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Where the Boys Are

A Bradley Lecture delivered at the American Enterprise Institute

© 2000 by Christina Hoff Sommers


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

I am Christina Hoff Sommers, W.H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. For most of my professional career I have been writing on ethics and moral philosophy. I have also written extensively about the influence of feminism on American culture. This evening, I will talk to you about some themes in a book I am writing called The War against Boys.

I will tell you something about how boys and girls are faring educationally and otherwise. There is a lot of misinformation on this topic. Too many advocacy groups are shaping the discussion and painting their own alarming pictures. I will try to give you the best and most up-to-date information on the true state of affairs. ...

... There is a story making the rounds in education circles, about a now-retired Chicago public school teacher, Mrs. Dougherty. Mrs. Dougherty was a dedicated, highly respected sixth grade teacher, who could always be counted on to bring the best out in her students. 

But one year she had a class she found impossible to control. The students were rowdy, unmanageable, and seemingly un-teachable. She began to worry that many of them had serious learning disabilities—or mental disorders—or something. So, one day, when the principal was out of town, she did something teachers were forbidden to do in that school. She entered the principal’s office and looked into the special files that listed student’s IQ’s. 

To her shock she found a majority of the class was way above average in intelligence. A large cluster was in the high 120-s –128, 127, 129; several scored in the 130s; and one of the worst classroom culprits was in fact brilliant. He had an IQ of 145.

Well, Ms. Dougherty was furious. She had been feeling sorry for those kids. Giving them remedial work. Making excuses for them. Things were about to change. 

She went back to her class and a new era began. 

She read them the riot act. They would comport themselves like ladies and gentlemen. She doubled the homework load, raised the standards, gave draconian punishments to any malefactor. 

Slowly but perceptibly their performance began to improve. By the end of the year, this class of ne’er-do-wells was the best behaved and highest performing of all the sixth grade classes.

The principal was of course delighted. He knew about this class and its reputation for incorrigibility. And one day he called her into his office and asked her: What did you do? 

She felt compelled to tell him the truth. She confessed that when he had been out of town, she had looked up children’s IQs.

The principal forgave her. Congratulated her. Then he said something surprising. 

"I think you should know, Mrs. Dougherty - those numbers, next to the children’s names, they’re not IQ scores, they’re their locker numbers."

I heard this story from Dr. Carl Boyd, who is president of an educational foundation in Kansas City. He says the story is true, and I believe him. The moral for teachers is obvious: demand and expect excellence from students and you’ll get the best they can give. Be tough on them. Be like Mrs. Dougherty.

Some of you may think that this is self-evident, that it’s only common sense. Who questions setting and enforcing high standards for students? 

The answer is a lot of education experts. 

Many professors and deans at our leading schools of education have convinced themselves and others that American children are vulnerable, fragile, and in crisis. They believe children are harmed by teachers who enforce high standards. They want teachers to pay attention to the child’s self-esteem and emotional stability. The fashion in many classrooms is for teachers to break the class up into small, non-threatening, cooperative learning groups – the teacher is more of a supportive facilitator—rather than a demanding task master. In the early nineties it was the girls who were portrayed as being at special risk, in need of a therapeutic pedagogy; now it’s the boys as well.

My own view is that the child-crisis is a myth. And I believe that taking a therapeutic approach to education is a very bad idea for all students. But, as I shall try to show, it is especially harmful to boys. 

The idea that our children are fragile, being harmed by the dominant culture which forces them into feminine or masculine gender stereotypes, is now the fashion in education. Let me tell you who promoted and popularized this idea and then give you my reasons for rejecting it.

The girl-crisis came first, and a single professor at Harvard University is the person most responsible for promulgating it. 

In 1989, Carol Gilligan, a professor at the Harvard School of Education and a pioneer in the field of women’s psychology, announced her finding that the nation’s adolescent girls were in crisis. In her words, "As the river of a girl’s life flows into the sea of Western culture, she is in danger of drowning or disappearing." 

