It's Tough to be a Boy in American Schools

JOHN LEO

"It's a bad time to be a boy in America," Christina Sommers says in her important new book, "The War Against Boys." "We are turning against boys," she writes.

John Leo

In my eldest daughter's pre-kindergarten class, run by parents in Greenwich Village, the children were from all sorts of ethnic and class backgrounds, but they always sorted themselves out by sex. The girls sat quietly at tables, drawing and talking. The boys all ran around screaming like maniacs, bouncing off the walls, raising so much ear-splitting commotion that my first reaction each day was a fleeting urge to strangle them all.

I do not believe that these male tots were acting out their assigned masculine gender roles in the patriarchical order. I think the obvious is true: Boys are different from girls. They like rough-and-tumble play. When they alight somewhere, they build something, then knock it down. They are not much interested in sitting quietly, talking about their feelings or working on relationships. They like action, preferably something involving noise, conflict and triumph.

Teachers know that girls are better suited to schooling. So if you want to teach boys, allowances must be made. One of the tragedies of the last 20 years or so is that school systems are increasingly unwilling to make those allowances. Instead, in the wake of the feminist movement, they have absorbed anti-male attitudes almost without controversy. They are now more likely to see ordinary boy behavior as something dangerous that must be reined in. Or they may tighten the screws on boys by drafting extraordinarily broad zero-tolerance and sexual-harassment policies. Worse, they may simply decide that the most active boys are suffering from attention deficit disorder and dope them up with Ritalin.

Two straws in the wind: Four kindergarten boys in New Jersey were suspended from school for playing cops and robbers at recess with “guns” (their hands, with one finger pointed out). Teasing, ridicule and making unflattering remarks are now listed as sexual harassment violations for 4-year-olds and up in public schools in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.

“It's a bad time to be a boy in America,” Christina Sommers says in her important new book, The War Against Boys. “We are turning against boys,” she writes. “Boys need discipline, respect and moral guidance. They do not need to be pathologized.”

Sommer's book is packed with examples of the anti-male attitudes that pervade the public schools. At University High School in Pacific Heights, Calif., boys must sit quietly through a “Women's Assembly,” in which women are celebrated and man are blamed. Boys in one San Francisco class are regularly put through feminists paces — made to enjoy quilting, forced to listen as girls vent their anger at males. When Barbara Wilder-Smith, a teacher and researcher in the Boston area, made “Boys Are Good” T-shirts for her class, all 10 female teachers under her supervision strongly objected to the message. One of the 10 was wearing a button saying “So many men, so little intelligence.”

Some schools use the Bem Androgyny Scale — named for feminist psychologist Sandra Bem — to measure success in getting rid of those pesky masculine traits in boys. In his book The Decline of Males, anthropologist Lionel Tiger says women have taken charge of the public dialogue on gender and decisively bent it to their advantage. That is certainly true of dialogue about the schools.

We spent most of the 1990s fretting about bogus research claiming that the schools were shortchanging and damaging girls, when the truth is that boys are the ones in trouble.

Boys are much more likely than girls to have problems with schoolwork, repeat a grade, get suspended and develop learning difficulties. In some schools, boys account for up to three-fourths of “special education” classes. They are five times more likely than girls to commit suicide and four to nine times more likely to be drugged with Ritalin. Student polls show that both girls and boys say their teachers like the girls more and punish the boys more often.

Girls get better grades than boys, take more rigorous courses, and now attend college in much greater numbers. While the traditional advantage of boys over girls in math and science has narrowed (girls take as least as many upper-level math courses as boys, and more biology and chemistry), the advantage of girls over boys in reading and writing is large and stable. In writing achievement, 11th-grade boys score at the level of eighth-grade girls. The Department of Education reported this year: “There is evidence that the female advantage in school performance is real and persistent.” The school failure of so many boys, magnified and fanned by anti-male hostility, is a severe social problem.

Females now account for 56 percent of American college students, and the male-female gap is still widening. It is 60-40 in Canada and 63-37 among American blacks. These numbers, always overlooked in media laments about “underrepresentation,” have several ominous implications. One is for much more fatherlessness. College women who can't find college-educated mates won't marry down; they will likely just have their babies alone.

It's time to discuss some remedies, including vouchers, single-sex schools and programs targeted at specific problems of boys. Save the males.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Leo, John. “It's Tough to be a Boy in American Schools.” U.S. News and World Report (July 9, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of John Leo.

THE AUTHOR

John Leo writes the Outlook column for U.S. News and World Report. His latest book Incorrect Thoughts published by Transaction Books sells for $29.95. Transaction Books is at Rutgers University, 35 Berrue Circle, Piscataway, NJ 08854.

Copyright © 2000 John Leo


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