Nannerl O. Keohane

Single Sex Education: A Challenge or A Boon to Education?

VTR Date: November 24, 1991

Guest: Keohane, Nannerl O.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Nannerl O. Keohane
Title: “Single Sex Education: A Challenge or a Boon to Equality?”
VTR: 11/24/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is Nannerl Overholser Keohane, scholar, author and political philosopher, the distinguished President of Wellesley College, an outstanding liberal arts college for women for more than a century.

Now when I first invited Dr. Keohane to join me here on THE OPEN MIND many months ago, I thought that I only wanted to probe her thinking about college students generally in the 90s; about “PC”, political correctness, on the American campus typically; about this generation’s assumptions concerning young men and women overall. I just hadn’t wanted to be what months ago I considered too parochial…to focus, that is, overly much on the education of women, rather than on college education generally.

But lately I have been reading with much pleasure and you will forgive me for saying so – with much learning, and mind-expansion, too, some of Nan Keohane’s extraordinarily incisive and provocative writings and speeches about women’s education so that now I want first up to ask her about her statement that Wellesley will stay a single-sex school for “there are still impediments to full equality for women graduates”. And I want to ask, whether that means that there are such impediments for women students, too, in other-than-single-sex schools, meaning most colleges today. Is that a fair question?

Keohane: Certainly a fair question. It’s a complicated now, but part of the answer is that there is research that in classrooms that have members of both sexes as students, teachers of both sexes tend to call more often on the male students. Men are more obstreperous. They’re more likely to raise their hands. They’re more likely to take risks. It sometimes means they say things which are foolish, but you have to say foolish things to learn. Women are more likely to be circumspect and careful and they write wonderful papers, but not speak out in class and don’t learn from that kind of interaction. So that in a co-educational school the chances of a woman really being taken into dialogue with a professor and other students are less then they are at a women’s college. People can learn to change that behavior, but the behavior is very strong.

Heffner: How do they learn to change that behavior?

Keohane: The tools that you’re using right now, the television camera, the video. People can watch themselves teaching in classes these days and recognize that they call more often on men. Even if they would have denied, it, if you’d asked them in advance, and then they just stop and think, “Wait a minute, even though more male students may have their hands up, perhaps I can look around and find a woman who wants to talk”. The trickier part is changing the behavior of the women students, who may still be reticent about speaking out because they may have received very complicated messages once they entered adolescence about what girls ought to be like. Carol Gilligan in her studies at the Emma Willard School, now, following up on her well known book about a different voice, is finding out that for many female human beings the peak of their self-confidence is age 11, when girls think they can take on the world. And then when they enter adolescence they find that the conflicting hopes and expectations are almost too much to take. On the one hand they want to be smart and bright and physically active because that’s what they’ve been for 11 years. On the other hand they also want to be popular and liked by boys and it’s not so clear that boys like girls who are smart and bright and physically active as well as some boys my find in their own adolescent un-self-confidence that it’s nicer to have a girl who’s a little bit less out-going. And so the messages are very, very complex.

Heffner: So we have to socialize the young men as well as we have to socialize the young women.

Keohane: Certainly we ought to and that’s a daunting task which I’ve taken on recently not only through three sons, but also more directly by trying to educate a whole classroom of them.

Heffner: Now what does that mean about non-single-sex education, about co-educational education? Does it mean that if you have a daughter your concern should be to find one of the remaining single-sex schools?

Keohane: My advice would be that for any young woman growing up in our society today it is a good idea to have some part of her education in a single-sex environment, and that might be a girl’s school, it might be a women’s college, it might be some portion of her time in either one. But I can guarantee that the difference that it makes when you look at the track record of the alumni and the experiences that the girls and women themselves describe, can make a tremendous…can make a tremendous difference in later life.

Heffner: Now does that account for the episode on the Wellesley campus, what was it two years ago, when Mrs. Bush was invited to give the commencement Address, to participate in your Commencement and there was a hullabaloo?

