Letters to the Editor

God and humanism at Yale

Readers talk back about humanism, America First, and more.

We welcome readers’ letters, which should be mailed to Letters Editor, Yale Alumni Magazine, PO Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905; e-mailed to yam@yale.edu; or faxed to (203) 432-0651. Due to the volume of correspondence, we are unable to respond to or publish all mail received. Letters accepted for publication are subject to editing.

I read with great interest the article on the Yale Humanist Community (“True Nonbeliever,” July/August). Many years after my time at Yale, I discovered Unitarian Univers-alism, which fits by my reckoning the same definition of humanism con-tained in the article: an insistence that we have a respon-sibility in the here and now to find spiritual fulfillment in service to life in all its forms. Some UUs may believe in a divine presence, but many do not; some like to joke that the last time the word “God” was uttered in a UU church was when the custodian tripped on the carpet and painfully stubbed his toe. 

My experience in a UU community has been marked by a sense of exploration of the eternal questions, especially in many enriching discussion groups. UUs love their discussion groups. Another story illustrates that point: upon his death, a UU ascends into the sky and comes to a cloud with two signs. One sign points the way to heaven, while the other points to a discussion group on heaven. The UU heads for the discussion group.

I would urge the humanists at Yale to partner with Unitarian Universalists. This would seem to be a perfect fit, especially given that the leader of the group featured in the article went to a UU seminary—Meadville Lombard—and had his book published by the UU publishing house Beacon Press.

Dana Gumb ’77
Bayside, NY


The Yale Humanist Community should open every meeting by thanking God for giving them purpose, i.e. something not to believe in. Without God they would not exist, and by not believing they have proven His existence.

Henry A. Truslow ’62
Sunbury, PA


Your article “True Nonbeliever” describes a growing humanist group, similar to others. On one hand, it is encouraging to see people who want to live “meaningful, ethical lives” and to help nonbelievers with “everyday issues.” On the other hand, it is sad to see people determined to live without God. Perhaps they have not encountered God, but they appear closed to the presence of God. Chris Stedman says, “We get together to talk about the same things religious people talk about.” Not so. When religious people get together, we talk about God. A church is not a church when it doesn’t include God.

Ed Helmrich ’83
Larchmont, NY


America First and World War II

Marc Wortman’s interesting piece on America First at Yale and abroad in the 1940s (“The Forgotten Antiwar Movement,” July/August) triggered my memory of a prior attempt to make Elis pacifists. The Oxford Oath was circulated in the 1930s; Wikipedia states that in 1935, 60,000 college students swore never to bear arms for their country.

I recall our group (Billy Hay, Johnny Duncan, Jack Faux, Sherm Covin—all ’40—and me) being approached in Berkeley dining hall, probably in 1938, by some students we did not know urging us to sign the Oxford Oath. We all refused. Quite soon we were all willingly bearing arms.

In 1940 Billy Hay joined the RCAF and was one of the very few RAF fighter pilots to survive service in Malta. Jack Faux returned to the British Army having been inducted and trained on a summer break. After Pearl Harbor, Johnny Duncan served in France. Sherm Covin ended up as an Air Force medic on a lonely Pacific island, and I was an Air Force technical instructor teaching power turret, gunsight, and bomb release procedures to B-17 air crews in England.

Ironically, it also appears that most of the Oxford signatories forgot their pledges and did serve.

Edward Jay Kaliski ’40S
New York, NY


Your article on America Firsters at Yale struck many sensitive chords, particularly the frequent references to the Lend-Lease Act. The act—HR 1776, passed March 11, 1941—was the brainchild of my father, Tom Childs ’32JSD. The fact that my father was serving as general counsel to His Majesty’s Government at the time assured his anonymity, even as coauthor of the bill. From New Haven, he had traveled straight to Wall Street and the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, where he found himself under the aegis of John Foster Dulles, an ardent admirer of Germany and future secretary of state.

With the invasion of Poland, Dulles recommended my father for the post of general counsel to the shadow government of Chamberlain in the United States, a post he held through V-E Day, 1945.

Among his accomplishments was the successful transfer of all French assets to the British on the fateful night of June 13–14, 1940, thus assuring that the many joint orders of war matériel the allies had made could be honored after the Nazi defeat of France. To the best of my knowledge, such action has never been noted in this country. Dad received a CBE from Queen Mary at war’s end, but was never asked to return to his post at Sullivan and Cromwell.

