Affirmative action, climate change, undergraduate options
Thank you for Nancy Kathryn Walecki’s excellent piece on Gram Parsons, his Harvard connections, and his influence on popular music (“Sound as Ever,” July-August, page 44). He opened the ears of a generation with his fusion of country and rock, and in the process undermined some stupid social stereotypes. We Boomers have lucked out in lots of ways, but one of the best of our good fortunes has been ready access to—and appreciation of—all sorts of musical genres and geniuses. Gram played a big part.
Conn Nugent ’68, J.D. ’73
Thanks for the article on musician Gram Parsons.
I saw one of Gram’s early, intense, pre-country performances in Cambridge while I was at Harvard (1963-67), and followed his life, off and on, through his many UFO sightings, his music with the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, and Emmylou Harris—to his death, the strange theft of his body from LAX, and even stranger funeral and cremation at Joshua Tree, California, in 1973.
Note that there is an annual festival celebrating Gram and his music in Waycross, Georgia (where he spent much of his youth); in 2023, the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull takes place October 12-14.
Carl Parrish ’67
Tybee Island, Ga.
Editor’s note: Rebecca Jeschke ’92 writes with a correction: “In the story about the extraordinary Gram Parsons…[his] biographer was identified as someone named ‘Jeff’ Fong-Torres.…It was indeed the renowned Ben Fong-Torres.” We regret the error.
Organoids and Autism
I initially found Dr. Paola Arlotta’s brain organoid research exciting and hopeful, and appreciated the acknowledgment of various ethical concerns (“This Beautiful Machine,” by Lydialyle Gibson, July-August, page 40).
However, another ethical issue occurred to me as I read the article: the lack of autistic voices—in the ethical discussions, in the research, and in the article itself.
I’ve found that, especially coming from Harvard, it’s easy to fall into a “how can we fix this” mindset that can inadvertently overlook the insights, experiences, and power of the groups we aspire to help. This has the potential to lead to well-intentioned yet flawed actions. Almost “intellectual saviorism.”
What do autistic self-advocates think about Arlotta’s work? The article describes a committee of three dozen “scientists, bioethicists, and legal scholars”—but did any neurodivergent stakeholders have a seat at the table? I’m not saying the autistic community always presents a united front—for example, there are internal debates as to whether “people with autism” vs. “autistic people” is the more humanizing language, with many self-advocates preferring the latter. But it’s imperative to understand what this work means to those for whom the interventions are intended.
I was also struck by Arlotta’s quote about replaying autistic brain development outside of the womb: “If you watch, you may catch the defect.” This language can subtly undermine the humanity of 75 million autistic people. While they experience the world differently, it breaks my heart to see them described as “defective.”
Arlotta seems to have good intentions, especially as she’s dedicated her life’s work to serving this community. The term “defect” very well may be the most appropriate term from a scientific standpoint. But perhaps with greater inclusion of the autistic community and sensitivity to language, Dr. Arlotta and her work can more holistically support the people she seeks to help.
Lindsey E. Gary ’06
Jonathan Shaw’s news item, “Supreme Court Bans Race-Conscious Admissions” (online June 29 at harvardmag.com/ruling-23, and see coverage in this issue), on the ruling on affirmative action, usefully reviews the legal background of the case but begins that review with a major factual error. Consideration of race in college admissions did not begin in the 1960s and 1970s because colleges recognized that “lack of diversity limited their ability to prepare students for life in a multiracial society.” The consideration of race began as an attempt to redress historical and ongoing discrimination against minority, especially black, applicants.
When President John F. Kennedy ’40, L.L.D. ’56, introduced the term “affirmative action” in a 1961 executive order, there was no hint of some basis in the benefits of “diversity.” Rather, it was explicitly because “discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin is contrary to the Constitutional principles and policies of the United States”; it directed that government contractors insure that applicants and employees “are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”
In 1965, in his commencement address to Howard University, President Lyndon Johnson reinforced that the rationale for affirmative action was to rectify discrimination: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
The notion of “diversity” was introduced by Justice Lewis Powell, LL.M. ‘32, in the 1978 Bakke case, in an opinion not joined by any other justice. As University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter has noted, Powell’s notion of diversity was seized upon and developed by corporate human resources offices, and then college admissions officers, as a rationale for their policies, and it is only since then that diversity, as distinct from redress for past and ongoing discrimination, has become the dominant rationale for race conscious policies. It is this rationale that the Supreme Court has rejected.
