Hoff Sommers and the war between the sexes

Do schools shortchange boys, girls, or both?

The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men
By Christina Hoff Sommers
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000, 253 pages.

The War Against Boys is an artifact of what might be called the Culture of Hype. These days, the sound bite, the coverline, the book title has to be titillating to sell. And Christina Hoff Sommers knows how to play the game. In this book, with its calculated-to-scare title, the author argues that American boys are being ignored and even “demonized” by society–and especially by schools–while girls get all the attention. There are indeed important questions to ask about how to raise boys in a time of great social and economic change. Unfortunately, Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Clark University professor, can’t resist the impulse to indulge in a screed.

There is, in fact, no war being waged against boys. While she makes some valid points about how the problems of girls have sometimes been exaggerated, the author does the same thing herself with boys’ problems. Displaying an undue fondness for straw men, she bombards the reader with charts and statistics, but often makes her major points based only on a stray anecdote or two. For someone who chides girl-advocates for being loosey-goosey with data, that’s like hurling stones from a glass house.

It’s hard to imagine American schools as really being the way Hoff Sommers describes them. Apparently today’s classrooms are one long sensitivity session or sexual harassment seminar, with feminist teachers blaming boys for every malefaction from the Flood to the shootings at Columbine. Teachers, it seems, know few bounds in their zeal for telling little boys how rotten they are.

Hoff Sommers fans–and detractors–will find this line of argument familiar. Her first book was Who Stole Feminism? How Women Betrayed Women. In this one, she carries her anti-feminist Inquisition into our schools, which she claims feminists have taken over. She goes hunting for horror stories, and of course she finds some. There’s always an overzealous teacher or principal someplace who’s overdosed on political correctness.

The author cites the case of a six-year-old who was punished as a harasser for kissing a classmate. From this single example she draws a sweeping conclusion: “The fear of ruinous lawsuits is forcing schools to treat little boys as sexist culprits.” But, in fact, this case made national headlines precisely because it was so unusual–and, to most people, so absurd. Schools may well be worrying about lawsuits over all sorts of behavior, but six-year-old boys across the nation are not facing suspension for kissing.

This is not the only time Hoff Sommers’ hyperbole torpedoes what could have been an interesting discussion. She cites a California mother who says that her son was punished for running during recess. This story is the sum total of evidence for the following statement: “Sad to say, normal male youthful exuberance is becoming unacceptable in more and more schools.” But do most schools punish boys for running during recess? Highly unlikely.

Here’s another gem: “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 shootings at Columbine High.” Says who? If the soccer team defines girls, maybe American boys are symbolized by the triumphs of Tiger Woods, or by Lance Arm- strong’s victories–over cancer and other riders–in the Tour de France. Do Americans regard the Columbine shooters as emblematic of their sons? Only in some paranoid fantasy.

It’s too bad Hoff Sommers relies on such overblown rhetoric, because she’s right: The Girl-as-Victim routine has been overdone. She’s also correct that a well-intentioned but poorly-done study by the American Association of University Women over-estimated girls’ teenage loss of self-esteem.

Hoff Sommers also takes on the estimable Carol Gilligan of Harvard, one of the major figures propagating that idea of a self-esteem deficit among girls. For Hoff Sommers, Gilligan makes an irresistible target: a certified media darling, occupant of a prestigious chair at Harvard, a Ms. magazine Woman of the Year, anointed by Time as among the most influential Americans. But Gilligan’s scholarly achievements are another matter, says Hoff Sommers, who pulls apart her psychological theories, including her view that women make moral judgments differently from men.

In fact, Gilligan’s research has been a subject of argument for years, even among feminist scholars. Some have pointed out that her original study, of women deciding whether or not to have an abortion, was very small and lacked a control group of men. Some scholars have questioned whether the women in the study really did give evidence of “a different voice,” in Gilligan’s famous phrase.

Hoff Sommers’ critique of Gilligan is legitimate, if rather mean-spirited. But she exaggerates Gilligan’s influence both in the academy and in the broader society, and sees only harm in her work. Gilligan’s importance may be that she broke ranks with researchers who always studied males as the basis of human behavior, and as a result she came up with new ideas and theories about women’s lives. Her ideas had great resonance with women–probably because they have historically been assigned the job of taking care, and caretakers (male or female) probably do develop “a different voice.” And some very good things grew from her ideas, including “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” and self- esteem seminars for girls. Hoff Sommers seems to think any attention paid to girls comes at boys’ expense, but there is very little evidence of that, in her book or anywhere else.

The author criticizes Gilligan’s assertion that emotional separation from their mothers causes the problems that boys face. But the alternative she puts forth is similarly one-size-fits-all: Boys who don’t come from traditional two-parent families are the ones in trouble. This dovetails with the conservative notion that all would be well if everybody just stayed married. It’s a simplistic fix for very complex problems.

Hoff Sommers quotes former New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the dangers of a community in which young men never have any stable relationship to male authority, creating chaos. She neglects to say, however, that the famous Moynihan study was on the American black underclass family. This is a major–and irresponsible–omission. She leaves the reader with the impression that Moynihan was talking about all families and all boys, when he was speaking specifically about the pathology of the urban poor.

Are boys, in fact, in trouble? Yes and no. Poor boys, especially African-Americans, can indeed be said to be in crisis, with more young African-American men involved with the criminal jus-tice system than going to college. They lack critical skills and are chronically undereducated and underemployed. With middle-class boys, the picture is quite different. As Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw wrote recently, “The vast majority of Ameri-can youths are not in trouble. They’re not suffering or causing suffering. They’re not violent, not poor, not illiterate, not on drugs. They’re not being neglected, abused or maimed. What they’re doing is leading normal lives. You just wouldn’t know it from reading the newspaper–or looking at television news.”

But Hoff Sommers sees only gloom and doom. She notes that boys suffer from learning disabilities more often than girls. But is this problem being ignored? Hardly. Schools are spending millions of dollars to combat such problems as attention deficit disorder–and boys may benefit from these expenditures more than girls. You don’t hear feminists complaining about this, however. Many of them have sons, after all.

Hoff Sommers contends that, amid all the hubbub over schools “shortchanging” girls, no one took much notice that American boys “were becoming significantly less literate than girls.” And it’s true that, for a long time, boys did less well on tests of verbal ability than girls. But a recent meta-analysis (which combines many studies) shows that boys are catching up fast, and only a small gap remains. And although the author makes a big deal of claiming that it’s boys that schools shortchange academically, her statistics show that many girls don’t do well either. She refers to one study showing that 47 percent of fourth-grade boys were “below basic” in their reading skills, but so were 36 percent of girls. And girls too often shy away from math and computer classes, putting them at risk in the New Economy. One simply can’t make a credible case that one gender is doing great, while the other is lagging.

Her plan to rescue boys from oblivion proceeds further down a conservative, traditionalist path than simply rooting out feminism. Decrying “progressive” education, Hoff Sommers calls for a return to authoritarian, teacher-dominated classes with more rote learning. She claims that boys do better in this traditional setting. Do they? Perhaps. Her evidence is a few classrooms in Britain and in Baltimore where boys are doing well. But you can find more progressive classrooms where boys also do well.

Hoff Sommers is an advocate of “character-centered education.” She offers Columbine’s Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as “two badly socialized boys,” which some might consider an understatement. She admits that a single ethics course would probably not have stopped them, but claims nonetheless that “a K-12 curriculum infused with moral content would have created a moral climate that might have made such a massacre unthinkable.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Traditional values didn’t stop Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from the thrill-killing of a 12-year-old boy in the 1920s, nor did they stop Charles Whitman from climbing a tower at the University of Texas in 1966 and opening fire, killing 14 people. Such violent events have dotted our history, and they’ve happened both in eras when our values were more conservative and when they were more liberal.

Hoff Sommers indulges in two other very old American traditions in The War Against Boys. One is a persistent worry about boys, especially in schools. Early in the last century, Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana worried that too much learning was making boys unmasculine. “Avoid books, and in fact avoid all artificial learning,” he advised. The Boy Scouts were founded in 1911 partly to avoid the impact of too much feminine influence in the schools. In the 1950s, parents were in a panic over the “juvenile delinquency,” a largely male phenomenon. Also in the ’50s, Philip Wylie invented the term “momism,” claiming that American mothers spoiled and pampered their sons; this was supposedly the reason American servicemen broke under brainwashing in Korea. We Americans just always worry about our boys.

Another tradition she carries on is the American certainty, voiced in every era, that our failure to instill moral values in our children is sending them–and us–straight to hell. Tending to see children as barbarians in need of a firm hand, Hoff Sommers believes that American parents have failed badly–putting her in agreement with the Pilgrim fathers, who, as soon as they landed on New England shores, began to bemoan the selfishness and incompetence of parents. Convinced that their child rearing wasn’t good enough to save their children from hellfire, Puritan parents routinely sent their children off to be schooled by more godly folk. The early 1900s saw critics railing about moral decline, and in the 1920s moral arbiters said short skirts, booze, and the Charleston were a sign that the nation had turned into Sodom and Gomorrah.

Worries about the next generation are as American as apple pie.

In the US, parents are always failing and the young, it’s always feared, will turn out badly. Pessimism about our declining morals–and worries about the next generation–are as American as apple pie. Maybe this time these concerns are warranted; maybe not. But Hoff Sommers has hardly found the culprit–or the solution.

Caryl Rivers is professor of journalism at Boston University and co-author of She Works/He Works: How Two-Income Families Are Happy, Healthy, and Thriving.