The Value of Learning in Tribes- and why Saving Sweet Briar College matters

We all have tribal groups-it may be the group with whom we cheer at the bar during March Madness, or the high school gang we still build our reunion around, or the people with whom we trained at our first job. Those tend to be tribes of choice: we root for the same team, have shared experiences, have endured together.

Our more basic tribal groups are the families into which we are born, the communities in which we live. And then there are the biological tribes-our gender, skin color, orientation.

Our tribes provide us places to “be ourselves”-not explain how we got there, why we think a particular way, not have to justify what comes out of our mouths or is in our hearts. At their best, tribes give us identity, pride, strength and safety. At their worst tribes become xenophobic, critical, fearful and close-minded–in other words, they can embody both the best and the worst of human behavior.

When we are growing up, we learn in our tribe what is acceptable and normal. We step out from our small family tribe to a community, our schools, larger families, larger experiences. How we learn in those groups very much depends on our comfort level, our ability to fit in, and a deep-seated recognition of whether or not we belong. If we become secure in ourselves during those experiences early in life we have the bedrock, foundational strength to persevere, stand tall and be our best selves. It’s what most of us aim for with our children-the ability to be their best selves.

Single-sex education, such as is provided at colleges and schools such as Sweet Briar College, Hampden-Sydney College, Wellesley, Woodberry Forest School, Smith, Avon Old Farms, is a tribal experience. It isn’t for everyone. But it is an important choice that should be available, and I believe that our current age actually needs single-sex options in education more than ever before, but constituted differently than how it began.

Over the millennia, the education options offered to women and men varied widely. In wealthy households, women were educated to be the chatelaines-keepers of the keep, overseeing the requirements of the people associated with the land. Sometimes that included lessons in reading and writing, astronomy, and figures-all needed in order to do their job. The (male) monks were the keepers of learning, and their duties included instructing the future male leaders. Generally speaking, men were afforded more leeway in receiving an education-and I am making very broad generalizations. Over time, women were not given as many educational opportunities, which eventually resulted in people who believed in education for all creating segregated academies for women of a certain economic standing. Some of these academies focused on actual book learning, but in many the curriculum was built around the “ladylike” arts of needlework, household management, artistic endeavors. Rarely was there any instruction in the sciences, mathematics, or other “male” disciplines. Eventually -within the last 150 years- women’s education became more normal, broader, deeper and more recognized. But-these schools were essentially founded as rebellions, a way to provide women an education without discomfiting or disarranging men’s lives. And if one was a woman in the lower or middle-classes education was not necessarily an option depending on where one lived.

Meanwhile, men’s schools were flourishing, proving their tribes with their own particular flavors of learning, whether it was military, scientific, literary, an amalgam-they had choices of a wide variety, all designed to help men “become men”.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s coeducation was driven by the natural desire of women to be included in the opportunities available to men-and men finally figuring out that having women around was actually an improvement for most of them. In the 40 years since that wave of education choice swept over the school landscape many thought that the educational option question had been resolved. Women seemingly had a place at all the tables because they were now being educated with men. The schools that stayed with single-sex were seen as anomalies, dinosaurs whose usefulness was probably limited.

But-now, in 2015, we are seeing that the pay gap for women is still an issue, 60 years after President Kennedy signed into law an Equal Pay Act. Women are being denied access to health care options, many young women, especially in public schools, are still not encouraged to pursue interests in science and math, and just as sadly, young men don’t know how to deal with the young women in their lives whose dress is provocative, sexual innuendo is everywhere, and puberty is extremely difficult to navigate. These, and many other attitudinal challenges are just a few the reasons why we may need MORE single-sex education options than we currently have.

I have had some unique experiences in single-sex education. I grew up at an all-boys boarding school which my father had attended and at which he then taught. After attending a co-ed elementary school I attended another all-boys school as one of 7 faculty daughters, before finishing high school at an all-girls school. I have taught single-gender science, computer and language classes, and my children have attended single-sex schools as did my husband. I know first hand that males and females have different needs when learning, different approaches to thinking through problems and different processes of thinking. ┬áIt was wonderful to watch middle-school boys and girls reach the same end goals by almost completely different paths, and be thoroughly and enjoyably themselves while doing so. Being single-gender in high school means that there’s no looking over the shoulder to see if the (boy)(girl) you like is watching or not, wondering if your hair is done right, whether (he)(she) thinks your answer is stupid. All that anxiety and self-consciousness is gone-replaced by a real focus on learning and being truly one’s own self.

When I read articles about how single-sex learning doesn’t make a difference, I know that the writer hasn’t asked the right questions. It’s not a matter of the grades-although grades are important. It’s not just a matter of what the hard data shows. The result of being able to learn in a single-sex environment is that for the rest of your life there’s a knowledge that there are others like you, your educational tribe, and having been with them gives a grounding of belief and strength that is unlike any gained in another environment. The fact of being able to “be yourself” when learning has a profound effect that is lifelong. It shows in the ability to look at someone of the opposite sex and not cave when their opinion is different than yours. It shows when there’s no embarrassment about being male or female-and a recognition that we are all equal while being different. It is apparent when one can realize that it’s lovely to have the company of the other gender, but it is also wonderful to have friends of one’s own gender, rather than being in competition with them.

In the 21st century we have the opportunity to re-think single-sex education using the experiences of the last 50 years, going beyond the inaccurately-derided feminist goals of equality to a humanism that allows us to celebrate and learn to integrate our male and femaleness into our shared communities. We need the single-sex education experience so that we have safe places to learn to be our fully-fledged selves in our genders, so that we can learn to appreciate the good in the other gender, and be allowed to develop our strengths which are equal and different.

We especially need the women’s single-sex education so that we can now fully integrate women into the economic life of the country, the political decision making and the solving of societal challenges. We (women) approach the building of community differently, our ability to multi-task can make businesses more productive, and our willingness to compromise to benefit the greater good is needed more than ever before.

We don’t need gender wars-there isn’t any war. There is a need to calmly and productively educate everyone to be their best selves. We need Sweet Briar-maybe not entirely as it has been-but its core purpose of educating women is needed more than ever before. Let’s rethink, re-imagine and rebuild for the 21st and 22nd centuries.