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The Man With the Answers?

I read with great interest and appreciation Molly Worthen’s article about Charles Hill (“Man and Myth at Yale,” January/February), and I eagerly look forward to reading her book. The article brought back memories of my own experience studying with Professor Hill as a student in Directed Studies in 1999.

Ms. Worthen likens Professor Hill to a Puritan, and I can see why. But, having first encountered him through a lecture he gave on Marcus Aurelius, I’ve never been able to think of Charles Hill as anything other than a Roman Stoic—a sort of Cato or Seneca or Thrasea Paetus. One thing that made Professor Hill compelling, and also troubling, was the impression that he looked on modern society from an austere, exacting, disappointed perspective: that he saw our society as decadent and in danger of collapse if we didn’t shape up. One might disagree with him about this, but there was something grand about his stance.

Ms. Worthen is right to suggest that a striking characteristic of Professor Hill’s approach, which won him many acolytes, was the apparent assumption that there were authoritative answers to all questions. But Professor Hill also tried to communicate to us that the questions are hard—and so, often, are the answers. I remember going to a master’s tea that Professor Hill gave, in which he talked about his career. Among other authoritative (and disputable) pronouncements, he asserted that it was impossible to be truly happy without being married; and that it was difficult—and probably not a good idea—to sustain a marriage in the early days of one’s career. During the question period, one of the other students present asked whether these two statements weren’t contradictory. No, I remember Professor Hill saying: sometimes in life, you just have to be unhappy. Coming from a culture which often seems to tell us that happiness is our birthright, and that being unhappy is avoidable, and a sign that one is doing something wrong, this was bracing, startling, and wise.

Such toughness and straight-talking was also a sign—or so many of us took it—that, while he could be imperious, Professor Hill genuinely respected his students. This, more than any promises of certainty, is what won him the affection of so many.

I disagreed, and disagree, with much of what Professor Hill said and teaches; I was troubled by the way that he assumed and used authority; I respect him greatly as a teacher and a man; and I will always be grateful to have been his student.

To those of us who joined the U.S. Foreign Service in the 1980s, Charlie Hill was a model of what we aspired to be: smart, trusted, discreet, pragmatic, and loyal. Your profile touches on these characteristics, but devotes much of the discussion to his reportedly quirky teaching style in the classroom and his reputed status as a near-cult figure on campus.

This represents a missed opportunity. Hill is one of only a handful of members of the Yale faculty who came to academia as a second career, after successfully completing a distinguished first career. While Yale has always had a slew of visiting fellows and scholars and speakers, it has few teachers who have also been practitioners in their field for an extended period before joining the faculty as a professor or, as in Hill’s case, a lecturer.

This is not in and of itself a problem, and indeed is likely unavoidable given the structure of academic careers. However, I would have liked to see more attention and positive comment given to the unique insights and experience that someone like Hill can share with his students, and the value to Yale of having people like him on campus as teachers, mentors, and advisers.

I found Molly Worthen’s profile of Charles Hill fascinating. I do not think Yale offered a comparable course in the early 1950s. In view of its subject matter, the fact that Professor Hill’s course is way oversubscribed is interesting. The fact that his course is controversial is not surprising. Perhaps Professor Hill and his colleagues, Messrs. John Gaddis and Paul Kennedy, could form a nucleus for a Western Civilization curriculum. Such a curriculum would probably attract students and might attract substantial alumni support.


Jihad and theology

Regarding Mary Habeck’s essay,The Theology of Jihad” (Forum, January/February): when dealing with jihadis and jihad—defined as holy war or war sanctioned by religion—it should be noted that such jihadism is found in Judaism and Christianity, as well.

The takeover of the so-called promised land that is recorded in the Old Testament was carried out by Israelites who believed their wars of occupation were sanctioned by a God who even became involved in the fighting itself. In the Middle Ages zealous Christians carried on a rather bloody series of crusades to rescue the Holy Land from the infidel Muslims who had occupied it.

Today we find Orthodox Jews who really believe that they are God’s chosen people and that God really did promise as exclusively and forever theirs a piece of land, now called Israel, that could be held by force if deemed necessary.

At the same time, we have Christian fundamentalists who support wars such as the invasion and conquest of Iraq, since they feel it is a Christian’s duty to overcome evil, by force if necessary, wherever it rears its ugly head.

