The Need for Varying Perspectives -- Why We Would Benefit From Co-Ed Classes
College English departments could justifiably be renamed “departments of discourse.” In all classes - literature, poetry, film studies, creative writing and more - the dance of ideas drives our studies. The English department has no lecture classes, no courses of professors standing before students, and no professor talks straight for seventy-five minutes. That is anathema to our work.
Instead, we discuss. We argue, and we disagree. At the best of times, we become heated in the midst of debate; opposing viewpoints clash over a single text, the hunt for truth is played out in a classroom drama.
At the worst of times, there is the fatal murmur of assent. The classmates all roughly agree on the broader and finer points of note, and debate is nowhere to be seen, cutting off our lines of learning. This fatal assent is all too common. We do not argue enough, because our viewpoints are too similar. We are in dire need of conflict.
It is my belief that having coed classes in Yeshiva University would greatly improve the level of our education. I am an English major, and will therefore focus upon English courses, where I have witnessed this problem firsthand. On the Wilf campus, the absence of women in our English classes is keenly felt. I have not spoken to all Yeshiva College (YC) English majors and minors, but those I have spoken to all expressed a similar sentiment. As one student put it, “sometimes if there are only men in the classroom, they feel they can talk a certain way about women which can be one dimensional.”
This is not to accuse YC students of sexism. Rather, it is to highlight a gap in our dialogues. We discuss a broad range of topics in various classes, and the role and history of women in the humanities is often key to understanding texts. Of course, we YC English students are all terribly enlightened, and can comfortably compliment ourselves on how egalitarian we are. “Why, that text is sexist! This one is feminist!,” we might declare. We, of course, know the true value of women. Never mind the fact that we, inevitably, turn women into just another object. In this incarnation she is the object of our dialogues, with each student in turn jumping to show just how super-not-sexist he truly is. The “one dimensional” discussions do not come from a place of misogyny, but rather from an inability to have proper conversations from alternate perspectives.
I do not mean to criticize my fellow English majors (and not just because the department is small enough for a vendetta to be easily carried out against me). We are all aware of the problem and we sense the irony in a roomful of men sitting around and talking about how past roomfuls of men generated sexism, and gendered exclusion.
There is a sense, quite rightly, that we simply do not have the ability to discuss certain issues. The experiences of men and women are drastically different, and in YC, we can discuss only the theory of women, for when any topic is talked about, and not engaged with, it becomes merely a theory. In a class on Chaucer, we discussed the sexism found in The Miller’s Tale. It was an important discussion, and the professor gave it the care it needs (indeed, much of Chaucer’s work sparks questions regarding sexism). Yet it was an academic discussion of sexism, so palpably different from the personal discussion we had about anti-semitism in Chaucer. I do not believe any professors are at fault. The faculty members of the English department are immensely popular amongst their students--and deservedly so. They open the eyes of the students a little wider each time we meet. However, they ask us to blend the practical and the theoretical, and we simply cannot do that as much as is needed.
I have so far focused on how women are able to discuss women in critical ways that men cannot. Yet what about everything else there is to know? What does the Stern student think about Hamlet’s insanity? How does she read the traumas found in Watchmen? Which themes from Gulliver’s Travels interest her the most? What short stories and plays and memoirs has she written, and what experiences brought her to those words?
The Stern student and I have walked such different paths in life, separated for so many years by an educational and societal system that treats boys and girls differently. We have been educated, even within coed elementary and high schools, with different focuses, and have experienced life in a thousand different ways. Men and women are held to different standards for societal participation, both in Judaism, and the world at large; from accepted dress codes, to expected speech patterns, we inhabit alternate arenas of society. These differences cannot help but craft varying perspectives on the world.
While writing this piece, I showed a draft to a friend, who suggested I add in more specific examples of different life and educational experiences men and women have. I agreed the article could use more specifics. However, the very reason I’m writing this article is because I cannot comment on specifics. I cannot - and will not - try to speak for, and explain the experiences of, women. We struggle enough to do that in the all-male classroom.
Both Stern, and YC students in the English departments, whom I have spoken have eagerly supported the idea of coed classes. The popular refrain is, as one Stern student put it, “It’s always beneficial and fascinating to see different perspectives, and often different genders, religions, or races will approach a piece of literature with a different perspective.”
It may seem I’ve driven this point into the ground so deeply that it's cliché by now, but I repeat it because every student I’ve spoken with has said it.
Differing opinions are critical, and the Stern student must have different opinions than me because she has been raised differently from me, in a room across the hall. The Stern student has this room of her own, to do with as she pleases. She reads and writes and learns in her room, and I in mine. But how much brighter would things be if we read and wrote and learned together?