The debate rages on!

Readers respond to "Lost Boys" and "One for the Lads," by Amy Benfer.

By Salon Staff
Published February 8, 2002 8:03PM (EST)

Read "Lost Boys" and "One for the Lads"

I believe things are getting better in regards to bridging the gender gap in education. I do not believe that the problem is gone. I am a female student in a prominent American engineering school. I love science. I love engineering. I love computers. I am in an extreme minority. Seventy-two of my classmates and I graduated from high school at the height of the Spice Girl movement. I was the only girl in my graduating class to take Advanced Placement classes in science. There were plenty of girls in my A.P. English class. There were plenty of girls going to good colleges after graduation. There were no girls going to study engineering. It's lonely out here.

I hate being the only woman on the bus. I hate it when all the other women in the cafeteria are serving food. I hate working with men who've given up on finding women who can understand them. I hate it that I've taken seven computer science classes, but never been taught by a woman. I hate when people assume that I can get away with anything here, just because of my gender. I hate it that so many of my female peers didn't even want to try to make it here. And I hate hearing people imply that fourth-grade skills tests translate to women being completely integrated into schools like mine.

-- Mary Walker

Some of us boys do like to read, believe it or not, something other than Tom Clancy, though admittedly my great enthusiasm for writers like Hunter Thompson probably is based in the same neuro-chemistry. I read "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" when I was 15, and it blew away anything I'd read in a high school curriculum until my advanced senior lit class plowed through "King Lear" and other supposedly stale stuff with some freeing definitions of interpretation. It depends on the teacher, really, not so much the material. A good teacher can get a guy jock to like Eudora Welty if she tries. I've read some terrific nonfiction and historical fiction, but novels are still what get me really excited about reading.

-- Keir Dubois

I think the conclusion of both of the articles on the education of boys vs. girls is obvious. Pay attention to children, encourage them often, reduce class sizes and involve parents in the learning process. It works for either gender.

I went to an all-girl's high school, and it was made perfectly clear to us that, as women, we would have to work extra hard to get ahead. So we did. At our brother school, the administration had no such agenda. They let the boys run wild and do whatever they wanted, because it was understood that the name of the school and its network of alumni would ensure the future success of the graduates.

It really does not take a genius to figure this out. When boys and men start feeling less entitled, they'll figure out that they actually have to work hard in order to succeed in life. Women and girls have been working under this assumption for years.

-- C. Magaro

The critics have it right about not making boys read female-centered literature. I'm not going to be reading Amy Tan anytime soon, and boys shouldn't be forced to either. In junior or senior high school, they should read "The Outsiders," "Red Badge of Courage," "The Hobbit," "Call of the Wild," "Animal Farm," Ambrose Bierce's short stories, Poe's short stories, "Black Boy," "White Fang," "Huckleberry Finn," "Roughing It," "Tales of the Mississippi," any number of animal stories, war stories, nonfictions about history, airplanes, science fiction and more recent books, like Harry Potter (though it might appeal only to more intellectual boys).

-- Greg Gibbs

So let me get this straight: Because girls are performing equally to and sometimes better than boys, there is a boys' education crisis? Geez, I wonder what kind of crisis will occur when women start making as much money as men.

Perhaps these statistics demonstrate that the education system was indeed sexist. Now, if the boys' rights people can accept the fact that perhaps girls can perform equally as well as boys, we can dedicate our energies to eradicating similar treatment based upon race and lower socioeconomic class.

-- Lemise Rory

There are other factors contributing to the underperformance of boys that are seldom addressed. One is that mothers know that if their daughters are ever to have a chance at being self-supporting, they are going to have to go to college. Otherwise, they're going to have to muddle through the pink ghetto and hope a good man will support them (yeah, right ... ). In this sense, education has become more crucial for survival for women than men.

On the other hand, boys can do quite well economically without setting foot on a college campus. In the economic expansion of the '90s, many high school boys with good computer or trade skills (which are still boy-heavy fields, another fact not brought out) could make very good money while never collecting another degree. The end result is that many working-class/lower-middle-class girls are attending community college, a place their brothers would never consider.

