Math 55 is advertised in the Harvard catalog as â€œprobÂably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country.â€ It is legÂendary among high school math prodigies, who hear terrifying stories about it in their computer camps and at the Math Olympiads. Some go to Harvard just to have the opportunity to enroll in it. Its formal title is â€œHonors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra,â€ but it is also known as â€œmath boot campâ€ and â€œa cult.â€ The two-semester freshÂman course meets for three hours a week, but, as the catalog says, homework for the class takes between 24 and 60 hours a week.
Math 55 does not look like America. Each year as many as 50 students sign up, but at least half drop out within a few weeks. As one former student told The Harvard Crimson newspaper in 2006, â€œWe had 51 students the first day, 31 students the second day, 24 for the next four days, 23 for two more weeks, and then 21 for the rest of the first semester.â€ Said another student, â€œI guess you can say itâ€™s an episode of â€˜Survivorâ€™ with people voting themselves off.â€ The final class roster, according to The Crimson: â€œ45 percent Jewish, 18 percent Asian, 100 percent male.â€
Why do women avoid classes like Math 55? Why, in fact, are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physiÂcal sciences?
Women now earn 57 percent of bachelors degrees and 59 percent of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.â€™s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.â€™s than men in the humanities, social sciences, eduÂcation, and life sciences. Women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities.
But elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track profesÂsors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engiÂneering. And the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon: women are now earning 24 percent of the Ph.D.â€™s in the physÂical sciencesâ€”way up from the 4 percent of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields. â€œThe change is glacial,â€ says Debra Rolison, a physical chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory.
Naturally, she believes something (read government involvement) must be done.
On October 17, 2007, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology convened to learn why women are â€œunderrepresentedâ€ in academic professorships of science and engineering and to consider what the federal government should do about it.
As a rule, women tend to gravitate to fields such as education, English, psychology, biolÂogy, and art history, while men are much more numerous in physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering. Why this is so is an interesting questionâ€”and the subject of a subÂstantial empirical literature. The research on gender and vocation is complex, vibrant, and full of reasonable disagreements; there is no single, simple answer.
There were, however, no disagreements at the congressional hearing. All five expert witÂnesses, and all five congressmen, Democrat and Republican, were in complete accord. They attributed the dearth of women in university science to a single cause: sexism. And there was no dispute about the solution. All agreed on the need for a revolutionary transformation of American science itself. â€œUltimately,â€ said Kathie Olsen, deputy director of the National Science Foundation, â€œour goal is to transform, institution by institution, the entire culture of science and engineering in America, and to be inclusive of allâ€”for the good of all.â€
Does that mean there should be fewer Jews allowed in the sciences? Fewer Asians? No, more women, which means fewer men.
During the past 30 years, the humanities have been politicized and transformed beyond recognition. The sciÂences, however, have been spared. There seems to have been a tacit agreement, especially at the large research universities; radical activÂists and deconstructionists were left relatively free to experiment with fields like comparative literature, cultural anthropology, communicaÂtions, and, of course, womenâ€™s studies, while the hard sciencesâ€”vital to our economy, health, and security, and to university funding from the federal government, corporations, and the wealthy entrepreneurs among their alumniâ€”were to be left alone.
Departments of physics, math, chemisÂtry, engineering, and computer science have remained traditional, rigorous, competitive, relatively meritocratic, and under the control of no-nonsense professors dedicated to objecÂtive standards. All that may be about to change. Following years of meticulous planning by the activists gathered for the hearing, the era of academic dÃ©tente is coming to an end.
Thus, we’ll give an edge to other nations of the world that reward merit and merit alone.
Read the whole thing.