Gilligan believes girls are silenced –"they lose their voice" as they enter adolescence in our male-centered society. Her distressing portrait of endangered girls had no basis in reality—as I shall show. But it fascinated an uncritical media who helped gain for it a widespread acceptance.

Soon after Gilligan issued her admonition about our drowning, silenced, and disappearing daughters, feminist researchers and women’s advocacy groups began reporting that the nation’s teenaged girls are academically "shortchanged," drained of their self-esteem by a society that favors boys. 

The American Association of University Women called what was happening to girls "an unacknowledged American tragedy." The state of the nation’s girls was being described in increasingly lurid terms. 

A Los Angeles Times writer talked of the "widespread process of psychic suicide among ordinary teenage girls." Here is Mary Pipher in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (this book stayed high on the New York Times bestseller list for more than one year). According to Pipher:

Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn.

The allegedly low estate of America’s girls moved the United States Congress to pass the Gender Equity Act, categorizing girls as an "under-served population" on a par with other discriminated-against minorities. 

Millions of dollars in grants were awarded to study the plight of girls and to learn how to cope with the insidious bias against them. At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the American delegation presented the educational and psychological deficits of American girls as a pressing human rights issue.

Later in the 90’s, the crisis talk would turn to boys. 

Here again Gilligan is a moving spirit. She claims to have found that boys too are traumatized by the way they are "socialized" in what she calls the "patriarchal social order." 

She and some of her male disciples in the New England area are promoting a movement to rescue boys from the hostile male culture that is harming them. 

You may already have noticed a lot of recent stories about the crashing "selves" of boys. 

On June 4, 1998, McLean Hospital, the psychiatric teaching hospital of the Harvard Medical School, issued a two–page press release announcing the results of a new study on boys. The study, entitled "Listening to Boys’ Voices," was conducted by Dr. William Pollack, Director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard. 

Pollack’s conclusions are sweeping and alarming. He says that even seemingly normal boys are "in trouble"—they are "disconnected," unable to relate to people and unable to express emotions. Echoing the talk of girls as Ophelias, Pollack refers to American boys as "young Hamlets [who] succumb to an inner state of Denmark." He urges immediate action on a nationwide scale: "[A]s a nation, we must address these boys’ pain before it reaches epidemic proportions and severely disrupts our society."

Stories about the boy crisis appeared in a number of leading newspapers—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe—the crisis made the cover of Newsweek and was the subject of an ABC 20/20 segment; the Today show devoted two programs to it.

Gilligan, Pipher, Pollack and their many colleagues speak of saving, rescuing, reviving. 

By using Ophelia and Hamlet as symbols, the child crisis writers offer a dark and unwholesome portrait of America’s girls and boys. But is it accurate? Is it helpful? Are American children well served by being portrayed as tragic and psychologically ailing? 

My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no.

The first thing to notice is that none of the crisis writers has published their alarming findings in any peer-reviewed social science journals. Bypassing the scrutiny of peer review both Gilligan and Pollack simply announced their conclusions in the popular press.

More conventional scholars, who abide by the protocols of respectable social science research, see no evidence of crisis.

Dr. Anne Peterson, a University of Minnesota, adolescent psychologist, reports the consensus of clinicians and researchers working in adolescent psychology:

It is now known that the majority of adolescents of both genders successfully negotiate this developmental period without any major psychological or emotional disorder, develop a positive sense of personal identity, . . .and manage to forge adaptive peer relationships at the same time they maintain close relationships with their families."

Daniel Offer, the University of Michigan Professor of Psychiatry, refers to "a new generation of studies" that find a majority of adolescents [80%] normal and well-adjusted."

Just consider the contrast between William Pollack’s study with its finding that seemingly healthy boys are really distraught and desperate; and Daniel Offer’s article with its finding that most adolescents –male or female are psychically sound.

Offer’s article is published in a professional journal—the Journal of American Child Adolescence. His data are available. He supports his thesis by referencing more than 150 other peer-reviewed journal articles. He clearly states his methodology. He carefully explains the scope and limitations of his study.

