Share Button

The Past Lives

I knew Samuel Hughes’ profile of Dayton Duncan, collaborator and co-conspirator with Ken Burns on The National Parks [“A Hymn to the Parks,” Sept|Oct] would be a major treat, but I had no idea how many fond memories and literary associations it would evoke.

I had just been reading some of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic views on life, particularly his nullification of the past as a source of self-fulfillment—and then I read the account of Duncan’s marvelous sentimentality about natural objects and historical events, and realized: That’s me, still tearing up over my 1964 float trip in Big Bend National Park, or star-gazing flat on my back that same month in Joshua Tree National Monument.

Unlike Burns and Dayton—both exemplary men—I identify totally with the “Other” and find the reference to “Indian savages” in their beloved Declaration of Independence lurid and quite unfair. Washington’s 1779 order to have Iroquoia—the Center of the Earth—put to the torch, properties of foe and neutral nations alike, incenses me as much today as if it were just reported. And Schopenhauer is right in one respect: nations, burial grounds, and parks can only appear perdurable.

Yet while the majestic sycamores and colossal Mingo Oak—deserving of its own monument—are gone, through historical accounts they can still be “seen.” The past lives, and it’s practically all we have.

James Miles GEd’86 Collingdale, PA 

Loved it, Schmaltz and All

I loved every minute of the National Parks series on PBS, even when it ventured into the schmaltzy realm. Having read the Gazette piece on Dayton Duncan somehow gave me a more personal connection to the film.

Having grown up in a stuffy Philadelphia suburb, as a child I visited a couple of National Parks, east and west. My memories of these visits don’t compare to Duncan’s. I have spent much of my adult life out west, which has allowed me to visit numerous national monuments, parks and forests. In some ways, the national forests are preferable, with their liberal backpacking and camping rules and regulations, and no entrance fee. (In most of them you can camp and hike freely.) They are all magical places, which one never tires of visiting.

I was sorry that the series did not tackle more thoroughly the controversial topics of allowing unlimited vehicles in the parks and the excessive entrance fees now charged at many of the parks. If the parks are indeed “the people’s parks,” then entrance should be free. Yosemite is crawling with foreign tourists; charge them but let U.S. citizens in without a fee. Our financial obligation has already been met.

Betsy Carr C’77 Bisbee, AZ 

In Good Company

Reading the Sept|Oct Gazette as a new alumna reminds me how grateful I am to be part of the wonderful institution that is Penn. Three articles traverse generations of the Penn experience and beautifully embody the Quaker spirit.

First, “From College Hall” set an exciting launch for the Arts & the City Year on campus and in broader Philadelphia. The last time I heard Dr. Gutmann’s words was in May when she congratulated us on graduation and warmly welcomed us back to Penn well in advance for our 75th class reunion in 2084. Commencement was a moment that marked both the closing of an exciting chapter and the transition to a new phase in life. In such times, I find myself turning to travel to experience life through the lens of a stranger and find new meaning.

Most recently, I visited Greece and am amazed with how the ancients breathed life into the rich cultural and artistic heritage we have inherited today. I could not have agreed more with Dr. Gutmann’s testament that “the deepest meanings that we impart to our lives—which the arts most vividly illuminate—are the opposite of luxuries; they fortify our hearts and our minds during the best and the worst of times.”

Also related to the arts, in his essay “Towards an Old Architecture” [“Elsewhere”], Witold Rybczynski retells an adventure off the Spanish coast that challenged and redefined his education as an architect. His story speaks to the value of a Penn education as it continues to inspire beyond graduation.

Recently, I revisited my Penn application. One of the essays asked me to identify the most important moment in history, and I had chosen the Enlightenment. “A new, systematic approach to thinking emerged in these times as people began to connect knowledge across different disciplines and make logical applications to life,” wrote my 17-year-old self, drawing a parallel with my attitude toward learning and vision of Penn. Indeed, Penn is the “stimulating and rewarding” experience I anticipated—and more, as it will continue to encourage its graduates to ask questions, constantly test and refine values, and face the world with an open mind.

