Are Boys the New Girls?

        Thanks to Hillary Clinton, Wellesley retains a certain cachet, but most women’s colleges have suffered predictable declines in popularity and prestige since the late 1960s, when the top men’s school became coed.  By the late 1990s, only 1.3% of all women receiving B.A. degrees were graduates of women’s colleges.  Some single sex schools, (like Vassar and Skidmore) joined a trend they could not beat and began admitting men; others, like my alma mater, Smith College, struggled to find new raison d’etres: Smith offers an engineering program and boasts of the superior science education it provides for female students.

        Women who remain ideologically committed to single sex education, including many alums of single sex schools, naturally lament the decline of women’s colleges, but the fact that they’re no longer needed is a testament to their success.  The dream of educational equality shared by their founders has been realized. 

        Or has it?  A widely publicized, 1992 report prepared by the Wellesley Center for Research on Women (commissioned by the American Association of University Women) was entitled “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” The executive summary cited “gender bias as a major problem at all levels of schooling.”   But the alarmist tone of the title and the summary of this report was undermined by its actual findings, which were complicated and inconclusive.  In fact, the report noted that “socio-economic status,” not sex, was said to be the “best predictor of both grades and test scores.”  And, just 6 years later, the AAUW published a report questioning the virtues of single sex education for girls.

        The rather misleading framing of the 1992 report exemplified the primacy of ideology in what are billed as empirical studies of single sex education (among other questions involving sex and gender difference.)  So it was not surprising when a boy’s movement arose in the 1990s, and advocates for boys began challenging the belief that schools shortchanged girls.  They argue that it’s boys who are being shortchanged -- falling behind in verbal skills, while taking the lead in disciplinary problems and learning disabilities.  They point out that a majority of college students today are female.  This frequently cited development is less remarkable than it may appear: By the early 1900’s, more girls than boys were graduating from high school.  Still, boys are often said to be in more trouble than girls, victims of biology or social trends – including co-education.  

        Recently, advocates for boys have helped revitalize single sex programs in secondary schools, with the aid of the Bush Administration, which has eased federal restrictions on them.  Programs that might once have been prohibited as forms of sex discrimination are now permitted in the interests of sexual equality.

        It’s an old story: from the beginning, in the 19th century, feminists have disagreed about whether separatism was good or bad for women -- whether biology was destiny, and whether sexual justice required legal protections or legal equality.  Separatist or protectionist feminists stressed women's inescapably feminine natures (in modern terms, their "ways of knowing.") Today, advocates for boys (masculinists?) stress their different learning styles, temperaments, and vulnerabilities, and their consequent need for single sex environments.

        What do scientists say?  That’s a dangerous question, as former Harvard President Larry Summers learned; but when he speculated about natural cognitive differences between the sexes, and sparked protests that helped precipitate his resignation, he was not straying outside the mainstream.  As long as there has been a feminist movement and the threat of dismantling traditional gender roles, there have been scientists who claimed that intellectual and emotional differences between the sexes were only natural.  Today, some rely on technology, like brain scans purporting to show natural sexual difference.  In the late 1800’s, some claimed that men were smarter than women because their brains were heavier.  Whether the science of sexual difference will look equally silly 100 years from now, I cannot say (obviously.)  But history suggests we should be wary of claims about natural cognitive, characterological, and moral differences between the sexes and even warier of laws and policies designed to accommodate them.  Even if such differences do exist, to some degree, on average, they shouldn’t dictate the treatment of individuals.  

        Besides, beliefs about natural sexual difference tend to be self-perpetuating; single sex schools have long been marked by their own special form of sexism.  As researcher Valerie Lee observed in a study of Catholic schools some 20 years ago, while girls' schools paid attention to equality, they also “perpetuated a pernicious form of sexism: academic dependence and nonrigorous instruction.”  In chemistry classes, “undue attention was paid to neatness and cleanliness as well as to drawing parallels between domesticity and chemistry activities.”

        As you may have guessed, I am not an advocate of single sex education, (having experienced its failings firsthand,) but I don’t mean to adopt a dogmatic position against it.   I realize, of course, that some teenagers, male and female, prefer single sex environments and perform well in them (though I always wonder if they would perform equally well in small, well-financed, well taught coed programs.)  And I can’t help suspecting single sex programs of perpetuating gender stereotypes: A recent article lauding single sex classes in the South Carolina public schools notes that “educators gear their lessons to what students like: assigning action novels for boys to read or allowing girls to evaluate cosmetics for science projects.”  You can call this science, but it looks like lipstick feminism to me.

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