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I saw Peter Diamond’s comments about Shizuo Kakutani (“The Class I’ll Never Forget,” July/August) and was struck by the similarity of our experiences. Peter Diamond’s first exam grade was in the 40s. Mine was 31, though my friends tried to console me by pointing out that their grades were even worse! There was one occasion when we as a class finally protested Professor Kakutani’s habit of describing theorems as obvious. These are hard theorems, we said; they are not obvious! His response was, “All math is obvious once you think about it the right way.” It took me a few years to realize that this was the key lesson of his class.
I concur with Harold Bloom in his hopes that others remember Frederick Pottle. My strongest memory of Professor Pottle is his opening lecture to the undergraduates on Wordsworth. He held his lapel and, with high gravitas, said the following, “Gentlemen, among you today there are those who will be lifelong readers of Wordsworth—and some who will never read him again.” Happily, I count myself one of the former. And who can forget Maynard Mack, stepping closer to the mike and, with that unforgettable rasp in his voice, intoning Hamlet’s “If it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”
Richard Niebuhr provided “the class I’ll never forget” in 1944 at the Divinity School. I was privileged to be in his first class upon his return from a serious illness. Pencils poised to take notes quietly began to be lowered to their pads as we students became aware that Dr. Niebuhr was sharing his faith, not giving a lecture. “I will know I am in heaven,” he said, “when I hear the laughter of a little child on Christmas morning, or the chorale from the Ninth Symphony.”
The class I’ll never forget was English 89, the intensive course that tackled the Western canon from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. We read at least two or three books a week, and the brilliant young teacher, Thomas Weiskel ’70PhD—who died in a tragic accident a couple of years later—helped to shape my view of the world and of the personal significance of art. I had moved on to grad school at the time of his accident, and I left Yale at the end of that year, because I could never quite see the bright promise of scholarship after that.
Although no one has asked me, I would mention Georges May’s course in seventeenth-century French literature as one of the best I took. A two-semester course, it included (in French, bien sûr) Descartes, Pascal, Corneille, Racine, Moliére, La Bruyére, Saint-Simon, la Fontaine, and many, many others. In these books—the inexpensive Classiques Larousse series—we met hypocrites and misanthropes, people who couldn’t make up their minds, a soldier caught between sexual passion and the passion of duty, a woman of profound imagination, a man of great faith and great doubt, super-subtle liars, rich people desperate to be richer, sycophants and snobs, angels, and beasts: the entire human comedy.
It was a small class—there were only seven or eight of us—taught in the little seminar room on Harkness’s second floor, where the window looked out on Cross Campus and Sterling Library.
I wasn’t a French major; my papers came back covered with red ink. But it didn’t matter; we were the happy few.
Thank you for the wonderful article. I never knew I had anything in common with Alan Dershowitz (a wonderful torts professor in Guido Calabresi), Robert Morgenthau (an amazing experience with J. W. Moore), and David McCullough (profound admiration for Vincent Scully, whose History of Art class I wandered into one day and couldn’t leave).
I thought your article on unforgettable classes was fine, but I was disappointed for two reasons: why didn’t you consult members of reunion classes to contribute their thoughts, primed as we were for revisiting our Yale experiences; and why not cast the net out a bit farther, to folks a little less celebrated than the ones you featured in print? Recognition of the name of the contributor is, perhaps, a little less important than the name of the teacher being remembered.
Yale in Singapore
When I saw “Faculty Raise Concerns over Singapore College” on the magazine cover (May/June), I wondered if there might be some new story, some news, about the establishment of Yale-NUS. But to my disappointment, it was the same old story, same whining about academic freedom in Singapore. Nobody raised any concern about the viability of this new venture, or about the effectiveness of this tiny 150-member class. When prospective students consider whether to apply to Yale-NUS, academic freedom is the last concern on their agenda.
When I first read about the proposal for Yale to collaborate on establishing a college in Singapore, I had concerns, but I was willing to reserve judgment. My concerns reflect my experience as a US ambassador at large on modern slavery. I found Singapore the only country to completely censor my public comments. (Even in Saudi Arabia and China, my critiques and proposals were at least partially published.)
I believed that President Levin must be negotiating clear commitments from the government of Singapore as to the political freedom students and faculty would enjoy off campus. Now I find from the murky comments of Pericles Lewis, president of the new academic institution, in the Wall Street Journal that no freedoms beyond current Singaporean law will be enjoyed off campus, and even on campus, liberties are unclear, posing questions that will be faced “as they arise” (“Forecast for Political Protest at Yale-NUS College: Unclear,” yalealumnimagazine.com/blog, July 17).
This venture has all the makings of a disaster that could have been foreseen and a blot on President Levin’s otherwise distinguished record.
President Lewis posted a response to the Journal article, which he called “inaccurate,” on July 24 at YaleNUSblog.com. He and President Levin have posted further remarks at news.yale.edu/2012/07/19/presidential-statements-regarding-yale-nus-college.—Eds.
