Where the Boys Are

Is America shortchanging male children?


One day last September, there were two back-to-back events in adjacent rooms at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "Beyond the 'Gender Wars,'" a symposium organized by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), was followed by a rejoinder from the Independent Women's Forum (IWF), "The XY Files: The Truth Is Out There…About the Differences Between Boys and Girls." Each event largely followed a predictable script. On the AAUW side, there was verbiage about "gender, race, and class" and hand-wringing about the "conservative backlash"; despite an occasional nod to innate sex differences, "gender equity" was pointedly defined as "equal outcomes." On the IWF side, there were affirmations of vive la différence and warnings about the perils of trying to engineer androgyny; despite some acknowledgment that there are not only differences between the sexes but much overlap, the old-fashioned wisdom about men and women was treated as timeless truth. And yet both discussions shared one major theme: the suddenly hot issue of boys-to be more specific, boys as the victimized sex in American education and culture.

Just a few years ago, of course, girls were the ones whose victimization by sexist schools and a male-dominated society was proclaimed on the front pages of newspapers and lamented in editorials, thanks largely to widely publicized reports released by the AAUW in the early 1990s. It was probably only a matter of time before somebody asked, "But what about boys?" By the end of the decade, headlines like "How Boys Lost Out to Girl Power" began to crop up in the media, and boys-in-crisis books began to hit the shelves.

But as the two National Press Club panels underscored, two contrasting arguments are being made on behalf of boys. In one room, there was sympathy for boys who yearn to be gentle, nurturing, and openly emotional but live in a society that labels such qualities "sissy"; in the other, there was sympathy for boys who want only to be boys but live in a society that labels their natural qualities aggressive and patriarchal. Harvard psychiatrist William Pollack, author of the 1999 bestseller Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, believes boys are suffering because our culture traps them in the rigid codes of traditional manhood. American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the controversial new volume The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, believes boys are suffering because our culture seeks to "feminize" them and devalues manhood. (Guess which of them spoke on which panel.) One camp wants to reform masculinity, the other to restore it; one seeks to rescue boys from patriarchy, the other from feminism.

Both sides, however, agree that something is rotten in the state of boyhood. Real Boys opens with the assertion that boys, including many who seem to be doing fine, are "in serious trouble" and "in a desperate crisis." Pollack and other gender reformers paint the typical American boy as an emotional cripple, if not a walking time bomb ready to explode into a school massacre. The shooters of Littleton and Jonesboro, Pollack has said, are merely "the tip of the iceberg."

In The War Against Boys, Sommers persuasively challenges this hysteria, noting that it's ludicrous to generalize from a few sociopaths to "millions of healthy male children" who manage to get through high school without gunning down a single person. (She fails to mention that some people in the pro-manhood camp have been just as eager to use homicidal boys as symbols of a male crisis: A couple of years ago in Commentary, Midge Decter wrote that "raging schoolyard murder" is what happens when boys are deprived of "manly instruction" and honorable ways to assert their masculinity.) Sommers argues that most children, male and female, are in fairly good psychological health and in no need of "fixing."

Yet Sommers herself refers to boys as "the gender at risk," and her book is hardly free of alarmism, from the title to an opening that rivals Pollack's: "It's a bad time to be a boy in America."

Gender Gap

The most tangible and effectively documented cause of concern is male academic underachievement:

* Girls make up 57 percent of straight-A students; boys make up 57 percent of high school dropouts.

* In 1998, 48 percent of girls but only 40 percent of boys graduating from high school had completed the courses in English, social studies, science, math, and foreign languages recommended as a minimum by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. (In 1987 there was no such gender gap, though only 18 percent of students met these requirements.) According to the National Center for Education Statistics, high school girls now outnumber boys in upper-level courses in algebra, chemistry, and biology; physics is the only subject in which males are still a majority.

* On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in 1996, 17-year-old girls, on average, outscored boys by 14 points in reading and 17 points in writing (on a scale of 0 to 500). While boys did better on the math and science tests, it was by margins of five and eight points, respectively.

