No one denies that men's colleges were established as all-male bastions for historical reasons. Nonetheless, the notion of single-sex education as an exclusionary process, or consequent preparation for an exclusionary world, is archaic and obsolete. Men today understand they will work with and for women, as equal partners. Single-sex education is not an antiquated concept, however. It is no longer defined by who is excluded but by what can be fostered: development of personalized growth free of stale typecasting. The standard line is that single-sex classrooms avoid distractions of the opposite sex, and the consequent preening and posturing (both conscious and subconscious) that are "engendered" by their presence. But such schools can also avoid stifling stereotypes that represent what a young man or woman "should" be.
A traditional argument in favor of women's colleges is that they offer a safe, nurturing environment where women can explore new fields and grow in confident self-reliance. But women began to dominate college classrooms three decades ago, not only in quantity–they now earn 60% of all post-secondary degrees–but also in traditional leadership positions like newspaper editor or president of student government. Today, it's men who sometimes need a boost in confidence and poise, and who need the supportive atmosphere in which to develop skills, especially reading and writing, where they typically lag behind. Men in all-male environments can safely pursue poetry, acting, music, teaching, nursing, writing, and so on, along with business, law, and medicine. By this criterion, all-male schools are as valuable as ever. Men like to take risks. Here they can do so, and learn from mistakes. Close bonds forged in all-male camaraderie are a nice bonus, but the breadth of capabilities young men acquire in all-male settings provide the real advantage.
Despite potential shortcomings of an all-male college classroom–notably, the instructor (male or female) often must prompt the voice of the missing gender–there can be major benefits. At its best, a single-sex classroom yields not a monolithic viewpoint but a variety of views as young men challenge each other to suss out what masculinity (or, better, masculinities) really means. They learn, in a way that is less obvious in a typically gendered classroom, that there is no single mold for a "real man." This is particularly apt at the college level, where liberal arts curricula can be tailored to exploration of the history, science, literature, and ideals of masculinity.
Further, men just might respond better to certain teaching styles than typical women, though firm evidence for this claim is lacking. As a rule, young men thrive with structured routines, firm guidelines, and clear expectations. They like competing but hesitate to seek help. They indeed show a sensitive side, but this is best done in essays or journal entries. True, these approaches work for female students–why not engage girls actively or use hands-on activities with them too?–but experience from my own and colleagues' classrooms shows they are particularly effective with men, helping them to gain confidence and, in perhaps the ultimate irony, to see things from new perspectives.
What have I witnessed in my all-male classroom? Again and again–while discussing suffrage and women's rights in a Western Culture course; life cycles in physiology; or cultural norms in a seminar on morality–I have seen men push each other toward multiple stances on masculinity and even femininity. It may seem odd to watch men imagine themselves in women's figurative shoes, but this role-playing routinely occurs under the guidance of skilled professors. Far from perpetuating gender myths, it broadens perspectives, tears down prejudice, and fosters empathy.
Can't–and shouldn't–all of this occur in a coed classroom? Absolutely, but a single-sex classroom is ready-made to challenge viewpoints. It's not for everyone, but its benefits equal or outweigh potential drawbacks. Ultimately, the argument that men (or women) are free of distraction in a single-sex classroom doesn't hold much water when you realize young minds can scarcely ever be pulled away from sex. Particularly in college, it's not the lack of an opposing voice that distinguishes, and may elevate, single-sex settings: it's the way young minds can be freed and then forced to rise above gender stereotypes and confront issues from all perspectives, male and female.
Alex Werth (B.S. Duke, M.A. and Ph.D. Harvard) is Venable Professor of Biology at Hampden-Sydney College. He has taught at Hampden-Sydney College for over 20 years and chairs the Men's Studies Committee. In 2011, he was honored by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges (VFIC) with the Hiter H. Harris, Jr. Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.