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Colección: La Educación
Número: (129-131) I,III
Año: 1998

How Girls Achieve and Boys Drop Out:  Patriarchy Impugned?

In another context (Hurtig 1998) I described the practices through which Santa Lucian girls learned, in the street as well as in the house, that the proper demeanor for women was passivity, docility, obedience, and servitude; while men were encouraged to be active, assertive, and demanding of service. Within the patriarchal arrangements of the house, women in their roles as mothers had significant authority over their children; but women and children shared a subservient position relative to the patriarchal figure of the father. Thus, as girls moved between the house, the street, and the classroom, their relationship to the patriarchal teacher figure remained consistent, from primary school through secondary school; and even as they grow up, they continued to cultivate the same demeanor outside the classroom as they did inside it. For girls, the gender-appropriate practices of the house became the educationally appropriate practices of the high school classroom. It was later, as girls make the transition from secondary school to the university setting that their gender failed them, as it were; and I will return to discuss this transition below.

Young men attending secondary school, however, were in a much trickier situation vis-a-vis their gender identities and relations. As they were growing up, male children learned to be subservient to their parents by virtue of their age, while assertive by virtue of their sex; they were expected to be obedient to their fathers, while encouraged to imitate their fathers by dominating their younger siblings and often taking on the role of protector of their sisters and later of their mothers as well. Meanwhile, outside the home, teenaged males were “practically” men. They engaged in most all the street practices that ritualized male status: drinking, playing billiards, gambling, seducing young women. Many young men worked, often saving their earnings to buy the most impressive of adolescent male status symbols: a car. On the street and in the house young men were learning to establish and validate their masculinity competitively with other men, and through the enactment of their power and authority over those in subservient positions to them within the house. But in the classroom, academic status was achieved in part through subservience, so that for male students to succeed in school, they had to suspend the sexualized, competitive gender impulses they were practicing in the street, as well as the autocratic, authoritative postures they were beginning to adopt in the house.

The distinct ways in which male and female students linked and engaged with the practices of knowledge and authority, can be clearly seen in the distinct styles they tended to adopt when giving class presentations, since it was during class presentations that students were given the opportunity to take on the role of academic authority in the classroom. Most commonly, students worked in same-sex groups, a separation generally instigated by the girls, who considered the boys to be lazy or poor workers, “always doing the minimum,” as one girl put it. The girls’ attitudes were no secret, and the boys themselves told me that the girls didn’t want to work with them for those reasons. When I asked them if it were true, they would shrug nonchalantly. “Maybe. Who knows?”  If none of the male students protested or denied the girls’ characterization, it may have been because the quality of studiousness (as opposed to intelligence) was feminized through its association with obedience.

Often female students would prepare posters or diagrams for class presentations, which they would tape onto the blackboard and refer to in the course of their talk. These would be meticulously drawn up, with more attention given to the visual image than to the content, the latter often nothing more than an enumeration of the points they were required to review in their presentation. As a girl talked, she would point meekly to the poster, trying in her shy way to imitate the gestures of her teachers. Most girls gave their presentations with their heads buried in prepared texts, mumbling inaudibly. The reports themselves — though never anything more than the compilation of passages excerpted from various texts — displayed a lot of hard work. But the presentations displayed a total lack of confidence; one could feel the girl’s embarrassment (pena) as she stood before the class, red in the face, trying not to stumble over her words.

Male students, by contrast, consistently did less work, while presenting their material with the utmost confidence, often bordering on bravado. An all-male group of students would rarely take the trouble to prepare posters or diagrams. They chose instead to scribble key words on the blackboard with a spontaneity that displayed an apparent mastery of the information they were presenting, and a casual confidence that conveyed their complete authority. In class presentations girls were inhibited by the social practices they were learning that encouraged a shy, demure demeanor, and that rewarded them for obedience and subservience to male authority, never the assumption of that authority. But boys were able to bring the showmanship they were mastering on the street into the classroom, and in doing so practiced the use of knowledge in the construction of authority.

