When Larry Summers, then President of Harvard, dared suggest that genetic differences between men and women might, in general, predispose them to greater abilities in different fields, I had no problem with that. When he was pilloried and forced to resign, I was appalled (though not surprised) at the continuing evidence that liberals aren't necessarily liberal, those who call loudest for tolerance aren't tolerant, and "academic freedom" is an oxymoron. If the presence of a Y chromosome instead of an X can make differences that are visible and obvious, to insist that it can't possibly make more subtle differences, and to forbid inquiry into the matter, is as bad as the Catholic Church in Medieval times. Worse, because I don't think the Church ever claimed to be open-minded.

Yet as fast as Harvard tried to distance itself from Summers' heresy, there are more serious worms in its own apple.

Ben Barres is an M.D./Ph.D. professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. What makes his comments on sexual discrimination in science and academia especially insightful is that until 10 years ago, he was Barbara Barres. As a man, he suddenly found himself receiving much more respect than he had as a woman, at least among people who don't know his history. Even in such a hotbed of liberalism as Cambridge, Massachusetts, both MIT and Harvard failed the test. When Barbara was the only person in a class full of men to solve a difficult math problem, her professor suggested that her boyfriend had solved it for her. At Harvard the situation was even more interesting, because Barbara became Ben in the middle of her/his graduate studies. One faculty member (who apparently knew neither Barbara nor Ben very well) remarked, "Ben Barres gave such a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's.

It matters not a bit to me if there are differences between groups of people considered en masse, because everyone deserves to be treated as an individual. Insurance companies have some justification for considering a person in terms of his inclusion in broad classes (male, Asian, non-smoker, overweight, etc.) because that is what makes insurance work. The rest of us have no excuse, and the educational system especially; from preschool to Harvard, should be looking at individuals, not stereotypes.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, July 15, 2006 at 7:05 am | Edit
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