The War Against Boys

September 3, 2005

I feel it necessary to start with some disclaimers: I do not generally feel that women have it “just as good as” men; there is such a thing as patriarchy and it is alive and well; being male (to say nothing of white) does unfortunately have its advantages; any gripes I have with the more misguided aspects of feminism do not necessitate the throwing out of babies, only bath water.

That said, I do not like to be lied to. I don’t know when I learned it – perhaps in grad school? – but I “knew” that American girls were being academically short-changed in schools. I “knew” that their self-esteem typically takes an alarming downturn in adolescence. I “knew” that grants and special programs specially targeted to help them were needed.

Only most of that stuff isn’t really true, apparently. American girls are doing better than the boys academically. They’re in less trouble. They’re more likely to think their teachers like them. Less likely to be medicated. More likely to be literate. More likely to graduate high school. More likely to go to college. And they show no empirical sign that their self-esteem is suffering any more or less than their male counterparts.

So how did so many of us (I’m presuming I’m not the only one) come to “know” these things that apparently aren’t true? That’s the story told in the book I read recently, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men by Christina Hoff Sommers. It’s a tale that I find infuriating. Because if there’s one thing I hate it’s when ideology supplants the facts.

Unfortunately Sommers takes a few strange turns at the end of her otherwise terrific book. It is only here at the very end that she betrays her own ideological axe that needs grinding: she’s a bit of a social conservative. She doesn’t outright advocate hanging the Ten Commandments in courthouses or anything really inflammatory, but her colors do show when she draws a few unwarranted conservative conclusions from the facts she spent the previous few hundred pages fastidiously establishing.

Nevertheless I recommend The War Against Boys highly. Maybe the book itself is like feminism: take what works (the majority) and leave the rest. Throw bath water, not babies.


No comments yet

  1. Oh, you knew I was gonna jump on this one. And here I am. The conclusions about girls doing worse in school, and having a downturn of self esteem at the outset of adolescence are not based on feminist ideology. There are just as many books with data in them to back up that claim as there are War on Boys type of books (Reviving Ophelia is one). And you know perfectly well, and as you allude to as much, that Christina Hoff has an agenda, as well as a personal battle going on with a fellow writer who disagrees with her (whose name I forget), which for me totally colors her reliability. One can draw all sorts of conclusions based on which study one is assessing at any given point. The title of the book is ridiculous and inflammatory. If boys are now struggling, fine, let’s figure it out and do something about it. I think that is possible without bashing feminism.

  2. May I remind everyone that I have a young son (my only child), so I care very much about what happens to boys, as well as being a feminist.

  3. I appreciate your point. Most of us are not education researchers and we have to rely on the established expertise of others. But some of the things Sommers claims are easily verifiable from independent sources: boys are less literate, boys are more medicated, boys are in more trouble, boys are less college-bound. The remainder of her points and claims could be wrong, but they’re awfully well-documented lies if that’s the case. Read it. I think you’ll agree with what I’m saying.

    I think it obvious that feminists such as Carol Gilligan, whose work is often lambasted in this book, has her own political agenda. Are we to assume that it also colors her work?

    Big picture, I am convinced that if there is a gender that needs more attention in our schools it is the boys.

  4. It is true, I am probably more likely to be sympathetic to Gilligan’s agenda (that’s who it is–thanks) than Sommers’, but in all honesty, it’s been years since I’ve read any of Gilligan’s work, and I haven’t read The War on Boys, so I’m at a disadvantage here. And I think it’s sickening how medicated boys are. But, why not make your points about who needs attention in schools without saying that feminism is bad or misguided, etc.? Feminism isn’t the bad guy here. By making this issue a matter of feminism gone bad, it takes away from the real isses: kids who need help.

  5. But, boys don’t HAVE to be as smart and educated to have a better chance of getting jobs, higher pay and more advancement.

  6. why not make your points about who needs attention in schools without saying that feminism is bad or misguided, etc.?

    Not a bad point. I think Sommers’ response would be that it was Gilligan and the Ms. Foundation and a few other politically motivated and well-placed people who, since the 80s, perpetrated the diversion of resources from where research showed it was most needed – the boys. Blame only takes you so far, but it’s good to understand how we got here in the first place. Anyway, feminism isn’t misguided; the idea that women must be equal before the law and in social custom is one that I myself subscribe to wholeheartedly. It just happens that sometimes the truth is sometimes sacrificed in pursuit of ideology – even noble ideology. In those cases the truth must win out if we are to move forward with any lasting change for good.

    boys don’t HAVE to be as smart and educated to have a better chance of getting jobs, higher pay and more advancement.

    I suspect you are right about this. But it’s a whole other issue and doesn’t really alleviate the damage that our sons are enduring in an educational system that is failing them on a large scale.

  7. I hardly think the Ms. Foundation et al is really powerful enough to have perpetrated the diversion of resources all across the land in such a way as to have caused some great harm to boys. Give me a break! That’s my beef with Sommers. I really can’t imagine she has enough solid evidence to be drawing such a conclusion. I don’t think you should be taking her word as “the truth” here. And if I recall the 80’s, it wasn’t exactly the chicks who were in charge everywhere. Was there a woman or a feminist president? More women in Congress? Someone from the Ms. Foundation in the senate? Even looking at superindentants of school boards and such, I’d bet you’d still see mostly men in power–where they remain today.

