Has educating girls to boys' standards really left modern women unfulfilled? Caroline St John-Brooks takes issue with James Tooley
This has been a surprisingly difficult review to write. I had already heard that James Tooley, the enfant terrible of education professors, had written a book which argued that 21st-century women would be happier and more fulfilled if they stayed at home in blissful domesticity. I was looking forward to having a go at it.
But forcing my reactions into a readable, coherent format has been difficult. Throughout my reading of this book, I have been super-conscious of my efforts to avoid knee-jerk irritation or outrage, and to give James Tooley's arguments a fair hearing. The internal dialogue of "Yes, butI", and "Well, OK, you've made your point", and "No, for God's sake, you've no idea", has been well nigh deafening.
Perhaps the most frustrating task is deciding whether or not the author is entirely serious, or if "he only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases", as Lewis Caroll would have said. If you reside on the mischievous Right, and construct a professional identity out of trailing your coat, rattling the cage of the education establishment, getting up the noses of feminists, it's difficult for the earnest reader to decide how much is serious argument, how much rhetorical flourish.
What is certain is that this book is designed to create a stir. It is a highly self-conscious work, carefully wrought to engage readers who might be coming from very different directions. Tooley's natural readership is from the Right, so, for example, he carefully explains why the use of the word "gender" is necessary as a part of his discussion - knowing that its unselfconscious use in certain circles would be the infallible sign of a dangerous lefty.
On the other hand, he disarms feminist readers by including apparently self-revelatory autobiographical elements that explain how he has come to hold the views he does. Under the rubric "the personal is political", feminist writers have done this for three decades, but it is unusual in a man.
His thesis is that we have made a mistake in attempting to educate girls to the standards of boys. Our efforts, he says, have created unhappy, unfulfilled women who have left it too late to find husbands and have children, and who yearn for the domesticity derided by feminists. Bizarrely, his main example for this phenomenon is Bridget Jones. But she's fiction, James, and satirical fiction at that. Women laugh at her, recognising their own sillinesses in her; they know that her anxieties are mostly ridiculous. She bears the same relationship to real women as Adrian Mole does to real teenagers.
More convincingly, he cites the work of Betty Friedan, the United States writer who kicked off the Sixties wave of US feminism with her book The Feminine Mystique (1963), but recanted 20 years later, uneasy that women's traditional nurturing skills were being devalued and lost. He also makes great play of the writings of Naomi Wolf, also American, but from the new generation of high achievers who have been shocked by the sticky realities of motherhood. Her experience, as documented in her books such as Misconceptions, is compelling - but Tooley loses sight of the fact that Wolf's insights and dilemmas will change as her life changes. At any given moment, they don't prove anything much (although he is right to be anxious that clever girls are so poorly prepared for being mothers).
Particularly intriguing is Tooley's apparent contempt for the male world he inhabits so successfully. In considering Naomi Wolf's piqued reaction, as a new mother, to being rudely ignored at a party by a "noted biographer", he expostulates: "One feels like shaking her and saying: stop overvaluing the world of men, there's something much more of value for you now!"
At the same time, there's an irritating "Yah, boo, sucks - you were wrong" tone to some of his musings, which he manages to control only intermittently. For example, we are told that as a result of "compulsory gender equity" boys and girls are forced to study the same subjects at school even if they might not be suited to them.
But in spite of these efforts at social engineering, he points out with glee that girls "stubbornly revert" to stereotypical choices as soon as they have the opportunity: that is, at A-level and university.
Is he seriously arguing that because maths and engineering at this level are dominated by men, and arts subjects by women, girls should be allowed to drop maths, and boys English, at the age of 14? Or 12? And what about the intriguing phenomenon that girls are more likely to do "male" subjects, and boys to choose girly ones, if they attend single-sex secondary schools? Surely a spot of social conditioning must be at work.
I disagreed passionately with much of Tooley's thesis, and felt he had set up a whole parade of Aunt Sallies to shoot down with a series of satisfying bangs. But he does engage the reader. The slipperiness of his tone, the sense that he is deeply involved at one minute and playing games the next, are part of the fascination. And he's right that domesticity and family life are undervalued compared with paid work - but the struggle to get the balance right is for men, as well as women.
One thing, though, is perfectly clear: James Tooley finds the male world of work trivial and unsatisfying, full of meaningless hierarchies and petty competitiveness. He wants to be the one who stays home and has babies.
Caroline St John-Brooks is a former editor of The TES