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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Summer 2004 > Letters


Art, science and the grubby ordinariness of life

John Drabinski’s review of The Prism and the Pendulum (Fall/Winter 2003-04) presents a strong case for noting the aesthetic character of scientific work in some of its aspects. I didn’t need to be convinced because I have long held such a view—partly from recollection of some of Arnold Arons’ classic physics classes; definitely from reading Jacob Bronowski’s Science and Human Values, which I often have used in teaching my logic courses.

Drabinski begins, “Surely there is no greater difference than that between the scientist and the artist”—a thesis which, as he shows, needs to be firmly refuted. In “The Creative Mind,” the opening chapter of his short book, Bronowski argues that “There is a likeness between the creative acts of the mind in art and in science”—namely, the discovery of unity in hidden likeness, or “unity in variety,” a view he attributes to Coleridge.

But not all of the activity in any enterprise yields sheer beauty. Some is grubby and pedestrian. “Much of conducting an experiment entails dirty and unremarkable labor,” notes Drabinski. “Good humdrum work without originality is done every day by everyone, theoretical scientists as well as practical, and writers and painters, too, as well as truck drivers and bank clerks,” Bronowski writes.

I look forward to reading The Prism and the Pendulum; I think most folks interested in that book would also enjoy reading Bronowski’s.

Joe Morton ’57
Baltimore, Md.

Ed Wall, prescient gentleman

I was saddened to read that Ed Wall, former dean of admissions, had passed away. In October 1969, I visited Amherst College with my father, had a tour of the campus and then an interview with Assistant Dean Wall. During the interview he said, “We have a place for you here.” At that moment I didn’t understand that he was offering me early admission to my first-choice school. I had applied through the regular admission process and assumed that I would interview at several colleges and wait for April to hear the good and bad news.

My father understood what Dean Wall said and explained it to me as an aside. I immediately accepted, entered Amherst in September of 1970 and graduated with the 1974 class. At regular intervals I visited with Dean Wall, discussed my class selection, future plans and experiences at Amherst. He was a mentor and a gentleman.

Joel Nizin
Fair Lawn, N.J.

Ed Wall, squash partner and friend

Ed Wall was the first person I met at Amherst. I immediately liked Ed and actually enjoyed my admission interview as a result. Thereafter, Ed and I regularly played squash together. Not only was it always a great workout, but we always had fun. Those games are some of my best memories of Amherst. My sincere condolences to his family and friends for this most untimely loss. 

Christine Moore ’81
New York, N.Y.

Ed Wall, visionary

“Take her; she’s hungry.”

Those were the words Ed Wall wrote on my interview card when I first met him in the spring of 1979. I was in my late 20s, was cleaning houses for a living, had completed only two years towards an undergraduate degree at another college 10 years earlier. I had no money. I had less confidence; all I knew was that I wanted to learn. Ed spent an hour with me that spring day, and whatever he saw in me—what he called my hunger—was what would change my path considerably. I saw Ed again years later at a poetry reading somewhere, and there he was with all that positive energy, thrilled that I had gone on to make teaching my profession, one that I have held at the Hotchkiss School now for almost 21 years. I am grateful to my many fine professors at Amherst for helping me learn, but Ed Wall will always be in my thoughts for having taken such a huge chance on the basis of appetite alone.

Sarah Tames ’81
Lakeville, Conn.

Ed Wall, big in every way

Big-handed and big-hearted, actually just plain big, Ed Wall kept the college admissions process the most human and humane of experiences. He knew there were numbers involved, but he always cared more for people. Whether he said “yes” or “no”—and he said both to me on different occasions—he did so with the greatest warmth and broadest smile. He was a lovely man, and all of us who work in this business might seek to have such a heart. I, among many, will miss him enormously.

