Friday, December 18, 2009


What is this spot for?

Well, it's a repository for commentary on the things I care about (and everyone else should, too). I may remark here on anything from politics to popular culture, depending on what tidbit of news or other reading in a given day activates my cacoethes scribendi (that's "itch to write"). Today I'm satisfying this craving just by getting started; more focused commentary will appear in the near future.

I'll start with a column I wrote several years ago, back when Harvard ex-president Larry Summers' faux pas was still in the news. This is the kind of thing that sets me thinking. My "itch to write" becomes too insistent to ignore.

What the Summers Flap Says About Me
By Kelley Swilley Ceccato

Harvard President Larry Summers is dining on filet of boot-sole: he has asserted that one of the reasons women do not advance as far and as often in science as men may be their “innate ability” – or lack thereof. His biggest mistake: he failed to read his audience. He should have known that the academics he was speaking to would translate his remarks very simply, as “Women are too stupid to be good scientists.”
Let me take a benefit-of-the-doubt, glass-is-half-full approach for just a minute. What Summers really said was not the crude translation above. Instead, he was simply pointing out what scientists have known and studied for some time: that differences exist in the ways that male and female students learn. We have spent a good deal of time and effort trying to ignore or erase these differences, or else to suggest that there’s only one way to learn a particular subject… and what do we have? Girls and women still lagging behind in the sciences, and an alarming decrease in the number of boys who deem it worth their while to attend college. It seems to me that acknowledging and continuing to study the differences in male and female learning styles may actually be the first step towards correcting the problems: if girls are taught math and science, and boys are taught linguistics and humanities, in ways more compatible with their learning styles, they might just be more likely to explore and excel in these areas. Perhaps Summers’ statement is really a strong argument in favor of single-gender education, and I am not one to turn up my nose at any strategy that helps girls and boys reach their full potential.
Yet I must admit that when I first read Summers’ remarks about women’s “innate ability” keeping them down in the sciences, my first reaction was to get angry, to take offense, to leave the room mentally (as many women walked out on Summers’ speech). Only after a time was I able to step back and consider the source of my anger. After all, just how much power does a man like Summers have over me or the way I teach my English classes? If I let his suggestions drive me to anger, am I not giving him and his remarks more credit than they deserve?
I have dealt with remarks far more offensive than Summers’. An acquaintance of mine once averred that 75 percent of women are incapable of rational thought, and he tried to salve my indignation by suggesting that I, an avid reader and literature scholar and aspiring writer, must be in the remaining 25 percent. I never did manage to get him to explain just where he had come up with these statistics or exactly how he defined “rational thought.”
Worse still, a retired faculty member at my former place of employment had a habit of telling his students that girls were bound to have a tough time in his English classes because girls were not smart enough to study literature. When one of his ex-students told me about this, I suggested the man had to be kidding; no, the student replied, he was deadly serious. Afterwards I could barely look at the man, let alone speak to him. I couldn’t help wondering what possible pleasure he could gain from interacting with a bunch of ditzes who lack the brainpower to read, remember, or analyze great books.
I still catch myself getting angry when I think about this ex-professor and his comments. But why should I? So, women are too stupid to study literature; that will come as news to the female literature professors who guided me through my graduate studies. I certainly did not earn my PhD in English by being too stupid to do the work. This misguided ex-professor’s students had only to look around them to see that women outnumbered men among the teachers in his own department. So why should his comments anger me? Why should I bother thinking about them at all?
I can only conclude, with a touch of sadness and shame, that a tiny part of me must fear he has a point, and must wonder if perhaps women aren’t bright enough to study literature (and then, of course, I feel like a traitor to my sex). Never mind those years I spent shaping my vast store of arguments into an acceptable dissertation; I must carry around in my mind this grain of doubt about my own abilities. I wonder how many women moved to fury by Summers’ remarks experience this same grain of self-doubt – as if, regardless of how much they have achieved, a few awkwardly chosen words by Summers can strip them of those achievements.
Perhaps this lack of faith in ourselves, our talents, and our strengths is the biggest “innate disability” that women like me suffer from. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, nobody can make us feel inferior without our permission. So why do we keep giving other people that permission?
With regard to Summers and his proposition of “innate ability,” he may have something there. I know I’m no scientist. Where academics are concerned, I’m as girly-girl as they come, with my focus solidly on the humanities. Stories fascinate me. Different ways of telling stories – novels, plays, poems, art, music, film – excite me. The uniqueness of each individual text, from a Yeats poem to a student essay, intrigues me. I always felt mathematics lacked that fascinating individuality, so I never excelled in it. Biology, the science of life, interested me to some degree, but in chemistry and physics I always came up against my dislike of math. I will say with some degree of pride that I did earn an A in my undergraduate physical science course, but nothing I learned in there has managed to stick.
My point? We learn what we want to learn. As students, as teachers, and as private citizens, we absorb the information we choose, and in this choice our “innate abilities” show themselves. How and why do we choose? Curiosity pushes us to learn more and leads us to develop skills and talents, which in turn make achievement possible. If we want to encourage girls to be more active in the sciences, then we need to find ways to spark their curiosity in those areas, to make them want to learn more, and we don’t do that by ignoring the differences in male and female learning styles and insisting that there’s only one hard, fixed approach to science.
The achievements we earn by following our curiosity belong to us, and no one – not Summers, not a retired English professor, not my old acquaintance with his dubious statistics – has the power to take them from us. We need to stop giving them that power. The student who told me about her teacher’s remarks that “women lack the brains to study literature” did not storm out of the room and drop the course; she stayed with it, and through determination and hard work, she earned an A. Her action proved him wrong.
In short, here’s our new watchword, ladies: Stop being offended and do something.

That's me in "serious mode." Other serious remarks may follow, but you're just as likely to find here such things as musing on the upcoming Academy Award nominations, the new seasons of "Chuck" and "Doctor Who," favorite cartoons (animation is a passion of mine), and the greatest female characters in literature.
Until later---

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