The Times

June 18 2000

Where you might see a boisterous boy, gender activists in America see a potential high school killer, or member of a 'wilding' mob in Central Park. They have declared war against boys, and would like to raise them as girls; but their misguided activities have made matters all the worse, writes Christina Hoff Sommers

The war against boys

Christina Hoff Sommers
The Times

Toning down the girl power in schools

It's a bad time to be a boy in America. When Alex Longo took invitations to his seventh birthday party to school in East Windsor, New Jersey, he was not allowed to hand them out to his friends.

He had invited only boys, and his teacher and school principal deemed this sexist and discriminatory. "I went into the cloakroom and cried. I felt bad," he said.

Alex was not alone. Young boys in schools throughout America are being punished when they show signs of incipient misogyny.

Jonathan Prevette, 6, kissed a female classmate and was punished as a harasser. In another case, a mother who came to pick up her three-year-old son was told he had been reprimanded and made to sit in the "timeout chair" for having hugged another child. "He's a toucher," she was told. "We are not going to put up with it."

A nine-year-old boy in Virginia who had been caught drawing a picture of a naked woman in art class (following a school trip to the National Gallery of Art) was accused of deliberately rubbing up against a girl in the cafeteria queue. School officials told the police. The boy was charged with aggravated sexual battery, and was handcuffed and fingerprinted.

"This is really a case of political correctness run amok," said the family's lawyer. "A nine-year-old bumps into a girl while reaching for an apple and all of a sudden you've got world war three declared against a fourth-grader."

Sharon Lamb, a committed feminist and a professor of psychology, was shocked to hear that her 10-year-old son and his friend had been charged with sexual harassment. A girl had overheard them comment that her dangling belt looked like a penis. "It's against the law," the teacher informed the mother.

When a social studies class of 11-year-olds in San Francisco made a quilt to celebrate "women we admire", a boy called Jimmy chose to honour tennis player Monica Seles, who had been stabbed on court by a deranged man.

Jimmy stitched a bloody knife on a tennis racquet onto his quilt square. His exasperated teacher, a gender activist committed to getting boys to take part in characteristically feminine activities, told him to start again.

After another of her classes, a boy confided to a visitor: "Men are pigs, you know."

AN unacknowledged animus against boys is loose in American society. We have allowed socially divisive activists, many of whom take a dim view of men and boys, to wield unwarranted influence in our schools. They write anti-harassment guides, gather in workshops to determine how to change boys' "gender schema", and barely disguise their anger and disapproval.

Others, although they bear no malice, regard the average boy as alienated, lonely, emotionally repressed, isolated, at odds with his masculinity and prone to violence.

Many popular writers and education reformers think ill of boys. Gang rapists and mass murderers become instant metaphors for everyone's sons. The false and corrosive doctrine that equates masculinity with violence has found its way into the mainstream. Only by raising boys to be more like girls, critics argue, can we help them become "real boys".

We have allowed ourselves to forget the central purpose of education. We have become overloaded with well-intentioned teachers who undervalue knowledge and learning and overvalue their role as healers, social reformers and confidence builders. We have also created serious problems for ourselves by abandoning our duty to pass on to our children the moral truths to which they are entitled and failing to give them the guidance they so badly need.

An extraordinary period of moral deregulation is leaving many tens of thousands of boys academically deficient and without adequate guidance. Too many boys have only a vague sense of right and wrong, are badly taught and left to "find their own values".

That boys are in disrepute is not accidental. For years women's groups have been complaining that boys benefit from a school system that is biased against girls. A stream of girl-partisan books cites research showing that boys are classroom favourites given to playground violence and sexual harassment.

The research is riddled with errors. Boys, not girls, are on the weak side of an educational gender gap. American 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, full-time college enrolments in the United States were 45% male and 55% female. The American 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 at fairness" to girls.

A boy today, through no fault of his own, finds himself implicated in the social crime of "short-changing" girls. Yet the allegedly silenced and neglected girl sitting next to him at school is likely to be a better student. She is not only more articulate, she is probably a more mature, engaged and well-balanced human being.

Today's boy may be uneasily aware that girls are more likely to go on to college. He may believe that teachers prefer to be around girls and pay more attention to them. At the same time, he is aware that he is considered to be a member of the unfairly favoured "dominant gender".

His critics forget that the energy, competitiveness and daring of normal, decent males is responsible for much of what is right in the world. Nobody denies that boys' aggressive tendencies must be checked and channelled in constructive ways. Boys need discipline, respect and moral guidance as well as love and tolerant understanding. They face genuine problems that cannot be addressed by constructing new versions of manhood. They do not need to be "rescued" from their masculinity.