Henry C. Childs ’62
Young Harris, GA


While members of Yale’s elite were creating the America First movement to stop opposition to Hitler, Hiram Bingham IV ’25 was committing career suicide at the US State Department by helping hundreds escape from Hitler, including artistic giants Marc Chagall and Max Ernst and Nobel laureate Otto Meyerhof (“Civil Disobedience,” May/June 2006).

Bingham was honored with a US postage stamp in 2006, but have any of the many schools at Yale which should be teaching students about the importance of dissenting against immoral policies—the Schools of Law, Management, Medicine, and Public Health, for example—told his story? Your July/August issue also discusses Yale’s year-long interdisciplinary course in Grand Strategy. That course would benefit from reminders that sometimes the agreed-upon Grand Strategy of a country (escalate the war in Vietnam; invade Iraq; ignore genocide in Rwanda) merits vigorous dissent, regardless of the personal consequences.

David Machlowitz ‘77JD
Westfield, NJ


In “The Forgotten Antiwar Movement,” which described the ill-advised and naïve effort in 1940 to keep America out of World War II, the “America Firsters” displayed isolationist antiwar thinking based on the misconceived view that the United States, separated from Europe by two oceans, could avoid entanglement in this conflict.

When the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the rules of war changed forever. The human species had learned how to craft weapons which could exterminate all of life as we know it. Subsequent weapons are now so destructive that they can never be used. In short, war as a means of resolving conflict has become obsolete.

In 1946, Albert Einstein captured the implications of our new knowledge when he said “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our mode of thinking, and we thus drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”

In light of this new reality, “anti” war is no longer relevant. The challenge is to move “beyond” war. The three of us, along with thousands of others, worked with the now also “forgotten” Beyond War movement in the 1980s. Beyond War’s “new” way of thinking helped precipitate the breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War.

In this context, it has been painful to watch the two presidential candidates debate the use of violence. The drift towards unparalleled catastrophe seems to have ramped up a notch.

Donald Trump behaves in a totally unhinged, irresponsible, and stunningly dangerous manner. He says he will bomb ISIS into oblivion and use nuclear weapons if necessary. This is nuts; nukes are nuts. He also advocates torture and waterboarding in violation of international and national law.

More rational and sane but still missing the mark, Hillary Clinton displays a lot of “old” thinking. She appears to believe that military force can resolve conflict. We’ve seen tragic results from her support for the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq and the Obama regime change in Libya.

While the world seems increasingly a dangerous and scary place, “old” thinking simply has to go away or we as the human species are likely to go away. It’s simply too risky to continue to pose as enemies and demonize the “other.”

Different nations; different religions; different colors; different sexes. We are one human family. If we want to survive, rather than feeling threatened by “the other,” we have to learn to acknowledge, appreciate, and celebrate diversity while moving in new directions in dealing with terrorism from whatever source.

We’ve dreamed about these lofty ideas for eons. Time’s run out—it is imperative that we now act. “Anti” war movements aren’t what need be forgotten; it’s war as an option to resolve our conflicts that needs to disappear from our collective memories.

Jim Hostetler ’55
Washington, DC
Tony Lee ’64
Wayland, MA
Jon McBride ’64
Chevy Chase, MD


Finding common ground

In his 2016 baccalaureate address (“Membership in a Community,” July/August), President Salovey conveyed to the graduating seniors that members of a community who “wish to strengthen their interconnections and provide for the common good . . . must be prepared to speak fully our own minds . . . must be willing to listen carefully to what others say of their own minds . . . [and] must search for common ground that provides us a basis for moving forward.”

This is a vital message for all of us, no matter our vintage or background. As President Salovey elaborated, social media has exacerbated a human tendency to isolate into echo chambers of like-mindedness, and both nationally and internationally we see a growing disinclination to seek common ground.

How much better, and better off, we would become following the general embrace of a kind of transcendental politics that overcomes preconceptions and predispositions to both advance and to engage with reasonable arguments founded in the spirit of goodwill. Rather than yield to common practice, imagine our better selves leveraging the power of social media to improve our discourse and heal divisions.