* Women account for 56 percent of college enrollment in America. This is not due simply, as some feminists claim, to older women going back to school; among 1997 high school graduates, 64 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls went on to college. Female college freshmen are also more likely than men to get a degree in four years.

These differences do not cut across all racial and social lines. The gender gap in higher education has reached truly startling proportions among blacks. From 1977 to 1997, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded annually rose by 30 percent for black men but by 77 percent for black women; among 1996-97 college graduates, black women outnumbered men almost 2 to 1. The "man shortage" among college-educated blacks, which has contributed to tensions over interracial dating, is singled out as a "cause for concern" in the Urban League's recent report The State of Black America 1999.

Among non-Hispanic whites, women now receive 55 percent of bachelor's degrees. Feminists are correct when they say this imbalance is partly due to older women going back to school after growing up in an era when girls were expected to pursue the "MRS degree." In 1998, according to the Census Bureau, 48 percent of white college students under 35 were male. But for blacks and Hispanics, a female-to-male ratio of about 3 to 2 persists even when older students are excluded.

For middle-class girls and boys, college is now as much of a given as a high school diploma. Girls from working-class and poor families, on the other hand, are significantly more likely to go to college than boys. There are complex reasons for this. About one-tenth of women in college are training for the health professions, "feminine" jobs similar in status to predominantly male skilled trades that don't require college studies. (Interestingly, female registered nurses and therapists now outearn male mechanics and construction workers.) There is also a theory that, in the new economy, a certificate from a high-tech company's training program may be worth more than a college degree, and that it's mostly young men who skip college to pursue such options. But this explanation, appealing to many feminists, remains speculative. No one knows how many people actually do this; generally, for men or women, the lack of a college degree is still a serious handicap in the marketplace.

In many cases, the "college gap" indisputably reflects a trend toward more upward mobility for women. In a 1999 Rutgers Marriage Project study of sex and relationships among noncollege men and women under 30, David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead report that the women in their focus groups came across as more confident and responsible, with "clear and generally realistic plans for moving up the career ladder," including plans for going back to school. The men seemed less focused and mature; when they talked about their plans for getting ahead, it was often in terms of such "goals" as winning the lottery.

Girls Rule

Perhaps the social changes of the past three decades have made young women more self-assured and eager to use their new opportunities, while leaving many men unnerved and confused about what's expected of them. It may also be that boys, particularly those from low-income families, often become alienated from school early-both because their slower developmental timetable causes them to fall behind girls and because school is a "feminized" environment with mostly female authority figures and boy-unfriendly rules that emphasize being quiet and sitting still.

Some teachers may be prejudiced against boys, regarding them as little brutes or rascals. In a 1990 survey commissioned by the AAUW, children were asked whom teachers considered smarter and liked better; the vast majority of boys and girls alike said "girls." Journalist Kathleen Parker recalls that her son, now a teenager, had a grade school teacher who openly said she liked girls more and singled out boys for verbal abuse-such as telling a student who had his feet up on the desk, "Put your feet down; I don't want to look at your genitalia."

Traditional schoolmarmish distaste for unruly young males may be amplified by modern gender politics. Some educators clearly see boys as budding sexists and predators in need of re-education. Some classrooms become forums for diatribes about the sins of white males, and some boys may be hit with absurd charges of misconduct-such as Jonathan Prevette, the Lexington, North Carolina, first-grader punished with a one-day suspension in 1996 for kissing a girl on the cheek.

"If you listen to 10- or 11-year-old boys, you will hear that school is not a very happy place for them," says Bret Burkholder, a counselor at Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington, who also works with younger boys as a baseball coach. "It's a place where they're consistently made to feel stupid, where girls can walk around in T-shirts that say 'Girls rule, boys drool,' but if a boy makes a negative comment about girls he'll have the book thrown at him."

Even apart from feminism, some "progressive" trends in education may have been detrimental to boys. For example, British researchers have found that "whole language" reading instruction, based on word recognition by shapes, pictures, and contextual clues rather than knowledge of letters, is particularly ineffective with male students.

