State of the Debate: Back to Boys' School


Damon F. Bradley, "On Not Letting Georgette Do It: The Case for Single-Sex Boys Education," Vincent/Curtis Educational Register (1995-1996).

Richard A. Hawley, Papers from the Headmaster: Reflections on a World Fit for Children (Ericksson, 1996).

Michael Ruhlman, Boys Themselves: A Return to Single-Sex Education (Henry Holt, 1996).

The waning years of the twentieth century have not been particularly kind to American boys' schools. While it has become axiomatic in some circles that single-sex schools are good for girls and "at-risk" boys, the traditional boys' school seems to have about as much place in today's coed society as a fountain pen in a room full of computer workstations. When the Supreme Court held last summer that the staunchly all-male Virginia Military Academy could not exclude women and still receive public funds, it seemed that the mantra of equal opportunity had finally dealt all-boys schools a deathblow.

But it's not yet time for an obituary: Indeed, boys' schools may be on the verge of a renaissance. Taking a cue from their "sisters," who in the 1970s and 1980s built on the work of feminist educational thinkers and vigorously advocated single-sex education, boys' schools have abandoned their appeals to hoary tradition and advanced a more benign rationale. Following the girls' schools' lead, boys' school advocates have formed an advocacy group, commissioned studies, sponsored polls, held symposiums, and courted opinion makers.

Although most of these advocates are members of an elite group of private boys' school headmasters, the claims they are making in favor of single-sex education do not apply just to their privileged pupils or to at-risk boys, but to all boys. There is already a new drive, especially among conservatives, to make more public schools all male. California Governor Pete Wilson has advanced a proposal that would allow ten school districts to establish all-male magnet academies. And a recent General Accounting Office report documents the increase of school districts nationwide experimenting with single-sex educational programs.

American boys' schools did not fully develop until the late nineteenth century, when a host of academies set out to emulate Britain's mid-nineteenth-century reform of the great Public Schools (analogous to American private schools in that they charge tuition and are not state sponsored). England's Rugby School and its headmaster Thomas Arnold, memorably portrayed in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays, initiated the British Public School reform by introducing a new organizational structure called the "house" system and the idea of "muscular Christianity"—an effort to teach virtue with a strong emphasis on competitive athletics. Muscular Christianity struck a chord with American educators hostile to public schools. They founded or revitalized such boarding schools as Groton, Exeter, St. Mark's, and St. Paul's, organizing students by "forms" rather than classes, instituting house systems governed by student prefects, and mandating dress and custom codes akin to those followed by the English aristocracy. Of course, not all affluent parents wanted to send their sons away for their education, and it wasn't long before the "country day" school came into being. Even Cleveland, Ohio, could have its own little Eton.

Although boys' schools traditionally served the elite, their appeal extends across class lines. In 1857, when Thomas Hughes wrote Tom Brown's Schooldays, the book's popularity far surpassed the portion of the British population possessing an intimate knowledge of the Rugby School and its brethren. The same can be said for such contemporary American tales of boys' school as The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Dead Poets Society, and Scent of a Woman. From these cultural representations has grown an attraction even to the appurtenances of the boys' schools. Are boys in public schools behaving like thugs? Put them in coats and ties and see if they don't magically transform into the sensitive and soulful boys portrayed in Dead Poets, sneaking out at night not to rob a convenience store, but to recite Keats in a cave. Clearly, Tom Brown's legacy is still with us.

If Victorian England had Rugby and Thomas Arnold, America has its simulacra in the University School and Richard Hawley. Headmaster of a venerable K-12 independent day school in Huntington Valley, Ohio, that has educated the boys of Cleveland's elite for more than 100 years, Hawley casts a critical eye not only on the state of American education, but also on the culture as a whole. For Hawley, who is president of the International Coalition of Boys' Schools, the fate of the all-male academy is not just an educational issue. By defending it, he thinks he is defending the Western masculine ideal from effacement by the ambiguities of modernity. Where Carol Gilligan and her pioneering studies on gender and schooling serve as the touchstone for the girls' school movement, the mythopoetry of Robert Bly underlies Hawley's defense of boys' schools.

According to Hawley, there was a time (roughly from the birth of civilization up until about World War I) when cultural traditions provided "fairly clear conceptions of what a boy should be and do." But today, Hawley says, there is nothing to furnish the requisite lessons in masculinity that facilitate a boy's proper passage into manhood, save, unsurprisingly, for the boys' school. In a boys' school, boys are educated "within a structure designed to realize and to celebrate their distinctive developmental features." "Cross-gender fascination," Hawley writes, "is known to preoccupy boys and girls more than trigonometry and subjunctive verbs and The Mayor of Casterbridge do."

