Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ding dong, the witch is gone!

Larry Summers is quitting Harvard University at the end of the year.

More's the pity I wasn't there in Harvard Yard to see it firsthand (like I should have been for my senior year, but that's a story for another time). I was so happy when I heard that I bounced around the room during the newscast (no small feat in our cluttered home, I assure you). Hey, there have to be SOME things worth celebrating in these dark days, right? Right?

Summers sucked. I wish I could say it more scientifically and professionally, but I'm sure that somewhere, somehow, someone else already did.

Back in January 2005, George F. Will of the Washington Post wrote a misleading article praising Summers for fostering a sense of 'diversity' in opinions on campus. It was unusually tongue-in-cheek and sassy, so I replied in turn. ;) I don't have an electronic copy of his editorial, but I do have the reply that I sent to him:


It appears that many people are under the mistaken impression that Larry Summers, president of Harvard University, has endured aninquisition of intellectual scorn unparalleled since the days of the Salem Witch Trials. By using the word 'hysteric' to describe Prof. Nancy Hopkins and other outraged participants at the conference in question, detractors of the feminist movement hope to paint those offended by Summers' myopic framing of his puzzlement at the deficit of females with tenure at Harvard as mere left-wing reactionaries who seek to stifle dissent on an "ultra-liberal campus." Of course, the truth is far more complicated. I have little doubt that it was not the question itself that raised so much ire as the way in which Summers structured it — and as a former student at Harvard on Larry's proverbial clock, I can safely say that this fiasco is indicative of the underlying problems surrounding our president's tenuous relationship with his students. Perhaps Mr. Summers would have better served his attempt at drawing out a reaction from his colleagues if he had chosen his words more carefully: "Why do we currently enroll just as many women as men in our college and in many graduate schools but fail to hire a proportional amount of female professors?" Or perhaps, "Why does unequal treatment of boys and girls in adolescent education have such an impact on choice of careers in higher education?" Better still: "It boggles the mind that more women than men earn college degrees in the United States, yet the vast majority of all executive, managerial, tenured or otherwise top positions in all aspects of our society continue to be dominated bymales, despite marked decreases in this trend by countries far less industrialized than ours. Why is the American bureaucratic mindset mired in sexist hiring practices?"

It is all in how you phrase the question.

There is nothing wrong with debating the differences between male and female anatomy, physiology, or biological predispositions. Healthy debate is necessary for higher learning to progress and evolve. Mr. Summers, however, constructed his question to preempt any possibility that the lack of tenured women at Harvard is the fault of anyone but women themselves. America is making significant progress to close the gender gap and will continue to do so, as long as crimes like unequal wages for female managers inspire boycotts of corporations like Wal-Mart until the practices die out. In order for women to enter the corridors of power, unfortunately, the men who already occupy the space there will have to open the door for them. As it is painfully clear, the environment breeds the endgame.

Alas, this issue is not the only exercise in power that Summers has misused. This is not the first time Mr. Summers has stifled discussion in a brash attempt to provoke it. In the fall of 2001, I was privileged enough to enroll in Intro to African-American Studies, during which Prof. Cornell West taught an unprecedented 636 students in the basement of St. Paul's Church with his notoriously un-orthodox, bold, and interactive lecturing style. We broke fire regulations on campus with the crowds and had to transfer out of Harvard Yard in order to accommodate everyone; finding a seat was a biweekly, fearsome, and selfish battle. I learned more about philosophy, religious convergences, and racism than I had in all my previous years of education. I am someone siding with Summers would conclude that human nature has predisposed many of us to react better to one way of teaching and that, inevitably, on some intangible and minute physiological scale, certain types of teaching are bound to failure. Larry Summers certainly seemed to think so. In the guise of "returning intellectualism to its traditional roots," he criticized and denigrated West's teaching methods, and the ensuing war of words sent the professor in question and a second valued instructor in the AfAm Department packing off the Princeton. While I cannot deny that Cornell West is not always as receptive to criticism as perhaps he ought to be, Summers took West and his unconventional, innovative methods away from Harvard, denying many future students an experience that was, to me, one of few enlightening times that had the power to renew one's enthusiasm for learning and instill a sense of faith in higher education in those who may make the grade in typical lecture, take-notes-silently type courses but pass through them half asleep, their minds tuned out to the enthusiasm for—and profound meaning behind—the subjects that they study.

Then there was the ominous, blatantly partisan, and autocratic warning to the college community in the fall of 2002 that those students and professors who supported the petition for campus divestment from the Israeli economy because of the United States' continuing financial support of the military exacerbation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were being "anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent." If I recall correctly, the participants in the divestment campaign were concerned that our country has given more military aid to Israel than to any other country ever, save Iraq during the current war, which was not taken into account at the time. It was not a condemnation of Israelis in general, nor was it a protest of Israel's right to exist or the equal rights of Jewish people; it was a criticism of U.S. foreign aid that they believed was, in effect, escalating the violence in the Middle East. Since that speech, every single disagreement on the Harvard campus with Israel's current administration has met with accusations of anti-Semitism. I have born witness to numerous instances of this happening, including "witch hunts" against many progressive activists, and none of them predate Larry Summers' speech. As you can imagine, the campus political mood under our current leadership suffers from a plethora of maladies, not the least of which is a phobia of dissent. Talk about overreactions to imagined slights!

From my observations of Larry Summers, I can only conclude that he is as mired in an outdated system of thinking as he is in his beliefs concerning the values of a diverse education. He repeatedly falls into an "indignation industry" of his own making, and if that makes him a victim of an ideological crucible, so be it.

I guess it would have been suffice to say that the subject was 'tetchy,' huh? :D


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