Beyond the Gender Issue, What’s the Deal at Harvard?

Some of what Larry Summers said about scientific and mathematical aptitudes was sensible enough. And some of it was the kind of bosh you can expect from an economist, as Mr. Summers is.

Reflections on possible standard deviations in units of scientific intelligence between the sexes-should they exist, and should somebody be able to define them-is speculation, but even the president of Harvard should be allowed to speculate, whether or not he has much of a talent for it. In philosophy, Mr. Summers falls a couple of standard deviations below the mean, to use his kind of lingo.

Nevertheless, Mr. Summers provided food for thought for the rest of us. Start with this bit of his, in which he finds some evidence for genetic differences between peoples. “It is, after all, not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity, and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group,” he famously said. “To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture.”

Only an economist could victimize himself with such thinking, because economists are peculiarly liable to confound “the data” with the facts. Thus, are all Catholics at all times underrepresented in banking-which would have to be the case, or else his statement is uselessly meaningless? No. Quite to the contrary: Banking, as we have come to know it and practice it, was invented by Roman Catholics-Italian Roman Catholics in the late Middle Ages. “Bank” and “bankrupt” are both words taken from the language of their Italian inventors.

So what about the underrepresentation of white men in the National Basketball Association? That may be so, if we confined ourselves to white men born in North America, but white men born in the area of Europe principally inhabited by the southern Slavs-Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, etc.-are probably overrepresented. The same can be said of Lithuania, which has also, it seems, developed a penchant for producing talented professional basketball players.

And lastly, agricultural Jews. They, along with a number of other groups in the United States such as Greeks, Chinese and Finns, are probably underrepresented at harvest time, but are Jews underrepresented in this field in Israel? I don’t think so. In fact, Israel does a fairly decent export business shipping flowers and other agricultural specialties abroad.

So does this pointless blather make Larry Summers an idiot? No, it makes him an economist, which is not quite the same thing. Mr. Summers, of course, has won himself a reputation as a barbarian-that is, one who is both ignorant of and incapable of enjoying what the humanities have to offer-but he is a smart barbarian, and a thoughtful one. Although a lot of people are furious with him, we are not looking at a bad man, only a wild man, backed to the hilt by powerful interests-a man who should be listened to, if only for our own self-protection.

Now to the important part of his meanderings, where Mr. Summers asks, “Who wants to do high-powered intense work?” His answer is that men are more likely to want to do it and, he suspects, they are also, by virtue of their DNA, more likely to be able to do it (if you can divine his reasoning through his spoken solecisms).

“I think it is hard-and again, I am speaking completely descriptively and non-normatively-to say that there are many professions and many activities, and the most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties near-total commitments to their work,” he said. “They expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and they expect-and this is harder to measure-but they expect that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place. And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women ….

“Another way to put the point is to say, what fraction of young women in their mid-20′s make a decision that they don’t want to have a job that they think about 80 hours a week? What fraction of young men make a decision that they’re unwilling to have a job that they think about 80 hours a week?”

In a previous age, it would have been astounding for the head of a university-a position once considered that of an educator-to be preaching a gospel in which self, selfishness and careerism are the highest values, or, as Mr. Summers put it, “What’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity.” And as the tone of Mr. Summers’ thoughts makes clear, it is the high-power, high-intensity life which has the sizzle he lives for and respects in others.

One high-powered, 80-hours-a-week woman in the news who must be about 10 standard deviations ahead of even Larry in “total commitment” to “intense work” is Carleton Fiorina, the recently deposed head of Hewlett Packard. Sheila W. Wellington, a professor at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, was quoted in The New York Times about Ms. Fiorina: “Women still have the stereotype of nurturers and team builders, and that wasn’t Carly …. She was a tough boss, hard critic, stern judge, and women still don’t get approbation for those traits.”

So Ms. Fiorina is saluted for being “tough” and “hard,” a Larry Summers kind of guy, but actually a woman, one who overcame her ovarian handicap by suppressing any inclination she might have had toward “nurturing” or working with others (“team building”). She would, by this estimate, have made a perfect Harvard/corporate/professor person, a feral human, a totally competitive tiger, a 24/7 workaholic, able, ready and eager to show the board of directors that she puts her career ahead of the bonds of affection, loyalty, love of truth or any other virtue which might get in the way of success. (For the record, I am not saying Ms. Fiorina is such a beastly person, only that others praise her for being one.)

If everybody is to be a hard-driving S.O.B., then who is going to be nurturing, forgiving or care for something other than the bottom line or tenure in Cambridge? Do those qualities get dumped overboard with Mr. Summers’ famous contempt for the humanities (i.e., music, painting and writing on a higher plane than lab notes)? We can hope that Harvard, behind its president’s back, is turning out a better grade of human being-although, with its reputation for students committing suicide, I’d have second thoughts about sending a kid of mine there.

Nevertheless, while a goodly number of decent young people are doubtless getting through the place without being tainted by its president’s morals (or the proud lack thereof), Harvard has won itself an ill renown as a factory for gimlet-eyed lawyers who are better at fast tricks than justice, and clever businessmen who ruin the companies they run but make it out the back door with their sack of gold before the stockholders find out their retirement money is gone.

What a pathetic mess we and Larry are in, but we are not hopeless cases. Mr. Summers confessed to his audience that when his 21¼ 2-year-old twin daughters were given not dolls but trucks, he overheard them saying to each other, “Look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck.”