Mr. Rebates

Monday, November 1, 2010

Is There a War Against Boys?

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. In recent years much attention has been paid to the difficulties of growing up female in this allegedly sexist society. But, it is boys who are more likely to be victims of violence and perpetrators of violence. It is boys who are more likely to have trouble in school. Is it a tough time to be a boy in America? Has there been, as author Christina Hoff Sommers writes in her new book, a war against boys?

MR. WATTENBERG: Less than a decade ago the American Association of University Women published a report that said schools were shortchanging girls. Teachers, it said, paid less attention to girls, girls lagged behind in math and science, their self-esteem suffered. Now, some researchers and psychologists say it is boys who are the cause for concern, their grades are lower, they are more likely to be enrolled in special education programs, and more likely to be held back. The situation in higher education is more muddled. Women are now the majority on college campuses; however, boys still do better on standardized tests, and make up the majority at many Ivy League schools.

Do we need to teach boys differently than we teach girls? Have boys suffered because of the progress girls have made? To answer these and other questions we turn now to our expert panel.

Ladies, gentleman, thank you for joining us.

Christina Sommers, you have written a book that has been both heralded and hit upon, what’s your thesis?

MS. SOMMERS: I’m concerned that boys have become politically incorrect, that we are a society in the process of turning against its male children. Now, there have been many societies that gave females second class status, and that was wrong, and I became a feminist in the ’70s, because I didn’t appreciate male chauvinism, and bullying on the part of males. I’m concerned today that we’ve thrown the gender switch. It is now boys who are stereotyped, routinely cast as if boyhood is a disorder, something they need to recover from.

I also discovered that boys are academically neglected, in critical areas boys are languishing. The average 11th grade boy writes like an 8th grade girl. He’s far more likely to drop out, to flunk, not to go to college than the girl sitting next to him. And then I asked myself, how did this happen? How did we get to a point where we seem to be turning against our male children, indifferent to their academic failings. And I found that for 10 or 15 years we have had women’s organizations marching in sisterly solidarity, claiming that girls are shortchanged victims, and depicting boys as sort of privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchal system. And this just seems to me to be not true to the fact. So what I’ve tried to do in The War Against Boys is marshal the best data I could from the national center for education statistics, tried to avoid the advocacy research, the pseudo-science, the hyperbole, and just give readers a good picture of where the boys are.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you buy that?

MR. KIMMEL: Sure, I buy the fact that boys are in trouble. I buy the fact that we need to be more concerned with, and more compassionate with, and more concerned really with the plight of young boys. But, I think that the problem that I have with it is, two. First, I think we share the same observation. We look at the data, boys are in trouble. What’s the cause of it, misguided feminism? Hardly. Second, the second problem I think is that it’s not only boys who are politically incorrect, but rather an ideology of masculinity that has remained relatively inelastic, while the world around has changed fundamentally, so dramatically over the past, say, 30 or 40 years, and we are not preparing young boys for the world they are about to enter.

My dad could go to an all male college, serve in an all male military, spend his entire working life in an all male work environment. My male students, that world is completely gone. So I ask them, what is the ideology of masculinity that they have. It’s the same one that I have, that my father had, that my grandfather had. That’s relatively unchanged. So the question that we have then is an illness of fit between what they think it means to be a man, and the world that they are now going to enter. I think that’s the place where we have to start looking.

MR. WATTENBERG: Susan, where do you come out?

MS. BAILEY: Well, I certainly agree, and we pointed out in How Schools Shortchange Girls, that boys also have problems in schools. And what we tried to do in that study was put a gender lens on it, look at girls, look at what was happening to girls, and in understanding that better learn more about what would help boys as well.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, the thrust of it was that girls were being silenced, that girls were going into a self-esteem trap. I mean, it was not principally about boys, it was about girls and it was publicized that way.

MS. BAILEY: I’m talking about the study and the research that we looked at, and that we reported. And I think some of the emphasis and some of the coverage of it focused on particular parts of the study, but I think it’s important to look at everything that we looked at, and that we wrote, because part of what we were talking about, the very first pages of the book, talk about the fact that we need to learn more about what is happening, or not happening for girls in schools, so that we can help both boys and girls gain both relational and competitive skills, so that they can get the best education they can both have.

