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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

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Seamus Heaney, final clubs, scientists and sex

September-October 2016

Harvard and Slavery

While the new stone tablet on Wadsworth House acknowledging four slaves by name who worked there in the eighteenth century is on first glance praiseworthy as a first step (Brevia, “Spotlight on Slavery,” July-August, page 29), it is on second glance woefully inadequate. To highlight just four eighteenth-century slaves by first name, without also acknowledging the fact that other unknown slaves must have been employed in Wadsworth House in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as well, seems a shameful omission. Did the research inspired by the Harvard and Slavery Project not find evidence of the College employing other slaves, at Wadsworth House and elsewhere on campus? By its silence, the tablet suggests that just these four slaves were Harvard’s only involvement in our national shame of slavery.

Assuming that there is actually evidence of other slaves working at Harvard, this stone tablet would have been an excellent place to state that fact, as a more authentic and less superficial acknowledgment of Harvard’s past. This first step seems more a stumble...

James S. Berkman ’77, J.D. ’82
Boston

Editor’s note: The underlying news article, for which a link is provided in the Brevia summary, makes clear that President Drew Faust, in announcing the tablet (it “is the beginning of an effort to remember them and our shared history”), pointed to future steps. A committee of faculty historians will advise on other campus sites to be recognized “as significant symbols of Harvard’s connection to slavery,” and the Radcliffe Institute will convene a conference on universities and slavery. It is not possible to publish such extensive online accounts in their entirety in print—hence, the link to the original, full report.

 

Seamus Heaney in Arkansas

Seamus Heaney, brilliant scholar, was never far from his Irish love of the ridiculous (“With Seamus Heaney in Elysium,” July-August, page 60). Several years ago, my husband (M.B.A. ’61) and I were on a Harvard trip to Ireland. One night in Dublin, Seamus was the star attraction at dinner. Afterward, he was working the crowd and came up to a woman from Boston and me. He asked her where she was from, and when she told him, he said, “Ah, I know it well.”

He then asked me the same question, and when I said “Arkansas,” he threw his arms in the air and, with a big smile, said, “Ah, Arkansas! I love Arkansas. I had three firsts in one day in Arkansas.”

I asked him what his three firsts were and, still smiling broadly, he said he saw a dead armadillo on the side of the road. That would naturally make you smile, since the armadillo rolls over and dies with all four legs sticking straight up in the air. (Sometimes a local wit will put a beer can in his front paws!)

Seamus joyfully told of his second first: he saw “Rice paddies flooded.”

Then his demeanor changed entirely and his face became one of horror, as he gave the third first: “For the first time in my life, I was in a dry county.”

Nancy McDonough
Little Rock

 

Final Club Sanctions

In her Baccalaureate address this year, President Drew Faust exhorted students to tell “your own story” (see harvardmag.com/bac-16): “[T]elling your own story means discovering who you are, and not what others think you should be.” Regrettably, recent statements and actions by Harvard administrators fly in the face of these inspirational words [see News Briefs, “Social Club Sanctions,” July-August, page 27]. These administrators express an intent to compromise the prospects of young women and men who choose to spend a portion of their personal time in companionship with friends in a same-gender setting. They intend to do so by denying these students opportunity for leadership positions at Harvard and important postgraduate scholarships. The message: conform your story to what these administrators think that it should be, or else put your college career—and future beyond Harvard—at peril.

Friendships are central to telling your own story. You must be free to choose and associate with companions without intimidation or sanctions. Freedom of association is enshrined in the Constitution. It is extolled from Alexis de Tocqueville to Harvard’s own Professor Robert D. Putnam as a fundamental building block of America. Blacklisting a person based on association might be expected from McCarthyites, but not a great institution such as Harvard. Students’ and graduates’ stories shouldn’t be that their lives are marred by Harvard harassment. And, I might add, witch hunts are out of style.

John A. Hodges ’62
Washington, D.C.

