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Review of "The War Against Boys"

By Christina Hoff Sommers
Simon & Schuster, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Mar 8th 2002
The War Against Boys

Judging from the subtitle of The War Against Boys alone, it’s clear that Sommers has an axe to grind: she blames the feminist movement for many of the problems that young men experience.  Her suggestion is that gender-neutral child rearing ignores that fact that boys have a distinct nature different from girls, and that boys are not well served if we ignore this fact.  She criticizes the recent work of Carol Gilligan that argues that young women suffer in a male dominated society, and she equally criticizes the related work of William Pollack that argues that young men are oppressed by cultural ideals of masculinity.  She calls for a return to traditional education that includes the forming of moral character, and believes that the old-fashioned goal of helping boys become gentlemen has great value. 

            Some of Sommers’ arguments make good sense.  For example, when feminists deny the obvious average differences between boys and girls, they look silly.  Sommers also argues convincingly against educators who put more emphasis on increasing children’s self-esteem than giving them skills they can be proud of.  She gives strong evidence that boys are on average performing worse than girls in school and college.  She makes a strong argument that we should try single-sex education as a solution to some problems, and allow competition and discipline back into the classroom, if it is actually true that they were neglected. 

            Sommers’ arguments against the excesses of feminist claims and the wooly thinking of academics in schools of education are convincing.  However, the fundamental weakness of The War Against Boys is its failure to demonstrate that there is a crisis or even a serious problem in our current education policies concerning the treatment of boys.  At most, Sommers highlights a few worrying trends in the work of educational psychologists and some best-selling books, but she says nothing to show that boys are really being harmed by new methods of education and government policies.  While she provides a plethora of statistics showing the poor performance of boys compared to girls in schools, her criticisms of modern education policy are impressionistic and vague; she never makes a strong case that education has actually been taken over by the self-esteem movement or false therapeutic values.  She does cite some interesting studies that suggest that voicing one’s emotions may not be helpful in recovering from trauma, but it is far from clear that it is part of mainstream education policy to encourage children to give voice to their personal pain.  The few examples Sommers provides to support her case are no substitute for good data. 

            One of Sommers’ main ideas is that boys and girls are intrinsically different, and that it is folly to try to change this.  She ends her book with the idea that we should accept and even rejoice in the adage, “boys will be boys.”  Yet she is also rather alarmed that girls are in many ways doing better than boys in schools and college.  It is hard to see why we should share her alarm.  While it is clear that boys are doing less well than girls, on average, in schools around the country, she gives no evidence that boys are doing less well than they used to in previous decades.  Indeed, one of the charts in the book shows clearly that there is improvement over the 10 years between 1980 and 1990 in the percentage of high school sophomores who arrive at school unprepared, for both boys and girls (p. 28).  Sommers suggestions that there is a “war against boys” and that it is “a bad time to be a boy in America” remain implausible.  It seems just as likely that boys are doing less well than girls in school and college because they are simply less interested in school work or even less talented than girls, and that they chose to put their energy into other pursuits and careers that do not need college degrees. 

Furthermore, while she is unsympathetic to the recent claims of Gilligan and Mary Pipher about the current plight of girls, she says little to address the data that suggest that girls have a very hard time in high school, facing increasing rates of diagnosis of depression, self-injury, and eating disorders, and increasing problems of sexual harassment and assault and pressures to engage in sexual activity.  While some of her criticisms of feminist scholarship are legitimate, she chooses soft targets, such as proposals that boys should be playing with dolls and wearing dresses, that even few other feminists are ready to defend. 

The debates over gender issues and the state of education in America today have become highly charged.  Sommers rightly insists that we should be careful with the statistics and their interpretation, and we should avoid leaping to unwarranted conclusions.  Her criticisms of some of methodologies of Carol Gilligan and William Pollack are convincing and noteworthy.  But Sommers’ conclusion that there is systemic discrimination and prejudice against boys in schools across America remains unproven. She is right to draw attention to the dangers of such problems, and indeed, I hope that students in educational psychology and schools and departments of education are encouraged to read The War Against Boys, at least if they are going to read other works in these gender debates.  Ironically, in her talk of “war,” Sommers herself engages in as dramatic and overblown rhetoric as her opponents, and if these debates are going to progress, we need to move away from ideologically driven stances, looking to see what problems children are actually experiencing and finding creative and realistic solutions.



NB: My thanks to my colleagues Mark Rigstad and Richard Wilkens for helpful discussions of these matters.  Thanks also to Christina Hoff Sommers for engaging in debate on these issues on her visit to our college this month.

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.