Feminists maintain that society is a patriarchy in which males oppress females, causing females to lack confidence and self-esteem. But when acclaimed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt visited an elite high school on the West Coast, he found a very different situation. The behavior of the boys and girls was indeed markedly different, but not in the ways one might expect. The girls seemed free to speak up without reservation, and they peppered Haidt with hostile, and in at least some cases, unfair questions. In contrast, the boys were almost universally afraid to speak up, and effectively cowed into submission. As Haidt described it, the boys were “bullied” by the girls. Indeed, Haidt surmises from this experience that the “crybullies” that have plagued university campuses during the past year are getting their initial training in the high schools.
I don’t mind when people ask hard or critical questions, but I was surprised that I had misread the audience so thoroughly. My talk had little to do with gender, but the second question was “So you think rape is OK?” Like most of the questions, it was backed up by a sea of finger snaps — the sort you can hear in the infamous Yale video, where a student screams at Prof. Christakis to “be quiet” and tells him that he is “disgusting.” I had never heard the snapping before. When it happens in a large auditorium it is disconcerting. It makes you feel that you are facing an angry and unified mob — a feeling I have never had in 25 years of teaching and public speaking.
After the first dozen questions I noticed that not a single questioner was male. I began to search the sea of hands asking to be called on and I did find one boy, who asked a question that indicated that he too was critical of my talk. But other than him, the 200 or so boys in the audience sat silently.
After the Q&A, I got a half-standing ovation: almost all of the boys in the room stood up to cheer. And after the crowd broke up, a line of boys came up to me to thank me and shake my hand. Not a single girl came up to me afterward.
After my main lecture, the next session involved 60 students who had signed up for further discussion with me. We moved to a large classroom. The last thing I wanted to do was to continue the same fruitless arguing for another 75 minutes, so I decided to take control of the session and reframe the discussion. Here is what happened next:
Me: What kind of intellectual climate do you want here at Centerville? [Ed.–Not the real name of the school.] Would you rather have option A: a school where people with views you find offensive keep their mouths shut, or B: a school where everyone feels that they can speak up in class discussions?
Audience: All hands go up for B.
Me: OK, let’s see if you have that. When there is a class discussion about gender issues, do you feel free to speak up and say what you are thinking? Or do you feel that you are walking on eggshells and you must heavily censor yourself? Just the girls in the class, raise your hand if you feel you can speak up? [about 70% said they feel free, vs about 10% who said eggshells ]. Now just the boys? [about 80% said eggshells, nobody said they feel free].
Now, it’s easy to say that the boys should toughen up and not be so easily intimidated. But the fact is that the boys have the school authorities arrayed against them. If they step out of line, they’re sure to face harsh discipline.
And Centerville High is not alone. Last summer I had a conversation with some boys who attend one of the nation’s top prep schools, in New England. They reported the same thing: as white males, they are constantly on eggshells, afraid to speak up on any remotely controversial topic lest they be sent to the “equality police” (that was their term for the multicultural center). I probed to see if their fear extended beyond the classroom. I asked them what they would do if there was a new student at their school, from, say Yemen. Would they feel free to ask the student questions about his or her country? No, they said, it’s too risky, a question could be perceived as offensive.
Anyone who doubts that America’s schools have become a hostile environment for boys should read Haidt’s entire post. His report in fact reveals all of the regrettable social trends of recent years, including stifling political correctness, hostility to maleness, increasing narcissism among young people, and the unhealthy and growing separation of the sexes. All of these pathologies are on display in Haidt’s description of the contemporary high school. Compared to the American high school we attended a generation ago, Haidt’s report seems almost like a science fiction account from a faraway galaxy. Society, and in particular the relationship between the sexes, is clearly undergoing profound changes.
We hereby declare Jonathan Haidt’s report at Heterodox Academy to be Yet, Freedom!‘s 2015 Blog Post of the Year.