Cambridge 02138

The humanities, C-sections, soda social science, and cheating

Hailing the Humanities

What a great, much-needed article by Helen Vendler (“Writers and Artists at Harvard” November-December 2012). The subhead, “How to welcome and nurture the poets and painters of the future,” is arguably the least of it.Her last paragraph sums it up for me. She says that those arriving at Harvard who are focused on the current national passion for math and science will benefit “not only from seeing an alternative style of life and thought but also from the sort of intellectual conversation native to writers, composers, painters.”

Robert E. Simon Jr. ’35
Reston, Va.

My brother, the distinguished medieval philologist Richard O’Gorman, once went looking for a summer job while in graduate school. The interviewer asked him what he was studying. “Old French,” he answered. “Well, you’ll never sell that,” was the response. “No,” Dick said, “I guess I’ll just have to keep it.”

James F. O’Gorman, Ph.D. ’66
Windham, Me.

As always, Vendler gets it right—when has she ever gotten anything wrong? She has done more than any other critic to make difficult poets like Stevens and Ashbery accessible to ordinary readers like myself. If there are any more Vendlers out there, I would like to think that an enlightened Harvard will admit them.

Victor A. Altshul ’56
New Haven

In her otherwise interesting article, Vendler implies an astonishingly conventional assertion, asking and answering her question: “In the future, will the United States be remembered with admiration?…For our wars and their consequences?…Certainly not.”

Regarding our wars: The American Revolution has long been viewed and recalled with admiration for the high cause it supported and for the contrast with too many other revolutionary wars that have failed to produce more just societies. Our Civil War has been a great testament to the willingness of humans to risk their very lives for principles of equality and justice. Our contributions to World War II brought what appears to be a lasting peace to Europe, which was unable to control itself for millennia, and tamed the previously unfettered militaristic nature of Japanese society. With the Cold War, we demonstrated how implacable enemies can contend vigorously but without completely massive destruction and enormous loss of life. The world is a much better place for “our wars.”

I cannot speak knowledgeably to the other things that Vendler denigrates, but remain of the opinion that, for example, our financial systems have in the main contributed to advances in the human condition and knowledge, not to mention the philanthropy that has benefited Harvard as well.

Vendler has thus seriously undermined her argument that those with special talents that do not include academic and leadership strengths should be invited to Harvard nonetheless. The number of people with multiple exceptional talents is vanishingly small, but those are the ones that Harvard seeks, to our mutual benefit. Harvard will not benefit from those who cannot or will not think deeply and incisively.

Terry Goldman, Ph.D. ’73
Los Alamos, N.M.

Vendler suggests the College should “mute” praise for achievement and leadership, thereby facilitating the bestowing of “equal” praise on softer qualities of the human pysche such as creativity and reflection in pursuit of excellence in the humanities, i.e., the arts. It seems to me that the University should never backtrack in awarding kudos to true achievers in whatever field. Rather, recognition of the truly gifted “single scope” students should be appropriately ramped up to reign as proud products of the College alongside the more conventional science and engineering standouts. The litany of superb achievement needs to routinely include a category of “Creativity in the Arts,” naming breakout accomplishments in music, art, philosophy, et al.

Bernard G. Elliker, M.P.A. ’69
Laurel, Md.

Vendler’s essay inspired me to consider what might appear in his application folder, should Homer actually apply to Harvard. Imagining myself his high-school guidance counselor, I’ve written a letter of support for this special student:

Dear Admissions Office:

It is with pleasure that we write to recommend a student we think would be perfect for Harvard. He is one of the most gifted writers to ever attend our high school and his musical abilities are also considerable. Although Homer has not clocked as many hours in the classroom as some of our students, he nevertheless produced two impressive independent projects that described the Trojan War and its aftermath in dactylic hexameters. In addition, he has demonstrated a strong sense of adventure and community spirit, wandering from to town to town to perform these pieces for local residents. We can say with confidence that his extracurriculars are very strong.

One point about his national rankings: although he sings his work, accompanied by a small harp, Homer should not be measured against musicians or performance artists. He’s actually a “bard” and ranks in the 99th percentile when compared with others in this category.

Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding Homer’s performance schedule, his grades and SAT scores do not reflect his true abilities. It was not easy for him to cram for pop quizzes or do test prep on the road. And unfortunately, he had no time for physics, calculus, or any AP classes. We realize this runs counter to your normal admissions policies; nevertheless, we hope you will recognize the special abilities of this student and see your way to admitting him to the freshman class of 2017.

