If we're not careful, boys won't be boys much longer

THE WAR AGAINST BOYS: HOW MISGUIDED FEMINISM IS HARMING OUR YOUNG MEN By Christina Hoff Sommers Simon & Schuster 224 pp., $26

The 1990s may go down in history as the Decade of Girls. In countless books, studies, and programs, American girls were portrayed as being "in crisis" and "at risk," hapless "victims" of a culture that supposedly favors boys.

Now, in a new century, the spotlight is shifting. Authors and social scientists are turning their attention to boys, arguing that they are the new "victims" of female-dominated educational agendas and antimale cultural biases.

As Christina Hoff Sommers states in the opening sentence of her provocative and controversial book, "The War Against Boys," "It's a bad time to be a boy in America."

In 1991, Sommers explains, a widely publicized and little challenged report by the American Association of University Women charged that schools routinely "shortchange" girls, giving them low self-esteem.

Three years later, Congress passed a Gender Equity Act, classifying girls as an "under-served population." Around the same time, the Ms. Foundation's annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day began sending a similar message, failing to acknowledge that sons need exposure to a range of career possibilities, too.

Despite the popular '90s myth of the "fragile girl," Sommers charges that it is boys who remain "on the weak side of an educational gender gap." Boys trail in reading and writing. They dominate learning-disability lists, dropout lists, and suspension lists. They are less likely to graduate from college. And although more girls attempt suicide, more boys succeed.

As further evidence of an anti-male culture, Sommers points to the rise of sexual-harassment workshops in schools, some of them targeting boys as young as 3 and 4. Then there is the decline of recess. Behavior that once would have been approvingly viewed as "letting off steam" on the playground is now regarded as aggressive. Sommers tells of a boy in southern California who was punished for running during recess.

Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the mother of two sons, also warns against nonsexist child-rearing practices. Encouraging little boys to play with dolls, she says, promotes the idea that gender roles are cultural rather than biological. If current trends continue, she adds, boys will become "tomorrow's second sex."

What to do? Borrowing a phrase from the novelist Tom Wolfe, Sommers calls for a "Great Relearning," a process necessary whenever reformers "jettison basic values, well-proven social practices, and plain common sense." Americans, she explains, "must now relearn what previous generations never doubted: that boys and girls are different in ways that go far beyond the obvious biological differences."

Sommers points approvingly to Britain, which she says is 10 years ahead of the United States in its efforts to help boys. She suggests a return to single-sex classrooms. She also urges parents to stand up for their sons.

Some of her arguments warrant attention. But her lengthy attacks on Carol Gilligan, a Harvard University professor of gender studies whom she calls the "matron saint of the girl-crisis movement," grow tiresome. So does the book's crisis-oriented rhetoric. Is American society really "poisoned against boys," as her publisher dramatically claims? Male underachievement in schools long predates any "girl-friendly" initiatives of the past decade.

Sommers's voice is impassioned and articulate. But her book cries out for the voices of boys themselves, and for the perspectives of their parents and teachers.

If, as publishers' lists suggest, Sommers's book and others mark the beginning of what could become the Decade of Boys, they also indirectly offer an idea: Perhaps the time has come for those on both sides of the gender wars to declare a truce. It's time to abandon a culture of victimhood and polarization. Time to shine the spotlight on both sexes, not pitting one against the other but finding ways to support and encourage boys and girls alike.

As Sommers herself says, "Children need a moral environment. They do not need gender politics."

*Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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