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Letters: Plowing might be less fun when you don't have tenure.

Argument derailed

Your story on Robert Fogel (“The Human Equation,” May–June/07) asserts that the basic findings of his claim in Railroads and American Economic Growth, that “even if the first rail had never been laid...the per capita income that America reached on New Year’s Day 1890...would have been delayed by only about three months,” has been confirmed by other scholars. That is not strictly true.

The distinguished historian William Cronon writes, in his award-winning book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (Norton, 1991), “[f]ew historical analyses have been more misleading about this issue than Robert Fogel’s elaborate quantitative argument that the railroad was in no way ‘indispensable’ to American economic growth in the nineteenth century. ... There are good reasons why Fogel’s thesis seems intuitively wrong, for its question about whether the railroads were ‘indispensable’ is misconceived from the outset, and yields an answer of limited historical interest. ... For an excellent review of the literature surrounding Fogel’s work, see David L. Lightner, ‘Railroads and the American Economy: the Fogel Thesis in Retrospect’, Journal of Transport History, 3d ser., 4, no. 2 (Sept. 1983): 20-34....” 

More recently, a reassessment by John K. Brown of Louis C. Hunter’s classic Steamboats on the Western Rivers (Harvard University Press, 1949), in Technology and Culture vol. 44, no. 4 (Oct. 2003): 786-793, points out “[t]he arguments of...Robert Fogel find scant support in the exhaustive narrative record assembled by Hunter. In his pioneering counterfactual history, Fogel undercut the orthodox faith that railroads exerted a determinative role in nineteenth-century American economic history. But Hunter had thoroughly detailed an early (1850s) and lopsided commercial victory across the Midwest won by nascent railroads over the established steamboat industry. In comparing the two books, Fogel’s counterfactualism also comes out second best. In contrast, Hunter’s narrative is fully consonant with William Cronon’s explanations for Chicago’s rise and the comparative decline of St. Louis.”

Thus—and many more examples could be cited—other historians’ work has demonstrated that Fogel’s thesis is not just counter-intuitive; it is wrong.

Robert Michaelson, SB’66
Evanston, Illinois

Farm and function

The juxtaposition of Robert Fogel’s quantitative studies of the life and health of Civil War veterans next to David Grene’s personal meditation on small-scale farming (“Common Ground,” May–June/07) highlights the difference (dare I say incompatibility) between the social science and humanistic traditions. Fogel’s data shows that in an age of unmechanized labor Americans worked 78 hours per week and that the health of farmers in particular deteriorated once they reached older age. Grene describes the ecstasy and discounts the drudgery of old-fashioned farming. He argues that ‘[p]lowing with horses in America was never hard work’ and that man’s delight in plowing can be traced back in paintings and poetry to ancient times. Who is right: either, both, or neither?  

Grene’s subjective musings can be dismissed, with the authors and artists he references, as the product of privileged elites. Plowing might be less fun when you don’t have tenure. On the other hand, Fogel is co-author of Time on the Cross, a quantitative tour de force that demonstrated that in pre–Civil War America, slaves “lived healthier and longer lives than urban industrial workers.” Perhaps what can be measured is not always what is most important? Or maybe subjective experience is less a function of externalities than most social scientists suspect but more so than most humanists admit.

Daniel Luchins
Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry

Bloomin’ sheep

I was amused by the David Grene rhapsody on farming because it brought to mind the summer of 1950, when David and Marjorie Grene left their sheep farm in the custody of my college roommate, Allan Bloom, PhB’49, AM’53, PhD’55. Al and I had taken Grene’s seminar on Thucydides, and with Seth Benardete, AB’49, AM’53, PhD’55, Al had a two-person tutorial with David Grene to learn Greek. Al had just been admitted as the youngest member of the Committee on Social Thought.

Bloom was an urban creature if there ever was one. He knew little of mud and less of manure. He anticipated free room and board plus a summer of reading, and was proud the Grenes had selected him (but later decided he had been taken advantage of). After a week or two, Al phoned to implore me to come and help. My summer was committed, and I had worked on a Vermont farm five years previously and had no illusions.

Allan Bloom was never more judgmental than when it came to David Grene’s sheep: “They are so stupid!”

David A. Wylie, AB’50

Bloomin’ Grene

Reading the David Grene article brought back memories of when he first came to campus. I had a desk in Classics Library and he, with Marjorie Glicksman, would come in there often.

His clothes were Irish tailoring. He wore an Irish wool jacket (of course), had golden brown hair in a bob, a pink complexion, and rosy cheeks like an Irish schoolboy.

From his arrival in 1937, he and Glicksman seemed inseparable, always giggling and lighthearted. No student couple acted so young at heart. They would often come into the library to look up a word in the enormous Greek lexicon on the next table—bending over it together, always laughing (I used to wonder what could be so funny in that book), and then go out, almost gamboling—like the sheep he later raised and wrote about.

They married. Marjorie and David Green both taught in the classics department at the University. In the article, he used the words happiness, delight, joy. I’m sure these terms did not just spout from the satisfaction he gained from farming but also from his innate personality as exhibited when he first came to campus.

