Cambridge 02138

Protagoras, orphans, the Supreme Court

The Humanities…

While I totally agree with James Engell’s conclusions in “Humanists All” (January-February, page 34), the institution that he is writing from is the only platform in the United States that can effect such change. He should be directing his remarks to admissions, and in particular, those who draft the applications documents. In addition to whatever they are looking for in intelligence, humanity, and technical skills, there should be ample proof the subject is conversant in civics, history, and the Classics. Once the word gets out, high school curricula will spin on a dime.

Stephen Garrison, M.B.A. ’62
Chattanooga, Tenn.

James Engell’s essay reminds me of an old fable which sought to differentiate surgeons from internists. (Disclaimer: I am one of the former by training and practice.)

A surgeon was walking through the woods and came upon a fast-flowing river. In the middle of the river was a drowning man, thrashing about, unsuccessfully trying to save himself. The surgeon immediately dove in and swam out to the man, pulled him to shore, and resuscitated him.

While catching his breath, the surgeon saw another man in the same predicament. He gathered strength and then dove back into the river. He pulled the second man to safety and resuscitated him.

Nearly exhausted, the surgeon saw yet a third man drowning in the river. At that moment an internist walked by. The surgeon called to him, saying, “I’ve just saved two drowning men and I’m exhausted. Can you save the third man?”

The internist replied, “No, but I will walk upstream to see why men are jumping off the bridge.”

The physicists and engineers involved in the Manhattan Project were successful in creating the first atom bomb, a technical achievement never seen before. However, humanism and value judgments (mostly by Harry Truman, who had no four-year college degree) were involved in the decision to use this powerful device. Thus the eternal conundrum. What value do we place on STEM disciplines, and how do we value humanism, and how do we balance the two?

Ronald M. Barton ’69
Richmond, Va.

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


Here’s a simple solution to the distressing decline in student interest in the humanities: lower the tuition for students who choose to concentrate in English, history, or other similarly unpopular fields. The price of the degree would then reflect its value, real or perceived. I suspect Harvard’s cost accountants could establish that a humanities degree costs the University less than a science or engineering degree, as no lab space or computing power are necessary, and professors in the humanities—as Engell points out—are paid less. Harvard’s tuition for the 2022-23 academic year is $52,659. If instead the tuition for a degree in English were $15,000 and that for a degree in computer science $95,000, my guess is the imbalances would adjust.

To the “self-inflicted” causes identified by Engell, high tuition must certainly be added. I suspect the scrimping and loans necessary for many families across a large range of economic circumstances to afford Harvard may underlie the feeling that the concentration a student selects must provide a return on that investment.

Eliot Heher ’85, M.D. ’90
West Newton, Mass. 


The chart showing the percent changes in various bachelor’s degree fields (across the country) was interesting. More than doubled in 10 years was the number of computer science graduates; an 80 percent gain in electrical engineering, more than 50 percent in other engineering fields and in math. These changes should be celebrated, not bemoaned. Guess what, our high school graduates are not too stupid to respond to economic incentives, and maybe we won’t entirely lose our technological supremacy.

I admit I was a math major, and I thank God for that.

Mimi Gerstell ’66, A.M. ’91
Vero Beach, Fla.


James Engell makes a strong argument for revitalizing the humanities in modern universities. He keenly observes that higher ed has downplayed the critical abilities to “resist online algorithms fiendishly designed to shorten attention” and to “examine conflicting testimony.” Regarding the second, however, I was unable to square his argument with the recommendation that humanities departments stop “overproducing” Ph.D.s.

Humanities Ph.D.s are not commodities produced, or overproduced, by factories. On the contrary, they infuse new and necessary blood into the life of the mind, sometimes in cross-disciplinary ways. Retrenchment, apart from constricting humanities research, might well deprive us of truly educated leadership both inside and outside academia. Picture, for instance, an American president who held a Ph.D. in Chinese language and literature. Or a Secretary of Housing with a Ph.D. in American history.

Such possibilities would bring much-needed intellectual breadth to containment, if not resolution, of the global crisis that now challenges us. By extension, they might spark universities to subsidize more tenure lines for humanities Ph.Ds., rather than exploiting them as the pedagogical “cannon fodder” Engell so rightly deplores.

Ira Braus, P.h.D. ’88
Pembroke, Mass. 

I was a biochemistry major and went on to a career that drew on that part of my education. But at every opportunity, I used my electives on humanities courses (the classics, Norse mythology, oral and folk literature, etc.). STEM training enabled me to have a successful career. Humanities enriched my life and made that success meaningful.

Engell has given us a well-researched and argued case for investing in the humanities. Unfortunately, he is still implicitly suggesting that our students and institutions should sacrifice certain kinds of opportunity in order to better/save the world. That argument never works. Studying the humanities has directly instrumental value: it makes life far more worth living. It is actually a selfish choice. That is the argument we need to be making. People will actually get it.

Charles Hsu ’79
San Francisco

In an otherwise apt and sensible article on the lamentably dismal state of the humanities, James Engell falls into an unhelpful conceit when he argues that four distinctive features of the humanities speak to their pressing national need: their stress on critical thinking, creativity, humane values, and morality. The first two are as common to STEM fields and have no special place in the humanities.

Indeed, looking at the last 50 years, critical and creative thinking in STEM have fundamentally changed the world, from our view of the constituents of matter and the big bang theory to the invention of the transistor, to computers, the Internet, and AI. For better or worse, one might ask, and indeed, that is a question for the humanities. Do bring on the critical and creative thinking, please. But to denigrate STEM as deficient in creative and critical thinking—that does not add to the discourse. If it is commonplace in humanities common rooms, that is part of the problem.

William Palmer ’58
Columbus, Ohio

James Engell’s eloquent defense of the value of the arts and humanities includes a discussion of the “tectonic shift” in majors chosen by college students over the past decade. As shown in the figure accompanying the essay, there is no question that majors in various STEM degrees have significantly increased, at the expense of majors in the humanities; but why artifically exaggerate these trends by adopting a highly variable X-axis in which, among other anomalies, the mark to the left of zero is -20 percent but the equivalent mark to the right is 25 percent? There are many other problems with this graph. None of the vertical lines are proportional (that is, the -20% vertical is 8% too large compared to the +25%, and on and on…

James E. Haber ’65
Professor of Biology
Brandeis University
Waltham, Mass.

