Single-Gender Education is an Outdated Fad

Picture+of+Green+Tie%2C+Sebastian+Bush%2C+Upper+School+for+Boys+member

photo courtesy of Inkwell

Picture of Green Tie, Sebastian Bush, Upper School for Boys member

 

Annie Wright Schools is a fine institution, one that I have had a connection with for over ten years. In this essay, I will argue that AWS needs to change, specifically that we must consider a structural shift in our upper schools. However, I by no means wish to imply that AWS is a poor institution, nor that single-gender education has no benefits. I simply hope that Annie Wright can accept that single-gender education is not without fault, and attempt to change for the better.

No good option

The idea of single-gender education thrives upon one premise: that there are two genders. In a world where more and more teens are coming out as transgender and non-binary, single-gender education finds itself in a sticky situation.

One idea regarding single-gender education is that women find a voice in the classroom that otherwise wouldn’t have been heard in a co-ed setting. However, this idea strongly resides upon the assumption that there are no boys in a girls’ school’s classroom. Yet, at Annie Wright alone, we see the exact opposite.

Suppose a trans boy at a girls school comes out. The school has two options. Kick said student to the boys’ school (regardless of that student’s preference), or keep him in the girls’ school. Neither is a very appealing option. On the first point, the school would be uprooting the student entirely and closing him off from his friends. The second forces the student to reside in an environment that doesn’t correlate to his gender identity, while also compromising the above point regarding boys in girls’ schools. 

In a world where it isn’t as black and white as single-gender education makes it out to be, the system itself can feel a bit outdated. 

Sexual orientation and compulsory heterosexuality

Another idea surrounding single-gender education supposes that women and men concentrate more without potential romantic interests in the classroom. This idea is perhaps an easier point to dispute because it completely disregards those who are not heterosexual. This assumption of heterosexuality not only diminishes but excludes LGBTQ+ individuals who do not fit into this mold single-sex education perpetuates.

As Nelson Athow (‘21) says “…‘not having potential romantic interests present helps students relax and focus,’ [is] usually portrayed as a primary advantage [for single-gender education]. But by this reasoning, it would make far more sense to segregate students based on sexual orientation. Yet even this model fails to fully account for modern understandings of gender, sex and sexuality.”

If Annie Wright truly wants to eliminate romantic interests from the classroom, they’d have a tough time creating individual classrooms for pansexual and bisexual individuals.

As Nelson says, this model of segregating via sexual identity simply cannot account for all people and identities. It is an outdated one and fails to account for those who lie outside the cis-het model that society imposes on us at birth.

The danger of gender roles

Furthermore, I believe that the reinforcement of gender roles at single-gender schools has the potential to be extremely dangerous. Non-binary students aside, single-gender education forces students into two very different groups, the stereotypical male group, and the stereotypical female group. Why does this matter? It matters because of the boys who identify more with the stereotypical feminine things and the girls who identify more with the stereotypical masculine things. Even without the aforementioned school system, children are alienated because of these interests and emotions. Why make it even worse?

In a Youtube clip posted by ABC 6 News, a rural Minnesota school aims to prove that single-gender classrooms are better. The interviewed teachers talk about the advantages of these classrooms, drawing on the idea of like-minded children being beneficial to students. However, they further add that the girls are emotional and the boys are physical. Later the reporter mentions that one teacher “tries to incorporate boys’ interests into his lesson plans, with questions about hunting or fishing.” This method not only excludes boys who do not enjoy these things but further enforces the gender stereotypes on children. I’m all for fighting the patriarchy, but this seems more like teaching it. 

Additionally, the reporter adds that students’ artwork shows the difference as well. She says the boys’ artworks are mainly actions, “like playing a hockey game or running a race.” However, the girls’ pieces depict “mainly nouns, like kittens and tigers.” Differentiating via word usage may seem harsh, but to truly understand the implications, there lies a need to dig deeper. In this classroom, the boys are strongly encouraged toward action, ‘act first, think second,’ or even ‘brawn before brains,’ while the girls are supposed to be focused more on ‘cute animals’ and ‘sensitivity.’ An action represents harshness and decision making, while nouns represent complicity and the desire for objects. 

Do you see the problem here? By being in a single-gender classroom, children are being forced into the very gender roles we are aiming to dismantle. 

And for the non-binary kids who can’t truly feel at home in either? That’s a much worse and entirely different issue altogether.

If Annie Wright wants to be the inclusive community it claims to be, it must change. They must face the facts. 2021 is not 1884, and single-gender education is becoming a thing of the past. It’s as simple as that, and arguing otherwise is a waste of breath.

Uniforms

As many say, uniforms are “the great equalizer”, a system that removes the classist ritual of fighting over name brands for clothes and accessories. Everyone wears the same thing, and there is no spite. However, uniforms are not without fault. 

