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Friday, December 21, 2012

"Some girls like to write "sweet little noises," to their section men at the end of exams"

I know I promised to go easy on the Crimson after its endlessly amusing sex week series, and I even withheld my comments about the "official recognition" of the anonymous BDSM student group, which was the very apex of irony, so you owe me a debt of unknown gratitude for that. But now that the the semester is over everywhere, things are slow, and I find myself turning back to its pages for my holiday entertainment. And happily, I am not disappointed, because I found this piece by my favorite of all Crimson contributors, one Sandra Many Initials Korn, who was previously brought to your attention for her selfless global vision during last year's Occupy efforts. Since then, she's published many excellent and original essays decrying every form of oppression around the world, one oppressee at a time, and finding Harvard's complicity in it.

Oppression is a heavy topic and fighting it a full-time job, so Ms. Korn understandably has no time for humor, which is reflected in her most recent effort, demonstrating how "the Harvard of today is built on centuries of oppression of women and gender inequality." For our evidence, we have this charming Crimson article from 1953, discussing the feelings of Harvard faculty and TAs about the women in their courses. As Ms. Korn rightly points out, "This story is fascinating because it is both unfamiliar and very familiar." This is true, but not because it's "silly that professors thought women “rarely brilliant,” or that Harvard was so concerned about teaching fellows marrying their students that it would not let unmarried men teach sections of women." Students remain "rarely brilliant" and universities are still concerned about faculty-student relationships, though they have shifted their emphasis in that department from prevention to punishment. No, what is fascinating about this article is that so many professors were willing to speak publicly and with such cheeky frankness about what's now such a touchy topic. Consider this:
Pursuing the Wellesley contrast, Duane Roller, head section man in Natural Sciences III, noted "It has been said that Radcliffe girls get all the A's and that's why Harvard prefers Wellesley but that isn't the only reason. S. Marshall Cohen, instructor in General Education, expressed his feeling that "Wellesley girls are prettier, but that Radcliffe is more convenient."
Or the possibility that anyone saying anything in the following paragraphs, though hardly demeaning, would wake up today to find himself still employed:
Only married men taught the all-girl sections, but because of a shortage after the war, bachelor Paul Ylvisaker became the exception to the rule. Ylvisaker, now teaching at Swarthmore, is no longer a bachelor: he was rapidly married by one of the women in his section
On the subject of professors marrying Radcliffe women, McGeorge Bundy, professor of Government, called it "an excellent idea. I married one of the Radcliffe teaching staff myself." And Earnest A. Hooton, professor of Anthropology, recalled, "half a dozen girls used to marry their professors." He attributed this to the fact that "some of the smartest girls were also the most beautiful."
Would that student newspapers could print this kind of thing today, instead of endless canned "statements" released by the university deanarchy emphasizing the perennial need for "an ongoing dialogue" about whatever dicey question is at hand. Although Korn failed to note it, the article is quite favorable toward joint instruction - the profs who think girls are uninteresting workaholics say their piece and are countered by those who think otherwise, while the ambitious "intellectual" female reader of the Crimson can quickly learn that she should sign up for courses with Samuel Huntington, Elliot Perkins, and Samuel Beer, and come armed (figuratively! figuratively!) to those run by the curmudgeonly Charles Cherington. The piece ends with some biting repartee from the girls themselves:
We wit [wilt maybe?] reading over due books,
We scribble into blue books,
What's more, we fall in love with all our section men.
Who found with some observing that
Not only graphs are curving and
Radcliffe girls stack up quite well with Harvard men.
So in 1953, apparently the rules of public dispute were different - you could say whatever disparaging thing you wanted about any group, college, sex, whatever, so long as you made it witty. And anyone could fight you back with an equal or superior display of wit and panache. The result is this bizarre cast of characters - the curmudgeon who thinks girls dull and won't stand for any hanky-panky in the Yard, the disdainful Frenchman who honks through his nose about the shortcomings of American women, the misty-eyed Russian who insists his students should be more like the revolutionaries of his youth, and all the others who appreciate  or depreciate women for their varied gifts of mind (and body), plus the women themselves, who seem to be no worse off intellectually for having to duke it out in the open with their detractors. At least they know who their enemies are and what they really think. Not ideal for the passive and gun-shy (figurative! figurative!) among both the men and women, but collegiate disputation rarely is, and for the assertive, this seems like a decent collegiate experience.

But ironically for Ms. Korn, who seems to enjoy a good verbal duel more than most people, this is of course not the case, because this array of male types speaking freely spells oppression. Regrettably, some of them failed to drop dead immediately after the publication of this 1953 article, and unaccountably persisted in living and even teaching for several more decades. This is why we should remain gravely troubled by the views expressed in the 60-year old article:
Harvard’s professors of today learned in the classrooms of the 1950s: Some of the instructors quoted in “The ‘Cliffe Girl” article continued on as venerated faculty at this university and others until the 1990s.
Until the very 1990s! Aside from the suggestion that the entire present-day faculty of Harvard is over the age of 70, there is an important warning contained here: Don't get too comfortable, ladies. Even 20 years ago, you could've had a professor like Samuel Huntington, who'd toss off some casually demeaning comment about you like, "One first-class female intellectual can shut up a whole class of men faster than anyone else--once she really gets going."

But, wait! The situation is even worse than all that, because at least one person from this benighted era is still teaching at Harvard. He may not have had anything to do with this article, but he was alive the year it was written, so he is clearly implicated by it:
Although his views on gender seem frighteningly anachronistic today, for someone who went to school in a time when it was feared that women in classrooms would distract and marry their instructors, perhaps it’s not surprising that Mansfield retains outmoded conceptions of gender.
Yes, that must be it - these old professors and their retrograde ideas about women, they all stem from the deep fear of ending up married to them. How terrifying those dark days must have been!

6 comments:

Flavia said...

Q: how many Harvard girls does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: It's women, and it's Radcliffe, and it's not funny.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, in that case, this Crimson writer is only carrying on a long tradition of perceived humorlessness.

Withywindle said...

I heard it this way:

Q: How many Columbia girls does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: It's Barnard, it's women, and it's not funny.

Q: How many Harvard girls does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: It's Radcliffe, it's women, and it's still not funny.

Withywindle said...

But my favorite remains:

Q: How many Pennsylvania farmers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Light bulb?

Anonymous said...

Relevant:

http://isteve.blogspot.com/2012/12/intellectual-discourse-taking.html

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, that does capture something of what seems so odd about the 1953 article, although it's not clear that the article is really trying to get to any fundamental truth about joint instruction. But then, this is also not the direct debating Steve Sailor's talking about since it's only different people interviewed for the same article. But that is an interesting rhetorical dichotomy; thanks for the link.