The War Against Boys

By Christina Hoff Sommers

Reports of the death of ideology in our time have been greatly exaggerated. The Cold War may be over, but nothing has shaken our attachment to political labels. After all, labels are what made it all seem real.

In “us against them” arguments – which are always ideological arguments in politics – labels are still being used to help draw the battle lines between left and right, liberal and conservative, authoritarian and libertarian, feminist and . . . well, whatever isn’t feminist.

Since the heyday of the equal rights movement feminism has been gradually diminishing in relevance, to the point where it is now seen as simply another complainant in the media-sexy “gender wars.” No need to worry about the death of ideology on this battlefield! The “backlash” against feminism is a deliberately provocative and ideological response to feminism as ideology, which is to say feminism as rhetoric and myth.

One of the most outspoken of the new critics is Christina Hoff Sommers, the author of Who Stole Feminism? and now The War Against Boys. Hoff Sommers’s target in The War Against Boys is the popular (at least in North America) notion that girls are short-changed by the educational system – their self-esteem crushed, their voices silenced, their futures warped and their potential denied. It is Ophelia in the classroom and it is tragic-sounding stuff indeed.

To critics, short-changing is the educational myth of feminist ideology, wrapped in a suit of metaphors and rhetoric that defies analysis or debate. Catch words such as “voice” and “self-esteem” remain vaguely defined abstractions. (In the words of the academic fantasist Carol Gilligan: “When I say voice I mean voice.”) And since “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” scientific method and scholarly research can be rigorously eschewed as so much patriarchal claptrap. The general observation that it is a man’s world is all you need to know about cause and effect.

Meanwhile, the facts tell a different story. In almost every measure of academic standing boys have fallen behind girls in our schools, and the gap is widening. Boys score much lower than girls in tests of reading and writing (they score slightly higher in math tests, but that gap is small and getting smaller). They are also less committed to education and less likely to go on to college. In tests of disillusionment, unhappiness and demoralization, boys outrank girls – in some cases dramatically so. Boys are five times as likely to commit suicide.

The focus in this book is on the American situation, but there have been Canadian reports with similar findings. And in Britain, where the underperformance of boys has been the subject of media attention for a decade, the government has taken active steps to help boys catch up. The prospect of a permanent underclass of uneducated males has led to public debate (the issue is known as “laddism”) and a new focus in educational policy.

If you’re a disciple of Rousseau, then you tend to think people are naturally good and it is the system that is at fault. Since Hoff Sommers is conservative in outlook, she tends to put what blame there is on human nature.

In some ways this actually makes her more of an optimist. Her “boys will be boys” attitude is based in part on biological differences and in part on cultural traditions that she thinks we should do more to cultivate and cherish than change. She wants us to accept that there is nothing pathological about being a boy.

Of course Hoff Sommers is a rhetorician herself. A lot of The War Against Boys struck me as needlessly alarmist. The opening sentence, telling us that “it’s a bad time to be a boy in America,” gives some idea of where things are going. To say that the victory of the U. S. women’s soccer team “symbolizes the spirit of American girls,” while “the defining event for boys is the shooting at Columbine High” overstates the case. And the anecdotes of political correctness run amok in the classroom, with boys made to wear dresses and pretend to be the victims of sexual harassment, struck me as extreme and unrepresentative. The gender wars are still peripheral to the more basic problems in an educational system that graduates students from high school who can’t read.

That being said, The War Against Boys is a welcome antidote to some of the worst excesses in feminist ideology. It also provides a needed wake-up to the sad situation of boys in some of our schools. We should be doing something about the general downward slide that boys have been on. There may be any number of explanations for why it is happening, but until we get away from the pseudo-science and self-serving rhetoric of ideology, the one thing we can be sure of is that there won’t be any solutions.

Review first published July 15, 2000.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: