psychologist Carol Gilligan to visit his school's Troy, N.Y., campus to explore the possibility that an extended study of the 310 high-school girls enrolled there might prove valuable to her research in developmental psychology.

Mr. Parker was hoping the psychologist's work at the school would shed light on how girls learn and make life choices--information that could guide Emma Willard as it moved toward change.

He has not been disappointed. The research findings have given Emma Willard's teaching staff new insights into the nature of female development--insights that have led them to reverse some older "feminist" notions about women's education and to build an academic program more attuned to the actual needs of girls.

The strong background and interest of several faculty members in developmental psychology first alerted them to Ms. Gilligan's work, according to Jack L. Easterling, the school's academic dean. But the impetus for the study, he says, was Mr. Parker's foresight.

"He knew that certain changes were going to need to be made, and he was hearing a lot of different voices about what those changes should be," says Mr. Easterling. "He wanted to bring the perspective of developmental psychology into his own thinking and into the school's thinking about what it should be doing."

The Study

In November 1981, Ms. Gilligan and her research team began their study by interviewing 72 students. The researchers asked them to de-scribe themselves; to talk about a difficult recent decision they had made and how they had resolved it; to define terms such as morality and responsibility; and to differentiate their responsibility to themselves and to others.

Since that initial interview, between 100 and 120 students at the school have been involved in the study, now in its fourth year.

"Initially, I would describe people as more curious than anything else," says Mr. Easterling. "The school has had for a long time a fairly strong feminist orientation. It has always been very receptive--maybe sometimes too receptive--to theories of one kind or another from the outside. Some people were extremely interested, but there were some doubts about how useful all this would be."

'Ethic of Care'

He says the study's first finding may also be its most significant: ''that girls' reasoning in adolescence about personal and social matters was not based on the ethics of individual rights or right and wrong, but instead was based on what Carol Gilligan calls an 'ethic of care' or nurturing."

Girls, for example, are more likely to define morality as "not hurting others," while boys more often view it as an adherence to rules, says Nona Lyons, a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Ms. Gilligan's co-worker on the study.

A corollary of this finding, says Mr. Easterling, is that "for girls, one of the great fears as they grow up is isolation, and to do something, however excellent, that leads to isolation" may not seem to them to be emotionally satisfying.

A steering committee of 14 interested teachers, resident adults, and administrators led by Associate Principal Trudy Hanmer has been struggling to determine what such findings mean for the teaching and school environment at Emma Willard. In the process, they have discovered that what they once thought were the "right" approaches to educating young women may be only partially so.

Emphasize Taking Initiative

"One of the things that Emma Willard had done through the late 60's and 70's," says Mr. Easterling, "was to emphasize the importance for girls of taking initiative and making choices. The school had become by 1970 much taken with the fact--a sort of feminist position--that girls grow up in our culture with a great deal of passive virtue."

The school began insisting that girls take the initiative in their education and choose most of their high-school program, he says. But Ms. Gilligan's findings have made the faculty realize that forcing so much individual choice on young girls was "potentially frightening," he says.

Though the school has not retreated from the belief that girls should be strongly challenged, Mr. Easterling says, it is now trying to offer more support in that process. Thus, it has strengthened its student-adviser program, in which teachers help students select courses and make other decisions about their time at school.

Changes for Teaching

Ms. Gilligan's work has also led to a new direction for classroom teaching. This year, for the first time, the school requires that in every course, students be given opportunities for cooperative or collaborative learning.

Mr. Easterling says faculty members anticipate that girls will work harder and perform better in groups because of their sense of responsibil-ity to co-workers. That hypothesis runs counter to the traditional male-oriented view that competition between individuals leads to better performance.

Ms. Gilligan's findings on the other-directed sensibilities of growing females has also led the school toward the establishment of more events and school practices that create a sense of community. "Again," says Mr. Easterling, "as a sort of counterweight to the individualization we're urging upon girls."

The school is considering restructuring its dormitories to do away with long corridors and large-scale living arrangements and create smaller, more discrete units that will give girls a more personal, immediate sense of community.

Course Content

Emma Willard has also tried to reflect its new consciousness of women's developmental needs in its course content. Teachers in upper-level courses in history and literature voted last year "to construct a curriculum that gives consistent emphasis both in organization and what's studied to the role of women," says Mr. Easterling.

That means, he says, that a 20th-century American literature course might read Willa Cather instead of Ernest Hemingway. But it also means that whenever students look at a particular piece of literature or history, they try to examine "where women are" in the picture. If they are not in the picture at all, the academic dean says, teachers will pause to note that fact, and discuss why.

Change Difficult

The faculty voted for the changes in both structure and curriculum, says Mr. Easterling. But change, he notes, "has not been easy."

"I think it would be fair to say that the faculty were interested in this 'until it begins to effect me,"' he3

says. "Teachers are like most people. They're used to certain ways of doing things. And the notion of changing very much is difficult"--particularly if it means giving up one thing to do something else.

Preparing girls for a male-dominated "real world" in which they will have to take risks, while supporting their natural preference for community and interdependence, has also been difficult, he says.

Most coeducational and girls' schools, says Mr. Easterling, "aren't aware of both sides of this, and they aren't aware of the need to strike a balance. They're happy to treat all students as though they were a certain kind of boy"--or as girls who will always live in a woman's world.

"What we've not done in changing the school," he concludes, "is push to bend it in the direction of a very hypercompetitive place, which there was a lot of pressure to do. I suppose you could argue that the Gilligan study's influence has been to warn us off of that."

Useful Guide?

Has the study provided as much guidance or information as faculty hoped it would? That, he says, "depends on whom you talk to."

"For some, it didn't turn out to be the philosopher's stone they thought it would be. Others, I think, were surprised that it's had any use at all.

"Most of all," he says, "it has given us a certain degree of confidence about doing things."

This year, according to Edith B. Phelps, administrative director of the Center for the Study of Gender Education and Human Development at Harvard University, a three-year study similar to that at the Emma Willard School has begun at the coeducational Middlesex School in Massachusetts.

The center is helping 15 other independent schools to conduct self-studies based on Ms. Gilligan's research.

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