The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men - Christina Hoff Sommers 2015
War and Peace
There have always been societies that favored boys over girls. Ours may be the first to deliberately throw the gender switch. If we continue on our present course, boys will be tomorrow’s second sex.
The preeminence of girls is gratifying to those who believe that, even now, many girls are silenced and diminished. At long last, it is boys who are learning what it is like to be “the other sex.” Recall Peggy Orenstein’s approval of a women-centered classroom, whose walls were filled with pictures and celebrations of women, with men conspicuously absent: “Perhaps for the first time, the boys are the ones looking in through the window.”1
But reversing the positions of the sexes in an unfair system should be no one’s idea of justice. A lopsided educational system in which boys—finally—are on the outside looking in is inherently unjust and socially divisive. The public has given no one a mandate to pursue a policy of privileging girls. Nor is anyone (outside exotic gender equity circles) demanding that boys be resocialized away from their boyishness.
The Great Relearning
Recently, there have been signs of resistance. New groups, such as the Boys Initiative, have formed to promote the cause of boys.2 Several excellent books on the struggles of boys have materialized. Chicago public schools have dared to introduce an ambitious boy-focused ethics program with a blatantly gendered name: Becoming a Man—Sports Edition.3 Indeed, with respect to boys, we may now be entering the era of “The Great Relearning.” I borrow the phrase from the novelist Tom Wolfe, who first applied it to lessons learned in the late 1960s by a group of hippies living in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. What happened to Wolfe’s iconoclast hippies is instructive.
The Haight-Ashbury hippies had collectively decided that hygiene was a middle-class hang-up. So they determined to live without it. For example, baths and showers, while not actually banned, were frowned upon as retrograde. Wolfe was intrigued by these hippies who, he said, “sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero.”4 After a while their principled aversion to modern hygiene had consequences that were as unpleasant as they were unforeseen. Wolfe describes them thus: “At the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic there were doctors who were treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.”5 The itching and the manginess eventually began to vex the hippies, leading them individually to seek help from the local free clinics. Step by step, they had to rediscover for themselves the rudiments of modern hygiene. That rueful process of rediscovery is Wolfe’s Great Relearning. A Great Relearning is what has to happen whenever reformers go too far—whenever, in order to start over “from zero,” they jettison basic values, well-proven social practices, and plain common sense.
Wolfe’s story is both true and amusing. We are, however, familiar with more consequential, less amusing twentieth-century experiments with rebuilding humankind from zero: Today, more than twenty years after the fall of communism, Eastern Europeans are still in the midst of their own Great Relearning. The United States has also had its share of radical social experiments. By recklessly denying the importance of giving young people 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—especially boys—in serious jeopardy.
We are at the tail end of an extraordinary period of moral deregulation that has left many tens of thousands of our boys academically deficient and without adequate guidance. Too many American boys are floundering, unprepared for the demands of family and work. Many have only a vague sense of right and wrong. Many are still being taught by Rousseauian romantics, which is to say they have been left to “find their own values.” 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.”
In the pursuit of a misguided radical egalitarian ideal, many in our society have insisted the sexes are the same. In our schools, boys and girls are treated as if they are cognitively and emotionally interchangeable. We must now relearn what previous generations never doubted: the sexes are different. It is much more challenging to educate males than females. Just like the British and Australians, we must find out way back to fair-minded, gender-specific policies and practices that acknowledge difference.
Between Mothers and Sons is a wonderful book about feminist mothers coping with an unforeseen and startling event—the birth of a son.6 One might expect the book to be full of advice to mothers on how to resocialize their male child in the direction of androgyny. Instead, it offers a poignant glimpse of women rediscovering the ineradicable nature of boys. These mothers came to question cherished antimale dogmas when these conflicted with something far stronger and deeper—motherly love. Some of the mothers confess to having tried to educate their sons to conform with strict feminist precepts, stopping only when it became evident their boys were suffering. In these accounts, Mother Nature, not Social Construction, gets the last word.
Deborah Galyan, a short-story writer and essayist, describes what happened when she sent her son Dylan to a Montessori preschool “run by a goddess-worshiping, multiracial women’s collective on Cape Cod”7:
[S]omething about it did not honor his boy soul. I think it was the absence of physical competition. Boys who clashed or tussled with each other were separated and counseled by the peacemaker. Sticks were confiscated and turned into tomato stakes in the school garden. . . . It finally came to me. . . . I had sent him there to protect him from the very circuitry and compulsions and desires that make him what he is. I had sent him there to protect him from himself.8
Galyan then posed painful questions to which she found a liberating answer: “How could I be a good feminist, a good pacifist, and a good mother to a stick-wielding, weapon-generating boy?” And “What exactly is a five-year-old boy?” “A five-year-old boy, I learned from reading summaries of various neurological studies . . . is a beautiful, fierce, testosterone-drenched, cerebrally asymmetrical humanoid carefully engineered to move objects through space, or at very least, to watch others do so.”9
Janet Burroway, a poet, novelist, and self-described pacifist-liberal, has a son, Tim, who grew up to become a career soldier. She is not sure how exactly he came to move in a direction opposite to her own. She recalls his abiding fascination with plastic planes, toy soldiers, and military history, noting that “his direction was early set.”10 Tim takes her aback in many ways, but she is clearly proud of him: throughout his childhood she was struck by his “chivalric character”: “He would, literally, lay down his life for a cause or a friend.” And she confesses, “I am forced to be aware of my own contradictions in his presence: a feminist often charmed by his machismo.”11
Galyan and Burroway discarded some common antimale prejudices when they discovered that boys have their own distinctive charm. The love and respect they shared with their sons left them chastened, wiser, and free of the fashionable resentments that many women harbor toward males. All the same, such stories are sobering. They remind us of the strong disapproval with which many women initially approach boys.
