Dear Dr. Fournier:
I am attaching a picture of some pieces of clothing that Forever 21 and J.C. Penny have released for sale. What do you think these kinds of slogans say about the state of education in this country?
“Allergic to Algebra” and “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.”
It’s come to this. As of 2009, the United States ranks behind seventeen countries in mathematics, boasting a proficiency rating of around twenty seven percent, according to PISA (Program for International Student Assessment):
“PISA describes six mathematics literacy proficiency levels ranging from level 1 to level 6, the most advanced. Twenty-seven percent of U.S. students scored at or above proficiency level 4. This is lower than the 32 percent of students in the OECD countries on average that scored at or above level 4. At level 4 students can “complete higher order tasks” such as “solving problems that involve visual or spatial reasoning…in unfamiliar contexts.” Twenty-three percent of U.S. students scored below level 2.”
These sobering statistics match up beautifully with the encouragement we are seeing from J.C. Penny and Forever 21 to strive for academic excellence.
The availability of these items in stores met with outrage from consumers. They had plenty to say about the gender stereotypes presented as well as how they are both outdated and have been proven to be inaccurate. As a result, the stores in question have pulled the product and issued an apology.
While the debate over the sale of these items has ended, history has shown that we can expect this issue to rear its ugly head again in the future. Why? Because there is a designer, somewhere in fashionland who will think that designs that incorporate these stereotypes are “funny,” or “cute,” and they will be approved for production by another clueless individual who feels they have the potential to sell.
Stereotype and gender wars will usually rise to the top of the list for those who find apparel like these examples to be degrading. My reaction to seeing these items on the shelves was twofold: one of horror, and one of sadness. I was sad that there are still enough people who believe there is a target audience of women and girls out there who associate these stereotypes with themselves. The horror came from the evidence that much of the population who adheres to these clichés is obviously statistically illiterate. I was reminded of The 100 Girls Project– a study used by the Boys Initiative – which was explained by Ali Carr-Chellman in a TED Talk presentation:
- For every 100 girls suspended from school, there are 250 boys suspended.
- For every 100 girls expelled from school, there are 355 boys expelled.
- For every 100 girls in special education, there are 217 boys in special education.
- For every 100 girls with a learning disability, there are 276 boys with a learning disability.
- For every 100 girls diagnosed with emotional disturbance, there are 324 boys diagnosed with emotional disturbance.
- For every 100 girls with a learning disability, there are 276 boys with a learning disability. These numbers are even higher if you happen to be black, if you happen to be poor, or if you happen to attend an overcrowded school.
- Boys are 4 times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.
In addition to this, and as the statistics mentioned above have shown, the girls are showing more fortitude, resiliency, and overall scholastic competence at present than the boys. This is not to say that the boys are not as capable of scholastic achievement – there have been a number of plausible theories on why boys are struggling – it is to say that there is no reason to encourage stupidity in the gender that is having more immediate success.
What to do
Statistics dating back over ten years show literacy rates at alarming lows, and that most in college can’t handle complex tasks (like comparing and contrasting two different editorials). It’s fairly evident that we don’t need to contribute to this illiteracy by celebrating stupidity, air-headedness, and or fostering the idea that beautiful and smart cannot be found in the same person at the same time.
Concerned parents and consumers seem to have taken the bull by the horns on this issue, petitioning and demanding that these items be removed from the shelves and their production discontinued. The response from the stores was positive and to their credit they were willing to recognize and address the wishes of the public. However, the fact that this was an issue at all shows how far we have to go as a country to reinvent the attitudes present concerning education if we are to be competitive globally in the future.