I don't have a lot of trouble deciding what I feel about single-sex (or single-race) schools. My difficulty is in trying to mold my inconsistent opinions into a principle.
For instance, I am utterly untroubled by the existence of a Mills College as a school for women. I understand how difficult it is for the most ambitious of women to rise to positions of leadership in male-dominated environments, and I also know the negative pressures even on pre-college girls, who often find that they must make a choice between popularity and leadership.
But if female-only schools are all right, what can be wrong with male-only schools? At the public high school level and lower, nothing much. Catholic educators have long believed that both boys and girls perform better in single-sex schools. It is at the college level that the misgivings -- and the inconsistencies -- arise. Why do we find it easier to sympathize with Mills College students who want their school to remain the way it has been for 138 years than with students at Virginia Military Institute, which has had a men-only policy for 152 years?
One answer is that Mills is private, while VMI is a state-supported institution. The public/private distinction is relevant because governments, unlike private organizations, have an obligation to provide equal opportunities for all citizens. But it doesn't change what I take to be the widely held view: all-female colleges are okay; all-male colleges smack of anti-female discrimination. What principle supports such a distinction?
The same difficulty applies to historically black colleges and universities. More and more middle-class black parents (including this one) are sending their children to black colleges. We believe our children may be better off socially and academically in an environment where race is not an issue. The evidence bears us out. But any proposal to establish and maintain colleges for the education of white students, no matter how comfortable an all-white environment might be for them, would strike us as patently racist. What is the principle that would justify one and not the other?
We can argue that historically black or women's colleges were created not out of a desire to discriminate but in reaction to discrimination against blacks and men. It is true, but so what? Isn't it better to eradicate the discrimination than to use it as the basis for further discrimination?
What is the principle that, in my mind, makes it all right to have nearly a hundred colleges for women, a Spelman or a Benedict College for black women, a Morehouse College for black men, and a few dozen co-ed colleges for black students but not quite all right to have predominantly white all-male colleges? Such a principle might include the following considerations:
Fairness. Gender- or race-specific schools are defensible for groups that have not yet made it to the American mainstream, but not for white men, who already dominate in the society.
Diversity. The idea of diversity should impel us toward inclusiveness, but it might also justify the maintenance of a diversity of choices, including gender- or race-dominant schools, as long as the goal is to increase the options for all.
Nondiscrimination. It is all right to have a school that is predominantly -- even overwhelmingly -- black, white, male or female, as long as it is not exclusively so. I'd be opposed to a rule that said whites may not attend Hampton or Howard, or that men may not attend Mills or Mississippi University for Women. As a matter of fact, many of the historically black colleges have white students, and many women's colleges have male students. The trouble with VMI is not that it is predominantly male but that it excludes females.
But all this still leaves me unable to articulate a principle I'd be prepared to defend. Would I support a single-sex option for public schools? Perhaps. As a matter of fact I have argued for boys-only classes, taught by male teachers, for inner-city public schools. Would I, by the same token, support a single-race option for public schools? Of course not -- even if it could be shown that segregated schools enhanced the leadership prospects for black students and faculty. That would be nothing short of the discredited separate-but-equal notion the Supreme Court struck down a generation ago.
It's easy enough to know what seems right. Stating it as a principle is another matter.