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

How Girls Get Pregnant and Boys Get Jobs: Patriarchy (Re)Vindicated?

The attention in critical ethnographies of schooling to the dynamics of minority school failure emerged as part of the general effort within critical research on education to theorize and document the mechanisms by which education, as a state ideological apparatus, reproduced social inequalities, while maintaining an ideology of equality of access and opportunity.  An unfortunate consequence was the conceptualization of failure as an almost structurally induced norm, thereby establishing the frame for more recent examinations of minority school achievement as the study of meaningful exceptions.18Many of these studies have also been limited by their rather unproblematic assumptions regarding the meaning of so-called school achievement and school failure. Here I am referring to what these mean to students as lived experiences which create and reflect subjectivity, social identity, and a sense of one’s future and thus one’s history. But I am also referring to the implications of success or failure for students in terms of their life’s course. When reproduction theorists claim that the school as an institution operates in the interests of dominant groups, they not only assume that its organization, its overt and hidden curricula promote dominant students’ success within school, but that these structures also work in tandem with the class language (Bernstein 1974), predispositions, or “habitus” (Bourdieu 1967; Bourdieu & Passeron 1977) of students of the dominant class, race, or sex, to promote their success as adults.

But the nature of learning and its relationship to power and authority in Santa Lucia were such that going to school not only reinforced young women’s passivity and acquiescence to male authority, it also attuned them, through the vehicle of formal knowledge, to the rewards of obedience and discipline. Ironically, because young women did not have to challenge socially acceptable gender practices and identities in order to achieve academically, the school diffused what might have been a more contestatory context, discouraging their resistance. In the short run, at least, neither official ideologies regarding education and opportunity, nor local gender ideologies, were contradicted in girls’ schooling experiences.

I say in the short run because, as Xiomara’s story illustrates, young women’s academic success in high school did not guarantee them a place in the State’s mythic narrative of egalitarian progress, or in a nuclear family that this narrative both presupposed and presumed to create. In sad and often brutal contrast to the idyllic dreams young secondary school graduates had of a work life and family life in which so many conflicting gender arrangements and expectations were reconciled or erased, for more than a few young women their secondary school successes set them along a tumultuous life course laden with conflicts and sacrifices. Such has been Delia’s story.

Delia’s Story

Delia was a young Santa Lucian woman whom I met after she had graduated from the Liceo Parra and had begun her university studies in English at the Universidad de los Andes in Mérida. She was back in Santa Lucia for the Christmas holidays, and her mother brought her by my house to ask whether I could help her with her English studies over vacation. We arranged a few study sessions, and later, when I moved down to Mérida to teach at the university, Delia attended the English classes I was giving to a few faculty friends as well.

Delia’s high school story resembled that of Xiomara. But Delia had managed to weather the year’s wait to enter a university program sexually unscathed. (According to the unwittingly ironic gossip in town, Delia had been “luckier” than Xiomara because her mother was at home taking care of (cuidando) her children, while Xiomara’s mother was off working somewhere, neglecting (descuidando) her children!)  But if Delia did not give up her virginity, she gave up her professional ideals. Delia had wanted to enroll in a Nursing program, but there were no openings. So she switched to English, not out of any particular interest, but because her grades were good and she didn’t want to waste another year out of school.

Delia was a very nice, excruciatingly timid young woman who spoke looking at the ground, in a nearly inaudible whisper. She was rather exceptional in her indifference to her physical appearance. She wore baggy, unbecoming clothes, no makeup except for an occasional faint stroke of lipstick, and rarely pinned her hair up. She was a very studious and diligent young woman. But she was having an incredibly difficult time at the university. One evening after sitting in on my English class, she lingered to talk. After a year in the English program, she was coming to the decision that it wasn’t for her. She was obviously very tentative about her decision, and was looking to me for guidance. I asked her what her parents thought. She said that her father left those decisions to her mother, as long as she didn’t waste her time and the family money switching back and forth between careers, as some students were known to do. Meanwhile, her mother was encouraging her to follow through with the program she started in, more for reasons of principle than practicality. “You should always finish what you start,” was Delia’s mother’s rule of thumb.

