April 19, 2006: Letters
Letter Box Online
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To my pleasant surprise, I found discussions in the Feb. 15 PAW on two subjects that have always fascinated me — admissions policy and student activism.
Admissions policy, because it always amazed me that I was offered admission a year and a half after constructing my first coherent English sentence. Student activism, because to my greater amazement I found students who never set foot in the country from which I was a refugee lecturing me, in coherent English sentences, about how much better that country was than the United States, and how world peace could be achieved through unilateral disarmament.
Ultimately, the core value of student activism is aggressive ignorance. In the instances when students actually come down on the right side of an issue, their narrowly circumscribed knowledge and thoroughly obnoxious tactics turn away the undecided (the way Joe McCarthy discredited anti-communism until Ronald Reagan got it right). The activist will not be deterred by publications, professors, politicians, parents, pundits, or podcasts. But maybe, just maybe, over hot chocolate in the coffeehouse in Murray-Dodge, over the foosball table at Wilcox, on Cannon Green or under Blair Arch, they will hear a fellow student say, look, I was there, I saw the tanks, I heard the gunfire, I stood in line for rotting vegetables, I heard the slurs, I read the graffiti, and it ain’t the way you think it is — and maybe that will replace slogans with thoughts.
That, gentle readers, is what diversity is for. That is why it is sometimes acceptable to offer admission to someone who ends a sentence with a preposition, or otherwise comes up short of the very model of an athlete-scholar. They might even graduate.
ANATOLY BELILOVSKY ’82
It was a great pleasure to see that finally a debate has unfolded on campus (Notebook, March 8) on the nature of speakers invited to the University. When I was a student, it was my objective to broaden the realm of those brought to the campus, through both the Global Issues Forum and the Fields Center. My advice to current students is to continue in this vein. While academic departments have clout that you cannot match, with both initiative and persistence there is no reason why students cannot also frame the intellectual debate at Princeton. Exhortations and complaints will not provide the solution that dissatisfied students seek.
One example is when I sought to bring Ilyas Akhmadov, the then-foreign minister of the Chechen rebel government (who has since been granted asylum in the United States). The Woodrow Wilson School supported my efforts financially, logistically, and in name; this was when many others declined. Another event I can point to is a speech by Scott Ritter, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector, who was a noted anti-Iraq war critic (prior to the invasion), which again was co-hosted by the Woodrow Wilson School, with support by Dean Slaughter. I am only giving a sampling of what can be achieved through cooperation, rather than castigation.
Yet, at the same time, it is clear to me that the Woodrow Wilson School and the University in general have failed in officially promoting a diverse array of speakers on contemporary issues. True intellectualism, in the service of all nations, demands that we outgrow the box and present issues in their full context, from all perspectives, be they American or global, Democrat or Republican, left, right, or without any ideological disposition at all. If the school and the University at large are to be in the service of all nations, they cannot address the issues of our time through speeches by Condoleezza Rice, projects on national security, and colloquiums on the war on terror, which included two generals as keynoters (out of three), and only two Muslims out of the 37 speakers. This year’s colloquium is highlighted by yet another former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, as if alternating between chief diplomats of the United States represents intellectual diversity.
This letter is not a wholesale critique of anyone, in particular the Woodrow Wilson School, without whom the campus debate would certainly be much poorer. However, having high-profile/establishment events should not fool us into thinking that we are providing a “service.” Taking an extra effort to really be in the service of all nations, and risk being unpopular or less “high-profile” in Washington, may be unorthodox. But then again, being orthodox has never been the point, in my mind, of academic institutions, especially Princeton — or has it?
TAUFIQ RAHIM ’04
In the spring of 1961 I had the undeserved good fortune to spend an afternoon as a guest in Professor Edward S. Corwin’s home on Stockton Street. We engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of his views on the Constitution. Now I wish he could return from the grave to respond to Mark O’Brien ’73’s one-sided article, “Curbing the Court,” in the March 8 edition of the PAW.
For decades prior to 1937, a Supreme Court majority did believe that the U.S. Constitution embraced the theory of laissez-faire. Any fair-minded reading of their decisions will bear this out. Professor Corwin was right. In 1940, his principled opposition to F.D.R.’s quest for a third term demonstrates that he was not a compliant tool in the hands of the president. The attempt to pack the court was clearly a political blunder, but the chief blunderer was not a Princeton professor.
