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Recently, four illustrious campus figures gathered at the Institute of Politics (IOP), highlighting the importance of the oft-neglected ideal of rational discourse in the University--an ideal especially crucial when discussion turns to sensitive matters such as race.
At this point, it almost goes without saying that the topic of the evening was the controversial new book The Bell Curve. Co-authored by the conservative political scientist Charles S. Murray '65 and the late Harvard psychology professor Richard J. Herrnstein, the book argues that intelligence (as measured by I.Q. scores) differs among races, that these differences are in part genetic and that such differences have implications for American public policy.
Campus liberals have condemned the book in the strongest of terms. Derek T. Ho '96, senior editor of the liberal monthly Perspective, said the book amounts to "racism masquerading as true scholarship."
Kristen M. Clarke '97, president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Black Students Association (BSA), said the book "lacks any scholarly merit or application in our society." To demonstrate their displeasure with the book, members of the BSA even held a public protest against The Bell Curve on the steps of Widener Library.
Some would say that dismissing the book without having investigated its research would be an appropriate response. Clarke, who said she has read the book, nevertheless claimed that it would be fair for people to dismiss the book without having read it, because of the book's content.
But the relevant question is whether it would be intellectually responsible to engage in an a priori dismissal of a widely contested, 850-page long work.
We were pleased to see that the debate at the IOP represented a significant improvement over the initial set of knee-jerk responses to the book. The discourse that evening seemed to constitute a victory of rational discourse over emotionally-charged dismissals.
Before an IOP crowd of 100, liberal hotheads Ho and Clarke were joined by conservative firebrand G. Brent McGuire '95, senior council member of Peninsula, and Whitney D. Pidot '96, president of The Harvard Salient and fence-sitter par excellence.
The issues they were dealing with were sensitive and very complex. But the four panelists, under the firm leadership of the stern E. Michelle Drake '97, treated the issues with the subtlety and sophistication they required. Despite the time limits on their speaking, the panelists responded to audience questions with analysis rather than sound-bites.
Clarke, drawing on an historical framework, analyzed the findings of The Bell Curve in light of the experiences of Blacks in America. Pidot made the important point that throwing more money at social ills rarely solves the underlying problem.
Ho carried out a scientific and statistics--driven deconstruction of the book. McGuire, attacked throughout the evening for his support of The Bell Curve, used philosophy, history and theology to inform his remarks.
The relationship between race and I.Q. touches on several sensitive topics, and discussing these topics may make many at Harvard feel uncomfortable.
But the reality is that we live in a society that continues to be stratified by race and that is increasingly stratified by cognitive ability. In this society, these topics, although controversial, are just too important to be ignored. Instead they must be discussed, in a level-headed, rational and open way. The recent IOP forum represented an admirable effort to tackle some difficult subjects.
As citizens and scholars, we must address these subjects in an informed manner. It's what a true liberal education is all about.
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