Better dead than coed?

“Andover will go coed over my dead body!” That’s what my AP Latin teacher told us at least three or four times during my senior year. His prediction didn’t quite come true, but it was close: in 1973, the year that Andover first admitted girls (eight years after I graduated), he retired. “I don’t know how to teach girls!” he would tell us; “they’re a different species.” Fortunately he taught Latin, not biology.

In case it isn’t clear, I’m talking about Phillips Academy (PA) — that’s the one in Andover, MA, not to be confused with Phillips Exeter Academy (in Exeter, NH), nor with Andover High School (in Andover, MA). Back in the ’60s, when I attended PA, it was still a very traditional New England prep school and therefore all male. As I’ve said elsewhere, my experience there was academically first-rate but socially and culturally horrible. You can infer a lot about the culture with a careful look at a single page from my yearbook:

I’m told that the social atmosphere improved immensely with the addition of girls, as one might expect. The amount of bullying, hyper-competitiveness, rampant sexism, and overall toxicity of the culture decreased a lot after 1973— or so I’m told.

But maybe it didn’t.

Even if the culture improved at PA, that clearly didn’t happen at every traditional New England prep school. In particular, let’s consider Deerfield, which didn’t admit girls until 1988 — 15 years later than Andover. A few days ago the Boston Globe published a fascinating article about the situation at Deerfield. Let me quite the opening of the article:

The slick, student-produced video could be a recruitment tool: a sun-washed campus, nestled in rich Western Massachusetts farmland, featuring students dancing, singing, and living a seemingly idyllic life.

“There is so much to learn here,” says a young man in a green Deerfield Academy cap, looking into the camera. “I’d send my son here for sure.”

Then he pauses, and looks down. “I’d have to think about sending my daughter here, but I’d definitely send my son.”

Another young man states matter-of-factly: “It’s a pretty toxic place for girls.”

Thirty years after boys chanted “better dead than coed” in protest of the school’s decision to admit girls, one of the nation’s oldest and most elite boarding schools remains a place where female students have a sense this is not their Deerfield.

It’s a place, students say, where boys get away with breaking rules that girls can’t. Where girls have been shunned from prime seating at hockey games. And where a letter of apology was punishment enough for groping a girl.

Read the entire article, which goes into much greater length about the situation at Deerfield. Of course the “me too” era and the recent situations at Milton Academy and St. Paul’s School — two other traditional, formerly all-male New England prep schools — provide a significant lens through which to view the situation.

By the way, on an unrelated matter, I wonder how many readers who were not around back in the ’60s know what the phrase “better dead than coed” refers to.

Categories: Teaching & Learning