Undereducated and assumed incapable

In Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore tells the story of Ben Franklin’s little sister. “Benny and Jenny” exchanged letters for more than 60 years. Jane also kept a book recording the birth of her 12 children — and the eventual deaths of 11 of them. 

Despite her intelligence and ingenuity, Jane’s life was “as grinding as Ben’s was glorious,” writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge blog. Jane had little opportunity to learn because of her sex, writes Hansel. Many believed in women’s “innate and inexorable lack of rational, scholarly, or political abilities.” 

Lepore excerpts a 1790 essay by Judith Sargent Murray, which observes that a two-year boy is not “more sage” than a two-year-old girl. 

But from that period what partiality! how is the one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limitted. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay if it taketh the place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince. (Lepore quoting Murray, page 230)

Imagine the lives of a siblings born in 2014, one raised in a low-income family, the other by high-income parents, Hansel writes. “For century upon century, women were undereducated and assumed incapable. I wonder, how many of our least advantaged youth, like Tony, are suffering that same fate today?”

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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    Today it is policy in just about every school district that all kids are assumed capable. A prospective teacher may well be asked, “Do you believe all students can learn?” and woe to her that answers no.

    The author of the Tony link didn’t think that Tony was getting unusually bad history instruction. She thought that elementary schools spent too little time on social studies instruction just about everywhere. “So maybe Tony doesn’t know any history not because it wasn’t taught well in secondary school, but because it wasn’t taught at all in elementary school.”

    Of course, this represents one of the faiths of most every school reformer. If what I think is important and interesting is taught in a way that I think is important and interesting, young people will find it important and interesting and will learn it. Of course, that faith is ridiculous.

  2. I live in a diverse part of the US. A student who is high-income is less likely to get instruction than a low-income student. It was the same way when I was a kid. In both situations, for ex., in ele. reading, the ‘high group’ would meet twice a week. The ‘low group’ would meet daily plus have pullouts with a reading specialist. It was, and still is, assumed that the richer the family, the more they can do at home, leaving the teacher to work with the ‘students who really need her’….the disadvantaged.. as the others will ‘be fine on their own’. Don’t know about your district, but there are few honors/AP classes here. Rich people like me (ha ha) have to pay for DE classes or internet classes or their kid can take Food Prep, Nutrition, Child Dev or multiple Study Halls senior year.