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Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2005 / 17 Shevat 5765

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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It's OK to declare that women are from Venus


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Say you are a clever university president named Larry. You have an old friend, Marty, whose own institute is situated just down the road from you. You have a few problems at your university, and when you get an invitation to hash through them at Marty's, you zip right over. After all, the arguments at Marty's are provocative and factual. There is nothing you love better than such rip-roaring exchanges.

Besides, some good may come of it. Anything that is debatable is soluble.

The Larry in this instance is, of course, Lawrence Summers of Harvard University, former U.S. Treasury secretary during the Clinton presidency. Marty is the economist Martin Feldstein of the National Bureau of Economic Research. And the conference, hosted by another economic eminence, Richard Freeman, did not turn out well for Summers. For—as is known by now—one challenge that Summers sought to address was that women today are not winning as many tenured posts in the "hard" sciences, such as advanced math or physics, as might be expected in the post-feminist era. Another was that more men than women tend to score in the very top range of math aptitude tests.

Summers also touched on the proposition that there might be a genetic difference between men and women when it came to performance in hard sciences. This last little hypothesis was enough to bring the entire educational establishment down upon Summers' head. A week ago, Summers issued his first apology, and he has been apologizing ever since.

The controversy is part of a Larry pattern. While at the Treasury, he angered plenty of people with his handling of the Mexican bailout of the mid-1990s; he angered others— and apologized— when he charged citizens who supported repeal of inheritance taxes with "selfishness." At Harvard, he infuriated law-school teachers by reasserting the president's authority over the choice of a dean. Eminent professors departed for other universities after he assailed departments for grade inflation. Yet more outrageous— at least from the point of view of some senior professors— was his requirement that academic stars should do more teaching. His call for a patriotic response from Harvard after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, angered left-leaning faculty. And now, the woman gaffe.

One might conclude from this record that Summers is simply too arrogant for his current job title. Controversial arguments are fine when they come from a whiz kid. And Summers, the nephew of two Nobel Prize winners in economics, was a whiz kid—an irritatingly high scorer. His doctoral dissertation won him a tenured spot at Harvard before he was 30. A university president is like a chief executive. There are clearly things he can and cannot say.

But this argument misses the point. The trouble is not that Summers is too self-satisfied. It is that Harvard is.

Harvard, and universities like it, tends to promulgate a set of views— global warming is a crisis; the U.S. is to blame for the world's troubles; and quotas or some form of affirmative action is required when it comes to the advancement of women and minorities. These same universities often shut out, or look away from, arguments that do not support these beliefs.

The result is not "neo-Stalinist" monoliths— novelist Michael Crichton's description of universities in his current best seller, "State of Fear." But it is universities that are boring, provincial, shut in.

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Summers was trying to kick open doors— to recapture for Harvard the sense of intellectual possibility that leads to progress. The "woman" controversy is a good example. The fact that more math prodigies are boys is not even hypothetical; the data have been out there for decades. When tested in hard sciences girls tend to clump in the middle of the statistical range. Boys, by contrast, are more spread out— hitting stellar highs and humiliating lows more frequently. If, after decades of promoting girls, boys still do better, it is not crazy to wonder whether the difference is hardwired. And since the Harvards of the world tend to take only the tip-top scholars of hard science, it stands to reason they would hire more men than women. As Steven E. Rhoads, the author of "Taking Sex Differences Seriously," points out, to acknowledge this specific hard science difference is not to deny the advance of women in other fields, even those once perceived as hopelessly patriarchal: the law, medicine.

What is more, this knowledge does not necessarily mean that female physicists will never get tenure. It also does not mean there is no discrimination against women. If statistics dictate that you will never meet a female Einstein, you may not be able to recognize her when you do meet her. The reality— as most working adults know— is that modern universities and corporations are both sexist and sanctimoniously politically correct. Such are the nuances Summers and colleagues might have been able to work through— if the prissier among them had not walked out and called the Boston Globe.

After all, everyone can agree that if you deny a problem, you ensure that you cannot correct it. In short, places such as Harvard need people such as Summers. Larry: Stop apologizing.

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JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.

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