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Reverberations from the sixties

Perhaps an important aspect of a Yale education is the development and expression of one’s social conscience. I think that is one of the points of Warren Goldstein’s article on William Sloane Coffin Jr. '49, '56BDiv (“Crisis of Conscience,” March/April). However, I would like to note an historical inaccuracy. Goldstein includes a quote from Brewster aide Charlie O'Hearn describing the 1968 baccalaureate: “When [Coffin] came to the rostrum to give the invocation, the entire senior class, attired in their academic gowns, got up as one and applauded him.” That statement is incorrect. As a member of the Class of 1968, I expressed my conscience by remaining seated and withholding applause.

Bill Coffin’s leadership in the public struggle against expanding U.S. participation in the Vietnam civil war was a source of great satisfaction for many of us working within the bureaucracy who wished, at the time, that we could speak out against misleading reports from the Pentagon, fudged intelligence assessments, misleading press announcements, and polemical public statements, all designed to justify the administration’s course of action in southeast Asia. As former defense secretary Bob McNamara recently revealed, there were some in the administration at the time who knew what we were doing was wrong, but out of loyalty to the president failed to speak out. In addition to the tragic loss of over 58,000 Americans, the longer-term costs to our national interests of this failure were and continue to be enormous.

I hope others will today reflect on how Bill’s activism back in the sixties can serve as a paradigm for 2004. Once again we find the United States bogged down in a military conflict far from home, sustaining human losses and enormous economic and political costs, having acted essentially unilaterally, using spurious intelligence, to achieve what we are led to believe will be healthy “regime change.” Reality suggests U.S. actions are more likely to lead to a long-standing quagmire with as yet unforeseen costs to our security and economic well-being.

Like many of my colleagues who also served past administrations in Iraq, we could and undoubtedly should have spoken out forcefully against the ill-considered actions orchestrated by the Pentagon and vice president. We need the leadership of a new Bill Coffin.

The author, a career foreign service officer, was American Consul in Basra, Iraq, from 1965 to 1967.—Eds.

There is still much to be learned from Yale’s experience in the Vietnam years and from the leadership of both Bill Coffin and Kingman Brewster. Among the lessons we have not yet fully absorbed are how vain it is to depend on force alone; how dangerous it is to our national political health to punish dissenters and brand them traitors; and how valuable it is for people of conscience to speak out. Recalling the events described in the article “Crisis of Conscience” makes me very proud of Yale.

Bill Coffin once told me that you can say anything to a man if you have held his hand when his child is dying. His social conscience was always tempered by his concern for individuals.

Bill flew across the country and held my family together for three days when I was undergoing life-threatening surgery with dire prospects. And sitting by my hospital bed in the middle of the night, he caught me when I fell getting out of bed. He is the quintessential pastor as well as the troubling prophet for our times, an example of “Christianity in action.”

Anyone whose appetite for fresh inspiration is whetted by Warren Goldstein’s story about William Sloane Coffin should be informed also of a stirring compendium of Coffiniana: hundreds of brief passages excerpted from Coffin’s files and published by Westminster John Knox Press under the title Credo. The paragraphs, from throughout his professional life, are undated but arranged for coherent flow through nine wide-ranging themes of public, personal, and religious life. The reader can dip into it on any page and be deeply moved. I myself, knowing him well, find it “the essential Bill Coffin,” the Coffin to remember. And I shall treasure its inspiration always.


Whose fault is fat?

Your gentle profile of Kelly Brownell (“The Belly of the Beast,” March/April) highlights the tensions underlying his position on obesity. “If you want to make the personal responsibility argument, then you have to dismiss biology,” you quote him as saying (and you cite one of his colleagues who goes further: “Genes load the gun; the environment pulls the trigger”). Now imagine, just as a thought experiment, that Brownell was referring to sexual rather than dietary temptation, to infidelity (or rape!) rather than cheeseburgers. Would we accept the excuse “Evolution made me do it—besides, look at my temptation-saturated environment"?

Evolving cultural norms—and, yes, democratically crafted laws—do point a way out of the impasse. They allow a group of people to cooperate to narrow the gap between Hobbes’s conception of “nature” and Aristotle's: between who we are wired to be and who we have the potential to become. Taking collective responsibility for our society’s culture and laws does not mean either devaluing personal responsibility or ignoring biology. It’s simply a matter of persuading enough of us that a serious change is both worthwhile and possible.

Jennifer Kaylin paraphrases Kelly Brownell to the effect that overeaters “aren’t . weak-willed so much as they are obeying a genetically determined survival instinct.” This is a false dichotomy. Every bad habit—compulsive sex, substance abuse, even procrastination—is based on an instinctive, disproportionate preference for lesser, earlier goods over greater, later ones when the lesser goods are imminently available. It is only this instinct, doubtless selected to promote survival, that makes willpower necessary. It may overwhelm the will, but it cannot bypass the will on a separate track.

