Some news from the antipodes: a private boys’ school in Sydney is planning to allow female pupils for the first time. Before you move on with your life, spare a thought for the parents protesting against the switch as though it heralds the end of man.
Last week a news clip went viral, showing a small group objecting to the “catastrophic” decision outside the gates of Newington college. Never mind that the proposed change to coeducational won’t take full effect until 2033, when their sons will have moved on. These parents are concerned about tradition, and – to quote one worried father from the frontlines – the “woke, toxic-masculinity type palaver” threatening to undo it.
“It’s a boys’ school, and it’s always been a boys’ school,” another protester explains from behind his Ray-Bans. The oldest of the old boys, still bearing the logo of his alma mater, says, simply: “I’m sorry, but I’m not a coed person.”
“I’m an old boy of the school,” he begins his interview with 9News, voice quavering. “My son is also an old boy, and the intention was always that I’d have a grandson.” At this point Ratsos’ voice breaks, and he lets slip what can only be described as a sniffle. “But I won’t bring him to a coed school,” he concludes.
It is an instant entry into my list of the all-time greatest television news clips, cemented by the shot of one of the protest placards howling in ragged black script: “WHY? AFTER 160 YEARS.”
To listen to these old boys’ inarticulate defence of “traditional values”, you can’t help but think they’re really misty-eyed about a time when men’s dominance in public and political life passed without challenge. But times have changed, as Newington’s board is recognising.
Throughout my teenage years, my mother taught at an all-girls school; nevertheless, she made a point of sending my sister and me to the closest coed. We’d been home-schooled through primary, we didn’t have any brothers and – Mum warned – our matriarchal family structure was not universally applied. As she put it: “You’re going to have to find out about them sooner or later.”
The reality was less grim than she’d seemed to be implying. The boys in class were often disruptive, and rarely as clever or funny as they made themselves out to be – but on the whole, fine. School was as much a crash course in gender relations as it was maths and English.
A recent study found “no significant difference” in the academic performance of single-sex school students (boys or girls) compared with their mixed-school peers. But in other important ways, they may find themselves ill-prepared.
Research suggests that single-sex school graduates feel greater anxiety about “mixed-gender interactions” – pretty hard to avoid, in life – and have fewer friends of the other gender, with potentially “important implications for later marriage, academic and career outcomes”.
Now, having entrusted generation Z with breaking down outdated binaries and barriers (and solving the climate crisis too, while they’re at it), troubling new research suggests that today’s young men are turning against gender equality, led by the likes of misogyny-influencer Andrew Tate.
The finding that 16- to 29-year-old men are more likely than baby boomers to believe that “feminism has done more harm than good” may seem to blame the younger generation for stalling progress – but they didn’t come to those ideas independently.
As easy as it is to laugh at these grown men tearily protesting against the presence of “young ladies”, the Newington college saga carries a dark message: about the stock people place in the ideas and mores of the past, and the lengths they’ll go to protect them.
And it’s not just men fighting to save Newington from “the woke agenda”: mothers of students have been speaking out too, emphasising the specific learning needs of “boisterous” boys.
It all boils down to tired gender essentialism, which is increasingly challenged by contemporary culture and research, yet is persistent and insidious among even seeming progressives. Without denying the influence of Tate and his ilk online, it’s much more uncomfortable to admit that prejudice often starts at home.
Why should you, a teenage boy, have to learn to see women as equals if your sixtysomething dad never did? He turned out fine! And if your mum is so convinced that your grades will suffer in the presence of girls, what does that say about her expectations of you?
Grow up steeped in such thinking, and you’ll be facing an uphill battle from long before your teens if you’re ever to see women as truly equal. The old boys protesting outside Newington college may be swimming against the tide, but the sentiment reportedly swelling within gen Z should be a reminder: change may be inevitable, but progress isn’t.