A small percentage of boys are destined to become batterers and rapists. They need strong intervention, the earlier the better. But this small number cannot justify a gender-bias industry that looks upon millions of normal male children as pathologically dangerous.

SINCE the early 1990s, American girls have flourished in unprecedented ways. The vast majority have moved ahead of boys academically in the primary and secondary grades, applying to colleges in record numbers, filling the more challenging academic classes, joining sports teams and en-joying more freedoms and opportunities than any young women in history.

Boys are languishing academically. More boys than girls are suspended from school. More are held back and more drop out. Boys are three times as likely as girls to be enrolled in special education programmes and four times as likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. More boys than girls are involved in crime, alcohol and drugs. Girls attempt suicide more than boys, but it is boys who actually kill themselves more often. In a typical year (1997), there were 4,493 suicides of people between the ages of 5 and 24: 701 females, 3,792 males.

When I asked the president of the board of education of Atlanta, Georgia, who is faring better in Atlanta's schools, he replied without hesitating: "Girls." Yet many teachers still feel that girls need and deserve special indemnifying consideration. Programmes for girls multiply, while boys continue to be seen both as the unfairly privileged gender and as obstacles on the path to gender justice for girls.

Girl partisans regard male aggression as the root of most social evils. They speak with straight faces about school-yard harassers as tomorrow's batterers, rapists and murderers. More and more schoolboys inhabit a milieu of disapproval. Routinely regarded as protosexists, potential harassers and perpetuators of gender inequity, boys live in a permanent state of culpability.

Many activists are persuaded that boys need special remedial attention. The belief that boys are being wrongly "masculinised" is inspiring a movement to "construct boyhood" in ways that will render boys less competitive, more emotionally expressive, more nurturing - more, in short, like girls.

This novel agenda is no Utopian fantasy. The movement to overhaul boys is well under way.

Carol Gilligan, professor of gender studies at Harvard graduate school of education, is matron saint of the girl crisis. In 1995, she also inaugurated a programme of research on boys.

Within a year, she was announcing a boy crisis that was as bad as or worse than the one afflicting girls. She argued that between the ages of three and seven, boys are pressured to "take into themselves the structure or moral order of patriarchal civilisation" - a traumatic and damaging process.

"At this age," says Gilligan, "boys show a high incidence of depression, out-of-control behaviour, learning disorders, even allergies and stuttering."

Gilligan and her colleagues helped to launch what they see as a profound revolution to change the way society constructs young males. It has enormous potential to make millions of schoolboys very miserable.

THE promoters of "gender fairness" have a great deal of power in schools, which have to listen to them to avoid running foul of federal laws that prohibit sex discrimination in any educational institution that receives public funds. But they are far too reckless with the truth, far too removed from the precincts of common sense and far too negative about boys to be properly playing any role in the education of our children.

In 1998 the centre for research on women at Wellesley College in New England sponsored a training seminar on "gender equity for girls and boys". It attracted 200 teachers and administrators, who could earn credits towards promotion by attending.

Nancy Marshall, a senior research scientist and associate director of the Wellesley centre, told the seminar: "When babies are born, they do not know about gender." Since babies know very little about anything, Marshall's comment was puzzling. They don't know their blood type either, but they still have one.

Marshall said gender is indeterminate at birth but is formed later by a process of socialisation that guides the child to adopt a male or a female identity. According to Marshall and her colleagues, a child learns what it means to be a boy or girl between the ages of two and seven. In those early years the child develops a set of ideas about appropriate roles, attitudes and preferences for males and females. The best prospects for influencing this "gender schema" are in these early, malleable years.

Marshall and her associates presented a slide show. One slide (to which they came back several times) showed a pre-school boy in high heels and a dress. "It's perfectly natural for a little boy to try on a skirt," they said. One of the participating teachers boasted of her own success in getting boys in her kindergarten class to dress up in skirts.

Most parents have no idea what their children are facing in the gender-charged atmosphere of the schools. The American department of education has funded a model curriculum guide for day-care teachers, Creating Sex-Fair Family Day Care, which offers concrete suggestions on how to change current male and female sex-role "stereotyping" in early childhood. Getting little boys to play with dolls is a principal goal.

The department also supports an anti-harassment guide designed to render 12-year-old boys aware of the ways males systematically inflict suffering on females. Some of the consciousness-raising exercises seem better suited for convicted sex criminals. This one, for example: "Ask the students to close their eyes . . . Once they've closed their eyes, say 'Imagine that the woman you care about the most (your mother, sister, daughter, girlfriend) is being raped, battered or sexually abused . . .'"

Students are asked to write down their feelings. The boys can only feel confused, hurt or defiant.

