January 21, 2005

The Summers of Our Discontent

I'd have more respect for Harvard President Lawrence Summers if he'd say things that are anathema in the academy and then stick to them. Instead, he appears to utter a thought that seems perfectly normal here in the real world, and then when the storm of outraged politically correct protest hits, he backs off.

A case in point was his confrontation with lefty black professor Cornel West. Summers suggested publicly that maybe West, who is also known for teaming up with the self=righteous "rabbi" Michael Lerner of Tikkun.

You would have thought this rather mild suggestion was a whip-crack from Simon Legree.

Summers's groveling notwithstanding, West went on to a sinecure at Princeton and Summers kept his mouth shut for a season.

Now, however, at a research conference, in the course of a long discussion of the whys of the underrepresentation of women in math and the sciences, Summers suggested as a hypothesis the notion that hereditary component might exist, at least as a matter of statistics, as described here.

Summers spoke during a working lunch. He declined to provide a tape or transcript of his remarks, but the description he gave in an interview was generally in keeping with what 10 participants recalled. He said he was synthesizing the scholarship that the organizers had asked him to discuss, and that in his talk he repeated several times: ''I'm going to provoke you."

He offered three possible explanations, in declining order of importance, for the small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering. The first was the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks.

The second point was that fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in late high school years. ''I said no one really understands why this is, and it's an area of ferment in social science," Summers said in an interview Saturday. ''Research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialization weren't" due to socialization after all.

This was the point that most angered some of the listeners, several of whom said Summers said that women do not have the same ''innate ability" or ''natural ability" as men in some fields.

Asked about this, Summers said, ''It's possible I made some reference to innate differences. . . I did say that you have to be careful in attributing things to socialization. . . That's what we would prefer to believe, but these are things that need to be studied."

Summers said cutting-edge research has shown that genetics are more important than previously thought, compared with environment or upbringing. As an example, he mentioned autism, once believed to be a result of parenting but now widely seen to have a genetic basis.

In his talk, according to several participants, Summers also used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ''daddy truck," and one ''baby truck."

To this, the academic feminists reacted as if it were the worst of heresies. In particular, MIT professor Nancy Hopkins, who has made a good part of her career as an academic feminist, walked out and later told the press that she was nauseated by Summers's remark.

Mind you, at a "research conference," all Summers did was propose a hypothesis as one of several possible explanations for an observed phenomenon. Although there may have been political overtones, presumably that's what one does at a research conference.

Never mind. The feminist hounds were in full cry. After a couple of days, Summers retreated, publishing a groveling letter in bureacratese, of which an excerpt follows:

I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women. As a university president, I consider nothing more important than helping to create an environment, at Harvard and beyond, in which every one of us can pursue our intellectual passions and realize our aspirations to the fullest possible extent. We will fulfill our promise as an academic community only if we draw as broadly and deeply as we can on the talents of outstanding women as well as men, among both our students and our faculty.

By now Summers should have figured out what the sensitivities were on this issue, and either avoided scratching them, or have been prepared to stand his ground. Rather than following Emerson's maxim, "If you shoot at a king, you must kill him," Summers has twice marched up the hill, and then marched down again. By now he should know the habits of academic wolfpacks, and yet he foolishly provoked them and then surrendered like the proverbial Frenchman.

Hugh Hewitt seems to regard Summers's remarks as a gaffe.

Bottom line: It isn't playing well with the feminist left, and probably won't play well with every parent in America who had hoped that their daughter would have every opportunity that their son did.

In the era of instant commentary via the blogs, you can't make such statements and then go to ground as Summers has. Too bad he doesn't have a blog, as I recommended in my book. He'd have the ability to "revise and extend his remarks" before the MSM gets them into circulation tomorrow.

If the president of a Christian university made the statement that Summers made, or a Bush Cabinet secretary, how long would they last in their job? How long will Summers last?

As the parent of three very bright girls, two with college ahead of them, one very good at science and math, I would bristle at any suggestion that a university would deny opportunities to girls or women because of their sex.

But of course, every parent of girls knows they are different. Some of it's cultural, and some of it's not. If we understood the differences better, including the statistically significant genetic ones, we might have a better idea how to train up great woman scientists. But as with race, even mooting the possibility of genetic differences evokes the baying of intellectual hounds. Intellectual hounds have the sharpest teeth of all. It's a shame.

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