William Pollack’s study (which I obtained by requesting it from McLean Hospital’s public relations office) is a 30-page typed manuscript. It has never been published and is not marked as about to be published. The manuscript contains not a single footnote—not a single reference to other work. His conclusions about boys are based mainly on some psychological and gender awareness tests he administered to 150 middle school boys. We are not told how he selected these boys, or whether they constitute anything like a representative sample. 

As far as stating its own limitations, Dr. Pollack declares, "These findings are unprecedented in the literature of research psychology." 

When Francis Crick and James Watson announced their epochal discovery of the double helix in British journal Nature, they were calmer than Dr. Pollack.

As for Professor Gilligan, she has not published her data on "drowning and disappearing" girls in social science journals. The pronouncement that girls were endangered was made in a book called Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School.

Gilligan’s central thesis is that as girls enter adolescence, they lose their "voice"–their expressiveness and confidence. What empirical basis does she have for this claim? Gilligan and her colleagues interviewed a hundred or so boarding school girls about how they felt growing into adolescence. Gilligan explains in the prologue of Making Connections that the studies in the collection are not intended as a "definitive statement about girls." Instead, "they are offered in the spirit of celebration. . ." (p5)

Contrast Gilligan’s work with the less celebratory, but more conventional research of Susan Harter of the University of Denver. Harter and her associates attempted to test Gilligan’s hypothesis that girls lose their expressiveness, their "voice," as they enter adolescence. Unlike Gilligan, Harter published her findings in a peer reviewed professional journal, Educational Psychologist. Gilligan interviewed 100 girls at the Emma Willard School. Harter interviewed (approximately) 900 male and female students from grades 6-12 and from a range of economic backgrounds and school-types. We learn little about the sort of questions Gilligan asked the girls. Harter, on the other hand, clearly explains her interview instrument and how it was tested for internal consistency. She notes it limitations.

What did Harter find? "There is no evidence in our data for a loss of voice among female adolescents." She could not even find a trend in that direction. She and her co-investigators have now done several studies that appear to disconfirm Gilligan’s findings. They are careful to say that these are inconclusive and that Gilligan’s predictions about loss of voice might be true for a subset of girls in certain domains. They suggest that more work needs to be done. But for the time being, Harter cautions "against generalizations about either gender as a group."

Journalists speak of Gilligan’s "landmark research" but they never ask whether this research exists; nor do they ask her any critical questions.

What I believe is that the child-crisis writers are irresponsibly portraying healthy American girls and boys as pathological victims of an inimical culture. 

Why does the public indulge them? 

So far I have been inveighing against the large, extreme, and irresponsible claims of the crisis writers, and I suggested that they have produced no credible evidence to back them up.

Now let me consider some of their more moderate and seemingly reasonable assertions. Let’s consider the suggestion that boys are emotionally repressed, out of touch with their own feelings. Is that true? And should we be concerned? 

Gilligan speaks of boys as "hid[ing] their humanity" and submerging "their very best qualities . . . their sensitivity." Are boys insensitive?

One thing is undeniable: Stereotypical boy behavior that was once considered normal now offends and upsets a lot of people. In the fall of 1997, I took part in a television debate with feminist lawyer Gloria Allred in which we disagreed over male and female differences. I pointed out that younger boys and girls have markedly different preferences and behaviors, citing the following homespun example. 

Hasbro Toys, a major toy company, tested a play house they were considering marketing to both boys and girls. They soon discovered that girls and boys did not interact with the structure in the same way. The girls dressed the dolls, talked to them, kissed them and played house; the boys catapulted the baby carriage from the roof. 

I said to Ms. Allred, "Surely you would agree, boys and girls are innately different?"

Allred seemed to be shocked by the boy’s catapulting behavior. Apparently, she takes it as a sign of a propensity for violence. She flatly denied there were any innate differences. Said Allred, "If there are little boys who catapult baby carriages off the roof of doll houses that is just one more reason why we have to socialize boys at an earlier age, perhaps to be playing with doll houses."

Second example of worrying and (apparently) offensive boy behavior: Ms. Logan is a very committed middle school teacher in San Francisco who sees it as her mission to sensitize boys, to make them more aware of how women have been oppressed and at the same time to bring out their more loving, nurturing side. As a class assignment she has the children make a quilt celebrating "women we admire." But there is a problem; the boys do not always produce the kind of muslin quilt squares the teacher wants. 