Chris Teare ’80
St. Thomas, Virgin Islands

Ed Wall, life-changer

I was very sorry to hear about Ed Wall’s death. Without exaggerating, I can say that he changed my life. You see, I had been admitted to Amherst and to Yale. Though I wanted to attend Amherst, I accepted at Yale due to my parents’ concerns and pressure. Yale’s acceptance had not included a financial aid package, but I was not concerned, because every other college, including Amherst, had extended me substantial aid, and Yale assured me that a financial aid offer was on the way. The weeks passed and I kept calling, but no financial aid package arrived. Finally, perhaps two weeks before high school was to end, Yale advised that it would offer me no aid whatsoever, and since I had turned down all my other colleges, it suggested that I apply to the University of Texas, which had rolling admissions and possibly could accommodate a late admission request. Despite speaking with several individuals at Yale, the answer, with no explanation whatsoever, remained the same: a cold, uncaring and institutional “You’re out of luck.”

In a fit of desperation, I called Amherst and asked to speak with the dean of admissions. I shared my sad story with Dean Wall, and before I had even finished, he exclaimed that this was wonderful news for Amherst, that Amherst would be delighted to have me, that my Bronx High School of Science and New York City upbringing would help enrich the Amherst experience, and that the full financial package extended with Amherst’s original offer was still in place. To this day, I am astounded that Dean Wall remembered personal details about my application, and I can still feel the relief that flooded over me as I spoke with him. Whereas Yale had made me feel like an inanimate statistic, Dean Wall made me feel like a valued individual. I still remember going to thank him in person when I arrived. Without an introduction, he boomed “hello” to me by name and I shook his big, warm hand.

Dean Wall’s personal touch was characteristic of my time at Amherst. And the impact of his response to my desperate call is immeasurable. At Amherst, I not only obtained a wonderful education and met wonderful people, I also met the wonderful man who is my husband. My gratitude to Ed Wall knows no bounds.

Lisa E. Chang ’82
Atlanta, Ga.

Amherst and Iraq

I would like to know what the college is doing to encourage students to understand and attempt to shape the events that relate to the war in Iraq. The April 12 CNN article by Rebecca Allen ’90 indicates some degree of student awareness but little about the position of the college. Review of the Black Alumni Weekend discussion panels shows them to be totally silent on the subject.

There are active and involved discussion groups, forums and outside speakers, but my question goes to the college. In his inspiring inaugural speech last October, President Anthony W. Marx charged students with a high (almost idealistic) responsibility “to learn, engage and change the world.” The faculty was tasked with “inform(ed) teaching and scholarship that is deep.”

This generation of students can dissociate itself at any time it chooses from attempting to understand critical world events. The absence of a draft limits the personal consequences of a continuing fundamental curiosity.

In 1947, Dartmouth College, following the end of World War II, instituted a Great Issues course, which was required for seniors and lasted an entire year. For at least a decade it was a highly successful means of requiring students to understand great issues. (It died, like mandatory chapel, when people tired of being directed what to do.)

At an absolute minimum should the college not immediately make available elective courses that would tie student interest to informed teaching and scholarship? One obvious course or seminar would be to review the work and data reviewed by the 9/11 Commission.

Obvious potential questions for review might include:

What is the relationship between the U.S position on Israel and increasing terrorism?

Should the U.S. pull out of Iraq?

How and why did a small group of neoconservatives take over the effective management of American foreign policy?

It is always tempting to suggest that it is too early for a first assessment on historical change. I suggest that the risk of a future extreme “blowback” or over-correction following Iraq is extreme, that the college has a responsibility to help interested students understand what they can do to shape events in a flawed political system and at a time when people are basically disinterested or uninformed.

Norman Carr ’58
Washington, D.C.

Gratitude to Curt Civin

Many people helped to save my cousin Elizabeth’s life, but Curt Civin’s name is the first I knew, thanks to the article in the winter issue of Amherst. Elizabeth is so special to me and to her own family. My gratitude is big as all outdoors. Thanks to Dr. Civin and all his partners.

