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One little word, evolving debate, inapt comparison.

The Audience Roared!

For two years I booked the talent for, and performed at, the little nightclub mentioned in the article about Marc Platt [“Passion Plays,” May/June]; it was called the Quadgrille. I distinctly remember one evening when Marc’s future wife, Julie, and a friend of hers performed a duet. They stood up and asked the audience if they realized how simply changing one or two words in a song could make all the difference, and then proceeded to sing the dreadful “Torn Between Two Lovers”—only changing the line, “Have I told you, I love you?” to “Have I told you, I’m pregnant?” The audience roared! It was very clever and I haven’t heard that song since without smiling broadly!

Susan Komisar Hausman C’79 Stoughton, MA

Citymags and Afghan Adventures

I read the latest Gazette with more than usual interest, especially the stories of Philadelphia magazine editor Alan Halpern [“Quiet Goes the Don”], and of Benedicte Grima Santry’s adventures in the Pashto-speaking areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and how her scholarship has resulted in Penn’s Pashto language program [“Understanding Pashto”].

From 1976 to 1992 I was editor and general manager of Baltimore magazine. Alan was fond of introducing me at the semi-annual meetings of the country’s “citymag” editors as the only one of us who had received a legitimate death threat because of a negative restaurant review. (It’s true, and too long a story.)

From 1973 to 1975 I was a Fulbright Professor in Kabul, while my wife Betsey, who graduated from Penn as I did in 1967, taught art and painted. We are currently helping an NGO called Afghans for Civil Society on women’s empowerment programs in Kandahar. Our organization has also opened the city’s first independent radio station, which broadcasts primarily in Pashto, and has an Afghan woman general manager and two women reporters.

While assessments on Afghanistan are evolving, to your summation of Alan as the man who “invented the modern city magazine,” I would like to make two further points:

Alan was a guru to all of us editors, and seemed kind of pleased whenever we imitated many of the ideas in Philadelphia. “Go ahead and copy,” he once said to me, “and when you come up with something new I will copy right back.”

Moreover, I would contend Alan didn’t just shape city magazines, but much of what we know in journalism today. In the 1970s and 1980s, stodgy newspapers and network news looked down on the citymags’ trademark lists, ratings, and rankings, and long, narrative-filled, feature and investigative journalism. We were often denigrated as too effete and flashy. It was Alan and a few other mavericks who honed these ideas into workable formats. Now, of course, everyone uses them.

Oh, and Alan always greeted me with Sherlock Holmes’s first words to Dr. Watson: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

Stan Heuisler W’67 Baltimore

A Few Words, but Choice

You done him proud. Beautiful job.

Gaeton Fonzi C’57 Satellite Beach, FL

The author—also a past Gazette contributor—worked with Alan Halpern at Philadelphia.

Understanding Expats

I wanted to express my pleasure concerning Ami Dalal’s article, “Expatriate Games” [“Alumni Voices”]. Having been an expatriate child and now raising two expat children, I thought it was wonderfully written and the issues she speaks about struck a deep chord with me. In this new, global world of ours, we have more and more children who experience this lifestyle—it sounds glamorous, but at times is hard work. Glad Penn recognizes these children and future students!

Maria Spence, spouse/partner London

Children’s Safety, Family Needs Not in Conflict

Thank you for Dr. Richard Gelles’ essay, “Make the Child the Client” [“Expert Opinion,” May/June].

Limits of space prevent me from addressing Dr. Gelles’ opinion point by point. Instead, I would like to focus on his central premise, that public child welfare services should be more child-centered, with child safety, not family support and preservation, as their defining goal.

Twenty-five percent of the children in New York City are known to the Administration for Children’s Services. The agency had contact with over 80,000 children last year alone. In any given year, regardless of prevailing ideology, somewhere between 20 and 35 children known to the system die, the majority of these from causes other than parental maltreatment. While the “acceptable” number of child-abuse deaths in any given year is zero, as Dr. Gelles himself points out, parents who kill their own children are an aberration both statistically and socially. Broad generalizations based on this small fraction of 1 percent inevitably result in flawed policy that compromises, rather than enhances, child safety. Yet Dr. Gelles falls into the same trap by using child fatalities in general, and Nixzmary Brown specifically, as the primary points of reference for his prescription on how best to fix child welfare.

Far more useful inferences can be drawn from more representative examples of children and families seen in the system. Over 85 percent of the New York City parents facing child-maltreatment allegations in family court are charged not with abuse, but with neglect. Children who are genuinely neglected need our best protective efforts no less than those who are abused. However, in practice, neglect is too often conflated with poverty, its causes, and its repercussions: un- and under-employment, dangerously substandard housing, lack of access to health care, failing schools, neighborhoods plagued by drugs and crime, abuse and exploitation of women both at home and in the workplace. Parents struggling with such issues can and do respond positively to supportive, family-centered social work interventions. In my own experience in Harlem, Hell’s Kitchen, and the South Bronx, I have found that, in most cases, children’s safety needs are best served by competent attention to the needs of the entire family, within the context of service models that recognize and respect parents as the heads of their own households, and potentially the best, most dedicated protectors of their own children.