Gregory C. Mayer A.M. ’81 Ph.D. ’89
Professor of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin-Parkside
President Claudine Gay promptly issued a letter to the Harvard community following the affirmative-action decision, stating that “Today is a hard day, and if you are feeling the gravity of that, I want you to know you are not alone.” Her assumption that everyone in the Harvard community shares her view is wrong and intellectually inappropriate.
I support the decision. Six very serious, thoughtful, intelligent justices of the U.S. Supreme Court (including the author of the majority opinion who attended both the College and the Law School) determined that our University violated the Constitutional rights of an Asian American plaintiff’s group. That is a serious disapprobation of Harvard’s process that should be of concern to the entire community.
I have little concern that diversity will diminish as a central goal at Harvard. After all, Justice Brown Jackson recused herself from the Harvard portion of the case because she had been on the Board of Overseers, and the new president has built her academic and professional career promoting diversity. The benefits of diversity are well understood and fully embedded at Harvard and corporate America, and this decision will not diminish its importance.
Race-based admissions is discriminatory on its face. It undermines the integrity of our seminal civil rights laws passed in the 1960s. I side completely with Justice Roberts’s prior opinion: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
David Zoba ’73
I personally don’t see what is so bad—or bad at all—with Harvard having to obey the clear, plain language of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just like the rest of us.
Tom Neagle, M.B.A. ’72
Fort Mill, S.C.
In the aftermath of the SCOTUS ruling against Harvard’s affirmative action policy, there were quite a few calls to abolish legacy admissions as well. Harvard has remained silent on this matter, though some of its proxies have attempted to throw up chaff to deflect the issue. Now, Chetty et al. (https://opportunityinsights.org/paper/collegeadmissions/?utm_source=new…) have put a dagger through these obfuscations. The results are in: Harvard (and other Ivy+ schools) practice affirmative action for the top 1 percent of the 1 percent. Note that it isn’t just earning potential that is at stake here. These schools act as the gatekeepers to many of the positions of power and influence in this country, most notably the Supreme Court itself. Harvard’s (and the Ivy+’s) stated commitment to diversity stands revealed as a ruse. As many both in and out of the alumni family have long sensed, Harvard is an elaborate mechanism for the preservation of existing privilege, and the token nods to diversity (including affirmative action) are just that: tokens, meant to distract.
Charles Hsu ’79
Before the ink was even dry on the Supreme Court’s decision holding that Harvard discriminates, Harvard was already subtly—or not so subtly—angling to reject the decision. Sure, its press release made the obligatory statement that it would “comply with the court’s decision,” but then it quickly turned to “reaffirm the fundamental principle” of diversity.
Translated: we’ll figure out a work around to the decision to maintain our principles.
In this spirit, Harvard Law Professor Mark Tushnet now encourages President Biden to ignore all judicial decisions “based on gravely mistaken interpretations of the Constitution.” A 6-2 Supreme Court decision aside, I suppose Tushnet—and his colleagues—are better arbiters of what is a “gravely mistaken interpretation.” Perhaps they can create a Supreme Supreme Court as just another check and balance.
Real simple, either we—even including Harvard—are a nation of laws, or not. It’s a choice. Choose wisely.
Finally, if a law, or the Constitution, is “bad,” and the political will as strong as Tushnet and others suggest, then there is a simple solution: amend it. It’s even baked into the process. In fact, the Constitutional provision Tushnet claims was so gravely misinterpreted is the 14th Amendment. But what fun would that be? Only suckers need follow the law, not elites like us.
William Choslovsky, J.D. ’94
As an alumnus of Harvard College and parent of an alumna of Harvard College, I was absolutely thrilled by the Supreme Court’s decision against Harvard. Now, my Asian granddaughter and my Hispanic granddaughter will each have the prospect of equal admissions treatment.
Keith Paul Bishop ’78
Perhaps the Supreme Court’s decision that Harvard’s embrace of affirmative action in its admissions policy was an unconstitutional denial of equal protection, and a prompt challenge by activists to Harvard and other private colleges’ granting a sleight “legacy” admissions preference to the children of alumni, may lead to a candid discussion of the history of college admissions in America. David Leonhardt, a New York Times reporter, on July 5, 2023 poured gasoline on the growing academic fire when he wrote that economic diversity, unlike racial diversity, has been a blind spot in college admissions, particularly at “elite private colleges.”
