The War Against Boys:  How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.   Christina Hoff Sommers. New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2000.  251 pages.

Dr.  David Harley

I came upon this book by accident but found it to be not only very interesting but also thought-provoking on a number of fronts.  Though now just over twenty years old, the book addresses issues that if anything are even more pertinent now than they were at the time of its publication.  It is a book written by a mother deeply concerned about her two sons and the plight of boys in general within the prevailing attitudes of society at large and school settings in specific.  Formerly a professor of philosophy and at the time of publication the W.H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, she was also a contributor to numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the New Republic.   Apart from being highly articulate, the author is able to gather, organize and present well-researched material in a clear and convincing manner.  By identifying the current challenges confronting boys and young men, she is able to present a book that is well worth reading.  Anyone who takes the trouble to acquire a copy will find that the effort was worthwhile.

The book begins by stating that:

“A Review of the facts shows boys, not girls, on the weak side of an educational gender gap.  Boys, on average, are a year and a half behind girls in reading and writing; they are less committed to school and less likely to go to college.  In 1997, college full-time enrolments were 45% male and 55% female.  The U.S. Department of Education predicts that the ratio of boys’ entry into college will continue to worsen.  But none of this has affected the “official” view that our schools are “failing to fairness” to girls.”

She goes on to state that these statements are equally applicable to boys in Great Britain and Australia and despite not mentioning it specifically I would add that Canada should also be included.  In all of these countries, boys are markedly behind girls academically —- especially in reading and writing, get the majority of failing marks and are much more likely to feel alienated from school.  Male underachievement was identified in England and Australia as a problem and some limited measures were put into place to address it.  These included the introduction of some all-male classes in coed public schools as well as the sporadic reintroduction of gender stereotypes in educational materials.  Surprisingly, boys were found to be more responsive to reading materials that involved male heroes and also responded well to classroom competition.

In the USA the problem has not been recognized but inadequately addressed.  However, actions were taken.  Acts of Congress were introduced to introduce single-gender classroom instruction as well as single-gender public-funded schools.    In all of these cases, research indicated significantly positive results.  It is curious that I have seen no evidence to suggest that the problem was ever identified in Canada let alone acted upon.  Recently, there has been some concern over academic underperformance, especially in math among specific groups.  However, this has identified along racial rather than gender lines.  Interestingly enough, the preponderance of some ethnic minorities in modified secondary math programs precluding university admission was seen as a problem that needed to be addressed whereas the fact that a disproportionate percentage of students entering modified secondary math programs being male was not similarly addressed. There is apparently no more desire to address the now current trends of a disproportionate number of females over males gaining entrance to university through ‘positive’ action than there is to address the highly disproportionate number of females over male teachers in the elementary panel.

Such is the overwhelming evidence that boys are seriously disadvantaged within the existing school system, and such is the attitude of outright denial or the feeling that males deserve this to compensate for perceived injustices in the past that the author has appropriately entitled her book “The War Against Boys”.  She writes:

“In the war against boys, as in all wars, the first casualty is truth.  In the United States, the truth about boys has been both distorted and buried.”  She continues:

“Inevitably, boys are resented, being seen both as the unfairly privileged gender and as obstacles on the path to gender justice for girls.  There is an understandable dialectic:  the more girls are portrayed as diminished; the more boys are regarded as needing to be taken down a notch and reduced in importance.”

And this most certainly seems to be what is happening given that more boys than girls are suspended from school, held back or drop out.  Boys outnumber girls three to one in special education classes and are four times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.  More boys are involved with crime, drugs and alcohol.  Girls do attempt suicide more often than boys, but boys were five times more successful in their attempts than girls.  By grade 12 males are four times as likely as females to not do homework with predictable results.  All of these trends seem to be on the rise with no immediate prospect of improvement any time soon.

As such, this war against boys can also be read as a war against masculinity in which the assumptions are that human beings are all essentially androgynous and being bisexual can then be directed through social conditioning under a patriarchal system to adopt gender personalities where one is to command and the other obey.  The belief that gender roles are determined solely by social conditioning became popular in the 1960’s and has persisted largely because of political forces that find it convenient to support these beliefs.  However, scientific studies conducted over the last half-century have shown such assumptions to be false.  There is now undeniable and convincing evidence to support the fact that certain gender differences are inborn and hardwired.  Studies of the brain have shown clear evidence of identifiable differences between male and female brains and distinctly different rates of growth and development of specific portions of the brain corresponding to specific skill sets.  For example, girls have better verbal skills than boys and begin talking earlier than boys.  In national assessment testing, girls score significantly higher in reading and writing and are therefore more adept at articulating feelings and using language effectively to replace emotional and physical reactions to situations.  However, the list goes on and whereas there is no hard and fast determinator of individual behaviour, collective generalizations based upon biological factors that facilitate them are valid and need to be taken seriously.

