The Case for Single-Sex Boys’ Education
Bradley, Damon. “The Case for Single-sex Boys’ Education.” International Boys’ School Coalition E-News. Sept. 2000: 3-6.
“Not so much the absence of girls as the unique benefits of an education among boys”
Parents of prospective students often ask me just what makes my school different from its competition in the area. There are a number of unique aspects I could easily identify, but I am continually amused to find that many of these parents are startled by my initial response. First and foremost, I tell them, we are a boys’ school. Their immediate reaction suggests that many parents come to a school like mine not because we are a boys’ school, but oblivious to our single sex-orientation, or even despite it. I suspect many parents view a single-sex boys’ school as quaint, a kind of throwback to an earlier, perhaps more genteel day. It is clear to me that many parents, even as they approach the door of our admissions office, have never stopped to consider the possible merits of an institution like mine, a school designed for boys to the very core of its being.
It may seem tautological to suggest that a boys’ school knows boys, but surprisingly it is often a notion that goes unrecognized. Because a boys’ school specializes in educating boys, I think it’s fair to assert that we understand them better and are better equipped to meet boys’ developmental needs at every stage of their education. Girls and boys move through their developmental stages in markedly different ways, and often quite out of harmony with one another. Any parent of both a girl and a boy will quickly corroborate that there are differences between them far more subtle and far more consequential than mere physical attributes. By way of generalization, most boys lag significantly behind the developmental stages of most girls, at least until puberty and in many cases until the later teen years. Girls acquire language facility sooner, comprehend concepts earlier, and develop small motor control at a younger age. There is a certain fastidiousness to the work of girls that most boys never acquire. Boys on the other hand perceive spatial relationships more vividly, function longer on the literal level, and gain large motor control early on. That’s why boys are more physical in nature and more inclined to sports like football and wrestling, where benefit is gained from large muscle coordination. Girls develop legible handwriting earlier than boys and girls can sit still longer than boys. Boys are all elbows and feet. There are clear developmental differences.
It doesn’t take a genius to infer that putting boys and girls together in the same classroom may not benefit either sex. They may be of the same chronological age yet not at the same developmental stage. While it may seem politically correct to view boys as the favored gender in our society and in our schools, with girls in a subsidiary role, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the exact opposite is the case. Any boy who is developmentally trailing the girls in his class is more likely to experience failure throughout his educational career. Statistics suggest that boys are more likely than girls to manifest severe learning disabilities, to present serious antisocial behavior, and even to display significantly more suicidal tendencies. Because of the composition of teaching staffs, particularly in the lower grades, boys placed in a coeducational setting may find themselves in an educational program for girls designed by women. In this setting boys are often faulted for not behaving like those in the class who are developmentally advanced, more meticulous in their daily work, more receptive to classroom instruction and less physical in their conduct . . . i.e., like girls. In this environment, boys will not be well served.
Boys’ schools specialize in boys. Unlike mixed classes, a classroom of boys does not exhibit an uneven spectrum of maturity; the boys are reasonably at the same level of receptiveness to instruction. Teachers of boys have consciously elected that calling, and know very well how to challenge boys academically and how to engage them in productive discussion. They do not come to their profession reluctantly. In a boys’ school, the teachers are more likely to be male, thereby possessing an innate memory of boyhood, and serving as powerful role models. An effective teacher of boys retains something of his own boyishness, approaches the boys non-judgmentally, and fully appreciates the issues they face. He not only instructs them in the classroom, he coaches them on the athletic field and advises them during free periods. For these very reasons, the relationship between a boy and his teacher is most likely amicable, respectful and courteous and almost never adversarial or hostile.
From their inception, boys’ schools have tended to be “meat and potatoes” kinds of schools, with no particular taste for trendy quiche and sprouts. By that I mean that most of our schools still expect a broad exposure across all disciplines, with an emphasis upon a core curriculum and considerable suspicion about too much specialization too soon in a boy’s educational journey. Boys’ schools are inclined to be traditional in their culture. The program, most likely, will be short on frill. To expand the metaphor, the educational program at most boys’ schools is not akin to a supermarket where a boy can take a little of this and a little of that as he walks down the aisle. Our schools want to be sure of what a boy has in his shopping basket as he goes through the checkout line.
Boys’ schools have also proven themselves to be fertile ground for inculcating core values and setting high ethical standards. Some forty years ago, the boys in my school proposed an “Honor Code” as the criterion of trustworthiness by which each member of the community would be judged. Personal integrity is assumed, and lying, cheating and stealing are under no circumstances tolerated. We routinely talk of civility, perseverance, teamwork, and fair play as goals to which each boy should aspire in his own life. In this male setting, we teach that virtue is to be valued more than brute force. While I would not be so presumptuous as to suggest that these goals cannot be embraced by other than boys’ schools, I do believe that there is something uniquely masculine about espousing lofty standards that beckon a young man toward a higher paradigm. Boys’ schools seek to shape rambunctious boys into gentlemen, who discover in their raw virility a more generous, a more compassionate manliness. I maintain that these qualities are difficult, if not impossible, to teach to boys in the presence of girls.