Mona Molarsky
Parent of a Harvard sophomore
New York City


As a long-time alumna interviewer, as well a humanities concentrator and novelist, I was struck by several aspects of “Writers and Artists at Harvard.” I share Vendler’s concern about whether all interviewers take the time to probe the depth of an applicant's intellectual curiosity and capacity for reflection, qualities that may be sorely lacking even when a student has a well-filled list of high-school awards and activities. Moreover, while several national competitions help identify high-school students with significant early achievements in science and technology, there are few if any equivalents for talented artists and writers—making it all the more challenging for such individuals to stand out within Harvard's large and impressive annual applicant pool. 

Professor Vendler correctly identifies the need to underscore for students and families the "value" of the liberal arts in other than monetary terms. I can still recall the conversation in which a friend of my mother's, upon hearing I was majoring in history and literature, asked, "What do you plan to do after graduation, work at the history and literature store?" Although I offered a snappy comeback—"Harvard wasn't offering any plumbing courses this semester"—the fact is, I'm still defining what I "do" with my undergraduate (and graduate) training, 25 years later. But I wonder whether my answer would hold up against the standards that Vendler sets forth.

My recently published novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, based on the true story of a former slave who became a Union spy in the Confederate White House, draws on my training in both history and literature. It has not earned me a fraction of what the author of Fifty Shades of Grey (or that novel's eponymous fictive "businessman") makes. Nor will it earn me the lasting fame of Homer, Dickinson, or any other writer Vendler mentioned in her piece. But it is giving readers of all races a way to learn about life in the black communities of antebellum Richmond and Philadelphia, about the schisms that divided antislavery advocates, and about the chilling extent to which emancipation came at the cost of a Civil War that devastated both military and civilian populations. I don’t expect the novel will be included on a Harvard syllabus a hundred years from now, but—thanks to an instructor's guide created with input from faculty at campuses across the country—secondary and post-secondary instructors today can use the novel to teach literature and history, and also social sciences, creative and performing arts, and STEM subjects. Given Vendler's definition of literary achievement, that may not be enough to earn her pride, but, having opted for what she calls "the great satisfaction to be found when [one] follow[s one's] own passion," I assure you, it is enough for me.

Lois Leveen ’90
Portland, Ore.


Cesarean Deliveries

As a Harvard grad and certified nurse-midwife (M.S.N., Yale ’99), I’ve been waiting for the day that this subject received appropriate coverage in these pages. Nell Lake did not disappoint, providing a concise, calm summary of the current situation in U.S. maternity care and the overuse of cesarean surgery for births (“Labor, Interrupted,” November-December 2012). Lake falls short in her last paragraph, though, when she calls for “a middle ground between two approaches to birth and risk.” The nurse-midwifery profession in the United States has, since the 1920s, occupied this “middle ground”: providing evidence-based care that supports physiologic processes while utilizing appropriate interventions and monitoring for what is not normal, in collaboration with specialists and surgeons who can intervene when necessary. We do not need to search for this middle ground—we need to reorient our ratio of midwives to obstetricians.

Perhaps now my other wish will come true: Harvard will join Yale, Columbia, and Penn in offering Ivy League advanced-practice nursing education. The U.S. healthcare system will depend on the full integration of advanced-practice nurses as both providers and keepers of the evidence-based flame for its future success and survival. See the Institute of Medicine’s 2010 report, “The Future of Nursing.”

Katherine Plummer ’91
Moretown, Vt.

My daughter-in-law delivered a baby in August and was telling my surgeon-to-be daughter (class of 2004) about the length and pain of her labor. I delivered three children naturally, with just four or fewer hours of labor and without any pain. According to them, this is very rare. I am surprised that, after all these years, there have not been enough studies about why there are women like me and other women who suffer great pain during delivery. Such studies should shed light on the process of delivery so that cesareans are not necessary anymore, and more women can deliver without suffering.

Evelyn Lee
Ramsey, Minn.

I was struck by the information relating to breech births. In 1975, my second child was in the breech position. When I went into labor, I was rushed to x-ray. If the baby’s chin was up, it could catch on the pelvis on the way out. This would require a C-section. If the chin was tucked, we could proceed with vaginal delivery. Fortunately, the chin was tucked and four hours later she was born with no further issues. I wonder if the x-ray is an example of a less invasive procedure that has been left out of the recent training of doctors.

