June 13, 2006

God, Brooks drives me crazy

Brooks's latest column is all about how the brains of males and females are fundamentally different, as seen through the prism of their different literary choices, and that therefore feminism is wrong. However, what drives me crazy about this column is not its idiotic premise but the combination of Brooks's fundamental dishonesty and complete inability to construct an argument that makes sense. So for today's piece, I'm going to completely ignore the question of whether or not feminism is wrong -- or, more specifically, whether teaching girly books to boys is driving them away from education -- and focus purely on the basic dishonesties and idiocies of Brooks's argument.

Brooks starts off by talking about how airport bookstores are divided between men's and women's sections, leading nicely to a segue into how 400 accomplished women and 500 accomplished men in Britain were asked what their favorite novels were. The men's list was topped by The Stranger, Catcher in the Rye and Slaughterhouse-Five, while the women preferred Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Handmaid's Tale, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and Beloved. First of all, Brooks claims that the two lists diverge "starkly". Of course, it helps that he provides twice as many books from the women's list as the men's. Three titles is hardly enough to establish a pattern, and one wonders what the next few books on the men's list were, and for that matter on the women's list as well. Of course, since Brooks fails to mention where this study of the favorite books of accomplished people was published, it's impossible to check. (Brooks also claims that the books on the women's list are better than those on the men's list, a contention that a) largely a matter of taste (has he ever read "Middlemarch"?); and b) would seem to undercut the whole point of his column, inasmuch as he is, I suppose, an accomplished man, or at any rate the kind of guy who could easily end up in a survey like this, but would not be putting up stereotypically male novels). It would also be nice to know what kind of criteria define the people on this list and how they were chosen, not to mention how many novels each was allowed to select and whether the mentioned works won out by large or small margins (and if they form a large or small percentage of the total number of selections) but this kind of detail, which would allow us to evaluate just how accurate this list actually is as a basis for sociological criticism, is clearly not something that Brooks would even think of offering.

Having given us a datum that is essentially meaningless and possibly cherry-picked, Brooks then presents several explanations: "It could be men are insensitive dolts who don't appreciate subtle human connections and good literature. Or, it could be that the part of the brain where men experience negative emotion, the amygdala, is not well connected to the part of the brain where verbal processing happens, whereas the part of the brain where women experience negative emotion, the cerebral cortex, is well connected. It could be that women are better at processing emotion through words." Somehow, Brooks fails to mention any social explanations, even though there are two obvious ones. All the novels given by women are by women authors, but it hardly seems unusual that "accomplished" women would see prominent female authors as potential role models and also be attracted to novels featuring female characters in a society where sexism has hardly been eliminated (note, for example, that 100 fewer accomplished women than men were interviewed for this survey). Again, it would also be nice to know what these women are accomplished at, how old they are, etc., etc., to determine the likelihood of this explanation: if they're female athletes, for instance, we would probably dismiss it. It also seems rather likely that social pressures would tend to force women to give a list of "womanly" books as their favorites. I'm not even going to comment on potential explanations for the male list, as three works is far too small a sample size.

Brooks follows up with this: "Over the past two decades, there has been a steady accumulation of evidence that male and female brains work differently. Women use both sides of their brain more symmetrically than men. Men and women hear and smell differently (women are much more sensitive). Boys and girls process colors differently (young girls enjoy an array of red, green and orange crayons whereas young boys generally stick to black, gray and blue). Men and women experience risk differently (men enjoy it more)." Now, the first sentence here may well be true, but there is absolutely no way to tell from the rest of the paragraph. "Women use both sides of their brain more symmetrically than men": this is so vague as to be almost meaningless. Differences in hearing and smelling may well exist, but it's unclear what connection this has to intellectual/emotional questions. Boys and girls may well process colors differently, but again, what is the connection to questions of intellect and emotion, and why should I believe that young girls enjoying bright, girlish colors while boys prefer sober, manly ones has nothing to do with social conditioning? And finally, with the amazing revelation that men enjoy risk more, something which is certainly strongly connected to social conditioning, we have essentially abandoned any pretence of presenting evidence that the brains of men and women are structured differently. There is, in fact, exactly one piece of real evidence in this entire article: "Women who have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which leads to high male hormone secretions, are more likely to choose violent stories than other women." And even this doesn't tell us much: how much more likely? Is it significant? Can we have a citation? This being a rhetorical question, of course: this is a Brooks column, after all.