James Engell’s “Humanists All” is sentimental drivel. He laments the fact that the number of humanities bachelor’s degrees has plummeted and the focus is now on computer science and related fields. Harvard can’t and shouldn’t control such trends. Harvard can and should ensure that all bachelor’s curricula include a vibrant humanities component. I hope someone is working on that problem.

Charles Block, A.M. ’51
Miami, Fla. 

The data provided for the percentage change of degrees awarded from 2022-2021 is merely descriptive in showing the “tectonic shift” away from the humanities to STEM. However, an analysis of different factors such as gender or whether or not a student is 1st- or 2nd-generation college educated may provide more granularity. How much of the decline is due to men leaving the humanities? Is an anthropology major who graduated in the 1980s going to encourage a son or daughter to study anthropology or STEM? And while the article did touch on this briefly, are students with traditional views on religious faith, patriotism, and conservative values welcomed in the humanities departments? Those are questions worth answering. Young students are told to go to college to “be somebody” and in that context it seems to make sense to come out of university as a computer scientist, engineer, or accountant versus a thoughtful religion or philosophy major. One fix for Harvard may be to require a core group of courses in the humanities or even a minor designation to graduate. Absent any leadership action, today’s modern students may feel areas of study such as history, religion, and art are merely avocations or hobbies with generous content available for viewing in their spare time on YouTube—not a serious field of study.

Hal Goetsch, M.B.A. ’97
Sudbury, Mass. 

Thanks for Professor Engel’s thoughtful, in-depth article on diminishing demand for humanities studies. The staggering debt our students face ensures they’re forced to choose subjects targeting careers making big bucks. Forget the exciting and fulfilling nonprofits. What a loss, not only for the trapped 21 year-olds, but also for the society that could surely use their talents and enthusiasm for the public good.

 Kitty Beer ‘59

Dr. Engell’s article neglects the purpose of the University, which is to bring students to experience education. Education is the creative use of knowledge. Thus, the job of the faculty is to transfer knowledge to the student (the easy is largely memorization) and inspire creativity (the more difficult part). Research is also the creative use of knowledge and thus is congruent with education. Research places a heavy emphasis on creativity and therefore can make a most important contribution to the educational process. It also explains why heavily research productive universities are regarded so highly.

The article by Dr. Engell speaks to the humanization of students, not the education of students. Students come to the University for education, not humanization. Dr. Engell’s neglect of this may explain the cause of his loss of constituents as shown by his “A Tectonic Shift” chart.

Leon Mandel, Ph.D. ’51
Temple Terrance, Fla.

In his exploration lamenting the precipitous decline of the humanities in higher education, Engell cites strong supporting evidence. Hardly new—in 1971 Louis Geiger lamented the same issues in the American Association of University Professors bulletin. However, while presenting his own hard evidence Engell fails to ask why.

The ultimate consumer of higher education’s product is business and industry, not the student customer. Failure to recognize this distinction creates a serious disconnect between higher education and the ultimate consumer to the detriment of students.

In a recent meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges, small college presidents learned from employers that they seek graduates with hard skills who are better prepared in communication and critical thinking, not the humanities. Communication and critical thinking skills are likely better honed in any discipline utilizing case study methodology, not necessarily studying liberal arts or humanities.

Technology and evolving business practices are dramatically changing the workplace of the future, requiring education be delivered more flexibly and in tune with demands facing business. Today’s degree, with its rapidly rising costs and inflexibility, is ill-suited to these evolving realities. Happily, rising online education, stackable certificates, etc. are gaining traction.

To be certain the humanities are important to a functioning society. However, higher education needs to accept that their role, as seen by their consumers, is career preparation, not force-feeding humanities to a disinterested audience. Dictating to students what they must do to obtain a degree, while continuously inflating costs and shunning cost-reducing innovation, is failing.

New creative strategies for the humanities are required. Example: Much of the humanities are unchanging, fixed in time past. Studio recorded class productions, reproduced at virtually zero marginal cost, would allow wide distribution (even high schools). Doesn’t the potential of disseminating high quality humanities content on a vastly broader scale have a more favorable societal result?

Roy Carriker, M.B.A. ’76
Haverford, Pa. 

I had to read your article by James Engall because I have been working in the area of the humanities most of my adult life, and I would like to be able to offer my books to humanities departments at colleges and universities, but my knowledge is outside the scope of what is offered as “humanities.” Some of it is beyond even what academic people are allowed to study.

At most colleges and universities, including Harvard, “humanities” includes the study of English, other languages, literature, philosophy, and religious studies. Philosophy is a very narrow abstract intellectual discussion.

I take issue with the definition of “philosophy.” I see philosophy in its oldest and broadest sense, as the application of the mind to the living of life. The mind is more than just the conscious intellect. The mind includes memory, reason, creativity, intuition, insight, emotion, will, perception, and dreams. The mind also includes a subconscious component. All of this can be applied to the living of life. Yes, the conscious ability to reason is the highest mental attribute, in that it brings all this together and decides what to believe, but it isn’t the ONLY mental attribute.

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek “philo” and “sophia,” meaning “love of wisdom.” Again, “wisdom” is not just conscious intellect, but it involves using all those attributes of mind to the fullest extent possible. Wisdom includes conscious intellect, knowledge, which is not just what one has read in a book, but what one has tested and verified in one’s life’s experience, psychological development, which means bringing subconscious factors into consciousness as much as possible and living up to one’s adult mental potential, and psychic abilities, which are the development of one’s perceptions to their fullest potential.

Socrates said, “Know thyself.” Freud showed us how to do that. Practicing psychotherapy belongs in the field of psychology, but UNDERGOING psychotherapy belongs in the field of philosophy. The New School made a good start when they offered “Psychotherapy for Credit” in the 1960s. Now academic people have a prejudice against psychotherapy for themselves. It is okay for people they see as inferior.