Another factor is cultural and is totally antithetical to feminism. In our "boys behaving badly" youth culture, there is no value placed in intellectual accomplishment for boys. In fact, it is something to be embarrassed about. "Girl empowerment" has not changed this one way or another.

And I don't understand the emphasis on making schools more boy-friendly. The schools of long ago, in which boys apparently excelled, were heavy with female teachers, strict discipline, "sitting still," no hands-on experiences, "classics" rather than "action heroes" in English class, and so on. This would seem to suggest that the schools or curriculum is not so much to blame as broader cultural reasons.

-- Jan Kurth

We've had a similar situation in the U.K. for the past few years, every time another academic scorecard comes up: girls outperforming boys. What a disaster. How terrible.

No one seems to consider that perhaps boys, who are performing as well as they were 20 years ago, are simply performing as well as they can, and now so are girls.

What's the concern about that? Boys are receiving the same support and approval they always were. Girls are proving what they can do when not routinely denigrated and ignored by their teachers.

I don't recall this kind of public fuss when girls were doing just that little bit worse than boys. Could it be that there's still this feeling some people have, deep down inside, that boys ought to do better than girls, that anything else must be a crime against nature?

-- Jane Carnall

I was amused by Amy Benfer's interesting Salon piece, "Lost Boys." I've always fit the male stereotype regarding reading. My mother and older sister seemed almost desperate to inspire me to read for pleasure when I was in elementary school. Their efforts "cracked me up," as I'd say back then, but I saw no cause for concern since I did fine in school.

My mother tried her best to entice me with exciting fiction. My bookshelves were replete with hardcover adventure classics, like Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." I liked the covers, but I didn't read them, not one.

In sixth grade I suddenly started reading enthusiastically on my own after my friend and I undertook catching live snakes. To allay my mother's fear of a poisonous viper latching onto my leg, I read every nonfiction snake book in our branch library and drowned her in herpetological facts. I failed to persuade her to touch a snake but succeeded in gaining approval for my expeditions.

In high school, nonfiction continued to inspire my reading as my tastes changed to history and politics. My grandma sent me books about WWII battles and CIA dirty tricks. The great dramas of life dwarf fiction, and I couldn't help but picture struggles, victories and defeats as I read them. Including nonfiction as a choice for young readers in English classes would spark a fire in many uninterested boys and probably some girls, too.

-- John Gordon

The problem with education is not, nor has it ever been, because of a gender gap. It all boils down to money, and education not receiving enough of it. Students do not receive enough individual attention. Teachers are not paid enough to care enough to determine what works for each student.

But, beyond all of that, the risk that "boy empowerment" presents is that (much like its uncle the "men's movement") it trivializes strides made for girls, simply because everyone, men and women alike, got uncomfortable with the changing scene.

When feminism was finally in a position to reap the rewards of years of hard work, as women ascended to power positions, feminine fashion, the men's movement and "family values" surged in popularity. Women might have been able to be doctors, lawyers, CEOs -- but suddenly that wasn't what mattered anymore.

The boy empowerment movement is really no different. We fear girls are getting too smart? That boys can't keep up with them? Let's emphasize action, adventure, rugged masculinity, and return to stereotypes of girls sitting politely at writing desks while boys go out and hunt, forage and kill.

How sad that a boy gets bored with "Joy Luck Club." But is it sexist to make him read such a femme novel, or is it sexist to call it one and not ask him to look for its literary worth?

It seems a long way off, but I look forward to the day when the most valuable lessons of the gender wars are actually learned -- that categorizing people by gender is an inexact science, based on blanket generalizations that are often mistaken and don't allow for the nuances of individual personality and development.

How exciting it will be when students are treated ... like students.

