Today’s students aren’t growing up reading “man” for “mankind” — and they notice when they read historical texts that do use “man” that way

Dennis G. Jerz | Associate Professor of English -- New Media Journalism, Seton Hill University | LogoI’m about 1/4 through teaching an online American Lit course. Some students are commenting on the use of “men” to mean “people,” as if it’s brand new to them. Others helpfully explained to their peers that in an era when only men could vote or hold office, it would have been in some cases historically accurate, even if to today’s readers that historical truth is uncomfortable.
In a lecture introducing Huck Finn I carefully prepared them for the fact that when reading a book set during a racist time and place, they will encounter racist characters who using racist language, and that some of those racist characters might be complex enough to be capable of growth — reducing, if not completely escaping, the harmful effects of their racist environment.
But I don’t have any such lecture preparing them to confront language that discriminates on gender, because I guess I just assumed today’s students grew up reading “man” everywhere, printed in books and carved into monuments, and mentally translating it.
I spent a lot of time reading classic works to my kids, and at the same time I used more inclusive terms in my own speech. (Recently a colleague politely corrected my use of the dated term “freshman writing,” because the preferred term among professionals is “first year writing,” even at schools like ours that still officially use the term “freshman.”)
So it struck me as strange that my students would choose to reflect on that traditional use of “men,” seeing it as something that needed an explanation.
The students handled it amongst themselves. I didn’t need to get involved, and I doubt it made a big impression on any of them.
It’s not a bad thing that students aren’t growing up feeling excluded by “men” and having to go through the trouble of mentally translating it all the time, but it never occurred to me that I might have to go out of my way to specify that in a given context, “men” means “people.”

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