My point is that jihad or holy war has and continues to be justified and executed by religious extremists whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Jihad is not exclusive to Islam.

To be fair, you should include a piece in a future issue that points this out.

Mary Habeck does us the service of introducing important nuances into our understanding of jihad. However, I fear the problem of jihad is a bit more grave than the essay indicates.

As Professor Habeck points out, violent jihadists rely on verses revealed in Medina, while moderates prefer more peaceful ones revealed earlier, in Mecca. Both sides can equally be accused by their opponents of quoting selectively. Indeed, since the “violent” verses were revealed later, normal principles of judicial interpretation would suggest that they supersede the peaceful revelations. Moderates then must argue (as Professor Habeck points out) that the circumstances of Islam today are more like those of Mecca than Medina, bringing the earlier verses into play.

Alas, this is a rather weak read, for all turns on one’s interpretation of the present situation. Osama bin Laden and his fellow travelers see Islam under attack by the West, and this justifies the invocation of the violent verses. Under this view even moderates must admit the possibility that violence will come into play in some future set of circumstances. It seems to me that the problem can be defused only by a consensus that the violent verses have been abrogated—for all time.

There is precedent for such a thing (Reform Jews' interpretation of the dietary laws, for example). This case is made for Islam by Emory Law School professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, for one, but it has found limited response. Even if this view ultimately prevails, the violent verses still sit there in black and white, waiting to be invoked by any dissident inclined to violence.


The greening of Yale

I appreciated your article on Yale’s recent and upcoming renovation and construction efforts (“Under Construction,” January/February). Your demystification of the scaffolding and detours made for a useful and interesting read.

However, I am dismayed about your failure to mention that Yale recently made a commitment to studying the potential for “green building” in all of its new renovation and construction efforts, or that several of the buildings mentioned are in the running for official accreditation by the U.S. Green Building Council. The USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program is, according to its website, “a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings.” Qualifying for LEED certification is a challenging process that requires serious commitment on the part of all parties involved. Buildings that do qualify are superior to others on many environmental fronts, from energy consumption and water conservation to indoor air quality and aesthetic appeal. The new cancer center and chemistry building, as well as the planned building for the forestry school, are all aiming for LEED certification. Others may be in the works.


Untenable behavior

It seems likely that if being an anarchist played any role at all in the decision not to extend the contract of associate professor David Graeber (Light & Verity, November/December), it was his conduct, not his beliefs, that mattered. Graeber admits that he participated in the “street actions” that “disrupted” world trade conferences. Some of those “actions” at times caused considerable property damage (and of course, vandalizing cars and shops does real harm to their flesh-and-blood owners). One needs to know the details of Graeber’s involvement, and one hopes that those facts were known to the faculty. But a commitment to thuggish behavior, if proved, should affect one’s prospects for tenure.


Admissions confession

Reading the review of The Chosen (Arts & Culture, January/February) took me back some 45 years to part-time employment in the admissions office. At that time, we found a way to discriminate among applicants using a bifurcated criterion: promise as a student and promise as a person. Promise as a person was the trump card ruling one applicant in and another out. And that same formula appears to be at work 45 years later. What mystified me then was the lack of emphasis and confidence in the university itself to transform promising students into promising persons. What is clearer today is the persistent claim of power and privilege on the admissions process sustained (perhaps augmented at the margins) over generations.


The rites of autumn

Kudos to Carl Bialik and the Yale Alumni Magazine for coverage of sports other than football (“Season of Success,” January/February), and congratulations to the men’s and women’s soccer teams and women’s volleyball teams for their achievements.

The author rightfully gives recognition to Molly Carapiet '06 and the women’s sailing team, whose dominance of the collegiate racing circuit last fall showcases the program that Coach Zack Leonard '89 has built since the university accorded the team varsity status in 2002.

A few data points are in order to help appreciate the magnitude, breadth, and depth of the sailing team’s success last fall.

In order to win the single-handed collegiate North Americans, Molly had to beat Paige Railey, who is currently ranked as the world's best one-person women’s dinghy sailor, inclusive of adult professionals! Molly’s victory was a dramatic come-from-behind performance, with three top-three finishes in the last three races against the nation’s top collegiate women sailors to vanquish Railey.