One more thing: It might be stated in Salon's defense that this article was not reactionary opinion but was a piece of reporting. But when one acknowledges that the article leans in favor of finding solutions to make boys happy, the article stands in that moment against girls. This is furthered by Salon's apparent assumption that more women than men will read the article. Evidenced by the fact that the page's advertisements are from Weight Watchers.

Ladies, we are apparently getting too smart and too comfortable in our own skins. Something must be done.

-- Temple Lentz

There is irony in this whole situation, despite our desire to create equality among genders. We still fall into the basic belief that girls require support and encouragement and boys must tough it out and go it alone. Support and hand-hold someone too much (girls) and see them lose confidence when they must go it alone. Leave them alone to figure it out themselves (boys) and they become isolated and withdrawn. Seems we are doing nothing but the same thing we've always done.

-- Christopher Vuchetich

When boys outperform girls, it's a gender gap, and when girls outperform boys, it's a "reverse" gender gap? For shame!

-- Trevor Green

I have a son and two daughters, all of whom have participated in advanced-level courses in our local high school. On the basis of personally witnessing classroom interactions, I believe that you are missing a key point in your discussion, and it is simply this: Teenage boys are less mature, both physically and psychologically, than teenage girls, and this gap is growing.

I had occasion to travel with my daughter and her advanced-level American history class to the state capital for a "We the People" competition. The boys were, on average, about two years less mature in their behavior and in their reasoning ability when compared with their female classmates. It is no wonder that they are having increasing difficulty competing and that their reading skills are, on average, two years behind the girls.

My daughters call boys "slackers." I don't think they are. I think they are simply not on the same playing field.

-- Harry Schroeder

While Amy Benfer's piece on the troubles with boys in the classroom is interesting and provocative, it prominently excludes the voices of two important groups -- boys and teachers. With all due respect to Christina Hoff Sommers and Carol Gilligan, allowing these two "theorists" to dominate the discourse on a subject like boys in the classroom is a lot like asking Noam Chomsky and David Horowitz to chat about politics -- most of us can't relate.

The worldview of these individuals is so focused on their niche areas of reverse discrimination and patriarchy that the fact that we live in a big, complicated and always-changing society never even gets brought up. Gilligan sees patriarchy, Hoff Sommers sees reverse discrimination and your readers see zealots with an ax to grind. I bet interviews with five random teachers and boys, coupled with Benfer's excellent rundown of national trends and statistics, would give your readers more insights into the problems of boys in the classroom than 10,000 words from ideologues like Hoff Sommers and Gilligan.

-- Jason Owens

Speaking as a male who was always far above his grade level in reading and writing, who was always below his grade level in math (before "empowerment," by the way), who loved Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë in high school while his male and female friends hated them, I'd say a lot of the arguments in this article are the purest BS.

I realize that anecdotal evidence will never hold up to statistical evidence, but I'd ask these authors to consider the plight of individual children. If I had been taken to a swamp and invited to "muck about" as a young boy, I'd have been cold, wet and miserable. If I'd been forced into same-sex segregated education, I'd have been picked on and suicidal within weeks. Having mostly women teachers didn't fill me with any kind of sense of self-doubt. Indeed, the majority of elementary school teachers since the institution of public schools in this country have been female, which leads to immediate suspicion of this argument!

I think people need to put down their political agendas and start talking to individual kids. I've known plenty of boys who love sitting and reading and plenty of girls who love mucking about in swamps.

-- Jonathan Miller

I've heard rumblings before about boys having greater problems than girls in school, and I agree that it sounds like they're being short-changed. However, I hope that any changes to the current one-size-fits-all program take into account differences between individuals. I'm definitely female (and currently have the morning sickness to prove it), but as a child I'd much rather have spent a morning catching pollywogs and looking through microscopes than doing endless worksheets and writing exercises. While I enjoy Amy Tan, my life would be poorer if I'd never heard of Daniel Pinkwater. Please, offer educational choices beyond sitting at desks reading "girl" books, but offer them to the girls too!