Coming full circle, Sally Friedman [“Alumni Voices”] relates with good humor how her relationship with the Gazette has grown through the years. (Congratulations on the upcoming 50th reunion!) She has set a high bar. I will have a lot to look forward to in these coming years and certainly in the good company of fellow Quakers.

Jing Jin C’09 Great Neck, NY 


I applaud President Gutmann’s decision to “shine a spotlight on the arts” with Arts & the City Year [“From College Hall”and “In the Spotlight,” Sept|Oct].

As a 1958 graduate of the Wharton School I started a successful commercial real-estate development company in eastern North Carolina. However, realizing that I was missing a background in the liberal arts I enrolled and received a master’s degree in liberal arts from Duke University in 1989. My interest in furthering my liberal arts education no doubt came from pursuing an avocation in pottery nurtured by attending summer pottery classes at the Penland School of Crafts in Western North Carolina for the past 30 years.

As President Gutmann says, we “all need arts and culture every bit as much as we need freedom to feel fully alive and to live as well as we can.”

Business is a wonderful profession, but the satisfaction one receives from participation in the arts is how we live as well as we can.

Bobby Kadis W’58 Raleigh, NC 

The writer is chair of the North Carolina Arts Council.

Cuba No Model for Education

We are a group of Cuban-American members of the Board of Directors of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which Walt Gardner’s recent Pennsylvania Gazette essay, “Lessons from the General” [“Expert Opinion,” Sept|Oct], references. The majority of us are graduates of the University of Pennsylvania at the undergraduate or graduate levels. Some of us also grew up as students in Cuba. We find that “Lessons from the General” is replete with factual inaccuracies, glaring omissions and stretched extrapolations that make it more of an eager attempt to compliment Cuba’s dictators, rather than a serious proposal for educational reform. 

First, Mr. Gardner’s dedicates a third of his essay to painting a picture of an illiterate pre-revolutionary Cuba that is factually incorrect and insulting. The 1957 U.N. Statistical Yearbook reports Cuba’s literacy in the early 1950s as 76.4 percent, placing Cuba at the same level as Greece (76.5 percent), well above Portugal (58.3 percent) and above nearly every country in Latin America—for example, Brazil’s literacy rate was reported at 48.6 percent, Venezuela’s was 49.0 percent, and Ecuador’s was 56.3 percent.

Second, Mr. Gardner casts Cuba’s achievement in reducing illiteracy as important evidence in support of his thesis that Cuba’s educational model is worthy of being emulated. The truth, however, is that Cuba’s literacy achievements are far from unique. The CIA World Factbook reports Cuba’s literacy rate in 2003 to be 96.9 percent for those over the age of 15. Setting aside the age difference in compiling the statistic, which predictably inflates Cuba’s reported improvement, Cuba’s 27 percent increase in literacy significantly lags behind the improvement achieved by a long list of countries that he fails to mention, including South Africa (197 percent increase), Bolivia (162 percent), Turkey (153 percent), Dominican Republic (96 percent), Brazil (73 percent), Thailand (72 percent), Ecuador (62 percent) and Portugal (60 percent), among many others. Greece’s literacy rate in 2003, by the way, is reported as 96.0 percent, once again roughly the same as Cuba’s. 

Third, Mr. Gardner glosses over a critical distinction: being literate and being educated are two very different things. A robust education involves a level of exploration, engagement and expression by the student that is strictly forbidden in Cuba. While Mr. Gardner compliments Cuba for the breadth of its educational offerings, the truth is that Cuba’s educational system forbids its student access to a vast number of hugely important texts, intellectual dissent is severely punished, computer literacy is low, and the limited and highly censored access that students have to the internet keeps them in an informational void that severely limits their understanding of the world. 

