THE PHRASE "gender wars" was first used to describe the skir-mishes between men and women that followed the libera-tion of one of the combatants.
It is one of those snappy media expressions that shows up everywhere until it is worn out. So it is not surprising that it has been applied to the education of boys and girls. It conjures a picture of our children bloodying each others' noses in the playground over the right to re-enter the classroom.
In 1992, the American Association of University Women released a landmark report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," on gender bias in education. At about the same time, Harvard's Carol Gilligan wrote that the social sciences have historically described the development of girls as if they were flawed boys.
That was the first salvo in the battle, and the other side fired back, most recently with Christina Hoff Sommer's "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men." She argues that education is trying to break the spirit of boys and make them more like girls.
Recently, the AAUW gathered several experts on boys and girls around a peace table in Washington. The panel included, among others, Susan Bailey of the Wellesley Center for Research on Women, who wrote that watershed AAUW report; Lynn Phillips, author of "The Girls Report"; and James Garbarino of Cornell, William Pollack of Harvard and Michael Kimmel of SUNY-Stony Brook, who have studied and written about the development of boys.
However loud the disagreements might have been behind closed doors, the experts -- all of whom have been frustrated by the media's sound-bite reporting of their scholarship -- were all smiles when they emerged.
In a charming irony, Barrie Thorne of the University of California, whose specialty is researching the behavior of children on the playground, was given the job of summarizing their spirited discussions.
The panel agreed, she said, that it is wrong to assume that advancing the needs of girls must necessarily come at the expense of boys. "It is not a zero-sum game," she said. "A better way to understand it is that there are multiple problems in the education of girls and boys that need to be addressed simultaneously."
It is also wrong, the panel agreed, to portray boys and girls as separate and homogeneous groups. Their characteristics and their difficulties are similar, and they overlap. And their problems are often shaped more by economics, race, age, disability, language or athletic ability than they are by sex.
"Each child is located in a complex field of differences," she said.
And it is unfair to characterize either boys or girls as members of an "at-risk population," she said. It is not the children who are "toxic" or "at-risk," it is the environment from which they come.
"The problems of children are complicated," said Thorne. "Issues of gender and gender equity are not either-or. They are not a matter of homogeneity or group pathology."
Finally, Thorne made the emphatic point that it is the adults who have created these labels for children, who have stereotyped them and who have arranged their education around those stereotypes. Therefore, it is up to the adults to fix it.
Adults will have to manage the limited resources of education to reduce the gaps between groups of children while increasing the achievement of both.
It won't be easy to do. But it is the adults who started this war, and we have caught the kids in the middle.