Mark Twain’s supposed quip that Wagner’s music “isn’t as bad as it sounds” comes to mind when I read the justifications of Yale’s venture with the National University of Singapore. Neither President Levin nor the college-to-be’s president, Pericles Lewis, has given any more positive reason. Lewis’s justification that “Yale needs to engage in the world” is only a flatter version of Twain’s irony. And yes, Singapore is as bad as it sounds.
Your editor’s letter (“Alumni Et Al.,” July/August) tells readers that I’ve characterized plans to affiliate graduates of the Yale-NUS in Singapore with the Association of Yale Alumni as “a way to sell Yale alumni on Yale-NUS.” I did criticize (in the Huffington Post) an AYA Board of Governors announcement—that Yale-NUS grads will be “warmly welcomed as a part of the Yale alumni community”—as an effort “to head off alumni resistance,” because the announcement makes a move that’s unprecedented on this scale seem a fait accompli. It also strikes me as a fund-raising gambit because, as I wrote, it offers Yale-NUS graduates (who will not hold Yale degrees) “a ‘warm’ welcome when they impress their business clients over dinner at the elegant Yale Club of New York and when, grateful for this access of grace, they respond to Yale’s fund-raising appeals.” This isn’t like the integration of Yale’s distinguished World Fellows into the alumni community, because World Fellows spend a year in New Haven, enriching Yale’s community of scholars and students: one World Fellow has spoken to my seminar, and another has visited my home.
Eugenics and Yale
Richard Conniff’s fascinating story about Yale economist and eugenics advocate Irving Fisher (“God and White Men at Yale,” May/June) is a cautionary tale about confusing academic accomplishment with good judgment. Curiously, only a few yards from Fisher’s final resting place, in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery, is the grave of Edward Bouchet, who became Yale’s first African American graduate, in 1874, and the first African American to receive a PhD from Yale—or from any American university—two years later. Like Fisher, Bouchet had his fair share of academic achievements: valedictorian at Hopkins School, member of Phi Beta Kappa, and only the sixth person awarded a doctoral degree in physics in the Western Hemisphere.
But unlike Fisher, Bouchet was unable to find a teaching position at a university and spent most of his life as a high school science instructor. It is hard to see his life as anything but an argument against theories of racial hygiene and the bigotry that underlay them. The tragic betrayal of Bouchet by society’s racial prejudice is redeemed only slightly by the irony that a eugenicist of Fisher’s stature would find himself resting eternally in a site that (thanks to Bouchet) is now part of the Connecticut Freedom Trail, a collection of African American historic sites.
I was Professor Ellsworth Huntington’s last bursary student, so I found Richard Conniff’s fascinating article on prominent Yale eugenicists of particular interest.
Professor Ellsworth was a pleasant person to talk with and a very nice person to work for. After reading Conniff’s article, though, I wonder if this was due in part to what he learned about me during our first meeting: I am white, all my known ancestors were English, and my most recent immigrant ancestors were my mother’s maternal grandparents, who arrived in Maine before the Civil War.
But even as a callow 18-year-old first-term sophomore from Colorado, I thought some of his ideas were pretty wacky. The job he assigned me, for example, was collecting US Census data to prove that, from the Mayflower on, the intellectual quality of immigrants to America was successively lower.
Richard Conniff’s article provides valuable lessons we so easily forget. First, someone need not be personally repellent to hold, or promote, repellent ideas. The elites pushing racial supremacy were, according to Conniff, popular, esteemed, and “at times admirable.”
Second, the reigning wisdom among elites can be grotesquely wrong, but this wrongness may not be widely recognized until long after. It’s easy to be appalled at the bigotry and arrogance of the 1920s and 1930s, but seeing the flaws in modern trends is much harder.
Third, eugenics is not dead. Conniff notes the current high value on Ivy League sources of gametes for human sperm and egg selection. He could also have mentioned the even more uncomfortable topics of massively exporting birth control to Third World countries, political denigration of contemporary immigrant populations, and the frequent placement of abortion facilities in inner cities to “serve” the poor, mostly minority, people there.
Reading Richard Conniff’s excellent article about eugenics (and having grown up in “drunken, misbegotten” Ireland), I wonder if, especially in this election year, a modern version of eugenics is embodied in the theory of American exceptionalism. I would hate, yes hate, to see any group—even my adopted country—feel superior just because of birthright.
Of course, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were eugenicists. Matriarch of Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist. Often unmentioned in the books and articles and movies on the Scopes monkey trial is that a key reason for opposition by the Catholic and evangelical churches to the teaching of evolution was that it was hooked up with eugenics and thus racism. Of course, people often don’t even remember that Scopes was convicted.
