Tooke's Take:  May 8, 2000

Sometimes solving problems on paper is like fitting a size-12 calf through a size-10 hole: "It don't work."

By Wes Tooke '98 (email:

HOUSTON, MISSOURI-Sunday morning, an hour before church, and I'm standing at the business end of a very unhappy cow. Sometime near dawn the cow had tried to give birth to a calf too big for her hips, and the result was gridlock in the birth canal, a dead calf, and a very annoyed veterinarian.

For the last 90 minutes he had pushed and pulled, sawed and cut, yet the calf was still firmly lodged in his mother. I could tell the vet was on the verge of surrender. After all, he had done a lot of very unpleasant work for his 200 dollars, and this case seemed hopeless. Sure enough, the vet slowly removed his hands from the cow, leaned back on his haunches, and stared at Julius Fraley, the cow's owner.

"I'm thinking it might be time to shoot the son of a bitch," the vet said. "I can't fit a size 12 calf through a size 10 hole. It don't work."

Whether the cow lived or died concerned the vet and me only in the abstract, but it meant a great deal to Mr. Fraley. Good cows are expensive, and raising cattle is a hard business. Mr. Fraley had considered shooting the cow before he called the vet, but now that he'd thrown another 200 dollars on the table, he was understandably reluctant to give up without a final effort. He shook his head.

"I don't know," he said. "You do this a lot more than me. But maybe we could try and roll her on her stomach again?"

The vet, knowing that he'd been condemned to more hard labor, just sighed. The next half-hour was intense, the images vivid enough to follow me for a week. I did my best to help, but I was just the unskilled pair of hands assigned to either pulling or pushing. Early that morning, when the vet had heard that I was from Boston, he had snorted in a way that made me want to dive into the nearest car and drive faster than the Duke boys for the nearest city. Now I understood why.

We did eventually remove the calf, but at considerable cost to both the cow and my city-boy stomach. As we hosed ourselves off outside the barn, both Mr. Fraley and the vet confessed that this had been an especially difficult case. I felt a small measure of vindication. When I left later in the day, the cow was still alive, but had more tough times ahead. No victory on a farm is ever permanent.

Laughably stupid suggestions

I've spent a lot of time since I walked out of that barn thinking about the difference between theoretical and practical experience. A few weeks ago I would have said that I knew a lot about both rural life and the business of raising cattle. I've read E.B. White; I'm well versed in a cow's basic anatomy; I once studied farm policy. Yet any suggestion I made to the vet in the barn would have been laughably stupid. Similarly, if I told Mr. Fraley that he would be better serving Mother Earth if he raised corn rather than cows, he would have given me a well-deserved look expressing his contempt toward Massachusetts boys who don't know anything about Missouri soil.

Yet during my time at Princeton as a political economy major, I wrote countless papers suggesting solutions to various political and economic problems-including farm policy. In one politics class, we used to solve a major problem with a one-page paper every week. The idea that the real solutions to these problems might require something that soldiers call "ground truth" never occurred to me.

A lot of people spend a lot of time at Princeton teaching students that their opinions matter. Which is a wise and wonderful thing to do. But if we graduates never figure out the limits of our education, we're more likely to be dangerous to society than helpful. Just as important as learning to value your own opinion is learning when you are being a boob. Yet browsing through CIT's online forums, I'm always shocked by the number of Princeton graduates who will read 25 words on a complex topic and then respond with a long, vitriol-ridden screed no more informed than a page from the National Enquirer.

Ivy League arrogance

This year's debate over Peter Singer has been an embarrassing case-in-point. Spend any time in a major hospital, and you'll quickly realize that the right-to-die and euthanasia issues warrant serious discussion by serious people. I don't know whether or not I agree with Peter Singer, but I do know that his books made me think about those issues in a frank and disciplined way. I know I hope that the future doctors Princeton graduates every spring-who might ultimately have a hand in designing medical policy-will get both a theoretical background in these issues at Princeton and practical experience in a hospital.

Therefore, while I was interested to read the occasional informed letters to PAW opposing Singer's appointment, the vast majority worried me. Why are so many of us able to read an ill-informed editorial in the Wall Street Journal, respond with our gut, and think that the rest of the community will have something to gain from whatever words we scribble on paper? Perhaps that's what people mean when they refer to "Ivy League arrogance."

So if I ever write another paper on farm policy, I think I'll spend a lot less time in the Woodrow Wilson School, and a lot more time in Houston, Missouri. After all, that vet may not have gone to Princeton, but I never saw any of my professors wake up early on a Sunday morning to pull a dead calf.

-Wes Tooke '98

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