Of class and choice: Can true equality really be separate?

January 21, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

The Citadel was a great idea 150 years ago -- a military school situated down South Carolina way, in case a Civil War might break out.

It was all male, of course. Pretty much all the colleges were. Besides, if Scarlett O'Hara had wanted to attend college, she wasn't going anywhere that required double-time marching.

Times have changed. The Citadel, a center of antediluvian thought, had not. Until yesterday.

It was yesterday, on her 19th birthday, that Shannon Faulkner walked, maybe in double time, through the hallowed halls and headed to class -- a Supreme Court ruling in her hip pocket -- to become The Citadel's first woman student. It will take another ruling to get her into the corps. That will come. But for now, she's just taking classes.

Now, you might have a question here, such as: Why would any woman want to go to college in this fiercely held male preserve?

While you're munching on that one, here's another: Why would any man want to go there? I've read "Lords of Discipline," Pat Conroy's scary novel of life and death and the victory of discipline over reason in the barracks. In real life, fully a quarter of Citadel freshmen drop out before their sophomore year.

This is definitely a school for a certain kind of person. Maybe Shannon Faulkner is one.

What's clear -- it's hard to see how anyone can argue otherwise -- is that a state-supported college like The Citadel, paid for by all tax-paying citizens, cannot discriminate on account of sex or anything else.

And what's interesting is that while Faulkner makes her stand for equality at The Citadel, an increasing number of women are making the opposite decision.

As you may have read, there is a rush to return to women's colleges. The idea is that by being separate, the women can be more equal.

You've heard all the anecdotal stories of a bias toward males in the classroom. They're probably true. Certainly, enough women believe them so that, since 1991, there has been a 14 percent increase in applications to women's colleges.

The women are taking their cue from African-Americans, who are increasingly drawn to historically black colleges. The argument is, in each case, that separate is better. This is a tough one for me, and probably for Shannon Faulkner.

I grew up in the '60s in the state of Virginia. At the time, the University of Virginia was all-male and virtually all-white. That's the principal state university -- no women, virtually no blacks.

Women were educated in a variety of settings, public and private, and most of them single-sex. In fact, there were at least seven women's colleges within a 60-mile radius of the University of Virginia.

The women's colleges all had strict curfews; Virginia had none. The women's colleges all had dress codes; Virginia had none.

If you wanted a date at single-sex Madison College (now coeducational James Madison University), you first had to write a letter to the dean of women.

It was separate -- and unequal. It was finishing schools and teachers' colleges for women vs. a comprehensive state university for men.

This all changed in the '70s. Virginia, in the face of lawsuits, began to admit women. So did the Ivy League schools. And women's colleges, which numbered 298 in 1960, have slipped to 84 as single-sex education seemed to be a relic, like The Citadel.

Now, segregation is the new trend. I understand the temptations. Women's voices seem louder at a women's college. Blacks apparently perform better at majority-black schools. Even at majority-white schools, blacks often practice self-segregation.

But I hate to see what is basically a retreat. For all the problems on campus, college remains a relatively, well, collegial way-station between adolescence and life. On the college campus, if women or minority groups have grievances, they are often actually heard.

In the real world, it's a little tougher. Try bringing your grievance to the CEO at General Motors and see what reaction you get.

If you have to learn to live in a white-male-dominated world, the college campus is probably the safest place to start.

That doesn't necessarily hold for Shannon Faulkner. She's doing something hard, and maybe a little crazy. I'm rooting for her.

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