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The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men

By Christina Hoff Sommers
Simon & Schuster. 251 pp. $25

Reviewed by E. Anthony Rotundo, who is the author of "American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era." He also teaches at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

Sunday, July 2, 2000

The era from the 1870s to the 1970s could well be called "The Century of the Boy." Building on the tradition of male dominance far older than their nation, Americans conceived a cultural romance with boyhood that penetrated every facet of American life. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn became iconic figures, boys' games such as baseball and football emerged as men's preoccupations and ultimately as metaphors for work, statecraft and life itself, and figures like the cowboy and the playboy modeled American manhood for the nation and the world. Theodore Roosevelt, whose enduring popularity is rooted in his "boyishness," declared that a man "won't be much of a man unless he is a good deal of a boy." Cultural image influenced daily behavior. Our common patterns of schoolroom practice and our dominant psychologies of childhood were boy-centered.

And so, when modern feminism emerged in the 1960s and '70s, the infatuation with boyhood made a natural target. Feminist critics have brought girls' needs and problems the public attention they were long denied. Now, as the conversation on gender continues, a growing body of commentators teachers, psychologists, conservative critics and feminists themselves are calling attention to troubling patterns in the performance of boys.

As parents and professionals struggle for a sense of focus on these issues, Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime critic of feminism, has published a new book on the subject. The War Against Boys accuses feminists and their fellow travellers in education and government of waging war against American boys. The media have already provided a forum for her charges, with the Atlantic Monthly running excerpts from the book as a cover story. Such widely heralded claims require careful scrutiny.

Sommers's specific accusations fall into two broad categories. One is education. She charges that feminists invented a crisis in girls' education while ignoring major problems in boys' academic performance. She directs her animus especially at How Schools Shortchange Girls, a study funded by the American Association of University Women. The study found a pattern of male-dominated, male-oriented classrooms and linked it to patterns of academic underperformance and low self-esteem in girls. Sommers cites other studies that dispute the AAUW findings and describes an AAUW lobbying campaign to hoodwink the media into accepting those findings. She also details patterns of male underachievement in reading, writing and extracurricular activity, saying that girls are thriving while boys are failing.

Sommers's second area of concern in the purported war against boys is the way in which adults socialize boys, both in and out of school. She objects to the feminist idea that violence perpetrated by boys is a product of male culture or masculine ideals. She also rejects the notions common among feminist scholars that boys need to have better access to their gentler emotions and that they shouldn't be pressured to push away from their mothers at an early age. Sommers charges that these notions lack supporting data and points with scorn at certain attempts (non-competitive games; doll play for boys) to apply these notions to the raising of boys. She says that such ideas about socializing boys differently are harmful because they disregard boys' true nature and she says that we need to respect that nature because masculinity is responsible for the great achievements of human culture.

Sommers proposes several measures to improve boys' academic achievement, including all-boy schools, lecture-and-drill teaching methods, phonics instruction and more frequent testing. To curb violence among boys, she advocates emphasizing "directive" moral instruction instead of dismantling traditional codes of manhood.

Examined carefully, Sommers's case does not hold up well. She persistently misrepresents scholarly debate, ignores evidence that contradicts her assertions, and directs intense scrutiny at studies she opposes while giving a free critical ride to research she supports. A few examples of her style of argument will have to stand for a much larger pattern.

Let's look first at education. Sommers says that feminists have ignored the educational problems of boys, starting with How Schools Shortchange Girls. This argument runs into the inconvenient fact that the first and best-known study documenting patterns of male underachievement in school was sponsored by none other than the AAUW, in a follow-up to their study of girls' performance. It's an inconvenient fact that a women's organization led the way in studying the problems of boys, so Sommers attacks the AAUW for underpublicizing the study (she cites no data to support this charge). As for Sommers's claim that "girls and young women are thriving" academically, there have been many studies since Shortchange that contradict her, but she does not examine them. She describes studies that support her position but does not subject them to the same critical scrutiny to which she subjects Shortchange. Indeed, the AAUW follow-up study that included boys (and which Sommers strongly approves) reached the following conclusion, as quoted by Sommers: "Inequity can (and does) work in both directions." Sommers's own Table 2 shows that girls lag behind boys in percentages taking calculus, physics, AP/honors chemistry, engineering and astronomy at the high school level. Sommers applies a zero-sum model to gender concerns in education. It doesn't seem to occur to her that each sex faces significant problems that need redress.