Early "school turnoff" may cause many boys to develop an anti-learning mindset the British have labeled "laddism"-a mirror image of the prefeminist notion that it isn't cool for a girl to be too bright. "The boys become oppositional and band together in the belief that manly culture doesn't include grade grubbing," observes University of Alaska psychologist Judith Kleinfeld. For black boys, this attitude may be exacerbated by the notion that learning is a "white thing."

Sommers convincingly argues that boys' academic shortcomings have not received proper attention because the discussion of gender and education has been hijacked by "girl partisans." In the 1992 report How Schools Shortchange Girls, the AAUW brushed aside boys' disadvantages and explicitly warned against targeted efforts to remedy their deficits in literacy. A few years later, it effectively hushed up a study it had commissioned-The Influence of School Climate on Gender Differences in the Achievement and Engagement of Young Adolescents, by University of Michigan psychologist Valerie Lee and her associates-when the findings failed to support the shortchanged-girls premise.

These days, feminists are more willing to admit the good news about girls. The AAUW's new leitmotif, evident at the "Beyond the Gender Wars" symposium, is that we should stop pitting girls against boys in a victimhood contest and work to make the schools better for everyone-which sounds fine, except that it's a little disingenuous to trumpet girls' victimization and then shout, "Let's not play victim!" as soon as boys' problems are mentioned. What's more, the "gender equity" crowd still grasps for any excuse to discount young men's problems. If more women go to college, said some AAUW panelists, that's because they need it just to break even with men who finish high school. In fact, while female college graduates over 25 earn only 15 percent more than male high school graduates, that group includes older women who went to college with no plans for a career and were out of the labor force for years as well as women who went back to school after raising a family and have limited work experience. This hardly means that young women who are going to college today will do only slightly better financially than young men who are not.

Clash of the Stereotypes

"Boy partisans" can exaggerate too. In his remarks at the IWF's National Press Club event, Rutgers University anthropologist Lionel Tiger inflated the 2-to-1 female-to-male ratio among black college graduates to 5 to 1. (When pressed afterward, he could not recall the source for this surprising figure.) In The War Against Boys, Sommers asserts that recent data on high school and college students clearly lead to "the conclusion that girls and young women are thriving, while boys and young men are languishing." Yet this dramatic statement is contradicted further down the page by her own summary of Valerie Lee's study of gender and achievement, which she lauds as "responsible and objective." Lee reports that sex differences in school performance are "small to moderate" and "inconsistent in direction"-boys fare better in some areas, girls in others.

More boys flounder in school (and, as Sommers acknowledges, more of them reach the highest levels of excellence, from the best test scores to top rankings in prestigious law schools). But it's important to put things in perspective. Boys are twice as likely as girls to be shunted into special education with labels that may involve a high degree of subjectivity or even bias, but we are talking about a fairly small proportion of all children. About 7 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are classified as learning disabled, 1.5 percent of boys and 1.1 percent of girls as mentally retarded; just over 1 percent of boys and fewer than half as many girls are diagnosed with severe emotional disturbances.

Clearly, many boys are doing well; just as clearly, it's an overstatement to say that girls in general are "thriving," since all too often the educational system serves no one well. Twelfth-grade girls may do better than boys on reading and writing tests, but their average scores still fall short of the level that indicates real competence-the ability to understand and convey complicated information.

There's quite a bit of exaggeration, too, in the notion of schools as a hostile environment for boys. Few would dispute that boys tend to be more physically active and less patient than girls; but these differences are far less stark than the clichés deployed in the "boy wars." In a 1998 Department of Education study, 65 percent of boys and 78 percent of girls in kindergarten were described by teachers as usually persistent at their tasks, and 58 percent of boys and 74 percent of girls as usually attentive-a clear yet far from interplanetary gap.

Still smaller are the differences between boys' and girls' views of the school climate. Surprisingly, in a 1995 survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, virtually the same percentages of female and male high school seniors said they liked school. When the question "Whom do teachers like more?" is posed in such a way that they must select one favored sex, kids are likely to answer "girls." Yet when asked about their own experiences, boys are only slightly less likely than girls to say that teachers listen to them, that they call on them often and encourage them, and that discipline and grading at their school are fair.