Martin Spafford, a schoolteacher in London, has made observations about British boys that also apply to American boys. Spafford favoured the pro-girl, anti-sexist measures of the 1980s. But now he observes that boys are under siege. "Boys feel continually attacked for who they are. We have created a sense in school that masculinity is something bad. Boys feel blamed for history, and a school culture has grown up which is suspicious and frightened of boys."

A large and growing body of scientific literature from biologists and developmental psychologists shows that many male-female differences are natural, healthy and, by implication, best left alone. Being a boy is not a condition or defect in need of a cure.

The girl-activists are at their most persuasive about the need to resocialise boys when they cite harrowing cases of young men tormenting female students. Katie Lyle, of Duluth, Minnesota, was viciously humiliated by a group of boys who wrote obscene messages about her in the school lavatories and taunted her on the school bus. Tawnya Brady, a high school student in California, faced a gauntlet of malicious boys who would moo at her whenever she passed, making remarks about the size of her breasts. In both cases, the school administrators failed to offer the girls effective protection.

Examples such as these, which are not rare, suggest the need to take resolute action. We might ask what is wrong with pursuing a vigorous policy of curbing boys' aggressive misogyny.

The answer is that boys do need to be educated and civilised. But school behaviour problems have very little to do with misogyny, patriarchy or sex discrimination. They have everything to do with children's propensity to bully and be cruel. The root problem is poor discipline. Too many children act maliciously with impunity. They need a moral environment, not gender politics.

Too many schools are rife with incivility, profanity and bullying. Girls do their share of it. Yet bullying goes unchecked by the authorities. It is as if all indignation must be directed at sexual slights and harms suffered by girls at the hands of boys.

THE vast majority of girls and boys are psychologically sound. But when it comes to the genuine problems that do threaten their prospects - moral drift, cognitive and scholastic deficits - the healers, social reformers and confidence builders provide no solutions. On the contrary, they exacerbate the problems and stand squarely in the way of what needs to be done to solve them.

Boys who are morally neglected have unpleasant ways of getting themselves noticed. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, newspapers carried shocking stories about adolescent boys exploiting, assaulting and terrorising girls. In the South Bronx, a group of boys known as the "Whirlpoolers" surrounded girls in public swimming pools and sexually assaulted them. In Glen Ridge, New Jersey, popular high school athletes raped a retarded girl. In Lakewood, California, a gang of high school boys known as the "Spur Posse" turned the sexual exploitation of girls into a sport.

Women's groups blamed the stereotypical male socialisation. But, in the Glen Ridge case, the real story is about how a group of adults - parents, teachers, coaches, community leaders - failed massively and tragically to carry out their responsibility to civilise the children in their care. The problem with these young male predators was not conventional male socialisation but its absence.

From the time they were small children, the boys who would later take part in the rape were opportunistically abusive and cruel to nearly anyone who crossed their paths.

This pattern persisted through adolescence. It affected their peers regardless of sex. Later on, it affected their teachers and schoolmates. The absence of any firm discipline, the failure of the adults in their lives to punish them for their actions, turned them into monsters.

What is so chilling about Glen Ridge is all the doting adults who had for years presided over their children's moral disintegration.

The story behind the Spur Posse is similar. The posse, a high school clique that took its name from the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, consisted of 20 to 30 middle-class boys who competed with one another in "scoring" with underage girls.

In March 1993 nine members were arrested and charged with a variety of crimes, ranging from sexual assault to rape. One of the alleged victims was a 10-year-old.

These boys had been permitted to terrorise a town with impunity for years. The group had a long history of antisocial behaviour, including burglary, credit card fraud, assault, arson and even an attempted bombing. They had little sense of the harm and suffering they were causing and no feelings of remorse or shame.

We gain little illumination by talking about Glen Ridge and Lakewood in terms of "patriarchal culture gone haywire". It is more to the point to regard them as evidence of what can happen when adults withhold elementary moral instruction from the young males in their charge.

Although boys are not morally inferior to girls, they are certainly more physically aggressive, more prone to violence and less averse to risk. It is precisely because boys are by nature more physically assertive that they so badly need a strict and explicit character education that places strong behavioural constraints on them, constraints that many progressive educators feel we have no right to "impose" on any child.

The more one faults masculinity in itself, the further one strays from acknowledging the failures of moral education in the last decades of the 20th century. Talking about moral failure is less stylish than talking about the inimical workings of patriarchy. But it is far more to the point.

The massacre at Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999 was the seventh American school shooting in less than two years. This time, more than ever, the public's need to make sense of such tragedies was palpable. How could it happen?

