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The Observer Aug. 25 

The Observer fears for the middle school boys of Jacksonville. On the advice of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, the school board has decided to plunk them in rooms cooled to 69 degrees F., where teachers will shout numbers at them in loud voices (except in art classes, where they’ll shout colors, maybe). Or so it seems from the report in the daily paper. We’re not so worried about the yelling, though we’ve found in our own experience that no matter how many decibels you invest in the phrase “do your homework” or “clean up your room” it falls on deaf ears. What we’re worried about is that the NASSPE folks have found out that boys like to be scared into learning. The group’s website notes that at Rutgers University, male and female animals (the website didn’t say what kind of animals) were given electrical shocks and then their learning ability was measured (it didn’t say how, but we’d guess it had something to do with food or sex). The result: The males’ learning improved. The Observer doesn’t know about you, but the idea of making the Jacksonville boys stick their fingers into sockets while learning multiplication tables seems a little extreme. Fortunately for the girls, the study said electrocution hinders their learning, and it is for this and other reasons (see “Navigation,” below) that Jacksonville has decided to return to the days when the BOYS and GIRLS entrances over the doors really meant something. We’re worried about the girls, too, though for different reasons. They’re going to be stuck in 75-degree rooms, which is about 5 degrees too many for The Observer, who, as it happens, is also a girl. But flushed cheeks aside, The Observer is more worried that, according to the director of the NASSPE (you can read all about him and his books at the same website), girls like the People magazine approach to academics. So while boys just want to calculate, girls want to know the life stories of the mathematicians who came up with the numbers. As everyone knows, mathematicians often lead scandalous lives. Take John Nash, for example. If the girls are fed the whitewashed version of his life a la the film “A Beautiful Mind,” they’ll have to relive Nash’s nearly drowning his son on the day the class takes up game theory. If they get Nash’s real story — about a guy who enjoyed torturing animals when he was a boy and who worked his equations on both sides, if you catch our drift — they might reject game theory out of hand, especially in Jacksonville, where the teachers have been known to shame those who’d work same-sex equations. On to “Navigation.” From NASSPE’s website: “Ask a woman how to get to a friend’s house, and she may tell you something like, ‘Go down Elm Street till you see the McDonald’s. Then make a left, go past the hardware store and the Exxon station, then you’ll see the elementary school. Make a right just past the elementary school and go about another block till you see a split level house painted lime green, with these unbelievable fuchsia shutters and trim, can you believe it? It looks like a gingerbread house after the mold has gotten to it. That’s their house.’ A man, giving directions to the same house, might say, ‘Go south on Elm Street about two miles, then turn left so you’re heading east on Duke Street. After one mile on Duke Street, turn south again onto Scottsdale Boulevard. Their house is the fourth from the intersection, on the left.’ See the difference?” Our own scientific research tells us that men, because they disdain people who are lost, don’t actually answer questions about how to get where. But that’s not the problem here. The problem is that we find it contradictory to NASSPE’s other concern — as expressed by its director on a visit to Jacksonville — that boys won’t grow up to be Michelangelo unless they can study art only in the company of other boys. If these same boys haven’t noticed (or won’t acknowledge) the moldy gingerbread house with the fuschia shutters, how are they going to create something as eye-catching as the David? (Especially in Jacksonville, as we said before.) Michelangelo had the fortune of being born in 1475, when girls weren’t allowed to go to school at all. Now, in 2005, girls can curl up in a sweaty ball with their Algebra II books and dream of Persia and Omar Khayyam, who managed to do math and write poetry in the balmy town of Nishapur. So that’s an advance, we guess.
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