Politics & Policy

What About Our Boys?

Where the real war is.

Christina Hoff Sommers is author of the new edition of the The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men. You can hear Sommers Thursday night in Washington, D.C., during a debate hashing out whether there is a war on women ongoing or if it’s really on men. The debate will be moderated by Jonah Goldberg and include Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers. Sommers talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s the war on boys?

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: It’s more like a war of attrition. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, “What horrible thing can I do to boys today?” But boys and young men have been massively neglected. Women in the U.S. today earn 62 percent of associate’s degrees, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and 52 percent of doctorates. When an education-policy analyst looked at current trends in higher education he quipped, only half in jest, “The last male will graduate from college in 2068.”

There was an immense and much-celebrated effort to strengthen girls in areas where they languished behind boys. The Title IX anti-discrimination law has been used to close the sports gap. In the mid-Nineties, Congress passed the Gender Equity Act, categorizing girls as an “under-served population” on par with other discriminated-against minorities. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to improve girls’ achievement in sports, math, and science. Today, it is boys who need help. But so far Congress and the Department of Education have looked the other way.

LOPEZ: This has been a theme of yours for a while. Has it gotten better or worse?

SOMMERS: Simon & Schuster asked me to update and revise the 2000 edition of The War Against Boys precisely because the plight of boys is worsening. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research documents a remarkable trend among high-achieving students: In the 1980s, nearly the same number of top male and female high-school students said they planned to pursue a postgraduate degree. By the 2000s, 27 percent of girls expressed that ambition, compared with 16 percent of boys. But it’s the declining social and educational prospects of working-class and poor white, Latino, and African-American young men that is most dismaying. A 2011 Brookings Institution study describes how millions of poorly educated young men have been “unhitched from the engine of growth.” As the United States moves toward a knowledge-based economy, school achievement has become the cornerstone of lifelong success. Young women are adapting; young men are not.

LOPEZ: Why is it so much more of a challenge to educate boys than girls? What are we doing wrong?

SOMMERS: Let’s face it, boys are different from girls. As a group, boys are noisy, rowdy, and hard to manage. Many are messy and disorganized, and won’t sit still. They tend to like action, risk, and competition. When researchers asked a sample of boys why they did not spend a lot of time talking about their problems, most of them said it was “weird” and a waste of time.

Today’s classrooms tend to be feelings-centered, risk-averse, competition-free, and sedentary. As early as pre-school and kindergarten, boys can be punished for behaving like boys. The characteristic play of young males is “rough-and-tumble” play. There is no known society where little boys fail to evince this behavior (girls do it too, but far less). In many schools, rough –and-tumble play is no longer tolerated. Well-meaning but intolerant adults are insisting “tug of war” be changed to “tug of peace”; games such as tag are being replaced with “circle of friends” — in which no one is ever out. Boys as young as five or six can be suspended for playing cops and robbers. Our schools have become hostile environments for most boys.

LOPEZ: What is the solution to the boy gap, and why aren’t our schools addressing it?

SOMMERS: For one thing, we can follow the example of the British, the Canadians, and the Australians. They have openly addressed the problem of male underachievement. They are experimenting with programs to help them become more organized, focused, and engaged. These include more boy-friendly reading assignments (science fiction, fantasy, sports, espionage, battles); more recess time (where boys can engage in rough-and-tumble play as a respite from classroom routine); campaigns to encourage male literacy; more single-sex classes; and more male teachers (and female teachers interested in the pedagogical challenges boys pose). A few years ago, the Australian government launched a campaign called “Success for Boys.” This program provided grants to 1,600 schools to incorporate boy-friendly methods into their daily practice.

A “Success for Boys” campaign would face furious opposition in the U.S. Congress. Legislators would receive an avalanche of protesting faxes, e-mails, petitions, and phone calls from women’s groups accusing them of taking part in a “backlash” maneuver against women and girls. In the U.S., a network of women’s groups works ceaselessly to protect and promote what it sees as female interests. But there is no counterpart working for boys — they are on their own.

LOPEZ: What are the political implications of the current plight of boys?

SOMMERS: In light of the boy crisis, both liberals and conservatives may have to reconsider some prized assumptions about the source of our national woes. Liberals routinely lament “the feminization of poverty” and look to the government for more generous polices to help millions of struggling single mothers. Conservatives deplore the decline of the family and point to the need to restore basic values. But, as a growing body of evidence makes clear, both female poverty and family decline are directly connected to the falling fortunes of young men.

— Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A revised and updated edition of her bestselling book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Polices Are Harming Our Young Men, has just been published. Follow her @CHSommers.


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