A New Cultural Moment for a Renewed Debate
by Stephen H. Webb
Although all-female schools still prosper and are defended by members
of the academic elite, an all-male college has become a near extinct species.
Many people are surprised such a creature still exists. All-male colleges
strike many as vestiges of male privilege. They evoke the traditional
bastions of power that precluded women from advancing in public life.
Single-sex education is not for everyone, but if our educational system
is to be truly pluralistic, such an education should be an option. Single-sex
education for both genders can be a constructive way to address problems
plaguing not only education but the culture as a whole.
Indeed, the tide that swept away single sex education for men is now turning.
To understand why, todays emphasis on co-education should be placed
in a historical context. The war in Vietnam and racism in the states stirred
a storm of social upheaval defying traditional forms of authority. All-male
colleges were seen as an affront to egalitarian politics and democratic
When I joined the Wabash College faculty in 1987, the school was suffering
an identity crisis. One of the last all-male liberal arts colleges, Wabash
acted like its single sex status was an accidental feature of the campus,
something hardly worth noting.
The faculty could not accept Wabash for what it was. Dedicated to progress
and democracy, professors were embarrassed and angry about the lack of
women in the classroom. While the trustees and alumni were loyal to the
character of the college, the faculty assaulted the very concept of single-sex
education with the single-minded rhetoric they learned in the sixties.
They framed the debate in terms of rights for the marginalized, rather
than respect for differences. Men were already privileged in our society,
they argued, so why should men have opportunities unavailable to women?
Wabash was a good school that should be open to everybody. Anything less
than equal access was blatant discrimination.
Nowadays, the culture, rather than the college, has radically changed.
Wabash is taking advantage of two new movements ushering in a new excitement
about single-sex education.
The first movement challenges structures of authority that legislate uniformity
in education. Reformers now talk of school choice and work to decenter
federal control over education. This new emphasis on pluralism and local
control is permitting educators to reconsider distinctive educational
options that sere some students without being mandatory for all. Equal
educational opportunities do not necessitate homogenous educational experiences.
If the American genius abides in experimental openness, its limit resides
in a tendency toward conformity and uniformity. Public policy makers are
sometimes too anxious that everyone be treated exactly the same way.
The second cultural movement leading to a renewal of single-sex education
is the reconsideration of the role of gender in education. A concern for
the well being of girls started it all. Mary Pipers book, Reviving
Ophelia, sparked a crusade against the gender gap separating the achievements
of girls from those of boys. Pipers alarming book depicted a cultural
meltdown in the social neglect of girls. Girls can too quickly subordinate
themselves to boys at a certain age, and this can lead to serious problems,
both socially and academically. According to Piper and her followers,
this subservience was not the result of biology but of a toxic educational
environment. For example, Peggy Orenstein explains that girls educated
in a coed environment display a drop in confidence as well as achievement.
She offers the picture of a girl afraid to raise her hand in class, letting
her insecurities affect her education. Girls face problems in school that
boys do not, especially sexual harassment. The way in which girls cultivate
self-esteem and manifest vulnerability also differs remarkably from that
of boys. Nevertheless, the war to save girls was frequently fought as
a war against boys.
It eventually became apparent that boys and girls had both similar and
different problems during their early school years. While girls have the
problems of being discouraged from pursuing unfeminine intellectual
pursuits, boys are more likely to disrupt their own education. Concern
about one sex, of course, does not preclude concern for the other. Prescribing
all-female schools as a solution for girls educational problems
does not preclude all-male schools as a solution for boys. Both kinds
of schools can happily co-exist and, indeed, must stand or fall together.
The need for single-sex education hinges on the contested argument that
some differences between girls and boys relate to their ability to learn.
Feminists have argued that girls learn differently than boys. Over time,
educators realized it was not possible to discuss the distinctive traits
of female learning without acknowledging that boys too have their distinctive
patterns of development.
Educators are now more willing to reevaluate all-male education. Michael
Gurian, a prominent therapist and educator, has explored the biological
and neurological differences between boys and girls without pitting one
gender against the other. When the testosterone-driven behavior of boys
is suppressedrather than channeled into appropriate activitiesbiology
will fight its way to the surface with unpleasant results. Both boys and
girls need heroes to admire and communities to join, but the structure
of their socialization takes different forms. Boys can be especially tribal
as they enter adolescence, and their physical development cries out for
male mentors and guides. While girls also need discipline, mentors, and
strong order, they generally have less testosterone, are less likely to
rebel, and are less physical in their rebellion. The trick to understanding
adolescent boys, Gurian and others argue, is that their self-sufficiency
is a mere mask. Boys are socialized to hide their feelings in ways that
girls are not. Boys are supposed to be tough, and yet male posturing (often
interpreted as evidence of social and academic confidence in psychological
surveys and studies) is frequently a means of compensating for wounded
pride and hurt feelings.
