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Feeding the world, Alain Locke’s faith, divestment

May-June 2018

Endangered Expertise

The magazine’s email message title, “Has Ignorance Become a Virtue Today?” (referring to “The Mirage of Knowledge,” March-April, page 32) particularly caught my attention because I am in the middle of reading the Collected Writings of Thomas Paine as part of my effort to reengage with the fundamental principles that the founding generation of our American republic cared so much about.

A few nights ago, I was reading “Public Good” (December 30, 1780), which contains this statement toward the end: “Where knowledge is a duty, ignorance is a crime.”

It is hard to rise to the highest principles of our founding as a nation. At our best we have honored them, but we also have fallen below them. However, it is sad to see just how low we have fallen today. Most disturbing—and what seems new—is how large a portion of our population seems not to know what these principles are or to consider them important and even to be openly hostile to them. And, of course, concurrent with this is how shamelessly many in public life encourage that ignorance and hostility for their own ambitions.

It’s as if the whole nation could use a good civics lesson.

Christopher Greene, M.B.A. ’84
San Jose, Calif.

 

Speak Up, Please

Harvard Magazine welcomes letters on its contents. Please write to “Letters,” Harvard Magazine, 7 Ware Street, Cambridge 02138, or send comments by email to [email protected].

 

I appreciated “The Mirage of Knowledge” for describing how Tom Nichols analyzes and laments the decline of fact-based reasoning in America, as well as the concomitant rise in anti-science and ignorance.

While this phenomenon has been growing for some time (e.g., the rise in creationism teaching), it is being accelerated by the Internet’s malign influence as a source of “alternative facts” to suit any preconceived point of view.

The Trump presidency is the latest (and perhaps the most dangerous) manifestation of this dynamic. Russia, and other hostile states, recognize this fact and continue to exploit this weakness in our national fabric. Nichols states “we’re in a very perilous place right now.” I certainly agree.

Gary Usrey, M.P.A. ’85
Arlington, Va.

 

I have not read Tom Nichols’s Death of Expertise, but Lydialyle Gibson’s summary of it says nothing about how common practices and attitudes of experts or their educations might have helped lead to the backlash Nichols correctly decries. For decades now, it has seemed mandatory to focus as narrowly as possible in order to succeed as an expert. Failing to do so put one at an enormous competitive disadvantage. But narrowness led easily to arrogance, ethical blindness, and ignoring the wider context in which one’s certainties could be contradicted by aspects outside one’s ken.

Thus, experts in military strategy got Vietnam entirely wrong, did it again in Afghanistan and then Iraq, and so on. Nichols himself evidently suffered from the insensitivity of nuclear-war strategists to the effects on children’s psyches, among their other thoughtlessnesses. Economists quite commonly ignore the negative effects on some groups of policies that may be beneficial overall. Management experts also ignore the human costs of their decisions—as when eliminating whole categories of jobs. Doctors who just look at the disease and not the whole patient or the family can make what amount to grievous mistakes. Ecologists, who one might hope would have wider horizons, still often don’t consider it their province to try to imagine how to mitigate negative effects on humans of even wise environmental policies. And on and on.

Unfortunately even Harvard has not seemed particularly able to widen horizons for typical undergraduate and graduate students in highly competitive fields of expertise, where the pressure for narrowness as part of success always dominates. A partial answer may be for Harvard and similar institutions to offer some students a “deeply broad” general education with the intent that they may somehow serve as public guardians against the flaws and oversights of experts. That is what—class- and gender-biased as it was—a “gentleman’s” education at Harvard once promised at its best. Reviving and modernizing such a path now would be going against entrenched power structures in which experts now dominate even at Harvard. They can be expected to fight against such a program as a waste of talent and resources. But the alternative, as Nichols—and Trump’s election victory—show, may be far worse.

Michael H. Goldhaber ’63, Ph.D.
Berkeley, Calif.

 

I agree with the issues and concerns that Tom Nichols outlines: “Ignorance and unreason in American Public Discourse”; Trump; opinions over facts; the future of our Republic; and so on.

Where I lose him is with the comment that “the failures of experts…are spectacular but rare.” Experts may have a good deal of knowledge about a certain subject, but they, like the rest of us, are also prone to a number of epistemic flaws, including confirmation bias; the tendency to view a changing world through old paradigms; and the ability to convince themselves that they know more than they really do. Experts, like the rest of us, are also self-interested, often reluctant to admit when they are mistaken, and eager to protect and expand their turf. These and other factors can lead to serious, unanticipated consequences.

Nichols does not acknowledge that our country has a number of significant problems with deep, bipartisan roots that preceded our turn against experts. For example, we have made a mess of our foreign policy; we cannot extricate ourselves from an endless stream of foreign wars; we continue to add to our debt at an unsustainable rate; our drug policy hasn’t worked, but it has contributed to scores of drug-related deaths and to the world’s highest incarceration rate…Presumably, many of the long-standing policies and practices that led to these outcomes were designed and implemented by experts. We cannot, of course, blame experts for all of our problems, but maybe it is both the reality and perception of expert malpractice that contributed to today’s unfortunate “mirage of knowledge.” Recognizing and acknowledging this might be the first step toward counteracting the turn against experts.

