The STEM Gender Gap: Persistent but not Puzzling

This week of science festivals around the nation has mostly been a very festive occasion, indeed (I, for example, learned at a “science cabaret” last night that Linneaus was obsessed with bananas). It has also brought forth welcome coverage of equity issues in STEM fields: the perpetually low numbers of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in U.S. science and technology occupations. The correction of that under-representation partly justifies the festivals as efforts at STEM outreach and inclusion.

But in that coverage, my eye was caught by the very last point in a long article from PBS NewsHour by Jenny Marder this week, “Why Engineering, Science Gender Gap Persists.”

In this piece, Angela Bielefeldt, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Boulder who has done some very interesting work on the topic, had the last word:

“The important thing to note is how long we’ve been at this,” Bielefeldt said. “The fact that we’ve made no tangible forward progress despite working on this for a long time is puzzling and depressing… and again, we’re not sure what the secret is.”

“Depressing,” yes. That captures it perfectly. But: “Puzzling?” And, “Secret?” I think that language may arise from a spirit of thoughtful inquiry, but set up too many listeners to shrug and move on. I wonder if we too often use a politely perturbed tone to direct attention to something that is really far closer to bigotry than mystery.

As I see it, the previous pages of the article laid out many causes proven by studies over the last 40 (!) years to have contributed to women’s under-representation in STEM classrooms and jobs. These causes range from documented sexism in teaching, hiring and promotion practices to, “…A lack of female mentors” and ”subtle discrimination or work conditions in which men talk in a way that women found disrespectful.” Those are findings produced not by some narrow academic specialty, but by diverse scholarly disciplines (educational theory, workforce policy analysis, psychology, and by scholars in science and engineering themselves),  and by researchers from a huge range of institutions. Their sheer numbers add up to a powerful message for those who are willing to hear it: Day-to-day life in American classrooms and workplaces involves a constant stream of presumptions about the inborn capacities and desires of people of different identities.

There is no subtlety in the way these presumptions work to disadvantage certain groups. That’s clear  from the facts recounted in the article and broadcast, even if you don’t read the deeply disturbing collection of reactionary and creepily retrograde comments which follows the article (many referring to women’s innate intellectual disinclination towards science, or characterizing those concerned with these issues as “cry babies”…). What if Bielefeldt, a person who has clearly seen endless dismaying moments of this kind, had faced the microphone and instead of framing the problem as a mysterious social malaise had said instead, “The behavior I see every day  in classrooms, in labs, in administrative offices, and on civil engineering worksites is discriminatory, and unacceptable”?

Crucially, I don’t mean to say I would have done so.  The circumstances in which STEM activism occurs are by definition settings in which we must make our livings; it is terribly difficult to bring blame into the discussion. And, yes, those proverbial flies do prefer honey. More seriously, I deeply appreciate the very constructive (not blameful) cultural critique and pedagogical ideas introduced into the NewsHour discussion by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and a powerful advocate for bringing young women into the sciences. But if Klawe’s suggestions are to take hold in a significant number of educational settings, I want to suggest that in our discussions of the “gender gap,” we have to stop scratching our heads and own up to the dismal social reality revealed by the evidence offered by experts featured on the program, if not their tone.

The take-home: It is the very stuck-ness of Americans around equity issues, the fact of sexisms’ durability, that we need to foreground.  This lack of progress, as Bielefeldt says, is “the important thing to note.”  Unfortunately, her interviewers or their editors consigned that “thing” to the last note of the discussion. We should start our discussions, in the media and in our own institutions,  grasping and declaring this fact, not puzzled in the least.

It’s Always Sunny in California: CNN on Race, continued

If you have ever seen an episode of “Chopped,” or “Project Runway,” you have a nearly perfect audio and visual image of “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley,” Part 4 of CNN’s  “Black in America” documentary series that aired this evening.  And if you are cringing a bit at the idea of a competitive reality show about being a black tech entrepreneur in America, join the club.