I just finished the article about “food fighter” Kelly Brownell. I found it so interesting that the article ended with a quote by Gandhi, because while I was reading I kept thinking about the ancient Indian medical practice called Ayurveda. In Ayurveda, if your mind, body, and spirit are all in balance, then you automatically crave foods that are good for you.

I have found this to be true. I went on a “yoga cruise” in which we did yoga several hours a day, and then went to eat—in a dining room where the typically excessive cruise food was being served. I found myself not wanting the fancy salad with cheese and dressings all over it, but asking for a simple bowl of arugula with oil and vinegar; not wanting the gooey desserts, but asking for a dish of kiwi and raspberries. It wasn’t out of an effort to “eat right"; it was actually what I wanted! Perhaps Professor Brownell should involve some Ayurvedic practitioners in his studies, and ask their advice about how to incorporate this idea of balance into his crusade to change public policies. I wish him luck. We all need it.


Bigger is better

I share with others the concern that your new typeface is too small and my pleasure in learning that you are considering enlargement (Letters, March/April). I look forward to being able to read your magazine’s content as comfortably as I can read the advertisements.

In response to a number of complaints, we have increased the type size in our features and departments, beginning with this issue.—Eds.


Defending language classrooms

John Kleeberg’s assertion that the ideal environment for learning a foreign language is the country where it is spoken (Letters, March/April) is correct as regards the second stage of acquisition, but research on language learning and study abroad shows unequivocally that adult learners without classroom preparation learn far less from their experience abroad than those who have had the opportunity to lay a solid foundation before they go.

Mr. Kleeberg’s description of the language-learning experience at American universities is many years out of date and is certainly wildly inaccurate as regards Yale’s language programs. Most of our language faculty are native speakers of the languages they teach; the non-native teachers are fluent and have excellent accents. Modern language pedagogy devotes very little classroom time to learning “word endings and gender, grammar, and syntax,” but the time spent on these aspects of language is essential to providing the framework of meaning that will enable learners to become fluent when they do go abroad. Most classroom time is spent in active communicative use of the language. The use of multimedia, satellite programming, and sophisticated software supporting regular interaction with authentic materials (i.e., language created by and for native speakers, not for pedagogical purposes) gives students not only “exposure” to the diversity of native speakers but also a basis for an intelligent understanding of that diversity.

It is an unfortunately prevalent myth that an adult with no language learning background can learn a language well through immersion abroad; learners forced into that situation typically learn a good deal of vocabulary but develop a kind of superficial fluency without any control of the structures needed to express meaning well. Even worse, without any insight into the other culture, what language they do learn is often used inappropriately. By retaining its foreign language requirement, creating new programs to extend and enhance it, and supporting the faculty who help students to fulfill it, Yale ensures that at least some Americans will do this country credit when they go abroad.


King’s earlier Yale encounter

Judith Ann Schiff’s article “King and Kingman” (Old Yale, January/February) neglects to mention that although Yale gave the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. an honorary degree in 1964, the Yale Divinity School had, apparently, rejected King’s application to the school in 1951.

Although I read this stunning fact years ago, I can’t find full documentary proof of it at the moment. However, Volume One of the Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. includes King’s January 1951 letter to Crozer Theological Seminary president Sankey L. Blanton, mentioning that King had applied to Yale for a PhD in systematic theology, and that “it so happens Yale University is my preference.” (King, the top-ranked student at Crozer, was admitted to the schools at the University of Edinburgh and Boston University, the latter of which he eventually attended.) Since King didn’t end up attending the school of his “preference,” it seems that King was indeed, and incredibly, rejected by Yale Divinity School.

This decision probably ranks as the worst mistake that any Yale admissions committee has ever made since 1701, seeing King’s later epochal achievements. Yale not only owed King that honorary degree it later gave him, it also owed him an apology, and also owes all Yale graduates an apology, for Yale’s senseless prevention of King from being part of the Yale family of regular, non-"honorary,” alumnae/i. Better an honorary degree than none, but the damage was done, and there lies a cautionary tale to us all about misjudging the potential of others.

We have not found more conclusive evidence that King’s application was rejected. But there is a strong oral tradition at Yale that supports Boyle’s assumption that King was rejected by the Divinity School.—Eds.


St. Thomas More’s influence

I applaud St. Thomas More’s expansion plans (Light & Verity, March/April). I was confirmed a Roman Catholic on my 21st birthday in my junior year in St. Thomas More chapel. I have since become Yale’s first Cistercian (Trappistine) nun. That I became a Catholic at as secular a place as Yale is something of a miracle. It was largely due to the spiritual nourishment and welcome I found at St. Thomas More. The challenge of living as a Christian in a secular environment forced me to define what I believed and why. I met scholars whose faith was at least as important as their academic careers.