Mary Gordon, perhaps the most orthodox and inveterate feminist in this instructive anthology, is another mother with a disarming son. On one occasion, her son David defends his older sister from a bully. “I thought it was really nice of him to stand up for me,” said the sister. For a moment, the mother is also moved by David’s gallantry. “But after a minute, I didn’t want to buy the idea that a woman needs a man to stand up for her.” Gordon says that this incident “expressed for me the complexities of being a feminist mother of a son.”12
Gordon realizes that she cannot be fair to her son unless she overcomes her prejudices: “Would I take my generalized anger against male privilege out on this little child who was dependent upon me for his survival, physical to be sure, but mental as well?” Nevertheless, Gordon remains torn between her principled animosity against “the male” and her maternal love: “We can’t afford wholesale male-bashing, nor can we afford to see the male as the permanently unreconstructable gender. Nor can we pretend that things are right as they are. . . . We must love them as they are, often without knowing what it is that’s made them that way.”13 Gordon still firmly believes that males need to be “reconstructed.” In saying “We can’t afford wholesale male-bashing,” she implies that a certain amount of bashing is proper.
An unacknowledged animus against boys is loose in our society. The women who design events such as Son’s Day, who write antiharassment guides, who gather in workshops to determine how to change boys’ “gender schema” barely disguise their disapproval. Others, who bear no malice to boys, nevertheless do not credit them with sanity and health, for they regard the average boy as alienated, lonely, emotionally repressed, isolated, and prone to violence. These “save-the-male” critics start out by giving boys a failing grade. They join the girl partisans in calling for radical change in the way American males are socialized: only by raising boys to be more like girls can we help them become “real boys.”
It is also unfortunate that so many popular writers and education reformers think ill of American boys. The worst-case sociopathic males—gang rapists, mass murderers—become instant metaphors for everyone’s sons. The vast numbers of decent and honorable young men, on the other hand, never inspire disquisitions on the inner nature of the boy next door. The false and corrosive doctrine that equates masculinity with violence has found its way into the mainstream.
Now, it is the fashion to celebrate “The End of Men.” The male declinists like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and ABC legal analyst Dan Abrams seem to imagine a world of busy, consensus-building women, happily and competently interacting and managing the new economy.14 Rosin points to the explosion of jobs in the nurturing and communicating professions: boys are going to have to adapt to this new women-centered world, or perish. While it is true that family therapists, website designers, personal coaches, dance therapists, home health assistants, and executive producers are in high demand, it is not clear that this network of nurturers and communicators can be sustained without someone paying for it. Society still needs hard-driven innovators.
Women are joining men as partners in running the world and even moving ahead of them in many fields, but they are not replacing them. After almost forty years of gender-neutral pronouns, men are still more likely than women to run for political office, start businesses, file for patents, tell jokes, write editorials, conduct orchestras, and blow things up. Males succeed and fail more spectacularly than females: More males are Nobel laureates and CEOs. But more are also in maximum-security prisons, and males commit most acts of wanton violence. But it usually takes other men to stop them. “Are Men Necessary?” asks New York Times writer Maureen Dowd. Yes, they are.
Not because women lack the talent to do the things men do—women can be just as formidable and enterprising as men when they set their minds to it. But fewer women than men do set their minds to it. The sexes are equal, but they exercise their equality in different ways. There is a well-known complementarity between the two sexes. They need each other. They have even been known to love one another. How did we forget about these simple truths? And how have we allowed our society to become so badly rigged against boys?
As part of our Great Relearning, we must again recognize and respect the reality that the sexes are different but equal. Each has its distinctive strengths and graces. We must put an end to all the crisis mongering that pathologizes children: we must be less credulous when sensationalistic experts talk of girls as drowning Ophelias or of boys as anxious, isolated Hamlets. Neither sex needs to be “revived” or “rescued”; neither needs to be “reinvented.” Instead of doing things that do not need doing and should not be done, we must dedicate ourselves to the hard tasks that are both necessary and possible: improving the moral climate in our schools and providing our children with first-rate schooling that equips them for the good life in the new century.
We have created a lot of problems, both for ourselves and for our children. Now we must resolutely set about solving them. I am confident we can do that. American boys, whose very masculinity turns out to be politically incorrect, badly need our support. If you are an optimist, as I am, you believe that good sense and fair play will prevail. If you are a mother of sons, as I am, you know that one of the most agreeable facts of life is that boys will be boys.