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In world of crises, boys are at the head of the class

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May 23, 2008

Declaring and debunking crises has become a subsidiary industry of the gender wars.


The latest to roll off the D&D assembly line is a study from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that purports to debunk the idea of a “boys crisis,” which followed closely on the heels of a purported “girls crisis.” Boys are doing just fine, say the AAUW authors, who also insist that the boy crisis was a fabrication of people who are uncomfortable with the progress of girls and women. The authors also assert that girls’ development hasn’t come at the expense of boys, as some allegedly claim.


These conclusions are somewhat baffling given that they are (1) untrue—boys are not fine, as abundant evidence makes clear; (2) they refute what has never been claimed. What is true is that when attention rightly focused on girls’ special needs—thanks in part to the 1992 AAUW report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls”—boys were, wrongly, shuttled to the back burner.


And who are these people who don’t want girls to succeed? Surely not the parents of boys who hope their sons someday will find suitable mates—someone smart, interesting, creative, accomplished, and, preferably, not seething with gender rage.


The AAUW report does present some compelling findings indicating that the real education crisis is tied more to race and family income than to gender. That is, both boys and girls in certain groups (African-American and Hispanic) and children from low-income homes are doing almost equally poorly.


But those findings don’t justify the conclusion that boys aren’t in trouble. According to Judith Kleinfeld, psychology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and director of The Boys Project (www.boysproject.net), illiteracy rates among high school boys are higher than among girls; the reading gap for boys is larger at all ages and increases with age; boys receive lower marks from grade school through college.


Boys excel, meanwhile, at drug and alcohol abuse, addiction to computer games, delinquency, emotional disturbances, suicide, conduct disorders and a variety of other psychiatric disorders.


By trumpeting advances of both sexes while ignoring problems characteristic of boys, the AAUW authors’ purpose seems clear—to divert attention from the “boy problem” lest any more attention be siphoned from programs built around the alleged girl crisis.


Much can be inferred from the defensive tone of the study and from the people the authors chose to attack. One target was Christina Hoff Sommers, the cool-headed philosopher and American Enterprise Institute scholar who wrote “The War Against Boys,” which the AAUW authors describe as “incendiary.”


The report also mentions former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who was derided for suggesting innate differences between men and women that might partly explain why fewer women than men excel in science and math.


He was essentially run out of town for those “incorrect” thoughts. Summers discovered that “too many female scholars hold the ‘right’ degrees … to allow a public reference to male superiority in any field to stand unchallenged,” wrote AAUW President Barbara O’Connor.


Of course, Summers’ faux pas (which is not intended as a slight toward faux mas) occurred before yet another study, released earlier this month, suggested that one important explanation for the math/science gender gap is that some highly qualified women simply prefer other jobs. Reasons vary for those preferences—possibly including sexism but not excluding innate differences. Data show, for instance, that women prefer to work with organic or living things while men prefer inorganic matter.


Whom do we sue?


While the AAUW study provides some encouraging statistics that show the gender gap narrowing, other important aspects of learning and living are essential to understanding what ails boys today. And, let’s be clear, recognizing that males are in trouble does not mean that girls aren’t also having their own problems.


Boys and girls are simply different, a fact easily observed by those treading terra firma. They have different learning styles and face different challenges. Which is why Kleinfeld says the AAUW study is not only “misleading” and “self-serving” but it poses the wrong questions.


The relevant question is: “Are there gender-specific differences that are characteristic of boys and are there gender-specific differences that are characteristic of girls? The answer is yes.” The challenge is to identify what they are and develop strategies to deal with them, not pretend that they don’t exist.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com. She is also the author of “Save the Males,” to be published in June by Random House.

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