MS. SOMMERS: I agree with that, but the study was entitled How Schools Shortchange Girls. And what I think you should have done is how schools shortchange our children, and told a more complex story. But, yes, in some ways the schools could do a better job. And I don’t fault the women’s organizations for programs that help girls in math and science, those were needed, and they have helped, but where were the programs for boys in reading and writing? You and the AAUW, the American Association of University Women, promoted the Gender Equity Act, which Congress passed a version of it in 1993. Millions of dollars to help girls, nothing to help boys with their considerable gaps in -- I mean, the college gap is becoming a chasm. How did that problem become invisible?

MS. BAILEY: I don’t think that problem is invisible, or was invisible. I think that long before there were special programs to help girls in mathematics there were remedial reading programs for boys.

MR. WATTENBERG: Christina says that the schools are sort of feminizing boys, or making that a standard. And in effect, Michael, isn’t that what you are saying they should do? I don’t want to get into pejorative words, and I’m not sure feminize is a pejorative word, but that that’s the goal of what you’re saying, boys should be more like Alan Alda, and less like John Wayne?

MR. KIMMEL: No, I think, in fact, I find that to be -- in thinking about this I’ve found that to be a very familiar argument, that --

MR. WATTENBERG: I specialize in familiar arguments.

MR. KIMMEL: That gender equality would actually be a feminization of masculinity. My goodness, the Boy Scouts of America were founded by a man who proclaimed that boys were becoming soft and enervated, because all the teachers and Sunday school teachers were women, and all the men were away at work, and they were being raised by mothers, and that in effect women were teaching boys to be men. It’s a very old argument in American history. I think all of the available research points the other way. When women leave the home, and enter the public sphere they become more masculinized than boys become feminized in the public sphere.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, I’m not talking about the public sphere, I’m talking about the public school. There’s a difference. I’m not talking about when they leave school, we’re talking for a moment about education.

MS. SOMMERS: A few weeks ago boys were suspended, kindergartners, for playing cops and robbers in the playground, kindergartner boys, they were suspended, this violated a zero tolerance policy for violence. Would you approve of that, or do you see that as part of a mean spirited campaign against natural --

MS. BAILEY: I would not approve of a zero tolerance policy.

MR. KIMMEL: Nor would I.

MS. SOMMERS: Zero tolerance for boys, we can agree that some of our -- schools are getting rid of recess. As an expert on boys don’t you see that as so counter to the interests of boys.

MR. KIMMEL: Absolutely.

MS. SOMMERS: So who stands up for boys?

MS. BAILEY: But, it’s counter to the interests of girls also.

MS. SOMMERS: If you look at experts on child play, like Anthony Pelligrini at the University of Minnesota, boys must have it. Their ability to concentrate, their high spiritedness, their rambunctiousness. Boy’s natural play is rough and tumble play, it’s the universal play of little boys. And it’s very different from aggression. And we are a society that’s failing to understand the distinction.

MR. WATTENBERG: Christina said that magic word, natural. Is there a natural difference between boys and girls?

MS. BAILEY: I think when you say natural differences between boys and girls that it’s an ambiguous statement, it implies that all girls are one way, all boys are another way. I think that is not the case.

MR. WATTENBERG: Suppose we say most? I mean, let’s say that when Christina uses the word natural she’s saying, boys are more likely to be X, and girls are more likely to be Y. I don’t think she means all.

MR. KIMMEL: Are there miserable statistical differences between boys and girls, of course. None of us would disagree with such a statement.

MS. SOMMERS: Naturally based, hardwired.


MR. WATTENBERG: Do you -- I think this is the crux of this argument, that boys and girls are born differently, not only physically, but intellectually, attitudinally, they’re interested in different things, no matter how they are socialized.

MR. KIMMEL: I can think of no differences than growth and anatomical differences that are hardwired into all boys and no girls, and all girls and no boys.

MR. WATTENBERG: That’s not the question. Excuse me. Nobody is saying all, they are saying most or many, or a tendency toward --

MS. SOMMERS: Statistical probability.

MR. WATTENBERG: Probability, and that’s the question -- I’m not arguing it, I’m just asking you.