I listened as Delia debated whether to transfer to a different department within her College (Facultad), or attempt to get a place in another College altogether. She had her eyes on Nursing, but knew she didn’t have high enough grades to get a place. It occurred to her that if she did well in her Humanities classes she could attempt to transfer to Nursing in a year or two. I was reluctant to advise her, and felt that the terms by which I was always encouraged to make this kind of decision — always study what you are most inspired by and to hell with practicalities — was underwritten by a certain comfort and flexibility my class position afforded, and which Delia didn’t have. We tossed her various options about, and reached the tentative conclusion that, whatever she did she should stay in school because, given the “situation,” one never knew whether one could study for a degree “in some future.”

A few weeks later Delia passed by the Residencia to return a book I had lent her, all aglow, and accompanied by her “friend,” a young man she had met in her Spanish Literature class. They were just passing through, but Delia informed me of her decision to transfer into the Literature program, how much she loved her studies, and how relieved she was to have given up the English degree. For quite a while after this brief visit I heard nothing from Delia, and chalked it up to budding romance.

Several months went by, and I finally gave Delia a visit. She immediately excused herself for not having stopped by: she was embarrassed but she had had a lot of problems with her studies and was trying to improve her grades before the end of the school year so that she wouldn’t fail her classes. She seemed frantic, distracted, and very embarrassed. I asked her if everything was alright. There was a long pause, a sigh, and then Delia’s quiet confession spilled out. She had had a lot of conflicts with her “friend,” leading to their break up. The ensuing conversation was brief, but I didn’t have to hear much to recognize a familiar scenario. As Delia’s relationship with her friend became more serious, the two began to talk about marriage and their future. The more they talked, the more he began to insinuate that once they married she should give up her schooling, have children, and stay home to raise them.

Delia said, rather reflectively, that, even though she didn’t really know what she wanted to study, she knew she didn’t want to give it up. So she gave him up. She seemed sad but resolute. And I found myself greatly admiring this modest young Santa Lucian woman whose quiet reserve belied an unusual amount of inner strength. Our conversation led her to a rare spontaneous reflection on her own life.
I was always a good student, and I always liked to study. I knew that if I worked hard I could get good grades. I thought that all you needed to go the university, to get ahead (superarse), was to apply yourself. But now I see that the high school didn’t prepare me for anything...And  you know, the university men in the city are just as machistas as the campesino men in the pueblo .... But I know that my mother would be so disappointed if I don’t finish my degree.

Critical educational studies have shown us quite convincingly that those practices which from the perspective of the dominant culture constitute school failure, may from the perspective of the marginal or subcultural groups to which certain youth belong, constitute a kind of achievement (cf. McDermott 1971) or a form of cultural resistance (Willis 1977) and accrue a measure of status for those youth among their peers, the minority community with which they identify, and even parents. This literature provides interesting counter-interpretations to conventional understandings of school failure, as part of a more general effort to examine and analyze “the relationship among the secondary cultures and their articulation with the dominant school culture and each other” (Giroux 1992:28). A complementary literature taking on the difficult task of linking gender and class reproduction through schooling, has similarly shown how working class girls’ resistance to the school, “which involves the celebration of working class definitions of masculinity and femininity ... undermine neither the sexual nor the social division of labour” (MacDonald 1981: 83).

Meanwhile, alongside the ingenuous (and finally ineffective) acts of so-called “tacit resistance”19 practiced by underclass students, we catch glimpses in these studies of students of the dominant class (or sex) rather unproblematically reproducing their own social positions and corresponding ideologies. Even as critical ethnographers of schooling explore complex and contradictory implications of school failure as practices through which students both resist and reproduce a particular hegemony and their marginal location within it, few ethnographies of education have looked with equal probity at how it occurs and what it means for the dominant to fail and the sub-altern to succeed.20

In Santa Lucia, both the general trends in student achievement, fly in the face of any simple calculus that would predict — either causally or dialectically — a patterned relationship between students’ school experiences and their social locations, in the formation of individuals’ adult lives. If the academic practices of Liceo Parra’s secondary school students have shed light on the unobvious ways in which hegemonic relations can be reproduced in the school, the stories of those students as they move beyond high school to become adults, remind us that the gender lessons students learn while in high school leave long, lasting, and often unexpected trails.