Monday, January 24, 2005

A voice of reason in academia

From Harvard, no less.

Ruth Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard and writes eloquently on the Summers' brouhaha.

Feminist complainers, not Larry Summers, owe women an apology.


Recently the president of Harvard, Lawrence H. Summers, inadvertently provided further evidence of the opposition to free inquiry that currently governs our institutions of higher learning. Invited to speculate off the record on the "underrepresentation" of women in science, Mr. Summers threw out some hypotheses, including one about innate differentials in aptitude between men and women, that may account for the phenomenon. At this point in his remarks, an female MIT professor of science quit the room, declaring to the press that she couldn't breathe because "this kind of bias makes me physically ill."

"What better proof than she of Summers's thesis?" quipped a friend of mine--and, indeed, what better evidence of underprofessionalism than a scientist who becomes nauseated at the mere hint of a theory that differs from hers? But this woman had artfully framed her outrage. Her claim of "bias" was intended not simply to discredit the male who had asked whether there may be substantive differences between men and women, but to define the permissible terms of discussion. Her show of outrage and the ensuing media attention it elicited were designed to reinforce the claim that "bias" alone is responsible for the situation Mr. Summers addressed.

...Sounding more like a prisoner in a Soviet show trial than the original thinker that he is, Mr. Summers recanted his error, has apologized at least three times for his insensitivity, and will no doubt hasten to appoint and to promote as many females as he can. The casualties of this exercise are genuine discussion of why women excel faster in some fields than in others, and the kind of intellectual independence that universities were once expected to promote.

* * *
Unfortunately, the problem Mr. Summers addressed will persist despite the attempts to silence him. No one doubts that women seeking careers in science face greater challenges than those in other academic and research fields. At a recent forum of Harvard graduate students, a succession of budding female scientists expressed their anxieties about having chosen careers that will conflict, more than most, with their no less strong desires to raise and nurture a family. More than one young woman present felt that a job with reduced pressure during her childbearing years might better suit her needs than competition at the very highest levels. The good news is that most of the young women acknowledged that their dilemma was one of choice rather than a product of discrimination against them.

The very notion of "underrepresentation," based as it is on the implicit goal of numerical parity, greatly prejudices our ability to understand why women make the choices that they do. If women gravitate to the hard sciences less than to other fields, we ought to grant them the intelligence of sentient creatures, recognizing the potential loneliness of such choices while trying to understand why groups and individuals act as they do. It is not Mr. Summers who owes women an apology; it is the complainers and agitators who owe both him and all of us an apology for trying to shut down discussion of an "inequality" that is not likely to disappear.

I just hope Professor Wisse is already tenured.

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