MR. KIMMEL: Then I would ask this question, the enormously valuable research that cross-cultural ethnographers have done about gender in other cultures have indicated that the very things that we consider to be 'hardwired' don’t obtain in other cultures. Are they not boys, are they not girls?

MS. SOMMERS: Absolute nonsense. Nonsense.

MR. WATTENBERG: Give me an example.

MR. KIMMEL: Well, I mean, some of the work, for example, about Norwegian boys, or Swedish boys has absolutely --

MS. SOMMERS: And they don’t engage in rough and tumble play, they aren’t greater risk takers, they don’t violate rules?

MR. KIMMEL: Sure they do, and so do the girls.

MS. SOMMERS: This has been documented time and time again.

MR. WATTENBERG: Wait a minute, let’s just take that phrase rough and tumble play. Are you saying that among Norwegian boys there is not more rough and tumble play than among Norwegian girls?

MS. SOMMERS: He doesn’t know.

MR. KIMMEL: I don’t know.

MS. SOMMERS: And I say definitely.

MR. WATTENBERG: Then what’s your guess?

MR. KIMMEL: My guess is that there probably is some. What I’m saying is that the differences that we sort of champion and that we celebrate don’t obtain across the board among all groups of boys, among all groups of American boys.

MR. WATTENBERG: What do we celebrate?

MR. KIMMEL: We’re arguing that for boys, and boys alone, rough and tumble play is natural, necessary, inevitable. And I’m saying, it may be very functional for boys, for some boys, it may also -- but, we’re also looking -- if we’re taking something that is not natural and hardwired, but we’re taking something that is statistically probable, then we’re also leaving out the entire distribution. What about those at the far end who are overly that, and what about those at the other end of the distribution who are not very much that, are they not boys?

MR. WATTENBERG: Let’s take those who are at the top of the bell curve, and let’s say they have a tendency toward rough and tumble play, more so than girls. Do you think that is something unfortunate?


MR. WATTENBERG: You don’t think that’s something unfortunate?


MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think he thinks that’s unfortunate?

MS. SOMMERS: Well, I’ll have to ask him a couple of questions. For example, some of the best research that I saw on male female differences was done by toy companies. Toy companies aren’t interested in ideology, they want to sell toys. If they would sell a toy that both boys and girls would buy, it doubles profits. So in one case Hasbro toys manufactured a playhouse. They brought children in to their fun lab in Providence, Rhode Island, to watch them interact with the structure. The girls came in and played constructively, they put the doll in the baby buggy, played with the house and the refrigerator and so forth. The boys came in and catapulted the baby carriage from the roof. And the surprised researchers said, my goodness, boys and girls really are different.

I told this story to the feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, she was enraged, she saw the boys catapulting behavior as some kind of predictor of violence. And she said, if there are little boys playing with dollhouses that’s just one more reason we should be re-socializing them to play with dolls. Do you agree with her?

MR. KIMMEL: I probably would have been catapulting the baby carriages off the roof myself.

MR. WATTENBERG: That is not responsive to the question.


MS. SOMMERS: I’m glad.



MS. SOMMERS: You don’t agree with her, why not?

MR. KIMMEL: I think what I would love to see is giving boys a range of choices from which they could choose to play that would be as wide as what feminism has happily done now for girls. So that girls can grow up and think that they want to be scientists, they want to be Mia Hamm, they want to be ballerinas, they want to be Barbie.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you think --

MR. KIMMEL: Whereas, boys want to be Arnold Schwarzenegger or nothing at all.

MS. SOMMERS: That’s ridiculous.

MR. KIMMEL: I’ve been teaching a course called sociology of masculinity for 20 years. The first time it was ever offered in the State of New Jersey, when I taught at Rutgers. Now I teach it at Stoneybrook. I’ve been asking my male students who were their heroes for 20 years or so. I don’t get the kind of range. I ask my women students who were their heroes, as well. I don’t get the kind of range that you would have expected.

MR. WATTENBERG: From the boys?

MR. KIMMEL: Not even Bill Gates.

MR. WATTENBERG: Who do they admire?