-- Elizabeth Reid

I will never forget attending my first public high school "gifted" program activity in the 10th grade, having recently transferred from a private school. I sat down in a chair on one side of the room, and the other nine students, all male, sat on the opposite side, facing me. That day, they drew their line in the sand. The real war continued throughout the semester, and the next, as I endured name-calling, sexist jokes, and criticisms of my "liberal, feminist" comments. I begged bright female students in my honors classes to take the requisite I.Q. test, so as to join me in the gender struggle in the gifted program. Only one followed through, and though she attended our weekly activities and lectures, I could count the number of times that she participated in conversation over the next few years on one hand.

This lack of female participation was an epidemic at my high school. In my honors English classes, few young women ever raised their hands. Perhaps it was the admittedly classic, but decidedly masculine reading material, such as "The Red Badge of Courage," "Crime and Punishment," "Billy Budd" and "Things Fall Apart." War and violence predominated in our reading lists, with the few female characters merely acting as perfect examples of the Madonna-whore complex, leading their men to failure, ruin and madness.

Yet I did not go to a backwater high school many years ago. In fact, I graduated in 1996, from a small, Caucasian-dominated public school just outside of Philadelphia.

I have seen little evidence of this so-called feminization of our school systems or our society. In fact, the backlash against gender equality has caused a widening of the wage gap in recent years, and the glass ceiling is as solid as ever. Boys will, and have always been, boys.

-- Rebecca Kraut

Thank God, someone is finally paying attention. As a p.c. advocate turned supporter of boys, I can attest personally to the detrimental effects that political correctness has had on boys' self-esteem. My oldest son is bombarded by Power Puff Girls and Girls Rule and "Boys Suck" stickers. If he ever said, "Girls suck," he would be whipped down to the principal's office for deprogramming quicker than the Chinese can rewrite a five-year economic program.

If he gets in a scuffle at school, we have to hound him about protecting himself, because hitting brings suspensions. Gillian can say what she wants, but boys scuffle, and wrestle, and yes, occasionally they fight. It's not the end of the world.

I'm not advocating that children be allowed to pummel one another mercilessly, I'm just asking that some common sense come into play. And that women quit insisting that boys becomes girls.

And lest you think I'm raising a jock, my son is an honor student with no interest in sports. But he is a boy, and he needs to be allowed to be a boy. Send him to the pond to find pollywogs. I'll happily lead the field trip.

-- Martin Davis

It is almost unthinkable that anyone would argue that women (girls, young women) don't need all the support and encouragement they can get in this male-dominated world. The minute it sounds like girls are doing well there is a cry that boys are not being treated equally -- that boys/men need more support.

Well, they need something all right, but whatever it turns out to be, let it also contain lessons about what has happened (to us all) in a world gone wild with misogyny and aggressive male domination. Not just now in 2002 but throughout history. Hey, we are all in this world together. Life lessons and living have got to get past men vs. women and on to supporting humanity; we are all one.

-- Catherine Oller

I was a boy in school in the mid-'70s to early '80s. All my teachers were women and most were feminists. They hated us boys and they made no attempt to treat us fairly or hide their sexism. Of course it was harder for us to learn. We were busy dodging attacks from our own teachers and later from the girls who were inspired by their open hostility to all things male along with the absolute immunity they enjoyed by virtue of being female.

In classes involving opinion rather than fact, such as literature, expressing a truly male opinion could get you an immediate F. So we learned to smile and pretend to be girls. We lied. We parroted the misandric views of our female teachers even as we mocked their views behind their backs. Our education was as much about surviving in a hostile and anti-male environment as it was about anything else. Our lack of attention to our work and subsequent acting up in class was a result of the frustration at being abused for simply being male. It was also a result of boredom.

A woman's world is a torturous crawl for a boy. I'm rarely surprised when I read about a boy shooting up his school or trying to plant a bomb. The teacher-led attacks on males have only gotten worse over the years, and the dramatic responses of some boys are the direct result. I'm glad this article was written. I just wish someone in power would bother to read it.

-- Steven Jones

Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------