The University of Chicago Magazine August 1995
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The Magazine invites letters on the contents of the magazine or on topics related to the University. Letters for publication, which must be signed, may be edited for length and/or clarity. To ensure the widest range of voices, preference is given to letters of no more than 300 words. Address letters to: Editor, University of Chicago Magazine, 5757 Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL 60637. The Internet address is:


Strike one! Watch other people play sports, rather than playing them yourself. Strike two! Worry about how much money the players are making, rather than enjoying their achievements and rooting for your favorites! Strike three! Listen to an economist explain the intricacies of who gets how much, and why.

What a satire! Sports as a public-policy problem ["Bottom-Line Drive," June/95], waiting for (what else?) the proper free-market solution. Most of us can't do the proper calculations to know what amount of athletic excellence our sports dollar should command, but we may rely on professional economists to tell us whether we are being cheated, and by how much.

The real problem, I submit, is the misplaced application of economic categories to activities that shouldn't be sullied by them. The knowledge gained by such an application is worse than useless. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going out to the playground to shoot some hoops....

Philip Cafaro, AB'84

Brookline, Massachusetts

Sports and taxes

It was very refreshing to hear that most of what we read in the sports pages about the money matters of sports is patent nonsense.

But in his paragraph on owners' profits, the author failed to make any mention of the size of municipal taxpayers' subsidies to the owners, their effect on those profits, and what would happen to the teams if those subsidies were eliminated. That is the only subject many of us are interested in, as I don't attend or watch sports events in which the players are oversexed, overpaid (regardless of what Mr. Sanderson says), ignorant, and mean. I love soccer!

Bert Metzger, JD'61


Allen Sanderson responds: In the article's ninth inning, I do note owners' successes at getting protection and subsidies all the way from Washington, D.C., to Washington state. The cartel's ability to play musical chairs with cities and franchises, where there is always at least one vacant location a team can threaten to move to, has allowed individual owners and professional sports leagues to redistribute sizable sums of money from taxpayers to themselves and, indirectly, their players.

This is currently, as Mr. Metzger points out, a significant source of franchise profitability, and also a reason--once the team has successfully extracted all of these monies from its community--that the bottom-line impact on a city's economy from a team coming or going (or getting citizens to build the team a new stadium) is negligible.

Ballpark frankness

Do we pay our ballplayers too much, our schoolteachers too little? How do we price water and diamonds (baseball or other)? Was Joe DiMaggio really a girl's best friend?

Professor Sanderson has the old response: "The answer--whether water and diamonds or schoolteachers and ball-players--is that the relative scarcity at the margin, not the total value, determines the price."

Baseball remains the favorite sport of American economists: It hotdogs values.

Joseph Ryan, AM'60, PhD'69

Yarmouth port, Massachusetts

Comps with class

As a "child" of the Hutchins College, I enjoyed Tim Andrew Obermiller's article "Comp Time" (June/95). He makes some valid points, but I for one--among many--did attend classes and lectures. Just the comps without the classes would have been a meager education. Together they taught me to challenge, to doubt, to other words, to think. Just as Hutchins had intended.

While this sort of education is not for everyone, it did for me what it wanted to. As Tim wrote, "it was difficult to excel in the tests," and I agree.

Donna Dickey Guyer, AB'36

Boynton Beach, Florida

Comps with complexity

The article "Comp Time" shows that although the author may have gone to class, he did not do his homework.

The objective questions on comps--except perhaps from time to time as a joke--did not contain "never" or "always." Often there was not a single correct answer; there might be two or three correct answers. Sometimes there was a series of interconnected questions: If you went off on the wrong theoretical tack on the first and your logic was consistent, you missed them all. Importantly, essay questions were a major part, often half, of many comps. Look at the expressions on the kids' faces in the photograph that accompanied the article. They are not the expressions of people breezing through a test. It is true that you couldn't pass by buttering up the prof, or by virtue or a perfect attendance record, or by revising someone else's paper and turning it in as your own.

Finally, there was no Hutchins College. As we presume it is today, it was the College of the University of Chicago. Let's not be cute.

Janet Benson Kaye, AB'48, AM'67

E. Donald Kaye, AB'49

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Our emphasis on multiple choice was based, in part, on observations made by U of C distinguished professor emeritus of history William McNeill, AB'38, AM'39, who wrote in his 1991 book, Hutchins' University (U of C Press): "The comprehensive examinations did sometimes resort to essay questions. But essays were difficult to grade objectively, so, for the most part, the all-important examinations consisted of machine-scored multiple-choice questions. This was convenient and meant that grades were assigned on a genuinely impersonal basis."--Ed.

