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Letters: I fear we have lost the historic heart of our role as educators...

Total immersion

As someone who took an academic leave of absence from the U of C to attend the London School of Economics (LSE), I found the recent article on studying abroad (“Spanish Steps,” Mar–Apr/07) of interest.

I strongly support studying abroad; however, the U of C’s approach can be improved upon. With the program described, U of C students are still studying with other U of C students and living in U of C housing.  To get a better understanding of living in another country, I would recommend being more integrated with the society.

I was extremely unusual in getting my Civ requirement accomplished abroad. Growing up in the U.S., I learned about the independence movements in Asia and Africa following World War II. At the LSE, I learned about decolonization following WW II. That may be a subtle difference in terms, but a very large difference in perspective. In economics there, I learned about Keynesian economics, not something exactly focused on at Chicago. Had I continued to be taught by Chicago professors, I might not have seen some of those other viewpoints.

Part of studying abroad should also be functioning in the other society as opposed to staying in a small familiar cocoon. Living with people from other countries and experiencing life as a normal student helped teach me a lot about other cultures—and myself.

I encourage the U of C to encourage not only studying abroad but also studying at other schools.

Gregory J. Watson, AB’92
Arlington, Virginia

Martha Merritt, associate dean for international education, responds: I agree with Gregory Watson on many particulars but hope that Study Abroad Chicago is less a cocoon than a portal. We support 47 programs, including 11 Civ sequences in locations from Cape Town to Beijing. Our students report that the place and people come alive even as they meet a College requirement. Many programs feature enrollment in local universities and housing with foreign students. And those who wish to follow Mr. Watson’s example can do so more easily now. Chicago has agreements with nine British and Irish universities, including the LSE.


Selective action

On February 2, President Zimmer announced that the board of trustees had decided, based on the Kalven Report, not to divest from corporations profiting from genocide in Darfur. Forty years ago it was declared that “[T]he university...cannot take collective action on the issues of the day...” and that settled the matter.

Interestingly, though, on March 2 the Chicago Maroon reported University support for Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics. Vice President Hank Webber was quoted to the effect that “the University endorses the proposal in part because the Olympics might spark South Side economic development.” Here we find the University of Chicago taking a political position, one that is far from certain to benefit the economy of the City of Chicago (Allen Sanderson of the economics faculty, for one, seems doubtful), and the merits of which are vigorously disputed within the community. Where is the “neutrality of the university as an institution” arising “out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints” as espoused in the Kalven Report?

Of course I’m not surprised. In the 1980s, for example, the University and its officers lobbied for the Superconducting Supercollider—for its funding, and for it to be sited at Fermilab—despite opposition to the project by many distinguished physicists. The Kalven Report was ignored in that process. It is easy to discover (e.g. at www.opensecrets.org/lobbyists) that the University annually spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists and lobbying; it seems plausible that at least some of those expenditures involve taking actions “on the issues of the day.”

The application of the Kalven Report is largely bogus, and has been perhaps since it was issued. I believe that the board has used the Kalven Report to justify doing whatever it has wished to do anyway, invoking or ignoring the report according to its convenience.

Robert C. Michaelson, SB’66, AM’73
Evanston, Illinois


Wrong choice on Darfur

Based on the article “Response to Darfur” (“Chicago Journal,” Mar–Apr/07), the University has chosen wrongly. Advocacy organizations have done a commendable job of educating the public about this ongoing genocide. While this increased awareness represents progress, knowledge without action is worthless. I commend the University on the creation of a fund to underwrite faculty and student work (a truly creative and worthwhile idea), but it is no replacement for divestment (or any other proactive measures). The University is correct in claiming that its antidivestment decision is not a sign of neutrality; inaction in the face of clear injustice given the opportunity to act is complicity, not neutrality.

