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Monday, January 1, 2001

Book Review ~ The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men by Christina Hoff Sommers

Simon & Schuster • 2000 • 251 pages • $25.00

Just when you think you’ve heard every last crackpot idea from the meddlers who say they could vastly improve the world if only we’d allow them to put their theories into practice (at gunpoint), along comes a new one. In The War Against Boys, philosophy professor and American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers identifies the new kid on the interventionist block. Make that kids, as she is writing about two demented siblings. One is the notion that American society “shortchanges” and “represses” girls. The other is the notion that we must radically change the way we raise boys. Those beliefs, emanating from the usual ivory tower sources, have seeped into the educational system, and that is cause for alarm.

Sommers first takes up the girls-as-victims line. Ground zero for this piece of crisis-mongering is Professor Carol Gilligan of the Harvard School of Education. In a 1990 book she proclaimed that girls were “in danger of drowning or disappearing” into that all-purpose villain “Western culture.” The media immediately and uncritically picked up the story. Within a short time, Sommers writes, “the allegedly fragile and demoralized state of American adolescent girls achieved the status of national emergency.”

Gilligan’s “research” is about as trashy as junk science gets. She won’t release her data (“too sensitive,” she says) and refuses to play by the accepted rules of scholarship, decrying them as just another aspect of our “male dominated culture.” She brushes aside criticism with the serene aplomb of all zealots.

Isolated cranks can’t do much harm by themselves, though. They need help, and Gilligan gets it from the media, feminist groups, and politicians drooling for a new issue to exploit. That transmission chain resulted in the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act, declaring that girls are an “under-served population” and therefore entitled to all sorts of special treatment. The U.S. Department of Education has awarded millions in grants for studies on the imagined plight of girls and has promulgated regulations to root out “sexual harassment” in schools.

But far scarier than the girls-as-victims crusade is the one aiming to change the way we raise boys. Our horribly patriarchal, capitalist, competitive (add as many adjectives of opprobrium as you wish) society raises boys in bad ways. For one thing, it promotes violence, and second, it makes boys unhappy and maladjusted. On the one hand, we get murderous lunatics like the killers at Littleton High School; on the other, we get brooding, morose boys who grow up to be brooding, morose men. Sommers again shows how ridiculously feeble the support for all that is, but still the idea has gained wide acceptance.

Gilligan and allies have a solution to their contrived problems. As feminist avatar Gloria Steinem says, “We must raise boys the way we raise girls.” To do so, the meddlers have programs to change boys’ “gender schemas” by early on substituting activities and influences that feminists see as “healthy.” Make them play with dolls. Stay away from competitive activities. Reward boys for being (or at least acting) more “sensitive” and talking about their feelings.

Thanks to our public education system, this part of the feminist agenda is making headway. Some schools, for example, have stopped traditional recess and have substituted a “structured recess” where adults make sure that the vital work of changing gender schemas is not undone by the outbreak of anything competitive or militaristic.

Sommers saves her counterattack for last, strongly arguing that the problem is not patriarchy, capitalism, or anything other than the fact that our educational system has for the most part stopped giving boys what they need: discipline, order, and challenges. In the schools where those things are present, boys improve both academically and behaviorally. On the other hand, schools where the emphasis is on self-esteem have produced those feral children who kill and terrorize others without compunction. The meddling educational “progressives” have much to answer for, and Sommers asks why on earth we should entrust to them even more power to shape our children.

What is really hurting boys—and girls—is the fact that American education has fallen under the sway of starry-eyed reformers. They have driven out as “old-fashioned” our former emphasis on knowledge and moral education, replacing it with the mush of “values clarification” and “affective learning.” The War Against Boys brilliantly argues for jettisoning past educational fads and steering away from the new “gender equity” being promoted by Carol Gilligan and her ilk.

I regard the book as utterly imperative reading.

George Leef is the director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy at the John Locke Foundation and book review editor of Ideas on Liberty.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.