Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Kinks in the Sisterhood (or, Brilliant Sisters and Stupid Feminists)

A friend of mine of many years (whom I will call Tamara) is the product of a convent school education, having done her high school education at Ramona Convent in Alhambra, CA. Now before you get any images in your mind about full-habit nuns named Sister Anunciata with a ruler in her hand ready to smack any little boy or girl on the knuckles who speaks out of turn, let me say that these Canadian Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not necessarily known for their hard-core conservatism. They don't wear the full habit (if they wear regular habits at all), but they do have a rather active community life. Tamara describes her experiences at the convent school as characterized by rigorous academic discipline, a no-nonsense outlook on life, an an active pursuit of education as a means not just of career preparation, but also an appreciation for that which is good, true and beautiful.

These Sisters worked you hard, Tamara says, and they demanded nothing less than your best. They stressed the education of the whole person, stressing that education was primarily about the formation of your character, rather than the appropriation of "power" (as in "education is power"). On top of that, they were proficient in a wide range of disciplines, from the hard sciences to literature and languages. All of them spoke more than two languages, and had a very strong sense of the world. And they were anything but prudish!

An example of their very no-nonsense approach to life was their teaching of...sex education. After having the class read through Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, and several statements about the Church's moral teaching about human sexuality, its holiness and its fulfillment in the loving bond of marriage (all of which Pope John Paul II would teach as the "theology of the body"), they, well, got right down to business. The Sister in charge of teaching these pubescent girls about human sexuality brought out the projector, and right there, in full color, was a picture of...a human phallus!!! Now, if you're snickering and blushing, Tamara says this particular Sister would scold you. She would have none of that. You see, she would teach the girls that the male and female members were holy, and beautiful creations of God. She would brook no nonsense about it, and go right on describing its properties, and how it works, and how babies are made. Whatever one might think about such education in schools, public or private, the point is that these Sisters were not at all prudish about the human body, and instilled in their girls an appreciation for it. Snickering and blushing could very well earn you a chastisement from Sister Anunciata. Like Sister Wendy Beckett describing male nudes in the Louve, these sisters were quite matter-of-fact about human sexuality, leaving nothing out.

So in this convent school, Tamara found confident women who were unafraid of life, saw possibilities in every circumstance, but at the same time displayed humility. They knew that the more knowledge one gains, the more one finds out how ignorant they are, and how much there is yet to know. They would never allow their best students to blow their own horn about what they knew. For them, all you have learned are facts, but not true knowledge and wisdom, if you become puffed up with pride. These Sisters would have none of that, either.

By the time Tamara wnet to college, she got the distinct impression that she was in another world. Her first literature professor was a woman who would not accept anyone calling her by anything but "Doctor so-and-so", because she worked hard for her degree, and she demanded respect. The Sisters never had to demand anything. Their confident presence and no-nonsense attitude were enough for them to command respect. She also encountered feminists who had very programmatic answers for everything, without putting any thought into it. They would come up with the most outrageous theories about male-female relationships, how they are characterized by hegemonic discourses of power, how we need to get rid of the traditional canon because of said hegemonic discourse, and promote a new paradigm of thinking and logic-the womb, rather than the head. Others would recommend state-mandated castration for men, since sex for them was an act of violence against women. If these brilliant insights weren't enough, it got better. In one class, Tamara was treated with a novel theory of writing. Basically, there is no such thing as writing! That's right. All ideas are socially conditioned, and therefore anyone can write like John Donne. When Tamara asked why this female composition instructor did not write herself, her answer was: "Well, I just don't want to." Well, I suppose that settles things.

Thinking back on the kind of classical education she recieved at her convent school from these confident and brilliant Sisters, and her experiences with college feminists, Tamara muses: "I never met a stupid woman until I went to college."

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