While we can hope that the $200,000 fund will indeed advance human rights, I challenge the false choice between providing an “umbrella of open, free inquiry” and the University’s moral duty to divest. These options are not mutually exclusive. Budgets are moral documents, and within them are the keys to our priorities. We should not pretend that prizing open inquiry absolves us of the moral duty to examine our possible complicity with injustice.

Finally, I challenge Professor Stone’s assertion that it is not the University’s role to “decide” such questions. If that is the case, then the University has lost its own soul. Last year, philosopher Dallas Willard spoke at the Divinity School of the peril in forgetting that the best higher education is worthless if it does not have as its telos the Good. I understand the University’s history as a broker of free and rigorous inquiry, but that should never supplant our duty to the Good. In our post-Christendom, post-Enlightenment, postmodern philosophy of education, I fear that we have lost the historic heart of our roles as educators, namely making better people. Today we purge classrooms of all overt talk of morality, under the guise of free inquiry and epistemological tolerance. However, we still implicitly teach morality, for moral objectivity is an impossibility.

Arriving at shared understandings of the Good is fraught with problems, but to abandon that enterprise is unacceptable. Each of us is always free to define the Good as she chooses, but we can never stop presenting others with our understanding of the Good and inviting that rigorous debate the University so cherishes. When we abandon producing good people with properly balanced affections in favor of simply “smart” or “open” ones, we should shut our doors.

Bob Francis, AM’06
Washington, D.C.

 

William Rainey Harper, an ordained minister and Chicago’s first president, once remarked: “It is all well and good to be sympathetic with the working man, but we get our money from the other side, and we can’t afford to offend them” (quoted by Eric Alterman in the February 26, 2007, Nation).

I was appalled to learn that President Harper espoused this philosophy of putting money before people. Today’s trustees seem to be following his dictum, if in his remarks we replace “the working man” with “the victims of Darfur genocide.”

It is sad that my University apparently chooses money over people, even though President Zimmer recognizes there is a human crisis in Darfur. I suggest the trustees and the president listen to the idealistic students protesting the University’s uncaring attitudes toward the suffering people in Darfur.

Lawrence A. Lundgren, SB’45, MBA’56
Schererville, Indiana


Ethics and the emergency room

It was encouraging to read Laura Stuart’s article “Belief In Medicine” (“Investigations,” Mar–Apr/07). It suggests a recognition of the important role that spirituality and ethical values may play in the practice of medicine. During my emergency-medicine residency at the University of Chicago Hospitals (1994–97), I was regarded as naive at best whenever I raised such issues. Faculty, mentors, and peers often dismissed my concerns as just not a recognized part of the curriculum. Even the article’s brief allusion to Dr. Curlin’s view of emergency medicine—all emergency-room physicians treat broken legs and acute pneumonia using standard protocols—seems consistent with that interpretation.

Yet I can think of few areas of medical practice where physicians are called upon so frequently to make life-or-death decisions. I know firsthand that many are influenced by personal values, whether based in religious or secular ideals. If even a medical-ethics authority seems to suggest that physician beliefs may not play a role in the critical-care context, I fear less ethically sensitive physicians training or practicing at the University will fail to gain and share the value of this wisdom.

Luis E. Gomez
Ft.  Lauderdale, Florida


Haiku in review

The results of the Alumni Haiku Contest (“Lite of the Mind,” Mar–Apr/07) are in; let the bitching and moaning commence.

With all due respect for Mr. O’Connor’s talents and tastes, the judging should have been done by a committee. De gustibus non est disputandum, so I limit myself to two fairly objective comments. The second-place entry is not about the University of Chicago—one of the rules of the contest; it is about Hyde Park. The third-place entry really deserves the title of “first place among the eight haiku that referred to Botany Pond,” given Mr. O’Connor’s self-imposed constraint that “I had to pick one poem from the many that referred to Botany Pond.”

Really, though, it was an enjoyable exercise, and thanks for posting all the entries online.

