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Good and Evil

I thought you might be interested in a curious footnote to “When Good People Do Evil,” the January/February cover story about the Milgram experiments. I came across this item while editing an article on the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam. It seems that Ronald Ridenhour, the military journalist who exposed the massacre story, was a subject in the Princeton version of the experiment. According to Jonathan Glover in Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, “There is something satisfying about the fact that … Ridenhour … refused to give even the first shock.”

Professor Zimbardo writes about the training of professional torturers who are interested in “confessions” (read, “information”). What he did not say is that his Stanford Prison Experiment of 1973 has apparently been used by the intelligence community to create “situations” in which nonprofessionals will torture. That produces not Guantánamo, where a few prisoners allegedly are asked questions, but Abu Ghraib, where the many are not.

Creating or allowing the conditions of a prison situation where control is at issue will predictably produce torture by guards, with the most brutal being allowed by others to set the bar. The advantage to a government doing this is deniability—there is no order or training to torture. Zimbardo has presented his project to Naval Intelligence—not to produce torture, but to advise that unless they controlled prisons, it would happen. It would not take Intelligence much to see what would happen if they did not control the prisons, with low-ranking soldiers left holding the bag. The public does not know this, nor do our politicians. Let us see what Yale sees.

Forty-five years later, have we fully grasped all that Milgram’s experiments helped to reveal about human nature? Yes, we now know how social situations can be manipulated to induce compliance from most. But what about the one-third who refused to keep pulling the levers? What about their moral compass and that of their real-world parallels, such as the Enron vice president who blew the whistle and the British leader of parliament who resigned from government on the eve of war? What prompted them to engage in such antisocial behavior? If the majority are prone to stray, we better make sure we cultivate minority voices who can remind us to stay true to our principles.

I was there in studying the Milgram experiments, and I was astonished and ashamed to find an unintended consequence: uncontrolled communal laughter.

Before assisting in a new battery of experiments, our psych class was shown a film of the process. The behavior we witnessed was so impossible to accept that we instead chose to see it as a sitcom. The actor-learner was so “over-the-top” in his screams of pain and the teacher-subject so willing to inflict more pain and more intense “shocks” that the whole thing seemed a fiction.

The higher the shock level and the louder the screams, the more uncontrollable and raucous the laughter became in our class. It was a knee-jerk reaction by each of us, exacerbated by the same, louder laughter from one’s neighbor. To me, the experiments not only showed how easy, in the face of a uniformed expert, it is to make good people do bad things, but it also demonstrates this: sometimes, after being exposed to such proof of horrible behavior, one’s only defense is to laugh. The guilt I felt was almost instantaneous then, and that guilt remains with me today.

Can you imagine how the Congregational founders of the college that came to be called Yale University would feel if they were to read the words on the cover of the January/February issue: “When good people do evil"? Our forebears knew their scripture: “There is none righteous, no not one; for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Where, then, can “good people” be found today—even by a Yale psychologist?


Naming ethics

Your Light & Verity item (“Not Carved in Stone—Yet,” January/February) on paying to perpetuate a name over college doorways presented various options and alternatives, including the ethical dilemma now being weighed by President Levin: whether it is even proper for those able to pay for a measure of “name” immortality to do so.

Let me suggest that that boat has sailed. The best such bargain, bar none, ever attained along those lines was gladly accepted by our alma mater some time back in return for what I recall as just a couple of boxes of books (probably used ones, at that). Yet, to this day, their donor’s name is plastered over every building and scrap of paper at the university. That lucky donor wasn’t even an alumnus, but a Welshman named Elihu Yale.

Yale’s gift, valued at 562 pounds, was not much by modern standards, but it was the largest single gift to the college until 1837.—Eds


The early action syndrome

Yale has the reputation of paying better attention to the needs of its undergraduates than its archrival Harvard. I find it ironic then that, in the same issue that has a farewell to the Dean of Student Affairs for Yale College Betty Trachtenberg, “who always put the interests of students first,” there should be a Q & A with Yale president Rick Levin (January/February) in which he defends Yale’s decision not to follow Harvard’s and Princeton’s lead in doing away with early action admissions.

As a child psychiatrist, a parent of two young adults who recently went through the college admissions process, and an alumnus interviewer for over 30 years, I am convinced of the noxious effect of early admissions. This stems primarily from the pressure on high school students to pick a college to apply “early” to because of the well-documented advantage of early applications. Such students are deprived of a full half year of freedom from the application process. They are also deprived of a critical six months of adolescent development before selecting a first-choice college.

It is either naïve or disingenuous on President Levin’s part to think that, because Yale’s early admissions program is an early action one, it does not have these ill effects. Yale’s program is technically nonbinding, but it also is exclusive, i.e., the student cannot apply anywhere else early action. This policy has led to a sub rosa form of vetting in which Yale and its closest competitors tend to pass over strong “regular" applicants who failed to apply early action to them, betting, usually correctly, that these strong applicants' first choice is another school. By holding to its policy of early action, Yale weakens its reputation as the college that, above all others, wants what is best for students.