Howard Landis, M.B.A. ’78
Naples, Fla.

 

I howled laughing while I read “The Mirage of Knowledge”! Tom Nichols suggests that Trump and his supporters have rejected the “experts”...no kidding! Nichols further suggests this is a bad thing. But what have the “experts” given us in the last 30 years? Horrible trade agreements that hollowed out U.S. manufacturing, flat wages for American workers for over 15 years, two useless wars that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, the rise of communist China poised to surpass our GDP, $20 trillion of debt, government-run healthcare with skyrocketing premiums and poor service (see VA hospitals), the crash of 2008 brought on by cheap Fed money and the moral hazard of GSEs, and bullies in Washington who weaponized the IRS against patriots and forced the Little Sisters of the Poor to offer abortion coverage [Editor’s note: The issue was coverage for contraception.] against their religious convictions. Oh, and all the “experts” said Trump couldn’t win! In Trump, Americans voted for their own bully to stand up to the “experts,” disrupt the status quo, and return power to the people.

Doug Kingsley, M.B.A. ’90
Boston

Editor’s note: The article contained three errors: a misspelling of the name National Enquirer; a misstatement of the American dead in World War II as 470,000, instead of 417,000; and a mischaracterization of Nichols’s childhood as a typical 1950s experience when the 1960s was intended. (Nichols was born in 1960.)

 

As a native of central Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump won overwhelmingly, and an emergency-room physician, where patients are inclined to argue more than one might think, I was fascinated by the article on Tom Nichols and his book. I do not think the rejection of expert opinion or embrace of “alternative facts” is a new or peculiarly American phenomenon. After all, it was the Englishman Aldous Huxley who said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored” in 1927.

What’s interesting is the similarities between the 1920s and the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The 1920s were a period of great social upheaval, followed by the cataclysms of the Great Depression and World War II. Over the past 50 years, economic globalization and the questioning by some of societal norms regarding race and sexuality have resulted in a more gradual polarization of Western societies. Thus far, this polarization has been not so much truncated by catastrophic events as punctuated by swelling backlashes, such as the votes in favor of Brexit and Trump’s presidency. In both instances, however, I believe rejecting facts has been a means of defending a status quo based on rules no longer axiomatically accepted by a large portion of the population.

As an interesting example of how norms have shifted, I recently unearthed a pamphlet from my undergraduate alma mater published in 1976 by Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) entitled Sex on Campus. The authors were outraged that university administrators had abandoned what they termed “Judeo-Christian” values condemning homosexuality, abortion, and extramarital intercourse for a pragmatic approach to sexual education and counseling that condemned no activity not involving “pain or exploitation.” Of course, even in 1976, many Americans questioned whether Judeo-Christian values did in fact condemn homosexuality, abortion, and extramarital intercourse. Even if they did, should they be the basis of laws in a secular state and policies in a secular institution? CAP is no longer an extant organization and the Supreme Court has essentially said no to that question. Nevertheless, a former member of CAP, Justice Samuel Alito, presently sits on the Supreme Court, where he voted against the legalization of same-sex marriage and has stated he does not support Roe v. Wade.

 If one believes in the inherent sinfulness of homosexuality, abortion, and extramarital intercourse, no statistics on teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or any other measure of health and well-being are of any import. If one does not believe in their inherent sinfulness, no amount of preaching will make them so. Facts versus their willful disregard will always be a dividing line between those for whom facts support an acceptable answer and those for whom they do not.

Margaret B. Ruttenberg, S.M. ’96, M.D.
New York City

 

The problem with Tom Nichols and “The Death of Expertise” is that he bases much of his approach on low-hanging fruit. In the article, he cites such examples as the foolish anti-vaccine movement, the denial of AIDS in South Africa, and of course Presient Trump and all of the anti-scientific tendencies which so many Americans already have.

However, though his overall assessment is right, when he deals with the medical establishment he needs to be more cautious. As a psychiatric physician practicing for the past 40 years, I get so tired of patients referred to me whose main problem is “stress.” In reality, the referring physician simply cannot easily find the diagnosis and should tell the patient, “I don’t know,” rather than assuming that the problem is psychological.

A case in point is my late mother-in-law. In the same healthcare system for decades, as a former smoker and breast-cancer survivor, at age 77 she came down with a cough, some weight loss, and some fatigue. My wife and I were concerned about the possibility of a new cancer, or a recurrence of the old one. After three months of being assessed by two different family physicians, she was referred to an internist with more “expertise.” He took a history, reviewed the diagnostic studies, examined her, and came up with two diagnoses: “a prolonged viral infection,” and “anxiety.”

Four months later, she was dead from metastatic breast cancer.

Richard S. Winslow Jr. ’64
Mercer Island, Wash.

 

If I might venture to second-guess Tom Nichol’s expertise concerning The Death of Expertise, I have a different perspective. According to the article, he finds causes of our disrespect of expertise in the Internet, the White House, our easy lifestyle and complexity that we take for granted, and the education system. However, conspicuous in its absence from his list is any blame of the experts themselves. On any given day we can open the newspaper to learn that yet another pharma company has been flogging a drug that is ineffective or potentially dangerous on the basis of flawed or selective research. Or a medical researcher is publicizing a position on vaccinations based on fabricated data. We might learn that the technical fight over net neutrality is really a cover for conflicting revenue strategies among rival corporate behemoths. That lawyers are defending their high-profile clients by transparently character-assassinating their adversaries rather than mounting substantive arguments. Even in the hallowed halls of Harvard, we learn of egregious cases of academic misconduct. In economics, I see experts who are clearly more interested in campaigning for a Federal Reserve seat than in presenting a balanced analysis of our economy.

Is it really any wonder that the public is skeptical of experts when so many appear self-serving or worse? The credibility of our experts depends on two things, not just one: expertise to be sure, but also integrity. Even if those violating the latter amount to only a tenth of a percent of the experts, they are the ones getting the attention and it reflects on the rest of us. We all need to stand up and call out the misusers and abusers of their expert status if we’d like the public to listen to us. “Experts” have increasingly become guns for hire and worse, and the public senses this.

Eric Stubbs, Ph.D. ’93 (economics)
Saint James, N.Y.

 

Nichols is correct in his thesis about “hostility toward established knowledge.” But he makes a fundamental error when he applies his thesis to his own political views. The mistake is not to discern the difference between expertise and judgment. It is likely that this misunderstanding explains why so many smart people continue to be baffled by the election of President Trump. 

In an attempt not to politicize this observation by comparing the current administration with the past one, I offer as an example the presidencies of Truman and Carter. 

Don Powell, M.B.A. ’59
Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

 

Tom Nichols’s revelatory analysis of the increasing distrust of expert knowledge is certainly a central preoccupation in our democracy. This reality is not new. Ever since the late 1960s, a number of us have been writing about the politics of expertise. We became aware that knowledge can easily be politicized. Maybe we were impressed by the rising anti-technocracy stance in some of the social movements of ’68. At that time the graffiti on a Paris wall said it all: “When the last technocrat and the last bureaucrat are hung by their tripe, will we still have problems?”

Importantly, we realized that knowledge was never sufficient to translate ideas into action. To convince the public or the politicians always required some accommodation. There is a political dimension if ideas are to be implemented: some give and take to insure that the policy or the plan is not ignored, or forgotten on a shelf. Since then, now 50 years later, the proliferation of think tanks and experts espousing opposite policies is commonplace. As Nichols tells us, truth is often hard to discern and the new social media amplifies the problem. But there is no reason to be pessimistic. Distrust of knowledge is not new, although vastly amplified in this administration. As the French aptly say : Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more it changes, the more it is the same). We will adapt and a good share of knowledge will be understood...soon or late.

Guy Benveniste, B.S. ’48, M.S. ’50
Professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley
Author, The Politics of Expertise
Berkeley

 

I enjoyed Lydialyle Gibson’s article, but I think Tom Nichols “classic ’50s working-class childhood” had to be ’60s, and I think he should read or refresh himself on C.S. Lewis’s argument in The Abolition of Man: You can’t castrate (educate in the spirit of the Green Book*), then bid the geldings be fruitful (expect your students to ascribe due worth to anything, let alone to big government expertise).

Rob McKee ’74, Ph.D.
Dallas

 * Editor’s note: A reference to The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing (1939), used as a text for upper-form students in British schools, according to Wikipedia.

 

In reading the profile of Tom Nichols I found myself frustrated with the helpless tone of the article. The helplessness seems to come from treating experts as a single class, thereby conflating two issues.

First, if study alone were the path to truth, lives of study would have guided religious scholars to a common doctrine and choosing a U.S. Supreme Court justice would be less controversial. Confirmation bias is very likely an important reason that the utility of teachings from scholars from each faith, working within their religious or political seminaries, cannot be assessed by the amount of time, or the earnestness of the study, on which those teachings are based. This fact has been harnessed by new media firms producing targeted entertainment to cultivate religious and political faith-based communities without geographic constraints. Key to driving “ears and eyeballs” is generating a sense of righteousness toward a doctrine. Germane to Nichols’s concern about the erosion of respect for experts is that a key technique employed by these seminaries and their media outlets is their rating of experts by whether specific teachings are heretical or doctrinaire. It is the scope and scale of this change in the media landscape that is new. 

Second, is the repeated finding that roughly 75 percent of us consider ourselves above normal on most any attribute questioned. It is not new that we, and our ancestors, have long been the recipients and issuers of unqualified advice. Faced with competing experts, many individuals are left only with their self-assessment of their knowledge. 

We have experienced periods of sensational journalism before. However, given that the movement of only a few percent of the electorate can drive change, the rising interest in information quality, both within and between religious and political faith groups, gives me hope. 

Patrick McDonnell, M.R.P. ’76
Nicasio, Calif.

 

I started reading your current issue today, the cover article. It didn’t take long to see what was wrong with it.

In the first paragraph are the words “Tom Nichols…political scientist.” In the second paragraph, “fragile egos.”

In other words, it starts out as an insult. Having not read further, I assumed the article involved an attack on those of us who voted for Donald Trump. I was not surprised to see the word “Trump” in the second line of the third paragraph. Then I stopped to write this.

