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The War Against Boys - Christina Sommers

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Hardcover: 320 pages / Publisher: Simon & Schuster / Published: 24 July 2000

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      05.04.2013 16:12
      Very helpful



      Could have been so much better.

      I bought this book with high hopes after listening to a few of the authors you tube videos. I seemed to agree with everything she was saying - boys are different from girls - and whats more - they were entertaining. She struck me as passionate, but educated and with a sense of humour - all factors which would bode well for a good book. Perhaps the author has grown since this book was written 13 years ago. The blurb for this book on Amazon says "She analyzes the work of the leading academic experts, Carol Gilligan and William Pollack, and finds it lacking in scientific rigor. There is no girl crisis, says Sommers. Girls are outperforming boys academically, and girls' self-esteem is no different from boys'." I believe young men and boys are facing a crisis, in education and in their personal lives as we place so many conflicting demands on them. I was looking forward to reading a well thought out, scientific book discussing the very real challenges facing boys today, and hopefully with a bit of humour as well.

      The premise of this book is meant to be how boys are discriminated against in education and in life. The title does state "How a misguided feminist agenda is harming our young men" , so I should have been warned - but I was expecting criticism of some aspects of feminism - not demonisation of an entire movement or individuals who supported it. After all - the author is a woman. I do believe that a feminist backlash, has in some cases amounted to declaring war on men and boys. I am not bashing the feminist movement ( although this author will quite soundly). I feel they have made important gains in many areas - but in other areas I feel that we have lost ground - from my own perspective - we've lost more than we've gained, but I recognise that as a minority view. Still , I should have represented the proverbial quire to this author's sermon, and yet I found myself disliking the venom with which feminists were treated in this book.

      The first chapter was dry and dull, but to be fair, a large number of non fiction books take awhile to get going. I didn't have a problem with this, a few statistics were presented to illustrate the authors conclusion that it is boys - not girls who need our help. But even from the early stages of the book, I was getting annoyed with the either or or scenario - can't we help boys and girls? I agree completely that boys are at higher risk academically - but girls have other risk factors as well - we need an education system - and a world that treats all of our children fairly. I also sensed a very strong animosity towards advocates of girls education that I did not find necessary.

      The next chapters focused on gender identity, insisting that this is biologically, rather than culturally driven. For the most part, I agree with the author here, although the information she gave was purely anecdotal. I know of several scientific studies that would have supported her conclusions, but none are given. I feel that we do often ignore boys behaviour and expect them to adapt in the same was a girl would - and in fact girls adapt better, but many of the improvements other boys advocates are pushing for would help girls too - none of this merits any space here. I believe attempts to make boys behave more like girls are misguided at the very best, and the examples she cites of American schools doing things like forcing boys to in dress up as women, play with dolls and give speeches as "oppressed women" are horrifying. I do believe these things happened - but I like to think these must have been rare and extreme cases. Her stories of little boys completely brow beaten by radical feminist teachers are very upsetting, if this is considered the norm in some American schools it is deeply troubling, but again, would hope these are isolated events, not part of an out an attack on male children. I can not see any of these things happening in Britain - much less Northern Ireland - so perhaps this book is more relevant to those across the water. But even in America, I can not help but wonder if this is a few extreme cases blown out of proportion. Most feminists go not hate all males and I can not see very many really wanting to mistreat little boys - not can I understand how parents and school boards would allow it.

      Even in the early chapters I was growing fed up with the term "girl partisans", and the authors dislike for those supporting the girls movement in education. In particular, a woman named Carol Gilligan is singled out and made to look a bit like a nut case, I can not tell if a few odd statements have been taken out of context or the woman really is such an extremist, as I know very little about her. I would note though that much of the same criticism the author levels against Gilligan, applies to her own work as well. She may condemn the work of others as lacking in scientific rigor, but her own work was equally lacking. She lambasted Gilligan's work for relying on anecdote rather than scientific fact, but this was very much my impression of Sommers as well. Other women in for the authors ire include Gloria Steinem and Gloria Allred, as well as feminists in general. I was beginning to see a very conservative viewpoint that might not be able to fairly address all sides of the issue. There are two full chapters devoted to polemic against Gilligan, but she appears long before this in the book. These chapters are called "Carol Gilligan and the Incredible Shrinking Girl" and "Gilligan's Island". It came across as a personal grudge.

