Wheaton curriculum attempts to correct gender bias in education

In the vanguard of innovation prompted by women's concerns is Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Three years ago, the faculty and administration at this all-women's college undertook a study to ''gender balance'' the curriculum.

As described by Alice F. Emerson, college president, ''gender balancing'' starts with the assumption that it ''is important to understand and appreciate the history and heritage of contributions from both men and women.

''The premise of gender balance is that education has been biased toward presenting men's contributions over women's.

''This hasn't happened because anyone had particularly evil designs, but rather because, historically, men have been responsible for education and therefore for telling men what men did.''

She says the perspective Wheaton officials hope to achieve through gender balancing is vital to a woman's education because ''you are hampered in conceiving what you can do or in having a sense of self-worth if you have no sense of what you've contributed before.''

To undertake this project, the Wheaton president observed, ''in a sense, you begin to redefine the notion of a contribution. But an even trickier question is what is history? Is it wars and politics and church? Is it what everybody does? Is what everybody does equally valid? And how do we know?

''This isn't necessarily just bringing new knowledge to bear, but asking questions about the canons themselves.''

She observed that this principle applies to all disciplines.

''Why, for instance, is painting a fine art and stitchery not?

''In psychology, some of our people have undertaken to ask some of the most difficult questions. For most people, the male model is the norm. Female experience is viewed as a variation on that model.

''They have to go back and ask all over again, is this a proper foundation upon which to build psychology? If women were viewed as free-standing agents, would we have to re-evaluate everything we think?''

She added that these are ''terribly exciting and difficult questions, but there is a rich history to be uncovered and incorporated into our curriculum.''

Wheaton College is sponsoring a colloquium entitled ''Moving toward a Balanced Curriculum,'' June 22-24. Wheaton officials will present the conclusions of their three-year study to representatives from colleges and universities from all over North America.

For more information, contact Dr. Bonnie Spanier, Wheaton College, Norton, Mass. 02766, (617) 285-7722.

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