This does not mean that boys are necessarily hard-wired for aggression.
Yet the overwhelming evidence, from hyperactivity in grade schools to
gangs and guns in high schoolsuggests that boys have basic needs
for certain kinds of activities that are going unmet. Boys need tough
challenges and regimentation to gain self-esteem. The message one boy
received from his father is indicative of the lesson all boys learn from
hard work. Youve cleaned toilets at a bus station, Mike, if
you can do that, you can do anything. Boys also need to feel accepted
by their own tribal group before they can appropriately seek acceptance
by the opposite sex.
Boys may suffer worse consequences than girls from the failures of public
Adolescent boys are more likely than adolescent girls to commit suicide,
be emotionally disturbed, having learning disabilities, and commit acts
of violence. It is pointless of course, to competitively compare boys
and girls to see who is most victimized. Educators, however, often quickly
assume girls have more problems than boys. Problems specific to boys,
therefore, need to be highlighted. If all-female schools can best address
the developmental problems of adolescent girls, all-male schools can do
the same for boys.
Single-sex education historically was framed in terms of protecting children
from the complications of premature sexual interaction. The argument was
also made that boys and girls have different educational needs. Boys needed
a strenuous education teaching them discipline and the virtues of hard
work. Girls, on the other hand, were considered more fragile than boys
and more likely to be preyed upon in a male dominated world.
When large numbers of women entered the labor force in the 1960s, these
arguments for separate educational tracks became moot. Young men no longer
needed training in the rites of all-male societies, while young women
needed the same skills and credentials as men to compete in the market.
There was still talk however, about the value of all-female education.
The rhetoric shifted from safeguarding women from worldly temptations
to providing them with a sisterhood unencumbered by male dominance. Since
men already dominated the worlds of business and politics, the argument
when, they did not need gender-specific training. Girls however, have
special needs in society that boys do not. What was once discussed in
terms of girls vulnerability now became contextualized in terms
of their victimization. The case for all-female education was update rather
than transformed; the case for all-male education was dropped altogether.
Such attention to the special plight of girls in an aggressively male
world has instilled the movement for all-female education with urgency
and passion. Nevertheless, while research on single-sex education focuses
on women, its conclusions often show significant gains for both genders.
Those who argue that single-sex education is good for girls but not boys
are committing a logical error. They imply girls do not do well in co-ed
schools because they are with boys. Boys, thus, are a plague, the explanation
for the poor performance of girls in co-ed schools. If this is true boys
should be removed from girls and given a place of their own, where they
can work out their education without interfering with girls. Logically,
then, defending single-sex education for one gender entails defending
it for the other.
Indeed, those who experience an all-male education are usually eager to
talk of its empowering effect. This is illustrated by Michael Ruhlmans
book, Boys Themselves: A Return to Single-Sex Education. Ruhlman returns
to his alma mater, the all-boys University School in Cleveland,
to reflect on the culture of an all-male education. Ruhlmans astute
observations about male camaraderie make this a necessary starting point
for any debate about the future of all-male education.
To defend a particular institution, its story needs to be told well, and
this is what Ruhlman does with University School. Indeed, just talking
about young men working and playing together can be a radical project
in todays climate. Most stories in the media about young men bonding
together are parables about young men on the prowl, flirting with, or
committing, some violent act.
To a certain extent, the media is right. We live in a culture that has
shockingly few rituals and traditions to guide boys into manhood. We have
become suspicious of all-male clubs, organizations, or fraternities. Our
increasingly secular sensibility has rejected the importance of public
rituals and traditions. Consequently, young men have only sports (and,
to a lesser extent, the military) as an outlet for their aggressive sense
of adventure and achievement. Sports, however, are for the victorious
few, so that many boys feel left behind by their childhood dreams. We
should not be surprised at the number of young men who join gangs and
pursue perilous activities to prove themselves and find a sense of community.
To have an all-male school work, the school needs to be rich in tradition
and ritual. The school needs to be a sacred place, because young men need
discipline and transcendent goals. Wabash College, for example, is full
of traditions promoting male bonding while channeling male energy into
spirited and constructive purposes. The many fraternity houses provide
communal living for students in a non-elitist manner, and the geographical
isolation of the college gives it an ascetic feet. One of my favorite
rituals at Wabash is the annual Chapel Sing, which occurs in the fall.