The show followed 8 African American tech innovators seeking investors, gathered for 9 weeks in a ranch house in Mountain View, California, and filmed throughout by CNN. The group of aspiring start-up founders enlisted for this “New Media Accelerator” were provided with guidance from established investors and corporate representatives. We watch the 8 founders energetically prepare for a “Demo Day” to be staged at the end of the 9 weeks: the opportunity to pitch their various ideas to a room full of venture capitalists. Stress builds, narrator Soledad O’Brien tells us, as the clock counts down (wait, did I accidentally switch to the Food Channel??).  The terms “winners” and “losers” are never used, perhaps because they would be too distastefully suggestive of a pagent or talent show, but the program builds to the final “reveal” that 2 of the 8 projects have received funding to date.

This is of course a documentary only in the sense that any other competition-based reality show is. With dramatic music, quick edits, ominous voice-over narration, and the false suspense that reality shows cultivate to keep us watching, intriguing features of participants’ technical aims or market outlooks were barely discussed. Instead, nearly every minute of the film defaulted to a tidy, scripted take-away: Individual talent, fortitude, and market savvy are what determine success and failure in America. During the hour, race was intermittently depicted as a burden for black Americans. Statistics about low African American representation in high-tech industries were quoted, and one participant was revealed to have been stopped by Mountain View police one night for “walking while black.”   A number of the participants also reflected on the rarity of minority presence in America’s tech sector, and some mentioned economic or other adversity they have faced in their lives.  But precisely because those highly personal narratives predominated, as is the norm in any heavily edited reality show (one entrepreneur was identified repeatedly as a single mother of 3; another as hoping to buy a house for his mother), by far the loudest message of the show is that the sorting mechanisms of innate talent and fortitude overwhelm any structural impediments to economic or intellectual fulfillment in America.

Let’s be clear: the ostensible good fortune of receiving CNN’s deus-ex-machina-like attention plays no small part in this hour-long drama of adversity and attainment.  The oft-repeated nickname for the 9-week project, “NewMe,”  is not CNN’s invention but if positioning this program as a  make-over opportunity for marginalized or under-achieving aspirants is what the producers had in mind, that title certainly doesn’t hurt. (It isn’t  clear how  Angela Benton,  who is both a participating entrepreneur and a founder of the NewMe program, came to be the subject of CNN’s film, but the music alone confirms the network’s dramatic intentions in featuring her undertaking as representative of racialized experiences in Silicon Valley.)

We can certainly agree with one of the participating inventors that this unprecedented media exposure for black entrepreneurs  may inspire  minority youngsters otherwise unaware of such role models.  And it seems petty to complain that the show has gotten a huge amount of build-up yet primarily replays the interpersonal conflicts and emotional ups and downs of every other example of the reality genre.   After all: did we really think CNN, a mainstay of bland social commentary,  would instead engage in incisive social critique?

Yet  the whole experience of watching was nonetheless unsettling. I found the show not only superficial, but creepily irresponsible.  Only one mentor, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, explicitly critiqued racism.  Two of the experts enlisted to comment on or advise the 8 start-up projects blamed black Americans for their underrepresentation in high-tech industries. Michael Arrington’s confused remarks about the negligible role of race in the “meritocracy” of Silicon Valley and the importance of schooling and family background in explaining why there are “no black entrepreneurs” have gotten a lot of coverage already (see my last post). Another mentor, Vivek Wadwha, a Duke University researcher and tech entrepreneur of South Asian background (who elsewhere has corroborated the discriminatory habits of the field), disturbingly is heard telling the group that blacks in America unfortunately “have a sense of entitlement” because their forbearers “were slaves,” while “his people” have a different approach that has led them to success.

Soledad O’Brien’s script doesn’t stop to comment on that troubling remark.  As a whole, in fact, I’d say that this gloss on race in Silicon Valley imparts no sense that things need to change, but offers only a conversion of real and complex social experience to formulaic prime-time filler.

A Critical Media Moment? CNN on Race

We have to be grateful that CNN is drawing attention to issues of race in Silicon Valley. Or do we? The cable network’s documentary “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley” airs tomorrow, and if it hones in on structural and institutional racism in American computing and electronics industries, great.  The world of high tech R&D is too easily cast as above or outside of social factors; I spend my days teaching engineering undergrads how to question that presumption.  Specifically, with some powerful reporting by CNN we may see how familiar meritocratic claims about “genius” as the source of American high-tech innovation  (lately fueled by retrospectives of Steve Jobs’ career) have long helped support race-based exclusion in U.S. technology spheres.  I blogged about this the other week.