Sommers's complaints about feminist proposals to socialize boys differently also rest on weak support. To advance her claim that boys have a true nature rooted in biology, she disregards the inconvenient evidence. When discussing the nature-nurture controversy in matters of gender, Sommers presents only the evidence for biological determinism, as if this were a settled issue among scholars in the field. In fact, the debate on this topic is lively and far from conclusive. Most studies of sex difference in various forms of behavior show no statistically significant difference. The studies that do find differences between the sexes tend to find much greater variation of behavior within each sex than between the averages of the two sexes. In other words, we're far more commonly human than we are male or female. Sommers, however, adheres to a literal-minded interpretation of genetic influence. As she sees it, men have one genetic makeup and women have another. This causes prenatal hormonal differences and contrasts in anatomies, which in turn create sharp differences that endure over the life cycle. Sommers believes in unchangeable, "hard-wired" male and female natures.

She contrasts her position with the constructionist view that attributes sex difference solely to culture. Her thinking allows no middle ground, even though that ground is well-occupied in debates on the subject. In the moderate position, heredity sets a range of possibilities for each individual and then environment determines the variation within that range. Male and female behavior patterns, then, are not set in granite they vary. This model is consistent not only with the results of sex-difference studies but also with new knowledge about the brain which shows that brain structure and function change in response to experience.

In the context of Sommers's book, the issue of nature and nurture is much more than a matter of idle speculation. Her position that male nature is set in genetic stone is crucial to her argument. She sees the changes in educational method, child-rearing and moral education advanced by feminists and other liberals as violations of true male nature and therefore as a war against boys. But if maleness and femaleness can vary in response to life experience, then a host of feminist concerns must be taken seriously. For example, if boys' behavior can change in response to cultural messages, then the glorification of male violence in entertainment media is indeed a serious problem. Her proposals for improving boys' education and reducing anti-social behavior have limited or questionable research support. The value of phonics instruction, lecture-and-drill teaching methods and frequent testing is hotly debated among education scholars (a debate Sommers does not examine). Her enthusiasm for all-boy schools is based on experiments in Britain that are too recent to be usefully evaluated and on a few glowing anecdotes of questionable generality from the United States. Her advocacy of directive moral education rests on no hard evidence at all. Apparently, ideological enthusiasm is sufficient reason to suspend critical thinking as long as the ideology is the right one.

In the end, Sommers fails to prove either claim in the title of her book. She does not show that there is a "war against boys." All she can show is that feminists are attacking her "boys-will-be-boys" concept of boyhood, just as she attacks their more flexible notion. The difference between attacking a concept and attacking millions of real children is both enormous and patently obvious. Sommers's title, then, is not just wrong but inexcusably misleading. For the claim in her subtitle that "misguided feminism is harming our young men," she does not present a shred of credible supporting evidence but rather advances her position by assertion and abstract argumentation.

Had Sommers written a calm, factual presentation of boys' academic and social problems, this could have been a valuable book. Boys do lag behind girls in reading and writing, and they do trail in extracurricular participation. They are both perpetrators and victims of violence more often than girls are. But Sommers's book is a work of neither dispassionate social science nor reflective scholarship; it is a conservative polemic. Sommers focuses less on boys than on the feminists and cultural liberals against whom she has a long-standing animus. As a society, we sorely need a discussion of boyhood that is thoughtful and searching. This intemperate book is a hindrance to such conversation. '



 
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