The later landmark decisions of the Warren Court, whose majority shared Professor Corwin’s progressive “living Constitution” viewpoint, are well known. Based on the intemperance of his PAW article, this would seem to represent a liberal viewpoint not shared by the author. Voltaire once called history “playing tricks on the dead.” Isn’t this what preceptor O’Brien is doing with Professor Corwin’s reputation?
C. THOMAS CORWIN ’62
In his fine piece on Professor Edward S. Corwin, Mark O’Brien reminds us that Corwin was first brought to Princeton as a preceptor, by Woodrow Wilson 1879. Comparing the two, he states that “Wilson and Corwin were experts in the law, though neither graduated from law school.” In the case of the former, it is only fair to add, however, that Wilson did attend the University of Virginia Law School. Withdrawing for health reasons, he studied privately, and was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1882. He practiced law with Heath Dabney, briefly, only then making the decision to further his education at Johns Hopkins, where he attained his Ph.D. in politics. But he did hang out the lawyer’s shingle, again briefly as it turned out, after his presidency, this time with partner Bainbridge Colby. As for Corwin, while it is correct that he never graduated from law school, he did teach at the New York University Law School (among other places) following his retirement from Princeton.
EDWARD F. DUFFY ’75
Mark O’Brien’s article on Professor Edward S. Corwin’s role in the 1937 F.D.R. court-packing proposal stated, “In June, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a scathing report on the plan, which soon died.” This statement is factually incorrect.
Although no formal vote was ever taken by the full Senate on the original court-packing bill, the bill was dead prior to the report and a compromise bill, which would have added two additional justices immediately, was being drafted by Sen. Marvel M. Logan under the direction of then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson with the approval of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. All evidence indicates that this substitute court-packing bill would have narrowly passed the full Senate if it had not been for the sudden death by heart attack on July 14, 1937, of Sen. Robinson. Numerous reluctant senators had personally pledged their vote for the bill to Robinson, and were thus released from that obligation by his passing. The compromise bill was allowed to die quietly soon thereafter.
After almost 52 years, my senior thesis on “The Senate Battle over the Supreme Court Reorganization Bill of 1937” has become useful.
PETER F. ZIMMERMAN ’54
Much was made in the PAW feature (cover story, March 8) and at Senate confirmation hearings of the admission of Samuel Alito ’72 to Princeton as an “outsider” and of his humble origins as a second-generation Italian-American coming of age in a working-class community. It was Alito’s supporters who pulled the class cards from their decks: his ethnicity, his Catholicism, his lack of prep school credentials. This hagiographic portrait distorts the fact that both of his parents were college-educated teachers and that he did not have to be part of the “wealthy Eastern establishment” to attend the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School, assume the presidency of the Debate Panel, or spend a summer sojourn in the sidewalk cafés of Rome and Bologna as he researched the Italian courts for his senior thesis.
We are told that Alito was “annoyed” by the student boycott of classes in the spring of 1970 after the Cambodian invasion and the killings at Kent State. Did he press his nose against the window panes of a locked lecture hall, pining for tranquility and quieter times in the groves of academe? Did he — like the rest of his classmates who carried a draft card in their wallets — really think that his education ended when he left the reassuring confines of the library and classroom? Did he seethe with resentment that the outside world intruded on his dreamy gothic campus?
Alito and the rest of the Class of 1972 had entered Princeton in the fall of 1968, the same year as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, troop increases in Vietnam after the Tet offensive, urban rioting, and the days of rage at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. These were defining moments for an American generation. How could he not have been engaged or caught up in such a turbulent time? That was a question never asked of Alito under the glare of the television cameras.
His roommates noted that Alito often went home to Trenton on weekends. Whether for familial support or to lick imaginary wounds, that was his choice. In the meantime, history was being made.
THOMAS F. SCHIAVONI ’72
In the article “A Tiger on the Court: Sam Alito ’72 at Princeton,” I take issue with the author’s implication — and that of the people he quotes — that students from working- and middle-class families were more responsible than the students from wealthy, privileged backgrounds who engaged in protests and other so-called disruptive behavior. This implication reveals a number of fatuous assumptions: first, that it was only the wealthy and privileged who engaged in protest activities; second, that all these activities were somehow irresponsible; and, third, that being from a working- or middle-class background somehow created a superior value system that would preclude such “irresponsible” activities.
