Coeducation Essay

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Coeducation refers to the practice of educating both sexes in the same setting. In its thinnest sense, this term coined in the nineteenth-century in the United States, need not signify that both sexes teach, or that the curriculum represents or addresses both sexes, or even that both sexes learn together rather than apart within that setting. The only requirement this otherwise vaguely descriptive term signifies in both popular and professional usage is both sexes’ presence as learners in a setting, perhaps not even in nearly equal numbers, nor with nearly equal value.

This theoretically naive way of discussing coeducation may owe some of its currency even among professional educational theorists to John Dewey’s strong polemical advocacy for coeducation in a 1911 Ladies’ Home Journal (LHJ) article where he asserted the absurdity of developing a theory of coeducation. Yet he demonstrates the need for subtler coeducational thought when his own cogent LHJ critique of sexual essentialism with regard to elementary education and his administrative argument for coeducational classrooms at the University of Chicago seem to contradict his LHJ defense of higher education in home economics for women only. Like most twentieth-century philosophers of education, he ignores coeducation’s philosophical history, which is ancient: Plato, whose Academy was coeducational, includes in the Republic, V, Socrates’ argument for providing both sexes the same education within a Guardian class organized without families.

But in its thinnest, descriptive sense, as Dewey’s own self-contradictory polemic and Booker T. Washington’s also influential conception of racially segregated coeducation for ex-slaves at Tuskeegee both illustrate, coeducation need not denote the same education for both sexes. Washington’s coeducational curriculum includes home economics for women and other vocational training for men, whereas W. E. B. Du Bois constructs implicit premises for a more radical concept of coeducation in The Souls of Black Folk, by narrating the tragic case of an intellectually hungry woman’s poverty, educational deprivation, domestic enslavement to family cares, and early death from overwork, largely because of her brothers’ uneducated domestic skills and responsibility. These three pragmatists’ theoretical differences on gender questions in education following abolition of slavery suggest a seldom noted need for interracial theorizing about coeducation. This entry looks at coeducation as viewed by some key female thinkers.


The most substantial English-speaking tradition of coeducational thought originated in 1791 to 1792 with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which critiques slavery as it formulates coeducation in a thick normative sense. Admiring Catherine Macaulay’s 1790 argument for coeducation in Letters on Education, Wollstonecraft constructs her revolutionary rationale for coeducation, without ever having experienced its formal practice, by critiquing the monarchist property system’s moral miseducation of both sexes: patriarchal, sex-segregated education premised upon both an essentialist conception of sexual difference and an imperialist dependence upon slavery. Following her coeducational thought experiment, feminists have grounded their rationales for coeducation in their own reflective responses to Wollstonecraft’s and their other forebears’ coeducational thought as well as their own different cultural landscapes. Thus, her coeducational inquiry set an agenda for subsequent practical experiments and thought experiments, as well as critical treatises, concerning coeducation across the English-speaking world. Despite some differences among feminists, the feminist tradition’s rationales for coeducation are all rooted in philosophical concerns to foster just societies and good lives for all.

Louisa May Alcott’s March family trilogy, for example, gives fictional narrative form to many of Wollstonecraft’s philosophical ideas about coeducation. Although obviously not concerned with monarchism in the United States, Alcott does portray both sexes’ miseducation vividly, endorsing the moral validity of Wollstonecraft’s opposition to slavery and implicitly also her concern about the likely moral failures of a republic that fails to educate women for economic independence, competent motherhood, and full democratic participation as citizens, or to teach men to value them.

Among the first generation of women to enjoy access to higher coeducation and earn a Ph.D., African American, educator-orator Anna Julia Cooper amends Wollstonecraft’s and Alcott’s republican rationale for coeducation by insisting also upon its value for racial development through women’s generously compassionate sisterhood and men’s respect for their leadership, through a coeducational curriculum grounded in both the law of love and the law of reason.

In England on the eve of World War II, Virginia Woolf, in Three Guineas, accepts such earlier arguments for coeducation’s democratic necessity with her own satiric accounts of higher education that fails to civilize men because it overlooks how an “unpaid-for” education does civilize some otherwise uneducated women; she updates Wollstonecraft’s moral skepticism about a patriarchal domestic and political economy organized around property and empire, and constructs a cogent caveat about coeducation’s strategic sufficiency for preventing war and protecting culture and intellectual liberty within such a morally questionable context.

