In the early 1990s, talk about girls as an endangered species was everywhere. There were studies purporting to show that patriarchy-damaged girls suffered a disastrous drop in self-esteem in adolescence. The American Association of University Women published a report titled "How Schools Shortchange Girls," which landed on the front pages of many newspapers. Educators and legislators alike rushed to tackle the problem of gender bias that was allegedly keeping girls from reaching their full potential—despite the fact that, by then, girls were already graduating from America's colleges in higher numbers than boys.
Today, it's the "boy crisis" that's making headlines, from The Weekly Standard to Newsweek. We are presented with alarming numbers: 58 percent of first-year college students are female. Because male students are more likely to drop out, their share will shrink to 40 percent by graduation. "Man shortage" is the new bane of campuses. While the gender gap in academic achievement has long been a serious problem in the black community—by the mid-1990s, two-thirds of college diplomas earned by African-Americans went to women—it has been growing among Hispanics and whites as well.
What's going on? Some blame an antimale bias in education. A few years ago, Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, wrote a book, The War Against Boys, arguing that feminist zeal is causing many teachers to treat maleness as "toxic" and to try to reshape boys in a female image. Gender differences in the "wiring" of the human brain are an increasingly popular explanation as well. Psychologist and author Michael Gurian is a leading proponent of the view that boys and girls learn differently and that these differences must be taken into account if we want to ensure a quality education for everyone. Some believe that in many instances, single-sex classes are the answer.
Attention to the issue is welcome. For years, the justified celebrations of female achievement have overshadowed the fact that boys and young men were starting to lag behind. Many feminists have dismissed the college attendance gap as insignificant, arguing that men can get well-paying jobs even without college while women need a degree just to catch up. Yet the fact is that in this knowledge-based economy, men without a higher education are increasingly falling behind.
What about the remedies? No possible solution should be off-limits. It would be ridiculous, for instance, to refuse to consider the possibility of biological sex differences in learning styles because of political correctness. Yet it's also important to remember such differences are often dwarfed by individual variation. Helen Smith, a psychologist and blogger who has championed the cause of boys in school, cautions that, while recognizing differences, we should not lapse into stereotyping: In general, boys may be more physically active and girls may be more verbal, but a lot of children will not fit those patterns. Some of the fashionable talk about boys getting in trouble due to their more rebellious and individualistic ways has an alarming tendency to paint girls as dull, diligent sheep.
And sometimes, the talk of a "war against boys" can lapse into a victim mentality that rivals the worst excesses of radical feminism. Last month, 17-year-old Doug Anglin, a student at Milton High School, filed a federal civil rights complaint charging that his school discriminates against boys. How so? Anglin claims that rewarding students for following rules, obeying teachers' orders, and turning in homework is unfair to boys, who "naturally rebel." He also wants boys to be exempt from community service, to get credit for playing sports, and to be able to take classes on a pass/fail basis. And, according to his father—a Boston attorney who wrote the lawsuit—boys' grades should be retroactively adjusted to make up for past discrimination.
Yet the absurdity of this suit should not blind us to evidence of a chilly climate for boys in schools. Boy-bashing by girls, including T-shirts with such slogans as "Girls rule, boys drool," is sometimes treated as an expression of "girl power." In numerous surveys, both boys and girls agree that teachers generally favor girls over boys. Perhaps sensitivity training is in order to make teachers more aware of biases. Bringing more men into schools as teachers and mentors may also help.
The problem is out in the open, which is a positive step. Now, we should try to address it without pitting girls against boys, or treating either as victims.