Last month, researchers at Montana State University published the results of three studies that explored the ways in which breastfeeding mothers are objectified and judged. In the publication, Spoiled Milk: An Experimental Examination of Bias Against Mothers Who Breastfeed, they found that study participants (both male and female) considered breastfeeding mothers warmer and more caring than other women but also assumed them to be less skilled in math, less competent generally, and less desirable as potential employees.
As a feminist, a parent, and the non-lactating half of a couple that struggled with breastfeeding, I was pissed. Then, when I read that the study participants were college students, my initial anger morphed into frustrated wondering at what could possibly explain these students’ thinking. I concluded that, basically, they were not thinking at all. That really pissed me off.
I began to fume about the learning process and the intellectual aims of higher education. I started thinking up a blog post about the ways in which colleges and universities need to identify and address students’ being incorrect verses students’ being downright thoughtless. I mean, let’s face it. There’s an important difference between being mistaken and being stupid.
Then I took a deep breath and gave it some thought. True, a college education should – if nothing else! – have made these students profoundly suspicious of a question that asks them to rate a woman’s math skills when they had limited and largely irrelevant information about her. However, the studies’ participants were somewhere between young and very young. The average ages of participants in each of the three studies were 19.36, 20.2, and 22.1 years old.
Hmm. That explains a lot, actually.
The researchers justified their sample population by explaining that “[T]hey were all (on average) of childbearing age, rendering their own impressions about breastfeeding mothers important to the extent that such impressions influence personal decisions to breastfeed.”
Technically, this is true. The typical 19.36-year-old is, indeed, fertile. But we have to consider that most college sophomores do not consider themselves to be of childbearing age and probably have not given much serious thought to the concrete challenges of parenthood and breastfeeding. And, by the way, there is a pretty good reason that we don’t see many 20.2-year-old hiring managers in professional America. As for rating someone's general competence... how many of these participants have substantive experience identifying and counteracting institutionalized sexism? These issues are -- as yet -- distant, abstract, and perhaps invisible to most freshmen and sophomores. Of course they had some ill-founded and less-than-aware responses!
(Note: Despite the foregoing criticism, I have very little hope that the results would be significantly different with a set of older, more experienced respondents. But, I have already said my bit about the grown-ups in this country and their outrageous lack of awareness, lack of serious engagement, and general disinterest in factual statements.)
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There are many things young adults may know (e.g., breastfeeding is ideal for infants) and believe (e.g., it is wrong to treat women differently than men). But, without having had the time and the opportunity to make these beliefs and knowledge part of their newly independent lives, can they truly understand them? Isn’t college, in part, about having those opportunities? Is it reasonable, therefore, to expect mature and balanced understanding from a 22.1-year-old who is only part way through the process?
As I asked myself these questions, I was reminded of an experience I had a few years ago. I used to work for an education policy center on campus and we hosted an event at which two faculty members outlined their latest research. A reporter from the student newspaper attended and wrote an article that appeared a few days later. The article was, in truth, pretty bad. It was filled with substantive mistakes and misunderstandings. In response, one of the presenters declared, “This person is an idiot!” To this, my co-worker replied that he prefers to emphasize that student journalists are still learning rather than choose to call them names.
He was right. Undergraduates are generally young and they are experiencing a world unlike the one they knew in childhood and early adolescence. Do they say some surprising and perplexing things? We all know they do. How many things did you do or say between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four that, in hindsight, you regret? Seriously… be honest. But that says more about what staff and faculty need to do than it says about the intelligence or quality of college students. When it comes to teaching undergraduates, we need to make sure we practice (within reason) patience, compassion, and intellectual forgiveness even when students say or write something that might be ridiculous in a different setting. It’s called teaching and learning, folks.
The results of these studies are troubling – very troubling. They demonstrate, once again, that our society’s view and treatment of women leave a lot to be desired. They suggest that colleges and universities need to put some serious weight behind their rhetoric about producing critical thinkers and just citizens. We are not living up to our ideals as institutions or as a nation.
But, from where I sit, these findings also tell us about college students. And my initial reaction says something about me and, maybe, you too. American undergraduates, like the rest of us, have a lot to learn and they need a chance, probably many many chances. They need educators who concern themselves with identifying and providing opportunities for growth rather than making knee-jerk judgments about their skills and competence.
They’re not idiots. They’re students.