Sink schools?

May 17, 2002

The education that produced the overeducated, unhappy, lonely Bridget Jones generation of women must be rethought, James Tooley (above) tells Jennifer Wallace, and girls should be steered on an alternative path towards marriage, motherhood and domestic nirvana.

"Oh God, why am I so unattractive? Can't believe I convinced myself I was keeping the entire weekend free to work when in fact I was on permanent date-with-Daniel standby. Hideous, wasted two days glancing psychopathetically at the phone and eating things. Why hasn't he rung? Why?" (Bridget Jones' Diary)

According to James Tooley, professor of education policy at Newcastle University, we have bred a generation of Bridget Joneses, women who are trained to work but whose preoccupation is with finding a husband and producing children. Overeducated and underloved, these women are supposedly dissatisfied with their lives, worrying, like Bridget, about dying alone and being discovered two weeks later half-eaten by alsatians. The answer, says Tooley, is to rethink the education of women and to encourage them in the alternative path towards marriage and motherhood.

After a series of phone calls, Tooley and I decide to meet on neutral territory, which is neither where I am pursuing my career nor the gentleman's club where Tooley resides when he is in London. "I don't mind hostility if we can have an intelligent discussion about it," says Tooley, 42, unmarried, with no children and identified at the cafe by his copy of the Daily Telegraph.

Maybe because I am feeling particularly upbeat, we begin by talking about women's unhappiness. I wonder who these unfulfilled women are. "There's a lot of research that points to certain dissatisfactions among a group of women. Even if it's not many women, it's still a point worth addressing."

And were women not depressed in the past? Tooley is defensive, conceding that the Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir feminist revolution was motivated by the experience of witnessing housewives addicted to valium, but adding that "it was not quite as bad as those equality feminists suggested it was".

Apparently, girls and women, in progressing ever further up the education ladder in traditional men's subjects such as maths and science, are doing something that is not natural to them. Primarily women have a home-making instinct, Tooley believes, and to distort this with education and training, which is designed for male priorities in work, is to betray their chances for happiness.

"I'm wondering whether educating girls in one particular way may in the long term be oppressive," Tooley says. "Men and women are different and are likely to have different aspirations and ways of preferred working."

So what are male aspirations? "Men want to be responsible fathers, providers for the family. They want to find a place in which they are valued in the world."

The problem is that now that women have careers and can earn enough money for themselves, men no longer feel needed. So men are unhappy about the new generation of independent women. "Men are dissatisfied with the way their career wives and partners are," Tooley maintains. And he confesses:

"Obviously I'm a man myself and I've had experiences that have also influenced this opinion."

He is coy and refuses to be drawn on this. But it soon becomes clear that Tooley's book is less about the supposed dissatisfaction of women and more about the anxieties of men. One man's anxiety, in fact. Take the example of Cherie Blair. We start to talk about whether the prime minister's wife would be happier as a QC or as a full-time mother. But Tooley rushes to assure me that he is not really interested in her happiness but in what her independent career means for Tony's ego. "I wonder how many men saw Tony Blair (after Leo was born) and thought of him thinking 'am I inadequate as a man if I can't support my wife when she has a child?'."

What Cherie should do, to ensure that Tony stays sweet, is to copy the model of the great economist Milton Friedman's wife, who, though just as intelligent as her husband, gave up her career after marriage to devote her time to raising their children and looking after him. If she had persisted in her career, Tooley thinks, then Friedman quite possibly would have failed to win the Nobel prize or would have lost his attraction for her, or both. "He just didn't want to feel threatened in his career. That's an aspect of male psychology."

But if men persist in feeling that they should be the breadwinners of the family and are intimidated by wives who rival them in the public sphere of work, then surely this is the root of the problem. If any re-education is required, it is men who should be urged to adapt to the new environment of equal opportunities and equal rewards. Tooley is not prepared to concede. "Though they can be re-educated, of course, it is likely to make them miserable as well."

So the proposals Tooley has for the alternative education of women are all designed to make them more attractive to the traditional male. While he would not force them to learn cooking and sewing, he would not object if more girls wanted to learn domestic science. "If, as part of the educational experience as preparation for adult life, girls want to study cookery and housekeeping, in part because they have natural propensities, then I've no problem with that."

Girls also should be given advice at school about careers in motherhood or at least in postponing work until they have had children. "If you are most fertile in your 20s, why not have children when you're young and pursue a career when you are older?" At present, careers advice at school is "constrained" by the Sex Discrimination Act and advice like that is illegal. But Tooley is proposing that education should no longer be subject to the act and nor should the National Curriculum continue to be equally applicable to both sexes. Finally, he thinks that perhaps there should be special scholarships for women, which could be used at any time in their lives, for further or higher education. This would encourage them to marry first and think about education later.

"These may be only modest proposals, but I think it would have a profound impact if men and women started to realise that they may want to prioritise differently in later life." Modest proposals? To encourage women to be submissive or self-effacing and to massage their husband's egos to promote better relationships between the sexes? Tooley objects to my outburst. "I've mixed with a lot of Muslim men in India who are terrified of their wives. There's no sense in which I see that as a submissive role."

In Tooley's utopia, a mixture of Muslim India and 1950s Britain, women will devote their energies to charity work rather than to paid employment. ("A woman like Cherie Blair would be involved in all sorts of work in civil societies. Why should she be happier being a QC than being a mother and the leader of the nation's women, moving the civil society of the nation forward?") Despite the emphasis on motherhood in education, there will somehow be no single teenage mums. ("I'm stressing the importance of motherhood but within a context and those girls are missing out on the context.") And there might still be unhappiness ("no society is perfect"), but at least men might feel more cared for and valued.

And with that comforting thought, Tooley wanders back to the marble-pillared, leather-armchaired, classical sanctuary of his club and I return, clearly a frustrated cook, to my writing and my books.

Jenny Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge.

Miseducation of Women is published on May 30 by Continuum International Publishing, £16.99.

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