Ignoring the Bell Curve

Murray And His Protesters Avoid Substantive Debate

The IOP forum on The Bell Curve Tuesday proved quite effectively that there is indeed enough ignorance at Harvard to fill a three-story room, at least partially.

Those students who attended the forum expecting reasonable discourse between scholars were disappointed. They were treated instead to a disheartening display of anti-intellectualism.

The forum had not lasted 20 minutes when a group of about 40 students participated in a very visible--and poorly planned--walk-out. As Charles Murray, the headliner of the forum and one of the book's co-authors, began his speech, this multiracial band of protesters stood up to leave and filed through the crowd until they hit a dead end at the front of the forum. There was an uneasy moment as Murray paused while the line members awkardly bumped together as in a cartoon rendition of a multi-car accident; only after a hurried consultation did the protesters make an about face and finally they trooped outside through the back door.

I am interested to know just what these students meant to accomplish. Did they intend to change Murray's mind? To convince the audience that the book was untrue? To make any thoughtful point at all?

The only effect of this intended moment of high symbolism was to elicit cheers from the already-converted. It was certainly not a substantive action, conveying any sort of reasoned point. Nor did it change anyone's view.


Now it may be that these students had already read the book and formed a well-reasoned opinion of it. In fact, I suspect that they did so, and certainly there are many reasons to reject the book's claims--several eloquently stated by the second speaker of the evening, Professor of Geology Stephen Jay Gould. What concerns me about their mode of expression is how antithetical it is to the manner of seeking truth agreed upon at Harvard, thoughtful debate in the marketplace of ideas (not symbols).

The non-verbal character of the statement chosen by these students shows at least a lack of faith--if not an outright disavowal--of the power of reasonable argument to approach and define the truth of a matter. This reliance on symbolism rather than substance should be anathema to both the Left and the Right.

In fact these students engaged in a disconcerting self-apotheosis. They exercised a right commonly only extended to deities--the right to make a statement unsupported by any sort of evidence or argument. In short, a heavenly pronouncement. What could be more arrogant and wrong-headed? It is this sort of pronouncement--unsupported by any pretense of argument--which speakers such as Camille Paglia and Harold Bloom make. It is this type of thoughtless statement which leaves thoughtful observers unwilling to take such people seriously.

For a more practical reason--and practical concerns have a place even among matters of principle--the botched walk-out was a poorly chosen method of expression. It may discourage controversial and influential speakers from coming to Harvard.

The Bell Curve is indeed controversial and is has the frightening potential to become a Bible for any number of political factions. It is therefore an important, if sadly misguided, work. Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, the moderator, rightly argued that debates about the intersection between race and social policy have a place at Harvard. It would be a shame to prevent these from occuring in the future.

In light of my first point, my second point may seem rather perverse: the students who made their early exit didn't miss much.

Murray seemed unwilling to make any sort of response to his many distinguished critics--several of whom sat in the audience. Instead, he confined himself to a generalized reiteration of the book; a summation as exciting, and informative, as reading a copy of Cliff's Notes.

A more thoughtful and intellectually honest speaker would have responded to the many well-reasoned and good-faith criticisms recently leveled against the book. Of late, the popular press has been filled with such articles. The self-described "Act II" for the evening--Gould--wrote an article which appeared in November's The New Yorker containing a number of critiques of the book. Murray admitted to having read the article, presumably months ago, yet inexplicably chose not to address any of Gould's points.

A first-year student at the College asked Murray why he has not explicitly answered his critics--pointing out that such is the duty of any responsible scholar. In a wry bit of irony Murray responded to this lucid question with a boldly irrelevant answer. In short, Murray ducked explicit as well as implicit demands to address his critics, preferring instead to repeat the assertions contained in his book.

In sum, the performance at the forum was a rather uninspired, and uninspiring, bit of fluff. The only interesting comments of the evening came from Gould. Every interested person who missed the debate should read his comments in the The New Yorker. Given the chance to relive Tuesday evening, I would have elected to stay home and carefully read Gould's article to get some real intellectual debate.