Coeducation and Same-Sex Schooling

The question of how to educate men and women together has had a long and rather turbulent history. It has been linked to questions of morality in the socialization of children, equality between the sexes, and higher academic achievement for both boys and girls. By and large, conservatives have advocated separate schooling for males and females, while liberal educational reformers typically have been champions of coeducation. In recent years this pattern has shifted somewhat in the United States, as feminists have endorsed separate schools as a means of supporting women's success, and reformers have explored the effect of all-male schools on African-American students' achievement. While coeducation has grown in popularity elsewhere, gender-segregated schooling continues to predominate in many other areas of the world. As a consequence, the question of gender and education continues to cause controversy.

Throughout much of history, separate education of boys and girls was the norm. This reflected the different roles society assigned to each gender and the unequal status of men and women in most premodern societies. By and large, male LITERACY rates were much higher than female literacy rates. Boys were trained for the worlds of work, politics, and war; while girls were prepared for the domestic spheres of home, hearth, and nursery. The very idea of coeducation posed a threat to this traditional division of labor, and it therefore held the potential to undermine the existing hierarchy.

Early Coeducation Efforts

During the eighteenth century, coeducation began to appear on a widespread basis in English-speaking regions of North America. Ideologically, the movement can be linked to Reformation-inspired religious dissention and to conditions of life in a frontier society. Coeducation was first practiced in New England, the region with the best-developed schools; most of these were intended to provide literacy instruction for religious education. The practice of enrolling both boys and girls in school together probably stemmed from the growing incidence of female church membership, as well as from the practical requirements of finding enough children to support the schools in a thinly inhabited countryside.

The years immediately following the American Revolution witnessed a surge of interest in female education and a growing perception that women had a critical role to play in the socialization of children of the new republic. This view– combined with a widely dispersed, largely agrarian population–helped to make coeducation a highly popular practice by the early nineteenth century, at least in the northern and western regions. Although coeducation was somewhat less commonplace in the larger U.S. cities, where traditional European norms prevailed, reformers vigorously urged its adoption, arguing that combining the sexes in school was a reflection of their "natural" mingling in two other important institutions: church and family. Pioneering experiments in coeducational higher education at Antioch and Oberlin Colleges in the antebellum period helped pave the way for more widespread acceptance of the practice. By the 1890s, the vast majority of American school children were enrolled in coeducational schools, a far higher percentage than in any other nation. Most children were enrolled in common or primary schools, but coeducation also had become widespread in secondary schools and colleges. By 1900 about 70 percent of American institutions of higher education admitted both men and women. Coeducation had become a standard American practice–one that clearly distinguished schools in the United States from educational institutions elsewhere.

The Case Against Coeducation

This did not mean that coeducation was adopted without controversy. It became a source of contention with regard to high schools and colleges, especially during the late nineteenth century. Certain male doctors argued that extended education was dangerous for women, who could be harmed by overexertion caused by competition with male students. Other opponents of coeducation protested on religious and moral grounds, maintaining that the hazards of impropriety were higher when young men and women were placed in such close proximity for long periods. But these arguments were countered by a host of voices defending coeducation as a practical success and a virtue of the American system of education. School authorities refuted claims that schooling made girls sickly, and parents willingly sent their daughters to coeducational high schools and colleges. School leaders also argued that coeducation was necessary for the success of secondary institutions, because restricting them to males would make the support of such schools impractical in all but the largest communities. Some educators even suggested that the girls represented a calming or "civilizing" influence on the boys, and that the presence of young men in the classroom may have helped to spur their female classmates to greater success. Taken together, these arguments represented a powerful affirmation of coeducation in the United States. Single-sex institutions persisted in larger cities, however, as well as in the American South, where conservative European traditions persisted.

Other Countries Consider Coeducation

The adoption of coeducation in other countries proceeded more gradually. Scandinavia was one of the earliest regions to adopt mixed-gender schools; coeducational institutions date from the eighteenth century in Denmark and the nineteenth century in Norway. Despite some isolated experiments in Great Britain, Italy, and Germany, however, the weight of tradition posed a powerful obstacle to its advancement elsewhere. Coeducation was closely associated with women's rights in the public mind, and the limited appeal of the early feminists constrained its acceptance. Europe's relatively high population density made sex-segregated primary schooling logistically practical, and secondary education was largely limited to elites and was dominated by male students. Women were admitted to institutions of higher education in the late nineteenth century, but except for a small number of intrepid pioneers, their absence from secondary schools made matriculation of women impractical at most universities. The first major challenge to this pattern occurred in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution; there, women were afforded greater access to education, often on terms that were equivalent to those of men. Coeducation was consistent with radical conceptions of equality, and it was an efficient means of rapidly boosting student enrollments, helping the newly formed Soviet Union to meet its growing requirements for trained workers in a variety of fields. By and large, however, the Soviet model of coeducation was not followed by the rest of Europe.

A Backlash Develops in America

Coeducation became a matter of debate again in the United States in the opening decades of the twentieth century, as the number of high school students rose dramatically. New curricula were devised for female students, including courses in home economics, commercial (secretarial), and trades (especially garment-making). Boys, on the other hand, enrolled in such classes as industrial arts, bookkeeping, and commercial geography. These different courses reflected a growing recognition of the importance of schooling to the labor market, and of the sharp division of labor that continued to distinguish the work of men and women. Even if young men and women attended the same schools, the dictates of the larger society's conception of sex roles and gender-appropriate forms of work exerted considerable influence on educational institutions

At about the same time, certain groups resisted coeducation. Catholics objected to the practice on moral and religious grounds, arguing that it raised the specter of promiscuity and invited an unhealthy competition between the sexes. Echoing the arguments of curriculum experts who advocated separate vocational courses for young men and women, these critics claimed that the principle of differentiation was rooted in religion, and that males and females had profoundly different purposes to fulfill. For this reason, the vast preponderance of Catholic secondary schools remained single-sex institutions, even though many parochial grade schools observed the American practice of coeducational classes. Other private schools also resisted coeducation, largely in deference to traditions upheld within the upper echelons of society, which often followed European norms. Thus, while coeducation remained widely popular in the United States, its reach was hardly universal. The sexual division of labor and traditional concerns about propriety and the protection of young women continued to exert an influence on school policies. It would not be until after World War II that these limitations would change dramatically.

