Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Senator Franken encore, dating data, lecture lessons

July-August 2012

Art, Science, Culture, Economics

Thanks for the wonderful essay by E.O. Wilson (“On the Origins of the Arts”) on Chauvet Cave. Its 30,000-year-old paintings show individualistic animal portraits: a running bison (having many legs), a red bear, lions, rhinos, and four horses in a Mount Rushmore-like tableau, but there are no people depicted, except perhaps for one partial Venus goddess figure on a stalactite on the ceiling.

Why no people? Today our museums and churches are filled with portraits of people. People like depicting people. But then I remembered the names of great Native American leaders—Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Black Elk. The Chauvet cave paintings predate writing, so maybe its portraits represented the names of people. There was “Running Bison” on this wall, “Red Bear” on that wall, and “Dark Horse” over there.

If one wanted to learn the history of the ancestors, this cave showed them. One goddess figure among many people would not be unusual—the Sistine Chapel is similar, with God at the center of the ceiling. Maybe the Chauvet artists liked depicting people just as much as we do today.

J. Richard Gott III ’69
Professor of astrophysics
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

 

Wilson writes, “The novelist says ‘Does that work?’ and the scientist says ‘Could that possibly be true?’” One might add that an economist says, “I see that works in reality; I wonder if it works in theory?”

John L. Rafuse, HKS ’81
Alexandria, Va.

 

Thank you for E.O. Wilson’s thought-provoking essay on the evolution of cultural imperatives in modern humans. The search for a life of meaning beyond mere survival could fill the moral and spiritual void in modern pulsating scientific-industrial communities that value prestigious well-paying professions, monetary wealth, and ever-narrowing subspecialized expertise. The commoditisation and commercialization of information and education, homogenization from globalization, and the hyperkinetic distractions of digital technology and social media pose significant threats to humanity’s need for sustained contemplation, solitude, and the pursuit of meaning and non-monetized worth.

The paradox remains that the instant interconnectivity of today’s hyper-accelerated world is associated with reduced meaningful, life-affirming social and cultural activities or education. Alexis de Tocqueville cautioned against a society that invariably inclined towards majoritarian tyranny that could only be mitigated by a cultural life of the humanities. It strikes me that the arts and culture are now more imperiled than at any time since humans were freed from the preoccupations of food, water and shelter for survival.

Joseph Ting
Brisbane, Australia

 

Senator Franken, Encore

The three letters in the May-June issue that castigate you for featuring Al Franken in March-April (“Al Franken, You Can Call Me Senator”) have one thing in common: none is from Minnesota. One writer even accuses those of us out here who voted for him of playing a joke on the rest of the country. Please know that many consider our junior senator a fine legislator who takes policy matters, both big picture and in detail, seriously. Indeed, we see him standing in the tradition of one he hails as a model and mentor, the late Paul Wellstone. The writers all seem to disdain comedy as a profession beneath contempt; they, and maybe Harvard itself, need to lighten up.

Patrick Henry ’60
Waite Park, Minn.

 

The letters on my friend and classmate Al Franken ’73 perfectly exemplify the maximum-vitriol/minimum-facts style that now blankets American media. It may be “absurd” to two-time Republican congressional loser and “Contract for America” signer Richard P. Sybert that Franken be taken seriously, but Al wrote and got passed the law requiring healthcare insurers to refund all premiums of which at least 80 percent is not spent on medical care, a law that in its first year is resulting in billions of dollars in refunds to employers and individuals. Not demonstrated any real accomplishments, Mr. Taft? Besides the billions in refunds, and leading the fight for Internet neutrality in the Senate, Al drafted and pushed through the requirement that the SEC study the conflicts of interest in banks paying credit agencies to rate their subprime mortgages and other junk investments and force random assignment of credit agency reviews if the conflicts persist. Or is all this Sybert’s dreaded taking money from “those of us who produce”? Perhaps it is Al’s relentless exposure of lying by Focus on the Family, Limbaugh, Coulter, O’Reilly, and company that has your correspondents so upset. Whatever it is, their arguments cannot survive the slightest analysis.

David Wade ’73, J.D. ’76
Portland, Ore.

 

Richard Sybert’s letter, alas, reflects the level of reasoning so common in today’s political discourse. Franken’s “ideas and value system are comprehensively wrong.” Q.E.D. To this reader, humorist Franken’s thinking seems far more nuanced and smart. Thank goodness that Sybert and I are admirable over-taxed lawyer-producers, in contrast to those unproductive under-taxed consumer/spongers, by which he must mean carpenters, bakers, farmers, assembly-line workers, and minimum-wage waiters, cleaners, and shop clerks who serve us.