Even the image of sexual harassment policies as a wholesale anti-boy witch hunt is too simplistic. For one thing, girls also get caught in the net; last fall, two eighth-grade girls in Euless, Texas, were punished for hugging in the hallway. The bizarre overreactions (which even the Department of Education cautions against) reflect not only gender warfare but the zero tolerance lunacy that has also caused children to be suspended under anti-drug policies for giving an aspirin to a friend. Moreover, these stories coexist with cases in which real sexual assaults are ignored or covered up by school officials.

Some critics of girls-as-victims mythology are uncomfortable with sweeping claims about the plight of boys. "All this haggling about who's the real victim is absurd-and unseemly, coming from Americans and describing what must be the most fortunate generation of young people ever to inhabit the planet," says Daphne Patai, a comparative literature scholar at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism.

Judith Kleinfeld, who authored the 1996 paper "The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls," published by the Washington, D.C.-based Women's Freedom Network (of which I am vice president), credits Sommers with drawing attention to an often-ignored problem but wishes her argument had been more nuanced. "We used to think that the schools shortchanged girls; now the news is that schools are waging a war against boys, that girls are on top and boys have become the second sex," says Kleinfeld. "Neither view is right. We should be sending a dual message: one, boys and girls do have characteristic problems, and we need to be aware of what they are; two, boys and girls are also individuals. Unfortunately, there's a lot of exaggeration going on, and a lot of destructive stereotyping by both sides."

Monolithic Manhood

Stereotypes and exaggerations fly just as freely when it comes to the larger debate about how boys should be raised in an age of sexual equality. Gender reformers like Pollack and his Harvard colleague Carol Gilligan, the psychologist and professor of gender studies who pioneered the notion of girls' failing self-esteem in the 1980s before turning her attention to boys, lament that patriarchal norms force boys to separate prematurely from their families, especially their mothers, and to deny their pain, sadness, vulnerability, and fear. As a result, Pollack argues, boys disconnect from their true selves and go into a kind of emotional deep freeze, or even become bullies to prove their manhood.

Real Boys is full of "gender straitjacket" horror stories in which boys barely out of diapers are called "wimps" and told to "act like a man" (usually by fathers) when they are scared or upset. Pollack's dismay is understandable, but how many American fathers really act out such John Wayne parodies? The generalizations are especially shaky since most of Pollack's conclusions seem to be based on troubled boys in his clinical practice. While he occasionally tempers his melodramatic claims, observing that "many, if not most, boys maintain an inner wellspring of emotional connectedness," this does little to change the bleak overall picture.

Mark Kiselica, a psychologist at the College of New Jersey and past president of the American Psychological Association's Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity, bristles at the notion of boys as "emotional mummies" cut off from relationships. In fact, recent studies by psychologist Susan Harter and her colleagues at the University of Denver, which refute Gilligan's theory that girls lose self-confidence as teenagers, also suggest that adolescent boys are only slightly less open about their thoughts and feelings with parents and friends than are girls. In a 1997 survey by Louis Harris and Associates for the Commonwealth Fund, only one in five teenage boys (and one in seven girls) said they talked to no one when they felt stressed or depressed.

If there's a truth in the arguments of would-be reformers of masculinity, it is that in the past 30 years "gender rules" have been loosened for women more than for men: A boy taking ballet classes raises more eyebrows than a girl playing hockey. But these issues shouldn't and won't be resolved by a bureaucracy of social engineers. The reformers, in any case, vastly overestimate the rigidity and the power of traditional male norms, depicting masculinity as far more monolithic than it has ever been. Most parents don't need Pollack to remind them that, when talking to sons about male family members or friends, they should praise these men's warm and nurturing qualities.