Keohane: Well, a hullabaloo is one of the things that colleges are very good at, and rightly so. And this particular hullabaloo was very much what we’re talking about, but with a slightly different twist. It was more what happens afterwards, what kinds of lives should bright, well-educated women lead. And the students who signed the petition against Mrs. Bush’s sole Commencement appearance…they wanted her to come, yes, but they wanted to have someone else who was, as they saw it, more accomplished in her own right, were saying that a woman who has made her name primarily as the wife of a famous man is not an appropriate role model for young women in today’s society. But the majority of the senior class had voted to ask her to come, that there were equally eloquent members of the majority who talked about Mrs. Bush’s accomplishments, what she had done with an extremely demanding job, even if she’s not directly paid for it. And it turned into a very interesting discussion about what women’s lives should be like and perhaps most educationally for today’s students about the different choices that Barbara Bush would have faced when she was at Smith, as compared to the kinds of opportunities that are open to them. That’s not to say that Barbara Bush, if she today were making the choice, might not make it exactly the same way. But she’d have a larger range of options than she did at Smith in the 1940s.

Heffner: There’s been movement, obviously since Barbara Bush’s day at Smith. Has there been movement back though now in recent years…we’ve heard so much about “having it all” and then we’ve heard about not wanting it all…what’s happening today among the young women you deal with?

Keohane: That really goes back to the point you were making earlier about educating men. My best take on that is that young women graduate from all colleges these day, not just women’s colleges, but our fine co-educational schools as well, despite what obstacles they may have faced…ambitious for their futures and determined to have a life that includes a number of components of, of happiness…work and family and some time for themselves, which is the sort of thing that young men have always expected and if they’re lucky have been able to achieve. But for a young woman who wants to have all those things together, she’s going to find it very hard in our society as it’s now constructed because our social and economic patterns are not such as to make it easy for her. If she wants to have a child in a demanding profession like law or medicine or, or business and finds that she, naturally, would like to spend some time with her child when her child is young, rather than just parking it with a nanny all day, every day, she will find that it is inevitably assumed that she’s not really serious about her work. If she wants to take off some time to be with her child, she must not be serious about becoming a partner or a CEO. That seems to me to be a tremendously unfortunate assumption and one that’s very short-sighted on the part of the leaders of our nation’s business and law firms because there’s nothing that says that you have to be on the fast track from the time you’re 22 until you retire with your gold watch at 65 in order to be accomplished and achieve.

Heffner: But wait a minute, you say there’s nothing that says that…nowhere is it written…

Keohane: Nowhere is it written…

Heffner: …that you have to be on the fast track…

Keohane: …although we act as though it is…

Heffner: …then why do we act that way?

Keohane: We act that way because I think there’s several complicated factors. One has to do with the enjoyment and absorption that such jobs bring, so there will be some people who if they have time, will work five or six or seven days a week at a demanding and absorbing job, because they find it fascinating. And as long as there are some people who do that and so bosses can expect people to do that, they will inevitably reward and admire the people who do. And then that will set a standard for the others and a lot of other people who have the time to work that hard will do so simply in order to impress the bosses and to make the grade, even if they would rather have a job that has a little bit more time for playing golf or going to the ocean. But they know that they can’t do it because the others will make the first cut, and then it becomes extremely difficult for the young woman who wants to make it to the top, but who not only would like to be out at the golf course or at the ocean, but wants to raise a two-year old child and is unable to work seven days a week and travel all over the country. And when I began this part of our discussion by saying it goes back to the behavior of men, I don’t just mean the male CEOs, because I do believe that many, although certainly not all, people in power in our society, most of whom are still men, really would like to see women succeed, but not enough to do the work that requires changing those attitudes and structures. But it’s the men in the homes who are married to these bright and ambitious women whose behavior is going to have to change.

Heffner: But you say that’s…I’m, I’m interested…you say that these men, CEOs, will have to make the changes, make the changes in their homes, or make the changes in the business place?

Keohane: I was thinking about the CEOs making the changes in the business place, although I have been struck that one of the things that tends to concentrate the minds of CEOs is having a bright and ambitious daughter, and finding out that she is facing obstacles they think are totally unfair for their daughter. I was thinking of them more in their business capacity, and I’m assuming that we’re talking now about a younger generation. So the men that we’re describing are young men, who may also start believing that they would very much like their wives to have full and rewarding lives, but are not prepared, understandably, to take the kinds of, of courses, to make the kinds of sacrifices that it requires to be an egalitarian partner.

