Letters to the Editor

Our readers respond

Education and morals

Stanley Fish revels in the moral irrelevance of education, but his essay ("Education: The Deflationary View," Forum, July/August) reads like a parody of ivory-tower insularity. Yes, the world benefits from technical proficiency. But universities don't exist simply to replenish the ranks of bloodless academics. Teaching is a versatile craft that can be put to many legitimate ends, and equipping students to engage in the world outside the academy is surely no vice. Fish is free to opine otherwise, yet his blinkered view of the purpose of higher education shows that he understands little about what students demand, and the broader community needs, from a university.

But apparently, I'm being a bad student simply by venturing any opinion on the matter. In Fish's world, the pupil's duty is simply to analyze the structure of Fish's normative claims -- not to decide whether Fish is making any damn sense.

Clark Williams-Derry '89
Seattle, WA


Stanley Fish's "deflationary view" of education might better be described as jaundiced: by delimiting the field to knowledge acquisition and skills attainment, he totally disregards the cultivation of dispositions and attitudes. Far from being gratuitous or expendable, these latter facets are essential and unavoidable -- just try teaching any class without implicitly engaging and imparting virtues and values such as patience, discipline, respect, fairness, and integrity!

Likewise, Fish's conception of moral philosophy is terribly anemic if not entirely empty: in claiming that the only proper business of academic ethics is analytical argumentation without rendering judgments, he reduces moral theorizing to the point of incoherence -- what are the putative conclusions of the critical arguments made by ethicists, if not decisions about moral matters?

Ralph R. Acampora '87
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY


OK, Professor Fish, what makes a good teacher, anyway? Reading the "Forum" in the July/August issue makes it look like being boring is just the ticket. What a dreary time those "bright college years" would be. All we're aiming for is to "introduce students to bodies of knowledge" and to "equip students with . . . analytical skills."

At some point, students have to be able to do whatever it is that they undertake to do, and to understand what it takes to do it well, and to behave morally and ethically in the process. Taking the life out of teaching won't help. Carved into the stone outside my window at Branford College were the words, "Thy light and truth shall set me free." Even as a non-religious person, I understand the need for light to accompany truth.

Peter Conrad '64, '68MArch
Kensington, CA


The article deflating the moral pretensions of academicians is a rare gem. It's the kind of thinking I have seen only in the National Association of Scholars' attack on the whole academic mess -- "the dissolution of the traditional curriculum, the widespread intrusion of political ideology into classroom instruction, the curtailment of academic freedom and open expression, and the ubiquitous imposition of race and gender-driven 'diversity' policies at all levels of academic life."

Fish's values are exactly those of our teachers when Yale was one of the four greatest universities in the world, before the Mafi-Acs took over in the 1960s. We need more like Professor Fish. Long may he wave.

Ellsworth Mason '38, '48PhD
Lexington, KY


Stanley Fish's arguments against incorporating civic and moral education in a liberal arts university contradict the fundamental purposes of education in a democratic society.

Education is an act of conscientiousness that should expand one's conscience and one's mind. If we abstract ourselves out of the moral and civic challenges that confront us in the United States and around the world, then we will create parochial, unoriginal, and indifferent learners. They will find themselves products of an educational system that distances and alienates them from the fierce urgencies of the society in which they live and from the web of ethical obligation to other human beings and to other living things.

Moral and civic capacities are bound up in the literature that we read, the topics that we debate, the art that we produce, and the interactions and relationships that make up collegial life. When we read novels that expand our capacity for empathy and for compassion; when we study history and learn about the dangers of radical utopianism on both the right and the left; and when we study the psychology of prejudice and authoritarianism, we enable ourselves to confront these challenges and to build better communities that respect human rights and protect the fundamental values of our nation's Constitution.

Yale is not and should not be a vapid talking shop of high-minded intellectuals engaged in the narcissistic pursuit of knowledge. At Yale, I knew that what we discussed and studied mattered, that it made demands of me, that it could, should, and often would change my values, my commitments, and my sense of reality.