Nearly “every aspect of the admissions system at such institutions,” Leonhardt wrote, “favors affluent applicants” who attend better high schools and have the further advantage of “highly educated parents.” But has not Leonhardt’s complaint ever been so, dating back to colonial times and the founding of Harvard? In truth, higher education in America has always been the special privilege of those who could afford it or whom fortune looked upon.
As one sucessful business executive once remarked, “the only reason he got into Yale during the Depression was because his father’s check didn’t bounce.” Or as another one, a University of Texas graduate, told associates, his parents sold their house so he could go to college. Clearly, economic advantage or disadvantage has long been a factor in attaining higher education in America and is not some new phenomenon in this era of heightened concern about diversity, equity and inclusion. Scholarship programs have long been available to talented children of faculty, clergymen, social workers, civil servants, factory workers, athletically gifted children of immigrants and blacks, and others who occupied the lower income rungs of society. The enduring problem has been that not all schools have had sufficient resources to help realize this trajectory changing ideal. or to adopt “need blind” admissions programs.
One partial solution might be to follow European practice and have government subsidize college costs, as was done in America under the GI Bill following World War II or in R.O.T.C. programs in the 1950s. Such measures minimized the impact of such accidents as parentage, athletic ability, etc., in the pursuit of American higher education.
Robert D. Storey ’58
Former member, Board of Overseers
St. Augustine, Fla.
Among other things, Harvard is a constitutionally protected assembly that has an illustrious history of petitioning for redress of grievances. Just three examples among many will serve to illustrate.
Consider three national crises that have had Harvard participation at the assembly level. In the Civil War, Harvard assembled to put down the rebellion led, at first, by sixth generation alumnus Caspar Crowninshield. In WWII, Harvard assembled to seek redress against irresponsible isolationists, led by Havard President and alumnus James Bryant Conant. During the war in Vietnam, Harvard assembled again to drive ROTC out of its curriculum, a rather significant choice given Harvard's long military importance and accomplishments.
This right of assembly that Harvard undertakes from time to time is strongly influenced by the makeup of the Harvard community, and that community is assembled, in part, from generations of alumni. The preference given in admissions to the children of alumni is intrinsic to how Harvard exercises its right of assembly. It is, in fact, the assembly itself.
Mutterings on the Supreme Court, a body bound to defend constitutional rights, that Harvard's choices about assembly could be curtailed by government seem counter to the oaths that justices swear when they join the court.
Descendent of Founder Thomas Dudley
In his letter on climate change (July-August, page 3), John W. Jenkins, M.B.A. ’63, accuses the University of betraying the Latin motto on its shield, Veritas, by choosing “Save the Planet” religious dogma over “obvious truths.”
Although somewhat muddled in his presentation, his “obvious truths” are:
• Climate change is a natural cyclical process, and the release of carbon since the dawn of the industrial age has had little effect on it.
• Climate change is not an existential threat to mankind; and global warming in fact will be good for the human race.
• Attempts to address climate change will have minimal effects on climate.
• Attempts to address climate change will have disastrous effects on our economy, bringing us starvation and death.
The problem with these “obvious truths” is that they are all falsehoods. Since 1988, the world’s scientists have been studying man-made climate change and issuing periodic comprehensive reports on their work under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If the IPCC has erred, it has been on the side of caution, underestimating the effects of man-made climate change.
As for Jenkins’s dystopian economics, real economists would disagree. See, for example, the recent columns of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.
Of course, Jenkins is neither a scientist nor an economist. He is a businessman, most recently leading a firm handling the sales and marketing of sports equipment. In fairness to him, he is merely parroting somewhat dated propaganda sponsored by the fossil-fuel industry and the Republican Party. See The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney (2005).
If anything, the Republican Party has expanded its disinformation efforts since 2005. The fact that one of our two major political parties is using proven fiction, not fact, to assess the most critical problem facing the planet tells us all we need to know about the woeful state of our political discourse.
James M. Cronin ’65
I enthusiastically agree with John W. Jenkins. Climate change is not settled science. That most scientists think so does not make it so. Many thought Newton’s theory of gravity, proposed in 1687, was true, but in the twentieth century Einstein disproved it.
To pejoratively label contrary positions on climate change as coming from climate deniers is intellectually shameful. Many highly credentialed contrarians exist. If the educated people of the twentieth century had heeded the contrarian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, fewer clever people would have succumbed to socialism.
Harvard is the gold standard in academia. If gold rusts, intellectual decay is nourished.
