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The pros and cons of single-sex education

Should men and women learn together?

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Last week's Supreme Court decision signals the end of all-male public schools like the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel. But are some men better off learning without women around? Are women disadvantaged when men share their classrooms? Recently, U.S. News assembled a panel of experts to ponder single-sex education and asked Georgetown University professor and author Deborah Tannen to moderate the session. The participants: VMI Superintendent Gen. Josiah Bunting III, Citadel President Lt. Gen. Claudius Watts III, American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Sara Mandelbaum, Emory University history professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity College in Washington, D.C.

What does the VMI case say about single-sex education?

Mandelbaum: Speaking of VMI and the Citadel as single-sex education is in some ways misleading. Both were founded in the late 19th century, when women were excluded from the military and largely excluded from higher education. These schools were not founded on an ideal of the benefits of single-sex education.

Bunting: Most colleges begin in quiet, organic ways, usually in response to local needs. VMI grew up around an arsenal. The idea was that the military would form both a buttress and an adjunct to the form of education being offered. The place was not designed to train people for the military, nor was it a means of assuring hierarchical control by white males. People didn't think like that in the 19th century.

McGuire: I think it's very important to emphasize that the case before the Supreme Court really is less a test of single-sex education generically; it is much more a test of what states may do in the public sector versus the private sector, of whether a state may have a program that favors one gender over another.

Do single-sex schools benefit either sex?

McGuire: Research continues to support the fact that women, even in coeducational settings, do not have equal opportunities. For example, on coeducational campuses many women find that they're called on less frequently in

class, that they're subjected to chilly climates that harass them physically, sexually and emotionally. That's why single-sex institutions continue to exist, because there's a problem they continue to address.

Bunting: The benefits of boys' schools and men's colleges are far less compelling than those for women's colleges and girls' schools. The data are much less copious. Yet such schools have an ethos that is extraordinarily apt and useful. It is a spartan, unusual lifestyle. Not a lot of kids apply or want it. But the schools would be radically transformed if they were to become coeducational, and in ways I don't think would be useful.

Fox-Genovese: What we tend to forget is that when we write passionately about the ways young women respond to the presence of men in the classroom, it is only logical that men are also responding to the women.

Mandelbaum: The research I'm familiar with actually shows a null effect for single-sex education for men. And there have been shown to be disadvantages, one of them being the intolerance for difference fostered by excluding women, the lack of female role models--very important for young men being educated to join a coed world.

Is there a double standard?

Tannen: I think we do really have a dilemma, that there are many people who in a gut way want to support the idea of single-sex education for women but don't want to support the idea for men because it feels so different. You know, you think of a bunch of guys not letting women in, you have one reaction. A bunch of women getting together because they need to do it their way, well, that feels different.

Bunting: Unless you're prepared to say there should be no boys' schools and no men's colleges--are you prepared to say that?

Mandelbaum: Certainly no public ones.

Bunting: How about private ones? Do you not think there is a role for--let's talk about schools for grubby, difficult little boys who need to be thrown together and disciplined with a couple of tough teachers. Is there not possibly a role for such places?

Mandelbaum: I think they have a very tough burden legally.

Bunting: Even private schools?

Mandelbaum: No, private obviously is different from public.

Bunting: If there is a proven efficacy for girls' schools and women's colleges and boys' schools and men's colleges, then the question of whether the state should be involved in supporting them or not becomes moot. If all these schools have a useful role to play in educating people for the commonweal, then it seems to me the state is just as justified in giving some support to them as to private schools.

Mandelbaum: What is the useful role they play that could not continue if women were admitted?

Bunting: Well, again, we have this ambivalence. In the case of boys' schools, the data suggest that for some adolescent boys it makes sense to educate them alone, particularly at residential settings, addressing needs that seem peculiar to little boys, particularly in the classroom, where boys tend to be much more direct in their responses without the presence of girls. Remember, we're talking about some very small number of boys. For the men's colleges, the arguments are much more difficult to make in terms of data. But I would argue that any single-gender institution that has been successful in speaking to the needs of many succeeding generations should be allowed, so long as there is a market for it.

