When reading a recent Newsweek editorial by Christine Flowers extolling the virtues of same-sex education, I was reminded of a Shabbos guest we once had. A middle-aged man (am I that age now too?), he apparently had a regular joke when meeting teenage girls. So he asked my daughter how old she was.
"Seventeen," she replied.
"Me too" he said. "What grade?"
"Twelfth," she answered.
"Me too." So far so good. "What school?"
"Me too!" he proudly asserted.
The joke was on him. "It's an all-girls school," my daughter politely admonished.
The concept of separating boys and girls at school has become so unusual that our guest was completely dumbfounded. It never would have occurred to him. And that's a real shame, because there are many benefits to taking the male-female dynamic out of the education equation.
A number of years ago, Karen Stabiner published, "All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why it Matters," detailing many of the problems of a coed system (and some of the imperfections within the single gender ones as well). It's hard to read Mary Pipher's groundbreaking work, "Reviving Ophelia," which describes the drop in self-esteem and grades of girls as they approach adolescence and become more conscious of their male counterparts, without pain and revulsion. Previously bright and talented girls watch their grades drop dramatically as they focus more on dates than academic success. Is this really a benefit to our daughters? You don't have to be religious to think not.
Despite intense pressure for egalitarianism and the subsequent requirement for integration (why can't they be separate but equal?), some parents and students are slowly waking up to the power of an all-girls or all-boys school.
As the author of the Newsweek article reminds us, school is about academic accomplishment. And the studies show that girls perform much better without the pressure of looking good for the boys. Not only are they free to focus on their studies, but all that energy that usually goes into hair, makeup and clothing could be channeled into their classes. (Okay, maybe I'm stretching a point here!)
It's a tremendous relief to be able to just be yourself and not have to be "on" at school. It's a tremendous relief to feel free to state your opinions and thoughts without trying to impress. It's a tremendous relief to keep school for... well... schooling.
Our minds are only open to certain types of learning at particular times in our lives. To forgo that opportunity in favor of some elusive social goal seems an unfortunate waste. While I don't harbor any illusions that there will be an immediate and widespread return to separate-gender education, I like to cherish the hope that thoughtful parents will consider this alternative. That we will think carefully about what is really best for our children, not just do what everyone else is. And that some parents will have the courage to go against the tide and give their children and deep and full educational experience.
High school interactions between girls and boys frequently have long-term consequences, most of them negative. There are so many challenges to parenting. There are so many difficulties in schooling. Wouldn't it be nice to remove one of them from the playing field?
And it sure sweetens the pot to hear Christine Flowers say, "At Bryn Mawr, the women I encountered were brilliant, independent and focused. Not all of them arrived that way, as this writer can confirm, but all of them exited confident of success in whatever fields they chose to enter."