Monday, May 10, 2010

Harvard Law has fallen into the hands of intellectual Fascists. Free enquiry is dead

Their feminist dean has all the respect for facts and logic that one expects from a committed feminist

Late last month, controversy erupted at Harvard Law School after a private email written in November was leaked to the law school community. In it, a third year student, clarifying her views after a dinner conversation with two close friends, explained to them that she wanted to understand the science and research on whether intelligence may have a genetic component and whether African Americans may be “less intelligent on a genetic level.”

Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow promptly responded by issuing a statement condemning the email and reminding students and faculty that the right to free speech comes with responsibilities. Unfortunately, the dean also reinforced the most common and serious prejudice at American universities today, which targets those who think, or who merely wish to examine critically, nonconforming or disfavored thoughts.

Dean Minow’s statement, moreover, failed to honor the scholar’s duty to restate accurately a view one is criticizing. According to Minow, the student’s email “suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.” That’s an incendiary revision.

What the student actually wrote is that she couldn’t “rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” Then, in the very next sentence, she entertained the possibility that there is no genetic variation in intelligence between the races: “I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances.” The student went on to speculate that “cultural differences” are probably “the most important sources of disparate test scores.” And the student elaborated at length an argument from Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy that in the student’s judgment deftly showed, despite the absence of “quantifiable data,” that racial disparities for violent crimes were rooted in culture. In sum, the student clearly expressed the desire to set aside conclusions of the heart, and instead examine the scientific data and consider reasoned analysis concerning the genetic basis of intelligence.

Minow’s rewriting of the after-dinner email, however, turned the student’s competing hypotheses and interest in the scientific evidence into a crude racist claim about people’s relative moral worth. Unless, perhaps, Dean Minow assumes that interest in some empirical propositions is inherently racist. Or was it the dean’s even more illiberal and antidemocratic assumption that human moral worth is a function of IQ that justified her condemnation of the student?

Furthermore, the dean implicitly encouraged members of the law school community to regard the student as a pariah when she added that “circulation of one student’s comment does not reflect the views of the school or the overwhelming majority of the members of this community.”

While devoting the longest paragraph of her brief statement to praising the Black Law Students Association for the way it handled “the hurt” caused by the email, Minow did not counterbalance her distancing of the law school from the email’s student author by offering even a hint of reproach for the gross violation of the student’s privacy involved in distributing the email, or a word of caution about the difficulties in interpreting private comments that become fodder for public controversy.

In a statement posted on their website, the Harvard Black Law Students Association echoed Minow’s misrepresentation of the student’s views, further contending that the student’s characterization of African Americans as genetically inferior to white people was “racially inflammatory,” “deplorable,” and “offensive.”

By this time, as Dean Minow noted in her statement, the student had already issued an unequivocal apology: “I am deeply sorry for the pain caused by my email. I never intended to cause any harm, and I am heartbroken and devastated by the harm that has ensued. I would give anything to take it back.”

This saga has followed the same dispiriting trajectory as that of the Lawrence Summers affair. In 2005, the then president of Harvard University spoke at a private off-the-record seminar organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research to explore why women, who had made great strides throughout most of higher education, remained significantly underrepresented in sciences and engineering. One of the hypotheses that Summers considered—which he hedged with caveats while insisting that more research was needed—was that fewer women than men were born with the extremely high levels of abstract theoretical intelligence that graduate study of science and engineering requires. Although he explicitly rejected it is as the chief factor, Summers’s tentative discussion proved too much for MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins. She set off a national controversy by walking out of the meeting, informing the Boston Globe that if she hadn’t, “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up,” and suggesting that Summers had argued that women were genetically inferior to men.

The controversy presented Summers with an opportunity to instruct Harvard and the larger public about the university’s proper mission. He might have begun by pointing out that he had participated in the meeting because of his devotion to equal treatment for women and had argued that the most important factor explaining women’s underrepresentation in the sciences is probably that many young women with the requisite intellectual gifts rationally choose to go into law, business, or medicine, which allows them to establish careers and begin families in much less time than in the sciences. And he should have concentrated on arguing that it is the special task of the university to expose a range of hypotheses, including unpopular ones, to rigorous analysis.

Instead, Summers issued one groveling apology after another, endorsing his critics’ view that his remarks were false and insensitive. This was to no avail. He lost a no-confidence vote in the faculty of arts and sciences and within a year was ousted from Harvard’s presidency.

It is not to be expected that a third-year law student, publicly accused by her dean of making hurtful, racist comments, would step up to defend herself in light of the university’s proper mission. But it is to be lamented that Dean Minow, who sought to turn the controversy into a teachable moment, taught the wrong lesson.

