Binaries and Elementary Schools

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” — John Lennon

I never expected to be in this situation. My son was born in 1977. After a divorce, my ex-wife and I raised him. She had him during the week, and I had him with me on most weekends, holidays, and summer vacation. So, I suppose I missed a lot of his school activities. His mother was (presumably) involved in his homework and school pageants. So, I’m not sure how much things have changed — or not. However, my son passed away in 2017, and my wife and I are now raising three grandchildren — ages 10, 9, and 3. Not what we expected to be doing with our “golden years.”

But we now find ourselves raising these grandchildren, and we are seeing first-hand the pedagogical practices in elementary schools. We have seen them through kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades. One thing that has stuck out to me is the way which the entire institution reinforces binaries and binary thinking. Perhaps not every school does it this way; perhaps not every teacher does. But it is certainly present in our experience, and I do tend to think that it’s fairly common.

One thing that children learn at this stage of education is vocabulary. They learn words, they learn spelling, and they learn alphabetization. One of the frequent strategies is to have them learn opposites.

Black / white

Short / tall

Poor / rich

Woman / man

Mom / dad

No wonder, then, that we tend to think that either/or is natural. These students are being trained to think in binary terms, and to think that these “opposites” are natural, that they are givens. They are learning that male and female are natural opposites. They’re being asked, encouraged, and required to find the binary pair. But as Anne Fausto Sterling notes in her classic essay, “The Five Sexes,” nature does not operate in binaries. Nature likes excess.

An example I like to use is the following graphic representation. The graphic continuum represents a gradation from white to black. Whereas in nature, the gradation in between to two ends of the spectrum would be infinite, our computers can, alas, give us only an idea of the gradual shift from white to black. Even so, it’ll suffice for the example at hand. Even this limited graphic demonstrates that tens of thousands of gradations occur in between these two “opposites.” A lot of variations exist between “white” and “black.”

But more than that, it represents the trouble with creating binaries. In the version below, I have drawn a line in the middle of the continuum. While we know that tens of thousands of different shadings occur between the two ends, the line represents forcing a binary onto nature. According to binary thinking, anything to the left of the line would be considered “white,” and anything to the right of the line would be considered “black.” That means that a dot one one-thousandth of an inch to the left of the line would be white, while a dot one one-thousandth of an inch to the right of the line would be black. That’s just crazy. That demonstrates, however, the craziness of imposing binary thinking onto the natural world.

So, what does this mean for learning vocabulary as a series of “opposites?” Well, in reality, a great many variations occur between rich and poor. A great many variations occur between short and tall. And a great many variations occur between woman and man, between female and male — which was Sterling’s point. But these classrooms exercises train our children to see the world as opposites.

The binary training happens in other ways, too. In some classroom activities, they divide the class into boys on one side and girls on the other. This exercise trains the, to A) think of boys and girls as somewhat fundamentally different and, often, adversarial, and B) that each of them must conform to one of these two categories. Kids are often reluctant to stick out, to seem different. A child who does not identify as one or the other of those two options it unlikely to speak up.

Many other kinds of assignments also feature binary thinking. The resource website for teachers, Education.com has many assignments dedicated to identifying opposites: https://www.education.com/resources/identifying-oppositesa/ . These dualistic ways of thinking and dualistic behaviors are reinforced and exacerbated in school plays and pageants. Our children bring home their “assignments” for plays and pageants, which generally set out the costumes and props they are supposed to bring. The costumes, props, and activities are always binary and gender-based.

In a 2012 book entitled Social Reconstruction Learning: Dualism, Dewey and Philosophy in Schools, Jennifer Bleazby argues that the deeply-rooted Western practice of dualism is harmful and limiting; instead, she argues for “social reconstruction learning” in which students engage with the community and community members around them in order to create independent thinkers and active citizens.

Of course, the great irony is that it is the 16–25 year olds right now who are breaking out of a binary way of thinking. It is in this generation that individuals are saying, “I don’t identify with either one of those two options.” Non-binary identities are evident everywhere. Facebook now offers many gender options for users to select from. Dating sites such as OK Cupid offer a drop-down menu of options for prospective partners (already a binary term) to identify with. However, I would argue that these individuals are doing so in spite of their educational background, not because of it. If we followed Bleazy’s lead, we might develop a curriculum that does not compel binary thinking and, instead, encourages free thinking and full citizenship. And if we were to do so, then young individuals might have an easier time in finding their identity, and others around them might have an easier time accepting that.

Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of a book on feminist science fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.

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