Filling in the blanks

You only briefly touched on the virtues of multiple-choice exams. At many universities now, multiple-choice exams have a terrible reputation, and well they may have, given that each professor constructs them in an essentially amateurish manner. Yet the Chicago "comps" really tested our intellectual abilities in the sense that students with high grades in 14 comps would test well in any other form of examination (except possibly in writing skills). A huge effort was put into writing the comps, with the writers conscious of, as you wrote, the coherently defined skills and knowledge students were supposed to acquire from each course. I cannot remember any students' discussions about unfair student ranking or about inappropriate topics on the exam.

My practical question: Has there been a study of how the comps were constructed, what qualities made them effective? Can we learn from the comps how to build effective multiple-choice exams today? Finally, I would like to know: Are any copies of the 1950s comps still in existence and available to be copied?

Donat G. Wentzel, AB'54, SB'55, SM'56, PhD'60

Rockville, Maryland

Exam copies have been safely stored away in the University Library. As to the construction and effectiveness of comps, such questions are addressed in The Chicago College Plan (U of C Press, 1935) by former College dean Chauncey Samuel Boucher. A copy is available in the U of C Archives.--Ed.

High anxiety

Concerning "Comp Time," the story neglects the comprehensive examination system's most conspicuous consequence: It was almost perfectly calculated to produce preexamination anxiety. The student had a long period to prepare for an examination set by an impersonal board of examiners, with no objective indication in the interim of how well he was doing.

The condition became known as being "comp-crazy," and I have no doubt the psychiatric staff at Billings Hospital became well versed in it.

George W. Hilton, AM'50, PhD'56

Columbia, Maryland

Photographs and memories

The article "Comp Time" features an old photo from late summer 1945 of a group in the Field House taking Admissions Placement exams for all the basic College courses. I am seated front and center--freshly discharged from the WAC, wearing my new suit of civilian clothes, new overcoat over the arm of the chair, and still in government-issue shoes. The pin in my lapel is the "ruptured duck" emblem of honorable discharge from service.

Ruth Wedge Mednick, PhB'47, AM'55 Ellicott City, Maryland

Ruth Lundeen MacKenzie Saxe, PhB'48, AM'52, also recognized herself--"with new shoes and glazed eyes, appropriate to Orientation Week"--in the photo.--Ed.

Battle of the comps

Comp Time" brought back a lot of memories to me. Three hours in the morning and another three hours in the afternoon covering each subject. We could take books into the exam, but it didn't help. Anybody who brought detailed class notes was also doomed to waste valuable time looking through those notes instead of concentrating on the questions. Nerves were stretched to the breaking point, and every so often there would be a groan and someone would slump to the floor.

I was among the student veterans on the GI Bill, surrounded by brilliant 13-year-olds. We old geezers in our 20s would rather die than have these kids show us up. Still, the dropout rate in the first year was about 50 percent. I believe the University admitted veterans like myself on the basis of a curve rather than skim off the top scorers in the entrance exam. As it turned out, the results were the same all the way across the curve: the same dropout rate for the top scorers as for those at the bottom or anywhere inbetween.

Stan Gilson, AB'51

New York City

Cheesy elitism

It is ironic that, in his article "Comp Time," Mr. Obermiller chose to take a gratuitous potshot at correspondence schools--it was none other than William Rainey Harper who pioneered the correspondence concept while at the U of C.

I believe the ad Mr. Obermiller referred to is from International Correspondence Schools, a provider of vocational education, and a subsidiary of National Education Corporation. The question is, what makes a correspondence school "cheesy" (definition: "cheap...shabby")?

ICS is a rather large company, operating out of a handsome facility in Scranton, Penn., not shabby at all.

Is it the quality of the education? Doubtful, because most of their graduates get jobs after completing the training, and the materials are developed by experts in their respective fields. Is ICS training cheaper than a degree from the U of C? Of course.

Perhaps it's Sally Struthers and the cable advertising that has bothered Mr. Obermiller--and here is the crux of the issue: ICS serves a totally different audience than the U of C, one that is attracted by different language and different media vehicles than your average U of C candidate. Sally Struthers and cable are totally appropriate for ICS's audience. They probably wouldn't be motivated by a U of C catalog (or an infomercial featuring Hugo Sonnenschein).

