Date: 23/10/2019
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Harvard loses its wildebeest

This piece by Gerard Baker may be of interest to anyone concerned about the rise of political correctness in American universities. Baker argues that, with the resignation of Harvard's President, Larry Summers, the "closing of the American mind" is one step nearer.

TWENTY YEARS AGO the American philosopher, Allan Bloom, published a book called The Closing of the American Mind, a devastating indictment of the nation’s universities and, more broadly, of its cultural elites.

Its premise was that the spirit of openness, a willingness to consider ideas freely, the great virtue of American life and the guiding ethos of a university had been perverted into a cultural relativism. From the 1960s liberal philosophy had taken hold, defiantly asserting that truth was in the eye of the beholder, and that notions of absolute ideals or virtues were anachronistic. In this new world, liberal democracy was no better than totalitarian theocracy, Plato’s philosophy was no more valid than Marianne Faithfull’s and Mozart should be considered on the same terms as the Monkees.

The resignation of Larry Summers as President of Harvard University this week indicates that the closing of the American mind is a continuing process, remorselessly squeezing the light out of its academic enlightenment. ....

These days the values more often prized in university heads have less to do with intellectual candlepower, and more to do with smoothness, access to influence, and above all, a capacity to generate hundreds of millions of dollars. Smooth, Mr Summers was not. In his often awkward personal habits, overweening intellectual self-confidence and execrable management style, he variously appalled and terrified. Never properly socialised, this impatient young man behaved in the rarefied surroundings of government departments, diplomatic salons and academic common rooms like a semi-housetrained wildebeest...

But it was not his arrogance, or his table manners, or even his envy-inducing genius that did for him at Harvard. It was his determined and ultimately futile effort to open the closed minds of America’s proudest academic elite...

Most famously, a year ago, he questioned whether that there were so few women professors at the top of their fields in mathematics and engineering might reflect not only sexual discrimination, but also gender-specific aptitudes in different disciplines.

In the Index of Sins against modern academic political correctness, this is about as grave as it gets. Even to suggest the possibility that there might be innate differences between the sexes or races that could lead to different outcomes is to invite condemnation from the academic Church of the Closed Mind. Despite abject apologies for his errors (which he now regrets), the closed-mind crowd wanted his blood. And this week, after the threat of yet another vote of no-confidence from his faculty members, they got it.

I would be interested to hear what any US readers have to say about whether or not this hounding of a maverick - or wildebeest -  is typical of what goes on in American universities. On the specific point about men's and women's aptitudes for mathematics and engineering, I find it outrageous that Professor Summers is not allowed even to ask the question. Perhaps men are, on average, better at these subjects, just as women may be, on average, better at languages. As a feminist I have no problem even with the idea that men are, on average, more intelligent than women. I have no idea whether this is true or not, and I suspect it is not, but the point is, we are talking about averages. It should not affect any individual man or woman's chances in life. Average ability need have no implications for the opportunities that men and women, or blacks and whites, should be given for study and advancement in these fields. These opportunites should be awarded on merit alone.

I am completely opposed to the idea of quotas by race or sex. If a class of top mathematicians turned out, purely on merit, to be all female and all Chinese, then so what?  It does not mean that there has been discrimination. It is ironic that quotas are often enforced in the name of diversity. The result may be diversity of skin colour and gender, but sadly bland uniformity of opinion.