The War Against Boys (Simon & Schuster: 2000, 2013, 2015), by Christine Hoff Sommers, Ph.D. 269 pages with 31 pages of Notes, 29 pages of Index.
This book changed how I perceive women’s rights. When I was a college student I joined NOW and marched for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. I had been led to believe that women earned less money than men. That women couldn’t advance their careers through the glass ceiling. And that most female office workers were employed in pink collar jobs. It was an easy jump for me to believe that girls were also disadvantaged educationally. That our educational system was intrinsically biased in favor of boys. This book says much of the data for the girl crisis in education movement was made up.
“’Confident at 11, Confused at 16’ read the title of a 1990 New York Times Magazine story reporting an alarming discovery about the psychological development of girls. Research by Professor Carol Gilligan, Harvard University’s first professor of gender studies, had demonstrated that as girls move into adolescence they are “silenced” and their native confident spirit is forced “underground.” The piece, by novelist Francine Prose, was laudatory and urgent; it mentioned in passing that Gilligan’s research faced intense opposition from academics but provided few details.
“The Times Magazine article generated a panicky concern for girls that would profoundly affect education policy throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Just when—as we now know—an educational gender gap was opening up with girls well in the lead, boys became objects of neglect while the education establishment focused on rescuing the afflicted girls.” (pp. 91-92)
“THE GIRL CRISIS
“The country’s adolescent girls were both pitied and exalted. The novelist Carolyn See wrote in the Washington Post Book World in 1994, ‘The most heroic, fearless, graceful, tortured human beings in this land must be girls from the ages of 12 to 15.’ In the same vein, American University professors Myra and David Sadker in Failing at Fairness predicted the fate of a lively six-year-old on top of a playground slide: ‘There she stood on her sturdy legs, with her head thrown back and her arms flung wide. As ruler of the playground, she was at the very zenith of her world.’ But all would soon change: ‘If the camera had photographed the girl…at twelve instead of six…she would have been looking at the ground instead of the sky; her sense of self-worth would have been an accelerating downward spiral.’ In Mary Pipher’s 1994 Reviving Ophelia, by far the most successful of the girl-crisis books, girls undergo a fiery demise. ‘Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn.’
“Gilligan offered little in the way of conventional evidence to support her alarming findings. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what sort of empirical research could establish such large claims. But, after the Times article, she quickly attracted powerful allies. None would prove more important than the Ms. Foundation and the American Association of University Women. With their help, the allegedly fragile and demoralized state of American adolescent girls would achieve the status of a national emergency.” (Pp. 91-98)
“The National Council for Research on Women reported on the next major victory in its 1993 newsletter:
“’Last year a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) documented serious inequities in education for girls and women. As a result of that work, an omnibus package of legislation, The Gender Equity in Education Act (HR 1793), was recently introduced in the House of Representatives….The introduction of HR 1793 is a milestone for demonstrating valuable linkages between feminist research and policy in investigating gender discrimination in education.’
“The Gender Equity Act enjoyed strong bipartisan support and became law in 1994. According to the act, ‘Excellence in education…cannot be achieved without educational equity for women and girls.’ It provided millions of dollars for equity workshops, training materials, and girl-enhancing curriculum development. The AAUW lobbied vigorously for the legislation. But, as the New York Times would report in 2002, ‘Ms. Gilligan is often cited as an impetus behind the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act.’” (p. 103)
“Even a casual look at Gilligan’s contributions suggests that she should not be comparing herself to Darwin. Darwin openly presented masses of data and invited criticism. His main thesis has been confirmed by countless observations of the fossil record. By contrast, no one has been able to replicate even the three secret studies that were the basis for Gilligan’s central claims in her most influential work, In a Different Voice. In 2012, the Boston Globe reviewed the history of Gilligan’s ‘feminist classic.’ Its verdict: ‘Today, In a Different Voice has been the subject of so many rebuttals that it is no longer taken seriously as an academic work.’
“Gilligan’s writings on silenced girls, the limits of ‘androcentric and patriarchal norms,’ and the hazards of Western culture are not science or scholarship. They are, at best, eccentric social criticism. Yet by borrowing the prestige of academic science, her theories persuaded parents, educators, political officials, and women’s activists that girls are being diminished and led them to policies that have indeed diminished boys.” (pp. 113-114)
THE BOY CRISIS
In addition to a manufactured girl crisis is that this false premise has led to many programs to encourage and empower young women while simultaneously holding back young men. And that is the basic problem this book addresses. That while it is fine to create programs to advocate for and champion young girls, it should not be done by holding back boys. That is what our educational system has been doing and it has been detrimental to our boys.
Britain and Australia were in a similar situation and decided to institute programs to help boys catch up to girls in schools, because now boys are behind girls in almost every way, academically.
