Dear Rabbi and Susan,
Co-education, meaning girls and boys taught together in one school depends on societies. I think that it is useful educationally because boys will be more serious because girls in the general like to be serious. The girls’ devotion to studying inspires the boys. Also it helps more cooperation and understanding among the girls and boys.
Is this narrative correct according to Torah?
We can look to the Torah to see what principles to apply to your question. Schools themselves, are a relatively recent (about 2,000 years ago) accommodation according to the Torah. The obligation is on fathers and mothers to teach their children. Schools came along later as the community accepted the duty of education to compensate for the fact that not all parents were choosing to or able to fulfill that responsibility.
The Torah perspective also emphasizes, “male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27) Ancient Jewish wisdom expands that idea and understands that the male and female minds (in general) work differently with different strengths and weaknesses. This affects how and what boys and girls study. Modern science corroborates this, even if society raises a defiant fist to Heaven and refuses to pay attention.
Dr. Leonard Saks, a pediatrician who has written many books on raising boys and girls, used to promote coeducational schools. He changed his mind after research he undertook after seeing his patients flourish once they were separated by gender. For example, he mentions a physics class in an all girls high school that was highly popular and in which girls thrived. This was in direct opposition to the results for the girls in nearby coed schools. The teacher in the girls’ school taught the same physics curriculum, but changed the order of the chapters. That small change appealed to the girls and “seduced” them into enjoying the subject. The boys did best with the other order of learning.
When we speak of the younger grades, you are right that many girls find it easier to sit still for a longer time than boys do. The curriculum, including the books that are chosen for reading and the emphasis on paperwork, is more suited to girls than to boys. While the girls’ attentiveness might set a good example for the boys, many boys feel like failures at a young age as they are constantly reprimanded for — well, for acting like boys. In this case, the comparison to the girls doesn’t serve as an inspiration, but convinces the boys that they are failures at and uninterested in learning.
Another issue that applies in junior high and high school (though in our sexualized society it rears its head at an earlier and earlier age), is the tension between the sexes. Removing the distraction of wanting to impress and pursue the opposite sex by separating genders allows education to remain the focus of the classroom.
We find the same approach in our synagogues where we separate men and women during prayer. We find that after God saved the Israelites by drowning the pursuing Egyptian army in the Red Sea, Moses led the men in a prayer of gratitude (Exodus 15:1). Meanwhile, his sister, Miriam, led the women in prayer separately. (Exodus 15:20) Whether it is in study or prayer, all of us, men and women, tend to focus better without the presence of the opposite sex and its distractions which God Himself designed to be almost irresistible. With teenagers at school, distraction would only be even more intense.
Our conclusion would be that, in general, the Torah promotes separate education for boys and girls, especially as they get to older grades. Much current research arrives at the same conclusion.
Fans of lifetime learning,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
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