Ask most lay people what comes to mind when they hear the term “gender” and they are likely to say something about women’s issues or feminism. Ask most educators what comes to mind when they hear the term “gender” and they are likely to say something about girls in math classes or whether boys and girls should be separated. And while these issues are all part of the issue, the discussion on gender is much broader, richer and nuanced, and involves intense debate about some core issues which affect every child in every educational setting.
Here are some examples of core, highly charged questions: Are women and men inherently different? Do they learn in fundamentally distinct ways, with different aptitudes? And, if so, should educational systems recognize those differences and tailor learning for men and women, or ignore them to homogenize the learning experiences? Is there such a thing as gender-neutral learning, or is all learning colored by gender?
Within the feminist community there is significant debate about this, with some arguing that acknowledging gender differentiation will erase all the gains of feminism while others argue that ignoring those differences robs women of the opportunities to develop and excel in ways that are unique to them. In recent years, there is growing recognition that male is a gender as well, and that gender issues are not to be automatically linked to a feminist agenda.
The related topic of coeducation, a perennial one for Orthodox institutions, has in recent years taken on an entirely new life in light of various gender-learning studies. The leading article in the N.Y. Times Magazine (March 1, 2008 – http://tiny.cc/6eLhG) focused on a new trend, in both the public and private sector, to provide separate and distinct educational experiences for boys and girls based on studies that indicate that boys and girls indeed learn differently – they may even physiologically (!) hear and see differently. Those programs, which have survived numerous court challenges, have different types of learning activities for boys and girls, different reading programs for boys and girls, and even adjust the temperatures in classrooms based on gender. And even amongst the advocates of single-sex education there are two camps – “those who favor separating boys from girls because they are essentially different and those who favor separating boys from girls because they have different social experiences and social needs.”
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This issue of Jewish Educational Leadership touches upon a variety of topics related to gender. Chaye Kohl and Wendy Grinberg address family education for teens, Elana Sztokman describes an egalitarian pre-mitzvah training program, and Naomi Grumet describes long-range effects of subtle sexual messages conveyed in high school. Joel Wolowelsky explores Reform Judaism’s drive to bring men back into ritual life, with special focus on a new men’s haggadah, and an excerpt from Shmuley Boteach’s new book emphasizes the need to change gender messages to young men.
Gender and women’s education first burst forth in the twentieth century – Chana Tannenbaum presents a survey of the literature on women’s learning in general, and Jewish women’s learning in particular, with a historical overview. Three other articles highlight Jewish women who have helped drive the agenda of gender and women’s learning in the twentieth century. Blu Greenberg, one of the pioneers of Jewish women’s issues, is featured in our Perspectives page. Readers will enjoy an exclusive interview with Alice Shalvi, a life-long Jewish educational leader in Israel, and Levi Cooper profiles an early pioneer in Jewish women’s learning, Sarah Schenirer.
One article is particularly close to the Lookstein family – a profile in courage of Jennifer Miller. Jennifer was one of the mentors in our Principals’ Program, and despite her struggles with ALS, continues to inspire students and colleagues.
Educators do not work in a vacuum, yet the voices our closest partners – our students’ parents – are often difficult for us to hear, even when they are expressing thoughtful comments. In this issue we introduce a new feature – Parents Speak. We hope that in future issues we will continue to hear the voice of our educational partners.
Many of the articles in this issue of Jewish Educational Leadership take sides, sometimes perhaps unconsciously, on the core gender debate. I’ll leave it to you, the readers, to figure out who takes which positions, and where you stand.