But I’m a little worried. Advance screenings and media commentary on the film have generated a great deal of conversation, among bloggers and mainstream media alike.  Yesterday the New York Times reflected on the buzz itself, in “CNN Documentary Sets Off Debate on Race and Technology” by Brian Stelter and Jenna Wortham.  And much of that buzz has been about the ways in which individuals depicted in the film, such as Michael Arrington, do or don’t recognize structural inequities; that is, about the talking heads themselves. Their views provide interesting evidence but we need to go from thinking about those individuals  to a broader view.  Hank Williams lays out some of these larger issues for CNN as the network builds hype for the documentary; for example, pervasive economic impediments to the scale-up of minority-led projects. If CNN proves willing to keep that conversation going, bucking a mainstream media tradition of downplaying the race, class and gender inequities still going strong in 21st Century America, then we may have something to thank them for.

The Good-News Game

Is it safe to assume that when CNN reports on a  presidential economic or educational initiative that’s been around for awhile, there’s some serious White House PR effort under way?   A “CNNMoney” column today titled “Recovery at Risk: Community Colleges Step in to Fill ‘Skills Gap'” by Tami Luhby lays out the basics of an Obama-led effort we’ve seen percolating since at least last fall:  American manufacturers actively shaping, and at times supporting  financially, community college programs intended to prepare workers for immediate employment. The President committed millions to the whole Skills for America’s Future initiative some time ago; we saw plenty of news coverage on this last year (as when Bill Gates pumped $35 million into the effort).  I have to wonder how this activity came to seem worthy of  media  coverage again this week; the uncritical tone of the CNN piece gives us a clue.

Since I’ve fretted before about the mismatch between technical curricula and manufacturing jobs, the sometimes misleading economic prospects offered to community college enrollees, it seems like I should give a thumbs up to the trend documented here.  Closer ties between employers and nearby schools  that offer certificates or degrees in technical subjects surely will help correct that mismatch, giving the communities involved a much better shot at raising employment figures.

But while there are exciting success stories for individual enrollees in such programs; a great many dynamic community college faculty and staff including those mentioned by Luhby; and plenty of business owners eager to be involved,  CNN’s coverage ignores systemic obstacles to creating a sizeable pipeline from school to work.  I know from research I’ve done with sociologist Mary Ebeling that the joint efforts of community colleges and their industrial advisory boards are fraught with challenges (think only of the pressures on the colleges to avoid costly, specialized instruction and on the manufacturers to automate and downsize).

The generality and simplicity of the piece is also bewildering.  The column opens with the line, “Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of job openings out there.”  Can this possibly ring true to anybody, this week of all weeks, left, right or center?

In Luhby’s column, Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric, talks in a video excerpt about his leadership of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. His words confirm my suspicion that this piece arises from some White House damage-control impulse.

Click for Immelt interview

Excerpt from CNN interview with Jeff Immelt, Aug. 1, 2011

Asked by interviewer Poppy Harlow to name the Council’s recommendation that he sees as most important in creating jobs, Immelt  offers what he says is “the easiest, no-brainer” step: Speeding up the country’s visitor visa system, thereby upping the nation’s “market share” of tourism,  and thus putting more Americans to work in “the travel and leisure industry.”

Have to say…these are not the first jobs that come to mind when I think “new skills” or high-tech manufacturing.  And sure enough, Immelt himself immediately adds, “You can argue that maybe that’s not as sexy as one of those factory jobs or engineering jobs, but look, that’s a job, and it puts people back to work.”

I’m sure this kind of peptalk is a tiny part of Immelt’s and the Council’s work, but come on:  tourism is a top job-creation priority? Really?  I’m afraid it just doesn’t sound like Immelt’s imagination defaults to picturing unemployed Americans working in the technology sectors. Writing at the time of Immelt’s appointment earlier this year,  journalist Jim Kuhnhenn reminded readers that the GE executive’s appointment, “adds another corporate insider to the White House orbit,” a move that was promising to the Chamber of Commerce but dismaying to union leadership.  Tom Buffenbarger, the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, writes Kuhnhenn, “blamed Immelt for GE’s decision to close plants in Virginia, Massachusetts and Ohio.”  He quotes Buffenbarger on the appointment: “‘We are rewarding the guy who is turning off America’s lights, literally.'”  No wonder Immelt highlights a need for more economic confidence and less red tape if we are to create jobs.  Trust business, don’t regulate it, seems to be the message.