Charles Block, A.M. ’51
The letter published on page 3 of the July-August issue is a tedious screed by a climate-change denier. It is shocking to see Harvard Magazine give more-than-equal space or any space to such ignorance. The global scientific consensus is now almost entirely certain that, if we continue business as usual, climate change can or likely will produce human extinction in the next century or two. Scientists know this to be true, and Harvard is to be commended for phasing out its investments in fossil fuel companies that have lied or dissembled for decades about their role in knowingly working to kill the climate. Going forward, to deserve the motto “Veritas,” you should not publish any “fake news” under the banner of freedom of speech and the press. Please tell us ever more about the hard realities of climate change and the existential means of mitigation and adaptation.
Richard W. Emory Jr., J.D. ’67
John Jenkins lists four “truths” in his letter criticizing “Seeking Climate Solutions.” His truths, however, are incomplete. These are the complete truths.
The earth’s climate does change cyclically over tens of thousands of years due to the earth’s eccentric orbit, axial precession, and tilt. The current temperature increases are occurring in decades, however, and they are counter to the long-term cooling trend we should now be experiencing.
Climate change is not an existential threat to everyone but it is contributing to the deaths of people who live near rising sea levels, who are in the path of ever-stronger hurricanes and tornadoes, and who experience extended droughts or flooding from severe rainstorms.
Corrective actions will adversely affect some parts of our economy, but until we achieve net zero CO2 emissions, the temperatures will keep rising and the damaging effects will get worse. This will take decades and there will be adverse effects on the fossil fuel industry as we stop burning large amounts of fossil fuels to halt the continuing damage to our planet.
Solar and wind generation are not always available—agreed—but three factors mitigate the risks: peak electric demand is during the day when the sun shines, advanced batteries can store electric energy, and zero-emission geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear sources can provide baseline power.
I expect people in the professional schools at Harvard will work with others to find ways to combat climate change with affordable, minimally-intrusive actions.
Mike Clement, M.B.A. ’71
I read John Jenkins’s letter challenging the “Veritas” of the climate crisis as we completed the hottest year in in 100,000 years. No doubt Jenkins was able to crank up the A/C at home in Dallas, as Texas experienced 100 degree-plus temperatures. Not possible for billions of people around the world who are suffering heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, crop failures, fires, and poisonous haze this summer. Taking a geological view about climate change is a lofty perch that does a grave disservice to the real lived experience of those billions, as well as our children and grandchildren, and most nonhuman life on Earth.
We do not have to choose between economic growth and environmental protection, either, despite Jenkin’s attempts to recur to a policy shibboleth that sabotaged so much action over the past three critical decades. He is the one reciting “religious dogma” of the fossil-fuel industry and its political hacks. I hope the magazine continues to foster a vital discussion about Harvard’s responsibility and priorities in the face of the climate crisis, but such a letter does not contribute to it.
Andrea Johnson ’98
Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica
John Jenkins’s excellent letter laid bare several common misconceptions regarding terrestrial climate change but omitted one fundamental one. This ”obvious truth” is that the history of the planet is measured in billions of years, not in mere millenia as his analysis suggests. The planet was not created or designed for human convenience, and its existence has and will vastly exceed our evanescent term. Thermal and other environmental swings far surpassing the present warm episode were common in the vast periods predating humanity’s brief role and will doubtless be so in future when we have been supplanted by other species (or even phyla). Veritas aeterna!
Priestley Toulmin ’51, Ph.D.’59
Mr. Jenkins states in his “Climate Change” comment what few in our timid times dare to posit: that the world will continue to warm and mankind will adjust. One statistic is enough to prove the point. The proportion of electric cars in the U.S. in 2022 is 1.3 percent. You can fiddle with the numbers, but that’s the reality. On my weekly journey from New York City to Upstate New York, I haven’t seen one electric charging station. No doubt some reader will locate one, but that won’t change the thrust. China, about which I know something, is undergoing a severe shortage of electricity. Many Chinese homes were cold last winter. Don’t expect the world’s biggest polluter to continue to cripple its growth in the name of the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement. We need more “politically incorrect” people like Jenkins to guide us out of the forest.
Jonathan Kolatch, A.M. ’67
New York City
The letter on climate change from John Jenkins, M.B.A. ’63, accuses Harvard of deviating from its devotion to Veritas. The University, he charges, in its founding of the Salata Institute for research on climate change, has been duped by “environmental activists whose view of history is only 20 years deep.” He states four “obvious truths” that the university is ignoring. His “truths,” I contend, while containing shreds of facts, are themselves quite misleading.
