Here’s a story of the times: In New York City recently, a small group of idealists decided they wanted to help disadvantaged teenage girls get a start in the world. So they created and helped fund a new public high school just for girls.
Now, the first thing you think is, what a great idea. In a time when so many girls seem so lost, when unwed teen pregnancy is up, when studies suggest girls have a harder time getting attention and help in school than boys . . . how could giving them something special and aimed particularly at their needs be anything but good?
But another part of your brain—the part that is experienced in the world and knows that any good idea can be thwarted by ideologues and interest groups—knows what’s coming: The school is facing a legal challenge on the grounds that it unconstitutionally discriminates against boys.
In a way it is a twist on the 1993 suit brought against The Citadel, the then all-male military college in South Carolina on the grounds that it discriminated against girls. The Citadel was forced to admit a girl; then the boys apparently rudely hounded her out. It isn’t nice to be rude. But the boys had a case, and I think it’s a case that should be made and heard more often.
The case is this: Boys really ought to be able to go to schools without girls, and girls to schools without boys. If you say, “That’s already legal as long as no public funds are involved,” well, public funds are almost always involved one way or another.
In the younger grades, boys and girls are very different and often have different needs. As my 9-year-old niece, Michelle, who goes to a coed school, recently reminded me, the difference between boys and girls is that “when boys argue they fight, and when girls argue they use words.” Boys have to be taught that a punch can break a nose, and girls that a word can break a heart.
Little boys are small and delightful animals who love to be petted and who require encouragement. (I know, for I have one.) Up until at least sixth grade, they are often not as mature, not as well coordinated or verbally capable. (My own theory on why, if it is true, teachers give more attention to boys than girls: They know the boys need it.)
Boys are genetically programmed to impress girls by acting tough. A boy in a choir in an all-boys school will try to hit the high notes because that is his job. But if girls are around, some of the boys will never hit the high notes because they’re afraid it looks sissy. A secret: Boys really like to hit the high notes because they like music and plays. They are more inclined to do it joyfully and well without the self-consciousness girls bring.
Girls, minus boys, will do the kinds of things little girls do: think, ponder, conspire, organize, and decide no one should speak to Jennifer today. When boys are around they often act as if this isn’t what they do—and phoniness is corrupting to the character. And they will ask hard questions and give hard answers without being afraid that brainy girls don’t get boyfriends.
Beyond that, boys are often more aggressive in class, especially when they have nothing to say. That’s when they’re most inclined to raise their hands. Little girls often sigh and let the boy screaming, “I know, I know!” get the attention. Which may be nice for the boy, but not’ for the girl.
When they’re teenagers, the problem isn’t that they’re unalike, but that they’re becoming similar. By eighth grade a lot of boys and girls would rather be staring across the room at each other, slack-jawed with fantasy, than doing their work. Opposites distract. Also, keeping boys and girls apart at this age contributes to an air of mystery, which makes boys and girls ultimately more powerful. (The most idiotic thing about coed college dorms is that they demystify the opposite sex.)
I for one believe boys and girls should be kept apart at gunpoint until age 21, when they meet to shake hands minutes before the arranged marriage. But of course I’m kidding: Guns are dangerous. I do, however, think that the closer you look at our culture—its highly sexualized nature, its celebration of sophistication and denigration of innocence—the more inclined you should be to consider whether boys and girls would do well to be apart. As a matter of fact, after 30 years of challenging men’s clubs, of challenging boys’ schools—of insisting even that the ladies and gentlemen should not part after the formal dinner party to take their brandy in separate rooms—it seems to me that it would be a good idea to knock it off and give it a rest. .
Equality of all sorts is always desirable, but it can be secured in a lot of ways, and forced integration of the sexes seems to me these days the least helpful and the least promising because it involves coercion. And that’s no way to learn.