Heffner: Why…

Keohane: It means staying at home part of the time.

Heffner: Why do you say “understandably”? Is this to be gracious and generous? You are.

Keohane: No, no, because I do…I have a lot of friends and I have a number of broader acquaintances who’ve been wrestling with this issue. And I know the counter-pressures that they face. It’s not easy simply to say, “Well, I would like to take my full role in child rearing and house-tending and therefore, I will take the same kinds of sacrificial steps that my wife is going to take, recognizing that I, as a man, will be even more looked at with askance, because at least people understand that women do behave this way”. But for a man to do it, you take the extra step of behaving in an extremely counter-culture, against the grain fashion. More and more men are doing it, but it’s hard.

Heffner: What’s your prophesy for the future?

Keohane: Much more optimistic because I think the fundamental aspect of these good human relationships is incontrovertibly the better way to live.

Heffner: But you know, you say “human relationships” and in reading through so much of your material, the recent years…look, I understand this. You’re the President of the leading women’s college in this country, but you talk about educating women for leadership. You talk about what we must do for women, and I keep thinking I could substitute “men”…my sons, my grandson…

Keohane: Right.

Heffner: And feel that I was just as right and if you had said “educating men and women for leadership” you would be just as correct. Why make that distinction? Aren’t you talking about all of us?

Keohane: Of course, at some level I am talking about all of us, and one reason for the distinction is a purely pragmatic one…that as President of a women’s college I’m often asked, as you‘ve done today, to talk about women, because that seems to be something that I’m expert about, and I like to think that I have at least some ideas bout it. It is also true that there are certain ways in which, given the kinds of circumstances we’ve been describing there are things that women need to have attention paid to, which is a little bit different from the fortunes of their brothers. Going back to the points about the classroom and so forth…I think there if you talk about the kind of threats to a young woman’s self-confidence, they happen just to be different. But the fundamental things we’re trying to achieve, of leadership, which is tough and vigorous, but also sensitive, maintains its sense of humor and has a sense of directionality all those things certainly work for all of us.

Heffner: Let me ask more than a leading question…educating women for leadership. Suppose the points you make, and you make so well, are integrated in our society. Will we be a different people because the women you have taught and influenced will be different? Because that self-confidence that you believe disappears or is minimized at age 11 will have been bolstered up, or restored, or never disappeared? Will we be a different people?

Keohane: That’s a fascinating question, and I’m not sure that the jury’s in yet on what that…what will be the case when and if we get there. One possible answer is that we will be a different people because we will be able to draw on the talents of all our, our citizens rather than only half, for a full array of activities, both in the home and outside. And that will mean that we will be more productive and perhaps by that very fact get ourselves into new levels of accomplishment. I don’t know. That’s a sort of easy, superficially optimistic answer. Whether it will make a difference in the quality of our public life, whether when women and men are engaged in the same kinds of activities, they will approach them differently because there’s some fairly fundamental difference between the sexes that will be sustained… And it that’s true, and it may well be true, then I think we’ll be better off because our public lives will be more interesting, because they will be approached in these different ways, and if there’s mutual respect for them, then we will have multiplies our…it’s, it’s like good science…you multiply your approaches and you’re more likely to find a good answer. Then you hone in on it, rather than starting with one narrow point of view. So from that point of view we could also be better. Whether we’re very much alike, or very different, I think our lives will probably be richer. But if, if we all sort of bend under the weight of the effort to get there, and become a totally stressed out and frenetic society, then we won’t be better off.

Heffner: You think there is more rather than less real danger that that is precisely what we’ll do…are doing?

Keohane: We’re certainly becoming, in some ways, more stressed out. I would like to think of it as a transitional situation. And you can see counter-indications, too, and here I think you’re absolutely right to talk about both sexes. That people, both men and women, many of us, when we’re really asked to think about what makes life worth living, and this is one of Barbara Bush’s best points at our commencement, one that got full throated applause, as so many of them did, it’s very important to look at all the factors of life, including family life, and not just work. Much of the frenetic stress comes from work. Families can also be frenetic and stressful, but taking some time to relax together, and taking some time for one’s self, if you really press a CEO about what they want most, often it’s the time that they don’t have. Everybody in our society could do better with packages of life that involve different kinds of components of work, play, family, etc., over the course of decades, or even of a single year, rather than having a real lock-step movement from the beginning to the end.