We asked Jeff Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions, to comment. He replied as follows.—Eds.

"Dr. Ritvo has raised important concerns, but we disagree. After lengthy consultation and study, we concluded that eliminating our early admissions option would only redistribute stress, not reduce it, and that nonbinding early action works best for students. Also, we do not pass over regular-decision candidates based on speculations about ultimate preferences. The opposite is true: we relish the opportunity to compete for the strongest applicants, and we have been doing so with steadily increasing success.”


Growth and money

I remain confused as to the rationale for the proposal to expand Yale College (Light & Verity, January/February). The fact that the number of applications continues to grow does not, in itself, imply that Yale should accept more students. There have always been many more applicants than could be accommodated. Why should an even larger number make a difference?

A large part of the increase in applications undoubtedly reflects the fact that students nowadays apply to more colleges than they used to. Moreover, the baby-boom echo is about to fade, leaving a smaller number of high school graduates than we have seen in recent years. I doubt that the top Yale administrators are unaware of these statistics. I suspect that they have marshaled whatever statistics they can to make the case for increasing enrollment, but that the real reason is based less on student “demand” than on—dare I say it?—economic calculations.

The university might benefit financially in future years from a larger body of alumni donors, but Yale officials say that expansion will not result in a net financial gain from tuition. In a letter to the university community in February, President Levin said that preliminary studies have shown that the cost of expansion “will substantially exceed the incremental revenue provided by several hundred additional students.” For more on the possibility of expansion, see Q & A: Rick Levin.—Eds.


On Betty’s retirement

As Dean of Morse College from 1995 to 1998, I can attest to everything said about Betty Trachtenberg (“Mother Yale," January/February) and would add to the list of her wonderful qualities a great laugh, wicked sense of humor, and tremendous and genuine affection for every student. But I write to express some concern that your story has done what I would call, if describing it to the students at the high school newspaper I advise, burying the lead.

A careful reader of your table of contents would learn in very small type that Trachtenberg is retiring. A reader who just turned to the story would find no indication anywhere in the story of what prompts her recognition in your pages. Peter Salovey’s words of praise in the past tense might lead to an unfortunate conclusion on someone’s part. Of course there doesn’t need to be an occasion to honor Dean Trachtenberg for her great work, but if there is one, readers should know. Congratulations, Betty, and thanks for everything.


Where’s engineering?

When I read the School Notes in each issue, I look over the reports from the 12 schools represented. You should recognize that I attended Yale a goodly number of years ago and was enrolled at that time in an ancient, long-forgotten faculty known as the School of Engineering. After being at Yale for the prescribed time, I was presented with a piece of Yale parchment noting that I was now entitled to be known as a “Master of Engineering.”

Only one rather minor problem troubles me right now. As I review the various faculties noted in the alumni magazine, I can find no faculty which would, by its nomenclature, include those students studying engineering. Too bad. It was a fine discipline.

The School Notes, a news section on the 12 schools of Yale, is underwritten by and provided by the university. (The Yale Alumni Magazine is not published by the university.) As Mr. Hershberg notes, Yale no longer has a stand-alone School of Engineering; in 1962 the university made the Faculty of Engineering part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.—Eds.


The Art Gallery restoration

When it comes to the restoration of the Art Gallery (“Coming to Light,” January/February), I stand with Professor Vincent Scully '40, '49PhD, not Tom Wolfe '57PhD. In 1955, I had my first encounter with Kahn’s gallery, on a spring visit after applying for the MFA program in graphic design.

To enter it was to experience a temple dedicated simultaneously to past and future. Roughly cast concrete surfaces with the gray and timeless weight of ancient ruins folded into triangulated trusses hovering incredibly above, spanning the ceilings and suggesting the visionary geometry of Buckminster Fuller. Elegant contradictions were everywhere. Shining stainless steel railings defined the polished triangular stairway as it ricocheted downward off the walls of the concrete cylinder that enclosed it. All was weight and lightness; vast open spaces and confining, complicated corners, texture and sheen; warm, smooth panels of wood against rough, cool concrete. A serious building, tough and refined, it begged not so much to be admired as to be experienced—and used. It was thrilling and not just a little unnerving to think I might be allowed to pass through its doors for classes every day. The place gave me goose bumps that day, and it still does.


The Game

In “The Boola Boola Thing” ( January/February), Tom Perrotta '83 certainly put together a contrasting picture from that of Jake Halpern '97, who wrote about Alexander Murphy '32 in the same issue (“A 74th Reunion”). Perrotta does not describe the Yale from which Murphy graduated in 1932—nor the Yale from which I graduated in 1940.

A sad tale. I feel sorry for TP '83.


