The Choice of Single-Sex Education

June 04, 1995|By DUDLEY DIGGES

In your editorial, ''Women, VMI and the Citadel'' (May 21), I believe you and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit have both failed to give emphasis to the most important element in the case: i.e., the legitimacy, constitutionality and desirability of single-gender institutions of higher learning as a reasonable alternative to coeducational colleges and universities.

It is this, not the differing importance of the ''military'' at VMI and The Citadel, and at the three major service academies, that should be the heart of the matter.

As for the military aspects of the case, the parallel you draw with respect to the service academies and the two colleges involved is a badly warped one.

The primary mission of the former is to train future officers for professional careers in the three services; for the latter -- and I can speak only for VMI now -- the role is quite different. In the words of one of the founders of VMI, its graduates are expected to become ''citizen-soldiers,'' primacy properly given to the first word.

This had been its mission from the beginning and continues to be. In short, VMI is an excellent small college, 85 percent of whose graduates consistently, over the years, have gone into civilian professions. Barely 15 percent choose to become professional military men.

In civilian careers, the range is one of predictable heterogeneity: Rhodes scholars, university and college presidents, gynecologists, CEOs of major businesses, insurance salesmen, farmers, newspaper editors, sculptors, research chemists.

Circuit Court Judge Diana Motz, as quoted in the editorial, also falls into the trap of presuming VMI to have the same primary mission as the service academies. ''Recently the United States eliminated its rule excluding women from combat,'' explaining that the rule was an ''armor-plated ceiling preventing the advancement of women in the military, . . .'' The editorial then continues, quoting her indirectly: ''She went on to say that as VMI's training environment became more and more different from the real world of the military and its service academies. . . .''

VMI is, of course, proud of those 15 percent who choose ''the real world of the military'' and have excelled. For example,

General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the Army during World War II, Lt. Gen. John A. Lejeune, commandant of the Marine Corps, and innumerable other high-ranking officers. Nevertheless, these highly visible examples should not disproportionately obscure the accomplishments of the overwhelming 85 percent majority from the equally real world of civilian life.

Single-gender institutions both male and female, have a demonstrated and important role in higher education. The choices between them and coeducational institutions should remain available.

Dudley Digges, a VMI graduate, is a retired editor of The Evening Sun editorial page.

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