MR. KIMMEL: Athletes, rock stars, and film actors who are in action movies.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask you a question, Susan. This attitude toward girls that some years ago your study condemned, this was perpetrated in the classroom by majority female teachers, in so far as it was perpetrated in the classroom. I mean, you have 70 to 75 percent of the teachers in America are female, and you’re saying the schools were shortchanging girls, teachers didn’t call on them, they didn’t pay enough attention to them, et cetera, et cetera. So are you saying that female teachers were collaborators in this conspiracy?

MS. BAILEY: You used the word perpetrated, which I think is an inaccurate and inflammatory word. I don’t think something was perpetrated upon girls, and I don’t think it was a conspiracy of educators. People go into teaching and education because they care about kids. If boys are calling out more often, and demanding more attention, it’s a reasonable response, unless you stop and think about it, to give them that attention. It’s also true that if girls are sitting quietly, paying attention to their work, and not demanding attention, you can assume well, they’re doing fine, they’re learning what they need to learn.

The problem is that after 12 years of those kinds of differentiations, in terms of what kinds of behavior gets rewarded by teacher attention, it reinforces stereotypes that there are appropriate roles for girls, appropriate roles for girls, stereotypes that I think are not helpful.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. I want to talk to our viewers for a moment. We at Think Tank depend on your feedback to make our program better. Please email us at

Now, Christina, your book sort of points almost to a conspiracy of feminism, that this is a secret plan of attack. Is that an accurate characterization?

MS. SOMMERS: No, because I don’t think it was something that was organized. I think it was in some ways several agendas coming together. And you had a group of hard-line feminists who had spent 20 years denigrating males, trying to implicate the average male in a social atrocity. So there was a lot of propaganda about how violent men were, about toxic masculinity. And then women’s groups who I think relied on a lot of just bad research.

MR. WATTENBERG: I saw something on television the other day about the rap singer M&M, whose rap is pretty anti-girl, to say the least, as have a lot of rap singers recently, anti-female, anti-girl, tough, nasty stuff in my judgment. And yet, you look at the camera shots panning the audience, and there is lots, and lots of girls out there going wild saying, I love him. What is that all about?

MS. SOMMERS: Well, again, in the popular culture you find a lot of denigration of females, and denigration of makes. Unfortunately, the denigration of males is more mainstream, you find it, for example, if you watch the Living Channel, or read average women’s magazines now it’s sort of all right to denigrate boys.

MR. KIMMEL: But, what about M&M’s lyrics, what about M&M?

MS. SOMMERS: As I said, those are -- that’s sort of the extremes of pop culture.

MR. KIMMEL: I mean, that’s the best selling album in America, that’s as mainstream as it gets.

MR. WATTENBERG: We’re agreed on that, but why are girls buying the albums?

MR. KIMMEL: I do think there’s a certain amount of -- I mean, undeniable sexiness about the rebel swagger among rock stars and film stars and what not. That people, for example, like Christina’s friend Cleo Polia (sp) celebrate all the time.

MS. SOMMERS: You don’t like it?

MR. KIMMEL: I’m saying, I think it’s enormously sexy.

MR. WATTENBERG: Elvis had a male swagger, but he was singing Love Me Tender. He wasn’t singing this kind of crap.

MS. BAILEY: I remember my parents not being very happy with Elvis either.

MS. SOMMERS: I do have one other thing to say, which is in the book I argue not only are young men neglected academically, but I think socially we’ve lost something, that boys are -- as a way of bringing up young men to be conscientious and responsible, turning them into gentlemen. And I’ve talked to young men around the country, and teenage boys, without exception, I’ve yet to find a boy for whom being a gentleman doesn’t connote something positive. And it’s something very powerful for boys. And I’ve had a lot of reporters, sort of liberal reporters, sneer, boys don’t want to do that. They do. They don’t know how to do it. But, I think what I see, as someone who has taught ethics for many years at Clark University, is all of our children, all of our young people are a little clueless ethically, they don’t have a strong sense of right or wrong, a strong sense of being part of a moral tradition. And young men have a great need for a sense of honor.

MR. WATTENBERG: So what do you propose?

MS. SOMMERS: I just think that we’re paying the price for raising -- Tom Brokaw talked about The Greatest Generation, the World War II generation, the men were brought up with respect for women, with a sense of gallantry.

MR. WATTENBERG: And what are you proposing. We have talked about a lot of problems here, what do you propose?

