The Corner

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Inspired by the Larry Summers controversy, I’ve been dipping into a fascinating new book by Leonard Sax called, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About The Emerging Science of Sex Differences. This book is interesting because it takes an “outside the box” position on gender. On the one hand, Sax is sharply critical of social constructionism. He hates the idea of androgynous child rearing, and argues that there are powerful and biologically rooted sex differences that do influence learning. On the other hand, Sax thinks the best way to get beyond stereotypes is to first acknowledge the power of real sex differences. Yes, says Sax, girls do more poorly at math because they are bored by the abstractions that fascinate boys. According to Sax, that difference is rooted in brain biology. But Sax says that if you teach girls math using concrete examples, they’ll do just as well as boys. Similarly, if you teach boys languages or arts by using their strong spacial perception abilities, or their love of competition,, boys will do much better at these subjects than they usually do. Sax is a big proponent of single sex education. Paradoxically, he says, gender neutral education favors the learning style of one sex or the other, and so only drives men and women into the usual stereotyped fields. The best way to raise your son to be a man who is caring and nurturing, says Sax, is to first of all let him be a boy. The best way to produce a female mathematician is to first of all let her be a girl.

I don’t know whether I accept Sax’s take on brain biology. In general, I think biological explanations are overdone, and I often find myself disagreeing with Sax on this. (No time to go into detail here, but I think both sides in the biology dispute are often wrong. Even when gender difference is not brain based, it is often impossible to eliminate it through gender neutral education.) Yet with or without the biological framework that inspires him, I do think Sax is onto something. Mature men and women do draw on qualities that stereotypically belong to the opposite sex. But the easiest way to get them to that point is to first make them confident about being a man or a woman. If Leonard Sax’s Why Gender Matters is right, then stifling debate about sex differences is exactly the wrong way to encourage young girls to go into math. Sax may have found a way of using sex differences to produce the academic results feminists say they want. Yet censoring Larry Summers sends a message to folks like Leonard Sax to shut up. Whether or not Sax is right about the biological grounding of sex differences, it would be a crime to suppress a book this interesting.

There are plenty of other angles on Leonard Sax’s new book, Why Gender Matters. Like Mary Eberstadt, in her wonderful Home Alone America, Sax argues that children are more anxious and unhappy today than in the past because of our thinned out and disrupted family life. But Sax adds that children are less happy and confident nowadays because no one is teaching them how to be men and women. This is a powerful, even obvious insight, once you dare think it. But thanks to the feminists at Harvard and MIT, we are not allowed to think it. There’s lots more in Sax–for example, a totally new take on the issue of Attention Deficit Disorder. All this makes me think that the Summers episode just might been seen in retrospect as part of feminism’s crack-up. In quick succession, with Mary Eberstadt’s Home Alone America and Leonard Sax’s Why Gender Matters, we’ve seen two important, creative, and politically incorrect takes on family life and childhood. Meanwhile, the feminists are rehashing the same tired orthodoxy, and embarrassing themselves by ostentatiously silencing dissenters. The feminists may have an iron grip on our universities, but in the larger culture, they are on the way out.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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