An experiment in women's education

May 14, 1992|By Susan Chira | Susan Chira,New York Times News Service

PEPPER PIKE, Ohio -- The pitch is a simple one: small, Roman Catholic women's college in pastoral setting near lake offers the nation's only program tailored to the different way women learn.

Selling itself as a unique experiment in women's education, Ursuline College is using a revamped curriculum and a retrained faculty to test the theory that women learn better when they work together in small groups and relate what they study to their lives.

In so doing, this small college near Cleveland is placing itself at the center of a larger debate among educators and feminists: Do women really learn and think differently, or does that view trap women in the very stereotypes they have been trying to dispel?

"Our approach reflects the different ways boys and girls are socialized," said Gary Polster, a professor of sociology at Ursuline. "Boys are raised to be more independent, aggressive and competitive; girls are raised to be a lot more group-oriented, and they work best in cooperative ways. Ours is not the traditional classroom set up 100 years ago by men for men."

But the one-year-old experiment is drawing fire from some other educators of women.

"Even if men and women are socialized to be different, I would still say taking that approach is a dangerous one," said Judith Shapiro, provost of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, one of the nation's leading women's colleges. "It is likely to perpetuate differences. I think it can be feminism doing the work of sexism."

With its wooded campus cloaked by mist from a drizzle on one recent day, Ursuline College seemed far from this ideological fray. But after years of trying to refine their educational mission, the faculty here seized on theories that may be controversial, but reflected their own experience teaching women.

The college offers a core curriculum based largely on a widely discussed 1986 book, "Women's Ways of Knowing," by Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule (Basic Books).

The book itself is part of an intellectually respectable yet fiercely debated school of thought that includes the Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, who believes that women have a distinct style of moral reasoning.

"We latched onto it; we said, 'This is written about our students,'" said Sister Rosemarie Carfagna, director of Ursuline Studies, as the core curriculum required of all students is called.

Two-thirds of Ursuline's 1,600 students are women returning to college. Many are recently divorced, Sister Rosemarie said, and many are new at asserting themselves. Teachers here believe it is especially important for these students to link their experiences to their education.

The book's authors and other researchers have found that women of all ages tend to be more hesitant than men to voice their opinions, less comfortable with the kind of argumentative intellectual style that is a hallmark of most elite universities, and more likely to doubt their intelligence.

"Women's Ways of Knowing" also argues that the classic stages of intellectual development, in which students eventually move from simply parroting what teachers say to creating their own theories, are different for many women. Women tend to defer to authority more than men do and to need more personal connection with what they study along the way, the authors argue.

Ursuline's core curriculum, Sister Rosemarie said, is designed to combat these problems and propel its students through these developmental stages. The college offers students a series of seminars run the way the authors of "Women's Ways of Knowing" believe that many women learn better: emphasizing the links between what they study in class and their own lives, working in small, supportive groups in which students feel free to try out ideas, and featuring teachers who do not act as authority figures but as "midwives" to students' thinking.

For example, the required first-year seminar at Ursuline is devoted almost entirely to coaxing students to write and speak their own opinions, trying to shake off their tendency to say what they think the teacher wants, Sister Rosemarie said. The seminar is the first of three that form the heart of the core curriculum.

In her class recently, students presented their final project: an extended soap opera that tells the story of a pregnant teen-ager reeling from shock to shock. The baby she is carrying is handicapped, and she has to consider abortion, adoption or bringing up the child herself. Her boyfriend lands in jail on a drug charge and infects her with AIDS.

The girl playing the pregnant teen-ager, Yolanda Franklin, was herself a teen-age mother. Sister Rosemarie said she is careful not to allow such classes to disintegrate into group therapy. Rather, the idea is to help students become more confident and more sophisticated in expressing their own beliefs.

"Coming here has enabled me to be my own person -- able to say what I felt instead of what everyone else wants me to say," said Lisa Samarin, a student in the seminar. "Sister Rosemarie made us decide what our values were. She'll pull it out of you."

The second-year seminar aims to combine the emphasis on personal experience with more traditional academic methods of analysis. It is thus an interdisciplinary humanities course that focuses on several cities in different historical periods but that also includes discussions about women's lives in those eras.

Students read classic works like Machiavelli's "The Prince," but they also read feminist critiques of these texts. They not only study the ideas of such thinkers as Simone Weil, but they also learn about her life. In the third year of the core curriculum, students are coaxed to integrate both the personal and the academic approaches so that ethical and personal commitments drive their academic and career choices.

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