The problem with plagiarism

Your January/February article on “Students Who Cheat” asked, “Is plagiarism on the rise?” It had me nodding my head in assent. As an adjunct in English for more than 25 years, with emphases on both business and general research writing at several Connecticut universities, I have witnessed a significant increase in the number of students plagiarizing essays. In many cases, they merely retype, word for word from published articles, without attributions. This, of course, is the most blatant form of intellectual dishonesty.

If a student plagiarizes a research paper or any other essay in my class, he or she fails the course. There are no second chances, and the student is reported to the dean of arts and sciences. Sadly, I am convinced that plagiarism is not just epidemic; it is becoming endemic.

Perhaps the most blatant example came from a student in one of my writing classes about five years ago. The moment I read the opening paragraph, I knew she had copied it. A brief Google search produced the article, which had been written by a professional journalist. Instead of grading the paper, I put “Please see me” on the top of the first page. She dutifully saw me after class, and I told her the paper was excellent. “Thank you,” she beamed. I then pulled the published article from my briefcase and said, “In fact, it was so good, this writer copied it!” To quote the great Mark Twain, “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”

What is so wrong with expelling Yale College students who plagiarize? Every student who plagiarizes has made a conscious decision to do so. It is simply not the case that students “don’t know what plagiarizing is.” It is the case that they thought the risk was worth taking and that they made a decision that, once called on, they regret for what it has done to their reputation. They will lie and even sue to protect their image in the eyes of their classmates, friends, parents, professors, and—most importantly—themselves.

Sure, give students another rundown on what constitutes plagiarizing, show them how easy it is to identify, and give them a short test about plagiarism that can be trotted out if they ever are accused. But then hold them to it. If they plagiarize, fail them and expel them. Anything less is an open invitation for students to dishonor themselves and their school.

Yale needs to be strong enough to take the high road and stand up to bullying students and parents. No one benefits from allowing students to cheat and get away with it.


The female brain

Jennifer Ackerman’s review of Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain (Arts & Culture, January/February) stretches credulity beyond belief. Both the book and the review are the worst kind of popular-psychology overgeneralization of neurobiological findings about complex forms of human behavior. Psychology and neuroscience have strived to link neurophysiological functions with overt human behaviors. But with few exceptions, such as the temporal-lobe localization of speech, these connections are highly difficult to demonstrate because of so many intervening variables and the inherent complexity of the brain and of behavior.

Ackerman’s opening example—that the refusal of young women to discuss their recent defeat in a soccer match is a result of their teenage brains being bathed in female hormones and thus specialized in a manner that makes bonding more important than dwelling on their loss—is simply absurd. Later, she points to Brizendine’s interest in the differences between the diagnosis of depression in men and women as the beginning of her interest in the neurobiology of sex differences. At the same time, she notes, correctly for once, the widely held view of most scientists that this difference is an artifact resulting from poor assessment methods. Most, if not all her generalizations from neurobiology to behavior suffer from the same fault.

Brizendine’s overwrought and contorted effort to understand sex differences as a function of brain physiology and hormones is, as Ackerman acknowledges, “dangerous.” I would add phantasmagorical. Or just plain silly.


Alaska errata

As a Yale alumnus, John Green Brady may be first in our hearts, but he was not the first governor of Alaska (Old Yale, January/February). The first governor of the District of Alaska was John Henry Kinkead, who served 1884–1885 (15 years and three district governors before Mr. Brady).

The sentence was ambiguously phrased. Our apologies.—Eds.

My grandfather, William Phipps Blake, who was in the Yale Sheffield Scientific School’s 1852 class, was also in Alaska before that territory was purchased from Russia. According to his obituary, Blake explored Alaska on his way back from Japan, where he was employed in 1862 as a geologist by the Imperial Government of Japan. At first I thought he might have been in Alaska at the same time as William Henry Brewer, a classmate who was mentioned in your article. However, it appears Blake was probably in Alaska earlier, as he must have been returning from Japan before or during 1864, since during that year he began his position as professor of geology of what was then the College of California.


Divinity matters

“The Yale Divinity School was not created to serve liberal religion, “ William Weston tells us in the January/February letters section, but to teach “a learned, old-fashioned, biblical faith.” I would agree, but then again I also learned as a YDS student that the two are one and the same.

Back in the sixties I was housed at the Divinity School while continuing my studies in celestial mechanics down Prospect Street at the observatory (“The New Evangelists,” November/December). I have found the environment prepared me for a role I now play both in teaching at Santa Clara University and in my professional life in general. The subject of life on other worlds, if found, will have a profound impact on theology. The many insights I gained into these studies at the Divinity School prepared me to discuss their impact on a literal reading of the Book of Genesis and on the possibility that life is perhaps not just Earth based.

On many occasions I remark how living at the Divinity School has left me considerably more tolerant of religions in general and has given me the foundation to expand my thinking of faith and to not put a fence around God.

Isn’t it time Yale euthanized the Divinity School? This academy for irrational humbug is an embarrassment to the real graduate schools.



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