His first “truth” argues that our planet experiences long cycles of climate change punctuated by briefer local variations. No argument here. To that, he adds that that the Industrial Revolution with its burning of fossil fuels has much improved human prosperity. Again, no argument. Then he says that the planetary temperatures have been rising since 1750, adding to our prosperity. Jenkins does not dispute that the warming is caused by our massive emissions of greenhouse gasses (mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels). Here I would argue that some warming since 1750 may have been helpful, but our temperature increases since 1850 have become increasingly deleterious Compared to the 1850-1900 average, by 2022 the world had steeply risen about 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Centigrade). This rapid warming has already brought increasing disaster.
This brings us to his second “obvious truth”—that “climate change is not an existential threat” and therefore we do not need to aim for zero emissions. Jenkins lives in Texas, which is now experiencing its highest ever recorded heat index. On July 21 Corpus Christi was 125 degrees F. This is at the limits of human survivability. Many places around the world are experiencing this level of heat wave. And the planet has not yet exceeded the 1.5 degree C temperature rise threshold. As the planet continues to warm, heat waves, wildfires, droughts, and floods plus other weather-related disasters will increase in all societies. These disasters will cause larger social disruptions, including mass migrations and border tensions, stressing adaptive capacities. These pressures will pose existential threats to civilization as we know it. Whether they will ultimately pose an existential threat to the human species itself, as climate scientist James Hansen has intimated, remains uncertain. But in any case, the costs of unchecked carbon emissions will be extraordinarily high.
His third “obvious truth” is that our actions to reduce emissions and thereby reduce warming are both futile and “severely detrimental” to our economy, security, and survivability. But this is not at all obvious. The world greenhouse gas emissions increase curve, driven most strongly now by China and other large developing countries, has since 2020 been flattening out. Some countries, such as Germany and the U.K., have decreased emissions while increasing GDP. We can do it. Reaching net zero will transform our economies and lifestyles, curtailing energy-intensive activities like flying. But avoiding the dangers inherent in the path of unchecked emissions growth will more than repay whatever transitional pains we may suffer.
Jenkins’s final “truth” is that wind and solar energy usage make our electrical grid unstable when those energy sources become unavailable (nighttime, no wind, etc.). This instability, he states, might lead us to “starve and die.” However, everyone designing a sustainable electricity grid recognizes the need for backup sources such as huge batteries, water pump storage, and nuclear power plants. This technical problem has many solutions.
The truth is that the needed energy transition is technically and socially feasible. nother increasingly obvious truth is that the obstacle to this transition, in the U.S. at least, lies in the propaganda and political influence from the fossil fuel industry (see Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, Merchants of Doubt). As the biggest long-term carbon emitter, with its wealth and capacities, the U.S. needs to lead the world in this transition. As the nation’s preeminent university, following its devotion to Veritas, Harvard and its Salata Institute are rightly guiding the nation and the world.
Jeffrey Broadbent, Ph.D. ’82
Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology and Fellow, Institute on the Environment
University of Minnesota
In his letter, “Climate Change,” John W. Jenkins levels accusations that “the University has set aside obvious truths,” claiming, “Earth’s climate was cyclically changing eons before our industrial age,” that, “climate change is not an existential threat,” that, “actions being taken to reduce temperature increases will affect the climate at best minimally,” that, “wind and solar components within our electrical power grids makes them unstable,” and that, “environmental activists…view of history is only 20 years deep.” If anyone is setting aside the truth, it is Jenkins.
There is no historical precedent for the increase in temperature beginning in the early 1900s. At this writing, new temperature records are being set nearly every day. Ocean waters around Florida have reached “hot tub” levels in the upper 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Actions taken to reduce these temperatures, while leaving much to be desired, constitute the beginning of efforts that will have to be made if the planet is to be prevented from heating beyond tolerances for all life, not just humans.
There is no evidence these efforts pose a threat to the electrical grid. Quite the opposite. The grid, already strained and at near capacity, will be spared damage thanks to increasing contributions from wind and solar. As for how long efforts to address climate change have been underway, whistles began blowing as far back as the 1920s, with concentrated efforts beginning in the 1970s with such publications as the “Whole Earth Catalog.”