If the "save the males" crowd inflates the harm hypermasculine cultural values can do to American boys at the turn of the millennium, many conservatives probably underestimate it-and, in turn, inflate the perils of creeping androgyny. To be sure, there are educators eager to impose their egalitarian vision on other people's children by banning toy guns from preschools, prohibiting "segregated" play at recess, or herding boys into quilting groups and prodding them to talk about how they feel. It's difficult to tell how widespread this is outside the elite Eastern private schools from which Sommers gets several of her examples, where parents not only choose but pay big money to send their offspring. On the other hand, in many communities, boys still face strong pressure to be jocks-and the jock culture probably is more damaging to boys' learning than the occasional quilting circle.

Not unlike the feminists, many conservatives have a vision of a monolithic, virtually unchanging "culture of manhood" that boys must join. Yet one does not have to believe that gender is only a "social construct" to know that standards of male behavior and beliefs about male nature in different times and places have varied as greatly as male dress. Two hundred years ago, it wasn't unusual or inappropriate for men to weep at sentimental plays and for male friends to exchange letters with gushy expressions of affection.

The truth is, both efforts to produce "unisex" children and efforts to enforce traditional masculine or feminine norms are likely to warp children's individuality. Kleinfeld had a chance to observe this when raising her own children: a girl who liked mechanical tools and had an aptitude for science, yet resisted efforts to get her interested in a scientific career and chose humanitarian work instead, and a quiet, gentle boy who was an avid reader. "We tried to get him active in sports, but we were fighting his individual nature," says Kleinfeld. "The one time he made a touchdown in football, he was running the wrong way."

In The War Against Boys, Sommers praises feminists who came to honor and cherish their sons' masculine qualities, among them a pacifist-liberal writer whose son chose a military career. But would conservative champions of boyhood also praise traditionally masculine fathers who came to honor and cherish their sons' "soft" qualities, even when those sons chose to become elementary school teachers or hairdressers?

Male Achievement Initiatives

While boys may not be a "second sex," there are clearly distinct educational problems that disproportionately affect male students. Surely it makes sense to look at these problems and consider some gender-specific solutions. Yet such efforts have been virtually nonexistent, largely, no doubt, because they are seen as politically incorrect. In November 1999, Goucher College in Baltimore held a conference called "Fewer Men on Campus: A Puzzle for Liberal-Arts Colleges and Universities." While the event was ostensibly free of any anti-feminist stridency, it drew hostile barbs from the AAUW and warnings about a "backlash" against women's gains from the American Council on Education's Office of Women in Higher Education. (ACE has no special office addressing the issues of men, the new minority on college campuses.) Government efforts to advance "gender equity" in education remain focused solely on inequities allegedly holding back girls and women.

While programs to remedy girls' underachievement in math, science, and computers have proliferated in recent years, funded by the government and by private groups such as the National Science Foundation, there are no programs targeting boys' deficits in reading and writing. (Such programs seem to be working well in England.) Literacy is a popular issue for politicians of both parties, and this year the U.S. Department of Education has given nearly $200 million in grants to state initiatives aimed at improving reading skills in elementary school as part of the Reading Excellence Program. But when I asked project coordinators in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and the District of Columbia if any of these programs would address the gender gap in literacy, it was obvious that the question took them by surprise.

Efforts to help boys can be regarded as suspect even if they target black boys, who have an acknowledged place in the pantheon of the oppressed. In 1996, acting on a complaint from a female student's mother, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights ruled that the Black Male Achievement Initiative, a mentoring network in the predominantly black schools of Prince George's County, Maryland, that matched boys with successful professional men, had to be opened to girls. Zack Berry, a staffer in the school district's Office of Youth Development, has no doubt that boys suffered as a result: "Once the program went coed, we found we were doing very well by the young ladies but we were losing our boys left and right, especially in high school." In a few schools, he says, male participation dwindled to less than one-fifth of the total.

This bias against male-only services may be waning. Even the story of Black Male Achievement Initiative has something of a happy ending. In 1999, after the school district collected data showing that boys did not fare as well as girls and presented them to the Office of Civil Rights, the OCR reversed itself and gave a green light to single-sex mentoring programs and activities. Another all-male program that has chapters in several mostly black public schools in Maryland, BROTHERS (Brothers Reaching Out To Help Each Reach Success), has met with no objections so far. "Faculty and adults have rallied around BROTHERS because it has helped a group of kids who just weren't buying into school," says Mike Durso, the principal of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. The group, which arranges for teens to mentor and tutor younger boys, has been credited with improving discipline, graduation rates, and college enrollment.

