Are Boys Being Battered on the Battlefield of School?

“We must put an end to all the crisis mongering,” writes Christina Hoff Sommers in a book titled The War Against Boys. Pause for a moment, dear reader, while you contemplate the irony.

Though I found the title to be overly vehement when I first came across this book, I eventually decided to read it after learning two interesting facts from my Kindergarten daughter. The first was that the principal of our local public school had announced over the loudspeaker that the children should not run on the playground, lest they fall and skin their knees on the mulch. The second was that a male schoolmate was informed he would be sent to the principal’s office if he continued to form his finger into a gun and say, “Pow, pow, pow.” I used to think these sorts of school stories were ridiculously rare exceptions until they started coming home to me. Maybe Christina Hoff Sommers was on to something. Maybe our boys really are victims in a modern battle.

Sommers argues that there is a “war against boys” in the American education system, that is to say, in less polemical terms:

(1) Girls receive more academic attention and focus, attend college in greater numbers, and earn higher grades than boys, even while feminists claim girls are being shortchanged.

(2) Stereotypically masculine characteristics and behaviors (such as competitiveness, physical courage, and war play) are discouraged while boys are encouraged to exhibit more stereotypically feminine characteristics (the “feminization” of boys).

(3) The pedagogical methods employed and materials used favor girls over boys.

As a solution to these problems, Sommers proposes that boys be taught in an all-male classical school environment, with an emphasis on drilling, high standards, strict discipline, competition, moral/character education, and more boy-centric reading materials.

While I agree to some degree with each of her basic points, and while I am certainly a proponent of classical schooling (if not necessarily gender segregation), I was bothered by the way Sommers seemed to make every little thing into an attack on boys. For example, she notes that there is a gender literacy gap between boys and girls: girls are typically a year or more ahead in reading level, and girls read more often for pleasure than boys. This, she suggests, is because of the feminist attempt to “feminize” our boys.

Yet, when it comes to the math and science gap between girls and boys, she simply puts that down to gender differences. She doesn’t understand why feminists get so worked up trying to close this gap, trying to make girls, on average, equal boys in math and science performance. Even though she admits that research shows women excel more than men in verbal areas, she doesn’t seem to consider that this, and not a “war on boys,” may possibly account for much of the literacy gap. Boys are shown to improve their literacy greatly in an all-male classical school environment with strict standards. But I imagine girls would too.

Even assigning Jane Eyre as required reading is part of the “war on boys,” because wouldn’t it be better if they assigned works of more interest to boys? Well, yes, boys will more likely read works of more interest to them, but the girls in my school suffered through Mutiny on the Bounty, so why can’t the boys suffer through Jane Eyre? A liberal education does not consist of being exposed only to what interests you.

As another example, Sommers seems to want the reader to get worked up over a boy who is expelled from a private school (a private school, no doubt with a strict code of conduct that the student signed) for saying sexually crude things and making crude gestures to a girl. Sorry. I don’t see that as part of the “war against boys.” I see it as a now too rare rejection of crude behavior. Unfortunately, too many people today say, “Boys will be boys” instead of saying, “Where is his sense of honor?”

As further evidence of the “war on boys,” Sommers notes that girls earn higher grades and go to college in greater numbers. Now, there are all sorts of reasons boys may be academically underperforming girls that have nothing whatsoever to do with efforts to feminize boys. Yet Sommers does not seriously explore or convincingly refute these alternative explanations. Nor does she ask whether boys are, in the long-term, truly shortchanged, compared to girls, by this academic underperformance. Are women now earning more income, on average, over a lifetime, than men? Are they making more revolutionary innovations in medicine, business, and technology than men? Do they hold more political offices? She does not address such questions.

Indeed, Sommers acts very much like the feminists she chastises, decrying a sexist war on boys the same way they decry a sexist war on girls, without adequate consideration of the myriad reasons why people do not always excel. As an example of her assumption-based logic, she mentions that (A) girls are called on in class much more often than boys, and that (B) boys are much less educationally interested and focused than girls. She assumes that (A) causes (B), but isn’t it just as likely that (B) causes (A)?

The result of this feminist experiment, Sommers argues, has not been beneficial for boys. I would argue, however, that neither our girls nor our boys are meeting their full potentials in our modern education system, while, at the same time, neither group is horribly languishing. Lack of crisis mongering, however, does not make for an interesting book.