Separate But Equal?

A few days ago, my friend Joseph sent me a link to this New York Times article on sex-segregated public schooling. Aside from the fact that I thought we'd sorted out a long time ago that segregation in schools does not lead to greater social equality, there seem to me to be an overall assumption here about children that I find highly suspicious--namely, that they can be sorted into two groups of like individuals based on gender behavior. As Joseph pointed out in his email to me:
I think it is reasonable to accept that, on average, males and females tend to react differently to different teaching styles, but treating those rather small differences as the basis for segregating class rooms seems dangerous, because one ends up implying that ALL males want to draw pictures of cars going fast and girls want to draw pictures of people interacting. The goal of improving teaching by making a classroom more homogeneous seems to be a hopeless one -- rather, it seems one should be focusing on teaching each student as an individual and meeting their needs rather than trying to break children up into supposedly homogeneous groups.
By separating children into gender-based groups, we are encouraging children to accept stereotypical generalizations about the opposite sex--the boys in the article are quoted as saying, for example, that they like being in an all-boys classroom because girls don't like snakes. Well, I happen to know several girls who love reptiles. But because these boys aren't seeing girls get friendly with snakes in class, they can more easily continue to believe that no girls share their interest.

Not only does this model of "girls" vs. "boys" reinforce gender stereotypes, it also assumes that all children naturally fall into these two categories, and that they thrive better when socializing primarily with members of their assigned sex/gender. It neatly elides the existence of queer and trans children, who may not be sure where they fall in the female/male spectrum--and shouldn't be forced to decide (or have their parents decide for them). Joseph also pointed out that some situations that we generally think are more comfortable for children as a single-sex environment can be more awkward for gay and lesbian kids than mixed company:
The one point where it seemed to make a little sense was when a female teacher was saying that she felt much more able to discuss sexuality in the literature they read in class in an all-female setting, which I can certainly imagine. Though that, of course, leaves the homosexuals in a more awkward position . . . I also have this really negative -- bordering on fearful -- reaction to all-male settings . . . settings where there is the implicit understanding that females are excluded because that type of space [locker rooms, etc.] only works where no one is sexually attracted to anyone else in the space.*
While it may solve some shorter-term problems (such as girls' reluctance to speak up in science class, or boys' reluctance to join the choir because it's too "girly") establishing a same-sex education program does so at the expense of already vulnerable children, whose sense of exclusion may only get stronger with increasing emphasis on the homogeneity of the environment in which they are placed.

Ann, over at feministing, has written a post on this article and linked to several other sources discussion the supposedly "scientific" basis for same-sex education. Check it out if you're interested!

*Thanks Joseph for the permission to use your email in this post :).

Image lifted from the NYT article


  1. I've been quoted on FFLA! I feel so famous.

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  3. I haven't read the article yet. To be honest, I always do the Sunday puzzle first AND only after completing it do I move on to the rest of the magazine.

    At the risk of revealing that my life revolves around TV - and The Simpsons no less - I wanted to mention an episode I recently saw... Springfield decides to separate the girls and the boys into different schools. The boys school is rife with violence, bullying and good teachers. The girls school pipes in classical music, has cushy seats and teachers who want the girls to "experience" math. Lisa becomes enormously frustrated and after a dicussion with her mother who gave up calculus in High School to go surfing with Homer, she decides to dress like a boy and attend the boys school in order to get a better math education. She ends up acting like a boy (after lessons from Bart) by acting violent and bullying....she beats up Ralph and becomes the most popular boy in school. Talk about stereotypes - but of course that was the point and I imagine this was the response to Harvard's prez saying that girls weren't as good at math and science.