 

Scientific Sense on Sex

I find it remarkable that biologists are still wondering about the value of sex (“Why Sex Succeeds” July-August, page 11), when physicist Sir Fred Hoyle mathematically proved the value of sex decades ago. This proof, which was finally published in 1999 in the small book The Mathematics of Evolution, shows that while asexual reproduction is capable of maintaining biological information, it is incapable of significantly improving a species because beneficial mutations cannot be decoupled from the much more numerous deleterious mutations. Sexual reproduction does allow for improvements because the beneficial mutations are decoupled from the deleterious mutations and can be selected for independently. The cited research explicitly demonstrates these issues.

I can suggest a couple of reasons biologists may have been reluctant to embrace Hoyle’s proof. The first is that the mathematics Hoyle used, while familiar to physicists, is beyond what most biologists are required to study. The second is that Hoyle’s proof demonstrates that with asexual reproduction, natural selection is incapable of producing the macro evolution required by biology’s paradigm. Biologists are subject to confirmation bias, which makes them reluctant to accept evidence that undermines Darwinism, which in this case is the fact that Darwinism has no mechanism for developing the complexity required for sexual reproduction. Hoyle believed that biologists’ refusal to acknowledge the limitations of the Darwinian paradigm has kept them from searching for the true mechanism driving evolution.

Thomas Phillips, Ph.D. ’86
Chapel Hill, N.C.

 

Plant Prospecting

It is always a particular pleasure to be brought up to date on the doings at the Arnold Arboretum, such as their program to find a suitable evergreen viburnum (“The Plant Prospectors,” July-August, page 37). I wish them success in their efforts with V. davidii, but in the meantime I find the evergreen (at least nine years out of 10) V. rhytidophyllum (leatherleaf viburnum) does the job quite nicely. At 15 to 20 feet, it certainly has a presence. Heads of nice enough off-white flowers, born in May, compel attention with a bracing, even astringent, aroma. Black fruits follow, though there is a red-berried form that is rather more attractive. Culture is straightforward.

James L. Jones ’54
Lexington, Mass.

 

Endowment Anxieties

Sorry to be so late in commenting. I have just gotten around to reading President Faust’s editorial “Vigorous Immortality” (November-December 2015, page 3) and I am concerned about her projections for the calculations of Harvard’s financing in the future. Current spending from the endowment is 5 percent per year. She assumes a 3 percent inflation rate and projects an 8 percent average investment return for the endowment. Everything looks rosy in perpetuity.

Stop the press. In a bad fiscal year, 2009, the fund lost 30 perent of its value and Harvard had to borrow $2.5 billion. The annual report from Stephen Blyth, Ph.D. ’92, president and CEO of Harvard Management Company, reveals some of the complexities. The value of the endowment has finally inched above the 2009 nadir. Since 2008, the “Real Return over Higher Education Price Index” (his figure 5) has hovered around 5 percent, the current spending level noted by Faust. What is not indicated in Blyth’s report is the extent to which outside contributions each year add to the endowment. It is clear that endowment provides a considerable fraction of Harvard’s expenditures (my recollection is 38 percent). These funds make possible need-blind admission and the wherewithal to attract and maintain a world-class faculty.

It remains to be seen if alumni 25 to 50 years from now will continue to contribute as generously as they have in the past to make up the deficit. What is to be done? Recently I visited Stanford. My understanding is that business arrangements with entrepreneurially successful former students there are contributing significantly. Is Harvard encouraging similar funds?

Stephen J. Seligman ’52
Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.

 

The Classics, Continued

Re: The editor’s comment (July-August, page 74): “We doubt that that many readers know Greek!” Don’t underestimate your audience. I’m sure any self-respecting Harvard graduate who majored in classics—that is, a true major in both classical languages—knows Greek. There are hundreds out there.

John Lubin, A.M. ’89
Lexington, Mass.

Editor’s note: Some of our best friends were classics majors. Surely, hundreds—but we circulate a quarter-million copies bimonthly.

