Friday, February 18, 2005

Lawrence Summers is My New Hero

Harvard President Lawrence Summers released the text of the remarks he made to a conference in January, remarks that created quite an uproar among particularly tolerant and intellectually curious academics, many of whom really distinguished themselves by reacting to Summers' thought-provoking comments with the verbal equivelant of getting the vapors.

It's telling that Summers essentially concluded his remarks by pleading for people not to misunderstand what he was trying to say...

I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought on this question and provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said. But I think we all need to be thinking very hard about how to do better on these issues and that they are too important to sentimentalize rather than to think about in as rigorous and careful ways as we can.

... and was met with people like Sopen Shah (who deserves Lileks' chastening Perry Mason head if anyone ever did), who completely misunderstood what he was trying to say.

Haha...hardly. It's funny that over 50% of people "misunderstood" what Summers was saying...obviously he wasn't clear enough about his point of view. Regardless, it's not like he presented evidence just to get contradictory responses. Scientific studies to the contrary--showing that women have "natural aptitude" in mathematics equal to that of men--ALREADY exist in the world of academia. It's PAINFULLY obvious that Summers exposed his own BIAS towards one point of view by not presenting THE opposing evidence (which is easily accessible, I might add--I clearly remember a Stanford study that discredited Summers' remarks). Even if he did have the right intentions, not only did he go about inciting academic debate and discussion in the wrong manner, but it was also egregiously inappropriate for him to inaccurately represent the views of Harvard's faculty and student body by saying those things--in context or out. As the President, he MUST realize that it is firstly and foremostly his responsibility to represent the interests of the university, not espouse his own viewpoint or opinion. There were many other venues through which he could have incited academic debate. Hell, there's controversy about his poor history with giving female professors tenure! I think there was good reason for that MIT professor to have left in protest and for half of the faculty to have not given Summers a vote of confidence. If he's your new hero...I'd hate to know who your past ones were.
Summers started his remarks by saying:

"And so we have agreed that I am speaking unofficially and not using this as an occasion to lay out the many things we're doing at Harvard to promote the crucial objective of diversity."He concluded by saying:

"Let me just conclude by saying that I've given you my best guesses after a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people. They may be all wrong."According to you:

"I think there was good reason for that MIT professor to have left in protest..."I hate to bring it up, but, according to the professor herself, she didn't leave in protest, she left because she "felt physically ill as a result of listening to Summers’ speech." Which, in terms of counteracting stereotypes, is sort of like reacting to being called a "wop" by flinging meatballs and pasta sauce and the person who offended you.

I don't think Summers was right about everything, but, it's nice to see the topic broached. Although, if this is how people react to unpopular and contradictory ideas, it doesn't bode well for the future of free and open academic discourse.
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