Two Stubborn Pieces of Iron

IN discussing such a proposal as that of the co-education of the sexes it is very desirable first of all to realise clearly what it is that we want the thing to do.  The thing might be upheld for quite opposite reasons.  It might be supposed to increase delicacy or to decrease it.  It might be valued because it was a sphere for sentiment or because it was a damper for sentiment.  My sympathies would move me in a discussion entirely according to what difference its upholders thought it would make.  For myself, I doubt whether it would make much difference at all.  Everyone must agree with co-education for very young children; and I cannot believe that even for elder children it would do any great harm.  But that is because I think the school is not so important as people think it nowadays.  The home is the really important thing, and always will be.  People talk about the poor neglecting their children; but a little boy in the street has more traces of having been brought up by his mother than of having been taught ethics and geography by a pupil teacher.  And if we take this true parallel of the home we can see, I think, exactly what co-education can do and what it cannot do.  The school will never make boys and girls ordinary comrades.  The home  does not make them that.  The sexes can work together in a school-room just as they can breakfast together in a breakfast-room; but neither makes any difference to the fact that the boys go off to a boyish companionship which the girls would think disgusting, while the girls go off to a girl companionship which the boys would think literally insane.  Co-educate as much as you like, there will always be a wall between the sexes until love or lust breaks it down.  Your co-educative playground for pupils in their teens will not be a place of sexless camaraderie.  It will be a place where boys go about in fives sulkily growling at the girls, and where the girls go about in twos turning up their noses at the boys.

Now if you accept this state of things and are content with it as the result of your co-education, I am with you; I accept it as one of the mystical first facts of Nature.  I accept it somewhat in the spirit of Carlyle when somebody told him that Harriet Martineau had “accepted the Universe”, and he said, “By God, she’d better.” But if you have any idea that co-education would do more than parade the sexes in front of each other twice a day, if you think it would destroy their deep ignorance of each other or start them on a basis of rational understanding, then I say first that this will never happen, and second that I (for one) should be horribly annoyed if it did.

I can reach my meaning best by another route.  Very few people ever state properly the strong argument in favour of marrying for love or against marrying for money.  The argument is not that all lovers are heroes and heroines, nor is it that all dukes are profligates or all millionaires cads.  The argument is this, that the differences between a man and a woman are at the best so obstinate and exasperating that they  practically cannot be got over unless there is an atmosphere of exaggerated tenderness and mutual interest.  To put the matter in one metaphor, the sexes are two stubborn pieces of iron; if they are to be welded together, it must be while they are red-hot.  Every woman has to find out that her husband is a selfish beast, because every man is a selfish beast by the standard of a woman.  But let her find out the beast while they are both still in the story of “Beauty and the Beast”.  Every man has to find out that his wife is cross — that is to say, sensitive to the point of madness: for every woman is mad by the masculine standard.  But let him find out that she is mad while her madness is more worth considering than anyone else’s sanity.

This is not a digression.  The whole value of the normal relations of man and woman lies in the fact that they first begin really to criticise each other when they first begin really to admire each other.  And a good thing, too.  I say, with a full sense of the responsibility of the statement, that it is better that the sexes should misunderstand each other until they marry.  It is better that they should not have the knowledge until they have the reverence and the charity.  We want no premature and puppyish “knowing all about girls”.  We do not want the highest mysteries of a Divine distinction to be understood before they are desired, and handled before they are understood.  That which Mr. Shaw calls the Life Force, but for which Christianity has more philosophical terms, has created this early division of tastes and habits for that romantic purpose, which is also the most practical of all purposes.  Those whom God has sundered, shall no man join.

It is, therefore, a question of what are really the co-educators’ aims.  If they have small aims, some convenience in organisation, some slight improvement in manners, they know more about such things than I.  But if they have large aims, I am against them.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Common Man.