Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Boys of Sommers

There are plenty of good reasons to be suspicious of Christina Hoff Sommers.  Number one is the fact that she works at a right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.  This means one of two things.  The first possibility is that she specializes in peddling some specific brand of conventional wisdom designed to ease the conscience of a powerful segment of society-- preferably one with deep pockets.  On this analysis, it would appear that Sommers' division is that of anti-feminist polemics.  The fact that she is herself a woman-- and one who describes herself as a feminist of sorts-- only sweetens the deal.  There is nothing right-wing think tanks like better than to find a member of an identity group which reliably opposes right-wing policies who is willing to bash that identity group.  This is probably not because the think tanks are naive enough to believe that this buys them some sort of credibility with the identity groups in question-- the reason is more cynical, in all likelihood: it's that they think writers who are themselves minorities or women, etc. can "get away" with saying the things they would like to say themselves.  So you get the former Muslim who equates Mohammad with Hitler, the black libertarian who accounts for persistent racial inequalities in the United States by insisting that "different groups are simply better at different things," and so on.  Deep in the underground laboratories of the Heritage Foundation they are still toiling away on the openly gay writer who wants to be banned from the army and the Latino politician who wants to make English the official language...-- oh right.  That second one has already come out in beta.

Ok, so the most cynical reading is that Sommers is kept around because the American Enterprise Institute was looking for a woman who would reliably explode feminist pieties and thereby confirm what its powerful male supporters are already likely to think.  But as I mentioned above, there is a second reason why people end up in right-wing think tanks: because they started out as fairly reasonable liberal moderates or enlightened conservatives who trod on the wrong toes by questioning the party line of the post-60s Left and were so intolerantly dealt with by the high commissars of Political Correctness that they were forced, by bitterness or by necessity, to join the only side that would have them-- the American right.  Some then proceed to shill even more brazenly for the opposing ideology than its older and more confirmed members (there is no faith more unforgiving than that of the neophyte).  All of what I just said is pretty much the history of early Neo-Conservatism in a paragraph.

The career of Sommers, viewed objectively, seems to fit more readily into this second pattern, minus the shilling at the end (though some might debate this point).  Her early career was that of a liberal feminist academic who was distressed by the rigid and unthinking orthodoxy of the women's movement  in the '90s and wrote a reasonable and well-argued book on the subject-- one which pointed out the indifference to truth, the shameless hyperbole, the inflation of relevant statistics, and the callous misandry of some of the most powerful and feted feminist doyennes (she quotes one feminist Dean who, upon finding out that men at her college were falsely accused of rape, used the occasion to remind them that, though innocent of the specific charge, as men they could have done it, and they should therefore reflect on that fact)-- all the while being very careful to declare its author's underlying loyalty to the ideals of feminism and to point out that misrepresenting truth and inflating statistics does a disservice to the real victims of male violence.  Such a book, appearing when it did, was of course chewed out by the liberal press-- mostly by writers who did not dispute Sommers' findings so much as argue that they were not indicative of feminist ideology or the feminist movement as a whole.  But this last claim I take to be Sommer's own point, more or less, and therefore pretty irrelevant.  

I should add myself that I don't think any of this tells us much about feminism tout court-- only that any ideological group which has a powerful constituency in America's elite institutions is liable to degenerate into a closed and self-justifying system of thought.  The New Left as a whole, and its feminist wing, is no exception to this.  It also makes me glad that the darkest period of P.C. seems to be over-- or at least, to have been successfully confined to smaller and more politically irrelevant sectors of the Academy.

Anyways-- that is all by way of saying that Sommers may have reasons I can understand, if not endorse, for going over to the dark side.  When she now writes that our education system is dramatically failing the boys and young men of America, I am inclined to treat the argument with seriousness and not to dismiss it on ideological grounds: to choose the latter would be to take us all back to 1994 again-- not a good year for evenhanded political discourse by any measure.

I don't think anyone can dispute the statistics that boys are falling behind in school, receiving lower grades, and going on to receive advanced educations in lower proportions than girls.  This can serve as a warning sign to our society quite apart from any anti-feminist screeds.  It can be criticized in full measure without in the least diminishing the injustice of the fact that women still clearly face obstacles in reaching the highest echelons of the various professions.  It just means that privileged men are able to take home a bigger slice of the pie, as they have done in the past, while underprivileged men are being boxed out of an ever greater number of opportunities.  

The feminist movement, meanwhile, would have more credibility if it seemed as concerned by the latter tendency as by the former.  Instead, there has been a certain amount of gloating from influential feminist corners, which makes the claim usually urged against Sommers' argument-- i.e. that the feminist campaign against traditional gender role conformity and rigid sexual expectations will actually benefit men and boys too in the long run-- sound rather hollow, even if it is true.

The question, of course, is what is driving this trajectory.  Sommers' attributes it to a "War on Boys," as her title implies, which sounds like, and is, journalistic hyperbole.  But in the article linked above, she does a good job of tracing the extent to which technical fields in which women are heavily underrepresented receive funding and support to recruit female apprentices while there are simply no equivalent resources being devoted to keeping boys interested in school, in higher education, and in fields in which they traditionally would not expect work.  She also points out the irony of the fact that Western European democracies with greater gender parity that ourselves have also devoted more money and effort to retaining young men and boys in school than we have done.  