Eric Brody ’88
Castle Pines, CO



The editors excuse their decision to report that John Calhoun once served as “secretary of defense” rather than secretary of war by writing that the former title is the “modern equivalent” of the latter (Letters, July/August 2016). This is, of course, utter nonsense. In Calhoun’s day, the War Department had no responsibility for the United States Navy, which had its own cabinet department and secretary. Please note that it is precisely for this reason that what is today called the “Eisenhower Executive Office Building” was formerly called the “State, War, and Navy Building” and not the “State and War Building.” President Salovey has explained his unfortunate decision not to rename Calhoun College by saying that we all need to have a clear understanding of history. This includes the editors of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Michael Montesano ’83
Tokyo, Japan


Mr. Montesano was one of several readers to set us straight. We stand corrected.—Eds.


The roots of recent wars

I have read with interest your first-hand accounts of military experiences (“War and After,” May/June). These are timely issues. But for an outstanding educational institution such as Yale, wasn’t something missing? How about some analysis by qualified individuals as to how we got into the quagmire of Iraq and now ISIS in the first place? This should include the machinations of George W. Bush ’68 and colleagues (especially Dick Cheney ’63) including half-truths, unqualified intelligence reports, and outright deception, as in the insistence of knowingly false nuclear arms threats. It’s been 13 years now, long enough for historians to have developed some firm conclusions.

Especially important to consider are issues of Congressional ineptness, religious influence (especially evangelical Christianity), oil interests, revenge, appeals to machismo (“We can beat those stupid Arabs anytime, anywhere”), and outright personal aggrandizement. Are there no Yale faculty or alumni who can authoritatively discuss these issues?  Flag-waving is fine enough, but if one can prevent future blunders such as this, we should be ready for such discussion. 

I believe this topic to be far more practically important than discussions about Calhoun. We should be adamant in our resolve to not allow disasters of the Iraq War variety to ever again be foisted upon our people.

Roger M. Herman ’63PhD
Bellefonte, PA


Where’s the fun?

The July/August issue altogether left me glum. Among bickering about college names, deposed masters (wait—can’t use that title), obsolete Blue Books, more downtown demolition 35 years overdue, squelched clinical trials, Commencement themes of avoiding demonization and “fatal[ity] to a community and to progress” rather than embracing good, and near misses in sports championships, I wonder if college years at Yale are any fun. Even the opening editorial subject of Grand Strategy smacks of self-importance more driven than Directed Studies. Only the picture of a sunken Harvard crew brought the slightest mirth.

As antidote, I glimpsed a 1983 yearbook photo of my blond afro charging from the Calhoun gate, before that namesake was disgraced, for a Bladderball bout, before that annual competition (along with dreaded Tang) was deemed “fatal to a community and to progress.” Will a graduate from Ben Franklin or Pauli Murray College have as much fun as our renaissance buddy Cinco Paul? Let us hope.

Jeff Cooper ’86
Pittsburgh, PA


Face-to-face teaching

It is hard for an alumnus from the 1950s to imagine what undergraduate life is like in the digital age. I found “The Digital Evolution of Teaching at Yale” (March/April) fascinating. Yale professors, as well as professors at other universities, are recording their lectures, giving them a global reach. But I understand that the recorded lectures are having another effect. Students find it more convenient to look at lectures on their laptops and are skipping the lecture hall.

There is an area of teaching in which machines have so far not been shown to be good: the Socratic discourse between student and professor. Watching a lecture on a laptop can instill facts, but it does not develop skill in communication, particularly oral communication, which is essential for leadership.

Yale provides the Socratic method of teaching with seminars of 10 to 20 students. Could the benefits of this approach be enhanced by decreasing the student/teacher ratio even further?

Kirk Bryan ’51
Whitefish, MT


We know what we’re doing

Thank you for another informative and articulate edition. With that said, I must take exception to the often-repeated and very trendy research claim that “You make fewer choices than you think you do” (“Fooled By Our Own Brains,” July/August). The implication of this statement about unconscious choices is that there is some qualitative difference between those and conscious ones. This false assertion is misleading and is even being used by some philosophers and pundits to “prove” that free will does not exist.

The fact is that unconscious choices are simply choices that have been “pre-programmed” by our conscious mind. Unlike behaviors initiated by reflexes and our fundamental drives, unconscious choices are not built into our DNA but rather are the product of our conscious brain getting ready for future events by building a neuronal mechanism that responds quicker than our conscious mind.

Each person has a unique set of unconscious choice configurations, whereas we all have the same reflexes and fundamental drives. The more adaptive our conscious choices have been, the more likely it is that our unconscious choices will be equally beneficial.