But these factors aside, there is the overriding issue of the current attack on masculinity where the rough and tumble tendencies of boys’ behavior is seen as the precursor of male violence and aggression in later life. 

“…boys show a distinct preference for active outdoor play, with a strong predilection for games with body contact, conflict, and clearly defined winners and losers.  Girls enjoy raucous outdoor play too of course, but they engage in it less often…. Boys tend to play outside, in large groups that are hierarchically structured…Girls, on the other hand, play in small groups or in pairs; the center of a girl’s social life is a best friend.  Within the group, intimacy is the key.”

“Increasingly, mothers and female teachers have grown to believe that “the key to producing a nonviolent adult is to remove all conflict—-toy weapons, wrestling, shoving, and imaginary explosions and crashes —- from a boy’s life.”

This in turn has led to a growing chasm between what is referred to as the culture of women and the culture of boys.

Under the subheading of “Authoritarian Equality” the author goes on to say:

“…there are far too many educators and school activists who believe that they can do a better job of constructing our children’s “gender identity” than is now done by benighted parents and “our sexist culture”.  This movement to change our children’s concept of themselves is unacceptably invasive —- indeed, it is deeply authoritarian.  It cannot be justified as furthering any valid social ideal.  Yet we find well-intentioned public servants in powerful federal government departments encouraging teachers to modify the gender concepts of the nation’s children to achieve a new egalitarian social order.”

As such “…many American educators have become persuaded that eliminating “masculine stereotypes” is prerequisite to fulfilling the promise of democratic equality.

I could go on with many fascinating details from this book. Given the fact that a female author is taking to task the excesses of feminism gives the work added credibility which unfortunately would likely be denied any male author voicing similar arguments.  As we enter the 21st century it is ironic to note that the mounting emphasis upon diversity, it seems that diversity is constantly referenced with respect to race and sexual preferences but not to the diversity of opinions. Indeed, there are clear indications that respect for the beliefs of others is conditional upon the fact that those beliefs are in accordance with our own.  Personal attacks and vilification have become common responses that have replaced reasoned argument.  Popularly held beliefs within specific groups have taken on a level of orthodoxy in which outliers are branded as heretics.  Heresy is to be neutralized or converted but cannot be tolerated.  This attitude has given rise to a growing polarization of political and personal beliefs the results of which have certainly broken to the surface in America as which are beginning to materialize globally. 

The basis of liberal democracy is being eroded given that tolerance is equated with either weakness or duplicity but never civility.  Opponents are not merely wrong; they are either stupid or evil.  One would have thought that clearly, any belief in individual rights should also include giving respect for an individual to have their own opinions.  This no longer seems to be the case.  The traditional sense of liberal democracy including freedom of speech championed by authors such as John Stuart Mill seems to no longer include any respect for the opinion or individual expressing it.   ‘Bad’ or unacceptable ideas might have at one time been believed to dissipate like bacteria once exposed to sunlight.  It seems that now they are to be met with generous doses of disinfectant immediately upon utterance.  There seems to be no faith that freedom of opinion will have positive results rather there seems to be growing fear of the contrary.  Whether such a belief is in support of democratic principles or values is questionable.  Of more concern perhaps is where or not liberal democracies can survive this trend.

Issues of gender identity have now become politicized by those who purport that gender is entirely a matter of social conditioning or those who purport that gender is simply a matter of personal choice.  It is difficult to cross this minefield dispassionately without offending somebody’s invested beliefs.  When the truth is held hostage to the convenience of belief, disaster and social entropy invariably follows.  During the Middle Ages, the church resisted the rise of science by insisting that orthodoxy demanded that new discoveries should be sacrificed to established belief.  Few people will seek for truth when they already feel that they are in possession of it.  The rise of the mass age has given rise to similar tendencies where reason gives way to emotional self-interest and feelings about something replace thinking about it.

There is overwhelming evidence to support the fact that as educational philosophies and practices have changed over the past 50 years, girls have been the beneficiaries and boys the losers.  As schools have become more child-centered and less subject-centered, less structured, less competitive, less physically active and less accountable, male performance has deteriorated.  Suddenly, numerous learning and behavioural disabilities have materialized to account for this and attributed to everything from sunspots to food dyes and all of them have disproportionately involved males.  However, perhaps the explanation is less complicated and derives from the simple truth that boys should not be treated as if they were girls and that treating them as such will inevitably result in the fact that more and more boys will find the school environment to be invalidating.  This invalidation will lead to increased issues of mental health, suffering and an inability to lead happy and constructive lives.  In the final analysis, this may well exacerbate the very social issues that these ‘enlightened’ responses were intended to address.

With regard to masculinity and role models, there is of course the important issue of fathering and the role of a father in the family.  In a study done in 1998 of six thousand males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two between 1979 and 1993 it was found that boys who lived in homes without fathers were twice as likely to have gone to jail and that having a stepfather did not alter this statistic.

