Christina Hoff Sommers on public schools and the ‘war against boys’

A conversation with the feminism critic

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Kate Orlinsky / Getty Images

Kate Orlinsky / Getty Images

In 2000, Christina Hoff Sommers published The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men. Hoff Sommers was already known as a critic of late-20th-century feminism; her much-lauded and much-disparaged 1994 book Who Stole Feminism? had provoked charges that she was anti-women. In August, Hoff Sommers, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, updated and reissued her bestseller on boys with a new subtitle: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men. Hoff Sommers makes the case that boys and girls are fundamentally different—and that ignoring the difference, in an effort to protect girls, amounts to a “war against boys.”

Q: You open the revised book in Queens, New York City, at Aviation High School. What about the school struck you?

A: I went to visit this high school in a gritty section of Queens. It looked like a factory building. Aviation High is about 86 per cent male. It’s a school that caters to young people from poor families on government subsidies. There are a lot of African-American, Hispanic and Asian kids who are at high risk of academic disengagement. When I walked in, the first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. The students were all inside their classrooms and they were enthralled. At Aviation High, students spend half their day on academic subjects and the other half taking specialized courses in aviation: like aerodynamics and aviation mechanics. The school has an aircraft in the playground and students are allowed to tinker with it. Traditionally, the big problem with male students is that they are disengaged, unfocused and do not care about academic achievement. But this school has very high graduation rates and very high college matriculation rates. And it prepares students for good jobs.

Q: And yet the school is controversial.

A: It’s controversial because it mostly educates young men. In fact, the school has tried to attract more young women, but it’s mostly boys who apply. A lot of us think of equity as equality of opportunity. So, of course we would not want to see an Aviation High that did not allow women. But somehow, with today’s women’s groups, the goal has changed: from equality of opportunity to equality of results. These groups are looking for statistical parity. If a school has only 15 per cent women, they believe that perhaps it is a hostile environment for girls. Aviation High is part of a network of career and vocational schools in N.Y.C. In Manhattan, there is a High School of Fashion Industries. It’s more than 90 per cent female. The women’s groups believe this is gender segregation.

Q: They would see this as a result of gendered socialization: of boys and girls being pushed down different paths. I assume that you see it as indicative of different preferences?

A: Yes. Of course gender identity is both biological and cultural. But we have had three generations of feminism encouraging children to enter different fields. And very little has changed. If you look at college majors, boys are still engineers and girls go into the helping professions. Many children will defy the stereotypes of their sex, but the majority seems to embody them. I think that’s a reality.

Q: Your essential thesis is that the so-called “girls crisis” is a hoax, and that it’s boys who are in danger. Is that a controversial thesis?

A: It was when I first wrote the book. At the time, women’s groups promoted the idea that girls were second-class citizens in our schools. There were a number of popular authors writing in the field, the most prominent being Mary Pipher, who wrote Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. But if you look at the research, you see that these writers used unconventional methods. They claimed that girls no longer believe in themselves. Well, I looked at these studies. They weren’t serious in the way they were constructed. Another researcher, David Sadker, claimed that when boys call out answers in school, teachers are respectful and interested—whereas when girls do it, they are told to be quiet. Sadker said that boys call out eight times more than girls. This became a showcase factoid of the shortchanged girl movement. But it turned out that the research behind the claim was nowhere to be found. It was a baseless myth: the result of advocacy research. I have looked at U.S. Department of Education data on more conventional measures: grades, college matriculation, school engagement, test scores. Now more than ever, you find that boys are on the wrong side of the gender gap.

Q: The obvious counterpoint is that so many more men are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and top politicians. How can we explain that top-tier divide?

A: Critics of my work say: well, even if boys are failing at school, eventually they win in life. But the fact is that men tend to show up at the extremes of success and failure. And failure is far more common. There is a small coterie of men who prevail in the high echelons of industry, politics and academia. But millions of young men are poorly educated and disengaged from the workforce. In any case, I argue that ignoring the educational needs of men is not the way to help women.

Q: In your book, you seem to suggest that schools have pathologized boyishness.

A: Yes, very much so. For example: the typical play of young boys is rough-and-tumble. There’s mock fighting, sound effects, chasing, fleeing. Girls do that too, but not nearly as much. The classical play of young girls is turn-taking and theatrical games. Girls also exchange confidences with best friends—something that boys hardly ever do. But if you look at the trends in school, many teachers and parents don’t understand rough-and-tumble play. They confuse it with aggression and violence. In the U.S., it seems that hardly a week goes by without a little boy being suspended for playing cops and robbers. Recently, one boy in Maryland got in serious trouble for playing a game. He was suspended, I believe, for throwing an imaginary grenade at some imaginary bad guys so that he could save the world. His father was shocked; he said: it’s almost as if they are criminalizing my son’s imagination. When I heard that, I thought: that is exactly what’s happening! In my book, I cite experts in playground dynamics who believe this is very harmful. Rough-and-tumble play helps boys forge critical social skills and friendships. Play is the basis of learning.

Q: You argue that single-sex education could be a helpful development?

A: Definitely. In a single-sex classroom, or program, teachers have the opportunity to use boy-friendly reading lists and activities.

Q: How could co-ed schools be more boy-friendly?

A: The British and Australians have already changed their curriculum to create a more structured learning environment for boys. They allow more competition and more frequent testing. And they devote massive attention to organizational skills. These things help to engage boys. Secondly, I think we need a national campaign to encourage male literacy. And lastly, we need more technical and vocational schools. Boys do well in them. They do all the normal subjects, but also become proficient in computer repair or engineering or welding or refrigeration. Girls tend to study early childhood education and medical fields and cosmetology.

Q: You argue that it is still unpopular to discuss biological differences between boys and girls. Is that really the case as much as it was 13 years ago?

A: It’s changing. But still, in the U.S., there are women’s studies departments that state very starkly: gender is a social construction.

Q: You speak of a “women’s lobby.” Who specifically are you talking about?

A: I’m talking about particularly powerful groups in Washington: The American Association of University Women, the National Women’s Law Center, the Wellesley Centers for Women, and others. They have not taken well to the idea that boys are in trouble. I don’t think these groups are consciously warring against boys. But I do think they see the world as a zero-sum game: a competition between Venus and Mars. Their job is to defend Venus. I just wish they would see that times have changed. They’re knocking down doors that are already open.

Q: We do see men’s studies courses popping up. And men’s rights groups. Is that something that will grow?

A: I think so. Because the situation is so rigged against young men. In the U.S., almost all gender-based programs are for girls. Actually, I like these programs! But I simply ask: where are the programs to strengthen boys in all the areas where they are falling behind?

Q: In a recent article in The Atlantic, you call yourself a “freedom feminist.” What does that mean?

A: I think there is too much social engineering around trying to change people’s preferences. Freedom feminism is about respect for choices that men and women make.

Q: You end your book with the phrase “Boys will be boys.” Those are loaded words.

A: I hope that by the time readers get there, they will know what I mean.