Denial of irrefutable climate science with statements like, “The world is not coming to an end if we do not achieve ‘zero emissions’” serves only to spread misinformation at a time when the peril of inaction couldn’t be clearer.
Michael C. Garvan, M.A.T. ’72
I am puzzled by your decision to publish the letter from Mr. Jenkins in your July/August issue, in which he objected to Harvard’s commitment to address climate change. If you were seeking to establish that someone with a Harvard degree can remain stubbornly ignorant of current science—mission accomplished. If, on the other hand, you were honoring the notion that multiple viewpoints should be aired on this issue, you must be aware that reputable publications no longer see the need to promote climate denialism. It does no service to your readers to amplify his voice, unless you would also like to take up the debate about the theory of gravity or evolution.
Douglas I. Wallace, M.P.A. ’91
Mill Valley, Cal.
In contrasting lucrative consulting/finance/tech options chosen by 60 percent of Harvard graduates with other choices such as traveling Rockefeller Fellowships, journalism, and teaching jobs (“Uncharted Territory,” July-August, page 58), “Undergraduate” columnist Josie Abugov overlooks one other great option—serving in the U.S. Peace Corps. This offers much more than a traveling fellowship.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you get language and job training, and the opportunity to get to know a different culture in the best way—by living and working alongside people with different life experiences and perspectives. I learned a huge amount from my Peace Corps experience as a fish-farming extension agent in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) that I have drawn upon ever since. I would never trade that for a Rockefeller or Rhodes Fellowship, nor for a job in consulting, finance, or tech.
Leo Levenson ’83
“Supersenior” Josie Abugov’s decision to work as a journalist after graduation can hardly be called frivolous, since she was a Ledecky Fellow with Harvard connections and excellent career prospects. I made a similar decision more than 60 years ago. Most of my classmates at a small, prestigious liberal arts college, wealthy or not, were expected to become tenure-track academics. A few brave ones joined the Peace Corps. I insisted on going to work.
My entry-level job at LIFE Magazine consisted of answering letters to the editors. Time-Life offered a 9-to-5 work day with an hour for lunch, a generous benefits package, paid holidays and vacation time, and a stipend to take graduate courses. Foolishly, I quit in 1964 to travel, spent three years teaching English in Greece, fled from the military coup that installed a dictatorship in 1967, and ended up in Paris. There I did gigs as a personal assistant, English teacher, and translator. I also worked with a resistance group, translating news smuggled out of Greece for foreign newspapers and wire services. Subsequently, in a growing women’s movement, I facilitated communications among feminist groups and helped to coordinate international campaigns. Eventually, as a salaried editor-translator at the French Reader’s Digest, I got excellent benefits including a press card—this time from the government.
Twenty-one years later, I came back to the United States. Boom times and full-time employment alternated with recessions, layoffs ,and hustling for free-lance work. I spent two years at Harvard Divinity School, pursuing a degree and working part-time for a Harvard publication. As TA for a friend’s course at the Extension School (1995-2005), I coached students in research and writing strategies, including “translating” medical information from “docspeak” into plain English that they could apply as patients to decision making for themselves and their families. Before retirement, I learned enough about digital technology to produce and edit “content” for websites. Supposedly retired, I took on a huge and very personal project: compiling, co-editing, finding a publisher for and promoting an anthology of poems by widows. While I haven’t had a “successful career,” I managed to support myself and encourage others. Perhaps that’s all anyone can expect in an uncertain world.
Jacqueline Lapidus, M.T.S. ’92
“Histrionic Chutzpah” (Treasure, July-August, page 68) gives a fascinating look at Harvard’s Yiddish theater collection, but errs when it characterizes Yiddish as “a nearly dead language.” The number of everyday Yiddish speakers increases every year, primarily because of the growth of Hassidic Jewish sects for which Yiddish is their primary tongue. There has also been a boom in Yiddish language courses, especially online. YIVO, the Jewish Institute for Research, gives the current number of regular Yiddish speakers as 500,000 to 1,000,000 worldwide. Figures from other sources vary. It is true that the number of Yiddish speakers has substantially declined because of the Holocaust, which saw the murder of an estimated 5 million Yiddish speakers, and assimilation pressures during the twentieth century. It is also true that the Hassidic Jews who constitute a majority of Yiddish speakers today often have little regard for the Yiddish theater or the great pre-war Yiddish literary and artistic culture. Nonetheless, Yiddish is growing and thriving, albeit at a smaller scale than before World War II.
