Thursday, March 8, 2012

IWD: education above all

Mary Wollstonecraft was above all an educator, and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a plea for good education. We have free education for all - the battle has been won. Right? In honour of  International Women's Day, yesterday we looked at maternal mortality, i.e. her death, and today we turn our attention to girls' education, her life, because the struggle continues, not only globally and but also right here in her heartland.

Education in the eighteenth century is perhaps better understood now by the word "upbringing"*. Mary Wollstonecraft worked as a teacher and a governess, set herself up as the proprietor of a boarding school, and cut her writer's quill on pedagogy. Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was aimed squarely at fellow educators, parents and teachers both; her second, Original Stories from Real Life, was intended to be used with children. Later she compiled A Female Reader, just in the nick of time for the Austen girls' home schooling.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is predominantly an educational treatise -- after all, she was responding in part to Talleyrand's proposals for the education system of the new France. Gladstone read and annotated her magnum opus, and re-read it in the years of the British debate over the establishment of national education. She is credited as one of the first educationalists to call for all classes and both sexes to learn together in their first years. Here's an excerpt of what she thought on the subject.

Aside from her writings, she inspired others on a personal basis too: her employer dismissed her from her post as governess after a year because her pupils loved the visiting Englishwoman more than they did their own mother. (This aristocrat was the very model of Lady Bertram, lapdogs and all - more proof that Jane Austen was a Lost Daughter - and the eldest girl, Margaret King, went on to be quite the rebel herself, even naming her final incarnation in honour of her inspirational governess.)

So why do we need to be concerned with girls' education now, when they often outperform the boys? Two reasons: one here in the Wealthy West, and one in the Wider World. In all the English-speaking countries I know, girls and young women still tend to avoid the subjects that can lead to lucrative and engaging careers. Remember "Math is hard. Let's go shopping!" brought to you by the Barbie Liberation Organization? (The culture jamming reached the New York Times, while the resulting snowclone is tracked down by Language Log.) Look at this 2010 report from the Institute of Education: Bright girls less likely to want to study maths and physics at A-level than bright boys.

The second is that no woman is an island. Many children around the world do not complete a basic education; most of those are girls. Take Pakistan as an example - a country with strong ties to Britain, not least in that a substantial number of British schoolchildren have roots there. Statistics from its Ministry of Education (the date isn't clear, but probably around 2002) state that the male literacy rate was 61% - pretty bad. And the female? 37%. "Left out/ out of school children": 5.5 million. NB not disaggregated by gender, but you take a guess. That country is one of many where girls don't get the beginning of a chance at a fair education, and this has multiple ramifications.

As I say to both men and women, if you were raised by a woman who could read and work and vote, you owe something to Mary Wollstonecraft. It is salutary to remember that many girls and boys around the world do not have the privilege of an educated mother.

If you want more information, just released is the very resource: The UNESCO World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education (i.e. gender inequality). There's the United Nations Girls Education Initiative too. And again - this eclectic collection of IWD 2012 posters.  

Logo from Education International"the world's largest federation of unions", 
representing "organisations of teachers and other education employees across the globe".
*A line from the recent Montreal film Monsieur Lazhar stuck. The uptight parents of an uptight pupil are speaking to the eponymous teacher: "We would rather you concentrated on teaching our daughter; we will bring her up." 
Enseigner vs. eduquer.  French preserves the wider meaning that English has largely lost

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