Philosophy is stuck in the thinking of ancient Greece: “Of what can we be certain?” Now we have probability theory. Nothing is certain.

Philosophy does not involve evidence. Now we have science, which combines the evidence of the senses with our reasoning ability. Science is not just limited to specialties of knowledge. One can use scientific thinking in one’s ordinary life.

And of course the ancient Greeks didn’t have psychotherapy.

And then there are the Eastern disciplines of meditation and yoga that have taken over today’s world.

Also there is bad logic in the few philosophy books I have read. Abstract language is ambiguous, for one thing. Philosophy should be done on a computer, which can check for errors. Abstractions need to be defined precisely, as computer functions or subroutines.

All this belongs in “philosophy.”

In 1955, my junior year at Harvard, I saw the threat of nuclear annihilation as proof of total systems failure. For this and other reasons, I turned my back on the culture and set out to design a new civilization. I have devoted my adult life to this project. Many people have been similarly influenced by the threat of nuclear annihilation. But professional philosophers have not. It is beneath them to work on practical problems. Sixty-seven years later I fault them for the total systems failure I saw in 1955.

When Khrushchev called up Bertrand Russell during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to ask for his advice, all Russell had to offer was ordinary common sense. And now in 2022, when Putin holds the civilized world at bay with his 1600 nuclear weapons, the professional philosophers have no better answer. Let’s just hope that Putin is sane.

Philosophy needs a major upgrade. Don’t whine to me about people leaving the humanities. Get some self-knowledge. Make philosophy relevant to the problems of living in a nuclear age and the mental tools we have to deal with those problems.

Robert S. Gebelein ’56
Durham, N.C. 

Congratulations on your article in the January-February issue. The figure on page 37 is terrifying.

I am a  doctor (Harvard Medical School, 1959). but I believe strongly that history is a a fine “major” for anyone who will be making decisions. Why? Because history is about learning how to evaluate evidence and make wise decisions.

There is surely no lack of “evidence” related to many important issues, such as the survival of life on Earth. But who is competent to evaluate the quality of the “evidence”? Evidence is merely information that could be correct, or could be misinformation, or even intentionally incorrect disinformation. Furthermore, useful evidence has to more than merely correct. It must be relevant. Determining whether a conclusion is relevant demands understanding the historical, moral value of something. Science may be able to make colonization of Mars possible. But it will not answer the question, should we colonize Mars? Science can result in building a nuclear bomb, but is useless in determining whether we should build a nuclear bomb. Science can address “how,” but not “why.”

So, as we constantly increase our technological prowess, we continue in a pandemic, improve our ability to build weapons for warfare, ignore the misery of millions, and move ever more rapidly into the sixth mass extinction.

 How may allegedly intelligent creatures be so blind as to call themselves Homo sapiens, when they intentionally turn away from the sudy of that which leads to wisdom?

George Link Spaeth, M.D. ’58
Philadelphia Pa.

…and Clarifications

A small correction to the otherwise excellent “Humanists All.” Mary Robinson, LL.M. ’68, LL.D. ’98, for whom I have the highest respect, was never UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Rather, she was the second UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 1997 to 2002. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was set up by UN General Assembly Resolution 48/141 of 20 December 1993. In contrast, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, where I served for 33 years) was created by UN General Assembly Resolution 428 (V) of December 14, 1950. Confusion between the two agencies is frequent, due in part to the similarity of their acronyms and the archaic titles of their leaders. Although they have distinct mandates, one more general (all human rights, everywhere) and one more specific (the rights of refugees and displaced people), both are devoted to protecting human rights and human dignity.

Judith Kumin ’71
Contoocook, N.H.

I enjoyed “The ‘Harvard Novel’ Enters the Twenty-first Century,” by Beth Blum (January-February, page 50), but there’s something off in the episode regarding “Harvard lore” and the quote on the facade of the philosophy building. When Blum writes that “somehow the wires got crossed,” I think it’s her wires that are crossed, not William James’s, since I’m certain he would never have confused Protagoras with Pythagoras.

Donnally Miller ’73
Venice, Fla. 

I jumped out of my chair at reading, on p.53 of the current issue, the egregious error contained in Professor Blum’s article: “...a quote from Pythagoras: ‘Man is the measure of all things.’”

It’s Protagoras, not Pythagoras!

Fred Safier ’60
Walnut Creek, Cal.

And an editor’s note: As Boris Korsunsky, Ed.D. ’03, observes, the medical admissions test referenced in Engell’s article is the MCAT, not the Massachusetts MCAS.

Scholars at Risk

Dear Dr. Unrue,

This is a thank you note for what you are doing (“To the Rescue,” on Scholars at Risk, January-February, page 25). Congratulations.

Around 1975 one of my colleagues at Wills Eye Hospital asked me if I would accept as a post-doctoral Fellow a doctor he had met in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan physician had concluded that, for the sake of his children and his family, he had to emigrate. The Sri Lankan doctor was older and more experienced than I, and I was trying to build a “Glaucoma Service” in a teaching hospital. And so it was that he and his family came to Philadelphia, with nothing more than what they could carry with them. I learned much from him about surgery, medical care, kindness, and how move towards being gentle and gracious. His children flourished; one of them is now an internationally recognized eye surgeon.

In 2012 a doctor from Syria, came into my office. He told me his brother had been killed and that he feared for the life of his family. We had a long long conversation. He had brought with him documents that seemed valid. Could I help him? Of course, he did not have an American Medical license. But his story was convincing and his motivation good. I suggested he work in our Glaucoma Research unit where he would not be caring for patients, and I could evaluate him. He did. Some people wondered if he was a terrorist. His welcome was not universal. He proved to be trustworthy, competent and a good person. He is now practicing as a neuro-ophthalmologist in a University Hospital. He keeps in close touch.

