June 9, 2004: Letters
Letter Box Online
PAW welcomes letters. We may edit them for length,
accuracy, clarity, and civility.
As a German, I found it compelling to read the Peter Eisenman interview (cover story, April 7), in which he reflected on his architectural achievements. I found his insights relating to the approach to the hotly disputed Holocaust Memorial in Berlin of particular interest. According to his comments, Eisenman believes that if it were possible to conduct a poll that could access the German subconscious, the results would reveal that 90 percent of the German population is against his concept of a memorial.
I cannot but agree, with one important difference: You need not delve into the German “subconscious.” Almost everyone that I know – Germans and foreigners, Jews and non-Jews, old and young – finds Eisenman’s piece of architecture not only absurdly ugly, but also inadequate as a symbol that seeks to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive for present and future generations. Eisenman seems to enjoy this mass rejection. As he said about the memorial, “It’s going to be very provocative.” But I ask, to whom? The surviving Jews? Their children? The Germans in Berlin who have to pass by this monstrosity every day? Perhaps the Germans or foreigners that visit Berlin?
Of course, de gustibus non est disputandum – but is the Holocaust really the context for artists to realize their pleasure for provocation? Does not, for example, the Washington Holocaust Museum (which Eisenman dislikes, and which I found deeply impressive) provide a more sober and respectful example of how one should try to approach this subject?
Whatever the answer may be to these questions – the conclusion that the wide rejection of his project amongst the Germans indicates a “latent anti-Semitism” is absurd and, if I may say so, unmerited. The negative reaction to this work appears to be one that is primarily aesthetically driven, and the notion that “you either like my architecture or you are an anti-Semite” is not one that I can believe that Eisenman really had in mind when talking to PAW.
Christoph von Rohr h’61
Students today are missing an educational opportunity that accompanied the glory days of Howard Johnson-catered meals in Commons. For example, mystery meat was a lesson in comparative biology — was the veal really beef or pork? The same for elephant balls — what species were they from, and were they real? Botany was learned during attempts to analyze green death. Algae? Slime mold? A higher plant phylum? Budding physicists could study the characteristics of Newton’s rings formed by the thin layer of oil on sliced mystery meat.
Sunday dinner provided new intellectual challenges. On the alternate weeks, when the meal was alleged to be Welsh rarebit, one had to use principles of material science to determine the composition of the object on the plate that was the size, shape, and consistency of a hockey puck. The gritty orange material ladled over it was a study in the dynamics of sediment-containing fluids. I will admit that no special talent was necessary to recognize the undercooked bacon. Alternate Sundays brought cold cuts. This provided another fascinating study in biology, allowing the student to attempt to identify what is usually labeled “meat by-products.”
Gerald S. Golden ’57
As a practicing architect, loyal alum, and former Butler resident, I believe the University’s decision to demolish the quadrangle is wrong and shortsighted. I have always thought that the buildings represented a sophisticated, responsive modernism, and as I made my way through graduate school and into professional life my appreciation of the buildings only deepened. It is not hard to walk through the quadrangle and see how the buildings reinterpreted the neo-Gothic in modern materials, and how the forms of the buildings were designed to sit at the edge of the playing fields. The interiors may not be every student’s dream, but they are crisply detailed, well-built modern spaces.
Just compare these dormitories and their site plan with those of Wilson College, which is altogether more straightforward, and one can understand how much effort and talent went into a complex and careful design. The courtyard of Butler may not be a conventional grassy lawn, but I would rank it among the finest modernist outdoor spaces.
The architecture of Butler’s quadrangle may not have been in fashion for a long time (especially among architecture students), but these buildings are among the very best collegiate buildings built between 1940 and 1980 in the U.S.
Jacob Goldberg ’88
Professor Steven Gubser (Letters, March 10) is too modest: It is not that the Princeton physics department provides “what we think is a great major,” but rather it provides an undergraduate training regimen that no other university exceeds. Contrary to the remarks of Rich Clarvit ’83 (Letters, January 28), what makes the program so strong is the faculty commitment to “weaker” students, of which I was a model.
I got into Princeton primarily, if not only, because both of my parents are alumni (Calvin Lu ’74 and Florence Tam Lu ’75). Yes, I scored a perfect 5 on the A.P. physics exam, but this test demonstrated nothing about my understanding. I promptly failed my first midterm in 105. I ended up in the bottom 30 percent of the class, having scored only a third of the points available on the test, and most of those were awarded because I managed to luckily guess a few equations that, properly interpreted, might actually have applied to the problem at hand.
Immediately following this first failure, I began to experience the true character of the department, in its nurturing of struggling students, when I gloomily marched into the professor’s office to reconsider my participation in Physics 105 in particular, and physics in general. Surprisingly, he spent more than an hour talking to me (and a few other students in a similar bind), encouraging me not to give up. Rather, he counseled me to cheer up, learn to study, and learn how to learn, and said that things would turn out in the end.
And indeed they did. I ended up changing my study habits to allocate the proper amount of time to the problem sets, and going to lots of office hours, asking a lot of stupid questions. The
stupid-question trend continued for the rest of my time in the department, and in every case there was a patient faculty member willing to answer even the most trivial of my queries. By the end of my senior year, I was spending half an hour each day with my thesis adviser — hardly the result of a department that does not care and has no time.
