By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
“Seemed like such, like, an anti-21st century thing to say.”
So said a female undergraduate at the opening of the recent ABC News’ “Nightline” edition devoted to the controversy over Harvard University President Larry Summers’ speculation why so few women are rising to the top levels of the sciences and mathematics in higher education.
In January Summers, who possesses a glittering resume of top-level service in academe and government (he was Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration), speculated while addressing a small academic conference that the paucity of women in these fields has three major causes, and he briefly listed them in what he said was their probable order of importance.
The first, he said, was the possibility that women were choosing family commitments rather than try to meet the eighty-hour workweeks high-level achievement in these fields demand.
The second was that fewer women than men have the genetic ability—he spoke of it at one point as "a different availability of aptitude"—to do the kind of distinguished work that would win them top-level places in math and science.
Summers' third hypothesis involved the possibility of sexist discrimination—but he immediately largely discounted the role it might play.
Since then, the controversy those words provoked has sparked a faculty uprising at Harvard itself, and occupied a good bit of space on the media's airwaves and editorial and op-ed pages.
Some beyond the ivied walls of Harvard, or academe in general, might be tempted to shrug this debate off as a matter of academic politics.
That would be a mistake; for the broader issues involved here go to the heart of the values this nation has been debating for all its existence: fairness, opportunity, inclusiveness, tolerance, and just plain human decency.
It's all to the good that the reverberations from President Summers' "speculations" show no signs of abating; for, if one had to choose just a few words to characterize and place them in context, those spoken by the female undergraduate on "Nightline" will do just fine.
Yes, this is the 21st century, and the attitudes his words conveyed should have no place in it. They are an anti-21st century thing to believe and to say.
It was this country's great loss that those attitudes—imposing second- and third-class citizenship on some Americans—did have a prominent place in the United States of the past.
In that past, from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, bogus scientific notions about "innate ability" and which groups of human beings have it in abundance and which don't, helped stretch a tarpaulin of respectability over the callous consigning of millions of women—and white-ethnic immigrants and Americans of color, too—to the ghettos of the American social and occupational hierarchies.
It's only been in the last four decades that American society has begun to overcome the loss of "human capital" discrimination disguised as a matter of "innate inability" caused—and all of us are right to be suspicious when it is used to explain or even hypothesize about the present status of any group.
As Johnnetta Cole, president of Bennett College for Women, an historically black college, said on the "Nightline" edition, "I have been through this. Women, Jews, African Americans, all kinds of underrepresented groups. When our behavior is [said to be] explained by some innate inability, we need to be careful with this. … It's associated with the assumption that there is an Aryan superiority on this earth. We have no such evidence."
In fact, Cole later pointed out that the so-called innate differences explanation has been discredited as a justification of differences in group status. She referred to the substantial advances women have made since the 1960s in all sorts of areas, from college and professional-school attendance to occupations of every kind. "Did we all of a sudden become innately more capable?" she asked rhetorically. "Or does this have to do with the circumstances? Does this have to do with plain, old discrimination? How do you avoid that kind of evidence and bring forward the suggestion of innate inability?"
In fact, the evidence is widespread and compelling that women's "place" in society—and girls' tests scores on standardized tests, for example—have improved as shibboleths about their lack of ability and the structural barriers they supported have been shattered.
Those who've criticized Larry Summers for being wrong on his scholarship and wrong in this instance on his responsibility as the president of, not only Harvard, one of the preeminent institutions of higher learning, but Harvard the richly diverse community of people, are right—as he himself has stated in the numerous apologies he's issued since the controversy broke.
Let no one pretend that criticism of those remarks is an attempt to limit academic freedom or the pursuit of intellectual inquiry.
Instead, it acknowledges a responsibility we all bear: building a 21st-century community in which all Americans are free to achieve to the best of their ability.
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