ERG SES G 05, Gender and Education
Arts education, particularly in the context of out-of-school education, is often expected to overcome structures of exclusion that are deeply rooted in modern western school systems. Both official policy papers (most prominently the UNESCO Road Map for Arts Education) and various actors in the field claim to open up new chances for children and young adults who are disadvantaged in other educational contexts. Engaging with the arts supposedly has only positive impacts on the development of personality; it fosters creativity, emotional intelligence, critical reflection and autonomy (etc.).
Literature as an art form plays a specific role in the context of arts education. On the one hand, literature – with the book historically being the medium most closely linked to the formation of the self since the rise of the European bourgeoisie – is the object of many idealistic ascriptions and hopes connected to personality development and broadened horizons. On the other hand, literature as a medium is closely linked to reading as a cultural technique and skill that is clearly necessary for individuals in text-based societies. Out of school literacy education – as both a part of cultural education in the aforementioned sense and as an open educational context with the aim to foster reading ability – is the empirical field in which the clash of those aspects is observable best.
When analyzing the field, out-of-school literacy education appears to be less inclusive than it might seem at first glance. Immediately after the results of PISA 2000 were released, debates on gender and education arose internationally, since the study showed a significant difference between boys’ and girls’ achievements in all of the fields under investigation, most prominently in reading literacy. Debates on “failing boys” started (see Martino 2014 or, for the German context, Fegter 2012). As a consequence, the out of school context with its larger flexibility and richer opportunities for more specific programs has seemingly taken on the role of a corrective to the school system, which appears to not be able to overcome gender differences in reading. The most prominent out-of-school concepts to close the gender gap in reading in Germany are built on the rejection of co-education by only targeting boys.
In a case study based on material from my dissertation project I want to discuss how this development – most prominently in its “intentionally excluding”, that is target-group-specific, implications – leads to essentialising gender differences with heavily stereotypical assumptions and ascriptions to children who are presumed to „be“ of a specific gender. I want to address this question by referring to both the debates on gender and reading and my observations of practices in the field. Although the paper presents a German case, the results are transferable into other (especially European and North American) contexts. My analysis also shows how literature and literacy are being gendered and thereby raise the question whether these projects in fact contribute to creating the “problem” – that is boys who don’t like to read – rather than solving it. I want to argue that the measures that are taken to get boys to read contribute to portraying reading as “unmanly” and “uncool” and as such miss their goal. Rather than including boys in the world of literature with all its positive effects, they are implicitly excluded by precisely the projects that aim to include them.
My analysis can also show how by over-emphasizing the gender difference in educational practices, other exclusionary structures – mostly those based on economic backgrounds – become invisible. As such, the oversimplified concentration on “boys who do not read” leads to possible new forms of exclusion.
The paper will draw on material and (preliminary) results from my current work for my PhD project situated in educational science with an interdisciplinary focus, including inspiration gained from the vast field of cultural studies. Methodologically, the paper is situated in the field of qualitative social research. I aim to reconstruct the different forms of knowledge (see Bohnsack 2014) underlying social interactions and processes of collective meaning making. The paper will present a case study and an in-depth analysis of a German program for reading education for boys, which is analyzed both on the macro-level of the societal/pedagogical debate on gender and reading and on the micro-level of practices in individual situations of literacy education. The debate takes place in policy papers, project descriptions, scientific papers, and educational handbooks, among others. An interpretive analysis of those texts promises a deeper understanding of the historical-cultural conditions in which projects of out of school literacy education are situated. Data derived from participant observation in projects of literacy education then shows how these conditions play out in practices (Hirschauer 2014) that are understood as both gendered and “gendering” in the sense of contributing to the gender socialization of the children involved. The analysis is done through the adjusted adaption of so called “text protocols” (Langer 2008) in combination with inspiration drawn from documentary method. It includes both aspects of thematic/immanent and documentary/referencing meanings, which can help to understand the underlying forms of knowledge that lead the actions of the people involved.
Debates on gender and reading – and the claims for action that they entail – can be interpreted as what Wayne Martino has called “calls for re-masculinization” of the educational field (Martino 2014). Martino links those to societal developments in times of neo-liberalism and post-feminism. Post-feminist claims for more male influence in the world of early childhood (and as a consequence in reading socialization) can be found, where men are ascribed pedagogical qualifications based solely on their gender (Budde 2014). These play together with a neo-liberal reductionist view on literature that expresses itself in the highlighting of reading competency as a measurable, comparable and economically usable skill. This leads to reading being heavily gendered and literacy education promoting very essentialist gender stereotypes. As such, it reduces both the potential of literature as an art form and the potential of literary education as cultural education when it comes to the development of personality and autonomy. Projects originally meant to be inclusive – by including boys into educational practices and into the chances that come with the ability to read – can be interpreted as reproducing the problem they want to solve. The paper, which draws on different types of data, aims to see if this gender essentialism and the aspects of inclusion and exclusion play out in practices of literacy education/gender socialization – or if the practices can surprise and offer a corrective to the stereotypical implications of the debate.
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