 

Harvard and ROTC

As someone who remembers the day many years ago when ROTC uniforms were a common sight at Harvard, I believe there is an ulterior motive behind President Faust’s eloquent praise for the restoration of an ROTC link at Harvard (“An Invincible Spirit,” The View from Mass Hall, July-August, page 3). Considering the overwhelmingly hostile attitude of the Harvard faculty towards the military, is it not more than likely that what concerns the Harvard administration is the possibility that if the ROTC boycott continued, certain members of a relatively conservative Congress might seek to cut back the absolutely huge amount of taxpayer-furnished funding that Harvard receives every year from the federal government? That threat has happened before.

The decision to end the ROTC option almost half a century ago was a purely political act whose continuation was justified by reference to the phony “Don’t ask, don’t tell” controversy. The end of that policy has offered a convenient opportunity for Harvard to “restore” the ROTC program, knowing full well that the absence of the draft and the existence of large ROTC programs at many state universities will mean that only a handful of Harvard students will ever have the slightest interest in entering an ROTC program and Harvard can easily deal with them so long as they can drill at MIT. That Yale by contrast has 40 undergraduates enrolled in its NROTC program reflects how much more proactive that institution has been in encouraging its students to explore various ROTC possibilities.

In the meantime, while saying nice things about an essentially phantom ROTC program and sending President Faust to West Point to deliver a speech, the Harvard administration can evidently rest assured that the flow of federal funding will continue even though the faculty, for better or worse, essentially remains as negative about the military as ever.

Anthony H. Oberdorfer ’61
Belmont, Mass.

 

I was in the Army ROTC program at Harvard in the 1950s and consider that experience—and the service that followed it—some of the defining moments of my life. It was an important part of the Harvard experience for me and helped shape who I turned out to be. Kudos to President Faust for restoring this important program.

Albert J. Kliman ’55, M.P.A. ’61
Silver Spring, Md

 

“Invincible Spirit”

President’s Faust column on the “Invincible Spirit” [The View from Mass Hall, July-August, page 3] evoked the response: Not So Fast. “Memorial Church and Memorial Hall …stand testament to the human cost of supporting and defending the Constitution.”

The late Reverend Peter Gomes was a class behind me at the Divinity School. Sometime in the 1990s, Peter floated the idea of adding the names of the 71 Harvard graduates who died fighting for the Rebels in the War of the Rebellion. I thought this was outrageous and we carried on quite a spirited correspondence. 

Peter pointed out the names of the four German graduates of Harvard who died in World War I and the Divinity School graduate, Adolph Sannwald, who died on the Eastern front as a member of the Wehrmacht in World War II.

In the article “Remembrance of Things Past” by James McAuley (Harvard Crimson of 11/11/2010), Peter discussed the names of the Germans in the Memorial Church. He also mentioned , as I had pointed out to him some years earlier, that Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor, spent two years at Harvard (1919-1921) and is not remembered anywhere. 

Harvard welcomes many applicants from all over the world. If some of them later turn out to back the wrong cause, so be it. But be very, very careful about what memorial is supporting “the Constitution.”

Jeff Fiddler, S.T.B. ’67
Chicago

 

Education as Indoctrination

On page four of the July-August issue, Nicholas Lemann (notably, involved with a journalism school curriculum) is quoted giving a list of “master skills.” Among them are “Rigorous interpretation of meaning, taught mainly through close reading of texts” and “Empathetic understanding of other people and other cultures.”

As a scientist, I would add “Learning to detect, by studing the changes in philosophical treatment of the two ‘skills’ above with time, that control of their teaching is one of, if not the most, important tools employed by the political elite to ‘direct’ the masses.” Indeed, suitably indoctrinate one Harvard student and they will propagate that to hundreds if not thousands.

Doug McDonald, Ph.D. ’71
Professor emeritus of chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Champaign, Ill.

 

International Trade, Robots, and Joblessness

Yes, the thought that cheap labor abroad damages the American economy ignores “comparative advantage.” (After all, foreign countries don’t want American dollars to use as wallpaper; they mainly want them to buy American goods and services.) However, as your readers point out [see “Robots and Joblessness,” Letters, July-August, page 2], the overall benefit accrues to some Americans while harming American workers who become unemployed.

