Amy E. Slaton
is a Professor of History in the Department of History at Drexel University. For more information on her scholarship and research, see the “About” page or download her CV. For information on her teaching, please visit her official university Web page. She is also co-Editor-in-Chief, with Tiago Saraiva, of the international quarterly journal, History+Technology.
Educational models, Bergen School Museum, Norway; undated. Photo: Amy E. Slaton, 2016.
How can we vigorously defend the nation against rising anti-science sentiments and policies while remaining deeply critical of the violent, racist history of science? A first step might be to stop letting the right set the terms of debate as pro- vs. anti-science.
Within a day or two of Trump’s outrageous assertion the other week that Nigerians upon visiting the United States would be unwilling to return to “their huts in Africa”—part of his profoundly racist case for restricting US immigration — I visited the Whipple Museum at Cambridge University to see “Astronomy & Empire.” That small but incisive exhibition has a lot to tell us about such imagined huts, occupied by “natives” across the “Dark Continent” and other colonially envisioned landscapes. In the 19th century, images of these supposedly crude dwellings were part of the backdrop for Victorian astronomical expeditions to distant colonial outposts. When British amateurs, scientists, and military personnel traveled to observe eclipses and other astronomical events with their trunks full of charts, scientific instruments and silver tea services they exploited the labor and knowledge of indigenous people; disdained those skills while deploying them; and generally treated non-British, non-white people as irredeemably backward.
It’s old news that Trump maintains 19th century Eurocentric beliefs about race and nationality, about non-white people as innately backward and non-compliant. He and his followers shun knowledge that contradicts these and other bigoted notions, casting science and intellectual effort in general as the mere trickery of elites. But my not-so-coincidental encounters with an imagined Africa last week (could worry about the UK’s own recent anti-immigrant zeal have inspired the Whipple’s curators?) also reminded me that we need to be cautious in saying that scientific observation and the veneration of empiricism naturally counter racism and racial violence. One point of the Whipple’s presentation, garnered from postcolonial scholarship, is that racialized imperial attitudes were not regrettable side notes to British astronomical investigations but integral to those scientific efforts, constituting a world that promised white, European thinkers mastery over natural phenomena and colonial subjects alike. Cutting-edge science was essential to past racial conflict and oppression. It is also, as many recognize, not remotely innocent today.
The complex critical literature on race and genomic sciences makes clear that fearsome scientific engagements with race have persisted into the present day, well beyond eugenics, not to mention beyond the brutalities of early gynecological research on enslaved women and the horrors of Tuskegee. Traditional IQ testing and new facial recognition software that “detects” sexuality are two among many examples of sciences involved today in making other sorts of pernicious human distinctions. But it is not merely certain episodes of scientific work that remain discriminatory in the 21st century. Rather, there is a general character lent to science that we may need to challenge if we are to confront racism, homophobia, sexism, and ableism; that is the incipient notion of science, engineering, mathematics and other technical enterprises, and social sciences when done honestly and expertly as naturally serving democracy. Historians and STS scholars have of course shown that this is not so, have shown that where empiricism goes so go politicized subjectivities, sometimes liberatory and often not. So we need to insist now on wider terms of debate regarding our thinking about nature than simply whether that thinking is “’evidence-based’ or not”—these are terms that the right has set for us.
For example, the White House appears to have issued a prohibition against that particular term and six others appearing in CDC materials. On hearing this I instantly rage-ordered a t-shirt.
The latest in rampart-wear.
But here’s the problem with my t-shirt: When we declare evidence and facts as a protected class of knowledge, even in trying to defend democracy, we are letting Trump and his followers foreclose deep reflection about power and knowledge. Their crass invocations of hut-dwelling Africans or opportunistic denials of climate change are hugely selfish and willfully naive. In our attempts to contend with such vile rhetoric, we face binaries of fact/non-fact, evidence/no evidence, science/no science …and the temptation to associate an emancipatory sensibility with the former. Understandable. But these seemingly actionable binaries we construct in our anxiety and rage are problematic if we are hoping to bring change. As my friend Tiago Saraiva has put it, while Marching for Science we need to be clear for which Science we are marching.