I expect that the rest of the article will be an attack on Democracy and a call to “dictatorship of the experts.” I’ll read it now.

Doug McDonald, Ph.D. ’71
Urbana, Ill.

 

You are looking through the wrong end of your telescope. People inherit points of view (read the lyrics to the gospel song “Give Me That Old Time Religion”). Downward changes in one’s life can seed extreme views. A longing for a past (Mussolini’s Roman symbolism. Hirohito wishing to replicate the victory of his revered grandfather…). Success in creating an Eden-like past while creating fear of the present or for the future (“Making America Great Again,” the Russian threat, the North Korean threat, radical immigrants, and a growing national deficit). 

 It is not a lack of intelligence, but a nurturing of emotion. People read, hear, and accept those things which reinforce their own convictions. Ask yourself why the Old Testament has the Israeli Tribes marching through the desert for 40 years after departing Egypt. Perhaps more an allegory than a fact, but it offers a solution for attitude change.

Richard D. Gilman ’53
Lexington, Mass.

 

I truly appreciated Lydialyle Gibson’s profile of Tom Nichols in the most recent issue. It reminded me of a character in a novel I’ve been writing, who suffers from “progressive, degenerative Spenglerosis; a condition characterized by bitter obsessing over the decline of the West.” In any event, the article motivated me to order Mr. Nichols’s book!

Jeffrey Antman, M.T.S. ’79
Lebanon, N.J.

 

Mr. Nichols seems to have fallen into the logical trap that our own age is the worst ever. But when Martin Luther proclaimed the priesthood of all believers, he rejected uncontrollable authority. That skepticism has prevailed ever since, to the infinite benefit of Western civilization. Jonathan Swift, in the third of Gulliver’s Travels, describes a Royal Institution at Laputa which housed dozens of researchers. We gradually realize that he describes an insane asylum. In the middle of the Progressive Age in the U.S.A., L. Frank Baum published Scalawagons of Oz, satirizing experts from Ivy League colleges who tell people in the West how to do things. 

Experts are distrusted by ordinary Americans because of self-dealing and self-promotion disguised as science. One example makes farmers wary of experts: Alar. Jeremy Rifkin launched an ideologically based campaign for legislation to ban Alar, an apple-tree growth regulator. Such experts as Meryl Streep testified against the chemical. The Rifkin group’s prime claim has never been proven. Apple production in the U.S. has suffered since that attack on farming. China has become the dominant apple producer in the world. Fraudulent expert testimony has also marred many important class-action lawsuits.

Harvard used to have a course in the History of Science titled “Fakes and Frauds.” That does not appear to be a popular course presently. But now more than ever we need scientists with the guts to tackle credentialism and rent-seeking which pervade the Academy now that Big Science has teamed up with Big Government. Much weak research is issued: a medical researcher has written that fewer than 5 percent of published medical studies can be fully reproduced. I think experts need to do better audits and clean up their own house.

Bruce P. Shields ’61
Hyde Park, Vt.

 

Lydialyle Gibson’s “The Mirage of Knowledge” was a thoughtful profile of Tom Nichols and his The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. I was struck by Gibson’s paragraph describing Nichols’s belief that Edward Snowden’s revelations were a Russian operation and that for Nichols, the way others responded in opposition to this belief became a catalyst for writing his book. I, like most of us, am not knowledgeable about the actual truth of Snowden. However, the fact that Nichols was inspired to write his book defending “Established Knowledge” by his own analysis opposing the established-knowledge position on Snowden (as conscientious citizen) is an excellent example of the difficulty of determining reality and whose version of reality to accept. Nichols’s position on Snowden may or may not be correct, but its appearance as part of the category of fringe-conspiracy theory, compared to the accepted mainstream position on Snowden, demonstrates how necessary, and perhaps how much more complicated than we hope, is our present task of determining what’s true, how truths align with expertise, and how we talk about it.

Erik Beach ’02
Madison, Wisc.

 

In “The Mirage of Knowledge,” Lydia Gibson writes about Tom Nichol’s work regarding ignorance and unreason in American public discourse. Unfortunately, a perfect example of this phenomena is the current assault on international trade and investment, the portfolio that I oversaw for the Obama administration from 2014 to 2016.

The current administration’s focus on bilateral trade deficits with individual countries, with the U.S. “losing” and other countries “winning,” ignores basic macroeconomics factors: the supply and demand for savings, that inputs and services dominate global trade as opposed to finished goods because of integrated supply chains, and the simple fact that trade balances are not directly controlled by governments. 

And, to be sure, while our country has shed more than six million manufacturing jobs since 1970, the “culprit” has largely been technological advances, with productivity increases far outpacing demand growth for manufactured products. Not trade.

The “death of expertise” in our current debate over trade will not only lead to job losses and economic growth that is both slower and less inclusive, but also decreased American competitiveness. It will jeopardize key American interests: from combating climate change to deepening our international relationships, from driving global growth to combating violent extremism, in the process, spelling the decline of American influence on the world stage. 

Stefan M. Selig, M.B.A. ’88
Former U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade 
New York City

 

Green Revolution?