Jim Feldman, J.D. ’83
I read with interest the article about Harvard’s Yiddish theater collection. I was surprised, however, that the last sentence characterizes Yiddish as a “nearly dead language.”
According to YIVO, there are between one half million and a million Yiddish speakers worldwide, and a UNESCO Atlas estimates that there are threemillion Yiddish speakers. Most Ultra-Orthodox people in the U.S. and many in Israel both speak Yiddish at home and teach it in their schools. Furthermore, the Ultra-Orthodox population is growing rapidly, and, according to a Jerusalem Post article, may double in size to between a fifth and a quarter of the Jewish population by 2040.
The trend toward the younger generations’ increasing interest in Yiddish is shown by the growing presence of the language on college campuses. Twenty-four U.S. colleges, including Columbia, Yale, and Cornell, have Yiddish language programs. That the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will showcase Yiddish music and heritage also indicates the growing interest in Yiddish. In fact, the great success of the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof, to which you refer, demonstrates that indeed Yiddish is far from a “nearly dead language.”
Hannah Hahn, Ed.M. ’83
New York City
I paged through the latest issue yesterday and my interest was caught by the piece on the Harvard Yiddish Theater Collection—I loved seeing the posters for shows spanning nearly the whole of the twentieth century. But then I reached the last sentence: “Though it now takes great chutzpah to perform in a nearly dead language, Harvard’s collection reminds us that Yiddish theater never lacked boldness.” I FaceTimed my girlfriend. “Hey babe, did you know your native language is nearly dead?” She rolled her eyes. Despite being a young, queer, secular New Yorker, she grew up Chassidish and speaks Yiddish every day to family and fellow young New Yorkers who grew up in that community. For myself, I’m a resident in pediatrics at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Westchester County, N.Y., and I take care of kids quite literally every day who speak nothing but Yiddish; it’s part of my practice to tell them—in Yiddish—that I don’t speak the language, zeeskeit, but I’m your doctor and everything’s going to be okay. “Academic Yiddishists do this all the time,” my girlfriend says. “Just because Yiddish isn’t alive in your world doesn’t mean it’s nearly dead.” Talk about chutzpah.
Margaret Doreen Maloney ’06
The article “A New Face of American Evangelicalism” ( July-August, page 54) invites skepticism from the first paragraph, where we are told that Walter Kim’s father “escaped from communist southern China by crossing the Taedong River hidden inside a barrel.” The Taedong River is in Korea, a thousand miles from southern China. It flows from North Korea across the demarcation line into South Korea, before its estuary forms part of the demarcation line. Perhaps the elder Mr. Kim escaped from North Korea to South Korea by floating downriver —a plausible navigational feat for a barrel rider?
Jon K. De Riel, Ph.D. ’77
Editor’s note: Walter Kim amplifies, and clarifies our imprecise wording:
As a child, my father lived in the Sinuiju area of North Korea, which is right on the border of China and North Korea. For a period, his family lived on the Chinese side of Sinuiju for business and other relationship reasons. Because of the conflict, his family left everything behind and traveled southward through North Korea, and at some section of the Taedong River, he had to cross in a barrel. The river crossing was not down the length of river (as it seems the reader surmises) but across the width (and I suspect a reasonably fordable width used by others). They had to cross over in order to continue the journey to South Korea. As you can imagine, for a young refugee experiencing the traumas of such a journey, he didn’t really like to talk about it.
I was a bit disappointed with the article about Walter Kim, the new president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Aside from one mention of “the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of humanity and the forgiveness of sins”—at the time of his conversion quite a few decades ago—there is no mention of the afterlife, heaven and hell, or Jesus’ death and resurrection to take the full punishment for our sins and give us the free gift of eternal life with God. Rather his concerns seem to be those of any garden-variety left-of-center politician.
I hope that I have misunderstood him. God the Holy Spirit, speaking through the apostle Paul, said, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19.)
Tom Neagle, M.B.A. ’72
Fort Mill, S.C.
The July-August 2023 profile of Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), was breathtaking in its lack of self-awareness. While profiling Dr. Kim and his stated quest to “unite,” this profile slanders most of America, seemingly without irony. Trump supporters top the hit list, followed by Christians who believe in national sovereignty. Those millions who exercised their Constitutional right to protest an election they believed as unfair, smeared as “insurrectionists.”