There are worrying signs of persistent insensitivity. 

A 12-year-old boy named Jimmy, for example, chose to honor the tennis player Monica Seles by drawing a bloody knife on a tennis racket. It’s not the sort of thing a girl would think of. Jimmy’s square may be unique in the history of quilting but Ms. Logan did not appreciate its originality. She insisted he start again and make an acceptable contribution to the class quilt.

I am afraid my own 14-year old son David provides yet another example of male insensitivity and inadequate emotional engagement. Write Source 2000 is a widely used middle school English textbook by Houghton-Mifflin. 1.5 million copies have been sold—which means a lot of children use them. Like many other contemporary reading and grammar textbooks, Write Source 2000 is chock full of exercises designed to improve children’s self-esteem and to draw them out emotionally. My son came to me one evening confused by his homework assignment. He asked, "Mom, what do they want?" He had read a short story in which one character always compared himself to another. Here were the questions David had to answer:

Do you often compare yourself with others? Do you compare to make yourself feel better? Does your comparison ever make you feel inferior?

Another set of questions asked about profanity in the story:

  • How did cursing make you feel? Do you curse? Why?
  • Does cursing make you feel more powerful? Are you feeling a bit uneasy about discussing cursing? Why? Why not?

The Write Source 2000 Teacher’s Guide (which I sent away for) suggests grading students on a scale from 1-to-10: a "ten" for students who are "intensely engaged"; a "one" "does not engage at all." 

My son did not engage. 

Boys catapulting baby carriages off roofs. Jimmy and the bloody knife on his quilt patch, my son and his laconic disengaged homework answers—are such behaviors symptomatic of emotional repression—are they warning signs of potential violence? 

Carol Gilligan thinks so. 

She recently told the New York Times that boys are cut off emotionally; she speaks of boys as repressing "humanity" and learning to "hurt without feeling hurt." Pollack thinks so. He says boys are disconnected, isolated, alienated, and trapped by a stereotypical masculinity that prevents them from expressing their painful inner feelings. He speaks of the recent school shootings as the tip of the iceberg.

It is undeniable that a small subset of boys fit the Gilligan/Pollack description of being desensitized and cut off from feelings of tenderness and care. But the vast majority of boys are no more antisocial than their female counterparts. Nevertheless, the boy reformers are moving ahead with their programs to render boys less objectionable, less competitive, more emotionally expressive—more like girls.

Carol Gilligan and her associates are looking for ways to interest boys in gentle nurturing games. She and her associate Elizabeth Debold recently reported finding that 3-and 4- year-old boys—"are comfortable playing house or dress up with girls, and assuming nurturing roles in play…." They expressed their disappointment that society rarely encourages or sustains the boys’ interest in such activities. 

"By kindergarten, peer socialization and media images kick in."

Inspired by Gilligan, gender educators around the country are now doing their best to interest boys in dolls. This past January, my assistant Elizabeth Bowen attended a conference at Wellesley College for Research on Women that offered a special workshop "Dolls, Gender and Make-Believe in Early Childhood Classroom." The Wellesley College scholars were full of ideas on how to re-socialize young males away from competitive play and toward nurturing doll activity.

In July, I attended the 19th annual conference for the National Coalition for Sex Equity in Education (NCSEE) (pronounced "nice-ee"). NCSEE is the professional organization of some six hundred "sex equity experts" most of whom work in the federal government, in state Departments of Education, and in local schools. 

Gloria Steinem once said, "We need to raise boys like we raise girls," and the NCSEE members are working hard to put Steinem’s idea into practice. NCSEE members consider re-socializing boys to be a matter of urgency. 

I learned at the conference that many of these "equity experts" believe that the school yard is a training ground for domestic battery. One keynote speaker identified young male chasing behavior as conducive to future violence. 

