The Summers affair

Ross Mackenzie
Posted: Mar 03, 2005 12:00 AM

Talk about your PC. Talk about elitism and stereotypical behavior. Talk about what has happened - as Tom Wolfe does inter alia in his "I Am Charlotte Simmons" - to the spirit of open inquiry in the most thin-aired realms of the American academy. The case of Larry Summers versus the Harvard harridans has got it all.

Six weeks ago Harvard President Larry Summers - a former Secretary of the Treasury and not a conservative - gave a 7,000-word speech wherein he proposed "some questions asked and some attempts at provocation." The spirit of inquiry. At Harvard. What better, more paradigmatic place?

In citing the dramatic discrepancies between men (greatly more) and women (precious few) at the highest reaches of mathematics and the hard sciences, Summers offered three possible explanations: "intrinsic aptitude," discrimination against women, and the cultural trade-offs between family and work that (Summers' words) "a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make (in favor of math and science careers) than of married women."

To measure by the stereotypically hysterical reaction, you might have thought Summers had urged deporting every woman on the planet to Antarctica. Nearly all the attention has focused on his "intrinsic aptitude" thesis. One woman stormed out declaring, "This kind of bias makes me physically ill" - adding that if she had remained in the room she "would've either blacked out or thrown up."

And, oh, the dither. There have been meetings, committees, commissions, reports and the rawest sorts of rhetoric. There is talk of the need for higher levels of compassion, greater sensitivity to feelings, more counseling against hurt. Summers has apologized, humbled himself, prostrated himself 14 ways to Thursday. It's not that he has (a) caused the departure of a leading champion of African-American studies, (b) urged the return of ROTC to the Harvard campus, or (c) deplored the seeming anti-Semitism that demands Harvard divest itself of companies with interests in Israel.

It's not so much what Summers has said but how he has said it - his manner, his tone; not his beliefs but his behavior. So in one of his many apologies he has said, "I pledge to you that I will seek to listen more and more carefully and to temper my words and actions in ways that convey respect and help us work more harmoniously. . . . I am determined to set a different tone."

In all this, where is the veritas - the truth?

Summers did not contend that one gender is smarter. He postulated the two genders as intellectually different. Is that no longer sayable in the groves of academe? Does the inquiring mind now find itself fenced out? An avalanche of data point in that direction; anyone with his (or her) eyes open knows it - and vive la difference!

Is it sexist even to suggest complementary gray matter on the part of the genders? Can the data not even be discussed for fear of what feminist termagants might say in the faculty lounges? If men and women differ in, say, upper-body strength, might they not differ in their brains as well? If genetic predisposition to the arts and humanities (women) and to math and the hard sciences (men) is such a misguided proposition it is not even discussable, then what of discussions about affectional preference versus genetic predisposition among some toward homosexual behaviors?

If we all are equal in rights, are both genders and all races equal in abilities as well? Do we move, now, to the insertion of equal numbers of women as men on the front lines - and to the elimination of gender-specific sports?

What of the field of behavioral genetics? Are the great debates - nature versus nurture, biology versus society - now over, with nurture and society declared the victors? Is there no "intrinsic aptitude"? Do innate differences not exist? Given the Harvard contretemps, do women no longer rule?


In undergraduate school, this correspondent almost got booted out for writing in the college daily that the university bought a professor's tenure - paid him to leave because he did not conform to the nearly unanimous campus ideology. Rather, the provost insisted, the man had been difficult, impossible to get along with and not worth the cost of keeping around.

In graduate school, this correspondent studied under a professor of overwhelming intellectual power (Leo Strauss), subsequently disparaged - perhaps never so much as now - as the mastermind of a cabal into which this correspondent is thus lumped and thus targeted, with hardly more than a scintilla of irony, for intellectual extinction.

And so we come back to the humbling of Larry Summers by Harvard's viragos of virtue - aided, perhaps uninvited, by their ideological consorts holding down the presidencies of, e.g., Stanford, Princeton and MIT. Since one's collegiate days, intellectual snobbery and elitism - and ideological unanimity - have grown only worse. Chicago's late Allan Bloom wrote famously about it in his "Closing of the American Mind." But then, why would one expect different behaviors and diminished uniformity of attitudes at an institution such as Harvard with an endowment of, oh, a mere $22 billion?