Back when I was in school, economists referred to the labor-intensive factor. Products and services vary in proportions that labor and capital contribute to their value. (Labor contributes a greater percentage of the value to hand-sewn garments than it does to machine-sewn garments, for instance.) We can partially reduce the bad effects of outsourcing that occurs when dollars go to foreigners and they use them to buy pre-existing American capital assets rather than make purchases that create jobs for Americans. The Dow can go up, but so does unemployment. Our laws should prevent this from happening directly, or through corporations. Ninety-nine-year leases of land should be allowed, providing construction begins in 10 years. (There is another disadvantage to allowing foreigners to buy pre-existing American capital. If foreigners own hotels in the United States, they would seek to influence the politics here. In the United States, money can influence politics through contributions to political campaigns or by making direct political messages. {Even if by constitutional amendment we reduced this influence, we cannot eliminate it.} It is better to have residents influence politics in this manner than non-residents.)

Robotics does work the same way as cheap labor abroad. However, centuries ago, when protectionism was popular, a different justification was used for technological unemployment. Unemployment was thought to be self-curing. “In the long run,” all would benefit, said economists. Later, John Maynard Keynes answered that in the long run, we’ll all be dead. It was pithy and witty. Unfortunately, people forget that he did not believe that, in the long run, unemployment would naturally go away. The “invisible hand” does not apply to labor.

In the past, technological advances enabled political and sociological forces to lead to humanitarian laws, which balanced the job-destroying labor-saving devices. Work-weeks in excess of 40 hours were considered excessive, needing discouragement. Sabbath observance was desirable. Child-labor laws were passed, as were laws making free education available in increasing amounts (which delayed the age at which people entered the work force.) Now there is a much narrower political band for shortening the standard work-week or further restricting child labor.

The better way to change the oversupply of labor is the way we changed the oversupply of agriculture. The government pays farmers not to grow crops. If the government makes substantial payments to people to retire early, we wouldn’t have constant unemployment. This results in jobs for younger people. Without something like that, instead of artificially stimulating the economy, we have the economy running like a poorly irrigated field. When we artificially stimulate the economy because people are out of work, the extra moneys pumped in frequently do not go to create jobs for the unemployed, and, to the extent [they don’t, the] effects are bad. If the roses in your garden lack water, water them, not the tulips. If we followed such plans we wouldn’t have the pressure to accept pollution. Currently we allow polluters to foul up our environment, without being held accountable, because fair restrictions would add to unemployment. Also, inflation increases when the government artificially stimulates the economy.

Therefore, the best way to get full employment is to reduce the supply of labor. The best way to reduce the supply of labor is to reduce the standard work life.

Specific Proposals:

  • The government should make substantial payments to people who refrain from working past age 60—or 59—or whatever is necessary.
  • Congress should enact full Social Security benefits at an early age and increase general benefits. This would encourage those eligible for retirement to retire. We can pay large amounts from the general treasury into the Social Security system. (James K. Galbraith says these payments need not be immediate if the “Government guarantees them” {Mother Jones, May/June 2009.}) Social Security is now solvent. (Increasing Social Security benefits would be politically more feasible than many of other proposals.)
  • Also, we can give a 100 percent tax credit for contributions to IRAs up to $10,000, withdrawable only on retirement, of course. The moneys of the 100 percent credit IRAs could be required to be invested domestically by the trustees. Furthermore, the credit IRA plan would reduce unemployment under any of three theories: mainly, that it would encourage early retirement for some workers, thus reducing unemployment; also, that investment increases employment; and thirdly, that consumption reduces unemployment.

Donald Marcus, LL.B. ’58
Brooklyn

 

Childbirth Choices  

In the excerpt from Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting (“Guilt-Free Childbirth,” July-August, page 55), Amy Tuteur ’80 writes: “No woman should ever feel guilty about the choices she makes regarding childbirth, breastfeeding, or the manner in which she cares for her baby.” Hmm. Should a person feel guilt over anything s/he does in parenting? Smoke, drink, abuse drugs? If so, why? Perhaps because it harms the child? Guilt is what causes humans to change their behavior when they feel they have failed to do their best. If certain choices in childbirth or childcare affect the well-being of one’s child, why shouldn’t one feel pain as the impetus to changing for the better in the future? 