The Wellesley Center, in conjunction with the National Education Association and the Department of Education, has produced a new teacher’s guide called Quit It! that offers exercises on how to cope with such things as the game of tag and other games involving chasing (p.86): "Before going outside to play, talk about how students feel when playing a game of tag. Do they like to be chased? Do they like to do the chasing? How does it feel to be tagged out? Get their ideas about other ways the game might be played. Then, tell them that they are going to be playing a different kinds of tag ‘one where nobody is ever ‘out.’" 

The guide recommends and gives the rules for new, non-violent, non-competitive version of tag called "Circle of Friends."

Once again, I find that I disagree with what the boy reformers are saying about boys, and I very much object to what they are doing. 

Frankly, I find some of these gender experts to be more than a little aggressive themselves: with their quilts, and doll houses, and games like "Circle of Friends." 

Do they respect boys? 

Do they even like them?

It never occurs to the would-be-reformers of boys that their efforts to overhaul them may be grossly unfair to them. Boys do need to be civilized. They very much need discipline, they need to develop ethical characters: but what they do not need is to be feminized. 

It is true that boys tend to be less emotionally expressive than girls. But that is a not a psychological or a moral failing.

Boys and girls have different styles of play. Boys, on average, are more active. They are drawn to dynamic outdoor competitive play—with clearly defined winners and losers. At all ages, they take more risks and sustain more injuries than girls. Boys support a multi-million dollar industry of video and interactive computer games: the goal of most of the games, as one father put it is to "gain all power, and then destroy the universe." Toy manufactures have never been able to interest many girls in such games.

For years, Mattel looked for ways to market software to girls. During the 1997 Christmas season, they finally broke through to the girl market with two new games: "Barbie Fashion Designer" and then "Talk with me, Barbie." In the latter game, Barbie develops a personal relationship with the girl—learning her name and chatting about dating, careers, and playing house.

Males, young and old, are less interested than females in talking about feelings and personal relationships. But there is no evidence that that this is due oppressive gender stereotypes. On the contrary, the different interests and preferences appear to be hard-wired—innate, spontaneously manifested, and probably ineradicable. 

Gilligan and other feminist talks of a female ethic, an ethic of care, suggesting that girls are morally better, more caring than boys. But no one has been able to show that little girls are nicer or more virtuous than little boys.

It is of course true that boys are more violent than girls. Bullying is a problem in many schools. Boys, being stronger and generally more physically aggressive, do most of the physical bullying, but they do not have a monopoly on malice. Girls are proficient at what sociologists call "relational aggression." They hurt others by shunning, excluding, spreading rumors. Almost any junior high school girl will tell you that girls can create as much misery as boys, especially to other girls.

I see no evidence that boys are morally inferior to girls. They are more reticent about discussing their feelings than girls. But this is not any kind of personality deficit. On the contrary, the reticence may actually be a virtue and a sign of psychological health. ...

... Pollack and Gilligan assume, but never bother to demonstrate, that being emotionally "open" is really such a good thing. That needs to be shown, not assumed. 

Several recent studies suggest that this popular assumption is quite simply false. I shall be happy to tell you about this research in the question period. But for now, it is enough to say that many psychologists are now suddenly quite skeptical about the value of emotional expressionism.

Moral philosophers and theologians have never believed in emotional expressionism as something to strive for. It’s not as if "Be in touch with your feelings" was one of the Ten Commandments. 

Compared to other cultures (including our own until fairly recent times), contemporary American youth are already far too self-involved and emotionally expressive. The reform-minded experts might even want to consider the possibility that American children may need less, not more, self-involvement. Not only may it be true that American boys don’t need to show more emotion, it may also be true that American girls need to be less sentimental and self-absorbed. Maybe all the crashing selves that Pipher talks about are selves that are too self-preoccupied, to the unhealthy exclusion of outside interests.

Children need to be moral more than they need to be in touch with their feelings. They need to have a strong sense of personal responsibility and clear ideas of what is right and wrong. Children do not need feel good support groups or 12-step programs. Above all, children don’t need to have their femininity or masculinity "recreated" or "reconstructed," to use the boys reformers favorite word.

