Wednesday, February 23, 2011

“Well, I have never thought about that before…….”

John Gardner

I have given a great deal of thought to how it is that men and women students experience higher education differently. And there is a great deal of empirical data to support the conclusion that the experience varies considerably by gender. But in talking about this especially with students, but also educators themselves, I have never given them a discussion prompt where I asked them to try to put themselves into the space of a person of the opposite gender and conjure up the details of what that other experience might be like.

This past week while hiking, walking, and running extensively the beautiful trains for such in New Zealand I kept seeing time and time again relatively young women hiking, walking, running, unaccompanied. And, yes, I saw men doing this too. And, of course, I saw couples of both genders. But what struck me finally after noting it more times than I could count where all the women engaging in these pastimes alone. Naturally, I was observing this through the lens of my US citizen and resident acculturated ideas. I live in a hikers paradise, outside Asheville, North Carolina, in Brevard. And Brevard is surrounded by thousands of acres of the magnificent Pisgah National Forest. And I never see women in there walking, hiking, running alone. And with the exception of some big city well populated and policed parks, and the same for college campuses, I just don’t see this either.

So I finally asked thirtyish New Zealand woman who had previously told me she was a cyclist about my observation of seeing so many women enjoying the outdoors as a solitary pursuit. And I asked her specifically if she felt safe. Her response: “Well, I have never really thought about that………….”

So she did think about it and upon reflection she informed me she had never felt unsafe and had never even considered “safety” (from crime) as a potential factor to influence her decisions about what she did outside, where, and whether or not she wished to be accompanied.

For some reason, this exchange brought home to me as much as anything I have observed in New Zealand, the differences between life there and in my own country. I know that as a man I constantly consider personal safety when making decisions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I, and especially US women, could experience the freedom that these New Zealand women (and men) realize daily?

And what would it take to accomplish that? Oh, nothing short of eliminating our huge differences in wealth and opportunity, improving our educational system, drastically curtailing our access to guns, and more.

I look forward to returning to my home in the States but I know I will never live to see this kind of personal freedom in the US enjoyed by New Zealanders.

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