Noam Schimmel '02
Kigali, Rwanda


The Serenity Prayer

On the question "Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?"(July/August): Elisabeth Sifton, the daughter of Reinhold Niebuhr '14BDiv, '15MA, has the better of the theological argument. The famous prayer succinctly captures the tension at the heart of Niebuhr's ethics, which to the consternation of his critics of both the left and the right combined a realistic view of human nature ("serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed") with an idealistic commitment to social justice ("courage to change the things that should be changed") in a situation of profound moral ambiguity requiring humility and discernment ("the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other"). This ethical framework underlies his classic work Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1932, the book that first brought him to national attention. No one in America was espousing such a theological perspective at that time, certainly not with the eloquence and authority that he did. It is not surprising that the prayer might have gone through many variations of wording before it found its definitive formulation or that persons hearing the prayer following one of his powerful talks or sermons might have been moved to share it with others.

Robert H. King '60BDiv, '65PhD
Green Mountain Falls, CO


Thanks for the provocative pieces exploring the origin of the Serenity Prayer. Having sobered up in 1968 (none too soon; alcohol figured heavily in my failure to get beyond sophomore year at Yale), I've said the prayer many thousands of times. God's grace has been unfailing. Whoever first composed the Serenity Prayer surely was inspired by its true Author.

Bill Reel '62
North Sutton, NH


The Pope's crown

I really enjoyed Angus Trumble's article, "Old Hat: The Evolution of Your Mortarboard" (July/August), and passed it around to several people. However, I found myself correcting the "family tree" chart that would indicate there is no relationship between the miter and the crown. That simply is not true.

The miter began its life as the papal tiara, as seen in the papal insignia until it was changed by the current pope, if I am not mistaken. The three-tiered tiara evolved into a cone shaped hat, and then eventually into what we know today as the miter worn by Roman, Anglican/Episcopal, and some other bishops. From its earliest days the miter was considered a type of crown -- after all cardinals are the princes of the Church, and bishops are sovereign in their own see.

Rev. Daniel C. Gunn '02STM
Wilkes-Barre, PA

The Yale Alumni Magazine asked Angus Trumble to comment. He replied:
Miters and the three-tiered papal tiara, which was abandoned by Pope Paul VI, share a common ancestor in the camelaucum of the Byzantine court. My purpose in keeping crowns and miters separate was to provide a pair of brackets, church and state, within which the development of the scholar's hat may be snugly accommodated.


Yale cheers

I grew up in a family weaned on "Brek-ek-ek-ex"("Greek Revival," Notebook, July/August). My late mother also enjoyed an anti-Harvard dirge, "The Undertaker":

More work for the Undertaker,
'nother little job for the coffin maker.
In the LOcal ce-me-TERY they are
VEry VEry BUsy. . .

Alas, "The Undertaker" is no longer heard in the Bowl. An earlier generation deemed it unsportsmanlike, said Mother.

Surely there's a small book with the words and music, life and death, of Yale cheers.

John Trumbull Robinson Pierson '62MA (and Harvard '59)
Cambridge, MA

The Yale Glee Club, which includes "The Undertaker" in its "Football Medley," offers for sale a recently updated edition of Songs of Yale that includes a number of traditional tunes, if not cheers. -- Eds.


Both sides on Buckley

While word quibbles are rarely necessary with your fine publication, I do wonder whether "prodigal" is an apt adjective for this legend of Yale, especially for one who was so proud of his own religious (as well as political and social) orthodoxy ("Three Ways of Looking at an Icon," May/June 2008).

There have been, and will continue to be, many praises and critiques of Bill Buckley, but I don't think anyone can fault him for his remarkably prodigious, diverse, and invariably entertaining and informed output. This prodigy continued to be productive from his somewhat dissatisfied but very successful beginnings at Yale and throughout his many challenges and triumphs thereafter.

Albert F. Shamash '73, '73MA
Concord, NH


I realize that de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum estmay no longer be a rule of polite discourse, and I would agree that it should not govern the selection of letters to the editor. But it struck me as extremely . . . odd that the letters about Bill Buckley chosen for publication in the July/August issue were so overwhelmingly negative. Wasn't there any correspondent (other than the sardonic Mr. McCarthy) who wrote to praise Buckley, not to trash him?

Robert T. Sullwold '75
San Francisco, CA

We received many more anti- than pro-Buckley letters. -- Eds.


Naming the colleges

Why is it essential that Yale name the two new residential colleges after people with strong connections to the university (From the Editor, July/August)? Restricting the naming in this manner once again discriminates against the very groups that were traditionally barred from admission to Yale, among them women, Jews, and African Americans. Yale has been in existence for 307 years; in how many of those 307 years were members of these groups present and able to make strong contributions to the university?