Blane W. Conklin, AM’01, PhD’05
Round Rock, Texas


Hutchins and haiku

Amen to John L. Gann Jr. (“Letters,” Mar–Apr/07). Being an emeriti, I likewise was drawn to the U of C because of the unique learning experience of the Hutchins College, which was all “common core” in those golden years (not the lip service simulacrum it has become). Chicago stood above all others as the leader in academic circles, rejecting its peers’ puerile culture of football, cafeteria curriculum, and stadium lectures.

By chance, Mr. Gann’s point is best demonstrated by examining the winning choices in the haiku competition. In those elegies to the University is there anything described that could not apply to any campus? Is there no longer any unique pride and sense of accomplishment in becoming a superbly educated “Chicago product,” as the expression used to be? Babies, Japanese tourists, ginkgo and koi— is that all that distinguishes the University today?

Herbert L. Caplan, AB’52, JD’57
Chicago


Consensus thinking

Whose thinking is muddled? A writer (“Letters,” Mar–Apr/07) labeled one letter writer and one dean guilty of thinking unworthy of publication, but I would suggest he reconsider his own views. James Hasik, MBA’97, finds fault with an earlier letter from fellow MBA Paul Streitz, who talked about the climbing “wages” of the rich. Streitz should have used the term “income,” not wages, but if Mr. Hasik was really interested in the point he could easily have translated that instead of dismissing the truth of the observation.

The criticism of School of Social Service Administration Dean Jeanne Marsh hit home. I worked for 35 years at the low social-work salaries Dean Marsh referred to in her interview (“Talking Points,” Jan–Feb/07). I graduated from SSA in ’69, but not until I added a second master’s in health administration in 1988 did I get a salary approaching even $35,000. According to Mr. Hasik I should have accepted the “consensus” that my social work was not “worth” more. That work was done with severely mentally ill residents of Massachusetts and with the sick, the multiply severely handicapped children, and dysfunctional families of Louisiana. Even as a health administrator/social worker I had low earnings because I directed a nonprofit primary-care program that served indigent and migrant families.

Should I, or any reader including Mr. Hasik, not question why a quarterback, a golfer, or a NASCAR driver can earn in one year more than 100 times what I earned in my entire career? Or why someone with equity earnings based on slave labor in China can do the same? I am not sure who makes up the consensus Mr. Hasik refers to. They obviously are not all Chicago MBAs since his colleague raised the same questions as I have. Dean Marsh’s recommendation, translated into dollars appropriate to the years I worked, would have made my life and current retirement much easier.

Ron Melancon, AM’69
Tampa, Florida

 

James M. Hasik willfully misconstrues Dean Jeanne Marsh’s point about the salaries and social significance of social workers. No one’s pay is set by a “consensus” of Americans. Private-sector wages are as high as they are because private employees’ productivity directly contributes to increasing the wealth of the directors, CEOs, and major stockholders. In the public sector, there are not enough resources to adequately fund the many and diverse responsibilities employees are charged with performing. The people who directly benefit from public spending in fact outnumber the rich many times over, but the current political climate favors the economic interest of the wealthy few instead.

Marsh’s point, I believe, was that since society as a whole benefits from the labor of social workers, society as a whole should fund a greater share of the cost of educating them, and not leave that cost to private institutions such as the U of C. If the current system does not change, the continued existence of the School of Social Service Administration, despite its valuable intellectual tradition and the high quality of education and scholarship it provides, might be at risk. Look at what happened to the University’s former Graduate Library School.

Hubert J. Thompson, AM’81, AM’87
Chicago

 

James Hasik, MBA’97, needs to refresh his understanding of the economic concept of externality, as well as the social concept of civility. Economic theory presumes that an employee’s compensation is determined by perceived value to the employer, which may or may not reflect actual value. Most recipients of social workers’ services either do not pay for them, or payment is subsidized by governmental or nonprofit entities, making their value difficult to estimate. But at most their compensation reflects value to their employers, not value to society, an elementary economic distinction Mr. Hasik ignores.

