Girls’ Ethic of Caring May Stifle Classroom Competitiveness

By Kirsten Goldberg — April 27, 1988 7 min read
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The findings from a study conducted at a private girls’ school may help strengthen the arguments proponents of all-girl schools have made to justify their existence, researchers said here last week.

In their research at the Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y., the team of Harvard University researchers has compiled data supporting a new theory of how teen-age girls make decisions.

The results appear to confirm, they said, that a majority of teen-age girls base decisionmaking on a moral psychology that is fundamentally different from that of the majority of boys. It stresses an ethic of caring for other people over absolutes of right and wrong, the researchers said, and hence may influence the way young girls compete in an academic setting.

“This redefines the whole conception we have had of adolescence, a conception that has been based on research about boys,’' said Nona P. Lyons, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and the principal researcher for the study.

The results of the study also have widespread implications for curriculum and pedagogy in secondary schools, the researchers said.

Findings from the study were presented at a seminar at the National Cathedral School here on April 20. Emma Willard officials said it was the first in a series of six seminars to be held around the country this year to disseminate the study’s findings and commemorate the 175th anniversary of the school’s founding. The study was funded by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, based in Morristown, N.J.

Little Research on Girls

The goal of the study, which involved interviews with 100 young women in grades 9-12 between 1981 and 1985, was to examine the moral development of girls, the way they see themselves, and their experiences in relating to others.

A book on the study will be published by the school later this year, titled Making Connections: The Interpersonal World of Emma Willard Girls. It is edited by Ms. Lyons, Trudy J. Hanmer, associate principal of Emma Willard, and Carol Gilligan, an associate professor in the graduate school of education at Harvard.

The study was proposed in 1980 by the late Robert C. Parker, principal of Emma Willard, who noticed differences in decisionmaking between adolescent girls and boys.

“When we began the study there wasn’t much research on girls,’' Ms. Lyons said. “The very ways we think about achievement and identity have been based on studies of boys.’'

The study’s hypothesis, derived from a theory Ms. Gilligan first outlined in her 1982 book In a Different Voice, was that a majority of girls and women attempt to solve problems in a way that causes the least disruption in relationships among people.

Ms. Gilligan called this the “ethic of care.’' Most men, she said, make decisions based on an “ethic of justice,’' or moral absolutes.

“The dominant model in psychology is that people solve conflicting claims by stepping back from a situation and looking at it objectively, or from a standpoint of what is just,’' Ms. Lyons said.

But a majority of women, and some men, she said, “step into the situation and try to make sure that people are taken care of, that relationships are maintained.’'

About two-thirds of the young women studied at Emma Willard fell into the ethic-of-care category, although others were mainly in the justice category and some seemed balanced between both classifications.

“You can’t generalize to all girls and all situations,’' Ms. Lyons said. “This is gender-related, not gender-specific.’'

Responsibility to People

As an example of the two ways of thinking, Ms. Lyons described the answers two girls gave when asked to define morality. One said morality was “a code of honor’’ that is “a basis for judging right and wrong.’' Ms. Lyons said that view was typical of the justice mode.

The second girl, however, described morality as “sort of like deciding whether it would save more lives to drop the bomb.’'

“It’s something that if I don’t do, other people will suffer,’' the girl said. “For instance, I have a responsibility to do my homework because if I come to class unprepared, everyone will get bogged down having to go over the answers.’'

Another example of a “care’’ response was a girl who lied about her grades to her parents, even though she admitted it was wrong, in order to preserve the relationship.

For “ethic of care’’ people, Ms. Lyons said, “an ethical dilemma may not have a right answer and a decision is based on what would hurt the people involved the least.’'

These students may be more hesitant to take a moral stand on an issue and less likely to have clearly defined arguments supporting their ideas, Ms. Hanmer said, and thus may receive lower grades for class discussion.

This raises questions, she said, about whether girls should be taught differently from boys.

Implications for Curriculum

Adolescence has been seen as a time of learning to become independent, relying less on parents and other adults, Ms. Hanmer said.

“For adolescent girls, there’s a greater independence, but there is also a great development of interdependence, of establishing relationships,’' she said. “It’s a very complex and equally valid part of the growth process.’'

However, the high-school curriculum “is geared toward those people, who tend to be boys, who think along the justice line,’' Ms. Hanmer said.

For example, said Donna Simms, a humanities and English instructor at Emma Willard who took part in the study, a typical reading list in a literature course features many stories about young men “breaking away.’'

She listed such high-school classics as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The literary motif of a fall from innocence, she said, “is really a man’s story.’'

Even Shakespeare’s Othello, Ms. Simms said, “on one level may seem like a stupid story [to ‘care’ people].’' Such a student may wonder, she said, “why the characters didn’t just talk to each other and straighten everything out.’'

Ms. Simms said she was not advocating that schools eliminate such classics, but that they also include stories by women authors that reflect the “care’’ outlook. She called it “looking for the other half.’'

Ms. Simms teaches a two-semester literature course that examines both ways of solving moral dilemmas. The first semester focuses on the “justice’’ mode, while the second is geared toward the “care’’ mode.

The reading list for the second semester includes works by Eudora Welty, Emily Dickenson, and Willa Cather, as well as The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and F. Scott Fizgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

“The choices we make in designing a curriculum create a world for our students,’' Ms. Simms said. “The overwhelming impression we have given is that the world of American literature belongs to men.’'

In such courses as history, Ms. Hanmer said, students favoring the “care’’ approach may be more interested in learning, for example, “what it was like to be a slave’’ rather than facts about the Missouri Compromise.

At Emma Willard, each department must make a presentation describing how it includes the works and contributions of women in its courses, Ms. Hanmer said.

Conveying A ‘Can-Do’ Message

Faced with mounting pressure to become coeducational, educators in all-female schools recently have become more outspoken in their advocacy of girls’ schools.

Unlike the trend in all-male schools, many of which have become coeducational in recent years, girls’ schools have maintained their numbers. The 870-member roster of the National Association of Independent Schools listed more than 100 all-female schools last year, and the number of all-female boarding schools has remained the same since 1962, according to the association.

Joan O. Holden, principal of the St. Agnes School for Girls in Alexandria, Va., said at the seminar last week that the Emma Willard study is a forceful justification for all-female schools.

“The strong ‘can-do’ message of girls’ schools provides girls with confidence and self-esteem,’' she said. “There are advantages to other systems as well, but single-sex schools should remain an option.’'

Other studies show, Ms. Holden said, that girls tend to be intimidated in classes dominated by boys, that boys talk longer in class than girls, and that they receive more positive reinforcement from teachers than girls.

“Girls are taught to be passive, while boys are taught aggressiveness,’' she said. “But when girls go to single-sex schools, they stop being the audience and start being the participants.’'

Emma Willard officials said that Ms. Gilligan is currently conducting follow-up studies on adolescent girls and boys at several private and public schools.

A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 1988 edition of Education Week as Girls’ Ethic of Caring May Stifle Classroom Competitiveness


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