Do you have a son? Is there an important boy in your life?If so, Christina Hoff Sommers has an important warning. Oddly enough, it's a lousy time to be a boy in America, she explains during a telephone interview from her home in Maryland. While girls are generally applauded and admired, she says, boys are often feared like the plague.
As she writes in the opening of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men: As the new millennium begins, the triumphant victory of our women's soccer team has come to symbolize the spirit of American girls. The defining event for boys is the shooting at Columbine High. During our talk, Sommers notes the myriad programs that try to boost girls' academic and self-esteem skills, the result of feminists decrying the injustices girls have suffered in classrooms over the years. But Sommers argues that it is actually boys who now lag behind girls, not vice versa.
In fact, she says, the average 11th-grade boy writes like an eighth-grade girl. He's three years behind in writing and a year-and-a-half behind in reading. Yes, she knows that boys are slightly ahead in math and science, as a rule. However, there are lots of programs to help girls (and Sommers makes a point to say she's not criticizing those programs). What angers her, though, is that similar programs to help boys are practically non-existent.
If anything, she explains, boys are viewed as the privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchal system, but nothing could be farther from the truth, especially with a low-achieving boy. Many of today's educational strategies deny the types of experiences that help boys learn. They love competition, hierarchy, and striving for excellence, Sommers says. If we take that away, you take away all that's important for boys. For years, feminists have pointed out the plight of under-achieving, low self-esteem girls, such as those depicted in Carol Gilligan's popular book, In a Different Voice. What's more, Sommers argues that a handful of organizations, including the American Association of University Women and the Wellesley Center for Research on Women, have added to the problem by shaping gender policy in our nation's schools. Sommers, who took academic feminists to task in her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism?, says these groups have promoted misleading and incorrect data, an assertion she probes in her book.
The War Against Boys discusses the problem in detail and offers some solutions. For starters, suggests Sommers, boys need their own watchdog group. Nothing ideological, Sommers warns, but simply people who like boys and understand them. Members might include the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, Boys' Town, Harvard's Alvin F. Poussaint, and Michael Gurian, author of the insightful book, The Wonder of Boys.
Sommers explains that she would also like to see a major correction in the schools of education in their offerings on gender education. She recommends a new study be required reading: Trends in Educational Equity of Girls ∧ Women by the U.
S. Department of Education.
While it's very honest about the areas in which girls need help, she says, it's the best account of how boys need help too. Sommers hopes that when teachers across the country hear the phrase gender equity, they will stop thinking of Carol Gilligan's ideas, and instead think of The War Against Boys, the Department of Education study, or research by Judith Kleinfeld.
Meanwhile, what can parents of boys do to help? Sommers a former professor of philosophy and the mother of a teenage son and an older stepson offers several recommendations during our chat: Be aware that there are many who do not like boys, who view the natural tendencies of boys to be pathological, a defect to be overcome. I don't think there are many teachers like this, but there are going to be some who have taken seriously what they have read. . . . Be prepared to be an advocate for your son and for all the little boys in the class. Be aware that you're going to have to make special efforts in teaching boys reading, writing, handwriting, and organization. These skills do not come to most boys as naturally as they come to most girls, Sommers explains. She adds that it's helpful to make sure teachers include stories and books that feature adventure, heroes, and action, all of which are likely to appeal to boys.
All parents need to realize that boys can behave in all sorts of ways without being mentally unstable. There's a whole repertoire of wild, normal, little boy behavior. The standard play of little boys is rough and tumble, and women mothers and teachers have never fully understood it and liked it. In her book she describes a stunned California mother whose son was punished for running during recess, and nearly suspended for jumping over a bench. Sad to say, Sommers says, normal youthful male exuberance is becoming unacceptable in more and more schools. Sommers has had to go to bat for her own son, who once got in big trouble during a school field trip for jumping up and swatting a restaurant awning that the class passed on the street. The author stresses the need for gentlemanly, moral behavior, yet she believes the natural tendencies of little boys must be better understood.
Sommers ends The War Against Boys with a stirring call for action: We have created a lot of problems, both for ourselves and for our children. Now we must resolutely set about solving them. I am confident we can do that. American boys, whose very masculinity turns out to be politically incorrect, badly need our support. If you are an optimist, as I am, you believe that good sense and fair play will prevail. If you are a mother of sons, as I am, you know that one of the more agreeable facts of life is that boys will be boys. Alice Cary writes from Massachusetts.