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When it comes to education, are boys the new girls? Are they facing more discrimination than their female peers, just because they are sexually different? According to recent studies, boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. We asked prominent gender warriors, Michael Kimmel and Christina Hoff Sommers, to hash this one through in HuffPost’s latest “Let’s Talk” feature.
Michael: Christina, I was really impressed with your recent op-ed in the Times.
The first edition of your book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men, came out in 2000. Maybe I’ve optimistically misread, but it seemed to me that the change in your subtitle from “misguided feminism” (2000) to “misguided policies” indicates a real shift in your thinking? Does it? What’s changed for boys in the ensuing decade? Have things gotten worse? Why revise it now? And what’s changed for feminism that it’s no longer their fault that boys are continuing to fall behind?
Christina: Thank you Michael. I am delighted you liked the op-ed. Boys need allies these days, especially in the academy. Yes, I regret the subtitle of the first edition was “How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men.” My emphasis was on misguided — I did not intend to indict the historical feminist movement, which I have always seen as one of the great triumphs of our democracy. But some readers took the book to be an attack on feminism itself, and my message was lost on them. Indeed, many dismissed the book as culture war propaganda. In the new edition (to be published this summer), I have changed the subtitle and sought to make a clear distinction between the humane and progressive feminist movement and a few hard-line women’s lobbying groups who have sometimes thwarted efforts to help boys. I have also softened the tone: the problem of male underachievement is too serious to get lost in stale cultural debates of the 1990s.
Groups like the American Association of University Women and the National Women’s Law Center continue to promote a girls-are-victims narrative and sometimes advocate policies harmful to boys. But it is now my view that boys have been harmed by many different social trends and there is plenty of blame to go round These trends include the decline of recess, punitive zero-tolerance policies, myths about armies of juvenile “super-predators” and a misguided campaign against single-sex schooling. As our schools become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, competition-free and sedentary, they have moved further and further from the characteristic sensibilities of boys.
What has changed since 2000? Back then almost no one was talking about the problem of male disengagement from school. Today the facts are well-known and we are already witnessing the alarming social and economic consequences. (Have a look at a recent report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education — “Pathways to Prosperity” — about the bleak economic future of inadequately educated young men.) The problem of school disengagement is most serious among boys of color and white boys from poor backgrounds — but even middle-class white boys have fallen behind their sisters. My new book focuses on solutions.
The recent advances of girls and young women in school, sports, and vocational opportunities are cause for deep satisfaction. But I am persuaded we can address the problems of boys without undermining the progress of women. This is not a zero-sum contest. Most women, including most feminist women, do not see the world as a Manichean struggle between Venus and Mars. We are all in this together. The current plight of boys and young men is, in fact, a women’s issue. Those boys are our sons; they are the people with whom our daughters will build a future. If our boys are in trouble, so are we all.
Now I have a question for you, Michael. In the past, you seem to have sided with a group of gender scholars who think we should address the boy problem by raising boys to be more like girls. Maybe I am being overly optimistic, but does your praise for my New York Times op-ed indicate a shift in your own thinking?
Michael: Not at all. I’m not interested in raising boys to be more like girls any more than I want girls to be raised more like boys. The question itself assumes that there is a way to raise boys that is different from the way we raise girls. To me this is stereotypic thinking. I want to raise our children to be themselves, and I think that one of the more wonderful components of feminism was to critique that stereotype that all girls are supposed to act and dress in one way and one way only. Over the past several decades, girls have reduced the amount of gender policing they do to each other: for every “You are such a slut,” a young woman is now equally likely to hear “You go girl!” (Note: I am not saying one has replaced the other; this is not some either/or, but a both/and.) The reforms initiated in the 1970s for girls — Title IX, STEM programs — have been an incontesible success. We agree there, I think — and also that we need to pay attention also to boys, because many are falling behind (though not upper- and middle- class white boys as much, as you rightly point out.)
I think cultural definitions of masculinity are complex and often offer boys contradictory messages. Just as there are parts that may be unhealthy — never crying or showing your feelings, winning at all costs, etc. — there are also values associated with manhood such as integrity, honor, doing the right thing, speaking truth to power, that are not of “redeemable” but important virtues. I wouldn’t want to get rid of them in some wholesale “Etch-a-Sketch” redefinition.
Our disagreement, I think, comes from what we see as the source of that falling behind. My interviews with over 400 young men, aged 6-26, in Guyland, showed me that young men and boys are constantly and relentlessly policed by other guys, and pressured to conform to a very narrow definition of masculinity by the constant spectre of being called a fag or gay. So if we’re going to really intervene in schools to ensure that boys succeed, I believe that we have to empower boys’ resilience in the face of this gender policing. What my interviews taught me is that many guys believe that academic disengagement is a sign of their masculinity. Therefore, re-engaging boys in school requires that we enable them to reconect educational engagement with manhood.
My question to you: In your essay, you list a few reforms to benefit boys, that strike me as unproblematic, such as recess, and some that seem entirely regressive, like single-sex classes in public schools or single-sex public schools. Is your educational vision of the future — a return to schools with separate entrances for boys and girls — a return to the past?