Mary von Euler, Radcliffe ’52
Bethesda, Md.

 

I know, alas, that many of my fellow Harvardians are conservative rather than liberal. But I was surprised by the crude vitriol of the “Fie on Al Franken” letters. Especially offensive was the remark that Franken’s politics “rest on taking money from those of us who produce and add value, and giving it to those who consume.” There are at least as many idle consumers among the rich as among the poor and at least as many hard-working producers among the poor as among the rich. The kind of judgment reflected in these letters sadly exposes the simplistic, reactionary rhetoric that has now become acceptable currency in our political discourse.

David Gordon ’51, A.M. ’52
Scarsdale, N.Y.

 

The great thing about the American political enterprise is that its openness affords an Al Franken the opportunity to seek—and win election to—a U.S. Senate seat—just as it allowed Sarah (“I can see Russia from my front porch”) Palin’s run for vice president.

While Franken’s rhetoric may be offensive to Mr. Sybert, Ms. Jensvold, and Mr. Taft, the great thing about the United States is that it is truly a land of opportunity, where a comedian can be elected to the Congress, just as one from any other path can be elected. The current U.S. Congress includes: screenwriters; orchard owners; social workers; ordained ministers; sheriffs; accountants; pilots; educators; dentists; physicians; veterinarians; and various other professionals.

The terms used in the letters to describe Franken and his political views—aggressive, obnoxious, rude, comprehensively wrong, profane, an embarrassment to everyone, partisan, has not demonstrated any real accomplishments in his brief public service—are each equally partisan, obnoxious, and offensive. That Franken rubs these folks the wrong way is precisely what makes our political system so vibrant, cherished, and spectacular.

Ted Baker, M.D.S. ’90
Miami

 

Dating Data

As a New England Romantic born and bred, I applaud Kevin Lewis for seeking answers to one of life’s great mysteries: how humans choose intimate partners (“Mysteries of Mate Choice” ). However, I am dismayed by his choice of New York City as the forum for his studies. Ever since Dutch traders landed in the seventeenth century, being wealthy and being seen have been the joie de vivre for high society in Manhattan. It is therefore no surprise that New Yorkers place money and looks at the top of their wish lists for a mate.

I urge Lewis to perform a Cantabrigian analysis. My suspicion is that he will quickly identify the Puritan values of honesty, discipline, modesty, and frugality as the elements of Cupid’s elixir that stir the hearts of sons and daughters of the Commonwealth—those hearty souls who long for the spiritual riches of Walden and spurn the fleeting material riches of Wall Street.

Andrew L. Kalloch ’06, J.D. ’09
Hamilton, Mass.

 

Overseer Oversights?

The May-June issue of the magazine (“Vote Now” ) outlines our choices for those for whom we will vote to lead us as Overseers (for six-year terms) and alumni association directors (for three-year terms). As I read down the lists of names, I was struck, and appalled, by their backgrounds. Eight of our fellow alumni are running for Overseer. Of those eight, seven come from backgrounds of finance or white-shoe law. Nine of our fellows are running for director; seven of those come from backgrounds of finance or white-shoe law. Even the candidate who lists his career as “fine-art photographer” actually made his fortune at Goldman Sachs first.

Thus, to govern ourselves we have 17 candidates, with 14 from careers devoted to making as much money as possible as quickly as possible. Can we as a community do no better than this?

Stan Coerr, M.P.A. ’99
McLean, Va.

 

More Notes on Lectures

If the lecture method is indeed facing twilight (“Twilight of the Lecture”  by Craig Lambert), I’m pleased that I was around to see it at zenith. I’m thinking of the legendary year-long course “History of East Asian Civilization,” quickly dubbed “Rice Paddies,” which I attended in the 1950s. It was taught by Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank for decades. I would never have described either of them as mere conveyers of “information.” George Packard, Reischauer’s biographer, writes that attending their class was “like walking into an atomic reactor. The quality and density were tremendous...enthusiasm was contagious.” Neither Reischauer nor Fairbank objected to being called a “missionary.” With passion and wit they were proselytizing the cause of a glorious and unfamiliar culture.

