Dog bites AAUW -- Thousands sexually harassed

Peter Schrag

June 29, 1993|By Peter Schrag

DOG-BITES-MAN, according to the cliches of the news business, isn't supposed to be news, but when it comes to politically correct versions of the conventional wisdom, dog-bites-man seems good for a headline every time.

Consider, for example, the two most recent reports from the American Association of University Women concerning the evil fate befalling girls in our schools.

The first, issued early last year, was called "How Schools Shortchange Girls."

The second, released early this month, was about how schools were dens of sexual harassment.

In a survey of some 1,600 11th-graders, fully 85 percent of the girls and 76 percent of the boys reported that they had been sexually harassed.

What was plain from the numbers and the horror stories used to illustrate them, however, was that any nasty remark and a great deal of childish thoughtlessness was evidence of sexual harassment: sexual comments, jokes, gestures, everything counted.

"We were really surprised," said Sharon Shuster, the AAUW president, "how sexual harassment has reached such epidemic proportions in today's schools."

Surprised? If the AAUW had counted other forms of insult -- about looks, intelligence, clothes, ethnicity, physical handicap, retardation, eating habits, accents, hairstyles -- Sharon Shuster would have been speechless.

It's not scientifically known how many kids, if any, still call each other dago, wop, mick, kike or polack, because there is no organization currently demanding political correctness on this vocabulary. But one wonders what illusion about a golden past informed this report that its sponsors should assume that things have so badly deteriorated.

What has deteriorated is general decorum in speech, dress and behavior and, with the proliferation of rules of due process, the power of schools to enforce reasonable codes of behavior. But that point, lacking any well-organized advocacy group is rarely made. Perhaps if enough minorities press their separate agendas, somehow we will come to realize that the best answer is general civility and mutual respect.

Which brings us to the AAUW's other report, echoed again the other day (also to rapt and unquestioning press attention) by an outfit called FairTest, about how the educational system shortchanges girls through biases in standardized testing.

By now that argument should also be banal: that because girls score lower on the SAT and PSAT, the tests themselves must be flawed.

For a time there were attempts to show cultural bias by arguing, for example, that math questions dealing with such things as interest calculations favored boys because girls couldn't be expected to be as familiar with them. But when it was pointed out that this argument was evidence of far more troubling sexism on the part of the critics, it was dropped.

So now the evidence is the disproportion between the better grades that girls get in school and the lower scores they get on the SAT and the PSAT.

"It is simply unfair," said the executive director of FairTest, "for young women to receive a smaller portion of awards (based on PSAT scores) when they consistently earn higher grades than young men in both high school and college." That discrepancy does not seem to suggest to FairTest the possibility that boys, whose behavior is generally less attractive than that of girls, might be getting unfairly low grades, particularly in the elementary schools.

What's even more significant is that on measures that really count -- who goes to college, for example, and who graduates -- women outrank men by a considerable margin, and that even in areas, such as enrollment in law and medical schools, where men used to outnumber women by a large margin, the gap has closed significantly.

The real losers in the educational system, if one judges by the numbers, are not black women but black men (who are vastly underrepresented in our colleges, and even more underrepresented on the graduation stand) and, more generally, the half of the population -- also disproportionately male -- that will never go to college and for whom other career-training opportunities are sadly inadequate.

It may be true that boys are better at negotiating multiple choice tests (while girls are better in other tasks) and that such tests should therefore be used in combination with other measures. But their real handicap, if they have one, is not in how they favor men over women or whites over blacks, but in how they may distort the entire educational process by neglecting things -- like creativity, problem solving, analytical skills -- that are not readily measured on the tests.

And that, of course, is the most troubling aspect of all such reports and analyses: That they seem to be concerned about better schools, decent social behavior, civil discourse only when the damage is manifest in the currency of political correctness: when the bad behavior is expressible as sexual harassment or racial insensitivity; when tests seem to lead to unequal outcomes among the sexes or races; or when some group's particularist agenda -- Chicano studies, critical feminist theory, whatever -- is neglected. Many of those things may need attention, but the real concern -- for quality and higher standards, for civility, for respectful discourse -- ought to be far broader and deeper.

Peter Schrag is a columnist for McClatchey newspapers.

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