Mike Glaser ’78
Seward, Alaska

A capital offense

In reading the wonderful article on Emily Lakdawalla’s Martian mission in the winter issue of Amherst, I noticed that the editorial staff had fallen prey to a common urge to include a “u” in the Inuit word “Iqaluit,” the capital of the Nunavut territory. Since moving up here to the Great White North (to teach Egyptian archaeology at the University of Toronto), I’ve learned that the addition of that one little vowel transforms the meaning of the word from “place of fishes” to “feces adhering to the anus.” Amazing, but true. Thought you’d like to know.

Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner ’85
Toronto, Ontario

Walter Marks, et al.

Amherst quite properly celebrates the multi-talented composer and author Walter Marks ’55 in the winter issue. His accomplishments are indeed impressive. However, the author, Jennifer Acker ’00, goes a bit too far. Specifically I cite the sentence: “In 1952, the class performed Marks’ aptly named play “The ‘H’ is Silent.” Hold on! Walter was a contributor, but it wasn’t a one-man show. The book was coauthored by Fred Hertz and Bill Francisco. Hertz wrote the song lyrics and dreamed up the “apt” title. Walter Marks composed the music that went with the lyrics. Bob Lehrman directed the production. These gentlemen—all of them outrageously intelligent and creative—are members of the Class of 1955.

The following year Hertz and Francisco collaborated on another show that was more a collection of comedy sketches. Walter played the piano where necessary. I know about this because, even though the title escapes me now, I had the fun of hamming it up in several small roles.

Walter is not only very gifted—always was—but also a good guy whose company I enjoyed in college days. I sincerely hope his Langston Hughes musical makes it to Broadway so I can go and enjoy it.

Eugene Walter Jr. ’54
Norwood, N.J.

Beating cheating

I have a different interpretation regarding the issue of cheating addressed in the winter issue. I worked for seven years at a large research university in the Dean of Students Office investigating allegations of student misconduct. I probably worked with more than 200 students who had been accused of cheating or plagiarizing and with their corresponding faculty. I reacted strongly to the article because of this past experience.

I couldn’t help but think that Amherst is having difficulty with plagiarism in part because of its response to allegations. If I read the article correctly, then the sanctioning philosophy is to place a student on disciplinary probation after the first offense. The student may or may not fail the course. My experience says that’s part of the problem. As it looks now, the bottom line is that every student at Amherst gets a “freebie”—the first incident results in effectively nothing. That sends the wrong message to and dishonors the majority of Amherst students who have worked hard, or sweated out getting a “C,” or turned in a half-baked paper because they ran out of time. They got their grades and their degree honorably. I suspect if Amherst shifted its sanctioning, the incident rates would go down, and not because faculty are not reporting allegations.

I would propose a different approach: If a student is found responsible for plagiarizing, the student gets a failing grade on the assignment in question (which may or may not produce a failing grade in the course) and the student is separated from the college for a period of time (a semester or more depending on the severity). In extreme circumstances, the college might consider not separating the student, but it would have to be the exception and not the rule. This tougher response needs to be paired with more extensive prevention work on the front end—in discussions of ethics during Orientation or in the first class meeting.

Some will argue that by increasing the penalty, we discourage faculty from reporting their suspicions because they do not want such a serious sanction to be imposed. I didn’t find that to be the case when I did this work. I did find faculty responsive to the idea that we either uphold our values or we don’t—we don’t go halfway.

I’m a faculty member now, and I cringe when I suspect I’ve found a case of plagiarism that defies any harmless explanation. I feel for the student when I report my suspicion. But I also have a responsibility to the rest of my students.

Melora Sundt ’81
Los Angeles, Calif.