Rehab and doctors
I was gratified to read the inspiring story of Brett Smith and his change of career choice (“Commencement 2012,” July/August). During his battle not only to survive from but also overcome the effects of a serious traumatic brain injury, he encountered the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation. You note his decision not to follow his father into orthopedics but rather to become a “rehabilitation physician.” The medical specialty is formally known as physical medicine and rehabilitation, and those physicians who practice it are called physiatrists. PM&R, as it is known, incorporates holistic concepts to remediate impairment and disability along with the traditional medical model of treating disease and injury.
Unfortunately, after medical school, Mr. Smith would not be able to pursue residency training in PM&R at Yale, since there is no department at Yale–New Haven Hospital. Perhaps one day Yale might recognize the importance of our field and organize a department and post-graduate training program.
The not-so-ugly American
Jack Kessler’s use of the term “ugly American” (Letters, July/August) is confusing to those who have read the 1958 novel of that name from which the phrase seems to have been drawn. To quote Wikipedia, “The ‘ugly American’ of the book title fundamentally refers to the plain-looking engineer, Atkins, who lives with the local people, who comes to understand their needs, and who offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects.” It seems as though a rather good phrase has had its meaning turned around.
Costs of equality
In the Letters section of the July/August issue, Kim Todd ’92 expressed her strong dissatisfaction with the 77 percent male proportion of tenured appointments at Yale during the last 12 years. This brought to my mind an occasion at a meeting held at Columbia, circa 1985, under the direction of Harriet Zuckerman and Jonathan Cole, to discuss the small proportion of women in science. At the meeting, Vera Rubin, an eminent astronomer, stated that she would not be satisfied that women in science were treated properly until 50 percent of scientists were female.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, later to be appointed to the Supreme Court, then serving on a panel at the meeting, asked, “Would you then also require that only 3 percent of those scientists be Jewish?” After a brief silence, Rubin answered, “I’ll have to think about that.” Rubin and Ginsburg knew that more than 25 percent of Nobel Prizes in science awarded to Americans had been awarded to Jewish scientists, though Jews made up no more than 3 percent of the US population.
What’s in a name?
Regarding Judith Ann Schiff’s interesting Old Yale page on Yale, Calhoun, and the War of 1812 (July/August), it should be noted that New England’s opposition to the war was based not only on the Federalist Party’s predominance in that section, but also on the reluctance of their leaders to break commercial ties with England and to support the effort of our struggling young republic to remain independent.
It was fortuitous, therefore, that we opposed England in this war, which ended with ultimate victories for both the United States and Canada. Calhoun was, indeed, a great positive influence on the destiny of our young nation by his support of the War of 1812, whose importance will hopefully be better understood at this time of its present bicentennial. Unfortunately, his views on slavery were to lead his Southern compatriots into our great Civil War 50 years later.
I was in Calhoun College—remember the stained-glass images of slaves in the dining hall windows? I’m first to cut slack to historical figures who had blind spots. But maybe it’s time to change the name. Yale has some esteemed alumni who were horrible to Jews. I would not enjoy living under their names, and the appointment of a Master Cohen and Dean Schwartz, however cute, wouldn’t solve the problem.
We understand the window was broken once, probably sometime in the late ’60s, and that it was later removed. Do any other alumni remember the window or how it was broken?—Eds.
Our article “The Class I’ll Never Forget” (July/August) included a contribution from R. Owen Williams ’07MSL, ’09PhD, the president of Transylvania University. We incorrectly indicated that Williams had a JD degree from the Law School. In fact he received a Master of Studies in Law from the Law School. We regret the error.—Eds.
A Tweet from Anne McPherson ’06: “David McCullough & I had the same favorite class—Scully’s History of Art. Birds of a feather ; )”
We were curious about the supposed student tradition of rubbing the toe of the Theodore Dwight Woolsey statue on Old Campus for luck—see “Lies My Tour Guide Told Me”—because none of us had heard about it as students. So we asked on Twitter if students or alums knew anyone who had done it. “Not a soul,” said Elizabeth Gray Henry ’14. “I thought only tourists and parents did that,” wrote Tammy Ingram ’07PhD. “I know people who have urinated on the toe for good luck,” said Eric Randall ’11. Tourists and parents, please beware.
In August, we reported on our blog that the Boston Red Sox had two Yale alumni (Craig Breslow ’02 and Ryan Lavarnway ’09) on their active roster. Bill Donahoe ’82, ’86MBA, recalled on our Facebook page the Yale president of his time, who was famously devoted to the Sox. “I can still remember Bart Giamatti’s Halloween parties. Amidst all the crazies, he was simply attired with his faded Red Sox cap atop his head. He would love this.” (For more on Bart and the Sox, see “The Story of ‘Green Fields of the Mind.’”)
Steve Dungan ’67 of Stow, Massachusetts, saw the plans for the two new residential colleges during his 45th reunion, and they left him aghast. “$500 million for 800 additional students,” he wrote us. “I understand that one of the buildings even has a bowling alley. Give me a break!”
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