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Coeducation, sometimes referred to as mixed-sex education, is a system of schooling in which both males and females are taught together. Coeducation is now common throughout much of the world, but for much of history was a scandalous, if not flatly illegal, behavior. Not all aspects of school life need to be integrated in order for the institutions to be considered coeducational; for instance, many universities teach fully coed classes, but restrict dormitories to single sex habitation.
One of the major factors preventing coeducational institutions throughout history is that, in most of the world, women were long prohibited from attending school at all. In many cultures, the role of the woman has been centered around home-based activities, such as child-rearing and housekeeping. Common wisdom long held that educating women was indecorous, wasteful, and potentially even dangerous to their femininity. Education for women became somewhat more acceptable during the Middle Ages, but it was in post-colonial America that coeducation would first become a common practice.
In the wild frontiers of America, it soon became practical for boys and girls to be educated together. Though city schools tended to remain single sex, the vastness of the pioneer land played a factor in the development of mixed-sex schools. When only five or six school-age children and a single teacher lived in range of a schoolhouse, it became impractical for girls and boys to be educated separately. Single young women, including the famous pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder, were also highly valuable as school teachers in a society in which the men were preoccupied with farming the land. By the turn of the 20th century, the American educational system stood at the forefront of the coeducation trend.
Two major factors in the 20th century led to the widespread availability of coeducational schools: the implementation of national education standards and social moves toward male/female equity. Once women had established the rights to vote, own property, and run their own businesses, it became impractical to deny them equal schooling opportunities. The acceptance of women into formerly forbidden fields such as medicine and science also fostered the necessity for equal admittance into higher learning educations, which had traditionally permitted only male students.
Around the globe, coeducation is often the rule at publicly funded schools. Some private institutions, especially those with a religious bent, still maintain a single sex environment for either men or women, but these are becoming much rarer throughout most of the world. While, as critics have long feared, the presence of coed sex classes undoubtedly leads to some distraction on both sides, many educational experts suggest that the gains made by allowing women equal opportunities to education can hardly be overstated.
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