Sunday, February 06, 2005

Larry Summers

I like Larry Summers -- he seems to make the right people angry. He got rid of that snappily dressed charlatan, Cornel West, which I think is a sartorial blow for the school but an academic improvement.

His recent comments on the scarcity of women in science and math also has the usual suspects riled up. Becker comments that intelligence may have very little explanatory power in this arena, because women's comparitive advantage over men at child rearing means that even if women are better and smarter than men at everything there will still be more women than men in non-child rearing fields. Becker rightly notes that similar biological aptitude questions may have been raised in an earlier generation with regards to MBA programs, law schools, and medical schools, areas where women have increased their representation dramatically.

Posner points out that Summers was stupid to have said such a thing -- what was he trying to prove? -- and besides his subsequent capitulation undermines whatever his original intent might have been. But the reaction also reflects poorly on Harvard and academia in general:
One comment compares his apology to the confessions of Stalin's purge victims: "Everyone should oppose a 'signal of discouragement to talented girls and women.' [That is a quotation from Summers's first apology.] But the truth is that such a signal, to the extent it occurred, resulted from deliberate, intense, and misleading responses to his remarks. That's classic totalitarian suppression of an unpopular view, with forced public acknowledgment of guilt and forced repudiation of the 'wrong.'" Another comment quoted: George Wills: "Forgive Larry Summers. He did not know where he was...He thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus."

But no one who has spent much time around universities thinks they've ever "encourage[d] uncircumscribed intellectual explorations." The degree of self-censorship in universities, as in all institutions, is considerable. Today in the United States, most of the leading research universities are dominated by persons well to the left of Larry Summers, and they don't take kindly to having their ideology challenged, as Summers has now learned to his grief. There is nothing to be done about this, and thoughtful conservatives should actually be pleased. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, when one's ideas are not challenged, one's ability to defend them weakens. Not being pressed to come up with arguments or evidence to support them, one forgets the arguments and fails to obtain the evidence. One's position becomes increasingly flaccid, producing the paradox of thought that is at once rigid and flabby. And thus the academic left today.
The capture of higher education by far-left idealogues gives left wingers a place to hang their hat and right wingers an opponent that is weak. Everyone wins something.

Philip Greenspun had my favorite view on the subject, arguing that women are under represented in science and math because they are smarter then men. To prove his point, he then puts up this post on Che Guevara.


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