“In recent years, a growing number of British and Australian educators became convinced that progressive methods in education are a prime reason that their male students are so far behind the girls. There is now a concerted movement in both countries to improve boys’ educational prospects by going back to a traditional pedagogy. Many British educational leaders believe that the modern classroom fails boys by being too unstructured and permissive and hostile to the spirit of competition that so often provides boys with the incentive to learn and excel.
“Why the special focus on boys in Britain and Australia? Leaders in both countries view widespread male underachievement as a threat to their national futures. The workplace has changed radically in the past few decades. Today, solid math and reading skills are prerequisites for success. Boys who lack them will face a bleak future, and nations with too many languishing males risk losing their economic edge. As Gavin Barwell, British MP, explained in a 2012 report on male literacy: “Literacy is a significant issue for us all…due to the demand of an increasingly complex workplace. We need to act to ensure all our children fulfill their potential and contribute to making the UK economy globally competitive.’ Closing the boy achievement gap has been at the forefront of Britain’s and Australia’s national agendas for more than a decade.
“By contrast, the looming prospect of an underclass of badly educated, barely literate American boys has yet to become a cause for open concern among American educators or political leaders. In a 1995 article in Science, University of Chicago education researchers Larry Hedges and Amy Nowell discussed the bleak employment outlook for the ‘generally larger number of males who perform near the bottom…in reading and writing.’ That employment outlook is even bleaker today. In March 2010 the Center on Education Policy, an independent research center that advocates for public education, released a comprehensive, state-by-state analysis:
“’Consistent with other recent research, our analysis of state test results by gender suggests that the most pressing issue related to gender gaps is the lagging performance of boys in reading….Researchers and state officials might investigate ways in which the school environment may be changed to better address the needs of boys.’
“So far, neither state nor federal officials seem inclined to take that suggestion. That must change.” (pp. 150-151)
BOYS AND GIRLS ARE EQUAL BUT DIFFERENT
“By recklessly denying the importance of giving young people moral guidance, parents and educators have cast great numbers of them morally adrift. In defecting from the crucial duties of moral education, we have placed ourselves and our children—especially boys—in serious jeopardy.
“We are at the tail end of an extraordinary period of moral deregulation that has left many tens of thousands of our boys academically deficient and without adequate guidance. Too many American boys are floundering, unprepared for the demands of family and work. Many have only a vague sense of right and wrong. Many are still being taught by Rousseauian romantics, which is to say they have been left to ‘find their own values.’ Leaving children to discover their own values is a little like putting them in a chemistry lab full of volatile substances and saying, ‘Discover your own compounds, kids.’
“In the pursuit of a misguided radical egalitarian ideal, many in our society have insisted the sexes are the same. In our schools, boys and girls are treated as if they are cognitively and emotionally interchangeable. We must now relearn what previous generations never doubted: the sexes are different.” (pp. 200-201)
“The sexes are equal, but they exercise their equality in different ways. There is a well-known complementarity between the two sexes. They need each other. They have even been known to love one another. How did we forget about these simple truths? And how have we allowed our society to become so badly rigged against boys? (pp. 204-205)
This book opened my eyes to the fact that I mistakenly labored under the notion that girls were disadvantaged, marginalized, and had fewer opportunities in life, so I needed to spend more time leveling the playing field. This book forced me to reconsider the “girl power” movement. Whether or not one Harvard professor launched an entire girl power movement should not be the focus here. Data today suggests that boys are behind girls in every academic category. This is a problem that we need to address. That is how our nation began the girl power movement. A handful of academicians suggested that girls were culturally and educationally disadvantaged, which prevented them from reaching their full potential. Today the research is saying that boys are the ones who are culturally and educationally disadvantaged and need advocates to change how we educate and view our boys. My takeaway from reading this book is that it is not nearly as important to discuss the details of the girl power movement as it is to address the needs of our young men. Moreover, we need to address what we, as a nation, as educators, and as moms need to do to rectify a culture that is failing our boys.
One of my sons gave me this book as a Christmas gift. I am so glad he did, and so glad I read it. There is nothing wrong with championing girls. We can continue to do so. But it is wrong for our schools and our society to say maleness is bad, feminine attributes are good and that we should, as a society, force boys to be more feminine. As a woman, I didn’t see before that we were holding our boys back and that I was a part of the problem. Now my eyes are open. I feel enlightened to a problem that I didn’t even consider or realize existed before. My consciousness toward the plight of young American boys has been raised. I am grateful to my son for giving me this book, as well as to Dr. Sommers for writing this book. You can find out more about Dr. Sommers at her website, http://www.aei.org/scholar/christina-hoff-sommers. I originally published this book review on JayneChaseLoseke.com in May, 2018.
Dr. Sommers also wrote:
Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women
Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and why it Matters Today
Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life
Right and Wrong: Basic Readings in Ethics