  8. This is about grade schools and high schools, not the US Senate or the White House. To see exactly what Sommers makes of the role of Carol Gilligan, the Ms. Foundation, the media and other organizations, read the book! It’s been quite a few weeks since I did myself and I don’t recall exactly what their roles were in the well-publicized but short-on-facts cry to help our beleaguered school girls.

    The worst thing that could happen is that you might agree with me that Sommers has a point. It won’t make you an anti-feminist. Feminism as an idea and as a movement is strong enough to withstand scrutiny and criticism. That’s one of the chief differences between us feminists and those who would stop us from achieving equality: we do not need to shrink from the truth because it is ultimately on our side.

  9. You will note that I mentioned school boards as well. My point was that the power structures that affect education have not radically shifted. Yes, to really be able to discuss this intelligently with you, I should read the book. And I’m not inflexible–if someone can present me with clear evidence of something, I’m willing to change my views. I’m just so wary of Sommers because I see her as being anti-women. Didn’t you mention she has socially conservative point of view? This won’t sit well with me, but I won’t say anything more until I’ve read the book. But, please do note that throughout this discussion I have not shied away from the possibility that boys may indeed need help in school.

  10. I have three daughters and one son… what I have seen are the results of reports from our school board which shows that young boys (grade 3) believe that they are good at math and science at a young age, even though their actual scores are lower than girls at that age, and that girls don’t believe they are good at math and science. even though their scores are much higher in grade 3… Later, when tested in grade 7, the scores reflect their beliefs… girls scores go down… which lead to them dropping out of sciences and maths in high school… which leads them to not choosing certain career paths… And don’t get me started on how most positions of power (politicians, professors, principals, doctors, lawyers, judges, executives) are held by white men. I just graduated law school, where yes, there were finally an equal number of women in the classes — but meanwhile, I found out that there are less than 5% of female judges in Canada. (I suspect the US would be about the same). Right now, 2005, not back in 1980. Yes, some boys are struggling – and they may need some help at school with their self confidence or learning issues, (ie. my son needs help with social skills and anxiety) but it has nothing to do with anti-boy sentiments or pro-girl support systems… it has everything to do with crappy school systems who don’t meet the needs of large numbers of their students. Is there a book on the “War Against Minority Students”? I ask you.

  11. … I have seen are the results of reports from our school board which shows…

    Have you seen the results which show that the largest sex-based academic discrepancy is the one where the boys can’t read as well as the girls? Or maybe things are different in Canada, but that’s how it is here. It’s been a known fact for decades. Even the most recent “nation’s report card” report a few months ago said the same thing. Look at the gender gap in mathematics versus that in reading and ask yourself why it is that everyone has “girls are failing in math” on their lips rather than “boys are failing in reading.”

    don’t get me started on how most positions of power … are held by white men

    Get you started? I agree with you! It’s appalling and I’m all for affirmative action and other initiatives to help remedy these inequities. But it’s still the boys who are doing worse in our grade schools and high schools.

    Is there a book on the “War Against Minority Students”? I ask you.

    There are dozens, I assure you. Must I now be cast as insensitive to the plight of women and minorities simply because I acknowledge the fact that it is boys – not girls – who need the lion’s share of help in American schools? Say it isn’t so.

  12. It isn’t so. We don’t think you’re insensitive, or we wouldn’t bother coming by to even discuss this with you. Well, I can’t speak for Lisa, but that’s my thought on it. Sounds to me like both boys AND girls needs help in schools, but perhaps different kinds of help and attention. But wait, didn’t I say I’d stop talking about it until after I’d read the book? Oops.

  13. I agree that all children (all all genders and colours) should get any help they need from a young age on… but arguing it from the perspective of “boys are suffering” just gets me… as girls / women have suffered for hundreds of years… if you want help for boys to be a priority then there has to be a better way of spinning it… ie. “our schools are failing many of our children, lets make them better” might work better… on a related note, our Province (Ontario) has found that the drop out rate in our high schools has risen to over 35%. Our high school students are in big trouble right now… and they are thinking about lowering the expectations for our students, especially in math.

  14. I’ve been a high school teacher for the past 26 years and our young men are having more problems and less success in school these days. I don’t know that I would feel comfortable blaming it on any one thing. No matter what the gender of the student, these are the issues I see:
    1. Education is less and less important, while immediate gratification through money, jobs, cars and video games is paramount.
    2. Parents seem to focus on short term (see #1) versus long-term goals of doing well in school to pursue further training or a career. Many parents expect their children to be virtually independent at the age of 16. I see it happening especially with boys, who many times want the impressive car(and the huge insurance payment).
    3. Maturity issues play a huge role in high school; those who can make academic goals and pursue them will do better,no matter what their gender.
    I don’t have any answers and I’ve been in teaching for a LONG, LONG time.

  15. Lisa, why does it bother you to say boys are suffering? Why must we say “our kids are in need” when the chips are down on the boys? We had no difficulty singling out the girls when it was they who we thought were being short-changed. Our school boys aren’t required to pay for hundreds of years of patriarchy. They don’t merit our bitterness. They need our help. After all, we are in pursuit of equality and justice, not merely lifting up females over males.

    Margaret, you might find some of Sommers’ observations interesting. She does have ideas about what’s been wrong with our education system for the last 30 years. Is she right about everything? I suspect not. But some of it is pretty interesting. I do agree that we have slacked on teaching morals in school.

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