There is plenty of empirical support for these perceptions. To cite just one example, New York City’s Family Rehabilitation Programs—co-located drug treatment and preventive services for addicted mothers with infants and young children—were the subject of a National Institute of Drug Abuse-funded longitudinal study by National Development and Research Institutes. Even at the peak of the crack epidemic, at the highest end of the child-welfare risk spectrum, these intensive, community-based, gender-appropriate programs achieved excellent results in helping mothers achieve and sustain sobriety while establishing healthy bonds with their babies.

Yet despite strong scientific and experiential evidence of their effectiveness, neighborhood-based family-preservation services have failed to garner a strong base of political and material support. Contrary to Dr. Gelles’ assertion that “Federal policy prescribe(s) family preservation as the core value and prime goal of the child-welfare system,” in New York City, family-preservation services have seldom comprised more than 10 percent of child-welfare spending. Foster care has always been, and remains, the system’s core service, solidly grounded in the false but time-honored premise that children’s safety needs are best served by separation from their families.

In fact, many children are mistreated in foster care in ways of which their own parents were never suspected or accused. And even those who are treated well are at documented high risk of poor service- and life-outcomes: unemployment, dependency, and long-term institutionalization or incarceration. Notwithstanding these realities, preventive services have expanded and contracted in fits and starts over the past 30 years. Tabloid-style media coverage of the death of a child almost always results in a crippling backlash against family-preservation services.

These are the “pendulum swings” to which Dr. Gelles refers. What he does not mention is that, as a self-described principal architect of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, Dr. Gelles is not simply an observer, but an active force behind these destructive “pendulum swings.”

Framing the needs of parents and children living in poverty as mutually exclusive, competing interests is inconsistent with social-work ethics and values. Dr. Gelles’ insistence that at-risk children be viewed and treated in myopic isolation from their families of origin also carries another deeply disturbing subtext. Nationwide, but particularly in urban centers like New York and Philadelphia, a disproportionate majority of the families targeted for “child protective” interventions are people of color. When these interventions are made with insufficient regard for the value, human rights, and integrity of these families, entire communities are devastated.

For example, in 1998, at the height of the child-protectionist backlash that followed the death of Elisa Izquierdo, one out of 10 children born in central Harlem could be found in foster care. Historically, and up to the present, “child saving” movements in America have always been fueled by dominant society biases against ethnic minorities. Public child-welfare reform strategies that pretend to be “color-blind,” in fact, serve only to perpetuate institutional racism.

It makes me sad and angry to think that the contemporary equivalent of the child-saving movement has found a home at the University of Pennsylvania. I continue to believe that the lives of children are best protected and improved when parents have safe access to services that are meaningful to them, and when publicly funded service systems are primarily driven not by ideology, but by the self-expressed needs and preferences of the people and communities they exist to serve.

Michael Arsham SW’81 New York

The writer is executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, “a parent/professional partnership dedicated to public child welfare reform in New York City through increased, meaningful parent involvement in service and policy planning.”

A Real Difference

In a world where good news is barely recognizable, how pleased I was to read the article “Lifting the Burden of School Loans” [“Gazetteer,” May/June].

Replacing loans with grants will make such a difference for those who desperately wanted to attend Penn, but could only dream about it, as the money just wasn’t there. With tuition and fees at $43,960 for 2006-07, the thought of an Ivy League education was impossible. Think of all the qualified applicants who someday will make a real difference to themselves and our country.

How proud I am to have graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

Wallace R. G. Langbehn C’53 Spokane, WA

But What Took So Long?

It was with mixed feelings that I read “Lifting the Burden of School Loans” and the quote by President Amy Gutmann that Penn’s new policies would “ease students’ financial concerns not only throughout their education but also after graduation, enabling them more freedom to choose the most satisfying careers.”

While our daughter attended Penn from 1997 to 2001, my salary never came close to equaling what a year of Penn cost. (I am a teacher in private education and my husband is in construction.) When I spoke with the financial-aid officer in charge of our daughter’s financial aid package and pointed this out, I was told how lucky I was that we had been offered such generous loans; otherwise, a school like Penn would be out of reach for families like us.