Why is this?  A feminist conspiracy?  An attempt to punish men collectively for millennia of patriarchal dominion?  To the limited extent she floats these explanations, Sommers starts to stray dangerously close to conservative screed and "white male backlash" paranoia.  Sommers tends to place the weight of the blame on an ideology of gender egalitarianism which refuses to aver "the fact that boys and girls are different."  She sees the costs of this ideology in a culture of woozy "self-esteem boosting" and "emotional sharing" that has come to dominate our public schools-- a culture in which women and girls naturally succeed, being more social in orientation and more interested in the problems of other people-- and in which mechanically and technically-minded boys tend to flounder, suffocate, and expire.  

The present Divinity student must admit that he finds something to identify with in this evocation.  But does it really describe the situation in our nation's middle and high schools?  I have to say-- hardly.  This is an impressionistic argument, but I too went to school, and the problem there really didn't seem to be that there was not enough competition, too much emotional openness and deep interpersonal communication, and a surfeit of self-esteem going around.  I would say the problems boys (and girls) face in our schools are precisely the opposite, and more traditional, ones: insecurity, fear of failure, the sense of living out a precarious existence on the edge of social humiliation or academic defeat, etc.  It is possible to take self-esteem boosting and emotional sharing too far in certain circumstances-- I'm not disputing that-- but to say it's already happening in our schools is far-fetched-- a conservative delusion which takes much too seriously and literally the rhetoric, rather than the reality, of our nation's school administrators.  Listen to Freddy DeBoer on a related point: he's got this one right.

So what is the problem?  I can't agree with conservatives, and with Sommers in her more implausible moments, that we need to return to the rugged virtues of masculinity and the fightin' spirit.  I agree with feminist critics that it is these values precisely which fill so many boys and young men with pain.  Don't trust those men who tell you they got through dodgeball or school bullying or corporal punishment and it never did them any harm.  As Erik Erikson dryly points out when contemplating such men-- "Whether or not it did them any harm is another question, to answer which may call for more information about the role they have come to play in adult human affairs."  In other words, perhaps they have grown up to be men who go on inflicting the same pains on others as they suffered themselves.  Perhaps they have become conservative education theorists.

So a feminist solution to the problems facing young men and boys is certainly on the table.  I do sincerely believe that gender roles are malleable things, and that the world would be a much better and more humane place if they were not socially enforced.  However, there is a deeper structural change going on here that the feminist analysis does not wholly account for, and which is affecting the chances of young men: the fact that professional success in our society is so much more closely linked than it used to be to success within educational institutions.  

The fact of the matter is that boys and young men, whether because of social conditioning or biology-- or both-- have generally tended to prefer to succeed in unstructured and extra-institutional frameworks.  And our society today simply does not accommodate this path to success as neatly as it used to.  There used to be more respect for what Erikson called the "moratorium"-- the period of wandering in a young person's life before s/he settles into a career and an adult identity.  Where is the room for a moratorium nowadays in law school, in the scramble for that perfect "Science GPA" in undergraduate Pre-Med programs, at Wharton or at Booth-- and so on?  There's just not time anymore for the classic model of the Bildungsroman.  When Philip Carey grows into manhood in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, he spends most of the book wandering from an accounting office in England to a German seminary to the bohemian quarters of Paris where he tries to make a living as a painter-- all before he winds up as a medical student in London.  How many of our doctors today follow this career path?

This leads me to think that there are potentially brilliant and creative people-- and especially young men-- who are currently falling through the cracks.  This contrasts sharply with the way successful individuals, especially members of the intelligentsia, used to pursue their careers.  James Joyce spent most of his career as an English language teacher in Italy, where he managed to meet other writers and make significant literary connections.  These days, he would have to suffer through a complete MFA or English PhD program first; and let's face it-- he probably wouldn't have made it to graduation.  His relentless individualism and painstaking writing process would have been an obstacle-- not to mention his seediness and perversity, his sexual fascination with urine and with Victorian undergarments, which wouldn't go over well in such a structured, interpersonal setting.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, despite being believed to have been the most well-read member of his generation, never finished college at Cambridge.  He pursued a whole string of cockamamy schemes before settling into his cozy financial arrangement with the Wordsworths-- such as joining the "Royal Dragoons" under a false name and drawing up plans for a utopian commune in America and self-publishing his own one-man periodical.  Let's not even talk about the unstructured professional life of Karl Marx.  How would these men fare today (not that they would have fared so well in their own age without Wordsworth or Engels around, let us remember).  My point is: Could there be a rising generation of Joyces and Coleridges and Marxes out there who will never publish their masterwork because the costs of entry to the literary and intellectual professions have become prohibitive?  

None of this is to say that men can never be brought to heel within institutions.  Like I said, these gender roles are probably malleable, and men may well find ways to adapt themselves to our more institutionally- and degree-focused society over time.  But it seems to me that the more free-floating approach to making a career for oneself is a valid one for any person, of whatever gender, and it would be a real shame if it were shuttered off as a possibility for either men or women.  After all, schools, the popular songs all remind us, are not always the best screens for talent.  If they become the golden ticket to all professional success in America, they will squelch a lot of seething young ambition which couldn't be channelled into the classroom.  My point is that even if we end up with a world in which men and women are equally successful in school, it may well still be a sign that we are squandering the latent talents and gifts of the members of our society.  The current gender imbalance is more an indication of this deeper problem than of anything specific to feminism or the culture wars.

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