In 2008 an ophthalmologist from Iran applied for a Research Fellowship. He was already part of an academic faculty. It was quickly apparent he was a superb physician and person. After his year as a fellow, he returned to Shiraz. By 2015 he had concluded that for the sake of his children he had to emigrate from Iran. After doing the difficult work required to obtain a medical license, he is now in charge of a glaucoma fellowship program and a beloved teacher of younger physicians. As with the others I mentioned here, his example of a gentle, good, competent person from another culture teaches more about what needs to be learned than lectures, sermons an commentaries in the New Yorker or the Atlantic

Dr. Unrue, what you are doing is so right and so important. Yes, risky in some ways rfor Harvard, but the right thing to do. The silver lining is that Harvard benefits as much as the “Scholars at Risk.” If only the world would start working on a win/win basis rather than one that is win/lose; were that to happen so many things would get better; and win/win with other species, also, not just between humans...

So, again. thank you. Congratulations.

George Link Spaeth, M.D. ’58
Philadelphia Pa.

Investment Transparency

Your complaints that Harvard’s recent financial and endowment reports fall short on transparency (“Mum’s the Word,” 7 Ware Street, January-February, page 5) echo those made in your Sept.2009 and Jan. 2010 issues in the aftermath of Harvard’s colossal $10-billion losses due to its risky, and speculative investment gambles that collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis. The bets that tanked then involved complex credit default swaps and risky holdings in foreign and domestic, privately held companies. Havard had a near catastrophic liquidity crisis, laid off hundreds of employees, and took years to recover. Can anyone answer if any of Harvard’s accounts are now held in bitcoin, are again entangled in credit default hedges, or committed long term to private equity ventures? Why have Harvard’s leaders still failed to reform its investment governance and embraced true transparency so that the rest of Harvard’s community can regain confidence that its precious net egg will be conserved?

Jerome Garchik, J.D. ’70
San Francisco

The editors respond:  Given that a very large share of the assets are invested in the catch-all categories of hedge funds (which are wildly heterogeneous) and private equity (which can include buyouts, venture capital, credit products, etc.),  no one outside Harvard Management Company and its board can know what is there. The prior disclosures couldn’t have told that in detail, either, but the current ones obviously tell even less. Outsiders can see the financial footnotes to the annual financial report, which reveal the broad distribution of assets by category. Private equity and hedge funds are the largest asset pools. As of June 30, 2022, according to the footnotes, remaining unfunded commitments to external money managers todaled about $13.9 billion, of which $8.9 billion was for private-equity funds and $2.1 billion for real estate funds.

Most very large endowments have sought and largely earned excess returns from private equity during the past couple of decades. It is going to be interesting to see whether that pans out in a period of rising interest rates, particularly if they remain elevated for an extended period.

The College’s Educational Goals

I enjoyed reading  7 Ware Street this issue, which addressed limitations in the information provided in the annual report of the HMC and the annual letter of the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Focusing on the latter, I think Harvard has a ways to go in clarifying its educational goals and strategies, especially for the undergraduate program. Is Harvard dedicated to producing leaders to help meet the need for leadership of a global society that is facing unprecedented and existential threats? Or is Harvard just acting as a cream separator for the hiring offices of our financial system?

As an example of an effort in the direction of training future leaders, a number of American universities have established a degree program in philosophy, politics, and economics—the PPE combination first offered at Oxford. Might it not make sense for Harvard to consider something similar? In addition to offering such a field of concentration, and more important, it might make sense for the college to impose for all graduates a requirement that the student have been engaged in some academic experiences that would require (1) awareness of the global physical and social environment and (2) thoughtful consideration of ethical issues. When I was an undergraduate, the Harvard academic experience was like a trip through an intellectual shopping mall. One was required to meet the requirements of a major and to take a quick look around at various broad academic areas; however, there was no requirement that we examine our own convictions or give serious thought to any issue on which there might be a need to take action in the real world. I don’t question the value of my Harvard experience or of all the opportunities to learn that I was offered, but I think that at this moment in history the University is called upon to go beyond what it did in the past.

Santiago Leon ’66

President Gay

I read the recent article about the appointment of Dean Claudine Gay, the first African American to head Harvard University. My father-in-law, George N. Leighton, attended Harvard Law School many years ago. My wife and I feel certain he would have been especially proud of this groundbreaking achievement by Dean Gay, and Harvard. Please extend our congratulations.

Robert Whitfield

Neglected Orphans

I’m so glad that Romania doesn’t institutionalize babies anymore (“Deprivation’s Mark on the Brain,” January-February, page 9). There was a story in the news a few years ago about a young woman of about 20, adopted out of a Romanian orphanage, who was described as a sociopath. She had no feelings for other people. She hadn’t done any serious harm—yet. In the orphanage, she was a “good baby” who didn’t cry, didn’t fuss, so she didn’t get picked up.

I’m sure she’s not unique.

Elizabeth Block ’65

The article on Romanian orphans promised to be inspiring until it became shocking. It is admirable that Professor Nelson has dedicated his career to the betterment of the mental health of children, a critical need in our society. It was impressive to read that Harvard scholars set up a foster care system in Romania. And it’s essential that we understand the effects of institutionalization in a scientific way. I was shocked, however, to read that their research project “assigned” dozens of Romanian orphans to remain institutionalized. The article later explains that this method was ethically justified by the fact that these orphans would certainly have remained institutionalized if the research project had never existed.

But the article doesn’t explain whether the researchers could have found more foster parents, or if the availability of foster homes changed over the years. If so, were these children left institutionalized for their entire childhoods when there might have been other opportunities for them? The article states this research began in 2000 and led to a ban on the institutionalization of young children in Romania. But the New York Times reports that, in 2002, “officials in Brussels demanded that Romania clean up a chaotic and sometimes corrupt child welfare system” and that Romanian officials passed a law in 2004 that banned institutionalization of children under the age of two (the Times points out that the Romanian child welfare system remained severely flawed). In reporting on research considered unethical by U.S. standards, a lot more information is necessary.

Amy Mall, M.P.P. ’85
Pittsfield, Mass.

The researchers respond:

We appreciate the writer’s concerns regarding the ethical issues involved in our work. Unfortunately, the brevity of the piece precluded a detailed discussion of that aspect of the project, which is reviewed yearly by the Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) of three U.S.-based universities and overseen by the Ethics Committee of Bucharest University. A data safety monitoring board also safeguards the protection of all children (and now young adults).

