The Controversy Continues

This morning’s Boston Globe editorial page is full of Larry Summers. The editorial has the most measured viewpoint, as is to be expected. “In the present case, Summers deserves some credit for tackling a sticky issue. But missing, apparently, was the diplomacy that could have sparked a productive conversation. Fortunately, ample chance remains to talk, to dismiss myths and solve problems.”

Really? I certainly don’t see where problems are being solved personally. Indeed, of the 32 offers of tenure made at Harvard last year, only 4 were to women. Both diplomacy in discussing the problem and the actual “tackling a sticky issue” are absent from Mr Summers’ leadership at Harvard.

Eileen McNamara picks up where the editorial left off. “To the untrained ear, that might sound like making it up out of whole cloth, but Larry Summers is the president of Harvard University, so let’s just say his theory needs further study. Not that “anatomy is destiny” is exactly an original idea. Women have been hearing for eons that their lack of achievement, in the arts as well as the sciences, is the result of, variously, their weaker constitutions, their smaller brains, their delicate uteruses, and/or their unruly hormones.”

Yes, as I pointed out yesterday, the supposed weak female constitution was once a reason advanced against women studying history. McNamara supposes that Mr Summers has a gender block (instead of a math block).

Lastly, Derrick Jackson makes the connection between Summers’ gender example and similar issues with race I alluded to yesterday, only much more eloquently. “Now you have Summers, whose Faculty of Arts and Sciences offered only four of its last 32 tenured job spots to women. Despite offering only 12.5 percent of these plum positions to women, he felt utterly qualified to lecture women that we should open or reopen the debate as to whether females are intellectually different from men and, of course, in this context, natively inferior.” Jackson goes on to say that “Summers’s mind was fixed on a target as stale as a decade ago when Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein tried to revive notions of racial inferiority in their best-selling book “The Bell Curve.” The authors cited IQ scores as fixed facts that should make us abandon the American dream.”

The overwhelming conclusion here is that no one believes human biology to be so fixed that it determines aptitude. We don’t believe it with regard to race; to attempt to inject the theory back into a discussion of gender is both wrong-headed and offensive.

All the comments note that Mr Summers spoke from notes, not a written draft. I find that to be unbelievable. As an historian who has given two conference papers recently, I always go with my remarks both written out and fully documented. Even if I edit as I talk, anyone who asks me a question about sources will get a prompt and accurate reply. For Summers to speak extemporaneously about such a controversial subjecy was irresponsible.
Luckily, The Harvard Crimson did some leg work there and tracked down two authors of one of the studies Mr Summers supposedly cited.
“Two sociologists whose research University President Lawrence H. Summers cited at an economics conference Friday said yesterday their findings do not support Summers’ suggestion that “innate differences” may account for the under-representation of women in the sciences.

University of California-Davis sociologist Kimberlee A. Shauman said that Summers’ remarks were “uninformed.” The other researcher, University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie, said he accepted Summers’ comments as “scholarly propositions,” although he said his own analysis “goes against Larry’s suggestion that math ability is something innate.”

Xie and Shauman presented their findings at the National Bureau of Economic Research Friday afternoon, shortly after Summers’ remarks.

In an interview with The Crimson last night, Summers stressed that he only cited Xie and Shauman’s research as evidence that females are underrepresnted among the top 5 percent of test-takers on standardized assessments. Summers said the evidence for his speculative hypothesis that biological differences may partially account for this gender gap comes instead from scholars cited in Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker’s bestselling 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. “
Which scholars are these? The Crimson article does not say, and it seems vague and ill-thought out to me.
The controversy is growing on campus. As the Globe also reported today, some 50 women professors sent a letter of protest to Summers. “Melissa Franklin, a physics professor, said she wished that Harvard had “a president who can add something positive rather than something negative.” And while she didn’t call for Summers to resign, she said his remarks constituted “a resignable thing.” I think I’m with Professor Franklin on this one. It will be interesting to see now if the controversy dies away or accelerates. Given that Summers has been less than forthcoming about the sources of the biology argument and the actual text of his remarks, I suspect the controversy is here to stay.


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