“If we can’t do the easy things, we can’t do the hard things,” Immelt adds in the interview, pointing to the speed with which a visa reforms will lead to those travel-and-leisure sector  jobs.  But when exactly are we going to get to the hard stuff?  Who is going to ask the hard questions about how American manufacturers, whether small local firms or massive multinationals like his own employer,  can see their way to creating secure, well paid jobs, and about which federal policies will support that domestic commitment?   This week’s awful White House concessions to Republican big-business/small-government ideology paint a gloomier-than-ever picture for out-of-work Americans. As a Guardian editorial on Obama’s “sharp right turn” put it yesterday, “Austerity is not the road to recovery.”

Blaming the current economic malaise on a “skills gap” implies that the only thing missing is knowledge, that the only folks who need to step up to fix the economy are the country’s skills-deficient workers and its community college instructors.  Not so, and a good, honest move would be for everyone to lay the blame more precisely: on a jobs gap.

A Hands-Off Management Style. Literally.

“I want to have as few people touching our products as possible.”

So spoke Dan Mishek, the managing director of an industrial plastic products manufacturer in Minnesota, quoted in Catherine Rampell’s NYTimes article yesterday, “Companies Spend on Equipment, Not Workers.” Why would an employer want to keep people away from its products? Germphobia? Elitism? No, just practicality: as hiring becomes increasingly expensive for industry, compared to automation and capital investment in machines in general,  more human hands , it seems, can be an unwelcome presence in the factory.

Mr. Mishek also noted that, “You don’t have to train machines.”  Or read their resumes (“It’s a huge distraction to sort though all those.”)  In essence, where humans proliferate on the shop floor, maximized productivity is threatened.

Mass-production operations have historically minimized the degree to which they depend upon workers (with their insistent human need for wages, training,  and accommodations to safety and fatigue); that’s the basic logic of industrial capitalism and once inside that logic, an employer might reasonably  feel that  no other view of hiring seems rational.  And Rampell aptly includes a single point made both  by the chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses and by the chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.  These analysts note  that with demand for products and services low in the current slow-growing economy, employers won’t be “comfortable” with any kind of investment, “human or otherwise.”

In all ways predictable sentiments, entirely consistent with good business practice in the United States.  So: Why were they featured on the front  page of the New York Times?….

Here’s where it gets interesting:  I presume because on some level,  Rampell and her editors detect that such discomforting managerial commitments, so clearly out of keeping with ostensible national priorities to put more Americans back to work,  keep fading from view.  They are perhaps obscured by the bright, shiny glare of other headlines of the moment, such as, “Obama Touts National Manufacturing Certification Program” (seen the day before in IndustryWeek.com).

According to that piece by Jonathan Katz (and thanks to Mary Ebeling for calling it to my attention), the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Institute, working with President Obama’s Skills for America’s Future,  is supporting a new program to certify half a million community college students with “skills that are critical to manufacturing operations.”  We read, as we have so often in the past year or two, that America’s pharmaceutical, aerospace and biotech sectors need people with skills not yet widely distributed among the nation’s workers, skills broadly grouped under the rubric “high-tech.”

As I’ve written here before,  new skills, many involving  knowledge of new software, applied mathematics and up-to-date machine processes, are no doubt needed by those manufacturers who do still hire, and who do still turn to American labor pools.  Obviously, new jobs are mostly going to arise in emergent industries, not in fading “low-tech” sectors.  But the power of the “minimize hiring” logic is truly immense in our society.  A “skills gap” may well exist on some level, but to picture 500,000 American workers filling such a gap would require a leap over that logic. To pursue, as the NAM’s new training program does,  so utterly uncritically the provision of newly trained manufacturing workers is to ignore the tremendous counter-forces that automation, tax incentives for capital investment, and outsourcing exert on the nation’s industrial employers.

What is more, when companies like those quoted here by Katz say they need “engineers,” are they really picturing men and women with community college credentials? Many high-tech industry folks I’ve spoken to worry about that very slippage; associate’s degrees and certificate programs are simply not providing the level of chemistry, physics and material science preparation needed in their companies’  labs or assembly operations.

I know, I know, I’m like a broken record, a virtual mass-producer of such plaints. But the disconnect is so darn pervasive! So persistent!  I can’t help but ask yet again: Can all of these high-tech-job  boosters possibly be sincere? Are they willfully naive? Why is technical modernization–high tech– constantly painted as a natural and inevitable producer of jobs for American workers, when so very much evidence to the contrary exists??  When managers like Mr. Mishek, to do their jobs well, must–let’s face it–minimize the creation of jobs for others?

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Interesting: A paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Cornell researchers Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams has gained a great deal of media attention, as these things go. Reading the coverage, I’d say we’re definitely a culture split between those who want to put gender bias behind us, and those who want to put any discussion of gender bias behind us.

Ceci and Williams’ report indicates that “sexual discrimination” (the quote marks capture my uncertainty about what that term means in the report, not their own) is no longer much of a factor in the hiring, promotion, grant funding or journal publication of women in the sciences.  Substantive aspects of reviewing and hiring in STEM occupations are in recovery, no longer suffering from gender bias.  The authors do find that institutional and cultural factors may be limiting the attainments of women in science: the essential conflicts between tenure clocks and biological clocks, between child- or elder care demands and competitive funding structures, etc.  These conditions, which constrain women’s choices of  career and lifestyle,  still have to be addressed if women are to attain parity with men  in math-based fields.

I agree with that last point, absolutely. But as someone who studies ideas about identity in scientific workplaces, something seems not quite right to me in the very design of this study, so I worry about how likely it is to actually encourage reform. That is:  It seems to Ceci and Williams like a good idea to differentiate between the social character of  encounters between individuals in job interviews and manuscript review processes (no longer gendered, apparently) and that of institutional policies (still somewhat discriminatory).   That differentiation lets them cast women’s successes at the application or promotion stages as nicely firewalled from the ideologies that shape tenure and family leave and funding policies; daily relationships in  academic departments are apparently post-gender despite whatever is going on down the hall in the dean’s office or HR department or Office of Research.  

But that these are distinct realms within most institutions–with bias dissolved in one unit while it survives in others– seems highly improbable. Do successful employees  (say, tenured faculty) normally maintain functionally different value systems than their bosses (those who approve their raises, and new lines for their departments)?  On some ideological level, maybe,  but in the actual day-to-day operations of an institution? Not likely. Shared standards of good performance by definition connect the two spaces; short  CV’s and slowed tenure clocks are stigmatized throughout.  I’d be very surprised if the lowered rates of  successful tenure, promotion, and funding efforts by women faculty in STEM  fields are not deriving from distributions of opportunities and resources in their home departments; after all, that’s where opportunity and resources are garnered for faculty (or not, for some) .

And I just don’t think the disunity between institutional spaces that Ceci and Williams imply is characteristic of ostensibly meritocratic enterprises like science (or law, or medicine, or the social sciences for that matter!).  But it offers a picture of scientific labor that conveniently  lets Ceci and Williams suggest that money now being spent on, say, monitoring or improving gender bias in the university departments and labs, where decisions about merit are made,  is no longer needed. The Guardian accepts the empirical findings of the NAS study but nonetheless sees the potential danger in that presumption, headlining its coverage of the new report: “Women in science face a career structure and culture that is weighted against them, rather than straightforward individual sexual discrimination”(itals mine).

Others, sadly, are leveraging Ceci and Williams’ report for deeply conservative purposes.  Leave it to John Tierney’s New York Times column of Feb. 9 to embed this news in a larger indictment of  the “liberal” professoriate’s  lock on social science research topics. Tierney centers his column on the reductive and self-serving arguments of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt defends, to  Tierney’s apparent approval, beleaguered “conservative” social science projects,  like Larry Summer’s argument that men’s overrepresentation in math and science has a biological basis. The widespread critique of Summer’s comments and others of that ilk had awful ripple effects, we read in Tierney’s column:

“…the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias.”

According to Tierney,  Ceci and Williams  (like others before them we have regrettably failed to heed) correct that assumption.  But I would ask this: If institutional policies that favor men’s socialization and biology, such as those the new report points to, are not evidence of  “unconscious bias”  then what is?  Tierney’s logic  is selective, at best. I would love to know if Ceci and Williams see it that way.

More STEM, STAT.

Natalie Angier’s angry words about the term “STEM” in her New York Times column last week  (“STEM education has nothing to do with flowers”) are still puzzling to me. 

She made a few good points: The use of acronyms can indeed lead to confusing and exclusive language. STEM education agendas,  simply by grouping certain academic or research activities together and not others, can encourage science and technology to remain remote from social engagement and the concerns of the humanities.  But her ire seemed overblown, sweeping every invocation of STEM away before her  in a blast of almost aesthetic distate for the term. What’s going on here?

The Times published a short letter that I wrote today in response to that column, which I’m glad they titled, “STEM: Fighting Word.”  I hope it captured some other readers’ feelings about her anti-STEM eruption.  But I am left wondering: Is it possible that Angier, a science media writer I have considered among the best,  may not have known that the “STEM” label has adorned countless diversity and equity projects in the science and technical disciplines? If so, those projects are even more marginalized in the science world than I’d  feared. 

We all need to rant now and then.  There are cringe-inducing words that set me off, too:  “Staycation,”  “Spalon”…don’t get me started.  But STEM is a politically and historically complex label.  Angier miscasts it as “didactic and jargony” and thus, for readers who don’t know about STEM’s long-standing role in educational equity,  encourages quick dismissal at every encounter with the word. What a shame. Think of how much good Angier could have done with this column had she distinguished among the multiple invocations of STEM,  rather than just venting.

What is College For? An NPR moment…

A major report came out of Georgetown University yesterday, stressing the necessity for a “closer fit” between industrial workforce needs and the design of higher ed curricula in the U.S.   I don’t quite see how this (not terribly new) recommendation promises much lasting good for either workers or employers: hasn’t industry been trying to minimize the proportion of its workers who are equipped with the maximum amounts of skill… for the last 150 years? Isn’t this why the globalized outsourcing of labor grows by the day? Why exactly would industry ideas of optimized workforce preparation lead to unlimited opportunities for American students? The report’s main author, Anthony Carnevale,  explicitly endorses, if with a shrug of regret, a tiered educational system.  Hmmm…  

For the author’s take, and my own reactions, listen to The Takeaway on NPR this morning.  More from both of us also appears in an Inside Higher Ed piece.

Erring on the Side of…Exclusion

Thank you, John Tierney!  Through your efforts, essentialist thinking about gender and intelligence may keep its hold on Americans for a while longer.  

Tierney suggests in today’s NY Times “Findings” column that we look with skepticism on a new Congressional proposal  to require workshops on gender equity for all those receiving federal science research funding.  The results of standardized tests, Tierney reports, have shown that sex differences are real, gosh darn it;  researchers have proven that gender gaps among the best-performing math and science test-takers  persist from year to year, from generation to generation…why do we insist on resisting the obvious scientific conclusion? Think of the time, trouble,  and money we could save, in classrooms, labs, and HR departments,  if we just accepted the biological fact of women’s innate science and math inability!

The column’s title alone, “Daring to Discuss the Potential of Women in Science”  (my itals.), ensures that this sort of reductive understanding of learning and thinking (something in the brain, that mysterious quaking organ,  makes math easy or hard for people!) will continue to be cast as a brave, selfless, anti-PC act of resistance against…against….Against what? The dangers of inclusive educational programming? Of erring on the side of equity?  Of maximizing occupational opportunities for every American?

No wonder the column’s accompanying illustration is a kooky, retro collage of a pretty blond 1950s “sweater girl,” with gears on her mind and a scientific formula spilling from her lips….Gals in the lab?!  Zany! Let the high-jinks begin!