“Providing food, warmth, and tenderness,” which Tuteur concedes to be essential to proper parenting, is precisely the point of natural birth and attachment parenting. And the women who engage in such practices are not in mindless thrall to some “industry,” but independent thinkers who will not be “dictated” to by anyone and who choose these practices for the advantages they offer. As compared to Tuteur’s favored system of “interventions, epidurals and C-sections” (in her reply to an online comment), unmedicated vaginal birth is well-established to be less risky for both mother and infant, with every medical intervention raising the risk of surgery and thus raising rates of maternal and infant morbidity. Midwifery and homebirth care produce equivalent or better medical outcomes for infants and mothers, higher rates of maternal satisfaction with the birth experience, and allow breast-feeding and bonding to get off to the best possible start. Breast milk is well-established to be more easily digested than formula, more nutritious, and alive with antibodies that protect infants, with benefits that last through childhood and even adulthood (along with reductions in mothers’ cancer risks as well). Baby-wearing and sleep-sharing are longstanding human arrangements that help regulate the breathing, sleep, arousal, heart rate, and body temperature of infants, as well as provide comfort and security from the presence of a caring and familiar person. Are all these practices “based on nothing more than the personal beliefs of a few individuals”—or, rather, millennia of experience of the human species in cultures around the globe? The benefits from natural birth and attachment parenting are not illusory. 

Is “the process of birth ... more important than the baby itself” to those who advocate for such practices, as Tuteur alleges? Well, that’s a false dichotomy. Better even than a healthy newborn is a healthy newborn best equipped by the process of birth to stay healthy, as it develops in sync with a mother who has not been disabled by needless hospital procedures, confused and demoralized by pressure tactics that bypassed her informed consent, and deprived of the confidence that she possesses the natural capacities needed to birth and nurture a baby. 

Tuteur is the one who is promoting her own personal beliefs at the expense of the truth. If she is truly enemy #1 of natural parenting, the case against such practices must be weak indeed. 

Audrey and Lawrence Lengbeyer ’79
Parents of four
Annapolis, Md.

 

Conflicts of Interest in Medical Research

I regret that your note on researchers’ conflicts of interest in medical research done at Harvard labs focused only on issues of funding, and did not discuss serious ethical questions about abuses of patients in studies which entail the harvest, analysis, and manipulation of their genetic materials, which is the focus of much of medical and bio-research these days.

Usually these subjects are enlisted from the patient pool of the teaching or HMO providers. Usually, patients are asked to sign complex legal releases, which most do not understand, that entitle the research sponsors—in this case, Harvard—or the sponsoring big pharma, to financially exploit any new medicines or therapies derived from the subject tissue.

The failure to obtain bona fide advised consent for tissue donation lay at the heart of two recent scandals—one, the historic abuse and exploitation of the cancer tissues of Henrietta Laks; and the other, with Planned Parenthood’s harvest of fetal tissue from its patient population, based on alleged donor consent from only the mother! Usually a patient feels that signing such consents is required for the continuation of their care, or in the case of Planned Parenthood, the provision of a low-cost, or no-cost abortion!

In those and most cases, the donor patient is never offered any financial payment for donating their invaluable genetic material. Yet the fruits of research using this genetic material have led to Hep C and HIV therapies that cost some $80,000 a year per patient and bonanzas to the drug companies, and research universities involved!!

Some payment should as a matter of course be tendered to patients whose genetic material is the real target of medical research studies, such as shares of stock or warrants in any ultimate financial benefits accruing from the manipulation and/or reproduction of such human tissue. Do Harvard’s labs, researchers, and patent attorneys conduct Harvard-sponsored research studies with these ethical protocols reflecting real respect for the patients as human beings instead of just a fountain of genetic riches?

Jerome M. Garchik, J.D. ’70
San Francisco

 

Amplification

“The Outsiders’ Insider” (July-August, page 46) quoted Black List co-founder Dino Sijamic. Recently, he changed his name legally to Dino Simone.

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