The British astronomers’ systematic observation of nature, instrumentation, and calibration—and not least their embrace of precision—promised them intellectual mastery and those commitments do no less or more for us today. The knowable, findable features of nature are the stuff of science but that has historically been a nature that suits that purposes of the epistemically/racially dominant (see my last post, below). So we need always to ask not just “mastery of what, and thereby of whom?” but also, “why mastery?” Even adhering to the “rigorous/non-rigorous-science” binary can obfuscate power and keep us from asking: What voices and institutions can be imagined as rigorous in scientific and technical situations? Are or are not Flint citizens, Grenfell Tower residents, Haitian public health researchers, disabled or transgender people, eligible for ascriptions of observational credence?
Robyn Wiegman has helped articulate how white supremacy achieved its cultural robustness in the US through a combination of universal claims (naturalizing a categorical system in which all humans have a place: ie, a race) and particularity (being white has meant claiming exemplary traits and access to restricted experiences). I would say that such simultaneous attention to the monolithic and the local, the production of theories and evidence, has also made empiricism and scientific inquiry uniquely powerful cultural instrumentalities for those seeking domination over others. Whether and how these instrumentalities can serve other purposes—empowering marginalized communities, inciting reflection and reform among the dominant—seems an important question in the age of Trump. In short; Let’s keep marching for science in 2018, against censorship and defunding and racism, but be accountable to the history of science as we march.
Eight years ago, I started posting at that url about issues of discrimination in American science, technology, engineering and mathematics, looking at education and labor from the perspective of attaining greater “STEM equity.” Racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism are more visible in the United States than ever but I no longer see that pairing of terms as a productive one. Neither alone nor together do these two words represent my goals as a historian and educator. It is time for a new framing, and a new url.
The Problem with STEM…
For one thing, I no longer think ending discrimination in schools and workplaces can happen without deeply problematizing “STEM” as we know it. I’ve come to see the delineation of STEM learning and work from other cultural projects as itself a highly efficient instrument of discrimination. Contradicting nearly every day-to- day invocation (including in the context of STEM diversity initiatives), we need to recognize that scientific knowledge, technological activity and mathematical interpretation are not techniques for understanding the world but rather means of making particular worlds for particular social ends.
Some of those ends are humane and generous, many are not. Historical study helps us see that opportunities to treat this sort of world-making as if it has no social origins and impacts have been built into ideas of legitimate STEM conduct, be it study, research, experimentation, discovery, calculation, design, building, assembly, production or maintenance.
For example, in school or at work, a teacher or manager’s authoritative assessment of an individual’s technical skill seems merely to detect that individual’s abilities. But such judgments are actually producing what shall count as meaningful technical conduct in particular times and places—the math problem solved quickly enough, the new drug with sufficient market value, the efficiently cleaned cleanroom. Those doing math slowly, developing low-profit drugs, or advocating for less physically demanding custodial work do not register as talented. The meritorious objects of STEM are almost never made strange, never treated as contingent upon social structures ranging from ideas of race or gender difference to class privilege to labor relations to geopolitics, by those declaring their value. Inclusive impulses expressed in STEM settings may well be authentic, but there are no words of welcome warm enough or scholarship funds great enough to offset this selective blindness to power.
…And the Problem with “Equity”
“Equity,” as that term is generally used, can also poorly serve the cause of democratic reform. Since the Civil Rights era a lot of inclusive educational and employment programming—often centered on achieving racial, gender, ethnic or other forms of diversity– has been based on unreflective, essentialist ideas of human difference. Unintentional as it may be, these ideas sustain formulations of race, gender, disability and other categorizations in ways that preserve social privilege. In 2017 America, certain commitments to identity politics—such as the claiming of collective minority identity—can assuredly drive crucial democratic reforms. But at the same time, in the hands of a culturally dominant white majority, ideologies of diversity and meritocracy lend one another a gloss of fairness they do not deserve.