      By the I the time I reached page 145 I was growing bored with railing against the "girl partisans". At last I reached "Save the Males" ( and couldn't help thinking about whales). I hoped to read some positive information on boys. But instead, the first order of business was a diatribe against another author and psychologist, Dr William Pollack. He feels that a great many boys are suffering in silence, feeling loneliness, abandonment, etc.. I agree with him. He became quite popular on the talk show circuit after the Columbine incident and Sommers feels that he believes all boys are capable of this violence - perhaps he does, again I don't know enough about the man. It seems that he raised her ire most completely by citing feelings of maternal abandonment as an issue with many boys. Sommers points out that it is boys without fathers, not boys with out mothers who get in trouble with the law . I believe this is true, and agree with 100% on the benefits of having a father or at least a father figure. But I've also worked with boys without mothers. There are not nearly as many of them, but nothing will rip your heart out quite as quickly as seeing the pain these boys suffer. Boys need fathers and mothers - and early separation from mothers does do more harm to boys. I'd be happy enough if she disagreed with Pollack - but the author seems to take everything far too personally and there is no ability to look at things from another perspective.

      At last we came to "Why Johnny Can't like read and write". Gilligan then launches into a full scale praise of the UK and how we have nearly beaten this problem by returning to strict headmasters with a strong emphasis on discipline, phonics and a traditional curriculum. All that stiff upper lip and no mollycoddling business. I don't know where she got her ideas - schools in Northern Ireland are only now turning to phonics - they did not use phonics 12 years ago nor have many schools returned to traditional Victorian models. But as to the great success of Britain in defeating illiteracy - it failed. A child is now twice as likely to grow up illiterate in Britain as in America where progressive movements, although not without faults, are tipping the scales the literacy rate is rising - but in all fairness, it's a lot easier to call the results of the last 12 years looking backwards than it might have been looking forward. Britain did lead the way in creating school texts aimed at boys, and offering boys a wide variety of reading materials - but again - this isn't covered. It seems there wasn't room for many serious subjects after page after page after page of attacks on people with different viewpoints.

      Gilligan uses one anecdote as proof that tough discipline works. I really enjoyed that wee snip. It tells about a teacher who had a group of unruly boys she thought were learning disabled. She sneaks into the headmasters office and has a peek at their IQ's . Startled to find numbers between 120 and 145, she now realises she is teaching geniuses and doesn't put up with any more nonsense, instead giving them very challenging material, and just expecting them to succeed. At the end of the year, the boys are doing brilliantly and test scores have sky rocketed. She confesses the IQ thing to the Principal - and turns out the numbers were not IQ's but locker numbers. Gilligan cites this as proof that discipline is all that is needed. I loved the story - but came to a different conclusion. I would cite this as proof that our expectations of a child can shape the results. This is the only really positive thing i cam across in the book. A case where boys lives were changed by positive action - I just disagree with the author on which action caused the change, and again I could cite some excellent peer reviewed research to support my beliefs.

      I was really disappointed in this chapter though. I thought at last we come to the fact the issue of the over medication of boys. This was never mentioned. Nor was the overuse of labels, such as ADHD, learning disabled etc... or even in real in depth discussion of the need for different types of reading material for boys, different learning styles etc.. There was some discussion of the merits of single sex schools though, again citing the UK as the great example of the success of this. Personally, I do not feel knowledgeable enough on the subject to comment, but I can see some advantages.

      However, I did agree very strongly with the author a great many issues. I agree with her that the artificial inflation of ego is an issue. Telling a child "no" will not crush their self esteem, and many children, especially those who commit horrible acts do have an inflated sense of self worth. The author mentions the elimination of recess in some American schools, and I fully support her stance that this is harmful to boys. I think it is harmful to girls as well, but I can see where it would be more harmful to boys. I agree with her that competition can be a good thing, and boys do need more physical activity in schools. Most of all - I liked the suggestion of boys at risk- especially those without fathers, being placed in classes with very good male teachers. I agree completely that attempts to make boys behave contrary to their biology, or act like girls are wrong. To demean a boy's gender is child abuse. I have to give Sommers some credit for raising the issue of discrimination against boys and men. It does happen and discrimination is always wrong. Overall, I'd have to say I agreed with what the author was saying at least 50% of the time, but I wouldn't be able to cite her opinions if I were writing a piece on boys education, because there really isn't any scientific evidence to support them. It remains just opinion.