On paper, I look much like Sam Alito: Class of 1972, Catholic, a first-generation Italian-American from a working-class family and a middle-class neighborhood, and a member of Stevenson Hall. But I remember the events of the spring of 1970 a bit differently than PAW does. I do not remember that all classes and final examinations were canceled; I believe that most professors made them optional. This was to allow students time to engage in activities that might effect change in the administration’s foreign policy. One such activity was campaigning for candidates in congressional election primaries, a venture in which I participated and one that could hardly be called irresponsible or disruptive.
The nonviolent resistance, civil disobedience, and protests on campuses across the country that spring should hardly be characterized as irresponsible, either. They came on the heels of the vital civil rights movement of the ’60s, and history has proven them to be a watershed moment in this country’s ultimate rejection of an unnecessary, futile, and immoral war in Southeast Asia. I highly doubt the authors of the Constitution — the same men who wrote the document that Justice Alito is now ultimately responsible for interpreting, and who staged our revolution — would interpret the college students’ protest actions as irresponsible.
If one is really looking for a privileged person who repeatedly acted irresponsibly in the 1960s and ’70s, one need look no further than the man who nominated Justice Alito to the court. At a time a generation later when we again find our sons, daughters, husbands, and wives fighting another unnecessary and immoral war, it is especially dangerous — even irresponsible — to suggest that it was the protest activities of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and not the war itself, that was irresponsible.
VITO R. SESSA ’72
The case of the Robertsons v. Princeton continues down its sorry path (Notebook, March 8), with each side digging in its heels and coming up with ever more creative and nasty charges.
This lawsuit is perhaps the most repellent moment in the history of Princeton’s relationship with the outside world. Whatever one may say about the claims of the Robertson family, one must always remember that the Robertsons were the donors, while the University was merely the recipient of the Robertsons’ money. Given the obvious dissatisfaction of the Robertson family with the way the University has handled that money, the University could surely find a way to satisfy the Robertsons. Perhaps it could return the part of the money that the Robertsons feel was misused; perhaps there could be a negotiated settlement wherein both sides agree on precisely how the remaining money should be spent.
Instead, Princeton has decided to tough it out and keep the whole wad. How incredibly self-defeating! Leaving aside the cost to the University of the lawsuit presently under way, leaving aside the possibility that Princeton may lose the lawsuit and be forced to return the entire sum (perhaps with interest), think of the tremendous amount of ill will this affair has generated in future donors. If you are thinking of giving a considerable sum to Princeton but are afraid the University will misuse it the way the Robertsons feel their gift has been misused, will you not think twice before giving? Princeton may have hurt the Robertsons in the short run, but it is surely hurting itself in the long run.
Even if all the Robertsons’ charges were completely without merit (which seems hardly likely), it would still behoove Princeton, as an honorable and gracious institution, to compensate the Robertsons for the money they feel was misspent. Princeton is determined to hold on to every penny of the Robertsons’ money; what a shame it is not equally determined to hold on to its own reputation for honor, decency, and generosity of spirit.
MARVIN HAROLD CHEITEN *71
I very much enjoyed the On the Campus column on the Web (posted March 8) featuring the sayings of John Fleming *63. He was my thesis adviser 30 years ago, and I can still remember some of his unique insights. My favorite has always been a statement he made during my freshman year in his course, “World of the Middle Ages”: “In the first week of class, you saw all my ties. In the second week of class, you saw all my shirts. It’s now the third week of class, and you’ve now heard all of my ideas. I don’t know what we’re going to do for the rest of the semester.”
Professor Fleming has been a treasure of the University — a world-renowned scholar who retained the ability to inspire his students to love what he loves and to do more than they thought possible academically, and who retained his sense of humor and compassion. I pity those students who will not have the opportunity to learn from and be mentored by this extraordinary man.
CHARLENE COSMAN ’76
Thomas V. Gillman ’49 (Letters, March 8) rose to challenge some of the assumptions President Tilghman voiced in her Oxford lecture (President’s Page, Jan. 25), but left some dubious assumptions of his own scattered about, which I must rise to challenge in turn.