Heffner: You know, I didn’t want to do, originally, what we’ve been doing, and yet I want to continue and continue and continue, but I also have to ask you…how goes it on the campus? And I might take the question of “PC”…

Keohane: Right.

Heffner: …of being politically correct…

Keohane: I was hoping you would. (Laughter)

Heffner: And I put it to you as to whether it surfaces differently on the Wellesley campus…on a single-sex campus, than it might otherwise, than it does otherwise.

Keohane: I don’t have any reason to believe that would be true, although I will think about it while I, I think more generally about your question, because I have given a lot of thought to political correctness, and find it a fascinating phenomenon; one which is, to some extent, self-feeding, manufactured by the attention that it’s been given, as all of us on campuses are quick to say.

Heffner: For the better or the worst?

Keohane: For the worst. There’s very little on campuses that matches some of the media hype about our sort of smothering new orthodoxies. But there is something to it, and all of us would be wrong-headed to deny it entirely. But I begin by noting that people tend to cit the same examples of this thing at Stanford, or that thing at Brown, and it’s interesting how often they’re recycled. And that’s partly because there are relatively few straightforward examples that can be cited, and even those, if you look at them very closely, and I taught at Stanford for a long time and I know how much that example is oversimplified, turn out not to be nearly so egregious as people may think on the basis of what they’ve heard. What we do have, the node of the problem that people are rightly concerned about, is the, the, the unfortunate spin-off of the attempt to be genuinely inclusive in our curricula and in our student bodies and in our faculties, which is a fundamentally exciting and very democratic, very American thing to do. But when you do it, you…it is not necessarily without its own pitfalls. And one of the pitfalls is people can become so desirous of having a curriculum include many different kinds of voices, that they become particularly interested in having a single voice. If you are a student of a particular kind of background and want to make sure that a professor pays attention to those people because in the long sweep of history, professors have by and large paid much more attention to people of a certain kind of background, the Euro-centric background. Well, if you want them to look at some other backgrounds, it is possible to put a lot of pressure on professors, to include material that may not really go very well with their own conceptions of their courses, and vice versa, for professors to come down hard on students who profess a point of view, which in this richly kaleidoscopic time is not…doesn’t sit well with their own conception of the truth. And so it’s more people with narrow sided views of what we ought to learn, attempting to put pressures on each other, on both sides of the desk, than it is some overall stifling of freedom of speech. There’s a very good letter by Neil Rudenstine, the President of Harvard. The Harvard community recently…in fact I just read it in “The Crimson” yesterday, about how one deals with these issues of free speech, in which he tried to put the case that outside the classroom, when we think about how we relate to other members of a college community, we are searching for a very fine, but very important line…that on the one hand denies the rightfulness of, and even punishes really crude speech directed at a person, a particular person…a swastika on someone’s door, shouting “nigger” or “faggot” in someone’s face. That’s not free speech that anything we can see is served by protecting. As opposed to the ability to say, no campus, in the classroom, everywhere statements about other people, which may be offensive to people, but which are part of the academic give-and-take. And finding that line, and drawing it, so that we treat each other civilly and as human beings and listen to each other instead of objecting and slashing out with crude words, but on the other hand, remain absolutely open to all kinds of opinions that may make some people very uncomfortable.

Heffner: Beyond a certain line…because if I understand you, you’re saying let’s draw a line and then beyond that line we will permit anything…things that will make us uncomfortable, but the things that will make us more uncomfortable, you say “no”.

Keohane: It’s not just a matter of discomfort. It’s a matter of fundamental human respect and of using words as though they were cudgels, directed at a single other human being. Not just a general statement…”this sort of person is inferior, or that sort of person can’t learn”, however offensive that may be and however chilling it may be to the learning environment of a fellow student who belongs to that group of people, I think even so you may speak with reprehension of such statements, you may try to help people recognize that there are problems, but you don’t forbid they’re saying them. What you forbid is the immediate in-your-face statement from one human being to another in that sort of word.