MS. SOMMERS: Well, I think that it’s not too late. We can restore commonsense in education. We must have moral education in the schools, anti-bullying programs, but this does not mean programs to feminize boys. You don’t need to have them making quilts or celebrating their feminine side, or 12-step programs, as I’m afraid Michael Kimmel and the Save the Males movement, as I call it, is suggesting. I think that you help young men become gentlemen. And you respect their masculinity, you respect the fact that boys and girls are different.

MR. WATTENBERG: This involves single sex schools, for example?

MS. SOMMERS: I think we should be trying it. What I argue is that in Great Britain they’re about 10 years ahead of us in addressing the social and academic needs of boys. They don’t have these women’s groups marching around threatening lawsuits when you try to do something for boys. So, yes, I think we should experiment with same sex classrooms.

MR. WATTENBERG: Michael, what do you think?

MR. KIMMEL: First of all, let me say that I find Christina’s argument about moral education to be quite persuasive. I agree with it, myself, particularly in a post-modern secular era, without traditional religion as the anchor for many people, we lose that kind of moral compass. We throw it all on parents, and say, here, do it, no state help, no help from anybody else, do it all yourself. I think we do need that. I think we do need strong moral education.

But, I’ve found frankly, and this is going to be my last thing, the problem I think with Christina’s book is I found it insulting to me as a man. I found it insulting to say the last four words of her book, boys will be boys. Let’s just throw up our hands, it’s all hardwiring, they’re aggressive, they’re competitive, they bully each other. Why not instead, why not instead say what I believe feminist women have been saying for the past 20 years, which is we believe boys can do better, we believe that men can stop harassing women in the workplace, that boys can stop bullying girls in school, that we can end date and acquaintance rape, that these are problems --

MR. WATTENBERG: That’s not what boys will be boys means, date rape, and sexual harassment.

MR. KIMMEL: It means throwing up our hands.

MS. SOMMERS: To that school of thought it does, and that’s the problem.

MR. KIMMEL: And I have to say I find it so ironic to say I’m part of a save the males school, since that was the slogan at the citadel against whom I testified.

MR. WATTENBERG: What should we do about this, Susan?

MS. BAILEY: Well, there seems to be a thread running through here that somehow it’s boys or girls, and also that if you’re helping girls then you’re hurting boys. And I don’t think that that’s where we want to be. Boys and girls have problems today in our schools. We as a society, I think, don’t care enough about our children, we don’t worry enough about what’s happening to them in school or out of school. We need to do more for both.

MR. WATTENBERG: For both, okay. Let me try to understand this. You’re for more and better moral education of boys and young men. You are for more and better moral education for young men. You both believe that the animal spirits in young men have to be tamed and socialized.

MS. SOMMERS: In a way that respects their masculinity.

MR. WATTENBERG: So what is this argument about? Just let me go to you two, there is a certain commonality, you started out saying, I agree.

MR. KIMMEL: I agree, yes.

MS. SOMMERS: But, I believe that their solution to the problem with boys -- Gloria Steinem says, we must make boys more like girls. There are efforts at the Wellesley Center, a workshop on how to get boys interested in playing with dolls, the motive is, well, this will make them more nurturing. And I just find all of this misguided, it’s not going to help boys. As I said, there’s a time-honored way to raise young men. We are medicating young boys, we are increasingly intolerant of male high spiritedness, and that’s what I mean by the war against boys.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you say, we should have stronger moral codes, but not pushing them toward softer values. And you say we should have stronger moral --

MR. KIMMEL: And open up the range of human emotion, and human experiences to boys, as feminism has been trying to do for girls for the past 30 years.

MS. BAILEY: And for boys.

MR. KIMMEL: And also there is certainly not -- I mean, it seems to be so evident that it’s not an opposition of girls to boys. The place where we disagree is not the observation about boys, the place where we disagree is that Christine’s book is not about boys, it’s about feminism. It’s about how feminism has distracted us, diverted us, whether willingly or not. And that’s where we disagree. I believe feminism is the one movement that says, not only we believe that boys can do better, and we demand that boys do better. And I think that’s its message.

MR. WATTENBERG: The message is, we’re out of time. Thank you very much, Michael Kimmel, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Susan Bailey.

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