17 July 2000

Will boys be boys?

Society is turning against boys when what they need is help

By John Leo

In my first daughter's prekindergarten 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.

Boys are good. "It's a bad time to be a boy in America," Christina
Hoff 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

Sommers'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 though a "Women's Assembly,"
in which women are celebrated and men are blamed. Boys in one San
Francisco class are regularly put through feminist paces-made to
enjoy quilting and forced to listen as girls vent their anger at

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

The school failure of so many boys, magnified and fanned by anti-male
hostility, is a severe social problem. Women 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