Single-sex education, whose popularity for girls surged after the girl crisis hysteria of the early 1990s-leading to the somewhat controversial opening of an all-girl public charter school in New York in 1996 and a sister school in Chicago last fall-deserves more consideration for boys as well. True, there are few reliable data on how children fare in single-sex vs. coed classrooms; if single-sex schools often do better, it may be because they are the product of a conscious effort to create a more academically oriented, more orderly, more individually focused learning environment.

Nonetheless, single-sex schooling may be the best option for some boys and girls, not necessarily because the sexes are so radically different but because some teenagers learn best without the distracting presence of the other sex. Susan Harter and other researchers have found that the fear of looking stupid in front of opposite-sex classmates is a major deterrent to speaking in class for boys and girls alike. Boys in particular
may try to impress girls by acting "cool" or goofy. Counterintuitively, many education experts believe that all-boy classrooms may also allow boys to show their gentle side-pursue interests in art or poetry, discuss the emotions of literary characters-without the fear of appearing "girly."

As for coeducational schools, it goes without saying that they should not be places where children are insulted because of their sex or turned into lab rats for social engineers bent on reinventing gender. Fortunately, unlike the parents of college students, people with children in primary or secondary schools usually have some idea of what's happening in classrooms, and they can help keep the gender warriors in check. Several years ago, a particularly noxious sexual harassment prevention curriculum introduced in Minnesota, which would have had 7-year-olds reciting a solemn pledge to combat harassment, was shelved because of parental opposition and adverse publicity.

Many of the "unmanly" educational fads conservatives deplore are bad for reasons that have little to do with gender. "Cooperative" teaching can turn off bright girls as well as competitive boys. Nor is touchy-feely pedagogy, such as writing assignments requiring students to explore intimate issues, necessarily "female-friendly." Girls who like sharing confidences with each other may balk at "sharing" with teachers. A 1994 Los Angeles Times story described reactions to a controversial statewide exam with essay questions about conflicts with parents and regrets about the past. Most of the students who were quoted as complaining about invasive questions were girls.

On the other hand, it's doubtful that many people will worry that their sons will be emasculated by making quilts at school, or by adopting the persona of a famous woman in a class presentation. It would be interesting, though, to see a feminist teacher's reaction if a boy chose Margaret Thatcher as his heroine instead of Anita Hill.

Answering the 'Boy Question'

If there's an answer to the "boy question," it lies in getting away from a one-size-fits-all model, whether feminist or traditionalist, and making sure that parents and children have as many choices as possible. Right now, parents with sexually egalitarian values can generally rely on free government schools to transmit these values to their children, while those who want their children's education to instill traditional beliefs about sex roles have to pay tuition at a private school (as well as taxes to help finance the public schools). Parents who want single-sex schooling for their children are also left with fewer and more expensive options than those satisfied with coeducation. This is one problem that school vouchers could address.

The more diversity there is in education, the more it can be tailored to each child's individuality. Even those who agree that boys have specific needs based on sex-linked traits may define these needs quite differently. Sommers stresses strict discipline in a teacher-led, structured classroom; Kleinfeld suggests that active and nonconformist children, who are disproportionately male, would do well in "open classrooms where children move around a lot," with "teachers who enjoy wiseacres." Each prescription is undoubtedly right for some boys. And there are still other boys who, defying averages, do not thrive on competition and do better in cooperative settings.

We are still far away from a truly diverse educational system. But we have come a long way toward a diverse society that respects both the maleness and the individuality of boys and young men. This diversity will always have room for conservative subcultures that uphold traditional ideals of manhood, as well as for feminist-pacifist communes in which a little boy who uses a stick as a toy sword immediately has the weapon confiscated. But I'd like to think that the future belongs to the feminist who can respect her son the career soldier and to the career soldier who can respect his son the hairdresser.