Next, watch this rhetorical sleight of hand: we start one paragraph with "It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture." Then suddenly we move to "This wouldn't be a problem if we all understood these biological factors and if teachers devised different curriculums to instill an equal love of reading in both boys and girls." Note how the "could" in the first sentence has been dropped: all of a sudden, this conclusion is no longer questionable, and we wonder instead why teachers are so reluctant to use this obvious fact. The problem, according to Brooks, is that "there is still intense social pressure not to talk about biological differences between boys and girls" and "resistance, especially in the educational world, to the findings of brain researchers" (as well as an obligatory shoutout to Larry Summers). This may be true, but there's no way to know: Brooks presents no data to suggest that such is the case, or even that the findings of brain researchers have direct classroom applicability. Essentially, he is asserting that genetics forces men and women to have fundamentally different tastes in literature based on his survey of airport bookstores, a survey of 900 people in England, and one scientific result from an uncited paper.
And it gets worse. "Despite some innovations here and there, in most classrooms boys and girls are taught the same books in the same ways." Brooks tantalizes us with the suggestion that teaching different works of literature to boys and girls has been tried. Did it work? If not, why not? These questions are obvious ones to explore, but apparently they never occurred to Brooks.

Having made his contempt for the idea of supporting one's argument with data very clear, Brooks goes suddenly changes topics. "Young boys are compelled to sit still in schools that have sacrificed recess for test prep." Where is the connection between what books males are wired to prefer and the absence or presence of recess? Luckily, the next sentence makes it all clear: "Many are told in a thousand subtle ways they are not really good students." What this means is that Brooks is not really worried about whether schools are considering innate genetic preference for certain types of books: he is afraid that feminism has taken over the public schools. When he is unable to prevent his real worries from emerging, the result is even more intellectual incoherence than usual. Brooks manages to wrench himself back to the topic at hand by complaining about "new-wave young adult problem novels". Personally, I'm not a fan of these either. But Brooks makes no attempt to really address them, dismissing them by saying that they "all seem to be about introspectively morose young women whose parents are either suicidal drug addicts or fatally ill manic depressives." This is nice and cutting, but hardly counts as evidence: Brooks can't even supply one measly title. It's also worth noting that this attempt to get back on track just further amplifies the incoherence, as Brooks begins the paragraph complaining about a lack of recess and therefore elementary schools, while he ends by bemoaning education at the middle school level or above (unless Brooks's high school had recess: that might explain a lot, actually).

Now we move beyond school: "It shouldn't be any surprise that according to a National Endowment for the Arts study, the percentage of young men who read has plummeted over the past 14 years. Reading rates are falling three times as fast among young men as among young women." So says Brooks. (Note that he doesn't say whether this refers to fiction, books, or all reading, but for the sake of simplicity I'll assume that it does mean that young men don't read much fiction any more.) I say, what about video games and computers? I have, admittedly, no evidence (which puts me on par with Brooks), but it seems to me that there is a good chance that consumer electronics take up far more of the average young man's time than they did in 1992. Meanwhile, that young women don't play video games is practically a truism, and although the computer=nerd=not womanly equation is no longer really true, using computers a lot is still considered more of a male thing. And, of course, gender roles have always pushed boys away from reading books, as anyone who was a bookish boy can probably testify. There is further bad news: "men are drifting away from occupations that involve reading and school." Well, make that occupation, as Brooks only mentions teaching: "Men now make up a smaller share of teachers than at any time in the past 40 years." This particular piece of data is relatively meaningless: what we really want to know is a trend. After all, if the percentage of teachers who are male has been essentially constant over the past 40 years with just one dip now, it is impossible to infer anything (I could look it up, but I'm not the one who's worried about this, Brooks is).