I believe that few alumni or current students know or care much about the individuals after whom the existing residential colleges are named. In my view, that's one more reason to name the new colleges after truly heroic figures. Why not Susan B. Anthony and Nelson Mandela? Or Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin, Jane Austen, Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Elie Wiesel, or Frederick Douglass?

Bob Lamm '69
New York, NY


At my recent 25th reunion, I noted that Yale is currently renovating Calhoun College. Just as Yale has an opportunity to select appropriate names for the two new colleges, as a former Calhoun resident I hope that Yale will consider the renovation as an opportunity to rechristen that college with a name that welcomes a diverse, multiracial student body, rather than preserving the shameful legacy of a proponent of slavery.

Charles Rich '83
Washington, DC


Plagiarism? Or not?

You have done me a terrible disservice by reprinting out of context those few lines from my recent essay in the London Review of Books (Light & Verity, July/August). An attentive reading makes clear -- and should have made clear to the magazine (had anyone there, unlike my "Betty," bothered to do such a reading) -- that, like something by David Sedaris, the essay is both serious (yet amusing) satire and creative nonfiction. So as literary confession, even by an academic, it is not to be taken at face value.

Kevin Kopelson '79
Grinnell, IA

We did read Kevin Kopelson's 4,400-word essay attentively and indeed found it both serious and amusing. But it never occurred to us that, as Kopelson implies in his letter, he was making things up. After receiving this letter, we asked Kopelson if the passage we quoted -- in which he describes submitting a plagiarized paper for a music class at Yale -- is true. He responded: "That is something the reader of the essay must decide for him- or herself." -- Eds.


The Palestine question

I find it regrettable that, of all the letters submitted to you for the July/August issue, you chose to print one from George Waterston '60 in which he laments the failure of Matthew Kaminsky to mention the "Palestinian dispossession" in his May/June review of Ben Kiernan's Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur.

Mr. Waterston directly suggests Israel's complicity in "ethnic cleansing and genocide." This I read in disbelief and shame that you would print such inflammatory nonsense. To state that the history of attempts at Jewish and other exterminations should in any way be equated with the plight of the Palestinians, who together with others in the region actually speak out for the elimination/annihilation of Israel, does not deserve space in this magazine.

Neiel D. Baronberg '62
Denver, CO


Deadly streets

I am writing in response to your report (Light & Verity, July/August) of the tragic death of Mila Rainof '08MD. As Mila's classmate, I profited immeasurably from her affection, intelligence, and sense of humor. Her death leaves the world with a noticeable void, but it has left her classmates with a commitment to honor her by embracing her compassionate approach to medicine.

The Yale University community can honor Mila by making her death the last traffic-related fatality or serious injury on this campus. Knowing that Mila would expect nothing less of her colleagues, I joined with several other students and employees in forming the Medical Campus Traffic Safety Group. I have been encouraged by the many dedicated students, faculty, staff, alumni, and administrators who attend our meetings, and by significant steps the university has already taken to improve transportation safety and sustainability.

Beyond these efforts, our partnership with other community groups to form the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition (www.newhavensafestreets.org) has garnered widespread community support and shown that traffic safety is a major issue for individuals across New Haven.

Yale should make campus traffic safety a priority, particularly in the addition of two new residential colleges. The university should also specifically address pedestrian and cyclist safety near the many construction sites on campus, where blind corners and lack of specific pedestrian and bike facilities contribute to the risk of serious injuries.

With a concerted effort on the part of Yale University, in collaboration with the City of New Haven, State of Connecticut, and many community advocates, we will not have to face the death of another community member through this violent, but ultimately preventable, form of injury.

Rachel Wattier '09MD
Paducah, KY



In our July/August issue (Light & Verity), we mistakenly reported that Casper Desfeux '10 had pleaded guilty to voyeurism charges and was sentenced to two years' probation. Desfeux did, according to his arrest warrant, acknowledge that he had videotaped himself and another student (without her knowledge) as they were having sex and showed the tape to his roommates. But his case was resolved through a program called "accelerated rehabilitation," under which a defendant agrees to certain conditions (in this case including 50 hours of community service) over a two-year period. At the end of that period, if the conditions are successfully met, all charges will be erased, and, as his attorney William F. Dow III '63 explained in a letter to the magazine, "he will be entitled to state under oath he has never been arrested in connection with this matter." We regret the error.

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