Why Johnny Can’t Learn

October 01, 2000 6 min read

THE WAR AGAINST BOYS: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, by Christina Hoff Sommers. (Simon and Schuster, 256 pp., $25.) Certainties in the world of education have short lives. Just a few years ago, wildly popular books with titles like Reviving Ophelia and Failing at Fairness pronounced that girls were drowning, emotionally and intellectually, in the nation’s public schools. They were tormented by boys and not called on in class, and by early adolescence, many of them, one prominent feminist scholar wrote, were losing their “voices.” So obviously favored were boys by the patriarchal society and the teachers who served it that some educators called for the creation of single-sex schools, where girls, free of boys at last, could build their self-esteem and finally learn some math and science.

Now, amazingly enough, revisionists like Sommers are telling us that boys are the ones in trouble, that they need schools of their own. Girls, Sommers claims, are hardly drowning. They’re riding a wave, taking AP courses and entering colleges in record numbers, while more and more boys flounder both socially and academically.

Sommers, a W.H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the controversial author of Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Betrayed Women, is not the only person lamenting the downfall of boys. Since the Columbine massacre, many pundits and psychologists have rediscovered the male propensity for misogyny, violence, and restlessness. But Sommers differs from others in that she believes the problem has little to do with boys and a lot to do with the way masculinity has been transformed into a kind of disease. Feminists, she argues, have put boys on the defensive by insisting that they change their male ways and become more like girls.

This would be an interesting argument if Sommers didn’t dramatically overstate it. As she sees it, feminists long ago won the education gender wars. What boys thrive on in school, she asserts, is a structured environment, healthy competition, and the direct teaching of values. Instead, they get freedom, cooperative learning, and values clarification, all of which, she suggests, work well for girls but not for boys, who are looking for a firm hand to guide them. As proof of discrimination against boys, Sommers supplies a number of anecdotes. We read about school assemblies that openly celebrate girls and chastise boys, boys who get suspended for uttering a few inappropriate words, and a 6th grade teacher who requires boys to act out the roles of heroic women.

At the root of Sommers’ argument is her belief that radical feminist academics have had a profound influence on American schools. But this seems unlikely. Even if the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and Wellesley College are, as she claims, “notably active on this front of the undeclared war against boys,” it’s a stretch to think that many teachers pay attention to the work of distant professors, particularly those talking about rescuing boys from masculinity.

Sommers has been praised for her good reporting in the past, but in The War Against Boys she relies too heavily on anecdote, the very thing she accuses the other camp of doing. She rightly questions the oft-quoted “finding” from the early 1990s that boys speak up in class eight times more often than girls. And she criticizes Harvard scholar Carol Gilligan, who started the gender controversy in the ‘80s, for using a limited number of interviews as “evidence” for her conclusions. Yet Sommers does not hesitate to proclaim, without any objective evidence, that “more and more schoolboys inhabit a milieu of disapproval.”

Certainly, we need to pay more attention to the social and learning needs of boys. But to declare that our schools are waging a war on the masculine sex? That sounds like someone trying to pump up her thesis to sell a few books.

TEACHING AS A PERFORMING ART, by Seymour Sarason. (Teachers College Press, 192 pp., $21.95.) The idea that teachers should be performers has fallen out of favor in recent years. It brings to mind showboats, teachers who put themselves, rather than their students, at the center of classroom life; be “a sage on the side” is the motto of many reformers. But Sarason, author of such notable books as The Predictable Failure of School Reform and Letter to a Serious Education President, argues in this provocative volume that classroom teaching “demands that the teacher perform for the audience,” so as to inspire students and connect them to the subject at hand.

Sarason draws an extended analogy between the work of performing artists and that of teachers. Just as actors carefully consider the nature of their audiences in determining how they should interpret their roles, so must teachers consider the needs and wants of their students. Teachers who put on the same performance week after week, year after year, presenting the curriculum in a highly routinized manner, burn out and alienate students. Performances must be tailored to students, whose needs can vary from one day to the next. And both teacher and student must, at least some of the time, be “moved” by the performance, whatever form it takes.

Sarason laments the fact that teachers rarely receive training for their roles as performers. Indeed, their ability to perform is almost never considered by potential employers, who rely primarily on transcripts, recommendations, and interviews. Anyone who’s ever been put to sleep by a mediocre teacher who presents material without performing—that is, without bringing the material to life—will probably agree with Sarason’s suggestion that teachers, like performers, should have to audition for the job.

THE CHILD AND THE MACHINE: How Computers Put Our Children’s Education at Risk, by Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement. (Robins Lane Press, 256 pp., $16.) Since the term “computer literacy” was coined in 1972 at the National Science Foundation, schools have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on computer hardware and software, often cutting other valuable education offerings in the process. But as Armstrong and Casement point out here, computer literacy, whatever the term may mean, is of little use to students who lack basic academic and thinking skills. The authors reinforce this point by taking us into classrooms where bewildered students, attempting to conduct research online, visit one Web site after the next, unable to absorb and synthesize the information they find.

Armstrong and Casement also focus on the health risks associated with frequent computer use. Many kids who spend hours a day on the computer suffer from eyestrain, headaches, and wrist and elbow pain, they point out. None of this is to suggest that the authors believe children should not have access to computers, only that their use should be limited and not threaten the existence of other resources. A record $6.5 billion was spent on education technology for the 1998-99 school year, and the authors cite cases of one school turning its art room into a computer laboratory and another eliminating its music program to hire a technology coordinator.

To allot so many dollars to technology of questionable efficacy, the authors argue, is to jeopardize the growth of children who need art, music, and recess more than high-powered machines.

—David Ruenzel