Former Clark prof. says boys getting short shrift: Christina Hoff Sommers

By Pamela H. Sacks


“If Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were around today, they would be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and put on Ritalin.” So says Christina Hoff Sommers, who has been in the forefront of the battles over feminism since 1994, the year her book “Who Stole Feminism?” was published.

She is only half joking about Mark Twain’s two irrepressible characters.

In 2000, Ms. Sommers’ second book, “The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men,” was published to considerable acclaim. She proffers the thesis that boys are getting short shrift – and suffering considerably for it – in the continuing emphasis on girls and their need to reach their full potential. Boys are simply different from girls in fundamental ways, and they are being suffocated in the effort to repress their natural behavior, Ms. Sommers said.

“Many people are not comfortable with boys; they are more comfortable with how girls play, with dolls and quietly,” she said. “Boys are more rough-and-tumble. Many people view the typical play of little boys as something wrong.”

Ms. Sommers taught philosophy at Clark University from 1981 to 1997, specializing in moral theory. Ten years ago, she became a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank with a conservative bent in Washington, D.C. She returned to Clark earlier this week to talk about how boys are faring in the American educational system.

“I believe we inhabit a male-averse environment,” she said.

The general impression that boys, for the most part, do better academically than girls is simply untrue, Ms. Sommers said. She cited a 2004 study by the federal Department of Education called “Trends in Equity Education.”

“Researchers have been astonished by what they found,” she said. “They expected to find that girls were academically weaker than boys. Across the entire picture, girls were considerably stronger in most areas.”

While boys are slightly better performers in math and science, girls have far superior reading and writing skills, Ms. Sommers said. She also noted that 58 percent to 59 percent of the students attending American colleges and universities are female. It is true, she said, that boys tend to score the highest on a test such as the SAT, but they also score the lowest. Girls’ scores on average are slightly lower than boys, but many more girls take the test and a larger number are from minority and low income families.

Classrooms often are downright unfriendly places for boys, Ms. Sommers said. Boys are pressured to socialize in ways that are comfortable for girls, such as playing with dolls. She cited an experiment done by the toy company Hasbro to demonstrate the futility of such an approach. The company wanted to create a toy that would appeal to both girls and boys. Researchers developed a combination doll house, playhouse and fort. The girls played in it; the boys catapulted the baby carriage off the roof.

There has been a big movement to change play and create a curriculum to calm boys down, Ms. Sommers said. Adherents created tug-of-peace to replace tug-of-war; they came up with a game of tag in which no one was ever out. Some schools prohibit children in kindergarten from running and jumping or playing cops and robbers.

“None of this works,” Ms. Sommers said. “Boys do not cooperate. If you give them knitting needles they will turn them into swords. Should we be worried? I think we should start to worry about the disapproval surrounding boys. It is natural for them to engage in chasing, fleeing, fighting and wrestling.”

The issues surrounding boys are international in scope. The British, she said, have taken steps to remedy the situation. The have re-introduced competition. They got great results when they split boys who chronically skipped school into teams and gave them points for turning up in class. They created a highly structured environment and placed overwhelming emphasis on literacy skills, such as handwriting.

“They found they needed to keep the classroom loud, lively and filled with suspense,” Ms. Sommers said. “There should be lots of wild and unstructured play outdoors. There should be lots of study about war, competition, volcanoes, trains, snakes.”

American classes tend to be unstructured; the development of self-esteem is a main goal. The British found that an emphasis on self-esteem was counterproductive, Ms. Sommers said. In fact on tests, bullies scored high in the self-esteem category. Boys were better off if they were told they should not think too highly of themselves without real accomplishments to point to.

“Masculinity with morals is constructive,” Ms. Sommers averred. “Without morals it is dangerous. In the healthy form, boys are helpful, achieving and protective. They sublimate their aggression into sports and other activities. Efforts to make them more like girls with dolls won’t work.”