Seeking a more inclusive profile for American engineering firms or chemistry doctoral programs, even when entry is achieved for some individuals who might previously have been excluded from such opportunities, will not radically remake these settings or dominant majority ideas about human difference. The scale of demographic change will be limited and access alone will not end the chilly climate faced by many minority students and practitioners within STEM settings. Nor will diversity programming in schools and workplaces counter widely circulating predictive notions of the innate intellectual inferiority, fragility, deviance or distastefulness of minority persons and women. It will instead help naturalize those distinctions and the metrics that are devised to confirm them.
In short: As it now functions, STEM diversity is a false consolation. Our embrace of inclusion-as-equity is the problem.
I dare not write “inclusion” here without attaching the “-as- equity” for fear of misappropriation by those now asserting white, male, Christian, heterosexual and American superiority. White grievance has fueled anti-affirmative action protest for decades but deeply biological and violent expressions of such grievances are growing and now find legitimacy in the White House. Critiquing liberal agendas albeit from the left is fraught with the risk of uptake by the right. But if we do not test our familiar tools of reform, their historically limited utility will go unchanged. This website, amyeslaton.com, will ask questions about the things we have done historically and do today to correct racism and homophobia, sexism and ableism, in places of science and technology.
I’ll do this by paying attention to the relational nature of science and engineering knowledge, and of technological skill and talent. All of these relations involve the constant making of knowable students and employees by those with influence: White, not-white, black, brown… male, female, pathologically-neither…sexual, asexual, abnormally sexual…abled, disabled…All of these “kinds” of bodies are required to make up the differences that diversity invokes. Intersectional, queer, crip and other scholarship makes it clear that every one of those ascriptions is arbitrary and socially instrumental. As well, critical sociology, history and anthropology have described ontological work ongoing wherever culture is experienced. That scholarship has instilled still greater awareness of the profound indeterminacy at work in the identification of human difference. We learn with these perspectives that technical merit is not something that inheres in individuals or groups; it inheres in that identification process.
Put differently: Two more “kinds” of bodies– capable and incapable STEM actors– are also being produced in our culture and that production process demands our critical attention. As I leave STEM equity behind I plan to bring these more complicated, fraught and generative framings to bear on how Americans enact human difference in sites of technical education and work. I’m especially pleased to be able to do all of this with a new website that is ADA compliant; through the efforts of web developers at TechBear, all materials now added to amyeslaton.com will meet standards for accessibility. I’m very excited about all of these changes and hope you’ll stay tuned.
[Due to my own technical ineptitude, a version of this posting originally published here on March 28, 2016 subsequently disappeared. I’m reposting it now (thanks to the technical aptitude of Justin Carone) because education researcher Angela Duckworth has become an even more visible media presence since her book came out a few weeks ago, and “grit” thus a wider and in my view, still more troubling cultural commitment.]
Who among us has never been tempted to calculate their Body Mass Index? It’s irresistible: A scientific measure of our health and self-discipline, of our success (or abject failure) at dieting and exercise! Yet, many researchers have by now made it clear that BMI is a very poor predictor of health and longevity: Not wrong in every single case, but only coincidentally right, because BMI is highly selective in both its use of evidence and ideas of causality. Crucially, like every metric of the human condition, BMI is a measurement that supports very specific criteria of good health and behavior…in this case, including narrowed ideas of attractiveness and historically racialized ideas of virtue and self-restraint. In short, BMI is an instrument with a cultural history. Like all instruments.
I have been thinking about BMI today because in yesterday’s New York Times [March 26, 2016], Angela Duckworth expressed concern about new applications of some numerical instruments that she has devised. A quantitative education researcher, Duckworth says she is particularly worried about the misuse of metrics she has produced in recent years for the assessment of student “character.” These are means of ranking each student’s individual capacity to fulfill the behavioral and academic demands of our educational system, to display “self-control” and “zest for learning,” for example. School districts are now beginning to incorporate her “measures of character” into high-stakes accountability systems, Duckworth writes, and she is deeply dismayed by this, worried about a loss of nuance and narrowed applications of her approach. I appreciate her concern, but I find her surprise at this turn of events to be…well, surprising. Like BMI and all other means of sorting and comparing people, the measurement of student character traits derives from cultural priorities which such measurements then help support. For all her apparent attention to cultural and social milieu, Duckworth seems not to acknowledge this fundamental feature of social science.
