Too broad a brush

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. According to WORLD Magazine Editor-in-Chief she is “best known for her notable–and controversial–books about feminism and American culture.” The December 28, 2013 issue of WORLD includes excerpts of Olasky’s interview with Sommers on the topic of education and, specifically, the impact of today’s classrooms on the academic performance of boys.

Sommers makes a few debatable assertions in the interview, including the statement that boys are building “critical social skills” with their running around and mock fighting accompanied by sound effects. Now I do not have a problem with boys playing army or cops and robbers or superheroes or whatever else they may play; I did plenty of that as a youngster and my son does plenty of it now. Try as you might, there simply is an innate tendency among boys to enjoy shooting things, even in play! I am not quite sure that is a critical social skill, though.

What really bugs me about Sommers’ assertion though is that she goes on to suggest that schools have, in some instances, gone way overboard in suspending or otherwise disciplining boys for such activities, even, sometimes, drawings of such activities. I would tend to agree with her there. But then she states, “If the earliest experience a little boy has is disapproval, we threaten his social development and make him unhappy with school. This may be in part an explanation of why boys are so far behind in reading and writing.” To that, I would say, baloney! This sounds far too much like the position of those who advocate letting children do whatever they want and argue that the self esteem of young children is as fragile as an egg shell. “We must not discipline them!” these folks tell us. “If we tell them they are wrong, we will destroy them. An entire life of trauma and antisocial behavior will result!” Far from threatening his social development, parents and teachers alike will go a long way in helping to appropriately shape his social development in a healthy way when they do indeed express disapproval when appropriate. I am not suggesting that should be every time boys run around or pretend to be shooting each other, mind you, but Sommers is using much too broad a brush in her approach.

Sommers goes on to say that schools would be much different than they are today if teachers recognized these differences between boys and girls and were prepared to handle them differently. Specifically, she says, “teachers would learn in teachers’ colleges what they’re not learning today, that girls are readier for school.” I do not agree with this assertion, either. Sommers suggests that five-year-old girls are more mature than five-year-old boys and it is very difficult for a young boy to sit still. Difficult? Maybe. Impossible? Not even close. The problem is not in the gender of the child, in most instances, though, but in the parenting that child has received. Parents who teach their children how to behave–which includes how to sit still when necessary, to listen, to–dare I say it–obey, will have children, whether boys or girls, who are ready for school. And the fact that boys are “so far behind in reading and writing,” I might add, has very little to do with boys being told to stop running around. It, again, has far more to do with whether or not a love for and habit of reading is taught and modeled by the child’s parents. I have seen plenty of boys who love to read and plenty of girls who do not.

Sommers suggests that if teachers were aware of these gender differences and took them into consideration in their classrooms the result would be, “Lots of recess. Different classroom settings, not just one style that is sedentary, competition-free and risk-averse.” I would agree that different classroom styles are appropriate for any age group, and I am all for healthy competition and risk. Let’s not get too carried away with the “lots of recess” thing, though. Recess is indeed important, especially for younger children and perhaps most especially for boys, but when taken too far “lots of recess” looks a lot more like daycare than school.

Toward the end of the interview Sommers begins talking about the fact that more women than men go to college and that graduate degrees are awarded almost 2-to-1 to females. She uses that to support her assertion that high schools should be offering career and technical training course options, that high schools “should be partly career training that offers pathways into good jobs.” She will get no qualm from me there, either, but I do not see the correlation between boys running around as young children and the need for career and technical education courses in high school. First, it suggests that boys are incapable of pursuing more academic paths of study and careers, and that is simply false. Second, it suggests that the little boys who cannot sit still in kindergarten never grow out of that and therefore need a high school version of “lots of recess.” That’s false, too. The fact that high schools need to offer as diverse a selection of courses as possible, including traditional academic courses as well as fine arts, industrial arts, agriculture, home economics and more has far more to do with offering a well-rounded education and the opportunity for students to pursue areas of interest and skill (not to mention the opportunity to be exposed to new areas and skills) than it does with innate gender differences.

Sommers makes some good and points, but I am afraid too many people will swallow her whole approach because of the legitimately good points she makes. Be careful that you do not, though, because there are justifiable and legitimate reasons to tell little boys “no.”

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