Respecting the War Memorial

We may reminisce or sing of hallowed halls, but there is one spot that many Amherst alumni have long regarded as genuine hallowed ground. My first visit to the War Memorial was with my father, Class of 1938, who took me there at some point between 1948 and 1950 on a beautiful late spring day. He did not speak to me of his classmates and college friends whose names were inscribed on the raised disk that is the centerpiece of the memorial, but I could see that he was reading the names and thinking of them, much as I have done on many subsequent visits—most recently on May 30, 2004, during Reunion Weekend on a day much like that of my first visit, and as it happened on the very day on which the National World War II Memorial was being dedicated in Washington. It is my hope that most alumni will understand and appreciate the acute feelings of anger, violation and thoughtless disrespect inspired by the sight of one alumni family, both parents and two children, on top of the raised disk. The parents were drinking, even spilling, beer as they chatted with friends, the children were pursuing each other in circles, soiling the stone and the inscribed names with the mud from their shoes.

If such things can happen at a place like Amherst College, it is not encouraging to think of the frequency with which they may be happening in less supposedly enlightened settings. Before my reaction could poison the rest of my weekend, however, another alumni family came by. The 3- or 4-year-old son started to hop up onto the disk. His parents gently restrained him and explained why this was not a place to play. I thank them, and encourage [people like] the first family to emulate them.

David L. Parker ’64
East Greenwich, R.I.

Protesting the protesters

I read the article in the spring issue of Amherst regarding the visits to campus by Justice Scalia and Anthony Romero, and I must say I was appalled by the words, not the actions, of the 16 professors who protested the justice’s visit. Lest anyone make incorrect assumptions about my political leanings, I am a registered Democrat, but I consider myself to be a moderate/independent, more liberal on social issues and more conservative on fiscal issues. You can check my bona fides with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, chair of this year’s Democratic convention.

Presumably these professors consider themselves teachers, but the lessons of their statement are contrary to the ideals of a liberal education and certainly do not comport with the standards of Amherst College. By implying that Justice Scalia, or for that matter any speaker with whom they disagree, would not be acting in good faith on his ideals, and by considering their mere attendance to be a tacit endorsement of such a speaker’s presence on campus, these professors are denying that civil discourse has a valuable place in society, let alone education. They have the right to not appear, but this statement reeks of the concept of taking one’s ball and going home if things don’t go 100 percent one’s way. This is infantile at worst and beneath the presumed dignity of their positions at best. It is certainly contrary to anything I know about educational ideals and, I would hope, the standards of the college. In the guise of being liberal, they would espouse narrow-mindedness and prejudgment, not unlike book banning or even book burning. I suspect they would be among the first to condemn such attitudes and actions by conservatives.

What kind of lessons do such attitudes teach students? Certainly they suggest actions that would prevent the ability to use critical thinking to analyze two opposing views. Such prejudgment has no place on campus, and I believe these professors should be censured, not for their views or their boycott, but for their inability or unwillingness to act as mature, intelligent and educated persons who purport to be role models to their students. I am ashamed that they “represent” a school that I have long admired and supported.

Richard Abeles ’59
Santa Fe, N.M.

The sanity of protesting

Setting aside Antonin Scalia’s interpretations of the Constitution, which are based on his personal political, cultural and religious leanings more than anything written in the document, it is an insult to Amherst College to invite a speaker who is so morally and ethically lacking that he [chooses to] decide the cases of people with whom he socializes. This is a former teacher of law who could not pass a test in professional responsibility. To put it bluntly, neither Scalia nor his friend Cheney would recognize the appearance of impropriety if he was holding it by the balls, which in fact he is.

I suppose it is all right to invite crazy people to come lecture, because they might have something interesting to say, but to see a person who has debased both teaching and the legal profession invited merely because he happens to be the first on a celebrity list to respond makes me question whether the college is headed in the direction of Fox News.

Turning to page 43 of the spring issue of Amherst, I find a letter not unlike other letters published in this magazine in the past, filled with right-wing babble and thinly disguised racism, a la Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan. It makes me wonder if Amherst is following the same version of political correctness followed by the majority of the press and media in this country, which is that if it is right wing, print it regardless of whether it makes any sense at all.

If we want to hear ultraconservative venom, it is everywhere available, but I had hoped that Amherst would not jump on this bandwagon, and I am glad there are still some sane people there, even if only 16 protested.

Sam Liberman ’56
Sacramento, Calif.


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