The school district in Louisiana's Livingston Parish has abandoned plans to instate sex-segregated classrooms for the upcoming school year, thanks to a scuba divin', firefightin' 13-year-old girl -- and a little help from the ACLU. The district planned the policy based on evidence for differences in how boys and girls learn. But an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of eighth grader Michelle Selden has quashed those plans.
The school board made its initial decision based on impressively retro theories of girl- and boyhood. Among the sources defendants cited in the proceedings was Dr. Leonard Sax's "Why Gender Matters," which, according to the ACLU suit, argues for the biological need for boys to practice "pursuing and killing prey," and girls to "practice taking care of babies." Sax stops short of calling for an end to all scholarly pursuits and a reversion to hunter-gatherer days, according to the ACLU's summary. But he does suggest that these biological predilections should dictate playground behavior: Boys should be allowed to roughhouse; girls should not.
According to the ACLU, Sax also suggests that teachers look girls in the eyes but avoid eye contact with boys. Better yet, he advises literature teachers to avoid discussions with boys about emotions within a story and to instead focus on action, and to do the inverse for girls. For those boys who actually enjoy reading -- "anomalous males," he calls them -- Sax suggests that they be disciplined, pushed into becoming athletes, and encouraged to spend time with "normal males."
Leave it to a 13-year-old to provide better reasoning than an entire school board. In a letter to the board, Selden wrote, "I just became certified as a scuba diver. I am a firefighter cadet, which is a junior volunteer firefighter. I have a purple belt in Shaolin Kung Fu. I don't know whether most girls would be interested in these things or not. I have done these things because I wanted to, whether or not the 'average girl' would want to."
That's not to say that differences between male and female brains aren't real. In fact, evidence of those differences continues to emerge (along with evidence that male and female brains aren't as dramatically different as previously thought). But by most accounts, there isn't much evidence on the biological benefit or necessity of widespread sex segregation. As the ACLU suit argues, requiring sex-segregated learning environments in an entire public school district would cheat students of an education "based on their individual strengths and needs," falling victim instead to "stereotypes about the sort of education the 'average boy' or the 'average girl' wants or requires."