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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teaching, Gender Roles and Ichabod Crane

A recent national report bemoaned the lack of male teachers in the lower grades: only nine percent of elementary teachers are male, which is a 40 year low. While the percentages go up in middle and high school, children in grades K-12 are far more likely encounter women teachers than men. This disparity has various causes: teaching is traditionally “women’s work”, the education degree is perhaps not challenging enough to men, etc. Analyzing the same report, ABC Nightly News speculated that some of the problem might lie in our modern discomfort with men in close contact with children, but that most of the dilemma is based in teacher pay. Me? I blame the lack of male teachers on Washington Irving.

Irving (1783-1859) was one of our early American writers. His story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is not only a great Halloween tale, but a closer read of the narrative exposes the roots of our of current disappearing male teachers–and the prejudice and image problems they encounter still, and not just in the lower grades. In Irving’s story, Ichabod Crane is an itinerant teacher in the Dutch settlements of upstate New York in the 1790’s. He’s clever, though lazy; he’s musical, and well-liked by the ladies for his conversational skills. As Irving describes him, “Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves. . . a scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”

On his teaching circuit, Katrina Van Tassel, the “blooming” daughter of a rich farmer, catches Ichabod’s eye–but he has a competitor, another farmer named Brom Van Brunt. Irving describes Van Brunt as “. . . a burly, roaring, roystering blade. . .the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood. He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff, but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean power his nickname was Brom Bones.”

The competition between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones peaks in Sleepy Hollow itself, that eerie, fog-ridden pathway between farms wherein Crane one night encounters the headless horseman and a smashing pumpkin. Crane flees in terror, and is never seen again. Shortly after his rival’s disappearance, Irving writes, Brom Bones“. . . conducted the blooming Katrina to the altar.” While no one knows quite what happened to Ichabod Crane, whenever the story was told, Brom Bones“. . . was to look exceedingly knowing.”

As a former English professor, I was never the kind to strap a story or a poem to a chair and beat the symbolism out of it. However, the larger meaning of “Sleepy Hollow” is as clear as the "long snipe nose" on Ichabod’s face: the intellectual, artistic and articulate male is vanquished by the brute force of a “roistering” macho man–or, as we say nowadays, a man’s man. In a nutshell, the male teacher does not measure up, and is run out of town.

Literature provides other, more modern examples of the uncertain role of the male teacher. In his first adult novel, Staggerford, Minnesota’s Jon Hassler provides a striking portrait of the ambivalence with which the male high school English teacher is regarded. “The women of Staggerford tended to overestimate [male] teachers’ intelligence, while the men of Staggerford tended to underestimate their ambition,” Hassler writes early on in the novel. The main character, mild-manner Miles, is crowded and dogged by the football Coach, Mr. Gibbon (no small symbolism there), in a competition not unlike that of Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones.

The stereotype of the male teacher as less than masculine persists to the college and university level. Once, many years ago at Bemidji State University where I spent my teaching career, the campus ROTC cadets were rappelling from the roof of the library. One of them, a young woman, spotted me walking by. “Hey Professor Weaver, want to try?” she called from the roof top. “Bet you don’t dare.” I waved politely and passed by. I didn’t mention that I had been a member of the University of Minnesota skydivers club back in the day.

This whole tug and pull of male identity reared a more disturbing face in a recent Star Tribune front page article on National Guard member, Staff Sergeant Chad Malmberg, 27. For his valor in an Iraq firefight, he was awarded the Silver Star. Now in college at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Malmberg was portrayed as a “different kind of student” in contrast to the “slackers in their flip-flops” hanging around the campus. No disrespect to Sgt. Malmberg, but I always found those “slackers” (true slackers don’t go to college) to be some of the best students: open-minded, curious about ideas, willing to learn, and courageous in their opinions. They had a different kind of courage than Mr. Malmberg–the ability to make hard decisions about service to their country based on a different set of assumptions: that joining the Peace Corps, or teaching in an inner city American school would be a good–or even better–contribution to America than fighting in a misbegotten war in Iraq. Governor Pawlenty called Malmberg a “true hero, no doubt about it.” Malmberg himself said he felt like a hero “just putting on the uniform.”

Brom Bones, in his clever trick on Ichabod Crane, wore the cape of a headless, revolutionary war soldier. In real life, however, there are plenty of men who don’t feel the need to wear a uniform to feel like a man. Reid Benson, 24, and a friend of our family, is serving in the Peace Corp in Cameroon. His village, as Joseph Conrad might say, is in "darkest Africa"; it has no electricity, and candles and kerosene lamps, and bed bugs in his mattress are his daily life. He's teaching there, and says that the villagers still have a great respect, even love, for America; when his "tour" is done, he will have deepened that linkage to and respect for America. However, when Reid comes home there will be no parade, no medals, no public honor (that all goes to the "warrior males" in our culture). In short, until we give our male teachers the respect (and the pay) that they deserve, we are still living in Sleepy Hollow.


  1. Incredibly well said. I am always fascinated by how early American literature contributes to our cultural condition today. (I am, in fact, applying to PhD programs to study that very thing).

    It merits a question: is the pay the reason men aren't going into education, or is it the ages-old stigma of teaching as women's work?

  2. Well said and thoughtful. This, coming from an English teacher who works at a school called... Ichabod Crane.

    As you say, no disrespect for those in the military, but that is a familiar narrative with obvious tropes (uniforms, good guys and bad guys) that make the accompanying rituals very clear-cut.

    @Matt: I think it's both of those reasons. The traditionally female professions generally have lower salaries.

  3. This is coming from a female who is mother of a woman who wants to go to E African Peace Corps & son who is a 2nd grade as well as middle school science/math teacher - & a sensitive male as well - & another daughter who thinks she may change the world as a social worker. I work in the health care field, had deep "what are we all about conversations with friends this evening, ran across this photo/"link" as I tried to make sense of it all and - what the F do I see but Will Weaver with his feet up as in the posture of the Superior Western Male. Seriously. I think, if thinking is worth a penny, that you are not THAT, but I can't hellp but wonder why would the first thing I run into in my search of trying to make sense of reasonable people, be your photo looking copacetic or whatever-the-hell the chill word is, your photo with hat on and feet up. Forgive me if this is just another judgment.