For Minow, the lesson is that members of the university community must learn to be more sensitive. For fear of offending each other and causing hurt, students and faculty must not mention, even in private correspondence, a proposition that “resonates with old and hurtful misconceptions,” even if the proposition itself—concerning the biological basis of intelligence—can be proven false through empirical investigation. This, though, is an intellectually stultifying obligation. In a complicated world, everything resonates with everything.

Contrary to Dean Minow, our students and faculty need to learn to be less sensitive. Instead, they need to develop the virtues of toleration and intellectual humility. The cultivation of sensitivity sharpens antennae for hurtful words and ideas, and encourages complaining whenever they sting. In contrast, toleration, particularly at universities, means suffering with equanimity the expression of disagreeable, even odious, opinions, provided that they are subject to reasoned analysis. The cultivation of humility fosters respect for others and their opinions and a willingness to follow logic, evidence, and experience—to consider that one might be wrong and to find in others’ errors the occasion for improving one’s own understanding.

The question of race and IQ is explosive. It has an ugly history, and it has been tied to cruel injustice. But the nefarious use of opinions about the biological basis of intelligence is no reason to denounce a student who advocates submitting competing claims to systematic inquiry.

In her statement to the Harvard Law School community, Dean Minow ought to have proclaimed that free speech on campus is very broad, that it is rooted in the freedom and equality of all human beings, and that its purpose is to protect the robust examination of ideas, including controversial ones, in order that the truth may emerge. She ought to have reminded students and faculty who cherish free inquiry that it is their responsibility to confront views that they deplore with better evidence and stronger arguments.

If Dean Minow’s principle that hurtful opinions must go unspoken and unexamined were taken seriously and applied impartially, then law schools and universities would be obliged to close down the dispassionate investigation of an enormous range of important public issues, from the morality, law, and politics of abortion, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage to the causes of the financial crisis; from the efficiency and justice of health care reform to the rules governing the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of enemy combatants; from Middle East politics to immigration.

And that’s no way to run a law school or a university.


Powerline has an incisive summary of the matter

Plan to shut alleged philosophy course condemned by British academics

Good riddance to Marxist rubbish

Plans to shut one of the world’s leading university philosophy courses have sparked outrage among academics. Professors claimed that a decision to phase out teaching of the subject at Middlesex University would seriously undermine future research into the humanities.

The move has already led to a 12,000-strong petition and a “sit in” protest by students at the university’s north London campus.

The decision comes amid widespread cuts announced at higher education institutions across the UK after it was revealed university budgets would be slashed by almost £500 million next year.

The University and College Union estimate that more than 15,000 jobs – the majority academic posts – could disappear in the next few years.

Cutbacks are being made at institutions including King’s College London, Westminster, Leeds, Sheffield Hallam, Hull, Cumbria, Wolverhampton and the University of the West of England.

Middlesex has decided to close its philosophy teaching programme, insisting that the number of BA students has hit “unsustainably low” numbers, at 12 a year.

But some of the world’s leading philosophers have said that the move is of “national and international concern”. In a letter to Times Higher Education magazine, it was claimed that the decision would threaten subjects such as critical theory, aesthetics, Marxism and psychoanalysis. [Philosophical rubbish, in other words]

The letter – signed by more than 20 academics – said: “Middlesex is widely recognised as one of the most important centres for the study of modern European philosophy anywhere in the English-speaking world.”


Obama blames computer games for educational failures

How pathetic can you get?

President Barack Obama told college graduates on Sunday the era of the iPod and the Xbox has not always been good for the cause of a strong education.

Obama made the point in a commencement speech to more than 1,000 graduates and thousands of their family and friends gathered on the football field at Hampton University, a historically black college in southeastern Virginia.

Obama said today's college graduates are coming of age at a time of great difficulty for the United States. They face a tough economy for jobs, two wars and a 24/7 media environment not always dedicated to the truth, he said.

Added to the mix are the distractions offered by popular electronic devices that entertain millions of Americans. "With iPods and iPads; Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation," Obama said. "All of this is not only putting new pressures on you. It is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy," Obama said.

Wearing a colorful ceremonial robe, Obama stressed the importance of a good education to adapt to what he called "a period of breathtaking change."

Obama, the United States' first African-American president, said black students face more difficult headwinds than others and are typically outperformed by their white classmates.

He urged the Hampton graduates to be role models and mentors to younger people to teach them the importance of education and personal responsibility.

Obama also said an education can help people sift through the many voices "clamoring for attention on blogs, on cable, on talk radio" and help them find the truth. "Let's face it, even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I've had some experience with that myself," said Obama.


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