Several background contextual issues are relevant to Ms. Mall’s comments. Widespread abandonment of unwanted children in Romania resulted from Nicolae Ceaușescu’s disastrous economic policies and insistence that women have a minimum of 4, and later 5, children; he also outlawed abortion and contraception, which facilitated unplanned pregnancies. His goal was to build up an industrial workforce that would transform Romania from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Instead, it exacerbated poverty and forced families to have children they could not afford. Most infants were abandoned at or soon after birth, when their mothers delivered them but left them in the maternity hospitals where they were delivered.

Foster care did not become legal in Romania until 1997, and three years later there was still essentially no foster care available in Bucharest. We were invited to conduct a study comparing two interventions, one established (institutional care), and one novel (foster care), by the Secretary of State for Child Protection because of a policy debate within the Romanian government about the best form of care for abandoned and maltreated children. At no point were children required to remain institutionalized in order to participate in the study. We had a policy of non-interference: all decisions about subsequent placements were made by local government authorities rather than by us. When the trial concluded at child age 54 months, more than half of the children who had been randomized to care as usual were living in families. Over the course of the project (now in its 22nd year), all but the most severely handicapped were ultimately placed in families. After we presented our preliminary findings to the government of Romania at a press conference in 2002, the government began to prioritize foster care. The then-minister of child protection told us years later that her department was aware of and influenced by our results. And the study has also had worldwide influence: a recent Lancet Commission report cited it as offering the strongest scientific support to date for raising orphaned or abandoned children in families, not institutions—particularly relevant to the 10 million children who have been orphaned by COVID-19.

Charles A. Nelson
Charles H. Zeanah
Nathan A. Fox
Principal Investigators

Affirmative Action and the SFFA litigation

AS SOMEONE who is middle of the road politically, it is not surprising that the issue of affirmative action in college admissions has been a difficult one for me. There are such good arguments on each side. However, after reading the article entitled “Admissions on Trial” (January-February, page 14), I am leaning against. This may be considered a surprise by the authors, if they intended to support Harvard‘s position, but it should be regarded as a compliment for a fair and unbiased presentation.

According to Solicitor General Elizabeth Barchas Prelogar, J.D. ’08, there is “a simple but profound truth: when students of all races and backgrounds come to college, and live together, and learn together, they become better colleagues, better citizens, and better leaders.“ Is this so clear? Hopefully, but maybe not. There are articles in the press about how students of color at the University of California, Berkeley, refuse to admit white students to their fraternity. There have been numerous other reports of friction and exclusion between various groups, rather than cohesion and assimilation. What makes people better colleagues and better citizens and better leaders remains obscure, and it is disingenuous to state otherwise. In principle, we should all want to have a fair and equal mixing of races, ethnicities, and religions. But how to achieve that result is unclear.

By contrast, given the astonishing statistics about the discrepancies in academic qualifications that are cited in the article (a boost from the fourth lowest level of 10 levels to the highest level), the argument of Cameron T. Norris, counsel for the plaintiffs, is hard to dispute, even if expressed in inflammatory terms “what Harvard is doing to Asians, like what it was doing to Jews in the 1920s, is shameful.”

Perhaps more significantly, one must wonder what the effects of affirmative action are in lower tiers of college prestige and academic talent. Harvard can attract the very best of those for whom affirmative action is a benefit. Many of them may be just as talented as those of other races and backgrounds with seemingly better qualifications who have been passed over on account of affirmative action, especially if the beneficiaries are not only of racial or ethnic minorities, but also from disadvantaged backgrounds, such that they did not have an equal opportunity to be prepared for the academic hurdles of the admissions process. But what of the lower tiers? If a college in the second or third tier or lower is to pursue affirmative action, how deeply must it dig? And in doing so, how severely does it limit the opportunities of much more talented people who are not the beneficiaries of affirmative action, but could in the future contribute more to our society? Is it possible that there will be many admitted for whom a college education will be too much of a challenge, and for whom its benefit will be doubtful? Could there be a backlash from those who feel they have been deprived?

Such questions, and I am sure there are a number of others, lead me to wonder if Justice Harlan was right when he said that the constitution is or should be “color blind”: there is often benefit in being clear and straightforward, and something tells me that talented people who work hard and whose families strive for the benefit of their children and grandchildren are going to succeed without having been given a boost, just as the Jews and the Italians and, of course, most critically now, the Asians have done in the past.

In any event, this was one of many thought-provoking articles in your outstanding publication.

Robert S. Venning ’65
Oakland, Cal.

Fernando Zobel

In reading Felipe Pereda’s article on Fernando Zóbel-Montojo (Vita, January-February, page 32), I was taken aback by his description of Zobel’s arrival in Cambridge after leaving Manila at the end of World War II. “He left behind a city reduced to ashes as a result of the Japanese resistance and the American bombardments of World War II.”

My mother grew up in Manila at the same time and was friends with the Zobel family as well as the extended Spanish-Filipino community. My mother survived the war but her American grandmother, Amy Sargent, from Staten Island, died at the end of the war from an American bomb in Baguio. My aunt, Ana Escat, survived a piece of shrapnel from the same bomb that crossed her entire neck from front to back.

Japanese “invasion” and American liberation are the more appropriate descriptions. Resistance?

Here is a section from a prior article in 2009 from the Magazine, by John Seed. “He returned home (Manila) the day after Pearl Harbor and spent most of 1942 in a torturous orthopedic bed, trying to recover from the neck and spinal problems that had been his bane since childhood. In 1943, his father died from lack of treatment for an infection. Zóbel coped by studying and by reading intensely. In 1945, after liberation, an American family friend urged him to apply to Harvard.”

From this it sounds like he was in the Philippines when the Japanese invaders arrived and when the American forces expelled them by force. What an odd description, “resistance.” It could not possibly be seen as an “opinion,” instead of a misstated fact.

 George Ignacio Warner, M.Arch. ’86
Chestnut Hill, Mass.