Next, we bring up one Dr. Leonard Sax and his book Why Gender Matters. Incidentally, this brings us to the root of the column: Brooks read Sax's book and decided to write a column about it. Most likely, the various facts presented here without citations are simply blindly copied from the book. Sax is a "family physician and psychologist from Maryland", strangely enough, rather than a neuroscientist and brain expert, as one would expect from Brooks's talking up of "brain studies". Someone has probably debunked him somewhere, but I'm too lazy to check. Sax is apparently also big on single-sex schools: they'd be separate but equal! Well, his actual argument (according to Brooks) is that they would allow students to break free from gender stereotypes. This may be the case, but it seems a little strange given that his reading recommendations for boys appear to be dictated strictly by gender stereotypes.

Those reading recommendations propose that boys (presumably in high school) be given more Hemingway, Tolstoy, Homer, and Twain. I imagine that many high-school age boys would disagree. It's also worth noting that my parents made me read all these AND Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters, and I somehow managed to enjoy all of them (well, not Middlemarch so much, or Hemingway either). It's a wonder my poor male brain didn't melt down. Also, Tolstoy seems a little out of place here: Anna Karenina, for instance, is all about relationships and emotions and all of those touchy-feely things that boys hate, and so is War and Peace, really, though there is a war going on in the background. It's also worth noting that my ultra-progressive public high school in the People's Republic of Cambridge had me read the Iliad (or possibly the Odyssey: it was freshman year), The Stranger, and also Moby-Dick (which probably should be in there instead of Tolstoy). Brooks's head would probably explode. Anyway, I enjoyed those books, but I don't recall the other boys in my classes giving hosannas of praise for their long-awaited deliverance from the tyranny of Pride and Prejudice to the sweet embrace of the poetry of the ancient Greeks and 800-page novels about a man chasing a whale.

Also, there is more to school than reading fiction, as I recall. There is, for starters, math and science and history and foreign languages, none of which involve reading fiction (except for foreign languages, but there the books that are read are dictated by readability more than anything else). Perhaps there are significant male-female differences here too, but if so, it would be nice if Brooks mentions them: it seems a bit much to believe that boys are being driven from schools in droves simply because they find the fiction assigned in English class boring. Even English class also contains writing, grammar, and reading non-fiction and poetry. And, while Brooks probably doesn't remember high school that well, I only graduated six years ago, and I can assure him that most of the class, male and female, thought that all the assigned books were boring, with Jane Eyre bringing the exact same amount of revulsion, with essentially the same gender breakdown, as The Return of the Native or Native Son. This last is, of course, of no evidentiary value -- anecdotes of my high school experience are not data points -- but Brooks has this unfortunate tendency to drag others down to his level.

Finally, Brooks finishes up with a jab at feminism and "consciousness-raising". The connection between feminism and consciousness-raising and the schools has not been established, making the value of this last paragraph somewhat questionable, but at least it confirms what we earlier surmised: Brooks's main concern is attacking feminism, not providing an objective study of how different brain types in different genders affect preferences in literature. One can only wonder why Brooks neglected to attack multiculturalism and the teachers union in an effort to hit for the conservative bemoaning-the-state-of-modern-education cycle.

It could be argued that I'm not being entirely fair to Brooks here. After all, he only has a 900-word column: how can he fit in all the details, citations, and statistics that I demand? The answer is, of course, that if he can't fit them in, he should drop the points that require their support. He could then replace the lost claims with more details about his other claims, or simply allow his columns to shrink, possibly to haiku form, in which case there's a slight chance they might be worth reading. But I doubt it.