What is out of place is the "cheesy" comparison, because it exhibits an unnecessary classism and elitism. ICS is one of the best correspondence schools, and serves its students well. It has its place. So does Sally Struthers.

Jeffrey W. Gettleman, JD'74

Lemon Grove, California

Government recall

In his letter in the June/95 issue titled "The Big Lie," Charles G. Bill, MBA'61, writes that the phrase "that rarest of things: a successful government program" ("Investigations," April/95) "should never appear in the magazine of a fine university." Printing such criticism of the government reminds Bill "that the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed by antigovernment militants."

So much for the First Amendment, according to Mr. Bill, the ardent constitutionalist of Garden Grove, California. If one complains that government programs, even those in Russia, rarely work like Swiss watches, then such "antigovernment" heresy equates--somehow--to mass murder in Oklahoma. Who taught Mr. Bill the art of the non sequitur, Torquemada?

Evidently never having met a government scheme he didn't like, Bill illustrates his curious thesis by pointing to such notable triumphs as American public schools (is the U.S. still ahead of Thailand in math?); Social Security (a federal Ponzi scam, as even an M.B.A. should know); and the Desert Storm war (was Saddam Hussein deposed and Iraq made a model nation?).

Mr. Bill closes with the lordly pronunciamento that when he attended the U of C "we thought ourselves in pursuit of truth." Keep up the chase, Mr. Bill, it's getting away from you!

Robert W. Blair, X'43

Flagstaff, Arizona

Just a theory

Regarding your citation entitled "Unscientific Americans" ("Investigations," June/95): If others of the NORC survey questions were as religio-philosophically (politically) loaded as the one on evolution [as to whether humans developed from earlier species], the survey fails to test the scientific validity of respondents' thinking.

Remember that the theory of evolution is just that. It is an element of the secular humanist religion, as creationism is an element of monotheistic religion. It is out of the realm of science to demand dogmatism in the realm of origins.

Lee G. Kent, SM'55

Greenville, South Carolina

An unkind cut

In your August 1995 issue ("Chicago Journal"), you talked about the new $20-million athletic center. What you didn't report was that the athletic department plans to cut about $100,000 from its budget over the next two years, and the board of athletics has already decided to cut varsity fencing after the 1995-96 season.

In the article, Tom Weingartner, associate professor and chair of physical education and athletics, called the need for the new athletic complex "urgent." Unfortunately, Mr. Weingartner doesn't seem to feel the same sense of urgency about saving varsity sports.

In the past few years, U of C fencing produced a UAA champion and two-time All-American. The U of C is only the latest in a list of universities to cancel varsity fencing in the past five years or so. We are almost to the point where the NCAA will decide that there aren't enough schools with fencing teams to warrant a national championship.

Fencing is a great sport for those of us (both men and women) who don't have the physical characteristics to participate in the sports designed to develop professional athletes. Instead, fencing relies on tactical thinking; balance; precise coordination of eyes, hands, and feet; and patience. I can think of no sport that better represents the University of Chicago spirit.

Anyone interested in varsity sport at the U of C has to ask, "Is my team next?" The fencing budget is only one-third of the amount the department plans to cut. That leaves about $65,000 in cuts yet to be made.

If the University can raise $20 million for a new athletic complex, why can't it raise another $100,000 to save varsity sports? Concerned alumni are requested to contact Hugo Sonnenschein, or fencing coach Janusz Steplowski at 708/289-3961. Let's not tear down varsity athletics at the same time we're building a new athletic center.

Allen Zeyher, AB'90


White and Finer remembered

For a collection of recollections of how two political science professors--Leonard White and Herman Finer--influenced their students' thinking and careers, alumni are urged to contribute their memories and anecdotes, which will be shared with all who respond.

Please send your reminiscences to me at 2475 Virginia Avenue, N.W., #518, Washington, D.C. 20037.

David Jickling, AB'48, AM'51, PhD'53

Washington, D.C.

The Magazine invites letters on the contents of the magazine or on topics related to the University. Letters for publication, which must be signed, may be edited for length and/or clarity. To ensure the widest range of voices, preference is given to letters of no more than 300 words.

Address letters to: Editor, University of Chicago Magazine, 5757 Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL 60637. The Internet address is:

Go to: Return to August 1995 Table of Contents