The problem with uniforms systemically is that it further reinforces the gender roles and stereotypes of the modern age. Men wear dress shirts and khakis, women wear skirts and blouses, with little regard to our non-binary friends who see no option for themselves. To enter a single-gender uniform school such as Annie Wright is like being separated into cohorts. Boys or Girls. And for non-binary individuals, there is no third option. And after being forced into a division which they do not identify with, this next step of wearing incredibly gendered uniforms feels like pouring salt in a new wound.

Emil Haedt (‘21) says “In the Girls’ school, we are allowed to wear either pants or a skirt, however, some have expressed discomfort with the ‘gender color coding’ of the uniforms. For example, the USG has navy blue pants while the USB has khakis, which isn’t a big deal, but it does feel like I am constantly being outed by everyone I walk past during the day because of the color of my pants.” “I think uniforms would be pretty easy [to change] because there’s nothing the administration really has to do besides allow students to do something.” 

Chris Lai (‘21) agrees, “I think the uniform system really bothers me. The separation between khaki pants in the boys’ school and navy blue pants in the girls’ school, and the different ties from both schools are just unnecessary. I think there should be either more flexibility between both schools or the unity of uniform in both upper school divisions.”

Annie Wright must, and I stress, must remove the gender divide that is inherently built into our uniform system. Not only for the non-binary students who can finally wear a uniform they identify with but also for the boys who simply want to wear skirts and for the girls who simply want to wear khakis and ties. 

At every turn, AWS reinforces these sexist and outdated gender roles. If we want to empower women, this is not the way to approach it. We must accept that and move forward, and the best way to start is by restructuring our uniform policies to allow students free gender expression. There is a difference between “allowing our students to express creativity in ways other than clothes,” and “confining our students to rigid gender roles and limiting their gender expression to how we believe men and women should dress”.

AWS can talk the talk, but not walk the walk

As previously established, every single thing at Annie Wright is gendered. From the USG/B handbooks using exclusively she/her and he/him pronouns to the names of the Upper Schools—Upper School for Girls and Upper School for Boys. Some have even tried to begin saying “those who identify as male” instead of simply saying “boys”. But this isn’t enough. We can’t recognize some transgender people without recognizing all transgender people, including people who are non-binary. 

AWS’s website mentions “We recognize all identities as part of our diversity, including both under-represented and over-represented groups across ethnic, racial, and regional identities; language and learning profiles; religious and political beliefs; socioeconomic and family make-ups; and gender and sexual identities.” And yet we continue to foster a community based solely upon the premise of two schools for two genders. Annie Wright supports non-binary people in theory, but not in practice. 

If they truly did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Nelson Athow (USB ‘21) says “I have not familiarized myself with all the proposed advantages of the model [(single-gender education)] that Annie Wright values because this model was never the reason I chose to attend the school. I am certainly not equipped to re-think gendered education with appropriate thoroughness, but its flaws are clear and must not simply be ignored.” “As a binary guy, I can’t speak to how such a potential [non-binary] student would feel in this perspective, but I would be surprised if the gendered atmosphere wasn’t a significant deterrence. My best attempt to relate is imagining how interested I, an atheist, would be in attending a school divided into a Catholic division and a Protestant division. Hint: Not very, when there are plenty of options that are more inclusive.” 

And as Lai points out, “…In order to really achieve a gender-inclusive atmosphere, it is best to move both upper school divisions together,” “…right now having separate divisions is pretty non-inclusive towards people who don’t identify in the gender binary or people who are identifying as the opposite gender they are born as but [are] still in the division [that correlates to their gender] assigned at birth.” “I think it is pretty difficult to change but not impossible. Since AWS is known for its single-gendered education, a lot of alumni might be opposed to it. However, I really hope that AWS upper schools can change for the better and become co-ed.”

Final thoughts

Annie Wright can stress the importance of inclusivity, and how they wouldn’t stop a non-binary student from attending AWS, yet they miss the point entirely. You can’t say that you support non-binary individuals and also teach in a single-gender environment. Those claims are entirely contradictory. 

Single-gender education may have its values, but it surely has its downsides too. I truly love Annie Wright, but we need to change. Whether it’s fixing the uniform system or entirely restructuring the upper schools, we must do something. If Annie Wright wants to claim support for trans and non-binary students, they have to back that claim. 

Non-binary activism brings something valuable to the table not because it destroys or eliminates gender, but because it questions the logic behind rigid gender norms, hierarchies, and the state’s use of gender as an unnecessary control mechanism. This questioning benefits people of all genders, not only non binary people. (76, F***ing the the binary for social change, Avery Faucette)

 

DISCLAIMER: Opinion pieces reflect the viewpoints of their writer specifically and not necessarily the viewpoints of Inkwell or Annie Wright Schools.