Lambert quotes Professor Eric Mazur as advocating a “group activity” style of teaching in which the big lecture hall is replaced by a classroom with square tables seating four children each. I’m trying to imagine if someone had suggested in 1956 that Rice Paddies be taken out of its majestic setting in Memorial Hall and placed in rooms with groups of four of us callow youth exchanging our ideas about T’ang dynasty poetry, let’s say. I think there might have been an early movement to Occupy the campus.

John H. Boyle, A.M. ’58
San Francisco

 

Mazur’s “active learning” innovation certainly struck sensitive alumni nerves (Letters). I have a comment on those responses, based on my own gradual switch from lecturing to experiential approaches during 34 years of teaching anthropology at Colorado College.

I respectfully suggest that the critics confuse education with performance. My memorable experiences of performance include Archibald T. Davison’s lectures in Music 1, E. Power Biggs’s recitals in Grand Rapids and later Cambridge, and live performances in Symphony Hall. All of those experiences changed me, as the Mazur critics were changed by the polished lectures they remember. But all of these, I humbly suggest, were closer to theater than to education.

Toward the end of my teaching career, I, like Mazur, reinvented the pedagogical wheel and began to ask my introductory students to learn ethnography by doing it, and by adding alumni of the course to my staff each time I taught it.

Two positive results stand out. First, students are far more engaged when they work on problems that have not yet been solved in the discipline, even if these problems are small. Second, the old cliché is perfectly true: that no one learns more than the teacher, and that making every student to some extent a teacher transformed a group of willing (or not) teenagers—from empty vessels to be filled, into culturally experienced citizens charged with sharing their diverse lives and teaching each other. Such a thorough change in approach catapulted a so-so course into one that was not only memorable, but that changed the way students met life events in their futures.

Paul Kutsche ’47
Grand Rapids, Mich.

 

Amazingly, a five-page article and two pages of response on interactive learning contained no mention, except for a barely relevant sidebar comment, of Harvard Business School (HBS). Are Professor Mazur and Craig Lambert unaware that the folks across the Charles have been using his “peer teaching” form of interactive learning as the core of their education format with great success since…1926 or so?

My education experience at Harvard was consistent with Mazur’s thesis: four years of mediocrity, struggling with focus and retention in the lecture environment.

At HBS, I flourished. I welcomed my classmates’ challenges to my reasoning and the need to explain my position. I enjoyed learning for the first time in my life. On the other hand, I know many of my classmates were thoroughly intimidated by the interactive method, as applied by HBS.

So perhaps the best answer is: “It depends.” Our exploding IT environment is making it possible to develop and employ many novel and effective learning techniques. In the near future, education will experience very significant change. Harvard may, or may not, play a leadership role. Many of these new methods will replace the lecture, but only for those of us who learn better in other ways, and for topics that lend themselves better to other media.

Joe Gano ’64, M.B.A. ’71
Wilmington, Del.

 

Softball Pitching, Flat-Out

As an alum, father of an incoming freshman, and most importantly, a die-hard softball dad, I was pleased to see Craig Lambert’s profile of star Harvard softball pitcher, Rachel Brown ’12 (“Queen of the Hill” ). It did a nice job educating readers on the many subtle differences that make softball such a different game from baseball. But you missed one important difference: there is no “hill” in softball for Brown to reign over. Softball pitchers throw off a flat rubber in the “pitcher’s circle” and there is no elevated mound. Perhaps the title should have been something like, “Summa of the Circle.”

Todd Collins ’83, M.B.A. ’92
Palo Alto

 

Basketball Bias?

In the May-June 2012 issue (“One for the Books” ), you rightly praised the historic accomplishments of the 2011-12 Harvard men’s basketball team and their record-setting run into the NCAA tournament. As an alumna teaching within the SEC, which fancies itself ruler of all things athletic, I proudly cheered the Crimson (who, incidentally, got as far as our Crimson Tide did...) in this year’s bracket. However, my next favorite pastime during March Madness is waiting for the inevitable slip by television commentators who, in their eagerness for newsworthy upsets, boldly state that no #16 seed has ever beaten a #1—at which point I yell at the screen “1998! Harvard versus Stanford! Allison Feaster! Check your facts!”

I have come to expect this kind of oversight from men’s basketball commentators, thus I was disappointed that Harvard Magazine would use the same male-centered language in claiming that “For only the second time in history and the first time since 1946, Harvard sent a team to the Big Dance...with their second consecutive league championship season—after having posted no titles since the Ancient Eight’s incarnation in 1956.” These statements are true for the Harvard men’s team and only for them; the Harvard women’s basketball team has won the league title 11 times and appeared in six national tournaments, including three appearances in the past 10 years.