In an effort to understand the roles played by self-confidence, gratitude, and other types of “intrinsic motivation” in patterns of student success, Duckworth has refined ways of detecting and measuring those traits. She now worries that schools will be gauged on the levels of such characteristics detected (using her instruments) in their students. She fears that this move will obfuscate the complex social conditions in which such character traits take shape in and gain meaning for students. For example, her research indicates that students’ own sense of effort matters for their continued performance in school. But that factor must be addressed in context, she warns here, because similar self-assessments may reflect very different student experiences. That is: students’ sense of their own conscientiousness could remain low not just in poorly run classrooms where they receive little support or guidance in cultivating such efficacy, but also in classrooms where the standards for academic achievement are quite high.
For those using Duckworth’s metrics, that’s certainly a valid warning about a logical pothole lying in the path of data analysis. But I want to reframe the problem. As is BMI, I think Duckworth’s instruments are built for precisely the purposes to which they are now being put: “Revealing” a spectrum of human conditions and “finding” flawed or inadequate subjects at one end of it. She is surprised that a ranking of student endowments intended to help “cultivate self-discovery” (as she puts it) is instead now supporting crude evaluations of school performance in the service of narrowed ideas of accountability. But how could this not be the case? There is not some other kind of accountability operating in our educational system.
I would suggest to Duckworth that it is only in a world where existing social structures must always be protected from critique, where one’s academic difficulties must be attributed not to social structures and ideologies but to oneself, or to one’s parents, teachers and school, that the measurement of student “character traits” makes any sense.
Such metrics are designed to find, and do find, sturdy and weak, willing and unwilling learners. Comparative measures of student conduct also seek and therefore find good and bad pedagogy. Emphatically, they do not seek and thus do not find crowded classrooms, underfunded districts, and underpaid teachers. They do not seek and thus do not find families that are struggling with shrinking wages, costly child and health care, and encroaching poverty, societal problems that all place extraordinary daily burdens on children. Duckworth might well believe that her instruments can point to means of better supporting students with “low” levels of desirable intrinsic traits, but unfortunately they will only ever reproduce the sorts of individual blame and responsibility that her metrics render legible.
To look at character is thus not to broaden the “narrow focus on achievement” installed by standardized testing, a broadening to which Duckworth says she has aspired in her work. Rather it is to reiterate the definition of student success as a mustering of self-control and energy, an adjustment to the circumstance in which one finds oneself rather than a radical reshaping of those circumstances. It is also, in some sense, to produce inadequacies of student character, just as BMI produces instances of obesity. UMD researcher Stephen Secules, in probing the nature of American educational inequities, incisively prompts us to ask, “Must every classroom have a weakest student?” If we keep entering classrooms with means of comparing and measuring individual students as such, the precise purpose for Duckworth’s instruments have been devised, the answer will always be “yes.”
The blunt racism of Antonin Scalia’s statement today recommending that minority students attend “lesser” schools so that they do not feel that they are being “pushed too hard,” is cloaked in false concern. His is not only a deeply racist worldview, demarcating human potential on the basis of some arbitrarily ascribed biological identity, but a disingenuous one. Clearly Justice Scalia does not have any authentic concern regarding the well being of minority students or he would not seek to limit their opportunities. But I want to talk for a minute about Justice John Roberts’ contribution to today’s Supreme Court discussion of affirmative action measures, which has gotten less attention from the press and on social media.
Robert’s words might appear to constitute a milder, less biological rejection of identity-focused educational reforms. They do not. In a seemingly trivial aside, Roberts dismissed a common trope in higher education diversity programming: the idea that diversity of student background will intellectually enrich all students’ classroom experiences. Roberts said that he did not see what “unique perspective” a minority student could bring to physics class. In that claim I think we actually see one of the more insidious defenses of racism circulating in our culture: Roberts would have us believe that scientific knowledge is not–cannot possibly be–raced.