The freshman pledge classes compete on the Chapel steps to see who can
sing the school song the loudest. The song, according to tradition, is
the longest in the nation, and there is nothing like saying goodbye to
fall and bracing for along Indiana winter by listening to over a hundred
young men shouting their hearts out into wind.
Most mens schools went co-ed in the late 1960s and 1970s out of
sensitivity to the changing role of women in society, but they also could
no longer sustain the traditions necessary to make an all-male environment
work. In the light of feminist critiques, male-bonding rituals began to
look more sinister than sincere. Moreover, the Vietnam War created a climate
where authority and institutions were questioned in the name of freedom
and progress. The curriculum was changed to increase electives over required
courses and mandatory chapel became all-but-extinct in liberal arts colleges.
Fraternities were marginalized or eliminated as archaic vestiges from
a dark and distant past. Education began to look less like a rite of passage
and more like the exercise of student rights. As universities became more
politicized and disciplinary procedures became more bureaucratized, administrators
reacted to male bonding as a threat to their power and control and thus
began dismantling many of the traditions that once made college a social
as well as an intellectual experience.
Most of Ruhlmans stories in Boys Themselves, A Return
to Single Sex Education center on the classroom, the personal quality
of teaching, the honesty about sexuality, and the lack of posturing that
are the hallmarks of a single-sex education. He spends much of his time
in the classroom of a female English teacher who notes that boys are just
different. His description of how boys fill up a classroom, how
they negotiate honor and deal with defeat, and how they pursue their own
way of doing things until the bitter endall in contrast to the student
at a girls school he visitsare high points to he book.
One of his observations in particular struck me. He notes that many young
men who graduated from University School told him, while later attending
co-ed universities, that their best friends were women. The experience
of being deprived of women had strengthened their appreciation of the
opposite sex. They recognized, contrary to much of the rhetoric in co-ed
schools, that gender differences run deep and defy ultimate explanation.
Young men at all-male schools often act like old-fashioned gentlemen around
young women. Rather than take women for granted, they assume there is
a lot to learn about women. Sensitivity to gender differences enables
rich and full friendships. Friendships, after all, are based on an appreciation
of what others give us that we cannot give to ourselves.
Richard A. Hawley, the author of Boys Will Be Men and one of the
most articulate defenders of all-male education, explains that working
in an all-boys school gave him a greater appreciation for the astonishing
individuality and range of females. This is a phenomenon I repeatedly
find at Wabash. There is no reason to think co-education results in better
relationships between the genders than single-sex education. Distance
and separation, at the right time, can deepen a sense of mystery and thus
increase the opportunity for communication between the genders. Hawley,
who is the headmaster of Ruhlmans book, illustrates this sentiment
when he exclaims, Romeo wasnt pals with Juliet...they didnt
go to school together. She was an amazing alien. She was the other. She
was a Beatrice."
Richard A. Hawley has written several books reflecting on how culture
can help boys navigate that narrow passage to manhood. The core virtue
at the center of University School. according to Hawley, is that it is
hard. To make a boy into a man, an institution must test him, push him,
and challenge him to the very limit, while providing the environment that
will not just support him but also send back into the game after he has
been knocked down.
It is time for a new debate about all-male education. Historically, all-male
education meant the exclusion of women from many educational institutions.
More recently, all-female education has been defended apart from all-male
education. But if some girls need a space of their own for their education,
it makes sense that some boys do as well. If boys are disrupting girls
schooling, they may be disrupting their own development as well. If single
sex education is to be defended, it must be defended as an option for
both men and women on the margins of a predominantly co-educational system.
It will never again become the norm. But it can become an option for many
students who need and want it.
In our culture, adolescence marks an emotionally-charged period of transition
and transformation. We have cast aside the old rituals that formerly guided
adolescents through these troubled waters. For some people, this passage
is best navigated apart (somewhat) from the other sex. In our society,
sex is used and exploited as the primary means of self-expression and
ultimate fulfillment. It is possible that the single-sex atmosphere might
help put such distorted claims into a better perspective.
Separation also creates and encourages a special bonding between members
of the same sex. This is especially important today, when males are often
not encouraged to articulate and express the full range of their human
emotions and needs. Whereas many girls have problems with self-confidence
when they hit adolescence, boys have the opposite problem. They put up
a good front with bravado and posturing, but this is merely a mask for
deep feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Education must penetrate those
masks if it is to work. All-male education allows for an honesty and egalitarianism
within a competitive and rigorous environment, with rituals and traditions
that provide the foundation for teamwork and male-bonding. In this way,
variety and diversity in the educational market can be encouraged, and
one of the oldest means of helping children through adolescence can be
saved from extinction.
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