Jonathan Shaw’s article (“A New Green Revolution?” March-April, page 44) presents for-profit agricultural technology as a panacea for a hungry world, one about to face an “immense” shortfall in food as population increases. Reading it, one would never guess that we actually have plenty of food already. In fact, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, we currently produce enough to feed 10 billion people—the persistence of hunger is about geopolitics, poverty, and strife, none of which will be altered by modified seeds, and also about the dominance of monocultures, a legacy of the last “green revolution.” (There’s also the issue of meat consumption; Cornell recently estimated that we could feed 800 million people just on the grain that the U.S. currently devotes to livestock, a massively inefficient concentration of calories.)

This doesn’t mean dismissing these innovations out of hand; designing seeds that can resist drought, for instance, is laudable and of obvious utility, but the history of the “green revolution” has often been one of unintended and devastating consequences, and that should urge us to be cautious with new agricultural technologies. The article presents not a single downside to this latest revolution, but we have already seen negative consequences to allowing for-profit companies to patent essential elements of the food supply. Instead of allowing fear to push us into blind acceptance of this newest wave of GMOs, we should carefully assess both the science and the social consequences associated with them, especially in contrast to tested solutions such as agroecology, while we also work to reduce meat consumption and food waste and to build the kind of world where we can distribute food more equitably. That last will need to happen in any case for us to feed 10 billion people, with or without Indigo Ag’s (and Monsanto’s) latest products.

Tara Kathleen Kelly ’91
Gloucester, Mass.

Editor’s note: For the record, Shaw wrote about some of these issues in “Eating for the Environment” (March-April 2017, page 11).

 

Your article on microbe-based agriculture is provocative and hopeful, invoking additional ideas around the cast of characters and topics discussed.

We know that the new lab approach you describe hopes to mimic the spectacular natural symbiosis between microbial systems in soils and quality food for people.

 We know that those same microbial systems in soils are also the essential workforce generating social goods such as terrestrial carbon retention, water absorption and ecological resilience in landscapes, biodiversity, nutrient bioavailability, and more.

 We know that local food systems, not industrial agriculture, feed billions of people, and that these systems can succeed nutritionally, economically, culturally, and entrepreneurially at large scale by working in symbiotic partnership with microbes in soils. For example, the company COMACO and its 170,000-plus farmer-suppliers in Zambia produce popular food products (and related nutritional and environmental services) by deploying these techniques.

What we need to know, for making smart decisions with big implications, is how the new laboratory microbe approach relates to these systemic issues. Does it support (or inhibit) whole environmental/economic/health systems as soil-based approaches can, or is it just more incremental in reducing some negative impacts of historical industrial farming approaches?

 David Strelneck, M.P.P. ’92
Bath, Maine

 

Alain Locke

On the occasion of Jeffrey Stewart’s new biography of Alain Locke, I truly appreciated Adam Kirsch’s “Art and Activism” (March-April, page 36) on that too long unheralded “quiet man” of the Harlem Renaissance. However, the article, like so many books about Locke, leaves out mention of the important fact that Locke was a Bahá’i. Just as his Harvard and his Rhodes experience at Oxford were germane to Locke’s intellectual evolution, the Bahá’í Faith was intrinsic to his spiritual development.

Locke embraced the Bahá’í Faith in 1918, the same year that he received his doctorate. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh soon became the dominant spiritual influence in his life and on his thinking. Bahá’i became his core identity, eclipsing that of race or sexuality. Indeed, it was his active work for unity through diversity—on a worldwide scale—that caused the more partisan W.E.B. DuBois to part activist ways with him. Locke saw racism as he saw so many narrow allegiances: as symptoms of a deeper spiritual disease. As he wrote in his 1943 essay “Lessons in World Crisis,” “[S]ome basic spiritual reorientation is a pre-requisite to the effective solution of many, if not most of the specific political, economic and cultural issues of our time.” That reminder is even more relevant for today’s “world crisis” than it was during World War II.

Tom Lysaght ’74
Los Angeles

 

May I bring to your attention that a previous biography of Locke appeared from University of Chicago Press: Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher. It was written by Leonard Harris and me. The article in the March-April issue creates the impression that the new biography is the first full-length study of Locke’s life.

Charles Molesworth
New York City

Editor’s note: We know the book and have it in house. Adam Kirsch proposed his customary essay on Locke’s ideas and writing, into which he worked this new, and in his view comprehensive, biography. Neither he nor we conceived of it as a book review per se, so much as an overview of Locke. We did not mean to suggest there was no prior work.

 

Searching Insights

Reading John Rosenberg’s suggestion (7 Ware Street, March-April, page 6) that Harvard institute an exchange program so undergraduates can spend a semester at a “fly-over-state” institution and counterparties come for a Crimson immersion, reminds me of the late Ford professor of social sciences David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd and unequaled commentator on higher education.

I once asked Riesman, a great supporter of the Peace Corps, what advice he might give to someone aspiring to be a school superintendent or a college president. “Spend time in a different culture,” he said. And he went to explain that a different culture might exist in the next street; you didn’t have to go to a distant country.

Harvard undergraduates who exchanged with students at a community college might be surprised by the quality of the best teaching at some of those institutions; similarly, faculty and students at Harvard might be gobsmacked by the sheer intelligence of the best community college students.

