Letters

May 2007

Online OnlyMore readers’ letters from the May 2007 issueBoy Wonder
Ken Coates and Clive Keen (“Snail Males,” March) ask why men are falling behind in universities while women speed ahead. They could have saved a lot of the sociological floundering around that characterized an otherwise excellent article by asking, more specifically, what’s wrong with an education system that skews success according to the sex of the student?

In Ontario, government-mandated curriculum in the public schools bulges at the seams with stuff that is judged to be critical for success in the race for global advantage. Moreover, politicians have embraced accountability, achieved by standardized testing and invidious public comparisons of test results, as the means to improved performance. School board websites are now larded with charts showing, by grade, percentages of students at some arbitrary benchmark together with mandated plans for improvement next year.

Accountability by measurable quantities is more suited to production in the economy, the more so as production units get larger and increasingly impersonal. But the method is ill-suited to the education of young people, who thrive on freedom to create and innovate, on opportunities to experiment with minimum risk.

According to psychologists, this passion for accountability in education tends to favour females, who have traditionally been conditioned from birth to work hard at menial tasks without complaint. That’s always been the lot of wives and mothers. This cultural tradition now reveals itself in the greater success of females in mastering testable bits of the school and post-secondary curriculum. It’s no surprise that they shine in medical and law schools.

Rethinking the school curriculum in fundamental ways is overdue. A good starting point would be the abolition of state-mandated standardized tests coupled with a call on local communities to engage in curriculum reform that responds to the real needs of youngsters.
Peter H. Hennessy
Professor Emeritus,
Queen’s University
Elginburg, Ontario

“Snail Males” provides an enlightening analysis of a troubling trend in education. Based on my experience as a retired scientist assisting elementary school teachers with science education, the authors’ suggestion that males are hard-wired not to accept help seems particularly astute. In grades five to eight, one sees divergent behavioural patterns for boys and girls, regardless of socioeconomic level and ethnic or religious leaning. Boys are hard-wired for many things, just as girls are, but the current educational approach creates a disadvantage for the boys.

The old assumption that boys and girls can be educated by the same methodology is just not working. Maybe the solution is separation of the two sexes during a critical period of education.
Fernand Noel
Sarnia, Ontario

The last thing young men need from their elders is a bugler’s call about the educational system being altered by (God forbid!) some female ethic. Don’t Ken Coates and Clive Keen know that the old gender binary is dead? A more useful line of inquiry would be why some men haven’t kept pace with the progress of feminist thought and how this impacts their understanding of the issues facing today’s young men and prevents them from being relevant in their own sons’ lives.

I’m no expert on the education system but I do know that many young men are opting out of the hierarchical, competitive thinking that has defined the lives of their male predecessors. They’ve seen that striving merely to win leads to emptiness and they’re challenging the lie of their inherent aggression. They’re also hip to the global ramifications of traditional male belief systems. These so-called underachievers don’t want to be a part of a serious, systemic problem, so they’re not playing anymore.

Coates and Keen’s grim, earnest conclusion that “we have ahead of us a bubbling cauldron of conflict, dissatisfaction, and social distress” speaks volumes. Guys, this is what we’ve been faced with for at least the past couple of hundred years and what we’re now trying to work our way out of ! Don’t miss your opportunity to connect with the new generation.
Troy Anderson
Vancouver, British Columbia

As a professor of women’s studies, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to the issue of underachieving male students (I’ve got a lot invested in men doing well in my classes). My experience of the balance between men and women students in the academy is, of course, atypical. However, the courses I teach are the kind that attract men as well as women, so I do get some opportunity to observe gender differences.

I would agree with most of Coates and Keen’s insights, but I would qualify a couple of things. Yes, lack of engagement is a problem for a higher percentage of my male students than my female students, but when I think back on which of my male students have excelled, it turns out that virtually all of my openly gay male students have been up there with the best of the women. It’s easy to speculate on why gay men would do well in women’s studies, but it would be interesting to have some data on how gay men do across the disciplinary spectrum.

Coates and Keen suggest that the task is “to motivate young men to be more competitive . . . and to enter graduate and professional programs the same way young women have: by being the best among their peers.” My women students tend not to compete with each other but, rather, each with herself. The motivated ones are almost invariably those who are turned on by the desire to do better on the next assignment than they did on the last one. Moreover, the more successful women students are generous with their assistance to less successful ones. Male students tend to compete with one another, so in classrooms like mine, where women greatly outnumber men, there can be a shortage of willing competitors.

Finally, I accept that a growing number of boys lack a live-in father, while others have fathers who are caught in the limbo between the old patriarchal model and a new kind of fathering that men have yet to invent. But whereas fatherless boys used to be able to look to men in high places as role models, which of today’s boys would want to choose from the super-achievers within our corrupt corporate and political cultures, or even our drug-scandalized sports culture? Perhaps when our boardrooms and legislatures reach gender parity, things will change in this regard. Either women will clean up politics and business—in which case, the men involved will be better public role models—or women will prove equally corruptible and men will cease to be the only people identified with corruption. Since women alone can’t clean up the world, the latter is, alas, much more likely.

What we need is a men’s liberation movement—a politically progressive men’s movement, not those expensive self-improvement weekends in the woods where men nurture their warrior within. And certainly not a patriarchal revival: George W. Bush has been demonstrating the consequences of that project and killing a lot of men and boys in the process. Not until men in large numbers kick the habit of postindustrial hyper-individualism and collectively rekindle a broad sense of the public good will boys again have something they want to grow up for.
Diana M. A. Relke
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Hot Debate
Alanna Mitchell’s informative and accessible essay on global warming (“Here Comes the Heat,” March) failed to address two important issues that are too often missing from the discussion. The first one concerns China. We already know that China’s booming manufacturing sector is a major contributor of carbon emissions, yet many North Americans continue to buy cheap Chinese goods, which only encourages them to continue building factories and the coal-fired power plants that run them.