FELIPE PEREDA’S profile well captures Fernando Zobel as an artist. I met Zobel occasionally when I worked in the summer of 1970 at the Galeria Juana Mordo’ in Madrid, where he and others in the Spanish avant-garde often gathered. It was only much later, however, that I learned of Zobel’s mentorship of Roger Keyes ’63. Zobel, Roger later recalled, introduced him to Japanese prints when he was a teenager living with his family in Manila. He also wrote a letter of recommendation when he applied to Harvard. Keyes, who died in 2020, became a world-leading scholar of Hokusai.

Christine M.E. Guth, Ph.D. ’76
Somerville, Mass.

Prescription Drug Coupons

HARVARD MAGAZINE’S article on drug copay assistance (“How Coupons Keep Drugs Costly,” January-February 2023) is chock full of misleading and biased data that, if believed, would result in patients being denied access to life-saving drugs.

First, the article asserts that drug coupons are contributing to higher drug prices. The article fails to point out that net drug prices (that is actual prices, i.e., prices after discounts) have fallen for five straight years. Net prices have not risen since 2016 so whatever impact copay assistance is having on drug prices, it is marginal. Insurance companies, in fact, are enjoying a windfall from moderating drug prices. Should copay coupons that help patients afford their medicines really be under attack when drug prices are consistently dropping?

Moreover, while health plans and for-profit Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) are enjoying record profits, they are increasingly burdening patients with higher and higher out-of-pocket costs, particularly for so-called “specialty” drugs which treat everything from arthritis to rare cancers. Many policy makers have yet to figure out that the current crisis involving prescription drugs has nothing to do with prices and everything to do with health insurance benefit designs that punish sick patients with high out-of-pocket costs while rewarding healthy patients with lower premiums.

Finally, the article is hopelessly out of touch with the challenges of ordinary Americans who might contract a rare cancer and then be faced with a $5000 deductible before their insurer will pay anything. Before you take away a patient’s coupons and leave them to the tender mercies of predatory PBMs and insurance companies, you may want to work on lowering their out-of-pocket obligations which would lessen the demand for coupons. First things first.

William S. Smith, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow and Director, Life Sciences Initiative, Pioneer Institute


OH DEAR, OH DEAR. So scientists at Exxon-Mobil were getting the same answers from their climate models as academics and government scientists were getting, while Tillerson and other oil execs emphasized “uncertainty” (“Documenting Climate Change Deception,” online January 12, 2023). And therefore, states and local governments are bringing lawsuits against the fossil fuel companies. Yeah, it must be the fault of the fossil fuel companies that none of us is willing to stop heating our houses, driving our cars, refrigerating our food, or living through our computers. There must be somebody we can sue to stop the People’s Republic of China from building all those new coal-fired power plants.

Mimi Gerstell ’70, A.M. ’91
Verano Beach, Fla. 


I read your article on the possibilities of reparations (“Reparations for Slavery” November-December 2022, page 10). The impracticalities of cost, administration of it, etc. One question that I have pondered is if—and this is a big if—the U.S. were to address reparations, how far back would you actually go, who would qualify and who would pay? While black slaves came into the Americas before the 13 colonies became a united confederation of states, how do you get money before 1789 when the United States actually officially came into being? Would those persons who trace their ancestry back ask England, Spain, and other European countries for monies? Then there is the matter of those who were free blacks. I’m not sure if the conundrum will ever be resolved. I think that we should teach about the evils of what happened so that it never happens again. At some point, however, we must move on. Thanks, I enjoyed the article.

James Vines
Cedartown, Ga.

The Supreme Court, Encore

I do not know whether Mark Dennett has recently read the cases he cited, but his take on them is strange (Letters, January-February, page 2, concerning “Justice Elena Kagan, In Dissent,” November-December 2022, page 28). It is wrong to label these cases as decisions of the “Warren Court,” as if that were a liberal monolith. Griswold was a 7-2 decision in which the conservative stalwarts (Justices Harlan and White) concurred. Gideon was unanimous and thus included Harlan and White. Roe was a 7-2 decision. Five members of the majority, including the author of the opinion (Justice Blackmun), were appointed by a Republican President and confirmed by large majorities in the Senate. While Miranda was 5-4, I think it is now generally accepted as a correct decision.

The Justices who decided these cases had been appointed because of their experience and the wisdom they had demonstrated. Unlike the current Court, they were not appointed because of their political beliefs. Charles Fried, Beneficial professor of law, a conservative if there ever was one, has described the present Court as “reactionary, not conservative.” He says that it wishes to “repeal the 20th century,” a wish that Dennett appears to share.

William C. Slattery, A.M. ’63, L.L.B. ’68
West Orange, N.J.

Good work publishing pro and con letters to the editor regarding Lincoln Caplan’s article on Justice Kagan. It’s noteworthy that none of the letters against the article were from women. And there’s a reason the Supreme Court is at its lowest in terms of approval ratings. Those who opposed Caplan’s article didn’t address Caplan’s points.

Thank you for the article and for exposing the erudite letter writers who continue to be blinded by their beliefs.

Kathryn Roy M.B.A. ’85
Lexington, Mass.

Although I agree with Lincoln Capain on Justice Kagan’s ability as a writer, I believe she is wrong in her comments post Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health Center. Her reference to precedent ignores the fact that Roe v. Wade broke years of precedent. The previous Supreme Court decisions that relied on the 14th amendment almost all dealt with racial discrimination. These decisions were in keeping with the intent of the post-Civil War amendment.

It was only in the June 1965 Griswold case that Justice William Douglas created the “right to privacy” concept from the amendment. He hypothesized that, although not explicit in the amendment, it suggested that the right to privacy was guaranteed by the Constitution. This interpretation of the 14th amendment was controversial.

The Warren Court, which was probably the most liberal, activist court in the history of the Supreme Court, used Douglas’s “suggested” right to privacy to justify their decision in Roe. This decision was also controversial.

The current Court merely corrected a decision that was based on an inventive interpretation of the 14th amendment instead of following its intent. Each state or Congress can pass legislation to allow abortion as they wish. It is sad to see some question the legitimacy of the Court because they disagree with its decision.

