The case for single-gender education

At unfortunate intervals in human history, certain groups have been discriminated against. Race and colour were once stumbling blocks, much like the distinction between born and unborn today. Things that are merely attributes are thought to be essential. Reacting against discrimination in the past, society now strives for equality. Any virtue, however, even equality, can be taken to an extreme. The pendulum has swung too far when authentic differences are ignored. The objection to single-gender schools is a symptom of the cult of equality, which pervades the philosophy of education today.

The argument for single-gender schools proceeds, not from a hopeful vision of what might be, but from an astute observation of what is. The separation of genders in education is necessary, because instructors will, consciously or unconsciously, tailor their teaching methods to either boys or girls. Teaching methods cannot really be directed half to boys, half to girls; they will become all one thing, or all the other. And no compromise will suit both boys and girls.

This is because the differences between male and the female are not imagined or invented societal conventions, but scientifically proven, incontrovertible facts. The differences are physiological, psychological, intellectual, and emotional. “Boys,” says Dr. Peter West, “cannot sit still.” Dr. West, a professor at the University of Sydney, has authored a book on this subject called, What is the Matter with Boys. In addressing the question, he notes that girls are best suited for the current brand of academic success. After all, long periods of silence and attentiveness – attributes appreciated by teachers – are not traits common to young boys. “Is it any wonder the ideal student has become, by default, female?” Thus, as the education system – or as the conservative commentator Russell Kirk calls it, the Holy Educationist Empire – panders more and more to female virtues, boys are marginalized. Their normal, boisterous and rambunctious behaviour becomes characterized as disruptive and troublesome. Convinced that the ideal student should be docile and quiet, teachers become increasing unable to handle normal male exuberance. Recent studies show boys are being diagnosed with attention deficit difficulties at five times the rate of girls. While some of these cases may be legitimate, one wonders whether many of them are the result of the misdiagnosis of boyish energy by teachers who cannot handle it. After all, boys will be boys: albeit disenfranchised, drugged and educationally debilitated by a feminist perspective.

At this impasse comes the obvious solution of single-gender education. Since teaching methods will, inevitably, be biased towards one gender or the other, it makes most sense to let boys and girls flourish in their respective environments, rather than to penalize one gender in an unfriendly system. Single-gender education allows for both specificity of technique and the avoidance of the ostracization of one gender.

Proponents of co-education claim that equality of gender in the schoolhouse will ensure equality of gender in the workplace. But it is just this sought-after equality that makes single-gender education more imperative: if men and women are to truly be equals in adult life, they require time to mature and develop in optimal circumstances at their own pace in childhood, while still learning how to learn.

The purpose of going to school is to be educated. However, in a school setting where both sexes are present, too often in the teenage years, learning takes a secondary role to dating and other forms of socializing. This shift in interest is only natural, but it seems prudent to separate the sexes during the school hours to reduce their distraction. Rather than estrange the sexes, it prompts greater social activity. According to studies, boys in single-gender schools are significantly more likely to ask girls out on dates. Furthermore, this separation tends to reduce teen pregnancy. In an all-girls school in a low-income area of Harlem, the incident of teen pregnancy among students of a local girl school are eight times lower than the area’s average.

Some would still contend that there are social benefits to be gained from co-education. It is doubtful, however, whether these benefits, or any others, are worth the onerous cost. When the atmosphere is primarily social, debate turns to banter, questioning to commentary, and learning itself becomes an unforeseen, unsought, and unexpected bonus.

But more than eliminating distractions, single-gender schools provide an understanding of gender that can only be attained in a separated environment. In a co-educational setting, it is not enough for students to be themselves, masculine or feminine: boys and girls must be perceived as such as well. Dr. Leonard Sax, a staunch advocate of single-gender education and member of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, has termed this gender intensification: “The benefits of single-sex schools are not only academic … single-sex education has been shown to broaden students’ horizons, to allow them to feel free to explore the own strengths and interests, not constrained by gender stereotypes.” This explains why in single-gender education, boys are more forthcoming in expressing their interest in the arts, and why girls in single-gender schools are, according to the National Coalition of Girl Schools, six times more likely to pursue studies in science and technology. In a co-educational environment, interests are either feigned or stifled so that boys and girls are perceived as they think they ought to be perceived. Ironically, stereotypes are reinforced in the co-education milieu, and understanding of gender will either be a gross exaggeration or a marked departure of the norm. In the case of boys, they will either be boorish or effeminate, because they will either conform to a more feminine model of behaviour, or reject this behaviour all together. To return to Dr. West: “They no longer know what it means to be a man. They don’t know what it means to be a boy.”

In the Western tradition, boys and girls have always been educated separately. With unpardonable arrogance, society has departed from a great many givens, forgetting that, as Isaac Newton noted, “If (we) have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Only in the absence of single-gender education has its superiority been so clearly demonstrated, and it is the responsibility of society to do what is right, not merely what is new. The novelty of co-education has gone from a bemusing parody of what should be to the travesty of what is. Strengthened by Orwell’s “power of facing unpleasant facts,” proponents of co-education would do well to cherish that most important lesson: to admit quickly when one is wrong, and when a mistake is made.

Stephen Tardiff graduated this spring from St. Michael’s College School in Toronto and is studying literature and philosophy at the University of Toronto.