AROUND THE NETWORK; Fighting Words on Gender Equity: Are Boys under Siege in School?

Article excerpt

A surprising argument in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine has raised the hackles of many family therapists, as well as feminists. "The War Against Boys" by Christina Hoff Sommers challenges the view widely held in the 1990s that boys are systematically favored over girls in school due to the male bias in our culture. Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, disputes data showing that girls, as a result, lag far behind boys in scores on standardized tests. She also levels a blast at the view popularized by two psychologists, Carol Gilligan and Mary Pipher, that adolescent girls suffer a debilitating blow to their self-confidence.

In truth, argues Sommers, it is the boys who need the most help. They have lower grades on average, higher dropout rates, far more learning disabilities; they are more likely to be held back in the grade and less likely to go to college. On almost every measure--intellectual, behavioral and emotional--she says, boys are having more trouble than girls. Yet, they are viewed as oppressors by feminist ideologues, who have influenced  the nation's schools of education and the attitudes of a whole generation of teachers. "In the view that has prevailed in American education over the past decade," writes Sommers, "boys are resented, both as the unfairly privileged sex and as obstacles on the path to gender justice for girls. Predictably, Sommers's attack on the gender wisdom of the '90s blew up a ministorm among readers. By the end of May, The Atlantic had received more than 100 letters about the piece--quite unusual for us," according to one editor, who said the mail was running about 5 to 4 in Sommers's favor. More than 60 visitors to the magazine's website weighed in with comments, some accusing Sommers of having an ideological ax to grind or sensationalizing the issues in order to sell her new book with the same title, from which the article was drawn. In a lengthy joust with Sommers on the website, Gilligan defended herself against the charge that three of her key studies were never been published in peer-reviewed journals and couldn't be obtained by Sommers's assistants who had called requesting the data.

Some family therapists, in interviews, objected to the provocative and highly inflated headline of The Atlantic piece. "Any article called 'The War Against Boys' is specious to begin with," commented Marianne Walters of the Family Practice Center in Washington, D.C. "It's mind-boggling to think there's a war against anybody, boys or girls." Evan Imber-Black of the Center for Families and Health at the Ackerman Institute in New York had a similar reaction. "A lot of our children are in trouble, and I believe a good bit of the trouble is due to gender socialization," she said. "For years and years, we knew that in math and science, for instance, girls did not do as well as boys. That need had to be addressed. But the idea that school is a zero-sum game, that you can only help one sex while the other has to be sacrificed, is ridiculous."

 At least one family therapist, however, Edith Lawrence, believes The Atlantic article is "more accurate than inaccurate." Lawrence, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, says: "Recent research shows boys are more at risk than girls in early adolescence and adolescence--as measured by fairly important criteria, such as academic achievement, behavior problems and dropout rates. And, yes, she [Sommers] is right that a majority of girls aren't short changed by schools or 'losing their voice' during adolescence."

Who is Christina Sommers and why is she saying these things? In her last book, Who Stole Feminism, the former philosophy teacher argued that the women's movement had become captive to a privileged elite of extreme feminists who see men as the enemy and play fast and loose with facts. Sommers has made a vocation out of bird-dogging weaknesses in research invoked to redress the wrongs done to girls. …