Winifred Allen Richman ’64
New York City

Lake’s discussion about cesarean sections, like almost all other considerations of this topic, fails to consider that probably at least 90 percent of the all-too-common subsequent development of pelvic-floor disorders in women—urinary incontinence, cystocoele, rectocoele, uterine prolapse—are a late (often years-late) consequence of vaginal delivery. If one considers the morbidity, even mortality, cost, discomfort, etc., of these problems and adds them into the equation, it may well be that even more births should be performed by C-section.

Francis C. Evans, M.D. ’63
Palm Coast, Fla.


My wife and I appreciated the article addressing cesarean birth in the United States and the troubling and dramatic increase in cesareans from the 1970s to present.
Our experience with one cesarean followed by natural births afterward was that the cesarean birth was far more difficult, disruptive, and discouraging. The recovery time from a natural birth and the bonding time with the newborn child proceeded much more quickly and smoothly.
One magazine article on the subject cannot of course do adequate justice to the scope of the problem. But a serious study should address any plausible factor. Some examples that would be worth a closer look include:

  1. increase in average age of giving birth
  2. use of pain medication in childbirth
  3. role of history of sexually transmitted diseases
  4. role of history of abortion
  5. effects of different types of contraceptive use 

All five of these factors represent significant changes from the early 1970s to now. The parallel to the increase in C-sections merits scholarly attention.

David Bunn ’85
Salinas, Calif


The Sugary Soda Effect

Not a scientist, I find it puzzling that “Soda and Violence” (November-December 2012), while documenting a high correlation between sugary drinks and violent behavior in youth, goes on to observe mildly that “one further avenue for research is elucidating the underlying mechanism.” It doesn’t seem to me that the research is complete without elucidating the underlying mechanism; the penchant for imbibing such drinks may well be a feature of youthful impulsivity and need for gratification not perceived to be otherwise achievable, but the correlation doesn’t seem to point to any evidence of environmental or epigenetic “effect” of the drinks. It seems unremarkable that youth prone to violence are also prone to other forms of impulsivity and self-gratification.

I don’t understand why the finding is useful in identifying potential policy, since the health need to curtail sugary and caffeinated drinks is so well understood anyway.

Kenneth McElheny ’58
Brookline, Mass.

The article about David Hemenway’s study on the link between soda consumption and violence in teens rightly notes that a correlation in the two behaviors does not necessarily imply causation. But the article doesn’t mention one obvious hypothesis: that the causal pathway is reversed. Teens (and others) who engage in aggressive behavior may be psychologically prone to guzzle whatever is at hand, in an attempt to soothe their inner demons, and may therefore choose to drink more soda than others. As a social scientist, I was surprised that this hypothesis was missing, and am curious to know whether the study itself tests for it. For example, an experiment could be designed where teens were allowed to choose between various beverages, and also allowed to choose the amount they wished to drink, to see if those more prone to violence were more likely to choose to drink more of sugary beverages.

Kimberly Marten ’85
New York City



Only at Harvard could we parse these words and somehow find ambiguity: “students may not discuss the exam with others” (“Investigating Academic Misconduct,” November-December 2012). Those were the instructions on the Government 1310 final exam, yet somehow those instructions are now being debated by highbrow administrators.

The gymnastics performed to explain—or attempt to explain away—straightforward cheating would be comical if not so sad. We need panels and interdisciplinary teams and a couple committees for good measure to investigate this? Despite my Harvard degree, I am able to follow simple rules when I read them. Shame on all for making the simple complicated, the Harvard way.

William Choslovsky, J.D. ’94

One of the best courses I took at Harvard was Professor Sam Beer’s [Soc Sci 2]. He suggested six political theorists and six periods of history. He even gave us the exam questions ahead of time! He told us the exam would ask us to write on only, say, six of 10 questions, meaning we only had to prepare answers to less than 10. So we formed groups to come up with our best answers. In the exam we parroted what we remembered of the answers our groups came up with. Were we cheating? He set the rules; we gamed them—of course, legally. The exercise was a great learning experience, much more than I would have had on my own.

John R. McGinley ’58
Wilton, Conn.



Primus v and his editors thank his predecessor for pointing out an incorrect spelling—igutur, for igitur—in the second item of the November-December 2012 issue’s College Pump (“Ipso Facto!”). The error in transcribing the lyrics of “Illegitimum non carborundum” was ours.


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