“Fathers appear to be central in helping sons develop a conscience and a sense of responsible manhood.  Fathers teach boys that being manly does not mean being predatory or aggressive.  By contrast, when the father is absent, male children tend to get their ideas of what it means to be a man from their peers.  Fathers play an indispensable civilizing role in the social ecosystem; therefore, fewer fathers, more male violence.”

It appears that on the whole boys raised within a family with a traditionally masculine father are less likely to commit crimes whereas fatherless boys are much more likely to do so.  Weak or absent fathers are part of the systemic weakening of the family which has, in turn, lead to an exponential increase in the rates of juvenile crime. 

The attack on fatherhood is linked to an attack on patriarchy which it is held is an oppressive power imbalance upheld by violence and aggression.  As such, a central target in this deconstruction of masculinity is a focus on the military man as a deplorable stereotype feeding into a “culture of manhood” that is deeply flawed and characterized by insensitivity and violence.  The author of the book strongly disagrees with this:

“To suggest that the military ethic promotes callousness and heedlessness is a travesty of the facts.  To accuse the military of being uncaring is to ignore the selflessness and camaraderie that make the martial ethos so attractive to those who intensely desire to live lives of high purpose and service.”

And again:

“The so-called manly virtues of honor, duty, and self-sacrifice are caring virtues, and it is wrong to deride them as lesser virtues.”

She continues those: “…who work in the U.S. Department of Education, and shape policy in the nation’s lower schools, show little awareness of the noble and constructive side of the military ethos.  The thought seems never to have crossed their minds that the military virtues —- stoicism, honor, cooperation, sacrifice, striving for excellence —- are virtues that sustain our civilization.”

The attack on masculinity combined with a redefinition of gender results in both a vilification of male behaviour as an artificially induced culture as well as a resulting denial of the need to address any inherent differences between the genders because none are believed to actually exist. 

In addressing the issue of male responsiveness within school settings certain changes to approach have been found to have demonstrably positive results.  A report put together by a council of British headmasters entitled Can Boys Do Better?  published specific suggestions as to practices that had been found and proven to be effective in improving male performance in their schools.  These were:

More teacher-led work

A structured environment

High Expectations

Strict homework checks

Consistently applied sanctions if work is not done

Greater emphasis on silent work

Frequent testing

One-sex classes

Interestingly, all of these practices are in direct opposition to the now accepted progressive movement in education.   Since the 1960’s the introduction and gradual expansion of ‘progressive’ measures have seen a direct and corresponding rise in issues of achievement and behavior among male students.  These latest studies identify how discredited and abandoned approaches have proven to be more efficacious than their enlightened counterparts.  As such “…the cautious optimism of the boy-focused educators who have been advocating and practicing a more traditional pedagogy for boys was spectacularly vindicated”.  

Despite this, however, educational philosophies based upon unproven assumptions or beliefs continue to flourish.  The fundamental belief is that children will grow into splendid adults provided that that growth is not interfered with by adults.  The presence of adults is therefore regarded as a largely negative one.  Parents and teachers should be regarded as gentle gardeners.  From Pestalozzi to Froebel and more recently to A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School, this view that education consists of allowing for spontaneous growth rather than supervision, intervention or direction persists.  Whereas these views may have more relevance to females, the fact remains that progressive educational ‘philosophies’ fail to deserve to be called such.  They are not the result of critical thinking, coherent explanation, and any appeal to empirical validation but rather systems of entrenched beliefs that are more political than philosophical.  They have become more a religion of education than a science.  Hiding themselves in high-sounding rhetoric, such beliefs can rarely survive even the most superficial application of critical analysis.  Not only do the assertions provide limited or unconvincing data to support them, but they also invariably present themselves as being non-verifiable or incapable of empirical proof.  The view that human beings will grow like prize turnips given adequate sunlight and water runs counter to centuries of belief in education as a process of cultural refinement requiring substantial effort and direction over time both by the student and a series of mentors.  Indeed, prior to the 19th century invention of childhood, the 18th century saw young children as virtually subhuman until such time as they had been civilized i.e., educated.

Few would acknowledge this at first, but it becomes clear upon due reflection that education is the most important and most fundamental process in the continuation of human existence.  It determines not only how and what we learn but also how we transfer knowledge from one generation to the next.  Clearly, any human progress must ultimately reside in the ability of one generation to transfer knowledge successfully.  The inability to do so can result at best in stasis and at worst in regression.  In the final analysis, education addresses the issue of human potential both collectively and individually.  The crisis addressed by The War on Boys has not improved over the last two decades since publication and has indeed worsened.  Recent numbers indicate that upwards of 60% of university admissions are now female with indications that this trend may continue to rise.  The disengagement of boys and young men from the process of education and access to higher learning should be of concern to all of us.  The lack of concern and constructive response is inexcusable.   In the final analysis, it should not be unreasonable to insist that educators live up to their own rhetoric and are as least as accountable themselves as are the students under their charge for their performance.