The correct—if imperfect—summary of this research is that “you make more choices than you think you do,” not fewer. Simply because a decision is made unconsciously does not mean that it is not a choice in every way we understand that word. In each case our brains weigh external stimuli, run the information through our memory banks, and make a choice.

What this means from a moral and legal perspective is that we are just as responsible for unconscious choices as we are for our conscious ones—because our unique, individually programmed brain is involved directly, regardless. That is, the conscious portion of our brain built the unconscious part, neuron by neuron, synapse by synapse. We own it.

James Luce ’66
Los Altos, CA


The drive for diversity

Even more striking than Yale’s increased enthusiasm for diversity among students and faculty is the university’s intense effort to make this goal known. A recent interview with President Salovey (“What Color Is Yale’s Faculty?” November/December) uses the word “diversity” or “diverse” 14 times on a single page. And more items from other parts of the university, with similar design, continue to appear. One is dismayed to see no reference to intellectual creativity or cognitive brilliance. Diversity can be of value in opening doors of higher education to populations previously not so favored, but will it also reintroduce admission quotas, which President A. Whitney Griswold ordered nullified around the late 1950s?

Lee Dresden Goldberg ’59, ’63MD
Miami Shores, FL


Calhoun, continued

As a Calhoun alumnus who has long believed that the college should be renamed, I was very disappointed by both the decision on that subject and the decision on the title of college master (“What’s In a Name?” May/June).

The objections to the title of master, a title that has absolutely no connection with slavery (and does not in any event have to be used as a form of address), are so infantile that they should not even have been taken seriously. The university’s decision can only be described as a surrender to ignorance. It was also disappointing to read of the university’s lukewarm support of Erika Christakis, whose controversial e-mail was so eminently sensible that it should be incorporated into university policy.

In contrast, the Calhoun issue involves far more than an exaggerated sense of grievance on the part of an oversensitive and overexcited segment of the student body. America’s foremost advocate of slavery is not someone whose name should ever have been memorialized in a residential college of Yale University. And to keep the name simply as part of a lesson in history is to deny the college community a name (such as Murray or Franklin) in which we can all take pride.

Whether the name is changed or not, though particularly in the latter case, a minor alteration to the college coat of arms (what is often, incorrectly, called a “crest”) should be considered. The open book with the inscription in Hebrew characters “Urim [and] Thummim” (the inspiration for “Lux et Veritas”) was taken from the university coat of arms. However, in the peculiar circumstances of Calhoun College, a different biblical quotation, perhaps also in Hebrew, might be appropriate: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land,” or just “Proclaim liberty.”

Ronald P. Richenburg ’68
Kidlington, England


As a member of the Class of ’74 in Berkeley College, the son of Charles Finch ’41, father of Charles Finch III ’02, nephew of Roy Finch ’40 and Stephen Finch ’44, and cousin of Stephen Finch Jr. ’69 and Annie Finch ’79—members all of Berkeley College—I have a unique perspective on Calhoun College.

That is because my uncle John Finch ’42S and my godfather Lee Fischer ’41S were members of Calhoun, in those days the least prestigious of the 12 residential colleges, where Mother Yale, in her wisdom, dumped its science majors and other untapped undesirables for decades.

In 1971, the late Ira Nerken ’72, I, and others founded the Committee to Unsell the War. Calhoun master R. W. B. Lewis, the great Edith Wharton scholar, donated Calhoun, where Nerken was in residence, as the headquarters for our efforts to end US involvement in the Vietnam War, a major event at the time. We made the first TV commercials with John Kerry ’66, for example, in 1971.

Ira Nerken would be most amused at the Calhoun controversy and, radical visionary that he was, might even support a name change. Either way, Ira would deplore the complete absence of acknowledgement of Calhoun’s history as the least, in practice, of Yale’s 12 through the eras of Bones, shoe, and all that jazz.

Charlie Finch ’74
New York, NY


A broken window

As far as I see, the food service worker who broke the window of Calhoun College depicting slaves picking cotton (see page 20) is heroic in his actions. Give the worker a raise in order to try and keep him. We need people who are aware.

Jeffrey Deutsch ’91MDiv
St. Louis, MO


Now that it is common knowledge that you can destroy anything at Yale that offends you without fear of prosecution or need to pay restitution, I have one question. Am I limited to a broomstick or can I bring my own power tools?

Everett Rutan ’74
Madison, CT

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