To be clear: uncritical “diversity” efforts that seek to increase the presence of non-majority persons in STEM settings can themselves readily reproduce essentialisms. Critics from the left, especially those working with the incisive tools of intersectionality, question casual associations of say, one’s Hispanic heritage, Lesbian identity, or immigrant experiences with particular or unique outlooks on the world. They make clear that simple or predictive associations of that kind are not merely means of reproducing differences of value to those in authority, but are also likely to reinstate racist, sexist, or homophobic conditions in the long run. This isn’t just true of schooling: Consider corporate diversity efforts that celebrate the “unique” innovations of persons of different backgrounds; these are often deeply problematic, enrobing globalizing and marketing priorities in inclusive rhetoric.
But Roberts isn’t against mixing people of different perceived backgrounds where they are not currently mixing, as in physics. Nor is he for it. He is quite simply and conveniently denying that physics is a place where background functions; there’s no problem with the current demographic make-up of science because it’s not a meaningful category of concern. Real, good science does not have demographics.
This claim is possible not just because our culture is unaccustomed to seeing physics and other sciences as raced. It is because Roberts, like many of us of majority background, has great difficulty seeing any places dominated by white persons as places where race is functioning.
Mind you: Science is particularly good at being white. By that I mean that science disciplines, like technology, engineering and mathematics fields, customarily work to evacuate any indication that social or political values shape their content or practices. Sure, ethics count and malfeasance happens, we commonly hear, but if you get down to the calculations or measurements or mixing of chemicals at the lab bench, that’s simply not activity where one’s life experience; one’s socio-economic status; or the privileges or penalties of gender, class or race could possibly play any part. Or so goes the usual conversation about identity in STEM. And in maintaining that view, the pervasive role of white privilege in shaping what counts as a reasonable question, answer, calculation, measurement, instrument, learning style, or idea in science (yes, even in physics) is routinely disguised as rigor. Equity projects such as minority set asides and affirmative action counter that view by bringing explicit, responsible attention to the role played by identity in the lab or classroom or board room.
To shut down such attention is to naturalize the disproportionate representation of white persons in many areas of American learning and work; to make the under-representation of minority persons seem a natural by-product of intellectual or character differentials. In short: A neatly eugenic system.
I have written about these circumstances in regard to engineering and they are also true of physics, and any places of intellectual labor where whiteness goes unremarked. I am not expecting a Supreme Court justice to have studied the history of science, or science studies, or intersectional theory. But I am expecting the basic goal of maintaining a reflective and just society, a goal that shapes much work in those academic inquiries and many other humanistic projects in our culture, both in and beyond the academy, to drive the thinking of the country’s highest court.
A crucial step in any such maintenance is the acknowledgement that ascriptions of whiteness bring opportunity, privilege, and safety even in our society’s most ostensibly intellectual, most knowledge-intensive, undertakings: in science, medicine, banking, law. Ironically, Justices Scalia and Roberts have today given us some very powerful evidence on that very point.
Diversity, Katherine W. Phillips writes in Scientific American, is both harder to achieve in science and engineering workplaces than we might hope, and a more worthwhile goal if innovation and new ideas are our aims. At first glance that argument seems like it would bring some criticality and some urgency to the correction of racial, gender and other forms of discrimination in places of STEM employment. Alas. I think Phillips while trying to support more inclusive practices in science and engineering is actually marshaling some newly subtle means for keeping the social relations of STEM pretty much just as they are.
The basic findings she offers, based on her study of decades of others’ diversity research and some of her own, combine familiar and novel claims about diversity. First, a familiar claim: People of differing backgrounds have different ideas about what should be done in scientific and technical settings, which in turn fuels innovation. And here, a less familiar one: When we are in dialog with people of backgrounds that differ from our own we listen more acutely to their points, expecting those ideas to differ from our own. Thus we are more open to new concepts, more diligent in inspecting that incoming information than when in a “homogeneous” setting. We are “jolted into action” by the expectation of intellectual dissonance. The social conflict and discomfort often associated with efforts at social diversity thus have “an upside,” as Phillips puts it, because these feelings put us on our inventive mettle. Voila! Even more innovation!
