Christina Hoff Sommers: helping boys succeed in school

Christina Hoff Sommers
Christina Hoff Sommers

An article from the leftist Time magazine by feminist Christina Hoff Sommers.


Being a boy can be a serious liability in today’s classroom. As a group, boys are noisy, rowdy and hard to manage. Many are messy, disorganized and won’t sit still. Young male rambunctiousness, according to a recent study, leads teachers to underestimate their intellectual and academic abilities. “Girl behavior is the gold standard in schools,” says psychologist Michael Thompson. “Boys are treated like defective girls.”

These “defective girls” are not faring well academically. Compared with girls, boys earn lower grades, win fewer honors and are less likely to go to college. One education expert has quipped that if current trends continue, the last male will graduate from college in 2068. In today’s knowledge-based economy, success in the classroom has never been more crucial to a young person’s life prospects. Women are adapting; men are not.

Some may say, “Too bad for the boys.” The ability to regulate one’s impulses, sit still and pay attention are building blocks of success in school and in life. As one critic told me, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy or unfocused workers. That is absurd: unproductive workers are adults — not 5- and 6-year-old children who depend on us to learn how to become adults. If boys are restive and unfocused, we must look for ways to help them do better.

She introduces three ideas to fix the problem, and here’s the third one:

In his delightful Boy Writers: Reclaiming their Voices, celebrated author and writing instructor Ralph Fletcher advises teachers to consider their assignments from the point of view of boys. Too many writing teachers, he says, take the “confessional poet” as the classroom ideal. Personal narratives full of emotion and self-disclosure are prized; stories describing video games, skateboard competitions or a monster devouring a city are not.

Peg Tyre’s The Trouble With Boys illustrates the point. She tells the story of a third-grader in Southern Californianamed Justin who loved Star Wars, pirates, wars and weapons. An alarmed teacher summoned his parents to school to discuss a picture the 8-year-old had drawn of a sword fight — which included several decapitated heads. The teacher expressed “concern” about Justin’s “values.” The father, astonished by the teacher’s repugnance for a typical boy drawing, wondered if his son could ever win the approval of someone who had so little sympathy for the child’s imagination.

Teachers have to come to terms with the young male spirit. As Fletcher urges, if we want boys to flourish, we are going to have to encourage their distinctive reading, writing, drawing and even joke-telling propensities. Along with personal “reflection journals,” Fletcher suggests teachers permit fantasy, horror, spoofs, humor, war, conflict and, yes, even lurid sword fights.

If boys are constantly subject to disapproval for their interests and enthusiasms, they are likely to become disengaged and lag further behind. Our schools need to work with, not against, the kinetic imaginations of boys to move them toward becoming educated young men.

There’s a short video to go with the article:

Dr. Sommers participated in a recent debate where she argued in favor of allowing all-male schools against a radical feminist. That page has audio and a transcript as well.

My thoughts

I do think that women need to realize that boys have to be encouraged to do the different things that boys do, if we want boys to be engaged. The good things that boys do in society are not free – they need to be encouraged and not dismissed. Playing a wargame or an adventurous boardgame with a boy is good. Firing real guns with a boy is good. Playing adventurous role-playing games with a boy is good. Going to a war museum or on a camping trip with a boy is good. Watching patriotic war movies or adventurous movies with a boy is good. Reading military history and military biographies is good. Reading classical adventure novels with a boy is good. Listening to adventurous music with a boy is good. Even watching the news with a boy is good.

Nothing is free. We have to create the boys we want, and encourage them to be aggressive, active and righteous.

One thought on “Christina Hoff Sommers: helping boys succeed in school”

  1. Not much I can add to this post, as I am in complete agreement on every point. It is interesting (and disturbing) to see teachers so offended by good old-fashioned imagination , and as a result, tamping it down. I’m glad ‘Justin’s’ father was at least keyed in enough to realize in what direction things were going.

    This is perhaps something I’ve posted here before, but John C. Wright has a post about good children’s books with many suggestions from readers:

    Well-written history books should be appealing to kids of both sexes, really, though boys especially would probably like those about warriors, leaders, and inventors. My dad and grandfathers blessed me very early on by encouraging and engaging my interest in history and its actors, something I’ve retained to this very day and eagerly plan to pass on to my little nephew!

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