It is often overlooked that Molly’s achievement in the North Americans was echoed by her teammates, Emily Hill '07, and Jane Macky '09, who finished third and fifth in Hawaii. The coed sailing team also earned success last fall, with Zach Brown '08 and Sarah Himmelfarb '06 scoring divisional wins and podium finishes in several regattas, and Eivind Karlsen '06 and Hilary Shapiro '08 winning the Mosbacher-Knapp (Ivy League) Trophy.

In just three years, Zack Leonard, a former college All-American, Yale captain, and national champion sailor and coach, has brought the team back to prominence, recalling the last glory days of Yale sailing in the 1970s and early '80s, when a club team churned out College Sailors-of-the-Year (Steve Benjamin '78 and Peter Isler '78) and All-Americans and Olympic medalists (Benjamin, JJ Isler '85, and Jonathan McKee '83).

Congratulations to Carl Zimmer for his astute article on the anthropology of The Game. I would like to add my own observations on that remarkable day. Before returning to the Bowl for the first time in ten years, I had read the story in the New York Times about the raucous scene there and felt that the story was over the top. It was not.

We pulled into an unrestricted lot near the athletic fields. The absence of any officials on hand to collect parking fees or provide direction and security was a surprise. Walking in, we had a good look at the celebratory scene so well described by Zimmer. The noisy throng seemed to be mostly undergrads and young alumni. At a few minutes after noon, many of them appeared intoxicated. We were fortunate to be inside the Bowl before kickoff and stayed there until the end of a wonderful game played under brilliant skies. Yet the most appalling scene awaited us as we walked back to the parking lot. Garbage was strewn everywhere, bottles, cans, and great piles of rotting food. No trash barrels were visible.

With some difficulty in rapidly approaching darkness, we picked our way through the detritus and found our car. We were driving a middle-aged Cherokee with no provocative banners or bumper stickers attached. We had left the front windows down a few inches for ventilation. Someone had gone to great care to insert a greasy hotdog through the window onto the driver’s seat and yes, a half-eaten hamburger still coated with ketchup was found similarly positioned on the passenger side. The university appears clueless as to the real dimensions of the problem literally surrounding the Bowl.


The behavioral aspects of those involved in the Yale-Harvard game were not the only items worthy of anthropological interest. The crowd photograph, repeated on your contents page, showed several (I assume) undergraduate male Yalies who, as a group, showed characteristic signs of too much food (and beer?) and too little activity.

What does this tell us about the community, and its relationship with its more active members on the field? In what was the sphere of the Renaissance Man, is the athletic aspect of this ideal as represented by The Game actually, however subtly, in decline?

The young men pictured are not Yalies. We would need further study, however, before certifying that the Renaissance Man is in good shape at Yale.—Eds.

After yet another disappointing gridiron season, I write to cast a vote of no confidence in the current football coaching staff. The record is a far cry from the proud boast, repeated in every game program, that Yale should expect to be “the champion of champions” in the Ivy League. Our Ivy League record is 32-31 (a .508 winning percentage), a distant fourth behind Harvard (.730), Penn (.714), and Brown (.619). Over the past six seasons, in fact, we have had a losing record within the league. It is even more discouraging that the spirit and tenacity that characterized past Yale teams often appear to be missing on the field. Yale’s loyalty to its own may be one of its strengths, but our loyalty to this coaching staff is misplaced. Just as we are now renovating the Bowl, it is time to renovate the football program itself.


A critical gap

Please let me add to the chorus of readers (Letters, January/February) who know that tappets are the rockers on the top of engines of older cars that bridge the gap between the push rods and the cylinder valves. The gap between the push rod and the tappet is critical. If it is mis-set, the engine makes a “click-clack” sound. Maybe maladjustment is the whole point with the noisy (and hilarious) Tappet Brothers.


Georgia on our mind

Page 10 of the January/February 2006 issue sets the record straight on the spelling of Caribbean. Alas, in column two it also contains a misspelling of the name of the charming town of Dahlonega, Georgia. Pickle lovers, please copy.



The article “Mother Yale” (Forum, November/December 2005) incorrectly interpreted a statement by Louise Story '03, '06MBA, in her September 20, 2005, New York Times article, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.” Story surveyed undergraduate women at Yale and wrote that “85 of the students, or roughly 60 percent, said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely.” We inferred that the remaining 40 percent planned to continue working. Story says, however, that only 30 percent planned to continue working; 10 percent were unsure.



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