Heffner: Interesting word that you choose, “forbid”. How do you forbid…

Keohane: (Laughter)…that’s…

Heffner: …in a setting such as a campus?

Keohane: Well, that’s a very important point. And that may be the part that we haven’t really worked through as fully as we will need to because we’re not talking about easy, cause-and-effect sort of penalty to offense relationships. We have relatively few instruments for, for penalizing people on campus these days, short of ultimate weapons like suspension or dismissal, which are clearly not going to be appropriate for every kind of situation that we’re talking about. What do you do short of that? You may give certain kinds of requirements for work, of community service of whatever sort. You may ask for a certain kind of apology that involves engaging with the person who you’ve injured. It’s not very easy to know how to do it. But you can’t just say, “Well, it’s too bad. It know that that hurt, but there’s nothing we can do”.

Heffner: So we’re coming back to the crazy-like-a-parent business, isn’t that what you’re talking about? Injecting the university or college administration back into…in loco parentis…

Keohane: No, no…

Heffner: …of a kind.

Keohane: I thought, well, I’ll consider that, but I thought you were making the opposite point. That a lot of what is wrong with colleges an universities these days is because the students who come to us in our frenetic and stressed out society, come from a variety of backgrounds which have not prepared them well for learning…from homes where they are not particularly encouraged to engage in conversations or to read; broken homes where they may have very little love or support, even though some people in broken homes do very well at that, others do not; students who may come from abusive backgrounds and then they come and they are supposed to be engaged in higher learning and great thoughts, but all these other things keep getting in the way. So it’s partly that parents need to do a better job in order for students to take full advantage of the colleges and universities, more than that by saying “there are certain kids of words that are not acceptable here, used in certain contexts”, we are treating students as if they were 13.

Heffner: In other words, instead of in loco parentis, we are now becoming a civilizing phenomenon, or performing a civilizing function?

Keohane: I, I wouldn’t deny that. I think that’s probably a good goal. Yes, we need some of that in our society.

Heffner: What happened, though, when that was just pushed out of the, the confines of the university?

Keohane: What do you mean “pushed out”?

Heffner: Well, we, we denied it. There was that period back…what…in the sixties…

Keohane: Oh.

Heffner: …when the notion that the university, the college could take on that burden was just anathema. You capable of doing it and sticking by it today?

Keohane: We all have our own version of the sixties. The sixties is a decade that…

Heffner: (Laughter) True.

Keohane: …more people lived through in more different ways. (Laughter) In my own version, because I was a young…a graduate student, and a young college professor then, has a lot to do with extremely searching intellectual inquiry at Yale and at Swarthmore, and some picket lines. But very little sense of bringing down the whole system around our ears. I know there are some people who thought that was what they wanted to do. But there were other people who were engaged in much more interesting conversations of a, of a…unusually radical kind, but radical not in the sense of bringing down foundations, but of probing and digging and discovering. So that I, I guess would defend the sixties against the assumption that it was a time of total anarchy and chaos. It was a refreshing time, a time that probably did away with too much…yes, in retrospect. But it doesn’t mean we can’t recover some of those things now. They’re not inevitably gone. For example, at Wellesley we did away with many kinds of requirements in the sixties, and one we did away with, we’re discovered that we really should have kept…the writing requirement because students today cannot write. So we reintroduced it and students now at Wellesley have to take writing. And people seem to think it’s a wonderful idea. We also are thinking about introducing a requirement in quantitative literacy, for equally good reasons, and nobody is saying “but you can’t do that, it’s against the tide of history”. It’s, it’s not a unilinear phenomenon that requirements get, or attitudes toward teaching values or whatever it might be cannot be re-thought and re-introduced.

Heffner: That’s a very optimistic point of view. A very optimistic point of view.

Keohane: Right. Well, I’ve been fairly optimistic.

Heffner: Yes, indeed, you k now we have 15, 20 seconds left and I was going to ask you, after a decade at Wellesley how fares the President of Wellesley?

Keohane: I find it a fascinating job. I‘m glad I had a sabbatical half-way along, but I look forward to continuing to do it for quite a while.

Heffner: Dr. Keohane, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

Keohane: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, our guest today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.