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Single-Sex Schools: The Persistence of an Idea

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While the debate goes on about the legitimacy of single-sex classes and schools in the public sector, private and independent schools keep taking the concept to whole new levels.

Once upon a time coeducation was unthinkable. Boys were beastly enough without the distraction of girls, and the educational needs of girls were thought to diverge from those of boys even before puberty brought its complications. Early advocates of coeducation like Bronson Alcott were thought to be batty.

Plenty of progressive educators and theorists have since laid to rest most of the traditional concerns and fears of coeducation skeptics. Public schools have been coed for a long time, and old schoolhouses with separate "Boys" and "Girls" entrances are quaint in a way that makes us shake our heads.

As a kid I experienced both single-sex and coeducational schools. My public elementary school was coed, of course, and then I had six years of boys-only junior and senior high school. Then followed a couple of years of all-male university, until we were happily rolled over by the tidal wave of vintage 1970 coeducation, leaving the president to figure out how to keep his promise that we'd produce "a thousand male leaders" every year; so was born the cramped room students call a "forced triple."

As at many all-male institutions, the arrival of women didn't make a huge dent in the culture right away, and so it when I found myself the lone male at a girls' summer camp (the maintenance guy, often reeking slightly of rotting garbage) I experienced culture shock. I had never really thought what it might be like to work in an all-female environment, stuck firmly at the bottom of a ladder, and so my summers there were a revelation.

Not the least part of the revelation involved my discovery that the young leaders of the camp, members of the first generation of late-20th-century feminists, were pretty serious about using the camp experience--sailing, biking, swimming, and lots of group activities--as leadership development. I also learned the hard way not to step into problem-solving roles until I was asked to, and I saw that younger campers idolized the competence of their counselors as much as they loved their warmth and enthusiasm.

The task of female role models and mentors was changing, and the staff was up to the work. I also discovered what "collaborative leadership" meant, as the administrative staff--led by a superb director not long out of college herself--talked things over and made decisions in ways that sounded way more like what Chris Argyris had been talking about in his myth-shattering Organizational Behavior course that year than the autocratic, just-follow-me style I had imbibed from television, movies, and high school.

If summers found me in a land of strong and independent women, my first three teaching jobs (my fourth has been in a decidedly coed environment) were back in a man's world. I think many of my generation of male teachers, with varying experiences navigating the waters of what the news magazines assured us was a Feminist Revolution, had been chastened more than a little on the meaning of masculinity and manhood, and so we did our best to tame our little corners of school environments that occasionally evoked Lord of the Flies; gently mocked as Sensitive New Age Guys, we tried to help our male students exchange bluster and boisterousness for an occasional listen and maybe even the occasional tear. I don't know how well it worked, but we felt we were doing our small part to win obscure battles in the most remote fields of that revolution.

In 2013, the world is decidedly different, and the battles are far less obscure. Colleges wrestle explicitly with how to combat "rape culture," and events like the Steubenville trial generate national conversations around how our society fosters gender-role development. We celebrate the suddenly disproportionate success of girls in the conventional academic realm (they do so much better in high school that they disadvantage one another when it comes to competitive college admission) while we wonder whether one of our unending culture wars is on boys .

Most boys' schools have long since stopped selling themselves as bastions of male hegemony and cut-it-with-a-knife testosterone culture. Curricula increasingly include diverse viewpoints, and access to self and creativity are as much a part of boys' school programs as lacrosse and basketball; schools work hard to imbue students with more beneficent ideas of what it means to be male, with responsibilities and difference equal parts of the equation. Education for boys and young men is changing, and it's heartening, for example, to note that old-fashioned expressions of stereotypical maleness, like those caught on tape when Rutgers coach Mike Rice went off on his players, excite general shock and outrage.

I just spent the better part of a day with the faculty of the all-girls Ellis School in Pittsburgh, where I was reminded of all the best aspects of my own education around gender and gender roles. Intentionally and explicitly working to turn out strong, capable, assertive women, Ellis--its heritage, its excellent teachers, and its visionary leadership--is all about helping girls find and build on their strengths and passions. Ellis makes no apologies for its commitment to the growth of girls and young women as a single-sex school, and its palpable ethos had me wishing I had a daughter to send there.

The survival of excellent girls' and boys' schools in just about every large community I can think of strikes me as testimony not to the enduring idea of separation of the sexes but rather to some very sophisticated evolving ideas of what it means to be a young woman or man. For a critical mass families and kids, some period of single-sex education is part of a path toward an adulthood informed in positive ways by an understanding of both the differences between the sexes and the ways in which we are all bound by our shared and very human anxieties, aspirations, and capacities.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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