Save the Males (In School)

When a male student at Scarsdale (New York) High School told teachers attending a gender-equity meeting three years ago that girls do better than boys in the classroom, teachers were incredulous. Weren’t they gathered to discuss how girls are shortchanged in the classroom? But when some of the teachers later looked at grading patterns, they found that the student was right: While boys and girls in advanced-placement social studies classes got about the same grades, in standard classes, girls outsmarted boys. Still, not everyone was convinced.

Christina Hoff Sommers tells the Scarsdale story in The Atlantic Monthly (May 2000) to prove a point: Teachers simply won’t believe that girls are thriving in the classroom. Why? Because that would contradict what everyone is presumed to know: Girls are treated as the second sex in school, while boys are accorded privileges.

Citing data from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics, and several recent university studies, she argues that girls ‘outshine boys’ in everything from participation in advanced-placement classes and higher-level math and science courses to study-abroad programs. Girls read more books and get better grades. They enroll in college at a higher rate than boys do.

Boys, on the other hand, are more involved in crime, alcohol, and drugs. They are three times as likely to receive a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. And while girls attempt suicide at a higher rate, boys more often succeed.

Sommers traces this pervasive belief in girls’ victimization to a 1982 book by Carol Gilligan, Harvard’s first professor of gender studies, called In A Different Voice. In the book, which received widespread attention, Gilligan argued that America’s adolescent girls were in crisis. But the research was flawed, Sommers says. It was anecdotal, lacked solid empirical evidence, and ignored the conventional protocols of social science research. Yet from it flowed a spate of ‘victimology’ literature, most notably Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia (1994), which argued that girls psychologically crash and burn in adolescence because of pressures to live up to unattainable standards of beauty and femininity. Polls conducted in the early ’90s by the American Association of University Women seemed to confirm this view: Girls were being short-changed in the classroom.

This flawed research, says Sommers, was touted by gullible news media that accepted it at face value. And it resonated with women’s groups who used it to further their political agenda. Gilligan has defended her research in an ongoing online joust with Sommers, and is backed up by family therapists like Marianne Walters of the Family Practice Center in Washington, D.C., who tells Family Therapy Networker (July/Aug. 2000), ‘Gilligan never said girls go into a funk. She said only that they lost their voice during those preadolescent and adolescent years because of competition for the attention of boys. . . . It’s so clear. Why would anyone want to distort it the way this woman is distorting it?’

As Howard Muson writes in Family Therapy Networker, ‘Sommers has made a vocation out of bird-dogging weaknesses in research invoked to redress the wrongs done to girls.’

Muson agrees that ‘girls are clearly on top’ academically. Yet this hardly proves there’s a war against boys in school, or even that boys are in trouble socially. As Evan Imber-Black of the Center for Families and Health at the Ackerman Institute in New York puts it, ‘A lot of our children are in trouble.’

Ironically, Gilligan has since switched her focus to boys. But while Sommers blames boys’ aggression on absent fathers, Gilligan says they need to be more in tune with their feminine side.

Olga Silverstein, author of The Courage to Raise Good Men, has another view. She told Muson, ‘We’re all created by our culture, and if you look at different cultures, you’ll see that men behave differently according to what the culture expects of them.’

But the view that the culture is to blame, rather than ‘man-hating feminists,’ misses the point, too, says Muson, who suggests moving beyond blame. If Sommers calls attention to the serious problems that boys face, she also reminds us that schools are not appropriate turf for gender warfare. As Imber-Black points out, ‘We need girls and we need boys. We need to be paying attention to everybody.’

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