The term “well-rounded” has become hackneyed and worn out through overuse. However, insofar as it still conveys an impression, the term accurately describes what boys’ schools seek to accomplish: exposure to the full range of academics, arts, athletics, extra-curricular activities and community service. School is the place to try things out, and perhaps the last place in our society where one can explore without penalty and participate with unexceptional talent. It is generally accepted that boys’ schools will provide rigorous academics and vigorous athletics, but observers are often surprised to learn that the arts, both fine and lively, occupy a substantial element of a boy’s day. Likewise, many of our students commit considerable time each week in service to those less fortunate in our society. Our schools know that the exemplary student embodies all of these endeavors and is thereby best prepared for the next leg of his educational journey.
Some may think that an obvious shortcoming of a single-sex school is the lack of exposure to the opposite sex. And some may argue that such a school offers a sterile environment for exploring gender and sex-related issues. Quite to the contrary! A strong case can be made that boys’ schools provide an atmosphere in which issues of this nature can be discussed openly without the normal shyness and embarrassment that commonly accompany such candid discussions. Because of the mentoring relationship boys have with their teachers, they can talk about ticklish topics with fewer misgivings and greater openness. And what better place than a boys’ school to learn about the gender issues that have come to the fore in the last decade or so! A well-informed, enlightened man can teach boys about the right relationship to girls and to women without appearing to have an agenda to advance or to be caught up too emotionally in the discussion. A man can more effectively teach boys of such things precisely because he is a man.
The friendships formed among boys at a boys’ school are qualitatively different from the relationships that boys have with other boys in a coed setting, and the difference is increasingly noticeable as boys progress to upper school. When girls are around, and a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of “hooking up” (to use the modern parlance) with one of them, then other boys are automatically viewed as rivals, potential suitors for the same young lady’s attentions. Not so in an all-boys’ school. In this setting, other boys are more inclined to be viewed as kinsmen, as brothers, who are not merely adversaries to be bested. I am not suggesting that a boy in a boys’ school necessarily likes all other boys, but when girls are not part of the mix, at least one major obstacle to authentic friendship is removed.
I also maintain that the traditional emphasis upon competitive team sports at boys’ schools makes deeper, lifelong friendships more likely. When a boy comes to depend upon a fellow student to block for him as he runs down the sideline, that kind of symbiotic relationship builds a rather unique esprit. Likewise for the fellow who assists a teammate in scoring a goal or even a third-string player who cheers on a starting teammate from the bench. No aspect of school life is as powerful a catalyst in bonding boy to boy than competitive athletics. Not only does achievement on the field help to break down normal barriers between boys, but it has a lasting power as well. Some schools seek to produce “rugged individualists.” Boys’ schools tend to produce lifelong teammates, who remain in close touch with one another years after their graduation, who stand ready to run interference for a classmate in need, or to come to the aid of a fellow alumnus who has fallen by the wayside.
There is an extraordinary depth of friendship and personal loyalty among graduates of boys’ schools. Is it crass to point out that the alumni of boys’ schools tend to support their alma maters financially in higher percentages and more generously than graduates of other schools? The skeptic may contend that this elevated level of support is due primarily to the higher compensation men still receive in our society. Perhaps that is a factor. However, absent pride in one’s school or loyalty to its mission, significant largesse alone will not produce such generous charitable support. Just as the friendships of boys to boys are significantly deepened and enhanced in a single-sex environment, so too is the relationship an alumnus has with the school that enabled and fostered such uncommon camaraderie.
I conclude with an anecdote: At my school I routinely meet with groups of three or four “First-formers” (grade 7) to determine how they are adjusting to a new division of the school, or in some cases, to a new school. I often conclude my discussion with them by asking, “If you were to change one thing about this school, what would it be?” Almost without missing a beat, the boys respond by suggesting that the school should immediately become coeducational! When I first began these series of conversations, I must admit I found myself a little shaken by the alacrity and incisiveness of the boys’ retort. That is, until I considered the reasoning behind their response. A twelve- or thirteen-year old boy is conditioned to believe that a school without girls is like a world without television! They reflect the fear that if they don’t cross paths with girls in school, they will never have an opportunity to meet them. A seventh-grader struggles with the anticipation of a life without girls rather than with the experience of an existence without them.
Fortunately, I also conduct a series of “exit interviews” with each “Sixth-former” (grade 12) as he prepares to leave school for freshman year in college. Virtually to a last one, each young man attests to the value of being in an all-boys school. No longer saddled merely with the anticipation of the absence of girls, he has by the twelfth grade had the experience not only of the presence of girls in many walks of life, but of the unique benefits of an education among boys. That’s a conspicuous mark of single-sex boys’ education: Those to whom it seems alien have a difficult time imagining its advantages; however, those who have experienced it are utterly convinced of its worth. Alumni concur. The vast majority of our graduates leave a boys’ school knowing that they have been part of something very special. They entered a school as bumbling little boys and departed as accomplished young men who had been extended academically, challenged physically, stimulated artistically and sensitized to the needs of others. They have learned along the way that their most valued possession is not anything material but rather their own good name, their honest word, their undeviating integrity. They have come to like and respect each other as schoolmates whose friendship as grown men will only swell and deepen with time.
My advice to the parent who enters our admissions office unacquainted with the sundry benefits of single-sex education is to talk with those who have partaken of this special brand of education and to judge our schools by our only visible “end product,” our graduates. Among them you will most surely encounter well-educated, thoughtful, kind and high-minded men. You will discover exceptional models for any young boy to emulate; and you will find the kind of human beings you’d like your own son to become.