He says that it simply is not so that Dr. Tilghman represents the thinking of most of the scientific community when she dismisses the arguments for intelligent design, but he is dead wrong. Science can deal only with testable hypotheses, whereas the intervention of an intelligent designer in physical processes cannot be tested; there is no way to control or specify what the actions of the designer will be. Further, science cannot incorporate supernatural influences in its tool kit because the existence of such an uncontrollable, unpredictable influence would sever the logical connection between experiment and the hypothesis being tested. No experimental test of any hypothesis would be possible. The result of the experiment might just reflect the whim of a supernatural agent and not at all represent the nature of the system about which the hypothesis speaks. Most scientists are quite aware of these restraints and of the fact that they must live by them.
Mr. Gillman says that the “remarkable resilience [of the evolutionary theory of natural selection] to experimental challenge” is not evidence of the theory’s validity, but rather is “an admission of failure on the part of the scientific community to ratify the theory.” Theories are not ratified (science is a meritocratic, not a democratic, process) but are tested against observation and experiment. If the theory exhibits “remarkable resilience to experimental challenge,” then the scientific community can have great confidence in its being a faithful representation of how the world works. That’s about as close to validity as you can get.
ALAN D. FRANKLIN ’43 *50
Bats are not “disgusting” (On the Campus, Feb. 15). They are beautiful, meticulously groomed creatures. None of them bites unless threatened. That one would enter a Princeton dorm room is a marvel in this day and age. One can only hope that it managed to escape unharmed.
Almost worse, bats are not “flying rodents”! They belong to an important, and species-rich, order of mammals, the Chiroptera. Illiteracy concerning the world that surrounds us is everywhere; we recognize it’s not just at Princeton. But might we be so bold as to suggest that in our nation’s (and world’s) service, a brief course in natural history be mandatory for all Princeton students?
BEVERLY S. RIDGELY ’43 *53
ROBERT S. RIDGELY ’71
Several people have asked about the tiger in the Friends of the Library ad published Jan. 25. In our rush to publication we omitted the credit line: Unknown artist, Kakejiku (hanging scroll) of Crouching Tiger, photomechanical reproduction on decorative paper, 20th-century print after Meiji period (ca. 1870-1912) painting, 167.8 x 56.6 cm., Graphic Arts collection, Princeton University Library, gift of Jean Jansen.
I also wanted to comment briefly on the two letters appearing in that issue relating to my department. Stephen E. Silver ’58 suggests we simply buy facsimiles of manuscripts. While this sounds reasonable, there are two major barriers: the enormous cost of digitizing manuscript materials (another area where funds are needed) and the legal restraints of copyright protection on making available any manuscript material created after 1923. If we want to acquire modern literary and other manuscripts for faculty and students to use at Princeton, we must have the means to purchase them. And I doubt anyone would suggest the Art Museum only buy facsimiles of Ansel Adams or Pablo Picasso.
Nicolas Meyler ’81’s letter regarding the gift of Immanuel Velikovsky’s papers is totally off the mark. The library is not endorsing Velikovsky by acquiring his papers. We serve the research community, and part of the academic freedom we cherish at Princeton is our willingness to collect materials representing many points of view, including those we might personally find offensive. Interestingly, in the case of Velikovsky, he kept hundreds of letters condemning his views from many academics, and I believe students and faculty will be fascinated by the social and cultural responses to his books by the general public. We believe that preserving his views as typical of philosophical objections to mainstream science is an important part of the cultural record of our times.
The ditty re Justice Alito and Roe v. Wade in Nan Reiner ’77’s letter (March 8) inspired me to pull from my doggerel file the following:
ROE V. WADE V. BLACKMUN
A woman is only a woman
Should a PAW reader want to scan other limericks from my “Jingles for Judges” file, please write or phone.
BOB CARPENTER ’43
Editor’s note: Future submissions of poetry will be posted on PAW’s Web site at www.princeton.edu/paw.
I was delighted to turn to the From the Archives photo in the Feb. 15 issue. The student at the near table, facing the camera, is my father, John L. Scott ’41. He believes the student to his left is Bill Pomeroy ’40. My father also recalls that elbow patches, such as can be seen worn by the student to his right, were way cool in 1940.
WILL SCOTT ’77
A Notebook article March 22 did not list all the alumni who appeared at a Feb. 24 Woodrow Wilson School conference on attracting the nation’s best and brightest into government service. Others participants included Daniel Biederman ’75, Julius Coles *66, Richard Leone *69, Joseph Nye Jr. ’58, and Mary Procter *71.