The Unpardonable Sin of Larry Summers

Seven weeks have elapsed since Harvard President Lawrence Summers, at a gathering at MIT, ruminated on the reasons for the paucity of women scholars in the math and science departments. Since then, the scourging of poor Summers has not let up.

Though he has groveled as men will to keep prestigious posts, Larry Summers has failed to mollify his attackers. Why can they not accept his repeated apologies?

Answer: Because Summers committed an unpardonable sin. By saying that differences in “intrinsic aptitude” may explain the failure of women to achieve equally at the highest levels of math and science, Summers suggested that he believes superior intelligence may be linked to gender. He has questioned a defining dogma of the egalitarian faith.

Equally unforgivable, to Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, Summers said that achieving “diversity” at Harvard may mean advancing the less qualified. Here is the passage that sent Robinson reeling and left Prof. Nancy Hopkins almost vomiting (“I felt I was going to be sick. … My heart was pounding … my breath was shallow”):

“When major diversity efforts are mounted,” said Summers, “and special efforts are made, and you look five years later at the quality of the people who have been hired … how many of them are what the right-wing critics of all of this suppose represent clear abandonment of quality standards?”

Underlying that assumption, says Robinson, “is the assumption that diversity means lowering standards. He is telling women and minorities at Harvard that they’re suspect, that they may well be unqualified …”

You got that right, Mr. Robinson. And while Summers raised the issue in the form of a question, he did indeed suggest that conservatives, who say affirmative action produces a faculty of lower intellectual caliber, may just be right.

Summers revealed that he has dipped into the literature about the links between heredity and intelligence, and he may believe it. Moreover, he implies that he believes that hiring on academic ability alone may produce a faculty far less diverse than the one demanded by Robinson and Hopkins.

That Summers sinned against liberal orthodoxy is undeniable. But he has raised questions that will not go away. Is he right? Is there a link between heredity, intelligence and academic achievement? Is it true that the drive for diversity, using affirmative action and racial, ethnic and gender quotas, has degraded academic standards at Harvard? Summers would not be the first intellectual who, having tip-toed into this minefield, never returned.

By introducing into the argument Summers’ disciplining of the famed black scholar Cornell West and the qualifications, or lack of them, of Summer’s “white colleagues” and the “white male professors” at Harvard, Robinson puts the race card face up on the table. He is implying the Harvard president may harbor racist views.

Summers’ anguish aside, the episode is good for Harvard and good for America. For it has exposed both the intolerance of the Left to dissent to its core dogmas and the fraudulence of Harvard’s pretense to be a place where academic freedom reigns and all issues are open for discussion.

From the inquisition of Summers and the demand that he recant, or quit Harvard, it is clear that a central tenet of egalitarianism — that men and women are created equal in intellectual ability and any inequality of achievement is due to sexism or other extrinsic factors — is a subject that is forbidden for an Ivy League president or serious scholar to raise.

How does Summers get off the hook on which he is impaled?

Clearly, he believes that differences in intrinsic aptitude — i.e., nature, not nurture — may explain the absence of women scholars at the apex of the academy in math and science. His dilemma: If he now denies he believes it, he sins against truth. But if he says he believes it may be true, he is extra ecclesiam, outside the church, an avowed heretic, and excommunication from Harvard is the punishment.

The reaction to Summers reveals something else: a fear in the heart of the establishment of where a debate on the subject he pried open might lead. For if Summers is right, and gender does explain the difference in the test scores of women and men in math, what other differences might genetics explain?

An interesting question, in that social policy in America and our welfare state are premised on the proposition that there are no real differences in “intrinsic aptitude,” that everyone is equally equipped to succeed in school and life, even though it is apparent that we are not all equally gifted to succeed in other fields, from athletics to the arts, from music to military prowess. Can it be that biology is destiny?