Jonathan M. Daube, Ed.D. ’68
Northampton, Mass.

 

Divestment Encore

I hope that Harvard’s new leadership will reexamine policies related to its investments in fossil fuels. The old and tired argument that it is enough for the University and its institutional colleagues to “engage” with the industry grows less credible every year. Engaging for what? After so many years, can any results be measured?

The clock has run out on shareholder “engagement” and further talk about fossil fuel investments. At a minimum, it is now time to allow Harvard’s publics (constituencies) to be able to look at the University’s portfolios and investment strategies, and at the policies and decisions (apparently non-existent) that conform investment policies with all the other climate commitments of the University.

At a time when Harvard accurately boasts of major commitments to reduce the University’s climate footprint—e.g. research, teaching, greater building efficiency, broader community action and more—the University still stubbornly refuses to subject its investment portfolio to the same tests of modernity and climate relevance. Despite a growing and fruitful flow of promising ideas and models, the University’s governance boards seem terrified of conventional fossil-fuel wisdom—from what are these people hiding? What world do they think we are entering? President Faust even continues to offer the preposterous argument that Harvard remains so dependent on fossil-fuel use for its operations that it cannot began to examine the climate impact of its sprawling investment portfolio.

Fortunately, many pathways to new thinking are opening up, and I hope that the new Harvard team challenges the thinking of the Harvard Investment Corporation, and shows a glimmer of the leadership that Harvard used to provide to the rest of the world. Despite Harvard’s dreadful investment performance, the world still watches and cares about what Harvard does.

Such a glimmer would not be hard to find. For example, the world is awash in fossil fuels, with reserves at a level four times higher than can ever be used if the world is to stay below the two-degree warming ceiling increase agreed in Paris; more is being found all the time. Harvard could simply decide that the University was no longer going to invest in the research for or development of further, new resources of fossil fuels (which can never be burned anyway if we hope to maintain the globe as a sustainable habitable environment). Further decisions for squeezing down fossil-fuel use would follow, including but not limited to difficult decisions concerning the extensive travel of its faculty.

While some critics have suggested that even such an evolutionary approach to fossil-fuel use would signal an unwanted “politicization” of University decisions, to the contrary, Harvard would simply be working to right-size all its actions for the challenges of our climate-challenged world.

New leadership always brings new promise. I hope that Harvard’s transition will also bring fresh thinking about the responsibilities that accompany the management of the University’s sizable endowment.

Timothy E. Wirth ’61
Former Harvard Overseer; Chair of University Committee on the Environment
Former Congressman and Senator, Colorado
President emeritus and vice-chair of   The United Nations Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Endowment Taxes

I note a few letters about the negative impact on Harvard of the tax on its endowment income in the new tax bill, but I strongly disagree with the idea that all is forgiven as long as the stock market, in part because of this bill, goes up. A writer’s statement that Harvard should thus welcome the new tax bill “by embracing the greatest innovation in the history of mankind, namely capitalism itself” (March-April, page 4), is misguided.

Such a one-dimensional notion could be countered with a similarly one-dimensional idea: that capitalism’s primary focus on making money may lead to the destruction of the planet as environmentally harmful but profitable enterprises see their stock prices soar.

Capitalism isn’t the last word in economic theory, and the stock market isn’t the only relevant consideration when evaluating investments. I’d like to think the future of mankind itself merits at least a little consideration in evaluating the impact of any tax bill.

Hugh R. Winig ’65
Lafayette, Calif.

 

It’s (Still) Latin to Them

Yesterday’s News reports, under 1963, the large number of A.B.s in the Peace Corps (March-April, page 25). Harvard ceased granting A.B.s in favor of B.A.s  in 1961, the bitter year English replaced Latin on our diplomas. “Latin Sí, Pusey No!”

Arkie Koehl ’61
Honolulu

Editor’s note: Harvard did drop Latin diplomas in 1961, but the degree is still listed as A.B. The 2017 Commencement book states: “Harvard still uses the abbreviations for degrees in the Latin order rather than in the English, for example: A.B., Artium Baccalaureus; A.M., Artium Magister; and Ph.D., Philosophiae Doctor.

Misclassification of Spelt

Brew’s Clues (March-April, page 50), called spelt gluten-free. Andy Robin, M.B.A. ’80, let us know it is not. We regret the error.

 

These United States

Richard Borgeson’s assertion that the Constitution is no more than a compact of a “group of states” each of which may “change how they participate” in the Union profoundly misunderstands the nature of the Constitution and the government established by it (Cambridge 02138, “A Too-Political Madison?” March-April, page 2). The Articles of Confederation was, indeed, an agreement of sovereign states establishing a government that could only act on and through the states. In contrast, James Madison explained that, under the Constitution, “the operation of the government [is] on the people, in their individual capacities, in its ordinary and most essential proceedings [and] in this relation [is] a NATIONAL government” (The Federalist Papers, No. 39 [emphasis in original]). Chief Justice John Marshall explained this principle further in McCulloch v. Maryland: “The government of the Union, then,… is, emphatically, and truly, a government of the people. In form and in substance it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them, and for their benefit” (17 U.S. [4 Wheaton] 316, 405 [1819]). Does Mr. Borgeson need to be reminded we fought a war over these competing principles which vindicated Madison and Marshall’s conception of the Constitution and the government of the United States?

