Saturday, May 17, 2014

How far we've come -- and how far we haven't

You may know the Goya portrait that's now nicknamed “Red Boy” – a tremendously winning picture of a 4-year-old child of the Spanish nobility, decked out in a red suit with a big sash, in his right hand a string attached to the leg of a pet magpie, at whom three cats gaze intently and hungrily. It turns out, as the Spring 2014 issue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Bulletin (“Goya and the Altamiras”) explains, that Goya painted not only this little boy, whose name was Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, but several other members of his extremely rich and powerful family, the Altamiras. The boy’s father held so many titles that he used to sign things “el marqués conde duque” (27). Their wealth shouts across two centuries in these portraits. But there was one thing these tremendously privileged people didn’t have, that most people in the developed world today enjoy: decent health. Poor little “Red Boy” was dead at the age of 8 (34). Huge amounts of human efforts have transformed the lives of many, not yet most, people since he lived his brief years of privilege.

Meanwhile, however, in case you thought all was well at least for the privileged portion of humanity living in the developed world, here’s this note from a study by Katherine Milkman of The Wharton School and two colleagues, Modupe Akinola and Dolly Chugh, as reported by Shankar Vedantam for NPR on April 22, 2014 (and also by several other news outlets): The authors sent 6500 e-mails to faculty around the country, expressing admiration for the recipient’s work and asking to meet with him or her. The e-mails that were identical in every respect except the names of the signers, names that had been chosen to strongly suggest the gender and/or ethnicity of the supposed senders. 

The responses, however, were not identical. The e-mails seeming to have come from women and minorities were answered less, and the requests for a meeting were accepted less, than was the case for the e-mails sent by men and whites. (There were other intriguing findings: humanities professors stood out for their nondiscriminatory behavior, while natural sciences faculty discriminated more and business academics were the worst; black, Hispanic and female faculty behaved no better than their white male counterparts; and Asian students were subject to “tremendous bias.”) 

There are many such studies of what one hopes is unconscious discrimination – I blogged about another not long ago – but this is the first I’ve heard of that addressed the behavior of people who one might have hoped would be especially vigilant to avoid discriminatory conduct. It turns out many of them apparently aren't. And this isn't just irritating; Vedantam presents the study as shedding light on mentoring in higher education, and indeed the study can be seen as a rough gauge of the likelihood that a young person's search for senior mentors will bear fruit. Mentoring, in turn, can matter a lot to academic success. 

In sum: we’ve learned pretty well how to give ourselves our full span of years, but we haven’t mastered treating each other decently along the way.

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