Father Beloin’s ministry of educating Catholics in their faith is exactly what is needed in the church today. Twenty years ago, Sunday Mass was SRO also. Of the six student sponsors who supported my confirmation, one has left Catholicism to become a Lutheran pastor and university chaplain (Rev. Daphne Burt '78), and another has become a Catholic priest and canon lawyer (Rev. Dexter Brewer '79). More House’s effect on our lives has been incalculable.


Vinland map: case closed?

While one can appreciate the desire of Yale institutions like the alumni magazine to keep alive hopes that Yale’s prized (and high-priced) Vinland map might be genuine (“The Great Vinland Map debate, part 476,” Findings, March/April), one wishes that less attention was paid in this matter to straining-at-gnat interpretations and counterinterpretations of physical testing data and more to the matchless nautical and American historian, Samuel Eliot Morrison, who reviewed the matter at length a generation ago in his seminal European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages and demolished on contextual and historical grounds any possible claim that the map could be authentic. Moreover, archeological discovery settled over 30 years ago the point the article suggests the map might prove: that the Vikings got to North American 500 years before Columbus.

Part 476 of this controversy will hopefully be the last. It has been certainly about the 466th part too many.


YLS v. DoD, continued

The imbroglio about military recruiters at Yale Law School (Forum, January/February) can be described by two words: discrimination and censorship.
The Law School’s recruiting and interviewing process puts students interested in the military on a separate and unequal track, which is the hallmark of discrimination. That process hinders and disadvantages the flow of information to students interested in the military, which is a form of censorship.

The simple solution is for Yale Law School, in its recruiting and interviewing process, to grant equal facilities to all students and treat all students exactly alike. We should expect no less from Yale Law School.


More TV tyros

I was delighted to read about the success of current students in bringing TV production to Yale College (Light and Verity, March/April). But YTV is not the college’s first TV production organization. Josue Mendez '98, Mike Espar '98, Beau Bauman '99, Trevor Uhl '98, Ann Rakpraja '98, Stacy Atlas '98, and I co-founded the Bulldog TV Project, which ran successfully (and to much acclaim) for two episodes back in 1996. Unfortunately, though campus enthusiasm was very high, we never secured sufficient backing from the administration, due to reservations about editorial control. Still, we learned a ton from the experience, and many of us have gone on to successful careers in entertainment.

I’m glad to hear the college is making headway in an area that has always been attractive as a career choice for its graduates. And I’m pleased the administration has become receptive to providing students with this kind of invaluable experience. Good luck and keep up the great work!


Assessing Yale’s leaders

I must remonstrate with Ann Pecora Diamond a bout her judgments of recent Yale presidents (Letters, January/February). Having taught at Yale since 1962, I knew Messrs. Brewster, Giamatti, and Schmidt personally. They all were splendid leaders, and I agree with Ms. Diamond’s characterization of the university during the years in which they served. In addition, Giamatti was a renowned scholar (unlike Brewster and Schmidt). I do not know Rick Levin personally, but my colleagues have often spoken of the superb job he is doing—an opinion with which I am in complete agreement. As a professor of economics, he is one of the shining lights of his profession. And his services to the government show, too, that he in no way lacks the “scholastic, political, and moral greatness” of his predecessors. Indeed, he may well turn out to be the best of the bunch. In every way Yale is doing beautifully. Ms. Diamond’s views remain sui generis.


Old Yale is like an old friend

Somehow there should be found an appropriate manner in which to thank with a proper smile and delight the good works of Judith Ann Schiff, who writes the Old Yale column. Her pieces in each issue have been a special highlight—gems that become a spontaneous celebration, really, of the best and finest of the university over the years. She is an historian with a distinctive imagination for discovery and the fine craft for gifting others with well-told stories.

I am an American historian, so some might say that folks like me are particularly susceptible to the special delights that she brings to each issue. Maybe so. Still, if Yale University would publish her essays as a collection, I venture that you would see a stunning and beautiful story unfold, one told with deftness and a beauty rare in this ruins that we call academic publishing. My compliments to you, the editor, for sustaining her. My compliments and thanks to her.



In our article about Kelly Brownell (“The Belly of the Beast,” March/April), we failed to note the Yale degrees of Kathleen Battle Horgen '95, '01PhD, who coauthored the book Food Fight with Brownell.

Our interview with chef Ming Tsai '86 (Where They Are Now, March/April) neglected to mention the name of Tsai’s PBS television show, Simply Ming. He is also the author of two cookbooks, Simply Ming and Blue Ginger.



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