Fourth, Mr. Gardner asserts that Cuba’s inhumane export of professionals to other countries is proof-positive of Cuba’s educational success. However, he fails to mention that Cuba’s “people exports” are mostly to other totalitarian regimes that have collapsed their economies and social infrastructure. That is not a very strong market signal on the quality of Cuban professionals.

Fifth, Mr. Gardner asserts that “Cuban students achieve at a much higher level than their socioeconomic background would predict” and represents this as a positive, yet he fails to mention that the system that he applauds generates such poor economic productivity that Cuba’s socioeconomic standing has significantly deteriorated over the last 50-plus years across nearly all indicators, including its relative standing with regard to average daily caloric consumption and access to quality and meaningful health care, which his essay attempts to cast in a positive light relative to American inner cities.

Lastly, Mr. Gardner characterizes Cuba’s “physical education” initiatives as farsighted moves by the regime to improve the country’s welfare. He should educate his readers that “physical education” is not basketball during gym glass, but rather the forced labor of minors in collective farms, something that is universally viewed by most modern societies as unconscionable.

While we agree that public education here in the U.S. has a number of important shortcomings that need to be addressed, we would be in real trouble if we had to turn to a totalitarian educational system such as Cuba’s as our source for policies or fresh thinking. While Mr. Gardner briefly alludes to Cuba’s repressive state, one cannot simply “put it aside” since it pervades every aspect of Cuban society, especially its heavily censored and propaganda-laden educational system. Regrettably, rather than highlight the countless other places in the world where dedicated educators and policymakers have gotten things right, including by the methods he cites (teacher training and specialization, lessened emphasis on rote memorization, broad curriculums, etc.), which were neither invented by nor unique to Cuba, Mr. Gardner has chosen to misrepresent facts and stretch logic to compliment the Castro regime. 

It is difficult to read Mr. Gardner’s essay and conclude that it is a good-faith effort at suggesting improvements to our educational system. Instead, the only lesson we can glean is that so long as commentators blind their audience to the whole truth, they perpetuate myths that condone and redeem even the most vile regimes.

Andro Nodarse-León EAS’01 W’01 
Axel Lapica WG’05 
Lincoln M. Vidal L’00 
Andres Vidal C’99 
Pablo Lafuente C’02 
Jose Vidal C’98 
Fradyn Suarez 
Antonio Gomez

Fact-checking the General

While Walt Gardner’s “Lessons from the General” makes worthy recommendations about what the U.S. can learn from the educational system of Cuba, the article should have been written in the past tense and should have been fact-checked. 

Mr. Gardner rightly notes that Cuban advances in education have come at the price of political indoctrination and repression, but this point isn’t emphasized enough. Education is only available to those who toe the government line. Students who express disagreement are cruelly expelled from school, regardless of their intellectual and academic prowess. Since all education is state-run, these Cuban youths are condemned to a life of drudgery. Students who organize to create educational alternatives for themselves, such as the Marti Youth Coalition, are harassed by state authorities and even imprisoned for their work. Similarly, teachers are fired if they dissent from the government. Education is thus free and available only to those who agree, or pretend to agree, with the dictatorial regime.

In August of this year I met with teachers and students inside Cuba and documented first-hand the sorry state of the country’s schools. A mass exodus of qualified teachers has occurred—teachers who, because of lack of freedom of thought, a decent salary, and a host of other conditions, have abandoned teaching in favor of more lucrative jobs such as waitressing, prostitution, black market sales of tobacco, or driving taxis. The government has responded to this shortage with a program where students in their late teens teach their peers. These 16, 17, 18-year-olds are given a crash course in teaching, with the courses often occurring concurrently as they teach and lasting one year in length. Not only has this resulted in inexperienced teachers, but, because these students are so close in age to their pupils, cases of physical and sexual abuse as well as deadly violence have become commonplace in Cuba’s classrooms. In one case, a young teacher was so frustrated he actually broke a chair on one of his student’s heads.