Aristotle laid down what children do need almost 2500 years ago—clear guidance on how to be moral human beings. What Aristotle advocated became the default mode of moral education over the centuries. And it worked. It is only very recently that many educators began to scorn it.

A society that forsakes its traditional and proven modes of civilizing and humanizing its male children inevitably fails them in fundamental ways. The social costs are considerable since boys who are morally neglected have unpleasant ways of getting themselves noticed. But the greater cost is to the boys themselves. 

Boys badly need clear, unequivocal rules. They need boundaries. They need structure. Young men have a deep psychological need for honor. To get that need satisfied, they need "directive moral education," explicit instruction from the adults in their lives.

In this final section of my lecture, I want to speak of one area where I believe boys really are in trouble. It has nothing to do with their being pathological, insensitive, or morally shallow; it has to do with the fact that academically, they are doing far worse than girls. This is a genuine problem. Indeed it is a problem that could become critical. 

Data from the United States Department of Education, along with several new university studies, show unequivocally that boys are on the weak side of a widening educational gender gap. They are less committed to school than girls, they get lower grades, they are more likely to drop out and to be held back. They are a full year and a half behind girls in their reading and writing skills. They are less likely to go to college—the country’s current college freshmen class is 56 percent female, 44 percent male. The enrollment of African-Americans in college is 64 percent female, 36 percent male.

American boys are seriously lagging behind the girls and it keeps getting worse. Bereft of discipline, competitive structures, and direct moral guidance on how to compete and succeed, many American boys do behave badly. They also fare badly academically. The therapeutic pedagogy aggravates that condition. By emphasizing an ethic of feeling over a traditional ethic of right and wrong, by depriving boys of the traditional, effective, time-tested classroom discipline, modern educators are gravely harming boys.

The Daily Telegraph writer Janet Daly sums up the growing consensus in Britain in a recent talk she gave to the Independent Women’s Forum this past September. Referring to the "feminized curriculum" she says:

The consequences have been disastrous for boys, who it turned out, were temperamentally much more dependent than girls on the principles of traditional education: discipline, structure and competition.

Estelle Morris, a Labour MP who speaks for her party on the subject of education, said, "If we do not start to address the problem young men are facing, we have no hope." Citing many secondary schools who have "identified the difficulties boys experience as a priority" she pointed out that some had begun "implementing successful strategies for raising boys’ achievements and expectations." 

What are some of these strategies?

A principal of the King School was so concerned about the low performance of his boys that he formed a boys-only remedial English class—and brought back practices that had not been seen since the mid-sixties. Here is how one journalist describes a King School class:

Ranks of boys in blazers face the front, giving full attention to the young [male] teachers’ instructions. His style is uncompromising and inspirational: "People think that boys like you won’t be able to understand writers such as the Romantic poets. Well we’re going to prove them wrong. Do you understand?"

According to the reporter, "The class is didactic. Teacher-fronted. Discipline is clear-cut. If homework is not presented, it is completed in detention. No discussion."

This past January, Stephen Byers, school standards minister and member of British government, called for a return to traditional structured phonics for teaching reading. He said, "a return to more structured reading lessons will benefit both boys and girls, but the evidence show that it is boys who have been most disadvantaged by the move away from phonics."

The British are allowing stereotypes in the textbooks—it turns out boys enjoy and will read adventure stories with male heroes. War poetry is back.

By contrast with Britain, the American public is not aware that our boys are languishing academically. Our government and education establishment is doing nothing to deal with the ever-widening gender gap that threatens the future of millions of American boys.

How are we to account for this contrast between the U.S. and Britain? What has rendered us so benighted and them so enlightened? The short and accurate answer is that Britain has no Carol Gilligan, no William Pollack or Mary Pipher, no National Coalition of Sex Equity Experts, no Wellesley Center for Research on Women, and no AAUW spreading misinformation about the nation’s girls and boys.

In this country, the alarms raised over the shortchanged girls have left no room for concern about the academic deficits of American boys. And today, we find the same forces that promoted the girl-crisis are promoting a boy-crisis. Not about their serious academic deficits but about the boys’ "inner child" and their need to be "in touch with their more feminine side." 


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