Summers and the Arrogant Bandwagon

By Zimmerman, Jonathan | The Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Summers and the Arrogant Bandwagon

Zimmerman, Jonathan, The Christian Science Monitor

Earlier this month, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers suggested that male-female differences in math and science achievement might have biological causes. Angry professors in his audience walked out, alumni threatened to withhold donations, and Mr. Summers was forced to issue several solemn apologies.

So let's suppose that he had proposed a biological basis for sexual orientation, not for math and science ability. Would anyone have objected?

Of course not. Watching this episode unfold, you can understand why so many people hold university professors in contempt these days. They think we're smug, arrogant, and intellectually dishonest.

And here's a little secret: They're right.

Most professors - myself included - are zealous proponents of equal rights for homosexuals. Some Christian conservatives claim that gays can be converted into straights through a combination of religion and therapy. So good-hearted academics often embrace the possibility of a so-called gay gene, if only to rebut this right- wing attack.

When it comes to gender, however, biological explanations are taboo among my academic colleagues. For many centuries, men have justified the lowly status of women by arguing that the female intellect is inherently inferior. Lest professors stand accused of promoting discrimination, then, we must assert that every observable gender difference comes from our environment rather than from our selves.

But this dogma - indeed, every dogma - runs counter to the true spirit of a university. To advance knowledge, we need to examine the fullest range of evidence and explanation. And we must acknowledge that people of equal intellect and good will can reason from the same facts to different conclusions.

That's precisely the spirit that Summers's critics seem to have lost. He simply asked them to consider the possibility that biology caused some male-female achievement differences. Clearly, though, their minds are closed to any theory that differs from their own.

One can only imagine how the professors who condemned Summers would react if one of their own students made a similar suggestion in class. Actually, you don't have to imagine it. You can just read about this season's other big academic controversy, involving professors of Middle East studies at Columbia University.

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