A kinder-and-gentler explanation of the value of boys' schools comes from Damon Bradley, an ally of Hawley's and the headmaster of the Landon School—my alma mater—in Bethesda, Maryland. In his writings Bradley borrows the arguments in favor of girls' schools, suggesting that in a single-sex environment, "boys are more inclined to reveal their 'softer,' 'feminine,' sensitive sides." Thus in Bradley's portrait, boys' schools today encourage students to take up the arts and community service—pursuits he deems more "feminine" than "masculine"—because they are reared in a setting that teaches them that being a man in cludes exhibiting the "softer, more 'feminine' virtues of thoughtfulness, empathy, and sensitivity."

But hard evidence on boys' schools is not plentiful. Girls & Boys in School: Together or Separate?, by Providence College professor Cornelius Riordan, analyzed data on coed and single-sex Catholic schools and concluded that single-sex schooling was most effective for females and African-American and Latino males. In the wake of Riordan's conclusions, educators began to view "at-risk" boys—most frequently conceived of as poor, minority males residing in single-mother homes in inner cities—as prime candidates for boys' schools. It wasn't long before a host of inner-city public schools began putting these theories into practice. Some merely installed a handful of all-boys classrooms, while others, like two public schools in Detroit and Milwaukee, actually created all-boys academies.

Rather than citing hard evidence, most boys' school supporters rely on tender anecdotes, like the long one Michael Ruhlman wrote when he went back to his alma mater, Hawley's University School, and chronicled his time there in Boys Themselves: A Return to Single-Sex Education. The University School Ruhlman portrays is a unique and vibrant place, where unusually gifted and lambent boys "rocket toward the horizon." Boys Themselves tracks a handful of these remarkable boys through a year in school. One is a brilliant metal-head, who combines his love of Iron Maiden with a passion for reading the Odyssey in the original Greek. Another is a failing math student but gifted actor, who spends his time in public libraries poring over sheet music from obscure musicals. The teachers Ruhlman depicts exhibit a passion for knowledge and a devotion to their students that would make any school proud. The classroom scenes are like set pieces for a performance troupe acting out the educational ideal: profound give-and-takes between teachers and students, ranging on topics from Plato's cave to the poetry of Yeats. Ruhlman's University School is "a rarefied example of what school might be." At the book's end, the reader wonders, Why couldn't I have gone to a school like that?

The thing is, I did. University School, from what I have gathered from the handful of University School students and teachers I know, is essentially the same as Landon, the school I attended: all-boys, non-boarding, affluent, conservative, and located in a suburb of a major metropolis. Even in their quirks, the schools are remarkably similar: Both almost always refuse to close on account of snow, turning a treacherous commute into a masculine rite of passage. But the Landon I know bears little resemblance to the University School Ruhlman portrays.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

The romantic aspects of boys' school life that Ruhlman chooses to highlight—the eccentric boys, the devoted teachers, the stimulating classes—do indeed exist. I look back at my boys' school experience with many of these same fond memories. Perhaps the boys were free to stand out, the teachers free to care, and the classes free to inspire precisely because there were no girls around to "get in the way of things." But an environment composed only of boys can create a host of other, more unpleasant memories that bowdlerized tales such as Ruhlman's frequently overlook. How do you romanticize the boys who made a competition of their romantic liaisons with girls, going so far as to devise a point system and keep statistics? How do you paint a gauzy picture of the math class in which, whenever the teacher turned his back to write on the board, a student in the front row of seats held up pictures from a hard-core porn magazine for the boys behind him to admire? And how do you craft a tender anecdote out of the high school yearbook, which featured a club devoted (jokingly, I think) to gay bashing?

In Boys Themselves, Ruhlman steers clear of the types of boys or situations where he'd have to face such realities. Even though the University School is presumably like most boys' schools in its overwhelming obsession with athletics, Ruhlman devotes only a few pages to school sports. Ruhlman doesn't take the time to acquaint us with any of the school's better athletes, who are probably major figures at the school. And what of the more boorish types at Ruhlman's boys' school? Save for an elliptical mention of one of his eccentrics being "easy prey for the jocks," the reader is left to assume that every boy at the school is as sensitive, caring, gifted, intelligent, and generally atypical as the boys Ruhlman chooses to carry his story.

Those who have attended boys' schools know better. What Hawley, Bradley, Ruhlman, and other single-sex stalwarts have done is craft an entire rationale for boys' schools from one half of the story. Boys' schools are not all bad, but my school's pathologies—its insensitivity, its occasional stifling of creativity, its homophobia, its base views of women—were likely the result of its all-boys status. The American boys' school, contrary to its advocates' anecdotes and popular belief, is not a little Eton—nor, except, perhaps, in special circumstances, will it do much to alleviate our educational and societal ills.

You may also like