I agreed to grace an occasion celebrating 25 years of co-education at St Aloysius College on 9/23 when I recalled that the many aspects of my profile- former civil servant, entrepreneur and author wouldn’t have been possible without the gift of women’s education. As a writer I recalled that as late as the 19th century the Bronte sisters and George Eliot had to hide beyond male pseudonyms to write their books.
There are evidences of female scholars at Nalanda University in India’s ancient history. Certain Islamic societies encouraged women to gain knowledge of the Quran. In medieval Europe, convents educated aristocratic young women in deportment, music and decorative arts. In general, the intellectual capacities of women were not allowed a full or widespread expression. The 19th century was perhaps a critical take off point, when the West woke up to women’s education and this impulse would spread gradually and globally through the colonization experience.
In 1883, the Illbert Bill controversy took place in India, one of whose components was an objection by European women to being tried by Indian judges, saying that the contact point for these Indian judges were women who were ignorant and uneducated. This could be refuted, because Calcutta University in 1878 had already started admitting women students on a co-educational basis. This was significant, because in the first colleges started in the 1870’s in Oxford and Cambridge, Girton and Newnham, women could at best study but not receive their degrees till decades later. Oberlin College( 1833) in Ohio and Iowa University(1855) were the first of their kind to adopt mixed education in the U.S. Even so, higher education for women was accomplished largely through All Women’s Colleges called the Seven Sisters of the North and Seven Sisters of the South. Women students from Radcliffe College could attend Harvard classes from 1943; Harvard diplomas could only be awarded when both merged in 1963. The decision of St Aloysius to admit women students in the year 1986 is pragmatic and progressive in its shorter timeline, compared to those famous institutions with a lineage of many centuries.
The higher education of women per se is progressive; co-education is a further step forward. Co-education is founded on the shared rationality of both sexes from their common human nature. It seeks the positive parity of both genders by giving them a level playing field to perform and progress.
Co-education instills very early on the healthy spirit of competition. An opportunity to excel propels girls with confidence to achieve in later life, while also eliminating reservations of male peers about their ability to perform. I personally feel such a realistic starting ground would make irrelevant, for example, the current controversy over reservations, from the experience of holding one’s own, without crutches and concessions that in fact suggest weakness and inferiority. From my own experience, I can say that getting past the Civil Services exam, the physical training elements of trekking, horse riding, weapon handling and the job profile make demands without any concession for one’s gender.
Co-ed equally promotes the imperative of co-operation, where it is not boys versus girls, but boys and girls as teamwork prevails across classrooms, sports teams, quizzing teams and the like. From my own involvement in theatre, I will say that it is much easier to stage a play in a co-ed institution with the appropriate gender mix of male and female roles.
Co-ed, I hope, also makes for a more balanced self-discovery that goes beyond gender stereotyping. It should be possible for both sexes to follow their passions and aptitudes beyond what society feels is appropriate. As women enter traditional male preserves in droves, it should be possible for men to be in areas traditionally associated with a woman’s delicacy or intuition, such as writing and scholarship in the humanities.
The co-ed experience is slanted more towards individual autonomy than control. It assumes further that gender interactions would have a positive influence on each other and promote personal growth. It expects implicit codes of conduct as to the proper norms of campus life. In its right spirit, it would make the learning years empowering and enjoyable. My own children, who have been in co-ed from their earliest school days wouldn’t have it any other way. Having spent two years at an otherwise wonderful All Boys’ Boarding, my son couldn’t wait to return to mixed-ed The vast majority of independent minded young people would likewise prefer the holistic personal growth in an integrated rather than segregated set-up.
The roots of the words for University and College suggest a community of persons. The presence of both genders widens the scope of these symbolic communities. One can only hope that some progressive educational institutions go even a step further to bring trans-genders from the cruel outer periphery of our societies to their own due opportunities.
– GISELLE MEHTA