Responding to the critics of the critics of Harvard president Larry Summers, i.e., those who claim that political correctness has silenced debate at Harvard and elsewhere, a father and his two daughters, all of whom have math-related advanced degrees from Harvard, attempt to explain “How Summers Offended” in today’s Washington Post.
Did the media treat Summers’s critics fairly? We are Harvard-educated mathematical scientists and university educators — a father and two daughters — and we think not.
The essay begins with some strong points:
Academic freedom does not protect any professor from having his or her ideas scrutinized. And in this case Summers’s comments, while provocative, sorely misrepresented the research. Girls’ scores on standardized tests have consistently improved with strides against discrimination and social bias. This fact alone counters the notion that the differences are “innate.” Standardized educational tests such as the SAT were, in fact, not designed to measure innate differences, and overwhelming research points to social phenomena as underlying the differences in scores between the sexes. If innate differences play a role in SAT scores, how do we explain the mathematics scores in countries such as Iceland, where girls outshine boys on standardized international and national exams?
Those are interesting and relevant points, and if the essay had continued in this vein I wouldn’t be writing, for I have no particular knowledge, or even opinions, about the degree to which intelligence is innate or what standardized tests do or don’t measure. Unfortunately, however, at this point the father-daughters team abandoned a discussion of the allegedly misrepresented research and turned to what they regard as “the real reason Summers’s comments offended.”
The real reason Summers’s comments offended … is because they were made in the context of a history of discrimination that has hurt scientific and mathematical progress immeasurably. And unfortunately, Harvard is a part of this history….
Summers’s remarks offended because they echoed the sex biases with which we grew up — and whose psychological consequences we strive daily to counter in our educational work. These were biases that Harvard helped to perpetuate….
What follows is a conventional (except where it is anecdotal) discussion of the bad treatment of women in science, especially at Harvard. I have no trouble assuming that everything they say is true, but even if it is true that truth is not relevant to the question of whether or not Summers “misrepresented the research” about women in science.
In short, what the father and daughters team has done here is to confirm and highlight what we Summers critics critics have been saying all along: that in the view of many Summers critics any discussion of comparative math abilities is illegitimate and beyond the pale because it (inevitably) occurs “in the context of a history of discrimination.”
Now, since so much of their essay was personal and anecdotal, let me conclude with a personal anecdote (or two). (And, for once, this will not involve my math-and-science-talented daughter.) A number of years ago, when I still had many feminist friends, one of them sent me a draft of an essay criticizing Carol Gilligan’s influential book, In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard, 1982). Her essay was cogent and well-written, but I was disturbed, as I told her, that the substance of her critique was not that Gilligan’s argument (that women and men follow different paths of moral development) was wrong because it was wrong, but that it was wrong because its acceptance might place an obstacle in my friend’s preferred path to women’s equality. Pointing out the potentially negative effects of an interpretation, I argued (to no avail), was not the same as arguing that the interpretation was wrong.
I didn’t realize it at the time of this correspondence with my friend, but because of my long involvement in the EEOC v. Sears case (discussed at length here) I soon came to realize, in spades, that politically engaged scholarship, or political commentary about scholarship, often (but certainly not always) substitutes instrumental for scholarly standards: in this mode, it asks not whether a particular argument or interpretation is true or persuasive but rather whether or not it is Good For the Jews or Blacks or Women or …. In Sears, for example, politically engaged historians worked up a froth arguing that even if it were true (even if?!) that very, very few female job applicants were qualified, available, and interested in, say, installing home heating and cooling systems, no historian should say so in public.
For me, the Summers debate is déjà vu all over again.