Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Boys, Girls, and Harvard

Mark Graber

The president of Harvard University, who seems to think that men have a genetic predisposition to math and the sciences, might benefit from taking a look at the Montgomery County (Maryland) magnet programs. Superficially, boys seem to gravitate toward sciences and math more than girls. The ratios strike me (all of these observations are just impressions) as about 3-2, both in the magnet program and in the honors given out for sciences and math (i.e., the gender ratio of super magnet students seems about the same as the gender ratio in the magnet program). In short, if there is a genetic advantage, it’s the equivalent of about three inches in basketball. Useful, but there are a lot of 6'3" guards in the NBA who compete with their 6'6" peers. Certainly, nothing in the science magnets would lead one to think that boys enjoy the sort of genetic advantage that would lead to the enormous disparities in tenured faculty in the sciences at Harvard and other universities of that ilk.

Other disparities exist in the math/science programs, both in the programs themselves and in the students who win awards. Initial impressions suggest a disproportionate number of students with Asian surnames and, to a lesser extent, Jewish surnames, appear on the honors lists.. I expect the same is true of elite math and science departments. Does Larry Summers believe that Asians and Jews are genetically predisposed to math and sciences? Why is the success of some groups more often attributed to genetic predisposition and other groups to culture (or hard work)? Given my druthers, I’d rather have any success I might enjoy be attributed to something like hard work, which seems in my control, than to my genes.

Curiously, Larry Summers does not seem to have taken a look at humanities. In these disciplines, younger girls are dominating their male peers. The year my younger daughter applied to the middle school humanities magnet, the initial acceptances were 94 girls and 6 boys. Given the stature of the program in question, this seems to be genetic superiority greater than the 3-2 ratio in the math program. Indeed, the later ratio might simply be a consequence of bright girls being more rounded that bright boys (i.e., more girls who got into the math program elected to go to the humanities program than boys who got into the humanities program opted for math). And from what I gather, traditional liberal arts colleges are starved for qualified boys. These observations prompt several questions..

Why does the president of Harvard focus only on those academic areas where superficial numbers suggest boys do slightly better than girls, ignoring those academic areas where initial impressions suggest girls do much better than boys?

Rather than genetics, doesn’t it seem more likely that the tenured faculty in science departments are overwhelmingly male for the same environmental reasons which explain why most English departments have at least as many tenured men as women? Men in our society improve their standing vis-a-vis women in all disciplines from high school and college to professional life. When men start with a slight advantage, they wind up with almost total control. When men start with a severe disadvantage, they obtain equality, if not some advantage. This is culture, not genetics, unless one assumes the genetic effects of masculinity only kick in around age 25. This notion, obviously absurd, also contradicts medical observations that genetic predispositions generally begin to exert their influence early in life.

At the same time that women have more successfully infiltrated English departments than Physics departments, the pay for tenured physicists has increased at a much faster rate than the pay for tenured humanists. Science is, of course, wonderful, but it strikes me that we presently could use a few more people with expertise in third world culture and languages (which by Summerian standards women have greater natural talent than men), and yet language and cultural education are among the lowest paid disciplines in the academy.

Many institutions have responded to the boy/male crisis in the humanities by lowering their standards for boys. Montgomery County did this publicly after only 6 boys were initially offered acceptance into the humanities program. Much anecdotal evidence indicates that many liberal arts colleges have similarly lowered standards for boys in the name of diversity. Where is the conservative outrage? Or is the real meaning of diversity that advantaged groups must be represented at a university no matter what their objective qualifications.


good blog all round..nice to read it..
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