David A. Drachsler, LL.B. ’68
Alexandria, Va.

 

7 Ware St.

I smiled when I read the earnest “Editor’s note” that “The magazine does not have a political orientation” (Cambridge 02138, March-April, page 4). I positively grinned at your proposal “Study Abroad, At Home” (7 Ware Street, March-April, page 6). But I have a few questions.

Will the flyover-state students be allowed to roam freely in their new Cambridge habitats or ought they be caged/leashed for everyone’s safety? Will it be permissible to feed and pet them, or might that dangerously acclimate them to Harvardians? Should a proactive spay/neuter program be mandatory, lest they breed and overrun Cambridge? 

Last, dare we imagine the day when they are admitted to fair Harvard in proportion to their population?

Mike Szymonifka ’80
Clark, N.J

 

The Emergent Irrational Mind

 As an economics graduate from Harvard, I was highly amused by the “simple inference” as to why infants prefer to watch scenes where characters repeat easy-to-achieve goals versus those where characters repeat difficult tasks (“The Emergent Mind,” March-April, page 13). 

According to professor of psychology Elizabeth Spelke, it’s a “basic tenet of utility theory” that “infants have an innate understanding…that goals people work harder to reach must be valued more.” 

Besides betraying a willingness to engage in rank, unsupported speculation about why infants act as they do, Professor Spelke describes classical utility theory in a way that is 180 degrees wrong. As taught by her colleagues in the economics department, demand falls when prices rise, i.e., people rationally consume less of something that is more costly to attain. It was Thorstein Veblen, a sociologist, who posited that the desire to consume is positively correlated with cost. Duh.

Maybe the psychology profession, as well as the editors of Harvard Magazine, could benefit from a dose of Ec 10.

Don Rindler ’76
Potomac, Md.

 

Final Clubs, Redux

When I was an undergraduate, Harvard had as its president James Conant, who was not only a great leader within the University but a national statesman of the first magnitude. His successors have been an ongoing downward slide. Drew Faust marks a new low with the institutionalization of “social justice totalitarianism.” As George Orwell pointed out, the distinguishing hallmark of totalitarianism was “doublethink.” What finer example is there than the Faust-Lee statement re the final clubs (March-April, page 19): the sanctions regime “does not…punish students,” followed in the same sentence by “albeit excluded from other leadership positions or fellowships.” We are promised Dean Khurana will provide clarification re implementation. Perhaps he can find a suitable retired NKVD or Gestapo officer—they would fit neatly his outlook. 

John Braeman ’54
Champaign, Ill.

 

The Enlightenment

This letter is in regard to Ada Palmer’s review of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and and Progress (“Can Science Justify Itself?” March-April, page 56).

In 1968, I was a graduate student in anthropology, and enrolled in an Evolutionary Biology graduate seminar (Biology 248). For this seminar, I prepared a 39-page thesis entitled “Human Ecology and Evolution: Where it’s been, where it’s at and where it’s going—fast.” In the introduction to the paper, I stated that, “Since the author is convinced that man is inevitably committed to self-destruction, this paper will take, in large part, the form of a postmortem before the fact.”

In discussing the probable causes of this outcome, I stated that “A particularly interesting type of pollution is that of the atmosphere. Unnaturally high levels of carbon dioxide are accumulating in the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels. This is raising the temperature of the earth’s surface. It is feared that much more heating of the earth’s surface may cause the polar icecaps to melt, raising the ocean levels over 200 feet.”

Now, 50 years later, we see these fears being borne out. This post appeared just yesterday (2-27-18): “Splitting of the Polar Vortex: The Arctic Is Melting In The Dead Of Winter.” We now find ourselves poised on the brink of a cataclysmic world-wide climate disruption of our own doing. And is the world taking this threat any more seriously than it did in 1968? Not really. There has been lots of talk, but no effective action. The contribution of ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere continues.

I agree with Pinker that reason, science and humanism are wonderful things. But Progress is not a wonderful thing, and we are not now living, as he wishes to believe, in the best of possible worlds. Despite all that one might say about these hopeful human capabilities, the end result of 10,000 years of “civilization” (i.e., the domestication of plants and animals and what followed) is that we are in the process of making Earth uninhabitable for ourselves and many of our fellow creatures.

Palmer’s review is entitled: “Can Science Justify Itself?” But it’s not science that is in need of justification, by itself or otherwise. It is science that tells us that we have a problem, and it is science that points to the ways out. The question “Can Science Justify Itself?” is a sterile academic exercise that completely misses the point. And what, then, is the point? It is that, from the very beginning, civilization has amounted to nothing more than a wholesale onslaught on the plenitude of the earth. It has been a 10,000-year-long binge that is about to come to an end. That is the point. And, in this regard, Pinker’s book is less than helpful.

Steve Miller, A.M. ’70
Embudo, N.M.

 

What Price Harvard?