Other demonstrably false points in Mr. Gardner’s article include his contention regarding nutrition. Meals in school are but a fantasy for Cuban students, who are fed a miserly amount of unsatisfying and unappetizing food that only leaves them hungry and unable to concentrate for the rest of the day. The on-site nurses and doctors are also ineffectual, for while they might be able to diagnose ailments, this does not mean students will be able to obtain the medicine or treatment they need. Even uniforms, which the Cuban government provides, are scarce, and students are forced to wear the same uniform for two, sometimes three, or even four years.

Cuba has suffered under the tyranny of General Castro’s one-party state for 50 years. The government has denied Cubans nearly all of their fundamental human rights: all forms of speech and information are severely censored, and all print and electronic media are state-run; association and assembly are only permitted if they are not “against the existence and objectives of the Socialist State”; personal ownership is impossible; no one is free to leave (though millions have risked their lives trying); there is no independent judicial system or guarantee of a fair trial; there is no means for democratic participation in or choice of government; there are frequent arbitrary arrests; tens of thousands have been exterminated by firing squads, and political prisoners are routinely tortured in the most brutal and inhumane ways.

I agree with Mr. Gardner that some of the basic structural principles he highlights are admirable and other countries should try to emulate what works, but his article leaves readers with the impression that the Cuban educational system is currently something to admire. It is not. Students are indoctrinated; there is widespread censorship; intellectual growth and creativity are stunted because any independent thinking is punished; and the state is no longer providing even students swearing allegiance to the state with the privileges it used to. To blame, and solely to blame, are the obstinate, homicidal, and kleptocratic General and his half-brother, Raul.

Thor Halvorssen C’96 G’96 New York 

The writer, who was profiled in our Mar|Apr 2008 issue, is president of the Human Rights Foundation.

Pricelessly PC

The Gazette keeps me informed. Every time I conclude that The Wall Street Journal editorial page, The Weekly Standard, Fox News, etc., etc., are exaggerating “political correctness” on college campuses, the Gazette arrives with something that sets me straight.

This month it was “Lessons from the General,” subtitled “What Cuba can teach the U.S. about educational reform.” How utterly priceless to learn that “Cuba was decades ahead of the U.S., which only now is taking steps to address the threat that obesity poses.” We could have learned from Stalin 75 years ago; he solved the obesity problem in the Ukraine long before Castro solved it in Cuba.

I was thrilled to learn that “Cuban teachers challenge their students to think critically about a given topic by asking them to explain their answers rather than relying on rote memorization.” Mind you, this includes civics! Who knew? And now they’re helping Venezuela. You give me your commodity, oil, I give you my commodity, professionals. Thanks, as always, for the valuable insights.

Louis R. Sernoff C’62 L’65 Delray Beach, FL 

Still Chasing Justice for Workers

I was intrigued by Rose Espinola’s essay, “Chasing Aztlán” [“Notes From the Undergrad,” Sept|Oct]. It brought back so many memories.

This memory is a good one. I grew up with a Chow dog. My father had named him Juan. As Juan turned 12 months old, his thick fur forced him to stay outside more frequently. My father built Juan a large, A-frame house with shingles on the roof and two sliding windows. My mother contributed old woolen blankets, which made a soft place for Juan to sleep. Besides his regular food, he enjoyed apples, rice and beans, carrots, and an occasional steak bone.

What does this good memory have to do with Ms. Espinola’s essay? You’ll see. My father worked for Campbell Soup Company. During the tomato season, he oversaw the hiring of immigrant workers, mostly from Puerto Rico, to pick tomatoes on Campbell Soup’s contract farms located in southern New Jersey’s “tomato belt.” His responsibilities included ensuring that the workers were treated according to regulations stipulated in the contracts the company signed with the farm owners.