Edith Davis Sylander, AB’41
Stamford, Connecticut

This agrarian life

Thanks for David Grene’s “Common Ground” excerpt. It resonates with my experiences. After earning a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Divinity School in 1971, I went into ministry and eventually into college teaching and administration, at Harvard and elsewhere.

In 1991 I became a full-time-plus farmer, which can be a form of spiritual practice.  This has been the happiest, most productive, and most intellectually stimulating time of my life. Many colleagues could not understand why I appeared to be leaving “the life of the mind” for physical labor. In fact, agriculture is a basis of culture, and there are many thoughtful farmers. My soul has kept me on this rural path that Professor Grene describes so well. After leaving full-time college work, my writing and publishing increased.

Few small farmers exist in the U.S. today, unfortunately, though Thomas Jefferson described such farmers as the backbone of our nation. Professor Grene’s favorite farming activity was plowing with horses; mine is caring for chickens. This other two-legged creature teaches me prey wisdom: Stay alert. Greet each new day with enthusiasm; you are still alive. Display your beauty. Delight in simple things. Jump for joy and keep dancing. Recycle and transform refuse into jewels. Snuggle into the earth. Cuddle at night. Slow down. Take flight and enjoy the chase. When your time comes, surrender.

I still teach a college class now and then, go to church, and perform weddings. But I farm every day. Given all the changes happening worldwide, it is a good time for more people to secure their sources of food and water close at hand.
Thanks also for the rooster-like tattoo (“Lite of the Mind,” May–June/07), which I plan to wear at a chicken workshop I will teach this summer.

W. Shepherd Bliss III, ThM’69, DMN’71
 Sebastopol, California 

Thank you for publishing David Grene’s essay on farming. Since I discovered my own passion for farming, I have felt somewhat estranged from my U of C education. I have often quipped that at Chicago I was “looking for beauty in truth in all the wrong places.” It warms my heart to know there is (was) at least one kindred soul at Chicago. I wish my time and Grene’s time at the University had overlapped more. Maybe if I had been able to work with him, I would have lasted longer in the Committee on Social Thought!

I left the committee in 2001 after a year-and-a-half of course work to join a Forest Service firefighting crew. Firefighting turned out to be a short step toward finding my true vocation—taking care of a piece of land and growing food for people. I grow mixed vegetables on three acres of rented land and supply produce for 50 local families through a community-supported agriculture program. I work closely with other young folks (all educated at great colleges and all feeling their education lacked something essential) who grow cut flowers and herbs, care for goats and make goat cheese, raise grass-fed beef, staff a farm store full of locally grown foods, and reach into the community to spread the goodness we’ve found in attention to the land and to our food.

Farming does indeed offer “a powerful alternative to an exclusive concern with human ideas, aspirations, claims on one’s social beings.” I wish the University could have shown me a glimpse of this during my years there—if not through a tangible experience (the only effective way to discover the truths of the tangible world) then through being assigned a Wendell Berry essay.

I would encourage students to consider an internship on a small farm for one of their summers (check out, or to combine their international travels with working on farms though the WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) program. And any Chicago folks who happen to find themselves in Central Washington, please come visit us and see the farm. We’ll feed you well, both belly and soul.

Rachel Airmet, AB’99
Chelan, Washington

Unmatched expectations

I read the “William Rainey Harper’s Index” sidebar “March Matchness”( “Chicago Journal,” May–June/07) and found myself staring at the statistics cited, reading them repeatedly, getting in touch with the sadness I felt looking at the smiling faces of those opening their residency match envelopes. It was a sadness I would imagine one feels when a cherished friend is found to be desperately ill and there is nothing one can do about it.

Truth be told, medicine in this country is in dire straits. Rising costs, poor outcomes, needless hospitalizations and emergency room visits made by people with preventable conditions, and a health-care workforce that reflects the values of our great teaching institutions—among which the Pritzker School of Medicine must be included on anyone’s list—are just some of the symptoms of a health-care system ill-suited to meet our nation’s needs. Yet students at Pritzker this year, as stated, graduated with an average debt of $165,000, and only one student entered the field of family medicine, in the face of what experts agree is an impending crisis in primary care. While 21 students chose internal medicine, current trends tell us that only a few, if any, will end up staying in general internal medicine as most of them will specialize as well. 

Pritzker is not to blame for the troubling national trends in specialty choice among medical students. Nor is it to blame for the fact that our nation, while struggling to build its primary-care infrastructure, requires students to accumulate huge debts that help drive their choices to high-paying, procedurally oriented specialties. But some schools, responding to a national call for increased focus on prevention and chronic-disease management, have expanded their programs in primary-care training, focused efforts on introducing students to the joys of a career in primary care, and assisted students in finding mentors to shepherd them along such a career path.

These programs are successful, and their students’ career choices reflect this. Pritzker could, quite obviously from its outcomes, do more to meet the need for primary-care physicians. Physicians who practice high-tech, curative medicine, intensivists who care for the critically ill, and proceduralists who perform the critical interventions we need when we become ill—all must continue to be trained. So too must we train the physicians we need who help us delay the need for those specialized treatments by providing preventive services, early detection of diseases, and chronic-disease management.