The usual explanations made little sense. Poverty? Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the killers, were not poor. Easy access to weapons? True, but young men, especially in the West, have always had access to guns. Divorce? Both boys' families were intact.

To find the answers, we need to attend to the views of the progressive-education theorists who badly underestimated the potential barbarism of children who are not given a directive moral education.

It is not likely that a single ethics course would have been enough to stop boys such as Harris and Klebold from murdering classmates. On the other hand, a curriculum infused with moral content would have created a climate that might have made a massacre unthinkable.

An insistence on character development might also have diminished the derision suffered by Harris and Klebold at the hands of more popular students, which apparently was one of the incitements for their gruesome actions.

We know that the Columbine killers had attended anger-management seminars, had had weekly meetings with a "diversion" officer, had attended a Mothers Against Drunk Driving panel discussion and had performed compulsory community service. But it seems they never encountered firm discipline.

Had teachers seen it as their routine duty to civilise the students in their care, they would never have overlooked the bizarre, antisocial behaviour of Klebold and Harris. When the boys appeared in school wearing T-shirts with the words "Serial Killer" emblazoned on them, their teachers would have sent them home. Nor would the boys have been allowed to wear swastikas or produce grotesquely violent videos.

By tolerating these modes of "self-expression", the adults at Columbine high school implicitly sent the message to the students that there is not much wrong with the serial or mass murder of innocent people.

One English teacher at Columbine, Cheryl Lucas, said afterwards that both boys had written short stories about death and killing "that were horribly, graphically, violent" and that she had notified school officials. According to Lucas, the officials had taken no action because nothing the boys wrote had violated school policy.

Speaking with painful irony, the frustrated teacher explained: "In a free society, you can't take action until they've committed some horrific crime because they are guaranteed freedom of speech."

MANY schools have entirely given up the task of character education, setting great numbers of children adrift without direction. Under the current laissez-faire policy, our schools are harbouring a great many inadequately socialised children. But leaving children to discover their own values is a little like putting them in a chemistry lab full of volatile substances and saying: "Discover your own compounds, kids."

We should not be surprised when some blow themselves up and destroy those around them.

The efforts to "reconstruct" boys - to interest them in dolls and quilts - continue apace. There have always been societies that favoured boys over girls. Ours may be the first to throw the gender switch deliberately. If we continue on our present course, boys will, indeed, be tomorrow's second sex.

By recklessly denying the importance of giving the young directive moral guidance, parents and educators have cast great numbers of them morally adrift.

In defecting from the crucial duties of moral education, we have placed ourselves and our children in jeopardy.

© Christina Hoff Sommers 2000

Extracted from The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers to be published by Simon & Schuster in America next month at $25

Toning down the girl power in schools

In Britain, not all boys are doing badly at school. There is concern about the 17% who admit to being disaffected and about the large number excluded from school. We know that boys are more likely than girls to leave without a qualification and find it harder to get a job. We also know that at least one quarter are thriving and confident.

But how can education attract those who are becoming alienated?

"They slag us boys off, but they don't do nothing to help us," said Gary, 15, in Leading Lads, a 1999 nationwide study of boys' views in Britain.

"We're the new ethnic minority," added Adam, 17.

In fact, there is a growing awareness of boys' needs. Some aspects of so-called feminisation in education have swiftly been changed, such as the choice of set books in English; boys now study literature with masculine themes while girls keep their Pride and Prejudice.

"The speed with which education has responded to concerns about boys is remarkable compared to how long it took to get changes for girls," argues Angela Phillips, the author of The Trouble with Boys.

The emphasis on boys as the problem can produce a scapegoat response from them, however, in which a boy blames "girl power" for his failures.

It also reinforces the idea that learning is what girls do. Which mega-male hard boy wants to be seen as girly?

A recent, unpublished Young Voice poll for BSkyB found that children are more likely to be bullied for being good at school work than for being stupid. Being physically and emotionally safe in school is a prerequisite for learning. Last March, 37% of boys said they had experienced violence from bullies.

Judith Mullin, principal of New College, Leicester, says boys and their problems should not be looked at in isolation. "There are a variety of factors," she says.

"Young people from a non-learning culture, with little family discipline, delinquency and poor role models of learning at home will find it hard to access education at any phase."

This is more than a simple gender issue. Although girls generally do better than boys, we still see a small minority with little optimism about their future. We should not overlook these young women and assume everything is going fine for girls so that we can now concentrate on "the boy problem".

Adrienne Katz

Adrienne Katz is executive director of Young Voice, 12 Bridge Gardens, East Molesey, Surrey KT8 9HU (www.young-voice.org). Copies of Leading Lads are available from the charity for £12

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.