This concept of “informational diversity” practically sings with meritocratic promise, converting discomfort to democracy, fear to productivity. I find it troubling in many ways. Among the many selective denials of power and oppression operating here, let me just take on the most basic: the very perception that one is facing a person of “differing background” involves a raft of presumptions. It involves reproducing ideas of what counts as difference, and operating from the idea that demarcations in skin tone or national origin or economic status are in all instances indicative of unique life experiences. It also presupposes that we know what we are seeing: That a person’s meaningful identifications are visible and known to us. I’m not just talking about so-called invisible disabilities and the immense presumptions we make every day about one another’s sexualities (both unto themselves huge factors); I’m talking about a huge range of personal circumstances, both advantaging and disadvantaging, that are not knowable through any external expression.
What’s more, while tremendous privileges and penalties inhere in different identifying characteristics there is little determinacy to life experiences associated with such characteristics. To presume that “difference” is there is to reify one’s own sense of what matters about the person one is encountering, ironically closing off any real consideration of how privilege and penalty might be operating in that moment, in that institution, or crucially, as residuals of one’s own ascribed identity.
And in that consoling sense of knowing “who” we are looking at and what matters about them, we generate and regenerate delineations of races, ages, physical and intellectual abilities, and other familiar taxonomies that keep our entire social system (including the hierarchies of opportunity in STEM education and work) ticking over. Make no mistake: to deny the social instrumentalities of race, gender, sexuality or ability in 2015 would be just as bad, enacting a willfully naive worldview that terrifies whether in the hands of either right or left. Rather we need to think more about our presumptions of difference than Phillips’ analysis suggests; we need to grapple with our starting points for the project of “diversification.”
Diversity isn’t merely harder than we might presume, as Phillips writes; it is in fact much harder, with inequity and injustice supported by much more complex and self-justifying logics than her interpretation here acknowledges. For example, as Patrick Grzanka makes beautifully clear in his book on intersectional scholarship, the inequality that characterizes so much of our culture “is not based in identity; but rather inequalities produce social identities.” Think about the way that “racist, xenophobic, immigration laws produce ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals’ and ‘noncitizens’” as he suggests, and you can start to see how seemingly positive attributions (“here is a black person with a new idea,” “here is a successful company with a female CEO”) don’t solve the problem. Those formulations can help sustain essentialist concepts about human difference that ground discriminatory social structures, converting systems of oppression to mere methods of distinction in our minds.
The idea that we “listen differently” to those we expect to have different life experiences than our own does nothing so much as prove that we operate from stereotypes. And while it may be a new research finding, it operates on somewhat stale ideas of the nature of identity. No surprise, perhaps, because it serves deeply uncritical ideas of what counts as innovation. These are all ideas about optimized social relations within a very particular setting: The corporate society in which ideas about science and technology seem worthwhile when they reproduce the labor, environmental, geopolitical and other societal arrangements in which corporate interests thrive. (Note the many statistics Phillips offers about companies which have done well fiscally through the hiring of women and minorities.) Avery Gordon laid out this power-conserving feature of corporate diversity efforts some time ago, and Sara Ahmed adds much to our understanding as well, as I hope does my own work linking STEM rigor and selectivity. But this criticality, unsurprisingly, does not find its way into the institutions whose larger distributions of privilege it might threaten.
Think about Phillips’ findings in that context of institutional self-preservation and the reassuring image of perceived differences serving either authentic intellectual risk or radical expansions of social opportunity dissolves. More women and minorities may be hired if more employers take up the notion that “diversity makes us smarter,” but that tells us little about the experiences of thus-labeled persons within workplaces, and I actually think ideas of biological and cultural difference are not challenged here in a way that will bring wide or sustainable change even within STEM sectors. On a more global level, too, we should ask how those marginalized persons without access to education or work will be further marked and disadvantaged by this version of democracy.
I wish I was confident that diversity programming was indeed a kind of alchemy: that the conversion of interpersonal hostility and suspicion to productive intellectual labor described by Phillips held implications for a more equitable society. But I’m not, because the problem of discrimination here is bounded in a way which makes a solution possible. It is a solution which preserves larger discriminatory functions for identity in our culture. Phillips’ vision serves the decades-old claim of American corporate diversity that innovation arises from having someone of minority background in the room. I think, though, that not much will really change until everybody decides there is a world beyond that room.