EDUCATION: by Lucy SullivanNews Weekly
Co-educational secondary schooling's drawbacks
, September 27, 2008
Historically and anthropologically, all human societies have separated girls and boys during their adolescent years, writes Dr Lucy Sullivan.Catherine Sheehan's review (News Weekly, August 30, 2008) of Maggie Hamilton's book, What's Happening to Our Girls, paints a horrifying picture of the sexual bullying to which teenage girls today are subjected by their male peers, and of its effects.
What I would like to highlight here, however, is a major source of the problem - the institutionalised exposure of teenage girls to young male antagonism on a daily basis in our predominantly coeducational secondary schools.
Historically and anthropologically, all human societies - our own included until past the middle of the last century - have separated girls and boys during their adolescent years, the time in which they are physically maturing, and psychologically defining themselves, sexually.
With institutional separation, they identify with the adults of their own sex to whom they are responsible, and learn culturally approved adult attitudes and modes of behaviour towards the opposite sex.
Hamilton's book makes patent - and this has been evident to the concerned observer ever since the experiment was begun - that if boys are not socially defined as male in this manner, they prove it to themselves through contempt, antagonism and aggression towards the girls of their peer group, from whom society has not seen fit to formally distinguish them.
In our ideologically gender-neutral society, their emphasis is naturally on the one dimorphism that cannot be eradicated - explicit sexual behaviour at its most animal level.
Coeducational schooling was made virtually universal in Australia in the 1970s in the supposed service of equality for women. It was asserted that separating boys and girls in their adolescent years fuelled male notions of superiority and disrupted the development of mutual respect essential to a society in which men and women were equals.
But this was a mere hypothesis, implemented without prior verification. However, the processes of human development are biological as well as social, and it is now clear that it was disastrously wrong, and bitterly harmful to girls.
And harmful to boys as well. I cannot believe that the behaviour described in boys, although they appear to have the upper hand, reflects a happy self-confidence. It is bound to disrupt their eventual prospects of forming the trusting and protective relationships with women that are so essential to their eventual happiness. The high suicide rates in older adolescent boys and young men are surely evidence that all is not well with them.Teenage socialisation
It would be easy to reverse this false move in teenage socialisation if we really had the political and moral will. Although state high schools were often nominally coeducational before the 1970s, in fact boys and girls were often in separate classes and had separate playground areas.
This could easily be reconstituted without the need for extensive re-building. Although some pupils of both sexes would still determinedly seek each other out, it would at least ensure for girls a generous space where they were free to develop their own certainties and values, away from the critical gaze and comments of juvenile males.- Lucy Sullivan, PhD, has written on families, taxation, child-rearing and education for the Centre for Independent Studies.