These displays did not necessarily earn the male students the grades they were seeking. Teachers certainly appeared to be onto them, although a few women teachers had the reputation of being softer on the boys and were occasionally accused by girls of giving the male students grades they didn’t deserve. But most teachers rigidly graded class presentations on whether they included the stipulated content or not; if the content wasn’t there, neither was the grade. Teachers would often announce and even explain the students’ grades at the end of the presentation. (Grading in general was a very public affair, and course grades were posted alongside students’ names on the school walls at the end of each term.)  And while I occasionally heard teachers mark down a student’s oral report a point or two (on a scale of 20) because they weren’t happy with some aspect of the student’s performance (as opposed to the content), girls were never chastised for a meek performance, while boys were gently, almost teasingly criticized for attempting to disguise a weak presentation with a lot of showmanship. It was as though the teacher was uncomfortable reining in the boys’ masculine practices which, while quite appropriate in centain contexts, in the classroom were out of context and thus improper.

Those male students who succeeded in secondary school had learned to integrate the discipline and obedience required of that setting with a drive towards mastery and authority.16 As in the house, where boys acquiesced to their fathers’ authority even as they emulated that authority (and often practiced it on their sisters), successful male students acquiesced to the teacher’s authority even as they emulated it. While commonplace images of the rebellious (working class or minority) student defying authority come to mind, I witnessed very little of this in Santa Lucia, and much more in urban school classrooms in Mérida. The more common response for frustrated male students in Santa Lucia was to simply withdraw.

Of course, the rather unusual availability of fairly well-paying jobs in agriculture that did not require a higher educational degree, or even a baccalaureate, should not be ignored as a powerful incentive coaxing male students away from school. But economic factors always have to be placed in cultural perspective. Perhaps I can do so best through illustration, by comparing the stories of two teenaged boys I knew, Carlos and Victor.

Carlos was the son of farming parents, both from Santa Lucia, the father’s family having for generations farmed a smallholding located just outside town, along a hillside known as “La Porquera.”  Carlos had two older brothers and a younger sister. Both brothers had studied through 9th grade, graduating from primary school and then incorporating themselves into the family farm routine which their father was successfully expanding. Where in the past they had only been producers, Carlos’ father had decided to diversify the family economy and began dispatching produce as well — a very lucrative move on his part. Carlos’ brothers had chosen paths common among young Santa Lucian men of their generation; they counted among the hundreds from their class who had dropped out before graduating high school, knowing full well that the long and arduous path towards a university degree could not guarantee them a better livelihood than they had access to as land-owning farmers.

But somehow Carlos had gotten it in his head that he wanted to get a degree in Communication, of all things. He wanted to be a reporter or, eventually, a news broadcaster. Infected by the bug of modernity, Carlos felt that farming was not only old-fashioned, but a dead-end:  “In this country, there is no future in agriculture,” he declared to me, adding that, if one wants to be someone in life, one has to choose a modern career. In his viewpoints, Carlos was not only unusual within his family, but among his peers as well. He claimed that his interest in journalism was not monetarily, but politically motivated. Carlos was the only Santa Lucian student I knew who had an interest in politics, and the only one who listed journalism (on the survey I conducted) as his career choice.17

I met Victor because he would stop by on his way home from high school to watch my compañero painting on our front porch. He was always dressed quite well — within the parameters permitted by the school uniform — and was very chatty and self-confident for his young age of 15. We didn’t have to inquire to learn that Victor’s family was from Portugal; he was quite proud of his European background. His grandparents had come to Venezuela when Victor’s father was a child, and had made a life as merchants in Santa Lucia years ago, setting up a general store  which was now a quite upscale furniture store obviously catering to Santa Lucia’ small upper class.

Victor was anything but modest, and sometimes he would talk quite frankly about his great successes in school. He especially liked Sciences. “I am going to be a petroleum engineer, and make a lot of money,” he announced one day. And from the forcefulness and drive he displayed even at such a young age, I must say I believed him. He said he was going to go to a private university, since his parents could give him the best education possible, as he put it.

It couldn’t have been more than two months after that conversation that Victor sauntered by our house during school hours, not in uniform. I asked him whether he was taking the day off, and he announced that he was dropping out of school. I was incredulous, but didn’t have to press him to find out what had happened. Victor said that he was having problems with some of his teachers, who thought he was too outspoken in class and wanted to transfer him to another section. He, or his father — he seemed to move back and forth between the two in explaining the situation — had become very disgusted with the whole system, and decided Victor should pull out of school. “I don’t need to spend my days listening to a lot of useless chatter,” declared Carlos defiantly. Victor’s father had decided that he would work with him instead; and Victor was already planning to open his own little tourist store outside of town one day. Tourism — that’s where the money is these days, he declared, triumphantly.