Neil S. Calman, AB’71
Scarsdale, New York

Calman is president and CEO of the Institute for Family Health and a clinical professor of family medicine at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.—Ed. 

Taking the long view

A lesson learned—I really should wear my reading glasses when reading. My first somewhat blurry glance at the photo accompanying “Next Generation: A Star is Burned” (“Investigations,” May–June/07) convinced me that some sort of cosmic dreidel had been produced. Alas, just another exploding star simulation.

Sayre Van Young, AB’66
Berkeley, California

Totem and tattoo

Wow! I just love the Alma Mater temp tattoo (“Lite of the Mind,” May–June/07).. And the arm isn’t bad either. ... Thing is, I just don’t have a really good place to fit it in among the 30-some real tattoos I have collected during my 20-plus years of doing professional tattooing. Sigh.

It would make a great decal for my car window. I would actually buy one if you decide to make it available in that format.

Thanks for the fun!
Crow Swimsaway
(né Martin A. Nettleship, AB’58, AM’58)
New Marshfield, Ohio

The May–June issue arrived a few weeks ago, and I was amused to find a complimentary temporary tattoo enclosed. I decided to put it on my right arm as pictured. The tattoo has lasted exactly three weeks today! I go lap swimming for half an hour three times a week (this last week four times), and the tattoo is now just beginning to wear off.

Christopher T. Demos, AM’65
Lake Bluff, Illinois

Total immersion

To respond to Gregory Watson (“Letters,” May–June/07): I spent my third year at the University of Edinburgh through the U of C’s study-abroad program. I was permitted to live in the dorms with the other matriculated students, and I was fully immersed in British university culture. I believe that my only interaction with another U of C student was the chance passing of a fellow Burton-Judson resident in a train station in Rome over our common spring break. I took courses in mathematics from the wonderful faculty at Edinburgh alongside degree-seeking students from all over the world. I learned subtleties of the city and culture in which I studied and lived. I made some lasting friendships and have encouraged my own students to make the same effort in their study-abroad experiences. 

Not only was it possible for me to experience the life of a normal university student in the UK, but the wonderful folks at the U of C International Education office encouraged it. Chicago students have some of the best opportunities for studying abroad, immersive or otherwise.

Craig M. Tennenhouse, AB’99

Darfur decision

I was disappointed to read that my beloved University has chosen not to divest in the Darfur issue (“Response to Darfur,” Mar–Apr/07). It seems to me that there is a moral equivalent between investing in something and choosing not to divest, and arguing that not divesting is giving an opportunity to discuss the political ramifications of the genocide in Darfur misses the point that the University has essentially chosen to continue actively investing in these companies.

This policy’s proponents suggest that it is an individual choice to decide what one feels is happening in Darfur and how to act on it. I, for one, will be acting in this respect by not donating to the University of Chicago as long as it chooses to fund this travesty in the name of academic freedom.

Rohini Jonnalagadda, AB’01, MD’05
New York City

As a proud parent of a son at Chicago, I am in the honeymoon phase of my relationship with the University and your fine magazine. Consequently I was dismayed at the handling of the Darfur divestment situation.

Chicago’s initial fund of $200,000 to advance human-rights study is a wonderful thing, but continuing investments in a country where it is factually known that men, women, and children are suffering under a genocidal situation is wholly incongruous. Make no mistake: there is no misinformed intelligence here. The genocide in the Sudan’s Darfur region is real, and no one is debating its existence. Many universities have already divested while continuing their human-rights dialogue. The House of Representatives has introduced HR 180, Darfur Accountability and Divestment Act of 2007, which, if enacted, would prohibit U.S. government contracts with companies conducting business in the Sudan. None of Chicago’s traditional, proper, and laudable efforts to defend and nurture the intellectual process of debate and inquiry are risked by divestment. The 1967 Kalven Report allows for just this “exceptional instance” situation—surely this case exhibits the required incompatibility “with paramount social values.”

Let us all encourage Chicago to divest in the Sudan and to address this situation immediately so that history continues to show a fine institution that can both involve itself and react in a timely way to a world that presents tragedies that sometimes need both our immediate attention and our continuing intellectual debate. 

Brian H. Wilmers
Huntington Woods, Michigan

Department of corrections

In “The Human Equation” (May–June/07) Robert Fogel’s birthdate was incorrect; while a conference marking his 80th birthday was held last November, he reached that milestone last July. An item in the May–June/07 “For the Record should have read, “Psychiatrist Nada Logan Stotland, AB’63, MD’67, who has an independent practice and is on the Rush Medical College faculty, became president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association in May.” And a “For the Record” listing of Gates scholars should have included Kathryn Tabb, AB’06. Tabb, who graduated in History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science (HiPSS), received a Gates to study history and philosophy of science at Cambridge. We regret the errors.

The Magazine welcomes letters. Letters for publication must be signed and may be edited. To provide a range of views and voices, we encourage writers to limit themselves to 300 words or less. Write: Editor, University of Chicago Magazine, 401 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611. Or e-mail: