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Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind by Mary F Belenky
Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind

mt.johns, September 2, 2007

This is an important and pivotal work, and with any luck it will cause a revolution in the way leaning is conducted in future classrooms around the world. Don't expect anything immediate outside the university, because the best revolutions are not announced, not even apprehended at the time (as you have noticed, when we try to guide our own history, we usually kinda muck it up). Originally published in 1986 and now in its 10th edition, it is a work with staying power. You can get a sense of the impact of the book from a follow-up volume by Nancy Rule Goldberger titled Knowledge, Difference and Power. In it the original authors address "the challenges to our original theory even as we rethink and transform it." The two books together give a sense of the impact WWK has had and continues to exert on higher education.

I first came across Women's Ways in a college seminar and it hit me like milk truck. Its message is simple and clear, its tone persuasive without hectoring, its theoretical background solid without being esoteric. (It gets its theoretical oomph from Thomas Kuhn of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions cum Paolo Freiere, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

The first thing you must know is this is not a book solely for women. I am an XY type being and perhaps because of this I find it an even more revelatory work. Its message is simple: full knowing includes intellectual, intuitive, somatic and unconscious modes or capacities. In real life women and men incorporate these modes of knowing (we were surprised when the vogue of the management book revealed that male CEOs used intuition extensively in their biggest business decisions, but we shouldn’t have been), but in the academy, as well as primary and secondary education, we have shunned them. It is tied in with the sexism of men controlling and looking down on women, but also with the ill-fated modernist desire to constrain both our perception of reality and our behavior to the purely rational.

The four women authors, Belenky, Goldberger, Clinchy and Tarule, formed a collaborative team, and this, along with their methodology, is responsible for the strength of their work. They went in first listening, without a theoretical filter, and they listened to 135 women students from a wide variety of backgrounds (not just the young and Ivy League participants of many social science research programs). Analyzing their interviews, they came up with five major ways women know the world: 1) silence, 2) subjective knowing or inner voice, 3) received knowing or listening, 4) procedural knowing and 5) constructed knowing.

While each is valued, the authors note that as you progress down the list, the learner becomes more active in the process, going from a completely passive position to someone who is actively giving meaning. This book also addresses a historical pattern in education that is undergoing radical change: the breakout of women as theorists. Thinkers like Carol Gilligan have profiled this change as well as contributed to it. Since its publication some 20 years ago, WWK's star has risen, fallen and risen again. Some have blamed it for contributing for the so-called "flight from reason," but I believe this is just part of the inevitable difficulty in change -- you always have some pain of transition.

I believe this work to have subtle power: if as human beings we expand our ways of knowing we simultaneously change our reality and change our approach to problem-solving. If we listen to others and to our inner voice, we begin to incorporate a deep reflection into our learning, something that I have always felt is critical to drawing meaning out of both everyday experience and theory. If we receive knowing from authorities as well as take it apart and reconstruct it for ourselves, we amplify and critique knowledge instead of just collecting it and passing it on. Knowing is the raw material that fuels the building of our worlds; change it and you shift everything.

Finally, perhaps the greatest praise I can give Women's Ways of Knowing is this: I purchased and gave it to a very special student I have had the pleasure of knowing and learning from for the past 21 years -- my own daughter. It is my great hope that this work enlightens much more than academic debate on learning and gender, as exciting as that may be. My hope is that it acts as a catalyst for changing both how we learn individually and collectively, and through this process, who we think we are. If we can do this even to a small extent, my daughter and her children will breathe a little easier. Do the world a favor and buy three copies -- one for your daughter, one for your son, and one for yourself.
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