Sunday, February 20, 2005


It's hard to know what's going on at Harvard. On the one hand, you have Larry Summers making what to are anyone outside the academy commonly heard arguments about any number of the racial and gender inequities in this society. And then, on the other hand, you have some truly brilliant and esteemed professors treating what he said as tantamount to an endorsement of Naziism and calling for Summers' head. Neither side has done a particularly good job at explicating their position, which is kind of funny because academics make their careers (or at least I thought) explicating their positions.

Here, I think, is the most important paragraph from Summer's remarks (transcript):

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the — I’ll the—I’ll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are—the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

Summers believes chiefly that women are underrepresented in the sciences because the demands of the job -- long work weeks, grueling, ever shifting schedules, devotion first and foremost and at all times to the company -- are, as he says, "a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women." Now I can't say whether this is true historically, and Summer's argument does strike me as rather unscientific -- if this is true, why do women now make about half of all medical residents? why are they not underrepresented in other academic fields, such as the humanities, which also require huge career commitments? -- but you'd be hard pressed to argue Summers' argument is unreasonable. That is almost certainly a factor behind the under-representation of women in the sciences. In fact, the Times book section today has a front page review on a new book, Perfect Madness, which argues that upper middle class women, driven to guilt and a senseless selflessness, are cutting back on their commitment to their careers and over-parenting, i.e. spending too much time worrying about their kids. This position perfectly jibes with Summers', but I don't see anyone accusing the book's author, Judith Warner, of misogyny or even insensitivity ("insensitivity is the term used in the academy to describe remarks that are neither objectively offensive, racist, or sexist, but still have offended and so are deemed inappropriate).

Summers' second argument, that women biologically may display less aptitude for the sciences, is far more controversial, but hardly seems, as they were described by one Harvard professor before the transcript was released, as "biological determinism." Instead, they seem entirely consistent with all the talk in recent years about differences in the wiring of men and women's brains. We have heard that women may have stronger verbal skills, that there may be a gene for homosexuality, and that evolution may predispose women to certain patterns of behavior, such as nurturing their children, or, if you believe Sara Bleffer Hrdy, abandoning them. As no less an authority as Steven Pinker has said, “There’s not a hundred percent certainty in any of the claims, but they are reasonable given what we know in the literature.

What really seems to be the problem is that Summer's did not follow-up with his remarks with appropriate qualifiers. He should have said that if a commitment to motherhood disinclines women from pursuing a career in sciences, universities need to ensure they are offering professor adequate subsidies for day care, or that more departmental rules and regulations need to be enacted to make sure women who take extended maternity leaves are not punished for their decision. The same is true of his argument about innate intelligence. Biology does not equal destiny. There's no doubt that humans are hardwired to be aggressive and war-mongering, but that in now way excuses us ethically from trying to become more peaceable. I guess that Summers' assumed he could make his remarks and this context would be implied, understood, or made by others for him. He was clearly very wrong.

The fallback position of those denouncing Summers has been that even if his comments are reasonable, as president of such a venerable institution of Harvard, he should not have said them. This fracas is bad for Harvard, goes this argument. Summers, as president, should leave the intellectual fulminating to the rank-and-file. These comments testify to the debased position of the university president in today's society -- he is no longer an intellectual, but a figure head, really no different than the head of any other corporation. Presidents are fundraisers, marketers, cheerleaders for their institutions -- if they do espouse beliefs or views, they should be innocuous consensus positions all faculty can agree with, i.e. inequality in society is bad, the United States must do more to address racism, high education is one of this country's greatest resources and needs more funding.

Summer's remarks then are tantamount to the president of Nabisco saying he thinks efforts to diversify the workforce may be bringing in under-qualified candidates. The position, even though it is certainly not one I agree with, is all the same a "reasonable" one, yet, if it were uttered by the head of Nabisco, he almost certainly would be summarily fired. In the highly corporatized, rigidly hierarchical fiefdoms that are our universities nowadays, there is just no room any longer for intellectual unorthodoxy.


Anonymous Denise Davis said...

By calling Summers's statement "intellectual unorthodoxy," you make it seem like a perfectly legitimate, or in your words "reasonable" position--as reasonable as any other. You seem to think that his error was not in suggesting that women might be misswired for science research, but in failing to qualify his comment. Then, you make an utterly fallacious comparison between Summers and a corporate head attributing consequences he laments to policy. No, no, no.

First, considering the epithet "intellectual unorthodoxy": Would you call white supremicists proponents of intellectual unorthodoxy? Ultimately, Summers wasn't suggesting mere difference when he made his comments; he was suggesting inferiority. He was entertaining the idea of essentializing an intellectual incapacity for scientific pursuits, a handicap for certain kinds of thinking. Accepting, for the sake of argument, that women aren't doing so well in the sciences (which is debatable, but okay): what if science, the way it's currently practiced, is incompatible with the way women think (whether because of the way women have been socialized or the way they're biologically constructed). Perhaps the problem isn't with women, but with the way science is done. Perhaps different metaphors for understanding phenomena, different models, even different approaches would be more productive for research by women. Who knows, maybe some of the questions themselves could be reposed, reframed, rethought? I'm not suggesting crystal balls, palm-reading, or astrology here. I'm saying that to suggest that women can't do science because of some biologically determined brain (mal)function strikes me as simplistic-- and misogynist in that very willingness to look to a brain inferiority rather than other kinds of more complicated difference.

Would Summers, then, have been more right (or at least rhetorically safer) had he qualified his remarks? Perhaps--for those politically correct witch-hunters looking for demons under every rock, as you seem to be implying that the people up in arms over the president's comments are. Should he have said, then, that his comments were merely speculative? That women are surely compensated in some other way, that they surely excel at something else? No, he would only have dug himself in deeper.

And finally, the comparison: the policy lamented by the imaginary head of Nabisco was, I imagine, some kind of affirmative action or other hiring practice designed to encourage diversity. For whatever reason, the employee pool was weak, and said president was all too prepared to attribute the weakness to the policy. While a lot of inferences might be drawn from his (her?) conclusion, we can't say for sure if s/he is down on certain populations, or why. Summers, however, offered socialization and work conditions as two of three possible reasons that women are underrepresented in the sciences. The third was simply that they are women. If Mr. or Ms. Nabisco suggested that his employee pool sucks because a bunch of them are women, or black, or immigrants--now you have a fair comparison. And one considerably less defensible, no? That's not intellectual unorthodoxy; it's discrimination.

4:25 PM  

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