Education Along Gender Lines

You may remember the saga of Shannon Faulkner, the woman who successfully fought in the courts for admission to the Citadel, the previously all-male South Carolina military academy. Faulkner left after Hell Week, the first week of training at the academy, citing stress and illness. Her quick departure only provided ammunition for critics who argued that women were unlikely to succeed in the harsh, competitive environment of academies like the Citadel. The following year, four women entered the ranks of cadets at the school. Yesterday, Nancy Mace became its first female graduate.

While single-sex institutions in higher education, like the Citadel (and, closer to home, Radcliffe) are on their way out, single-sex schools are experiencing a revival in primary and secondary schools. Five years ago, the debate in my local newspapers was over the formation of the Malcolm X Academy, one of three alternative public schools for black boys in Detroit. Supporters saw the schools as a potential solution to the social problems that disproportionately affect young black men such as dropout, unemployment and crime.

A federal court ruled that limiting enrollment to black boys was unconstitutional. But with few applications from girls and non-black students, the schools effectively achieved their goal. Similar schools have been established in other cities, including an all-girls school in New York City known as the East Harlem Girls' School.

I bring up these examples because I find support for single-sex educational institutions perplexing in today's enlightened atmosphere that calls for integration on nearly all fronts. If there is a crisis among young black men, is the appropriate solution isolating black boys during the most formative years of their life? If equal educational opportunities exist in conventional public schools, what does it mean for these boys to be pulled out of the mainstream system?

It is with this angle that I return to the debate over the now-defunct Radcliffe College. One of the undercurrents of last year's debate was the differing attitudes among undergraduate women towards an auxiliary single-sex institution alongside Harvard. Those arguing a continuing role for Radcliffe saw its programs as redress for unequal opportunities for women at Harvard. In effect, dual citizenship at Harvard-Radcliffe allowed women to decide the necessity of Radcliffe for themselves. They could choose to participate in the supplementary programs of Radcliffe, like the student organizations, externships, seminars, etc. Or, as many elected to do, they could ignore it.

The lines in debates over single-sex schools do not draw cleanly along conventional ideology. Similarly, many of the people calling for the death of Radcliffe rightly called themselves feminists. Was the lingering presence of Radcliffe beneficial to women undergraduates, or did it merely prevent Harvard from addressing problems of gender inequality sooner? Likewise, although the resurgent single-sex schools provide nurturing environments and self-esteem boosts for students in the short-term, how great is the long-term harm of postponing discussion of the problems that require such schools in the first place?

I had a limited, yet highly influential, experience with single-sex education. In my school, boys and girls, who had jointly attended elementary school, were placed on separate campuses during middle school. The rationale was that girls matured earlier, both physically and intellectually, and that during this time of divergent development, it was best to keep boys and girls apart, except for the occasional (and highly awkward) social function. On the boys' campus, teachers played off our desire to become "men." Men studied hard and played hard. Men tucked their shirts in their pants. In the hallways, testosterone-laden behavior, like body checks into the lockers, was rampant.

By the time we returned to joint classes in the ninth grade, none of the boys knew how interact around girls (or was it the other way around?). The body checks continued, but the girls stood by looking on with bewilderment and disgust. And if we had no idea how to talk to each other in the hallway, you can only imagine what classroom discussions were like. It took a good year or so before the boys and girls began to act "normal."

Perhaps my own experience is not a representative one, but a singlesex education failed to prepare me for the world beyond--namely, high school. I'd like to think the notion that singlesex institutions are essential is an anachronism that will slowly pass. Yes, there are inequalities along gender and racial lines in the most powerful extremes of society. But isolating boys or girls in school fails to address the problems they'll face later as men and women. Andrew S. Cang '99 is a neurobiology concentrator in Kirkland House. This is his final column.

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