Coeducation Continues To Spread

Several developments accounted for the worldwide advancement of coeducation during the twentieth century, accelerating after 1945. One was the global spread of American influence after World War II. The conflict had devastated Europe and thus softened resistance to new modes of education for both sexes. Perhaps even more important was a gradual shift in gender roles, providing women with greater opportunity for involvement in life outside of the domestic sphere. This was especially manifested in rising rates of female participation in the labor force, perhaps most evident in America and Europe but also apparent in other countries. These developments bolstered arguments that educational opportunities open to women ought to be equivalent to those available to men, and coeducation came to be seen as the most direct and practical road to achieving such equity. Finally, a revolution in sexual mores came to characterize the decades during the second half of the century, becoming widely influential in the 1960s; this cultural change reduced popular resistance to coeducation on moral and religious grounds. Together, all of these influences helped to usher in a new period of swift progression in coeducational practices in the United States and elsewhere.

Coeducation spread slowly throughout America. Singlesex schools began to consider becoming coeducational in the 1950s and 1960s. These developments were abetted by the civil rights movement, which not only raised public awareness of racial inequities in education, but also helped to foster feminism. Calls for gender equity in education put pressure on institutions to respond to perceptions that single-sex education was inherently unequal. Perhaps the greatest changes occurred at Catholic schools and colleges. Many of these institutions adjusted their admissions policies as a result of public pressure, partly due to the desires expressed by potential students. As demand increased for a coeducational experience in high school and colleges, many other private schools and colleges also altered their policies. Survey data suggested that fewer and fewer students were interested in the single-sex experience. While coeducation had long been popular in the United States, it reached unprecedented levels of public acceptance. At the same time, gender-segregated education remained most common in those curricula closest to the labor force. While the number of women increased sharply in such formerly male-dominated domains as law and medical schools, fields such as nursing, clerical work, carpentry, and auto repair remained segregated by sex.

Similar changes occurred throughout Europe. The spread of coeducation was even more pronounced, however, largely because the practice had been so rare. In many European cities, primary education became largely coeducational, although elite secondary schools in Germany and elsewhere continued to resist the practice. In France and Great Britain, coeducation became the norm more quickly; furthermore, the development of American-style "comprehensive" institutions eventually ushered in greater gender equity. Perhaps the biggest change, however, occurred at the universities; the preparation of larger numbers of women at the secondary level led to rising postsecondary enrollments.

Elsewhere in the world, the adoption of coeducation was less certain. In JAPAN women's matriculation consistently lagged behind other developed societies, and gender segregation persisted in higher education. Other countries witnessed dramatic improvements in women's education, however, and they widely practiced coeducation as educational opportunities expanded. This was true, for instance, in Cuba and CHINA. In some other developing countries, on the other hand, traditional and religious influences inhibited the growth of female education, especially at the secondary level and in universities. In much of AFRICA and in the Arab nations, coeducation continues to be frowned upon or strictly forbidden.

Same-Sex Schooling Regains Momentum

The drive for gender equity in American education continued during the 1970s and 1980s, pushing coeducation forward. Title IX legislation, passed by Congress in 1972, heightened public awareness of equity issues related to gender and contributed to institutional change in the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, however, competing forces existed. An influential conservative political movement, represented by the presidency of Ronald Reagan; public concerns about sexual freedom; a rise in unmarried–particularly teenage– pregnancy; and the growth of sexually transmitted diseases led to a reexamination of coeducational policies. Simultaneously, feminists who were concerned about the slow advance of women into fields such as mathematics began to question the logic of coeducation as the principal means to educational equity. In the late 1970s, researchers began to note higher levels of female academic achievement at singlesex colleges compared to coeducational institutions. In a 1992 published report, the American Association of University Women questioned whether coeducation was the best way to achieve higher levels of accomplishment for young women. They postulated that females were likely to be ignored in class discussions and subjected to threats of sexual harassment. These findings contributed to a resurgence of interest in women's colleges. Educational reformers were similarly concerned about the low academic performance of young urban African-American males. They began to explore the feasibility of all-male academies, to provide an environment free of distractions in which these students could focus on achievement. These ideas and experiments posed a serious challenge to the principle of coeducation, and they marked the first major setback in its ascendancy during the postwar period.

Historically, coeducation has been associated with the idea of equality between the sexes in education and greater opportunities for women. Its advancement has marked the growth of women's rights and the expansion of the modern educational system to serve all segments of the population. The rise of coeducation has followed the movement of women into education, especially at the secondary and postsecondary levels. First widely observed in the United States, the practice of coeducation has spread significantly, although its advance has been uneven in many parts of the developed world, and slow to nonexistent in the developing world. As a rule, resistance has been greatest in societies where women's rights have been most rigidly constrained. Even in morally liberal societies such as the United States, recent developments suggest that there is a natural limit to the extent of coeducation's appeal. Renewed interest in single-sex schools indicates that the controversy over coeducation is not likely to subside soon.

See also: Education, Europe; Education, United States; Girls' Schools; High School; Junior High School; Women's Colleges in the United States.


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