Claims that an inequality is socially constructed involves admitting that it arises not as a result of natural differences, but because social institutions create it; conservatives tend to avoid social construction claims because they undermine a standard conservative justification of inequality; that it reflects unequal merit, and is therefore deserved.
So I've been bemused in recent months to find conservative Americans embracing the idea that inequalities are socially constructed. Their conversion is not wholesale, as you can imagine; conservatives are responding to the data showing that in the past decade girls' academic achievement has overtaken boys'. When boys out-achieved girls, conservatives put this down to the natural inequality between them, despite the obvious ways in which social institutions suppressed girls'
achievement. Now that girls outpace boys, the cause is not natural, but social.
The conservative commentators do not deny that boys and girls are different. David Brooks, the likeable house conservative at the New York Times, appeals (a bit naively) to the brain science showing that boys'
brains develop at different rates and in different ways from girls' brains, a difference he regards as natural. But whereas their conservative predecessors regarded the natural differences between boys and girls as inequalities, the new conservative social constructivists see them as only differences.
In fact, the idea that the inequality is natural is not absurd. We know that when men and women receive roughly the same educational, health, and nutritional resources, women outlive men by three to four years. It isn't much of a stretch to imagine that when boys and girls receive roughly equal educational resources, girls outperform boys by a similar percentage. This really might be a case of natural superiority of one sex over the other.
Let's suppose, though, that the explanation is, indeed, social and not natural. Myriad social institutions - parenting, television, the internet, peers, and commercials - influence achievement. Disentangling the natural from the social influences is, as one academic points out, "incredibly difficult"; figuring out how to allocate influence among the many social institutions is harder still.
But, of course, our conservatives have it all figured out; schools are to blame. Boys, they say, are more rumbustious, less emotionally literate, have less fine-grained colour perception, and schools should accommodate this natural difference instead of which, influenced by recent feminist teachings, they "treat boys as if they are defective girls".
Mr Brooks complains that "young boys are compelled to sit still in schools that have sacrificed playtime for test prep". This is all a far cry from the conservative teachers of my youth who thought that schools should teach self-control and self-discipline. It is also a far cry from what conservatives say about the so-called black-white score gap, for which they blame black American culture, and resist efforts of schools to accommodate cultural differences.
Is there any evidence that schools are to blame? Not really. Certainly, schooling has changed. Girls are now encouraged to do science and maths, and to think about college; and Mr Brooks is right that there is less time and space for physical and social recreation. But there's no research to the effect that girls get more or better attention from teachers.
The tendency to blame schools is all the more infuriating because, as Sara Mead, author of The Truth About Boys and Girls (www.educationsector.org), points out, the achievement gap has emerged as the achievement of both boys and girls has been rising - slowly for boys and faster for girls, but consistently for both; and boys still outperform girls (slightly) in areas such as maths and science. You could blame schools for not compensating for the effects of nature and the rest of society on the emergence of the gap, but there is no evidence that schools create it.
Now, as an old-fashioned lefty, I believe that schools should do a great deal to compensate for social and natural inequalities, so I'm delighted to see conservatives on board. I'm thrilled that the boy-girl issue has prompted them to think that society might be to blame for some inequalities. Now let them take the next step and realise that there's more to society than schools, and that society might be responsible for some other inequalities of achievement, such as those between poor kids and rich kids.
Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin