Dumbing Down Education
by Wendy McElroy

Not long ago, Nancy Hopkins -- a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) -- was invited to the White House. Hillary openly appealed to academia to follow Hopkins' courageous example. In turn, Bill solemnly reiterated his commitment to gender equity in education. The cause was Hopkins' "Study on the Status of Women Faculty" that accused MIT of gender discrimination against female professors, especially in the hard sciences. Universities from Harvard to UCLA are scrambling to conduct similar gender studies. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is preparing regulations that promote 'fairness' to women in education -- aka 'quotas.' It is all part of what a prestigious journal, the "Chronicle of Higher Education" has called a "new movement" created by the MIT study.

With such impetus behind the drive to establish de facto gender quotas throughout education, few people are pausing to ask whether the study is valid. Of course, the fact that Hopkins and MIT refuse to release the data, which is said to contain 'confidential' information, hardly encourages inquiry. But the very composition of the Committee that produced the study should raise serious questions. The Committee was established to investigate complaints of sex discrimination that were levelled by Hopkins herself. Yet she became the Chair, heading an investigation into her own complaints. As a result of her findings, Hopkins received -- among other benefits -- a 20 percent raise in salary, an endowed chair and increased research funds. Indeed, most of the Committee consisted of women who benefited substantially from the 'guilty' verdict. The only evidence of sex discrimination produced was the fact that there are more men than women in the faculty of the School for Science.(For Judith  Kleinfeld's excellent analysis of the politics of this study click here.)

The study is being used to justify government policies that expand gender quotas at universities. Clinton has already announced that new regulations will 'protect' every academic program that receives federal money. And Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has been reinterpreted to broaden its scope. As written, Title IX does nothing more than prohibit sex discrimination in education. As re-interpreted, it is a gender quota policy. Just as affirmative action programs mandated discrimination in the guise of opposing it, so too will Title IX establish sex preference.

The gender police patrolling the corridors of education will be provided by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR's self-declared mission is the enforcement of "federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex..." The most common measurement of 'discrimination' is whether females are 'under represented' in areas from athletics to physics. The shadow of gender quotas in education is hardly confined to universities and other institutions of 'higher' learning. As well as covering more than 3,600 colleges and universities (about 14.6 million students), the OCR extends to approximately 15,000 school districts (about 52.7 million students)

One of OCR's online pamphlets directed at the public school system is innocuously entitled "What Schools Can Do to Improve Math and Science Achievement by Minority and Female Students." The pamphlet decries the fact that "we still have significant underrepresentation of minorities and women in mathematics and science programs." This under representation is seen as evidence of discrimination. Thus, "state and local educational agencies, colleges and universities, and other entities are developing and implementing many innovative programs and practices to increase the participation of minorities and women."

Arguably, a gender quota system is already in place in various areas of education. A press release from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) declared on October 22, 1999, "Today Congress passed legislation that will improve education for girls through reducing gender bias in technology ... The House of Representatives passed (311-111) the Mink/Woolsey/Sanchez/Morella Amendment to the Student Results Act (HR2)" The AAUW continues in a self congratulatory tone to explain that they had been successful "in adding crucial gender equity language" to an earlier bill. Nancy Zirkin, the AAUW Government Relations Director, declared that "Excellence and equity in education go hand in hand." If 'equity' means 'equal representation' -- and the terms are usually synonyms -- the opposite is true.

When Title IX opened up college sports to females, women were courted in order to achieve the proper gender balance. Merit became secondary. There is no reason to believe it will not have the same impact within science, technology and math programs. Just as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act has been used to impose affirmative action throughout the work place, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 may well impose gender quotas throughout American education.

Gender quotas in science would be a bitter irony. Neuroscience is discovering marked biological differences in how the sexes learn. Psychologist Patricia Hausman explains just one facet of the difference, "girl pays more attention and voices even in the first weeks of life. Compare this to boys, who pay more attention to non-human stimuli." As science explains biology, government may legislate against it rather than leave individuals -- whatever their sex -- to simply follow their own interests.