Michael E. Rowan ’63, D.M.D. ’67
Exeter, N.H.

During the course of the 2016 Presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump was widely—and rightly—condemned for suggesting that United States District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel could not impartially handle an ongoing fraud case involving “Trump University” because Curiel was Hispanic. The suggestion was both absurd and wildly unfair to Curiel, who had shown impartiality and consistency throughout a long and accomplished career as a jurist. His ethnicity had no bearing on his ability to properly handle the case, period. The condemnation that Trump received was well-deserved and even led him to backtrack publicly.

Unfortunately, in the article “Justice Elena Kagan, in Dissent,” Harvard Magazine chose to repeat the errors of Trump by suggesting, without cause, evidence, citation, or elaboration, that the Supreme Court justices who formed the majority deciding the Dobbs abortion case earlier in the year came to their decision because they were raised Catholic and therefore hold the “theological belief that life begins at conception”. That is an odd assertion for the author to make, especially as the article later goes on to examine, in depth (if lopsidedly), the actual disagreements about textualism, originalism, and unenumerated rights at the heart of the Court’s split in that case. Indeed, the justices of the majority clearly articulated their decision-making in their written decision, without mentioning any religious or theological texts or teachings, but rather referring simply to principles of law.

So why would the author of the article have found it necessary to not only mention the religion of these judges but to assert, contrary to the arguments actually provided by the justices themselves, that their religion was what drove their ruling? Does he not believe them, or is he possessed of some secret knowledge about a Catholic conspiracy? Perhaps he believes—as many did of John F. Kennedy in his 1960 Presidential campaign—in a cartoonish version of reality in which prominent Catholics take orders directly from the Vatican? Moreover, why would these judges’ supposed beliefs about the beginning of human life be “theological,” while differing beliefs on that matter—for instance, those of Justice Elena Kagan, who was the subject of the article but whose religion (quite rightly) didn’t even bear mentioning—would presumably not be?

Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are as obvious as the answer to why Trump thought he could effectively question Curiel’s impartiality by citing his ethnicity: if one possesses bigoted sentiments, and has not previously been questioned or confronted when expressing them, then that person feels quite comfortable repeating those sentiments, with no reflection or investigation necessary, and no consequences expected. Harvard Magazine should do better.

Kevin Duffy, M.P.A. ’13
Alicante, Spain


It is my hope that Harvard Magazine is still read by people across the political spectrum. Which means that Lincoln Caplan just squandered an opportunity to present a convincing case to us for Justice Elena Kagan’s jurisprudence. Instead, Caplan chose partisan hagiography that could make the Justice’s mother blush.

If he won’t take the opportunity to speak across the aisle, let me try. Here’s my low-key case for trusting a Supreme Court in which Justice Kagan is in the minority.

First of all, we should remember that even the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg repeatedly and publicly expressed her qualms about Roe v. Wade. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped ... may prove unstable.” In a 1992 NYU lecture, Justice Ginsberg described in detail her view of judicial overreach in Roe: “Would there have been the twenty-year controversy we have witnessed, reflected most recently in the Supreme Court’s splintered decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey? A less encompassing Roe, one that merely struck down the extreme Texas law and went no further on that day, I believe and will summarize why [it] might have served to reduce rather than to fuel controversy.”

To her point, contrast the bitter conflicts in the U.S.A. over abortion with the relative calm in Western European democracies. During oral arguments in the Dobbs case, Chief Justice Roberts correctly noted that, under Roe, our abortion laws are more similar to those in North Korea and Communist China than in Western Europe. Legal scholar Mr. Jonathan Turley then tweeted that “Notably, the United States is only one of seven countries (of 198) that allows for abortions against the 20-week line.” To his great credit, left-wing talk show host Bill Maher publicly expressed his shock upon learning just this past May that Western Europe is far more restrictive on abortion than the USA—and that most pro-lifers are women. His video is refreshing: “If you are pro-choice, you would like it a lot less in Germany, and Italy, and France, and Spain, and Switzerland. Did you know that? I didn’t know that.”

Again, true to Justice Ginsberg’s comments on the overreach of Roe, those countries do not have constant public battles over abortions. The Court that handed down Roe did much more damage to its legitimacy—and to our society—than anything from the current Court.

As a rarely cited example, Roe severely distracted political and religious conservatives from their fight against the legalization and spread of gambling. Now we have a proliferation of casinos, government-sponsored lotteries, and other large-scale betting that are, in effect, a tax on the hopeless, the poor, and the innumerate.

Caplan expressed his opposition to a ruling “That encroaches on the religious freedom of the many whose faith leads them to believe otherwise—say, that life begins at birth…” Based on this belief, some on the political left have advocated an unrestricted right to elective abortions of full-term healthy viable infants even after labor has started—just as long as the baby has not yet been born. This view is reviled by super-majorities of every major demographic group in the USA.

At the other end, Kansas, usually thought of as a red state, just had a referendum in August, timed after the Dobbs ruling, to amend the state constitution, not to ban abortions, but instead to give the state legislature the power to regulate abortions even in cases of rape, incest, or risk to the life of the mother. The voters said, “No.” Good for them, in my opinion. It was democracy in action—but opposed by Justice Kagan, in dissent.

Caplan wrote about “the Court’s flaunting of its power”—but just the opposite has been happening. In Dobbs, the Court withdrew its power and distributed it back to state legislatures and hence to ordinary voters.

Likewise, in the recent EPA ruling that Caplan also criticized (West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency), the Court withdrew power from other unelected governmental employees, returning the power, say, to extinguish the coal industry, back to ordinary voters and their elected representatives, where it belongs. “Nor can the Court ignore that the regulatory writ EPA newly uncovered,” Chief Justice Roberts summarized, “conveniently enabled it to enact a program, namely, cap-and-trade for carbon, that Congress had already considered and rejected numerous times.”

So our elected Congress rejected this policy, but Justice Kagan wanted the Court to rule that the Federal bureaucracy can impose it on the citizenry anyway. That is not democracy, self-governance, or freedom.