One Sunday afternoon, my father asked me if I wanted to accompany him to one of the farms. After a long drive, we arrived and drove toward some buildings to get information about where the workers were located. With a worried look, he told me to stay in the car. I watched him walk down a dirt road framed by four shed-type buildings. He knocked on a door. He was invited in. He came out and entered the next door and so forth. At the end of the road, he turned around and walked up the other side of the road and began to use the same strategy of knocking on doors. A few men came out and approached him. They all stood in the road engrossed in what appeared a serious discussion. I heard him say, “Adios,” and he walked back to the car. When my father opened the car door, I noticed tears streaming down his face. I asked him why he was crying. He replied, “Our Juan lives better than these workers do.”

And, now, I’m crying because it’s 2009! The myriad abuses of immigrant workers that my father volunteered to fight against still endure, as Ms. Espinola eloquently describes.

Carmen Elida McLeod GCP’81 GEd’03 Philadelphia 

Quilter’s Thrill

Thank you for publishing Caroline Hwang’s striking textile art to accompany the article “Field of Dreams—and Challenges—for Children” [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct]. As a quilter, I am always thrilled to see illustrators use fabric and thread in their work. 

Rebecca Schotland Wolsk G’97 Washington, DC 

Inaccurate Comparison

“Endowment Loses Less; On Target to Make History” [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct] contains an “apples vs. oranges” flawed comparison. The decline in the value of the common stock portion of the endowment portfolio is all that can be compared to the decline of the S&P 500, since the endowment portfolio contains bonds, hedge funds, real estate, and other assets that are not components of the S&P 500. Please provide us with the accurate comparison, portfolio common stock loss to the S & P 500 loss.

Ronald H. Weintraub W’55 Tucson 

No Encouragement

Normally, it would be a good thing to read about a woman succeeding in what is ordinarily a male-dominated field. For example, I remember how thrilled I was back in 1983 when Barbara McClintock won an unshared Nobel Prize for her work in genetics. However, I was disturbed to read the article about Courtney Banks [“Alumni Profiles,” Sept|Oct], especially the Orwellian description of how her company “work[s] with companies to help them grow, primarily in the national-security space.” 

Her company works on “navigation solutions” capable of tracking people in remote locations. The article neglects to mention that this tracking is for the purpose of targeting people for assassination by cruise missile, along with anyone who is unlucky enough to be standing next to the targeted person.

Banks is quoted as saying, “I think women have a responsibility to other women in the workplace, in particular, to mentor and assist them, and not see each other as a threat.” Back in 1870, Julia Ward Howe had a different view of women’s responsibilities. In her Mother’s Day Proclamation, Howe argued, “the sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” She urged women to “Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”

I take no encouragement from seeing a woman succeed in an industry that should not exist. As Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” In the end, that’s what one is participating in when one helps companies “grow in the national-security space.”

Laurie Endicott Thomas C’83 G’85 Madison, NJ 

Vintage Mackler

Thank you to Kathryn Levy Feldman for the wonderful piece, “A Life Worth Living” [July|Aug]. I was lucky enough to befriend Scott Mackler and play college soccer with him at Penn in the late 1970s. We shared the field with many talented individuals, but what clearly set Scott apart from most was his dogged determination and toughness. He was hard-nosed, fearless and would knock you down (cleanly), but once the play was over he would be the first to extend his hand to help you up.

Unfortunately, diseases such as ALS don’t play the game cleanly the way Scott always did. They knock you down and don’t let you get back up, all the while attempting to rob you of all human dignity.

As a neurosurgeon, I witness tremendous courage demonstrated by my patients every day, often against insurmountable odds. As I read about the daily struggles endured by Scott and his wonderful family I could only reflect on how truly lucky most of us are to have our precious health. And I couldn’t help but smile at Scott’s assertion that he’s “not an inspiration.” Vintage Mackler. Don’t be flashy, just go out and get the job done.  All of us whose lives he’s touched are better for it. He will always be an inspiration.

David Miller C’81 Carbondale, CO

Share Button

    Leave a Reply