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Transcending Gender Anxiety and Family Disintegration

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There is a growing interest in the impact of the home and cultural values on student achievement. The focus is turning away from academic institutions toward the exploration of the crisis in family life as the primary source of educational failure.

The crisis is powerfully described by David Hamburg, president of The Carnegie Council, in A Decent Start: Promoting Healthy Child Development in the First Three Years. He argues that we are on the verge of an epidemic of family neglect large enough to put the future of the United States in jeopardy. The mutual-support ethic, once a critical reinforcement of family ties, Mr. Hamburg says, has been pulled apart.

Mothers are home less than in the past; fathers spend little time with their children, and grandparents are seen on a regular basis by only about 5 percent of children. As a result, traditional role models for children have largely been replaced by television and peers.

Recent proposals for male, African-American academies in Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Miami offer a dramatic example of the kind of school-reform mandates which attempt to address problems associated with the ways family life and gender identity have been released from their traditional moorings.

President Bush recently stated that he supported challenging civil-rights laws if that was what was necessary to permit special schools for African-American males. These remarks were made shortly after U.S. District Court Judge George E. Woods issued a preliminary injunction barring the Detroit Board of Education from admitting only boys to three academies that offered an African-centered curriculum and a rites-of-passage program emphasizing male responsibility.

Judge Woods believes that these academies deny girls equal educational opportunity. Nonetheless, he agreed that African-Americans in Detroit are endangered and that the purposes of the male academies are important. In response, members of the Detroit Board of Education vowed, even though the board itself dropped a legal appeal, to continue the battle to save their experiment aimed at rescuing impoverished inner-city males.

The crisis in male identity is certainly not limited to African-Americans. There is much more that remains to be known about how masculine identity in all races and cultures is nurtured. For this reason, it is difficult to resolve questions generated by proposals for male academies for African-Americans, or for any other group.

Lists of best-selling books and of widely viewed television programs reflect a growing public interest in questions related to male identity. Over the last few years, among the most frequently requested programs to be repeated on public television were Bill Moyers's interviews with the mythologist Joseph Campbell and the poet Robert Bly, and the John Bradshaw series. These programs all focus on masculine identity and family functioning.

In September 1991, three of the top 10 books on The New York Times list of non-fiction best-sellers dealt with masculinity. Recently, a debate held in New York City between Robert Bly, author of two of the best-sellers, and the feminist scholar Deborah Tannen, author of a book on how men and women communicate, created a stampede for tickets. These media events, along with the proposal for male academies, show how pervasive masculine gender anxiety is in the United States.

On the journey from infancy to adulthood every gesture, word, and encounter has a gender connotation. Margaret Mead's comment that "a baby girl learns how to be a grandmother when the grandmother first holds the infant in her arms'' pictures for us how from the very first hours of our lives, gender identity touches all our experiences.

David Gilmore's Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity provides an excellent analysis of some broad generalizations about the cultural structures of maleness. Masculinity is an artificial state that must be won against precarious odds, Mr. Gilmore tells us. Boys and young men are expected to attain this state by traumatic testing, often around matters related to aggression, sex, and productivity. The transfer of identification from boy to man is considered to be such a delicate and hazardous process that in tribal societies, and in less orchestrated ways in advanced societies, initiation rites have been created around this passage. These activities are one of the most frequent and structured rituals held across a wide range of cultures.

In terms of development, male identity appears to require deliberate nurturing by role models in structured activities beginning in infancy. This concept stresses the importance of figures, whether father, grandfather, uncle, mentor, or teacher, to guide boys in their passage to "pressured manhood,'' as Mr. Gilmore labels it.

Cross-cultural research on gender identity clearly demonstrates that differences between men and women can be deep and dramatic. School-reform proposals such as the one for male, African-American academies make equally clear the pervasive unrest regarding gender identity within the context of changing patterns of family life.

However, male African-American academies and other gender- and culture-based programs carry with them several dangers, among which is the tendency to accelerate the process of group conflict and national and global disunification. Basically, these programs tend to overemphasize perceived cultural polarities and to promote particularistic and separatist ethics.

The work of gender scholars and advocates, for example, is often used to overemphasize differences between males and females, and to neglect areas that transcend these differences. As a result, men and women are often described in terms of static dualities and polarities.

Typically, this leads to defining men as active, public, outer-directed, and skill and knowledge oriented. Similarily, women are defined as passive, private, inner-directed, and feeling and intuition oriented. In today's dynamic world, where increasingly women work both outside as well as inside the home, these polarities need to be questioned and bridged.

Correcting past injustices related to gender and redefining gender roles involve advocacy and political action. However, as important as advocacy and politics are, they are means, not ends. The ultimate goal is to enable all people, men and women, to live together in justice and harmony.

In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah discusses "therapeutic individualism,'' which he defines as preoccupation with the self and personal identity. This, he argues, dominates today's thinking about culture and morality. Individual preferences are elevated to transcendent principles which ignore those things we share with others--reason, universal values, and a sense of the larger community.

Few would question the need to deepen the awareness and the respect for gender and cultural differences through school reforms that focus on the needs of specific groups. However, the more such reforms are implemented, the greater the need to encourage students to resist rigid stereotypical thinking and to work across a broad spectrum of cultures on matters related to their shared humanity.

James J. Shields Jr. is professor of education and director of The Japan Initiative at the City College of the City University of New York.

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