Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2005/ 9 Adar I 5765
Truth and consequences
If I were Harvard President Lawrence Summers given Womanhood's reaction to his suggestion that innate gender differences might account for men's higher achievement in math and science I'd be sorely tempted at this point to say: "I rest my case."
Or, alternatively, "… and the horse you rode in on."
Instead, despite having apologized for speaking an unpopular truth, Summers will be the subject of an emergency faculty meeting scheduled Tuesday at which Harvard professors will discuss: What to do about Larry?
Right off, I'd say give the man a raise for honesty, a brand-new armored Humvee for courage, and, behind curtain No. 3, an all-expense-paid Hawaii vacation surrounded by beautiful women in grass skirts whose idea of chemistry is what happens between men and women on moonlit nights.
Just for fun.
The past few weeks following Summers' blasphemous remarks at an economics conference have been embarrassing for some of us gals. Maybe I spend too much time with men can there be such a thing? but I'm finding the fair sex to be most unfair and somewhat short-staffed in the logic and reason departments.
What Summers said, in terms that left a reasonable amount of wiggle room for reasonable people, happens to be factually, biologically, chemically, genetically, anecdotally and historiagraphically true. Even if it makes some tortured academics reach for the fainting couch.
He did not say that women are dumb, as some claimed in the immediate aftermath. He did not say that women are incapable of doing as well as men in math and science. He merely said that, given the many possible explanations for why men as a group actually do perform better than women as a group consistently testing better in those areas that biological differences might be worth considering.
The truth is, Summers' suggestion is neither radical nor provocative. It's old news that boys do better than girls in math and science, and that girls do better in the reading and areas requiring verbal skills. Yet, you don't see men lurching for smelling salts when they hear this. Instead, they stroke their chins and say, "Hmmm, maybe I need a new razor."
Why can't women do that? Why not respond without emotion, grab a government grant and explore methods of teaching science and mathematics in ways that females learn best? Instead, some women have reacted as though their corsets were too tight. Male chauvinist pigs (remember them?) can take a vacation as long as women like MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins are defending women's intellect. Upon hearing Summers' words, Hopkins told reporters that she felt she was going to be sick. That her "heart was pounding" and her "breath was shallow … I just couldn't breathe …".
Rhett, oh Rhett, get that woman a julep, for cryin' out loud.
As nursemaids and parents of real children have always known, boys and girls are different, including their wiring and the way they learn and process information. There is, moreover, a growing body of scientific evidence that girls and boys have different aptitudes based on brain-based gender differences.
Boys are better at spatial skills and abstract cognition, which gives them an advantage in math. Their brains also make them adept at working with lists, giving them an advantage on multiple-choice questions and possibly explaining why they tend to score slightly better than girls on standardized tests.
This gap has narrowed in recent years as tests have begun to include more essay-style questions, at which girls tend to do better. Otherwise, girls are far exceeding boys in school at nearly every level. Sixty percent of college students today are female. At the high school level, girls receive 60 percent of the A's, while boys earn 70 percent of the D's and F's, according to Michael Gurian, author of "Boys and Girls Learn Differently."
In his book, Gurian, an educator and therapist, argues that some boy-girl differences won't ever change owing to brain-based causes. While obviously many women will excel in science and many men will excel in literature, there's no reason to insist that all others should, could or would want to.
The larger, more compelling concern to educators would seem to be helping boys improve their reading and writing skills so that they can survive in the information age, rather than counting the number of female Ph.D.s in science as some measure of gender equality.
Meanwhile, it's too bad Summers felt forced to apologize and that he faces further censure from faculty. When the president of the nation's oldest university has to say he's sorry for saying something true, the opposite of Truth seems the victor.
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