Mr. Brown's Math Class and
BY MAGDA LEWIS
As much as any other factor, feminists have identified women's unequal access to and experiences of education as the basis of women's social, political and economic subordination. These seem like strange words at a point in western history when compulsory and universal education requires equally that girls and boys enter the school system. Stranger still when we can finally say that there are as many women as men enrolled in university undergraduate programs, albeit with some significant differences in program selection.
Gone are the days when women mathematics students were required to sit behind a curtained section of the lecture hall so they would not distract men from their intellectual work. Gone are the days when an alumni of the University of Toronto could bequeath the funds for a student centre with the stipulation that only men be admitted to its oak panelled rooms or its marble walled and tiled swimming pool where bathing without constraint of swimming attire was the standard practice. Gone are the days when women were admitted to the university but denied access to the library.
Women today apply to and are sometimes admitted into traditionally male faculties where it may seem there are no structural restrictions on their participation. Women no longer sit veiled behind curtains. Yet the answer to the question of whether equal access to education translates into equal outcome for girls and boys-for women and men - is not a forgone conclusion. Looking about our society-doing what Rosemary Brown calls "eyeball research" - it seems that while for most men education fulfills their aspirations, for the women sitting next to them - completing the same assignments, listening to the same lectures, reading the same materials - hopes and aspirations vaporize in the face of social reality.
In my experience, schools are not sites of equality and possibility. What is learned at school is framed within gendered, classed, raced, and homophonic ideologies. As women we know our education has served us poorly. We don't know our history, we know nothing about the work women have done, and sometimes we are made to believe that women are insignificant to the creation and organization of life on our planet.
That such forms of negation continue to be the experience of women in the academy speaks of the paternalism and misogyny that permeates schooling at all levels from elementary through high school, to post-secondary education, professional schools and post-graduate institutions and programs. Yet the power of paternalism lies not just in how we are made invisible even to ourselves, but in how women are judged incapable if we do not fit masculine versions of social practice, and inadequate if we do. In order to understand the inhibiting force of educating us against ourselves we need to explore beyond the curriculum to the social relations in the classroom: the stuff of human interaction.