      I can't say the book was well written, and I did feel the author launched into personal attacks on her adversaries far too often, but she did raise a few good points. I commend her courage in raising several issues of fairness in regards to programmes for girls where equal programmes for boys were not allowed as discriminatory. If the practices she recounts are anything more than a few anecdotes of the very worst of American schools behaviour toward boys - then this book does need to be read by American parents. But it wasn't really relevant to me. Anything on Great Britain is seen through rose coloured glasses and turned out to be very inaccurate.

      But it was towards the end that the author completely lost me. In the first case I was left a bit puzzled by one statement against "Goddess worshipping multiracial women" who ran a Montessori centre - what did multiracial have to do with anything? For that matter - what did the women's religious beliefs have to do with how well they could educate a child? This sent up a few alarm bells. The next was casting blame for the Columbine massacres on the teachers. The author is full of blame for modern teachers for failing to instill moral values in children. She states that if the teachers has "seen it as their routine duty to civilise the students in their care, they would never have overlooked the bizarre antisocial behaviour of Klebold and Harris". She mentions the fact that the boys wore t-shirts to school with swastikas and produced violent videos ( not during school hours). She further goes on to state : "Of course parents bear responsibility for their children's moral education. But the schools set the tone and the standard and most parents take their cues from the schools". According to the author, the schools have "abdicated their duty to morally edify the children in their care".

      I found the attitude to the roll of schools offensive. What power did the teachers have over what the children wore to school or did after school? The parents however obviously had some problems. These kids didn't work - where did they get money to buy swastika T-shirts? Why did the parents allow this? Where did they get the money to buy the guns? Why weren't the parents more involved when the boys were obviously having problems - and why would they allow them to wear shirts like that? I know at least one teacher did raise concerns before the massacre, but as the boys had not committed a crime yet - she was powerless to act. I think the author needed to do a bit more research before blaming anyone - after all doesn't good science require that you have your facts straight? In fairness, I will point out that the author very rightly cited the heroism of some boys on the fateful day at Columbine. I would like to point out that one of the teachers died saving pupils as well. His name was Dave Sanders. He obviously took his duty to these children quite seriously, and I can't imagine sitting in the comfort of my home criticising the man.

      Beyond blaming the teachers, which I found nasty, I'm sure some of those teachers have suffered enough, the whole idea of the school having the primary responsibility for imparting moral values offended me. True schools can play a role, a good teacher can literally be a life saver for a child with no guidance at home. But the primary responsibility for teaching moral values rests with parents, not schools. I sensed an over riding demand to return to the conservative values that many feel made America great, and to indoctrinate children in the authors own personal moral standards.

      Sadly I've read this book cover to cover and learned nothing of use to me. If I needed an expert opinion to validate my own beliefs, I suppose I could turn to this book from time to time, but and expert opinion without objective data doesn't mean much to me. I was really offended by the attack on teachers and schools over the Columbine tragedy, and the wee bit about multiracial goddess worshipers. The venom of this book put me off, but I still believe she has raised a few valid issues. I just tend to take bigotry and hatred fairly badly. However, one single saving grace has earned this book a very reluctant second star from me. Male bashing has become quite popular - and there are some men who deserve it - but not all men and certainly not all boys. Most especially as mothers, we need to be careful that we don't slag men off too much - after all our sons are going to become men. I think the author has really made a very good point that we need to watch our attitude towards men, especially if we happen to be the mothers of sons. And if we do have any issues with adult men, as mothers we need to be very sure we do not pass these on to our sons. The last thing we want a young boy to think is that men are bad. Men can be bad - they can be right ________s. But they can also be wonderful, self sacrificing, brave, kind, creative, helpful, nurturing and loving. True most serial killers are men - so are most of the great inventors, leaders , and heroes.

      This book is does not appear to be in print. You can buy a used copy from Amazon for £4.54. I recently found one for £3.00 on ebay. Most likely you will need to order through amazon Marketplace if you are interested, and await delivery from America. My personal recommendation though is to give it a miss. You can find a lot more information on the Internet and if you are looking for a good book about raising or educating boys I'd recommend Steve Biddulph's "Raising Boys".


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