Unlike women’s crew or rugby, which maintain a link to Radcliffe in their team name, the women’s basketball team, since the 1972 passage of Title IX that ushered in its varsity status, has proudly worn the crimson H on its uniforms. If only female athletes have to state their gender when we discuss sporting accomplishments, it remains crystal clear who society thinks truly belongs on the court.

Meredith M. Bagley ’99
Tuscaloosa, Ala.

 

Editor’s note: That article was a brief summary, for the record, of extensive online coverage of the men’s basketball season. As the dates make clear, it was only about men’s basketball. The magazine was delighted to feature the women’s 1998 victory in its summary of sports highlights in the September-October 2011 Harvard 375th anniversary issue (“Faster, Higher, Stronger” ), and has regularly included the Crimson women hoopsters in its sports coverage, including a profile of the formidable Feaster (“Charlie the Great,”  January-February 1997), among other stories.

 

Taxes, Effort, Equity

According to John Thorndike ’64, J.D. ’68, most people in this country are rewarded financially relative to how hard they work, so if we raise taxes on the rich, we will disincentivize hard work (Letters).

That notion requires an enormous leap of faith. In a country where CEOs make 475 times the average worker’s salary, the work-to-wealth correlation is especially dubious.

Free-market fetishizers, who currently include each and every national Republican politician, worship the fallacy that an unregulated economy rewards people reasonably and fairly, based on how hard they work, how much they produce, and what they deserve.

The rest of us recognize the more complex reality: that hard-working poor people deserve higher wages than they are getting, and that many people get rich—outrageously rich—through destructive greed, speculation, chicanery, manipulation, inside knowledge, and unethical behavior, none of which have anything to do with productivity, hard work, or any relative benefit to our economy, and none of which we should encourage.

From 1946 to 1980, the United States achieved sustained economic growth, widespread prosperity, and unprecedented market stability. Our recipe for economic success included tax rates as high as 90 percent on income that has historically been considered excessive, to discourage the greed and speculation fueled by dreams of unlimited wealth; a livable minimum wage, to encourage hard work by guaranteeing reasonable reward; and strong labor unions, to build a productive and strong middle class.

With higher wages for the struggling many, and higher tax revenues from the super-rich few, we will be able to increase public investment in those things that have been repeatedly shown to benefit everyone, including education, infrastructure, healthcare for all, and green-energy development.

Ricardo Ashbridge Hinkle, M.L.A. ’90
New York City

 

Lilacs’ Own Calendar

Lilacs in the Greater Boston area are already in bloom today, April 24. I fear that none will remain in bloom on Lilac Sunday, May 13 (“Voluptuous Sunday” ). Chalk it up to the unnaturally warm winter.

Harley A. Haynes, M.D. ’63
Bedford, Mass.

 

Comic Pinups

I now have two illustrations by Mark Steele above my desk: the most recent is people jumping off Memorial Church into a swimming pool, for 1927 (Yesterday’s News). The other is a New England preppie in a Harvard shirt with overalls and pitchfork, for 1920.

Thank you, Mark Steele! They make me laugh every day.

Patricia B. Martin ’63
Oceanside, Calif.

 

Using Animals in Research

After reading “Animal Research Reforms”  and Jessica Sandler’s letter, I found Harvard’s attitudes toward research animals, including primates, at Harvard Medical School/New England Primate Research Center extremely callous from top to bottom. The only things that seemed to elicit attention to animal care were primate deaths and the threat of fines and personal public embarrassment. An animal’s not even being seen when its cage was being sanitized is a pointed metaphor about the invisibility of animals and their needs. Harvard cannot even provide water, that most basic necessity. Yes, animals should not die from neglect, but what about the quality of life for these poor creatures who are given extremely abusive, frightening, and painful treatment while seemingly being viewed as just lab tools. The goal should be to eliminate the use of animals in research and lab work.

Nick Percival ’64
Ridgefield, Conn.

 

Editor’s note: A photograph accompanying the article on the use of animals in medical research was captioned as depicting a common marmoset—information supplied, in error, by the stock agency that provided the image. Several correspondents wrote in to suggest that the primate in the photograph was instead a juvenile baboon.

 

Erratum

“Class Reports, Redux,”  about the novel The Red Book, by Deborah Copaken Kogan ’88, inadvertently misidentified her father, the late Richard D. Copaken ’63, J.D. ’66. We regret the error.

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