McGuire: Whether or not single-gender education is beneficial is different from the question of what the state may allow and support and also what long-term benefits are denied women when they are denied access to these schools. We're talking about a social and cultural system that builds up over time and permits the school's graduates access to economic and leadership benefits.

Tannen: I did my research and wrote my books without thinking at all about single-sex education. But the argument could be made that if males and females tend to differ in the ways my research shows, then you could say each sex will do better in an environment where their own "conversational" style is the norm. Of course, there are cultural influences, too. And then are you going to say: "OK, this school is for men and women of Italian-American or African-American or Jewish-American background" or "this is for women and men from the Midwest"? But I have quite a few observations I make about styles common among women and men, and they lead, I think, to the conclusion that if you put the two styles together, females are at a disadvantage.

What would all-male schools lose going coed?

Bunting: There is a hostility in this whole debate toward the singularity of institutions. Before I was at VMI, I was at a boarding school in Princeton, N.J. I took it coed. We had a large number of applications from girls. They more or less took the school over. Every classroom I went into, they were outspoken, they were stouthearted, they were feisty. My experience really has been the opposite of what you were saying. VMI and the Citadel are military colleges. But it seems to me that the all-maleness is an essential feature of what they are and that the barracks, communitarian, egalitarian life that we think is so important in the development of character would be put at hazard if the schools went coed.

Mandelbaum: Women can't be a part of an egalitarian


Bunting: In 99.99 percent but not in those particular places. People who talk about these schools have never seen them. VMI is a single, contiguous barracks building. The rooms are glass-doored. You walk out into an open cement courtyard. There are no stalls in the bathrooms. Everything is done in a regulated, communitarian, egalitarian way. It sounds almost appalling, and yet it works. Do you not think a teacher is more likely, in a men's classroom with a group of 15 of these bozos shouting and carry ing on, to say,

"Matthew, shut

up, will you please?"

Mandelbaum: I feel compelled to respond to the rosy picture being painted of these schools. At the Citadel, upperclassmen abuse lowerclassmen as part of the fourth-class system, and a part of that system is the denigration of women. Upperclassmen refer to lowerclassmen as "girls," as "wimps," as "skirts" if they're unable to perform at a certain level. It's an environment with a great deal of violence and abuse.

Watts: Let me respond to that. Let's not mince words: We're talking about a masculine environment. Abuses of language and physical abuses are not condoned. What we strive for is to bring young people in from all walks of life and put them on a level playing field. They're stripped of their dignity, of all adornments, and they set off to improve themselves through four years of this experience. The first year, obedience and followership are key words. The second, they start blossoming, gaining a smidgen of responsibility, but they also are given more opportunity to exercise self-discipline. The third year, they are thrust into low-level leadership positions where they develop their skills. Finally, the fourth year, they assume a leadership role for carrying out the institution's goals, and they learn to care for the people coming behind them.

That system has been eminently successful in turning out first-rate citizens to serve South Carolina and our country, to get along and work and function in our "diverse society." The Citadel is a gender-friendly institution.

McGuire: This whole discussion shows the startling contrast between the methodologies of those institutions and the nation's women's colleges. It's the adversative method, the breaking down of the person, the generation of conformity versus the entire educational methodology of the women's colleges, which is to honor the individuality of each and every student, to build self-confidence, to recognize individuality and to teach each person how to become a star in her own right.

Tannen: Maybe I could just give a brief summary of what we've come up with. There are different arguments to be made for the benefits of single-sex education for women versus men, and they're not always parallel. We did agree there's somewhat more research to support the benefits of single-sex education for women and maybe not enough research to see what the benefits are for men. But the argument has been made that at least some young men benefit from the strictly military-style structure that some single-sex institutions can foster. Another issue is long-term benefits--prestige, status, connections--women might be denied if they cannot attend institutions like VMI or the Citadel. But the point was also made that perhaps those benefits have been


U.S. News: Thank you all for coming.

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Modified Tuesday, November 17, 2009

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