Wednesday 13 April 2011

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Tom Matlack: Are Women’s Colleges Outdated?

I’ve always been skeptical about women’s colleges. I grew up in Amherst within a few miles of Smith and Mount Holyoke where, I admit, I tried to sneak into parties as a high school student. Beyond serving a destination for horny young men, the colleges always gave me the creeps, perhaps because I was explicitly excluded from the community or because of some juvenile fantasy that the schools harbored a lesbian cult. Still, the women who went there, it seemed to me, were living in some bygone gender-segregated era where such a place had a purpose. I assumed they went to women’s colleges largely because they couldn’t get into the numerous elite coed schools. Why go to Smith if you could go to Amherst?

Last year we faced what seemed like a momentous decision: whether to send our 5-year-old to an all-boys grade school for kindergarten. The school is known for being particularly good at channeling high-spirited boy energy into creativity and learning.

The theory goes that boys mature more slowly, on average, than girls, particularly when it comes to fine motor skills and reading. I had seen this firsthand when class art projects came home from nursery school. It was like some pages were produced by art students and others by fingerless monkeys — stick figures on one page, followed by pages awash with color and faces and feeling. Without exception, you didn’t need to look at the name to know the gender.

 Many boys just want to run and tackle one another most of the time, so having a school that emphasizes physical activity to calm their minds and allows them space to develop creativity at their own pace made sense to me. And the school has a particularly strong tradition of character development, which appeals to my “good men” orientation. But there was only one problem: no girls.

The difference was made clear to me on a recent vacation. We traveled for 10 days with one of our son’s female nursery school classmates, whom he hadn’t seen for over a year. He met up with his best male friend on the last day.

 Our son has a sensitive and gentle spirit, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to play rough. For over a week, he played with his female friend nonstop. We started calling them “the old married couple.” I was impressed not only with how happy my son was but the ease of the play. With his male friends the frenzy ultimately led to a crash, but the girl brought out the more creative and mature side of him. They could have gone on forever, never once fighting.

 On the last day, when the male buddy showed up, we noticed a marked change. It got loud. Very loud. The little girl stood to the side to make way for boys screaming, chasing each other, having a blast. All good. I love to see my son so happy. But to be honest, I liked him better when he was with his female buddy. She taught him something his male friend couldn’t. (My wife has the same impact on me.)

We chose a coed kindergarten.

I have the privilege of raising a boy in kindergarten; his brother, who is in ninth grade; and his sister, who is a high school junior just starting to look at colleges. So after a week of watching my kindergartener play with his girl pal, I picked up my daughter and set off on an East Coast college tour. On our list were NYU, Penn, Swarthmore, Bard, Vassar, Brown, and Barnard. My daughter is very involved in theater, so she’s looking for a school that will allow her to get a liberal arts education while continuing to act. She’d like someplace artsy, a little edgy, and urban if possible — big, but not too big. She doesn’t really know, which is why we were going on this adventure together.

If you have ever been on a college tour you know the drill: an hour-long information session with an admissions representative not-selling-but-selling his or her institution while telling you how hard it is to get in, followed by a student-led tour. Too often they let freshmen that have no idea about the school (or life in general) lead the tours. Out of frustration over this ignorance, my daughter came up with a litmus test: the condition of the bathroom toilet bowl in the student center. Her theory is that the cleanliness of the toilet is a truth-teller, far more so than a freshman tour guide, when it comes to how students really feel about their college.

I personally liked Bard and Swarthmore. At Penn there’s a free-standing home right in the middle of campus, where students interested in writing hang out, cook meals, and work on their craft. The writing house isn’t a dorm; it’s just a creative club of sorts. We wandered in and found ourselves face-to-face with Edward Albee, who was there giving a lecture. My daughter was particularly excited because she had acted in several of his plays. (The toilets at Penn were disgusting in general, but at the writing house there is a Victorian-style bathroom with an old tub, complete with ivy growing out of it and pictures on the wall of drag queens getting dressed.)

But an even bigger shock than meeting the best-known American playwright in the flesh took place in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City, home of Barnard College.

The tour was led by a senior in a stylish sweater dress and rubber boots to protect against a steady rain that kept the city gray and gloomy. She showed us the student center, the various academic buildings, and the ways in which Barnard is connected to Columbia (including, conveniently, the centralization of all theatre at Barnard) and the ways they are separate. She explained the advising, mentoring, small class sizes, and the tradition upheld by faculty and staff of serving breakfast to the students at midnight before the beginning of finals. She also spoke about how, while all the other Ivy League schools had gone coed and merged with adjacent women’s colleges, Barnard had stayed separate and all-women for a reason.

“Why wouldn’t you want to send your daughter to an institution whose sole purpose is to insure the success of women?” she asked, looking my way. “Three percent of women graduating from high school go to women’s colleges, and yet 30 percent of congresswomen went to women’s colleges and 20 percent of the female CEOs. There’s a reason that is the case and that’s why we are still here.”

The pretty, confident, and articulate young woman had smacked me directly between the eyes of my teenage ignorance. Perhaps women’s colleges don’t exist solely for the benefit of their male guests, I thought for the first time.

The information session started like all the others: a room full of nervous parents and bored-looking kids, all trying to hide their abject fear. A woman with wet hair and an iced coffee sat down at the front of the room. She explained that she had been up all night with her 17-month-old baby and might be a bit off her game.

For the next hour I sat transfixed. These sessions are generally so repetitive that I close my eyes to try to use the time productively by meditating. Except at Barnard. What I heard was an hour-long explanation and first-person demonstration of what the tour guide had said in a couple of sentences: Why Barnard had the resources of an Ivy League school but the feeling of a small liberal arts college; how there are plenty of men to interact with in sports or social clubs, but that the school had remained all-women on purpose; how for the right young woman Barnard would provide a unique education and inspiration that a coed facility could not.

My head was still spinning as I walked down the hall and saw the list of Barnard alums: Margaret Mead, Joan Rivers, Martha Stewart, Anna Quindlen, Suzanne Vega, Erica Jong, Jhumpa Lahiri.

Jhumpa Lahiri! I was still trying to discredit the tour guide’s claim that women’s colleges produce a disproportionate number of female leaders across all fields until I got to that name. She’s my favorite writer of all time.

I have no idea whether my daughter will get into Barnard or, if so, choose to attend the school. Ironically, she loved Barnard but is still trying to figure out whether going to an all-women’s college will mean giving up the chance to have close male friends, something that has been important to her high school experience. I keep telling her that it won’t. But I am her dad, so what I say doesn’t really count.

The one thing I took away from our trip was that there is indeed still a place for a women’s college in 2011 America. Barnard is a special place. I only wish my kindergartner could apply.

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