If Caplan and Justice Kagan want cap-and-trade—or any other policy—our system directs them to the elected legislature, not to the Court and not to the administrative state. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia penned is his famous dissent from Obergefell v. Hodges on gay marriage, “The substance of today’s decree is not of immense personal importance to me. … It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. … And to allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation.”

The strength of Constitutional originalism, which Caplan criticized, is its clear-cut limiting principle: the text of the Constitution means what the People freely agreed to when we approved it. The doctrine of so-called Living Constitutionalism of Justice Kagan and Caplan forgets that our Constitutional system indeed lives, but through the process of ongoing ordinary legislation by elected legislators, direct referenda of voters (as just happened in Kansas), and through Federal Constitutional amendment—the last one purposefully not easy, but eminently possible.

In contrast, without a clear limiting principle, the doctrine of Living Constitutionalism contains irresistible incentives to legislate from the bench, which is a fancy way of describing the seizure of power from voters and their elected representatives. It’s also why so many on the political left now advocate packing the Supreme Court, because it’s an easy path to “amend” the Constitution in wildly unpopular ways, say, to define the beginning of life at birth and not a second before, or to enact unpopular policies, such as cap-and-trade and others, that our elected Congress has rejected. The Framers of the Constitution placed those roles outside the Judicial Branch—and they should stay outside the Judiciary.

Where does the lack of limiting principle in the doctrine of Living Constitutionalism lead? An answer can be found in Venezuela—formerly a prosperous middle-class free democratic country, a jewel of Latin America. In December 2015, the Venezuelan public, fed up with socialism and poverty from former President Hugo Chávez and his hand-picked successor, President Nicholás Maduro, elected a two-thirds majority opposition legislature. Rather than accepting the will of the people, Chavistas responded to the election by hastily packing the Venezuelan Supreme Count (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, TSJ), just before the newly elected legislators took office. The new legislature promptly passed laws to oppose Maduro and his policies—but then their Supreme Court ruled that under the living, breathing Venezuelan Constitution, the legislature suddenly has no power.

Moreover, the packed Supreme Court stripped lawmakers of legislative immunity, clearing the way for them to face prosecution.

President Maduro and his puppet Court now rule Venezuela by decree, and elected legislators live in fear. No legislative elections have been held since 2015. Thanks to court-packing and then limitless interpretation, it’s all constitutional.

“¡Uh, ah, Chávez no se va!” chanted the Justices of their Supreme Court, in public: “Oh, ah, Chávez is here to stay!”

Game over.

Kevin Jon Williams ’76
Wynnewood, Pa.


Every system of deductive reasoning is based on two structures (1) a set of axioms, i.e., propositions taken as true needing no proof, and (2) a set of Rules of Inference which allow deductions of new truths to be made from the axioms and principles already established from the axioms. Euclidean Geometry is a paradigm of such a system, but it is not the unique example.

Constitutional Law pretends to be such a system—and in its own crude, rough-hewn way it is. Its axioms are the assertions of the Constitution as amended and its established principles are its prior decisions. This part is clearly understood even if the soup of precedents is roiling with vagueness, ambiguities, and contradictions. What is dangerously misunderstood is the set of Rules of Inference. Importantly what is never acknowledged is that this set of rules is ever-expanding.

Prior to FDR’s court-packing threat, all the New Deal legislation was deemed unconstitutional then, after one particular point in time, voila, it all became Constitutional. This could have been explained if a new amendment was passed but that is not what happened—a new, poorly articulated Rule of Inference was added to the system—something along the lines of Congress shall have the power to pass laws necessary to prevent mass starvation if the situation arises. This is a new Rule because it reviews a statute for the first time in the light of empirical data about the state of the nation. Freedom of the Press is an axiom and makes no such appeal to current events—it may come into conflict with other rights, but it needs no social setting for its validity.

The Warren Court also, without benefit of Amendment, established a new Rule of Inference. Their attempts to articulate what was in their mind were laughable using the terms penumbras, emanations, and a stretched meaning for privacy. The Rule they were grasping for was: when government intervention into the lives of citizens is motivated solely by one group’s attempt to impose their view of morality on another, the act shall not stand.

When the Court takes it upon itself to adopt a new Rule of Inference, the test of validity is the ensuing public reaction: they can ratify or reject in their next several elections. It seems that for many years this new principle stood confirmed. Many voters in the election of 2016 were unaware of the full consequences of their vote. The accident that the last (one-term) president appointing more justices than the two-term president before him allowed a surprise attack on this new Rule.

It remains to be seen whether the other Warren Court decisions will mobilize support in the electorate for the Warren Rule.

Daniel I. A. Cohen, Ph.D. ’75
New York City

Harvard in the Community

IN LIGHT OF Harvard’s commitment of $100 million to redress its legacy of slavery, I propose that Harvard sponsor an I Have a Dream (IHAD) class in the Cambridge/Allston area. IHAD guarantees college tuition to children who graduate high school. The tuition promise is a very small portion of what IHAD offers. Tutoring, enrichment, social services, and personal support which typically start around second grade and continue through high school, are at least as important.

Harvard could make a real difference—creating a future for kids who otherwise would have no future. Because this may lead to less crime, better health, more productive citizenry, and less dependency on a governmental safety net, it may save society more than the program costs. And the benefits increase exponentially as they get passed down to succeeding generations through educated, gainfully employed parents who are able to break the cycle of poverty.

A cost-benefit analysis found “that each new high school graduate would yield a public benefit of $209,000 in higher government revenues and lower government spending…But it is important to note that this is more than just good public investment policy with monetary returns. A society that provides fairer access to opportunities, that is more productive and with higher employment, and that has better health and less crime is a better society in itself (Levin, Belfield, Muennig & Rouse).”

The idea of contributing to the community in which Harvard has existed and expanded for 387 years and in which many of us spent four years is very appealing. More alumni might be willing to contribute if we saw Harvard undertaking programs such as this. I believe that the cost of this program would be far less than the gain in contributions from alumni excited to see Harvard moving in this direction.

Jon Taylor, Ph.D. ’71
New York City

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