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. 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.

Trade Secrets

Last week, the San Jose Mercury News offered two articles by Mike Swift that are must-reads for anyone concerned with diversity in technical occupations. The title of the first, “Blacks, Latinos and women lose ground at Silicon Valley tech companies,” makes the importance of that piece clear. The newspaper analyzed combined work forces of ten regional companies, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard and eBay, and found that already small numbers of black and Hispanic workers in those firms declined from 1999 to 2005. Swift analyzes this data, provided through the U.S. Department of Labor, in a rare and commendable inquiry into the social dimensions of high-tech industries–usually so venerated as a source of the nation’s economic health and international competitiveness that we dare not “quibble” about their involvement with diversity. 

But it is the second article, posted the next day, that I want to hone in on.

That piece, “Five Silicon Valley companies fought release of employment data, and won,”  tells us something new and worrisome about why minority involvement in high tech enterprise may have dropped. Swift recounts how five other firms, including Apple, Google, and Yahoo, declined to have the Labor Department provide the Mercury News with information about their workforces’ race and gender representation. The newspaper’s 18-month pursuit of the data through the Freedom of Information Act resulted in federal regulators confirming the companies’ claim that such revelations would cause them “commercial harm.” Let’s think about the implications of both the claim and official support for it.

Maybe these companies, which together employ tens of thousands of people,  are trying to hide poor performance in this area, a failure to engage or retain a diverse workforce.  Maybe not; We don’t know. But we do know that their argument against releasing the data itself bodes ill. For one thing, the idea that public disclosure of the number of female managers or Hispanic engineers working in a company could provide competitors with  information about a firm’s operations or productivity is positively creepy. Is the presumption that employees’ genders or ethnicities enhance their performances, or diminish their contributions? Or does that depend on the gender or ethnicity in question?  Either way, highly problematic…After all, how can information about workers’ race, ethnic heritage, gender, age, or sexuality be linked to productivity or business strategy in any way that is not discriminatory? It is hard to see how those characteristics could have anything to do with employees’  work or the conduct of business, high-tech or otherwise.

Second, what exactly is the Labor Department, which accepted the arguments of lawyers from the five firms against releasing their workforce data, up to? They seem to be placing corporate privacy above the goal of diversity.  Haven’t we long accepted that  proportionate representation of women and minorities across the labor pool is a collective national good that transcends the profit schemes and business priorities of free enterprise? Apparently not.

Swift is clear that the five companies are not easily critiqued: He reports that Google recently donated millions to groups like the National Society of Black Engineers. But the secrecy here and the rationale offered for it are deeply disturbing. If this is what inclusive management ideologies look like in 21st century high-tech enterprise,  we need to worry. And keep Mike Swift on the case.

Philadelphia Inquirer Op-Ed

For a quick take on my focus in matters of STEM education, take a look at an op-ed I wrote that appears in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.  I hope the piece will call attention to a couple of issues that don’t often make it into discussions of STEM equity. First,   I want to stress that we could spend much more money on programs for many more students, to vastly enlarge the number of young people who have a chance to move from weaker highschools into full-fledged STEM degree programs.
But I also want to ask why STEM interventions for disadvantaged communities of students  have remained relatively small, so I want to think long and hard about the sheer stubbornness of our familiar ideas about talent.  Why is it so hard for us to shake the feeling that there is such a thing in certain individuals as “true” math or science ability,  that will surface even in the most disadvantaged educational circumstances?  That kind of intuitive but deeply mistaken idea can undermine reform in powerful ways. It makes the small scale of STEM programs in poorer communities seem reasonable. Do our presumptions of racial, gender, and other innate differences keep giving that idea its life? Seems so…

MIT’s Report on Race and Diversity: A Template for Change?

MIT has just issued a lengthy report on its hiring and promotion of underrepresented minority faculty, a document several years in the making.  I will be writing more about this report in the next few days, trying to put it in historical perspective.  MIT may be one-of-a-kind, sitting well above almost every other technical institution in the country, but my first glances suggest that as I read it I’ll be thinking about how this report might shift thinking on diversity in other STEM higher ed settings.  Here’s why:

Like most other documents on diversity in STEM fields, this report works from the premise that because valuable science is produced by a pool of talented personnel, racial equity is desirable because it will enlarge that pool.  But at the same time, unusually, the report bluntly acknowledges that notions of scientific talent are themselves sometimes subject to biases. Even more promising, the report grants that something about science makes its institutions uniquely resistant to social reform:

Findings suggest, further, that in the MIT culture which embraces the scientific ethos — and claims that science is itself beyond identity and race — race, racialization and racism, or the perception of them, are very difficult for many to recognize, address and discuss honestly.

These kinds of acknowledgments are vital if a STEM diversity effort is to have an authentic social justice agenda.  And they are rare in educational policy and university self-studies, not least because they hint that exclusive venues gain their status in part from…exclusion. If MIT’s new report really does dig deeply into the ways that self-proclaimed meritocracies perpetuate social exclusion, it can have important ripple effects.  More soon on the report’s overall handling of these provocative ideas…

Engineering Education in Perspective

Several excellent essays describing engineers as educators with social values and ideological commitments–left, right, and center–appear in the latest Technology and Culture. This journal, for those who don’t know it, may sound  narrowly academic but it frequently offers articles that are low on jargon and high on material of interest to practitioners and policy makers. This special issue on engineering education can prime the pump for new approaches to engineering education reform, and for some vital critical thinking on matters of race and identity in engineering, as well. For anyone who teaches humanities courses for engineering students, Matthew Wisnioski’s contribution, “‘Liberal Education Has Failed:” Reading Like an Engineer in 1960s America,” offers a fascinating backstory and more than a few constructive suggestions for sustaining that sometimes thankless pedagogical task. The fun may start, though, if we put it on our syllabi for just those courses…

Below the Fold, But Still…

The content of an article in today’s New York Times, In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap, by Michael Luo, will surprise no one who has thought about the role of race in American hiring; only a handful of the hundreds of comments posted online in response to the piece today fail to corroborate its claims.   It would appear that one year into the Obama presidency,  even this only intermittently progressive paper worries about the limited change that election brought to U.S. race relations.  It is a brief piece, but it airs a variety of concerns expressed by minority job seekers, drawing attention to a range of motivations behind workplace discrimination and varied managerial attitudes towards corporate diversity. We could of course wish for more frequent and deeper coverage.  This article, like many on racial inequities facing U.S. workers, seems to find the unemployment of minority Ivy League graduates especially telling, as if those cases demonstrate with particular potency the failure of our merit-based system.   We might do better to ask  how our ideas of merit enact discrimination at all levels of education and employment.  But at least a small flare has been sent aloft this morning.