Not all economic actions are self-contained—the economic actor paying the entire cost or receiving the entire benefit. The classic example is the manufacturer that neglects pollution control, shifting part of its real costs onto those injured by pollution. But there can also be external benefits. If, for example, hospital social workers’ counseling of discharged patients and their families improves medical outcomes, enables shorter hospital stays, and averts bankruptcy filings, indirect beneficiaries include patients’ employers, landlords, and creditors, not to mention the public, by way of insurers, welfare programs, and the courts. No one knows how effective social workers are, or the value of such external benefits. But Dean Marsh is on much stronger economic ground in asserting that social workers create such benefits than is Mr. Hasik in suggesting they don’t.

Mr. Hasik might have said that where external benefits are unquantifiable, absent indications of a social-worker shortage, it would be bad policy to grant a subsidy that carries administrative costs and is likely to be too high. But it is “economic thinking” unworthy of any university to say, in effect, “my value to society is what I earn as an MBA, and yours is what you earn as an MSW.”

Kevin Snapp, JD’82
Chicago

 

James M. Hasik dismisses Dean Jeanne Marsh’s call for more federal funding of social-work students, on the grounds that social workers’ low salaries reflect the low value of their work. This criticism graphically illustrates the fallacy that underlies the field of economics, despite its many contributions to knowledge. Money is not a measure of value. It is a measure of power.

Linda T Darling, PhD’90
Tucson


Free to choose

I share the comments by Bert Metzger on “Friedman’s Legacy” (“Letters,” Mar–Apr/07). Friedman was an exceedingly stimulating classroom teacher. But his policy proposals were more the product of ideology than of economic analysis.

Vernon W. Ruttan, AM’50, PhD’52
St. Paul, Minnesota

I found Mr. Metzger’s letter incoherent at best and disturbing at worse. I am struggling to recount the political and skill benefits of the draftee military. It is unclear what the phrase “worst officers, including incompetence” is intended to mean. And I haven’t read about academy torturers anywhere lately.

Does most of Latin America (an offensively Eurocentric term for the central and southern regions of this continent) have a flat tax? Is that the cause for the frequently unhealthy socioeconomic structure of some of those countries? A flat tax can be implemented in many different ways that would result in removing the tax burdens for those least able to bear the burden and stimulate growth at the same time. Mr. Metzger avoids the fact that the largest tax burdens the least affluent people pay are hugely regressive, FICA, and sales taxes. A simplified flat tax with an appropriate income floor would be effectively progressive and eliminate the primary reason the current tax code exists, power brokering by the ruling elite.

His apparent gleeful response to the passing of a brilliant man is disturbing 

Kevin Sluder, MBA’87
Portsmouth, New Hampshire


Wise soul

Unfortunately there is no course in wisdom taught in any of the major universities, but if there were I would nominate Jonathan Lear (“Philosotherapy,” Jan–Feb/07) to teach it. Finally, someone who is not afraid to round up the usual suspects—Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Freud, and the last great chief of the Crow nation (and, I am sure, my favorite, Kierkegaard)—and apply his own wisdom to that these thinkers show us. Morality and ethics are at the heart of truth, a lesson the economists at Chicago and other schools would be wise to take to heart, as Professor Lear shows us.

Psychoanalysis has suffered from those who practice it. Professor Lear is the happy exception. I would not hesitate to be his patient.

Thomas P. Glynn, AB’58
Brooklyn, New York


Department of corrections

In “King’s War Legacy” (“Chicago Journal,” Mar–Apr/07), Dwight Hopkins should have been identified as a full professor of theology in the Divinity School. In the same issue’s “Peer Review” caption, Ben Whitehouse should have been listed as MFA’91, not MBA’91, though he’s “always wondered what having a business degree would be like.”


The University of Chicago Magazine welcomes letters for publication, which must be signed and may be edited for length or clarity. To provide a range of views and voices, we ask writers to limit themselves to 300 words or less. Write: Editor, University of Chicago Magazine, 5801 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL60637. Or e-mail: uchicago-magazine@uchicago.edu.