Our first experiences with the society outside of our family is when we are given the opportunity to attend school. These experiences are how we are socialized for the world around us, learning what is expected and the rules that we must adhere to. This institution of education has great influence on how we represent ourselves according to our sex, from our earliest years. Many of us probably still remember our early experiences with school, how we play at recess and with whom, these early years will be the focus to show how education is an institution for influencing gender. In his paper of the effects of the educational institution, John W. Meyer states that schools are “organized networks...which prepare individuals to act in society,” this statement shows that we, as humans, are meant to be influenced by our education. I wish to show how this network that has developed in education has heavy influences on gender and how we see it presented in society.
An institution is a society or organization founded for a particular purpose, an established law, practice, or custom according to the Oxford Dictionary. Education today is an institution because it provides a necessary function to teach children the rules of society and what their part is in that society. Through our early education, most especially kindergarten through around 6th grade, we are socialized to understand both from teachers and other students what we do according to sex, gender, social class, and race. The rules of society we learn cover not only criminal acts but also civil acts, such things as who we are expected to marry, what we should be when we grow up, and how we should act toward other human beings. These rules of society are continually fluctuating but the principle of education as an institution that is forming our thoughts and actions through socialization has always been a constant.
I can still remember my very first days of school as a 5-year old, in our class room we had a play kitchen area, a building blocks station, a reading corner and tubs full of all kinds of toys. In kindergarten it seems as if the walls of gender have not fully formed, I have witnessed and experienced many times both boys and girls playing house or playing with cars and trucks, and yet there are subtle undertones of gender separation, such as boys being the dads that leave for work when playing house and the girls “staying home” to take care of the babies. Slowly as children mature these lines, defining gender and separating male and female, thicken and solidify. Children start out with many of the same goals not realizing that the expectations for girls and boys are different, however as they attend school many of them are socialized to think that there are manly things, such as football and wood shop, and then there are womanly things, such as home ec, and cheerleading. Did our teachers really teach us this, that we can only become what is okay for our gender? Or is it the context of education that teaches us these things? In looking at the socialization of education it seems that perhaps it is more teachings of other students that lead us to believe that there are these boundaries for males and females. It is the expectations of their peers that drive most children to do the things that they do, from chorus to student government, this is the way we are socialized to believe in the differences between males and females. In watching and interacting with school aged children today, we can still here the effects of gendered differences, such as the little girl that told me she could not be friends with a little boy because he was a boy and her friends would think she was weird.
How do we show this little girl that it does not matter that he is a little boy, she can still be friends with him? This is a problem that many social scientist have addressed in recent years, how to help the institution of education treat both males and females equally. While schools are making changes in regards to the treatment of everyone, such as requirements of shop and home ec for everyone, there is still much that needs to be done. Perhaps starting in the early years of school to express that an individual may do anything as long as they put their minds to it. Another option might be a more equal focus of male and female historical figures, maybe a study of the women's movement and the thoughts and feelings behind it. We often hear discussions about George Washington in regards to the Revolution and about Abraham Lincoln in regards to the abolitionist movement, and then a little bit spent of the women of these times and maybe touch on the 19th amendment. These small modifications might help to show both girls and boys that they are both able to do whatever they wish.
Through the education systems we are taught the important social skills to become successful individuals. However, often times the institution of education may express that we must specialize in certain skills based on our sex or gender. As children we are influenced in this setting by both our teachers and more specifically our peers, we tend to place much stock in the opinions of others. Improving education is not an easy thing to do because it must be universal and able to be enforced in schools of all classes and in all places, possibly starting with some small things such as a slight change in curriculum could aid in this endeavor. There is no simple or immediate fix that will take out the gendered issues associated with education but continuing on this path of equality will help individuals realize their abilities to become or to do anything they wish as long as they are willing to work for it.
Meyer, John W. 1977. The effects of education as an institution. American Journal of Sociology 83, no. 1 (July).