Ultimately, what makes the physics department the greatest is that it teaches students how to think about solving problems in general, and physics in particular. Having a few extra mathematical tricks up your sleeve, like differential equations, does not help. The essential pedagogical strategy of the department is to understand what’s really happening behind all of the equations, beginning in Physics 105.
Peter J. Lu ’00
I, too, was one of the “physics dropouts” back in 1974 during my junior year. At that time I was taking Quantum Mechanics taught by a young instructor who, I was told, had a bear of a time when he took that subject and was going to make damned sure his students would do the same. Homework problems consisted of extremely lengthy calculations (even to me, who thought nothing of spending 10 hours solving a single advanced math problem and once turned in 85 pages of equations — unfortunately with a mistake on page 15—for one freshman mechanics homework problem), at the end of which I felt I had learned nothing that I hadn’t known already.
Despite carrying an A in the class, I asked to drop the class prior to the midterm. The instructor signed off on it, but only after expressing his disdain by laughing at my explanation of why I wanted out. Fortunately, I had had the good sense to take physics out of the math department rather than the other way around. I never took another physics course at Princeton again. I look back with great fondness, however, at having had the privilege of taking my freshman and sophomore physics classes under John Wheeler. And I am now a Stanford Ph.D. geophysicist and the chairman of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists Research Committee.
So let me ask, Professor Gubser, would the physics department even today take notice of an A-average student dropping one of its classes? And if so, does it have any systematic procedure to interview these students and work with them to take positive steps to improve the class environment and persuade them to continue their pursuit of this “great major?”
Stewart A. Levin ’75
Garrett Mitchener *03’s letter in the April 21 issue condemns a statement I had particularly admired — Professor Edmund White’s quote in the March 10 issue: “Any self-respecting gay should be an atheist.”
An atheist myself, I was glad — nay, relieved — to hear such a direct, honest statement, unfettered by political correctness. However, instead of pausing to appreciate Professor White’s audacity, Mitchener not only took him to task for it, but also misunderstood it.
Mitchener’s conclusion that the professor was “asserting that sexual preference should determine religion” ignores the context of the quote; Professor White had been voicing his opinion that “the single biggest enemy to homosexuality is Christianity,” and that, consequently, gay people who “try to accommodate Christianity and create their own gay group within the Catholic church or the Mormon church” irritated him. He was not demanding that atheism be a prerequisite for homosexuality. Rather, his remarks point to the fact that it is psychologically damaging, not to mention hypocritical, to subscribe to a belief system that condemns your very existence. How can people believe in something that hates them without hating themselves? How can people who don’t hate themselves believe in something that hates them?
I suspect that much of Mitchener’s complaint stems from the blunt manner in which Professor White expressed himself. But should we expect anything less from an author whose writings so boldly disrupt the status quo?
Holly Chandler ’03
I was extremely pleased to read the letter by Garrett Mitchener *03 responding to the article about Professor Edmund White. It mirrors my thoughts, but expresses them much better than I could, or would, have.
Charles A. Warder ’55
It’s enough to have to wade through elaborate, unsolicited, and shameless alumni-money hustles for Princeton athletics each year, but now comes an appalling hustle for something called “Alumni and Friends of Princeton R.O.T.C.,” which appears to be a crude effort to hype, promote, and reward service or careers in the military. Surely, undergraduates are capable of making their own choices — involving athletics, R.O.T.C., or, hey, maybe even academics — without paid inducements from their elders. Aren’t they?
Hugh C. McDiarmid ’56
That “hard-working Princetonian” in your From the Archives photograph in the April 21 issue is me. From the number of butts in the ashtray, I was probably a sophomore at the time. I went on to write for Time magazine, public television, and as a corporate consultant.
Crane Davis ’67
I’m pretty sure it’s a picture of the back of me — the jug ears, the Smith Corona, and ashtray all look so familiar. It was probably taken the fall of 1950 or the spring of 1951. Of course if someone else claims with equal certitude that it is he, I shall defer to your judgment.
Gus Brothman ’51
I have no idea as to the political orientation of present-day Princetonians. But given the present international situation, and thinking about the coming November elections, it is the opinion of this old geezer that anyone seeking to run for the presidency should be disqualified on the grounds of insanity.
Rem V. Myers ’37
I am restoring a 1945 Willys M.B. military Jeep, owned by Princeton some time between 1968 and 1988. Here is a picture of it when Princeton sold it. I’d like a picture of it when Princeton first bought it and it was still olive drab. I want to see the original U.S.A.
registration number that would have been painted in 2" or 3" high white letters on the hood, and the unit markings on the front bumper.
If you have any information, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My classmate Lance Holden ’51 was too kind about my post-Princeton service (Letters, April 7). It is true that for 33 years I was a member of the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts faculty, but I was never the dean. Two other Princetonians were deans during my stay however: Bob Harris *60 and Bill Gilland ’55 *60.
Bill Kleinsasser ’51 *56
An article in the May 12 Notebook section about Princeton’s plans for growth incorrectly described the possible construction of graduate-student housing on land now owned by the University Medical Center at Princeton. Although nothing specific has been planned, the existing hospital would be removed before the University developed the site.