Urban Boys Don't Need More Segregation


September 06, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- SAT scores are falling again. The ''education president'' is out exhorting parents to blame themselves, not Washington. There are calls for school choice and vouchers and teacher testing. And in the cities there is more than a hint of desperation, and the crisp cry to try something -- anything -- new, as if educational reform were a sharpened Eberhard No.2.

One of the ''new'' ideas that will not come to the beleaguered city of Detroit this month is the all-male school. This last-ditch attempt to Save the Boys with an Afro-centric curriculum, male teachers, longer hours and higher academic standards was stopped in court.

A federal judge ruled in favor of a Detroit mother who wanted to enroll her three daughters. He said it was simply unconstitutional to bar girls. In one succinct sentence the judge added: ''There is no evidence the school system is failing males because girls attend schools with them. Girls fail too.''

For the moment then, girls will be gradually admitted -- if not welcomed -- to the academies. But the Detroit school board plans to appeal the decision. The outcome will be watched carefully in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago, Miami and New York, where there is considerable support for the notion that the way to save black sons is by segregating them from black daughters.

It is worth asking how this notion arose. Reading the manuscript for Jonathan Kozol's coming book, ''Savage Inequalities,'' I am struck again by the pernicious and profound effects of racial segregation in today's city schools. If racial segregation is a cause of vast inequities in school, how can sexual segregation be the cure?

I understand the sense of crisis. The leading cause of death among Detroit's males over 10 is homicide. A full 55 percent of them drop out of high school. About 70 percent have a single mother. They grow up (maybe) within the sound of gunfire.

But why is the sense of a crisis about females less intense? As the judge said, girls fail too. They too drop out of school -- 45 percent of them in Detroit. They too grow up with single mothers, knowing too few caring men and too much about violence.

One mother who signed up her son for the all-male school told a reporter: ''Do something for these black boys now or you're going to be running from them later.'' Is the difference in our level of concern really a difference in our level of fear?

The passion for resegregating urban schools by sex comes just as a new men's movement has begun to emphasize the importance of all-male gatherings, retreats away from women. Robert Bly describes approvingly a tribe in which the adult men kidnap the boys away from their mothers as a rite of male `D passage. Sam Keen writes: ''To become a man, a son must first become a prodigal and leave home, and travel solo into a far country.''

Today, feminist psychologists are exploring how females grow within and through intimate connections, knitting their lives together. But men are writing best-sellers about the need to be apart, to find the essential maleness, beat the different drum.

There is a curious echo of that drumbeat in Detroit. Those in favor of the all-male plan have pointed out ironically that single-sex schools already exist in the city, unchallenged by the law. One is for pregnant girls and the other is for delinquent boys. These are the separate paths of male and female misdirection. But these advocates don't show how school segregation would help these already desperately disconnected lives.

''Girls fail too.'' Many of today's teen-age boys were born to teen-age mothers. The schools didn't do much to raise these girls' sights or self-esteem. Neither life nor education gave them a reason to postpone mothering. They often settled for males who didn't stick around long enough to be real fathers. Some of the boys that others ''run from'' are their sons.

I don't say this to label females the greater victim, entitled to the larger share of attention by academic reformers because they will become the mothers. I say it to describe the intricate connections between male and female.

The success or failure of the next generation depends on relationships as intimately woven as those between mother and son, father and daughter, girl and boy. The problems just aren't solved by separation.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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