Others were also tarred, such as the vaccine-hesitant. Bible believers were not spared either. This profile of an Evangelical featured not a single quote from Scripture. Instead a specious “gift from God” claim was attributed to Jesus. Other constituencies were dismissed. NAE’s core “Principles of Christian Political Engagement” state that “every human life from conception to death bears the image of God and has inestimable worth,” yet not a single word about the child in the womb.
Harvard’s founding motto was “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae,” or “Truth for Christ and the Church.” It’s tragic to see reflected in this piece how far it’s strayed from its noble beginnings.
Chris Messina, M.B.A. ’88
Winter Park, Fla.
Keep on Pumping!
I always love the College Pump pieces in Harvard Magazine, and the one in the July-August issue, “Origin Stories,” on former Harvard faculty, was particularly compelling. Please keep them coming and keep up the great work!
Bruce S. Lieberman ’88
I was puzzled, to say the least, by the article “Not Sporting?” (7 Ware Street, July-August, page 4). Certainly, changes are occurring in the college sporting scene, but the article offered only speculations on how these changes would specifically affect Harvard sports. It seemed to be suggesting that dropping varsity football might be under consideration at some point in the future (less high school football, more soccer, more international students who are unfamiliar with football, the reluctance of the University to renovate Harvard Stadium, declining attendance at football games, and citing Chicago and Johns Hopkins as colleges that have dropped football).
But the article is full of errors and misleading statements. “No Ivy League football program averaged even 7,000 attendees per contest last season.” I must point out that Harvard in its four home games before the Yale game averaged 10,800 attendees. For the Yale game there were 30,000 in attendance. Chicago did drop football in 1939 but has since reinstated it. “High schools are thinking more soccer than football”: some 450,000 boys play high school soccer while over 1,000,000 boys play high school football. Football is and will remain for the foreseeable future the quintessential American sport.
Perhaps most telling is the rise in foreign students accepted at Harvard—nearly 15 percent. Foreign students certainly add to diversity at Harvard, but 15 percent? Eight to 10 percent would do nicely. There are so many well qualified candidates available in a very diverse U.S. applicant pool that there is no need to go so heavily abroad. The University I believe is thinking of itself more as an international university located in the United States, rather than as an American university embracing American culture and values. It remains probably the most distinguished university in the world, but I like to think of it as an American university with a strong international reputation
Richard M. Oehmler ’56, M.B.A. ’60
Winter Park, Fla.
I was struck by an alum’s comment on the subject of philanthropy that “There is a long tradition in the United States of asking private citizens to fund institutions and activities which are the responsibility of government in both the United Kingdom and Europe” (July-August, page 6, commenting on “Making Charitable Giving More Competent,” May-June, page 9). I write to emphasize the distinctly American point of view that charity is not a responsibility of government but a responsibility of the people, each and every one, just as a government like ours was designed to be “of the people.”
That perspective is the reason why the U.S. traditionally leads the world in charitable giving. Given our history, there’s an obvious religious element to charity, but an element increasingly ignored and disparaged by an increasingly distant and self-perpetuating national government trolling for votes by meddling in health care, housing, education and care for the elderly and poor—all traditionally the bailiwick of private charities or, increasingly over our centuries, local governments—with increasing yet predictable bureaucratic inefficiency, widespread abuse, and monstrous spending with few laudable results. Charitable giving, though sometimes also misused, still remains our best hope for the relief of suffering.
Terence J. Greene, J.D. ’81
IN “Easing the College Transition,” on the new Rising Scholars summer program (July-August, pages 22-23), the Expos Studio course was referred to as an English class when it is a writing class (as are other Expos courses). The article also did not make sufficiently clear that students who did not take calculus in high school can indeed complete STEM concentrations.
In the July-August News in Brief item on philanthropic support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (“Academic Disparities,” page 25), the report cited should have been attributed to both ABFE, a philanthropic organization advocating investments in black communities, and Candid, a philanthropy data service. We apologize for overlooking Candid.
Among others, sharp-eyed reader Jacqueline Lapidus, M.T.S. ’92, writes to flag a “glaring” error in Josie Abugov’s article about poet José Olivares (“For the Homies,” July-August, page 49): “The lines quoted from a poem called ‘Untranslatable’ are apparently mistranslated. The line in English should read, ‘We look for dollars/and we only find sorrows’ (dolores in the original), not ‘dollars’ again.” Helena Pachon, M.P.H. ’02, suggests the wording should be “…and we only find pain.” The author of the article had it right; the editors apologize for introducing the error inadvertently.
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