Most recently, having studied Wollstonecraft’s ideal of the educated woman and then invoking both Alcott’s and Woolf’s educational thought in The Schoolhome, Jane Roland Martin cites boys’ brutalizing miseducation and girls’ domesticating miseducation in the late twentieth century to retheorize the U.S. Constitution’s concept of “domestic tranquility” as a foundation for rethinking coeducation’s purposes relative to both sexes’ education for morally responsible lives in the private family home, the public nation home, and the universal planetary home.

A New Vision

Affixing the prefix co to education thus may signify not just education of both sexes in one place but, as Cooper argues, the education of both sexes situated interdependently within social relationships, political-economic systems, cultural diversity, and moral responsibilities that construct their differences from each other as well as their nation’s character. Proposing coeducation as one nonviolent revolutionary strategy necessary for a republic’s moral health, Wollstonecraft theorizes a multi-institutional, culturally complex context for coeducation, simultaneously private and public. Critical of private education, such as that advocated by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and of public education, such as that offered by unregulated residential schools, she nonetheless advocates coeducation that combines both sexes’ education to love with both sexes’ education to reason: the former within loving, egalitarian homes and the latter within government-financed day schools for the rich and poor of both sexes. But no less concerned about imperial economic oppression than about sexual oppression, Wollstonecraft casts severe doubt upon the notion that education can remedy social ills without revolutionary politics, recognizing print media and churches as consequential agents of public education (and miseducation).

More optimistic about coeducation’s power to address social problems, Alcott’s coeducational thought experiment revises Wollstonecraft’s multi-institutional context by conceptually integrating an egalitarian home that teaches loving life-practices with an inclusive school that teaches academic subjects by Socratic method into a single private institution with a public conscience: Plumfield (in the book Little Men). Less optimistically, Woolf acknowledges practical difficulties in establishing and changing higher education institutions for moral purposes, theorizes their complicities with fascism and war, and advocates anarchic emphasis on critical moral education about comparable tyrannies and servilities in both private house and public world. Much as Wollstonecraft, Alcott, and Cooper do, but with more theoretical elaboration, therefore, Woolf advocates women’s conscientious educative participation in print media and other extra institutional cultural activities as an unofficial “Society of Outsiders” that may distinctively foster a civilizing coeducational culture in which men and women learn to speak honestly with one another.

Most recently, Martin acknowledges coeducation’s multi-institutional configuration and theorizes a broadly applicable “gender-sensitive educational ideal,” proposing a new concept of multicultural public coeducational schooling, the “schoolhome,” as a “moral equivalent of home”; advocating “actions great and small” that academic women might take to transform higher coeducation; and conceptualizing “multiple educational agency” as effective means of cultural transmission that require ongoing systematic moral evaluation.

Coeducational thought following Wollstonecraft has also addressed, from various perspectives, the ends and means she claims for coeducation: (1) to confound the sex distinction, (2) to renounce sex privilege and foster equality, (3) to cultivate friendly intersex mutuality, and (4) to value childrearing as educational work that requires educated intelligence and that, to be morally sound, must meet the equality and mutuality conditions. Controversies among many twentieth and twenty-first century coeducational theorists have in various ways, to different extents, and for diverse purposes addressed those four coeducational ends and means postulated by Wollstonecraft—controversies that coeducation’s commoner thin sense mystifies.


  1. Cooper, A. J. (1998). The colored woman’s office. In C. Lemert & E. Bhan (Eds.), The voice of Anna Julia Cooper (pp. 50–117). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  2. Dewey, J. (1911). Is co-education injurious to girls? Ladies’ Home Journal, 28(22), 13.
  3. Laird, S. (1995). Rethinking coeducation. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 13, 361–378.
  4. Laird, S. (1998). Learning from Marmee’s teaching: Alcott’s response to girls’ miseducation. In J. Alberghene & B. L. Clark (Eds.), “Little Women” and the feminist imagination (pp. 285–321). New York: Garland Press.
  5. Martin, J. R. (1992). The schoolhome. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Martin, J. R. (1999). Coming of age in academe. New York: Routledge.
  7. Martin, J. R. (2002). Cultural miseducation. New York: Teachers College Press.
  8. Showalter, E. (Ed.). (2005). Alcott: Little women, Little men, Jo’s boys. New York: Library of America.
  9. Todd, J. (Ed.). (1999). Mary Wollstonecraft: A vindication of the rights of woman, a vindication of the rights of men. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  10. Woolf, V. (1938). Three guineas. San Francisco: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

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