I was recently introduced to Missouri Senate candidate Courtland Sykes through a segment by Stephen Colbert that ridiculed how he wanted his fiancée and children to become “traditional homemakers and family wives,” and not “career obsessed banshees” and “nail-biting manophobic hell-bent feminist she devils” [sic all]. I then learned how Sykes blames Hollywood on America’s mass shootings, how he campaigned in Alabama for Roy Moore while towing along a 12-year-old girl, and how his fiancée, who Sykes says his obedience towards is dependent on him “com[ing] home to a home cooked dinner every night” [sic], herself creates comics where she depicts liberals as being pro-terrorism, compares Hillary Clinton to Hitler, and advocates we “vaporize” North Korea. 

I also saw that both of them prominently display their Harvard degrees online. Only by searching the alumni network did I discover they both received undergraduate degrees from the Extension School. Most media surrounding Sykes portrays him as graduating from Harvard College. This is no accident, as Sykes has done everything possible to make it appear as though he went to the College. 

It is very hard for me to make this argument without sounding elitist, but I hope I can manage it. The Extension School has strayed far from its roots. What was originally designed as a community college for the Boston area has become a cash cow for Harvard to sell its name to wealthy individuals who want to fake degrees from the College. The Extension School provides more degrees per year today than it did in its first 50 years combined. 

At the Extension School, by and large the only vetting that occurs is the ability to pay the $49,600 that the degree costs in tuition. Furthermore, the vast majority of courses can now be taken online, and Extension School students do not have to spend much time on campus. Unfortunately, this distances them from the Harvard community. To say they received a Harvard education and to give them a Harvard degree is misleading. Paying tuition and taking classes online does not give someone a Harvard education. Henry David Thoreau (Harvard College, 1837) wrote about Harvard that “tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made.” 

I have friends who arrived at Harvard prejudiced—against race, gender, and creed—and I saw them become more tolerant and loving people by interacting with this community, a community that challenges prejudice through open discourse among outstanding individuals from all walks of life. For all the derision college campuses receive in the media, I have seen far more minds open here than close. 

Even in the innermost depths of the Porcellian, another part of Harvard that vets applicants on money alone, you would be hard-pressed to hear statements like those of Sykes. This is because even those members engage in the overall Harvard community, and the Harvard community engages back with them. It is this engagement that causes people to open their minds to their own prejudices. It is this engagement that is what makes a Harvard education, an engagement that Extension School students miss. I understand the argument that Harvard wants to give back to the greater community. I am not arguing that Harvard becomes a closed institution and does not open its classes and resources to the world. But I have 49,600 reasons why giving out Extension School degrees is not charity. 

Harvard absolutely should open its resources to the community, which is why I am in full support of initiatives like EdX and the original mission of the Extension School. However, Harvard provides Extension School degrees so they can milk rich people who want to say they went to Harvard without actually going to Harvard. Providing a system for people to further their career by paying an exorbitant fee to fake a Harvard College degree is a disservice to Harvard College students and Harvard as a whole. If we are to give Extension School degrees, it needs to be clear where these degrees are from, what they mean, and students need to take their classes on campus and engage in our community. Otherwise, our name becomes watered-down, and a Harvard education becomes no more special than any online degree. 

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, how much is the price of our name?

Stefan Poltorzycki ’15
Key West

 

Kudos

You are treasures indeed to this graduate of Radcliffe. It is a pleasure to read of the interesting lives and endeavors of those whose death is recorded in Obituaries. After every issue I marvel at these lives. The Letters are always intelligent and usually very knowledgeable—and often represent contrasting points of view. For a very long time Vita has been a source of education for me. Even when I am familiar with the subject, I never fail to learn more. And Treasure is usually equally interesting.

These are the features I always read and enjoy. Occasionally, the feature articles, especially when they relate to science, are interesting. There is much to criticize about Harvard, but I am delighted with Harvard Magazine, especially with the features that remind me of its treasures, human and otherwise.

Kathleen H. Casey ’59
Pearland, Tex.

 

I was impressed by the picture of the emerging neo-classical Klarman Hall (John Harvard’s Journal, March-April, page 18) on the grounds of the Business School. Not that we were exactly roughing it in the HBS Class of 1974, but we had nothing like this when it came to accommodating large numbers of students and special events. Kudos to Harvard for its vision, as well as the Klarman family for their generous philanthropy!

Phil Curtis, J.D. ’71, M.B.A. ’74
Atlanta

You Might Also Like:

At Harvard African Students Association’s Africa Night (from left): Tom Osborn ’20 of Kenya; Joshua Benjamin ’21, of Phoenix, Arizona (whose ancestors are Angolan but were first brought to Charleston, South Carolina, in the late seventeenth century); Tawanda Mulalu ’20 of Botswana; and Mfundo Radebe ’20 of South Africa

Photograph by Christabel Narh

Harvard through an African filter

You Might Also Like:

At Harvard African Students Association’s Africa Night (from left): Tom Osborn ’20 of Kenya; Joshua Benjamin ’21, of Phoenix, Arizona (whose ancestors are Angolan but were first brought to Charleston, South Carolina, in the late seventeenth century); Tawanda Mulalu ’20 of Botswana; and Mfundo Radebe ’20 of South Africa

Photograph by Christabel Narh

Harvard through an African filter