The second issue is population. The fact that human population is more than two and a half times what it was at the end of World War II is the elephant in the room. While the efficiency of combustion engines, furnaces, and electrical appliances has improved over the past thirty years, overall emissions continue to rise because there are so many more of these devices in use. Mitchell mentions deforestation but doesn’t make the connection to the increasing demand for building materials, paper, farmland, and housing.

Other species at the top of the food chain have adjusted their birth rates to their environmental conditions—and we’re supposed to be the smart ones. In his novella, Tracking, Jim Harrison points out that non-aboriginal people try to do everything big before they’re capable of doing small things well. Ultimately, all the best-intentioned policies to combat global warming could be futile if they aren’t accompanied by policies that reverse the growth of the human population. After all, what’s the point of having clean air if we’re slaughtering one another for a drink of water?
John MacMurchy
Toronto, Ontario

Alanna Mitchell offers evidence that 55 million years ago the earth went through more or less exactly what is being billed as the coming apocalypse—and somehow recovered from it, continuing to support diverse life forms. I was a little surprised and disappointed that Mitchell did not pursue this angle as it relates to the current debate about global warming. Using “only” a 600,000-year timeline, Al Gore et al. argue that we’ve never before been where we’re headed and offer the risk of no return as reason to avoid that journey. Now that we know that the earth returned from brink once before, the only question is whether humans will be among the survivors next time out. Something tells me that the natural advantage humans have leveraged into dominance will see a select few of us through. Why not reframe the call to action? Global warming: it’s bad for business to kill off your customers.
Jim Renahan
Toronto, Ontario

The Bug in the Rug
It is so very Canadian to blame Canadian writers for a lack of robustness and specificity on the subject of American culture (“An American Type of Sadness,” March). The fact is that in Canada, our discomfort with consumerism and its cultural byproducts is accompanied by the knowledge that these demons are not of our own creation or evocation—that they grew out of a management vat in New York and Los Angeles.

Unlike Rick Moody, we can’t use an ulcer as a metaphor for this cultural affliction because, unlike Moody’s ulcer, our disease was not self-generated. Maybe venereal disease would be more appropriate—we got it through the company we keep. Or we could use aids as an analogy; that is, maybe the disease really worth identifying is the one that made us so susceptible to others. When it comes to culture, it seems, each country has its own peculiar bug.

Rather than envy the American preoccupation with their own symptoms, perhaps Canadians need to open up to other depictions of this North American problem: the plays of Eugène Ionesco, for example, with their claustrophobic accumulations, or the Buddhist icon of the Hungry Ghost, with its big stomach and tiny neck, who can never get enough.
John MacLachlan Gray
Vancouver, British Columbia

Charles Foran is mercifully measured, circumspect even, in his discussion of American writers and their obsession with the detritus of their lives—an embarrassment of riches mirrored in their prose, where verbosity is oft confused with virtuosity. I say circumspect because Foran does not reveal whether he cares that Canadian writers don’t write like Americans. He merely asks, why the gap? For one thing, it is their junk, not ours. Whether or not Canadians ever accumulate as much stuff (and Foran suggests that unwieldy pillars of prose are part of the burden), the model for the great American novel will not be adapted by Canadian writers who are already, happily, on a very different road.

I was particularly struck by David Foster Wallace’s reference to sadness and his longing to be able to feel truth: “I’m nervous, I’m lonely and I can’t figure out why.” All the writers Foran discusses (with the tentative exception of Franzen) circle around the centre, not daring to dive in. They might get hurt. Or worse, wet. Ewwww! Instead, they study electronic equipment manuals and cream cakes, and they build huge, parodic rhapsodies about marketing and miniseries pitches. Boy toys and even bigger boy toys. Fun to watch for a while, but then . . .

They might (but they won’t) take a page or two from Joan Didion, whose incisive route into those terrible feelings is through memory, not object. It’s worth noting that the writers Foran reviews are all men; the messianic, orgiastic impulse seems not to consume American women writers. American male writers are apparently compelled to keep chasing their moby dicks.
Marian Botsford Fraser
Stratford, Ontario

Make Hay While the Sun Shines
Your recent article on the organics industry (“Organic Goes Boom,” March) raises some interesting issues. While importing organic food from large, foreign companies is cause for legitimate concern, it has also helped to establish a Canadian market for organics. The new Canadian organic regulation is expected to provide prospective Canadian farmers and processors with fewer surprises and a more stable investment climate, which means more homegrown opportunities in this sector. Now’s the time to replace imports. This will both yield economic gains and reduce synthetic pesticide residues in our soil and water. Furthermore, by requesting and buying local organic food, consumers can create openings for small processors in this emerging industry.
Ralph C. Martin
Founding Director,
Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada
Truro, Nova Scotia

Ski Patrol
I am in complete agreement with my fellow Red Bird, John Fry, that modern downhill skiing owes much to Canadians, predominantly in Quebec (“First on the Hill,” February). Nordic skiing, too, has an illustrious history in this country. Recently, Peter Johnson, president of the Red Bird Ski Club, sent me the following quotation from an article originally published in the Revelstoke Times Review on the genesis of cross-country skiing on the West Coast: “Skiing in this region dates back to sometime before 1890 when Ole Sandberg used a pair of homemade skis to descend from his mine to the railway station at Albert Canyon . . . . Revelstoke merchant F. B. Wells was the first to retail skis and also helped establish the Revelstoke Ski Club in 1891 (the oldest continually operating ski club in Canada).”
Donald Bissonnette
Sutton, Quebec