I know, I know: sarcasm is petty and unattractive.  So before I lose any remaining credibility, let me defer to Troy Duster’s brilliant historical discussion of biological understandings of intellectual capacity. For almost 20 years, editions of his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, have laid out the very worrisome political and cultural implications of our pursuit of biological bases for intellectual and behavioral differences. 

Duster makes it clear that the questions we ask about what counts as aptitude, and the ways in which we measure intelligence,  themselves hide the discriminatory social forces at work in our schools and workplaces.  Where we look for inherited, biomedical, or other biological determinations of human aptitude to explain differences among groups,  we will limit our scrutiny of social, economic  and political causes behind discrepant educational or occupational attainments.  In this way the perceived value of biological research on intelligence is self-reinforcing.

Sure, experimental research on the physiological or genetic endowments associated with cognitive traits seems more objective than study of vague, illusory “social forces” or “values” or “bias.”  But ideology underlies that preference.   As Pierre Bourdieu writes in his forward to the book’s 2003 edition,

Conservatism has always  been linked to forms of thought that tend to reduce the social to the natural–the historical to the biological.

Tierney and the researchers he cites are no doubt concerned about the nature of women’s experiences in science, as they claim; after all, they are probing the matter, not ignoring it. But they don’t really seem interested in the depth and breadth of inquiry that scholars like Duster suggest…that is, in asking questions about their own questions. Those would be the truly daring discussions.

Bad News/Good News/Bad News

I could be projecting here,  but it seems to me that 2-year colleges are getting a lot more media attention these days.  The coverage brings bad news or good news by the day, depending on how you see the role of higher ed in America.

On the worrying side of things for me is a growing conservative enthusiasm for sub-baccalaureate education.  These are voices that tell us that “too many” people are going to college these days…these students are apparently wasting their own time and money, and tax dollars that go to colleges and universities,  since they are destined to become blue-collar or service workers unlikely to “make use” of costly bachelor’s degrees.  

When I first heard  Charles Murray’s  claims along these lines a couple of years ago (particularly a talk called “Education Myths,” hosted by the Cato Institute), I blanched but figured he was just going about his usual essentialist and terribly elitist business (after all, in The Bell Curve he and Richard Herrnstein famously made this kind of deeply discriminatory argument many times over).

But other voices are now joining Murray’s.  The New York Times offered us “Plan B: Skip College”  by Jacques Steinberg yesterday, about educators and analysts who share Murray’s distaste for the expenditure of higher-ed resources on citizens they deem to be lesser lights.

Apparently, we can predict that certain folks won’t get much out of a university education, even before they enroll, and we should stop them in their tracks. Plus, America ostensibly needs workers with the less sophisticated, pared down skill sets that efficiently designed, short, vocational training courses of study might provide…Now that’s a nation aiming high!

Steinberg’s piece did acknowledge that those making such arguments are “touching a third rail of the education system” (a choice of words that unfortunately makes anyone who disagrees with the conservatives sound dangerous and shocking, but still…).   The real good news is that innovative educators are today creating  community colleges programs motivated precisely by inclusion.  InsideHigherEd.com offers us “Taking the Long View,”  by David Moltz, describing transfer-oriented technical programs at 2-year colleges. 

I am quoted in that piece, but the valuable lessons it holds are provided by faculty and administrators from Greenfield Community College, in Massachusetts. That school aims to maximize, not minimize, students’ prospects in technical occupations, by gearing them almost exclusively towards preparation for transfer to 4-year engineering programs. 

Requiring more courses, instructors and facilities,  this is a more costly route, indeed, than limiting opportunities of certain demographic groups to trades training or terminal sub-baccalaureate curricula.  But only in a very short-term fiscal sense.  Simply put, transfer-focused agendas at community colleges promise America a workforce of greater productive potential, not to mention diversity,  than we have ever achieved in this country.

Alas, now back to the bad news: Inside Higher Ed reports this morning that community colleges are facing severe cuts in state and local funding, perhaps an unsurprising  byproduct of federal reductions in support for education and other public services  in recent years.  Many of the functions for community colleges that Obama himself has endorsed,  for drawing larger numbers of Americans into higher ed and improving workforce preparedness,  it is clear, are going to have a harder time than ever sustaining themselves.