Students at Abbotsleigh, a school for girls in Sydney

Single-sex schools used to be an esteemed tradition in Australia, both private and public. However, their numbers are declining. At the current rate one commentator suggests there would be no more single sex schools after 2035.

Advocates of single sex schooling for girls continue to point to the superior academic record of single sex girls’ schools. And with higher academic performance come tertiary opportunity and social impact. The Alliance of Girls Schools Australasia executive officer Loren Bridge, recently told the ABC the main reasons why many parents continue to choose single sex schooling for their girls: greater opportunities to develop confidence and to progress academically.

Without question there are legitimate contrary arguments for co-education also, but a bizarre new line of argument against single sex education is now on its soapbox. It is less interested in proving its case with facts than in imposing it by virtue of a dominant ideology.

Remarks by Flinders University education lecturer Dr Samantha Schulz, also to the ABC, offer a prime example of this blinkered approach:

By virtue of being single-sex schools, they're also reinforcing a gender binary, so the stereotypes that are ultimately disempowering. If we want schooling to lead to gender equity more broadly, then we need to think about the ways in which schools can lead to political and social empowerment for girls.

Dr Schulz believes that segregation reinforces a gender binary paradigm, and that this compromises gender equity, thus limiting political and social opportunities for girls. Her arguments are inspired by gender theory: that gender is a social construct, that gender roles have no basis in human nature and that one’s gender is not derived from one’s anatomy. It is a theory that is ideologically conceived and founded on false anthropological and social premises.

Dr Schultz’s approach is woefully misguided.

Schultz argues that coeducation promotes gender equity. But identity of treatment may not promote equity, and in fact may achieve the very opposite. Many argue, even in comments following the article, that girls find it harder to compete in a coeducational school environment.

And in any case the elephant in the classroom is that participation rates of women in tertiary education have outstripped those of men during years that coeducation has been on in increase.

So much for coeducation bringing equity: in the first case it is not the most effective solution for education of girls, and in the second it does not serve boys well.

Dr Schultz may not be an out and out gender theorist, but she seems to have absorbed a way of thinking that has seeped into universities and public bureaucracies. It is all the more dangerous because of such mainstream advocates, and its apparently mild and reasonable narrative.

Mild and reasonable it is not and a look at its roots reveals this clearly.

The three major figures of gender theory are Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Judith Butler (1956-), and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Foucault’s post Marxist History of Sexuality applies the lens of power struggle to sexual behaviours. In his “critical theory” he analyses “suppressed narratives” of the oppressed sectors of society. In the ensuing battle for dominance whoever controls the narrative controls the power. Truth is separated from being; what is subjective has primacy. There is no need to base opinions on reality as we can create our own realities.

Enter Butler, an American philosopher writing on political philosophy, ethics and feminism, and queer theory. Butler popularised neo-Marxist notions and terms such as hate speech, and picked up Derrida’s idea that commonplace communication and speech acts are “performative”, serving to define and maintain identity. She wrote in 1988 that “identity is not born but rather constructed through repeated performative actions that are in turn informed by existing social constructions of gender.”

These views ultimately derive from the framework of 17th Century philosopher Rene Descartes. They are out-dated and without credibility. His view was that body and mind are irreconcilable realities; he argued that our personality does not include our bodies. The body is joined to, but it is not an intrinsic part of the person. He famously wrote in his Meditations on First Philosophy “I have a body that is closely joined to me.”

But modern neuroscience has disproven this dualistic view: body and mind are completely integrated, inseparable. Furthermore, the distinctive nature of male and female brains is well recognised. In the words of one prominent neurobiologist, Larry Cahill: “it turns out that male and female brains differ quite a bit in architecture and activity.”

Gender theory is manifestly wrong, even from a scientific point of view. Males and females are essentially different. In the sphere of education, boys and girls have essentially different needs. Single sex schools have a legitimate place, and in any case it is the right of parents to determine what is best for their own children whom they best know, and certainly not the right of social engineering crusaders or avant-garde politicians.

Gender theory has flourished in a humidicrib of its own manufacture, perpetuated by certain academics who build their careers by marking each others’ theses and by keynoting at each others’ conferences!

Gender theory is as self-referential as a social media frenzy. It does not even pretend to be factually informed as it denies reality. The central axioms of gender theory are that anatomy is irrelevant to gender and that we create reality with our minds. I am the gender I choose to be. The hubris is astounding.

Even more disturbing however are the Marxist roots and destructive social agenda of gender theory. Advocates make no secret of their desire to pull down society as it is and reconstruct a world in which heterosexual and homosexual behaviour is equally valid and in which men and women have nothing unique to offer in their professions, in relationships, or in parenting.

From its very genesis, gender theory has manipulated language to its own ends. For instance, patriarchy may be a problem in some societies but this cannot lead us to conflate patriarchy with masculinity. And even if some women may act like subservient sex kittens, what has this to do with the unique skills that a woman brings to motherhood? Motherhood is not a mistake of nature.

Gender theory is not interested in what is currently working. It is a program of social engineering intent on change. It is an ideology without evidence. It must have no role in educational policy.

Dr Andrew Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield College and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney for 18 years. He is the author of Parenting for Character. He now works with university students in Melbourne. 

Dr Andy Mullins now works with parents and university students in Melbourne and teaches the Formation of Character course at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. He is the author of Parenting for Character...