Why Harvard President’s Apology to Women is Not Good Enough
Thursday, February 24, 3005
Martin Haberman

In a recent address Lawrence H. Summers the President of Harvard stated that women may lag in science and math because of “intrinsic aptitude”. Since he made the remark the press has kept the story alive and his faculty has expressed grave doubts about his potential to continue as the leader of America’s most prestigious university.

At last count Pres. Summers has apologized three times and seems willing to continue apologizing. The question is whether his apology can be accepted and the matter closed. I don’t believe it can.

Over the last forty six years my work in teacher education has repeatedly found that the ideology of educators controls and predicts their behavior. Those who believe that innate ability explains how much and what people can learn are most likely to be failures at teaching children and students at all levels. Those who are the most effective educators, from kindergarten through post-doctoral study, share an ideology that explains learning as the result of effort and opportunity..

Building on the ability versus effort difference, great teachers and failure teachers also disagree on their explanations of who and what is responsible for particular student constituencies not learning as much as they might have. The ideology of great teachers leads them to explain the failure of various constituencies to achieve in particular content areas in terms of dysfunctional schools, irrelevant curricula and incompetent instruction. The ideology of failure teachers leads them to look for inadequacies in the students (e.g. innate ability and other handicapping conditions) and in families and social subgroups who also test lower on measures of innate ability.

President Summer’s explanation was a perfect representation of the ideology of failure educators whose commitment to innate ability as the most powerful predictor of students’ learning makes them look in the wrong place for how more can be learned.

The logical consequence of Pres. Summer’s ideology is that Harvard should not be concerned or held accountable if there are significantly fewer women graduating in math and science.

The questions I would raise with Pres. Summers and the millions who I expect share his ideology are the following.

1. The achievement gap in public schools between boys and girls is as great as the racial gap between whites and African Americans or between whites and Latinos. Boys do not learn to read and write as early or as well or to the advanced levels of girls. When the achievement gap is discussed it is automatically assumed to relate to the racial gap. In fact, public education is under educating half of the school population if we look at achievement in reading and writing. Schools work significantly better for girls than for boys.

2. The achievement gap between Americans and those in other countries, particularly in math and science has been documented annually for decades. If we left all students of color out of the American sample I would predict we would not move up much from our present level of 26th in the world.

Given Pres. Summer’s commitment to “intrinsic aptitude” I would ask all those who believe as he does to answer the following questions: Is the reason that Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Indians and other ethnic groups consistently score higher than American students in math and science because they have greater “intrinsic aptitudes” to learn science and math or because they work harder at it? Is the reason that girls learn to read and write better than boys because they have greater “intrinsic aptitudes” or that most female teachers have more problems managing boys?

Why did Pres. Summers choose to use the achievement of women in science and math to make his point regarding “intrinsic aptitude”? Why didn’t he raise questions such as: “It is likely that boys have a lower “intrinsic aptitude” to become literate than girls.” Or, “It is likely that Caucasians have a lower “intrinsic ability” to learn math and science than Asians”. The reason he didn’t state his commitment to “intrinsic aptitudes” in these ways is that Pres. Summers explains the world in terms of his ideology and not in terms of any “intrinsic aptitude.

Martin Haberman
Distinguished Professor
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

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