liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
[ profile] shreena asked for my views on single-sex education (schools/colleges/universities). I like this prompt, it gives me an excuse to pontificate on a topic I don't get into too often.

As [ profile] shreena knows, but some of you may not, I attended a girls only school for ten years, from the age of 8 to the age of 18. The school was a very good fit for me and I was generally happy there, but I think not particularly because it was single-sex. I somewhat resented being segregated away from boys, though I wasn't completely isolated from them as I have two brothers and regularly socialized with male peers through the Jewish community, synagogue and youth movement. But basically I didn't believe that the differences between boys and girls were substantial enough to warrant having entirely separate education, and to a very great extent I still don't.

The huge advantage of being in a girls' school was that nobody had the slightest possible ghost of an idea that girls couldn't achieve academically, couldn't do science and technical subjects, couldn't be leaders. I never had a problem of teachers deliberately or unconsciously giving the boys who were absent from my classes the lion's share of attention and encouragement at my expense. I'm sure that was good for my confidence and may well have been a contributory factor in my pursuing science subjects to A Level and applying for science courses at university. A lot of the time when you read feminist writing you see claims that women "are taught" to be deferential and subordinate and to put others' needs ahead of their own. Which always leads me to query, taught by whom? I most certainly wasn't taught either explicitly or implicitly to be feminine in those sorts of potentially limiting ways.

In fact the school almost went too far in this. They took a kind of weird "Lean in" style feminist attitude that everybody must aspire to highly paid, highly respected professional jobs; caring professions or support jobs or simply choosing other priorities over career success were considered beneath us. Being encouraged in maths and science was great, being steered away from learning much about computers and IT in case (horrors!) we ended up working as mere secretaries was not so great. In sixth form we were sternly told not to apply for a part-time job as an amanuensis and note-taker working for students with disabilities, because we might get the idea that women weren't good enough for real jobs. I went against the school's edict and took the job anyway, and found it extremely valuable experience quite apart from the fact that earning some extra pocket money was beneficial. And I wasn't in fact "good enough" for a high prestige job at that point, because I was seventeen years old and had no job experience at all, nothing to do with the fact that I was female. I certainly don't think this kind of weird snobbery is an inevitable consequences of single-sex education, though, I think that was just my particular school.

Based on the experiences of many of my friends and many many accounts I've read on the internet, I do think that secondary education in the company of teenaged boys can be a pretty miserable experience. But it's a pretty miserable experience for boys as well, and I don't believe that anyone deserves to suffer violence and sexual aggression just because they happen to be male. I really can not think that the problem of the worst of teenage boy behaviour is appropriately addressed by segregating education. Rather there is a pressing need to treat peer violence as wholly unacceptable, no matter what gender the perpetrators are. And yes, girls can be bullies too, but are much less likely to get away with the level of actual physical and sexual assault that seems to be almost the norm in boys' or mixed schools.

Less seriously, another argument against co-education is that teenagers will be "distracted" by being around members of the opposite sex. This is kind of ridiculous since it assumes that absolutely everybody is strictly heterosexual! I think one could reasonably argue that it's not so much the fact of having sexual desires which is distracting, as the social context in which you're expected to "get" a boyfriend / girlfriend, and the consequences of that, the often competitive pursuit, the social status jockeying over having a partner or not, the breakups taking place within a small community of learners. Single sex education is in no way a barrier to teenagers having sex or to teenage pregnancy, but perhaps it's something that the relationships that do occur are less disruptive to the social situation if the majority at least don't pursue, date, sleep with and break up with their fellow pupils from the same class. I have to say that personally, I benefitted from simply not bothering with the whole dating scene until I went to university, and from not having to deal with a lowered social status due to being unattractive to boys.

So I see that there are problems with educating teenagers in a mixed sex environment. I generally disapprove of segregation as a method for dealing with social problems, though. It may be that until we have actually got to a much less sexist world, and one in which teenage boys in particular are not tacitly encouraged to hit other boys and ignore girls' consent and bodily integrity, single-sex education is the least worst temporary option. But for me the less sexist and less toxic masculine broader context has to be the goal. And even as a very temporary kludge, single-sex education is kind of a disaster for anyone who's non-binary, or who isn't the sex that their parents and those in authority insist they are. Even for me, pretty much cis, I found being in an all girls' school extremely difficult; in a co-ed environment it was possible for me to be a tomboy, to socialize mostly with boys and so on, and when I moved to a girls' school I really struggled to be sufficienly feminine to fit in socially. In some ways it has been to my advantage that I have learnt, albeit imperfectly, to conform more or less to feminine gender norms, but it's somewhat of a double-edged "advantage" of my single-sex education.

I find it very hard to see the point of single-sex education at primary school level; the differences between pre-pubescent boys and girls are just so tiny that segregation seems utterly illogical. At very best it's going to reinforce binary assumptions, and I generally find those to be almost entirely harmful.

The situation I haven't addressed yet is single-sex post-compulsory education. I think the argument in favour is mostly that single-sex education means that women aren't competing with more dominating men for resources and attention, and this may help to mitigate the disadvantages of generally sexist world. It's possible, but it's an approach I find somewhat distasteful, even though I admit that the problem it's a proposed solution for is a real problem. Beyond that, some people do just genuinely feel more comfortable in a single-sex environment, and I concede that there's probably no harm in that being available for them as an option. A subset of that is people who are following religious prohibitions against mixed-sex learning, or at least whose parents are going to block them from accessing mixed education. It's better that people in those circumstances have access to further and higher education at all, even if it means having to sustain segregated institutions which I don't really feel are a good thing.

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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