Not many educational statistics are greeted with enthusiasm in Britain, and the yearly announcement that girls are doing better than boys in our secondary-school exit examinations and that more of them apply to universities is no exception. This year, 62,000 more girls than boys applied to university. Such statistics inevitably provoke various questions and worries. Is there a bias due to the presence of more women teachers than men? Are boys too apt to challenge school values and demands? Or are girls too compliant?
Melissa Benn, the mother of two high-achieving daughters, has written extensively on the subject. (Her latest book is called What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female.) She wonders whether girls who do well on exams “suppress their own questions, uncertainties, furies, hunches and passions. In short, all the things that make individuals interesting.” A mother I know consulted a teacher the other day about her daughter’s difficulties with a philosophy course. She was not taking part, apparently, in classroom discussions. “Perhaps,” the mother suggested, “she needs to develop and express her own ideas first.” “Absolutely not,” the teacher roundly replied. “She simply needs to learn the requisite chapters of her textbook and produce them on request.”
By a curious coincidence, I have just read two novels, narrated by middle-aged women, that look back on the childhood and adolescence of very clever girls who turned their backs on school when they were 16. Elena Ferrante, a mysterious Italian novelist who grew up in Naples, has written My Brilliant Friend as the first in a trilogy of novels. Her narrator, also Elena and born in the 1940s, sticks to schooling. However, Elena’s brilliant friend, Lila, marries at 16 and gives up on what might have been a way of escaping from the poverty she was born into. Instead, sex, marriage, children, biology take over. We already know from the first pages of the novel that this choice has delivered neither escape nor happiness. We don’t yet know what happened to her childhood brilliance.
The narrator of Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl, Stella, tells her own story of growing up in Bristol in relatively genteel poverty, and how at 16, finding herself pregnant by a sexually ambiguous friend who lights off to America, she forgets about reading and cleverness. In her late twenties, however, by which time she is the mother of two sons by different and absent fathers, she faces a choice: “Men or books? With relief, I chose books.” She studies for a degree, does well and then turns her back once again on study and academia to marry and become an occupational therapist.
I was not an especially clever girl at 16, but I recognize something of these girls’ experience. An interest in sex and boys always contains the possibility for girls of pregnancy and babies. By the late 1940s, when I was in my teens, many working-class girls left school at 12 or 14, and expected to earn their living at least until they married. Middle-class girls were certainly beginning to think about earning their living, even having careers. Only a minority of women went to university at all. Most of those of us who did were — perhaps without realizing it — deliberately keeping options open, vague, flexible. We knew that if we married we might have to follow our husbands to strange places and that if we had children it would be difficult to be taken seriously at work. Several wives I knew gave up their Ph.D.s because their husbands’ Ph.D.s seemed to them more important as well as more likely to deliver jobs and money. I knew girls who soared above other girls and boys intellectually. Some of them restarted their careers after childbearing. Many took up occupations that had little to do with their earlier academic successes.
I’d like to think that these novels refer to a past long gone, and perhaps they do. I also delight in the fact that girls are doing so well now, though it is difficult to do that without remembering the millions of girls whose intelligence went undeveloped, disparaged, unused, and the millions of girls all over the world for whom that is still true.