The question of how to educate men and women together has had a long and rather turbulent history. It has been linked to questions of morality in the socialization of children, equality between the sexes, and higher academic achievement for both boys and girls. By and large, conservatives have advocated separate schooling for males and females, while liberal educational reformers typically have been champions of coeducation. In recent years this pattern has shifted somewhat in the, as feminists have endorsed separate schools as a means of supporting women's success, and reformers have explored the effect of all-male schools on African-American students' achievement. While coeducation has grown in popularity elsewhere, gender-segregated schooling continues to predominate in many other areas of the world. As a consequence, the question of gender and education continues to cause controversy.
Throughout much of history, separate education of boys and girls was the norm. This reflected the different roles society assigned to each gender and the unequal status of men and women in most premodern societies. By and large, male literacy rates were much higher than female literacy rates. Boys were trained for the worlds of work, politics, and war; while girls were prepared for the domestic spheres of home, hearth, and nursery. The very idea of coeducation posed a threat to this traditional division of labor, and it therefore held the potential to undermine the existing hierarchy.
Early Coeducation Efforts
During the eighteenth century, coeducation began to appear on a widespread basis in English-speaking regions of. Ideologically, the movement can be linked to Reformation-inspired religious dissention and to conditions of life in a frontier society. Coeducation was first practiced in, the region with the best-developed schools; most of these were intended to provide literacy instruction for religious education. The practice of enrolling both boys and girls in school together probably stemmed from the growing incidence of female church membership, as well as from the practical requirements of finding enough children to support the schools in a thinly inhabited countryside.
The years immediately following the witnessed a surge of interest in female education and a growing perception that women had a critical role to play in the socialization of children of the new republic. This view– combined with a widely dispersed, largely agrarian population–helped to make coeducation a highly popular practice by the early nineteenth century, at least in the northern and western regions. Although coeducation was somewhat less commonplace in the larger U.S. cities, where traditional European norms prevailed, reformers vigorously urged its adoption, arguing that combining the sexes in school was a reflection of their "natural" mingling in two other important institutions: church and family. Pioneering experiments in coeducational higher education at Antioch and Oberlin Colleges in the antebellum period helped pave the way for more widespread acceptance of the practice. By the 1890s, the vast majority of American school children were enrolled in coeducational schools, a far higher percentage than in any other nation. Most children were enrolled in common or primary schools, but coeducation also had become widespread in secondary schools and colleges. By 1900 about 70 percent of American institutions of higher education admitted both men and women. Coeducation had become a standard American practice–one that clearly distinguished schools in the United States from educational institutions elsewhere.
The Case Against Coeducation
This did not mean that coeducation was adopted without controversy. It became a source of contention with regard to high schools and colleges, especially during the late nineteenth century. Certain male doctors argued that extended education was dangerous for women, who could be harmed by overexertion caused by competition with male students. Other opponents of coeducation protested on religious and moral grounds, maintaining that the hazards of impropriety were higher when young men and women were placed in such close proximity for long periods. But these arguments were countered by a host of voices defending coeducation as a practical success and a virtue of the American system of education. School authorities refuted claims that schooling made girls sickly, and parents willingly sent their daughters to coeducational high schools and colleges. School leaders also argued that coeducation was necessary for the success of secondary institutions, because restricting them to males would make the support of such schools impractical in all but the largest communities. Some educators even suggested that the girls represented a calming or "civilizing" influence on the boys, and that the presence of young men in the classroom may have helped to spur their female classmates to greater success. Taken together, these arguments represented a powerful affirmation of coeducation in the United States. Single-sex institutions persisted in larger cities, however, as well as in the American South,