Christina: I hereby declare myself opposed to separate entrances for boys and girls at school. And I agree that we should raise children to be themselves. But that will often mean respecting their gender. Increasingly, little boys are shamed and punished for the crime of being who they are. The typical, joyful play of young males is “rough and tumble” play. There is no known society where little boys fail to evince this behavior (girls do it too, but far less). In many schools, this characteristic play of little boys is no longer tolerated. Intrusive and intolerant adults are insisting “tug of war” be changed to “tug of peace”; games such as tag are being replaced with “circle of friends” — in which no one is ever out. Just recently, a seven-year-old Colorado boy named Alex Evans was suspended from school for throwing an imaginary hand grenade at “bad guys” so he could “save the world.” Play is the basis of learning. And boys’ superhero play is no exception. Researchers have found that by allowing “bad guy” play, children’s conversation and imaginative writing skills improved. Mary Ellin Logue (University of Maine) and Hattie Harvey (University of Denver) ask an important question: “If boys, due to their choices of dramatic play themes, are discouraged from dramatic play, how will this affect their early language and literacy development and their engagement in school?”
You seem to think that single-sex education is “regressive.” This tells me that you may not have been keeping up with new developments. Take a close look at what is going on at the Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School and the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy in Dallas. There are hundreds of similar programs in public schools around the country and they are working wonders with boys and girls. Far from representing a “return to the past,” these schools are cutting edge.
An important new study by three University of Pennsylvania researchers looked at single-sex education in Seoul, Korea. In Seoul, until 2009, students were randomly assigned to single-sex and coeducational schools; parents had little choice on which schools their children attended. After controlling for other variables such as teacher quality, student-teacher ratio, and the proportion of students receiving lunch support, the study found significant advantages in single-sex education. The students earned higher scores on their college entrance exams and were more likely to attend four-year colleges. The authors describe the positive effects as “substantial.” With so many boys languishing in our schools, it would be reckless not to pay attention to the Dallas academies and the Korean school study. No one is suggesting these schools be the norm — but they may be an important part of the solution to male underachievement. For one thing, they seem to meet a challenge you identify: connecting male educational engagement with manhood.
Finally, a word about Title IX, which you call an “incontestable success.” Tell that to all the young men who have watched their swimming, diving, wrestling, baseball and gymnastic teams eliminated. Title IX was a visionary and progressive law; but over the years it has devolved into a quota regime. If a college’s student body is 60 percent female, then 60 percent of the athletes should be female — even if far fewer women than men are interested in playing sports at that college. Many athletic directors have been unable to attract the same proportions of women as men. To avoid government harassment, loss of funding, and lawsuits, they have simply eliminated men’s teams.
Michael, I think you focus too much on vague and ponderous abstractions such as “cultural definitions of masculinity.” Why not address the very real, concrete and harsh prejudice boys now face every day in our nation’s schools? You speak of “empowering boys to resist gender policing.” In my view, the most aggressive policing is being carried out by adults who seem to have ruled conventional masculinity out of order.
Michael: Well, my earlier optimism seems somewhat misplaced; it’s clear that you changed the subtitle, and want to argue that it’s not a zero sum game — these give me hope. But then you characterize Title IX exactly as the zero sum game you say you no longer believe in.
I think some of the reforms you suggest — increased recess, for example — are good for both boys and girls. Others, like reading more science fiction, seem to touch the surface, and then only very lightly. Some others, like single-sex schools strike me as, to use your favorite word, misguided. (There is little empirical evidence that the sex of a teacher has a demonstrable independent effect on educational outcomes.) It seems to me you mistake form for content.
I’d rather my son go to a really great co-ed school than a really crappy single-sex one. (It happens that single sex schools, whether at the secondary or tertiary level, are very resource-rich, with more teacher training and lower student-teacher ratios. Those things actually do matter.) It’s not the form, Christina, but the content.
And the content we need is to continue the reforms initiated by feminist women, reforms that suggested for the first time that one size doesn’t fit all. They didn’t change the “one size,” and impose it on boys; they expanded the sizes. Those reforms would have us pay attention to differencesamong boys and differences among girls, which, it turns out, are far larger than any modest mean difference that you might find between males and females. You’d teach to the stereotype — that rambunctious roll-in-the-mud “boys will be boys” boy of which you are so fond — and not the mean, that is some center of the distribution. Teaching to the stereotype flattens the differences among boys, which will crush those boys who do not conform to that stereotype: the artistic ones, the musical ones, the soft-spoken ones, the ones who aren’t into sports.
If you’d actually talked to boys in your research, instead of criticizing Bill Pollack or Carol Gilligan, I think you’d see this. The incredible research by Niobe Way, for example, in her book Deep Secrets, shows that prior to adolescence, boys are emotionally expressive and connected in ways that will surprise you. Something happens to those exuberant, expressive, emotional boys in middle school or so, and what happens to them is masculinity, the ideology of gender, which is relentlessly policed by other guys.
In my more than 400 interviews with boys this was made utterly clear to me. I’ve done workshops with literally thousands of boys, and asked them about the meaning of manhood and where they get those ideas they have. The answer is overwhelming: it is other guys who police them, with the ubiquitous “that’s so gay” and other comments.
I’ve said this above, so I’ll use my last word to reiterate. Boys learn that academic disengagement is a sign of their masculinity. If we want to re-engage boys in education, no amount of classroom tinkering and recess and science fiction reading is going to address that. We will need to enable boys to decouple the cultural definition of masculinity from academic disengagement. We need to acknowledge the vast differences among boys; their beauty lies in their diversity. We need to stop trying to force them into a stereotypic paradigm of rambunctiousness and let them be the individuals they are. And the really good research that talks to boys, all sorts of boys, suggests to me that they are waiting for us to do just that.
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