When our daughter graduated, she was faced with a debt of $55,000—an accumulation of Stafford loans, Perkins loans, and a Penn loan. Options that were open to other graduates such as travel, internship jobs, or working for non-profits were out of the question. Her first concern was making enough money to start paying back loans. My husband and I stepped in to help, and now much of our income (still not over the magic $50,000 amount) that could be going into savings accounts and retirement funds is going to pay back student loans. Granted this is our choice, but I doubt there are many other parents (wealthy or not) who would want to see their children burdened with such staggering debt at the age of 22.

Although we are probably in the minority of Penn families, I have to believe we are not the only ones who mortgaged our future for a Penn education. What makes this whole issue troubling for me is I would like to know what has changed that makes it suddenly all right to offer grants to families in our economic bracket when previously we were told we were lucky to be given loans? And although I applaud Penn for finally getting it right, I find myself feeling somewhat angry that our family will be working many more years to settle a financial obligation that no longer applies.

Priscilla Rudd Wolf CW’68 Lakeville, CT

What an Incredible Argument!

Several of those who reacted to your great article, “Intelligent Demise” [Mar/Apr], seem to think that because “a growing cadre of Ph.D.s and scientists” believe so-called ID has some merit, the Gazette should be “more considerate of [their] beliefs and convictions,” to combine two quotes [“Letters,” May/June].

What an incredible argument! Is it a coincidence that it is exactly the same type of argument that the religious scholars raised when Galileo dared voice his “theory” that the Earth revolved around the Sun? How dared he have so little consideration for the cadres of learned university dons and deans who thought otherwise, while at the same time implying that God could have put His Creation anywhere else than at the center of the universe?

In France, as in many other countries, there are a number of university professors who insist that the Nazi gas chambers did not exist or that white men are biologically superior to black men. Do they really deserve our consideration? In the U.S., as in only a few other countries around the world, the death penalty is considered acceptable by many people, some of whom have had access to higher education: Does this make it morally right or humanely justified? In the U.S., as in too many other theocracies around the world, some university professors or religious leaders believe their credentials allow them to preach where they should teach. Thanks to people like Eric Rothschild and the parents who started the case he won, in the U.S. at least this can be stopped.

Olivier Kaiser, spouse/partner Paris

Darwin’s Humility, ID’s Arrogance

The letter writers responding to “Intelligent Demise” made critical factual errors concerning Darwin, evolution, and the “only other possibility.” Let’s start with a key fact: Darwin’s theory is not evolution. Evolution (changes in organisms over time) is not a theory; instead, evolution is an observation writ large in the fossil record and writ small by the rise of drug-resistant bacteria in our time. Darwin’s theory is actually descent with modification, which elegantly explains the mechanism of evolution, and is well supported by genetics, the fossil record, the presence of vestigial organs, and other observations.

On the other hand, Darwin’s theory is not disproved by entropy, as Bob Koons claimed in his letter. Entropy is a discussion of closed systems; when organisms obtain energy through respiration and by eating, they can both maintain order and also increase in complexity.

Darwin’s theory is not disproved by weak logic: Cells are complicated. I cannot explain how they got that complicated. Since there is nobody smarter than me who can explain it, it must have been an “Intelligent Designer.”

Darwin’s theory is also not disproved by doubt (as Donald Jordan and Ruth Brittain imply in their letters); doubt and testing is how science improves over time. Darwin’s humility and careful observations of weaknesses in his theory as presented—after all, genetics was not understood in his day—stands in sharp contrast to the arrogant chain of logic that leads to the intelligent-design hypothesis.

Dennis Libenson C’80 Fairless Hills, PA

More Possibilities

Leaving aside Bob Koons’ flawed argument about entropy, who is to say that the only possible answers are either evolution or ID? Maybe the answer is neither or maybe both. Logic without a valid assumption is meaningless. The truth is not so obvious, unless you put a blindfold on.

Ferdinand A. DeAntonis C’60 Morristown, NJ

Adam, Eve, and Evolution

Donald Jordan has been misled by the journalistic phrase “Cambrian explosion” [“Letters,” May/June]. There is actually quite a good record of late Precambrian complex life-forms, and it is getting better all the time. Fossil sponges, jellyfish, several types of worms, and possibly mollusks lived during the Vendian Period (latest Precambrian, 650-543 million years ago). The appearance of a “Cambrian explosion” is due to two things: There were no animals with easily preservable hard parts until the beginning of the Cambrian, and most earlier rocks have since been heated and deformed, making fossils of soft-bodied organisms hard to recognize. The preservation of soft body parts is rare and requires special conditions: rapid deposition and burial in quiet water in an oxygen-deficient environment. Rocks that meet these conditions are usually shales, and these rocks are much more susceptible to deformation and chemical alteration by heating than are other sediments.

From the Cambrian onwards, we now have a very detailed record of evolution. There is plenty of evidence for “transitional life forms.” A cursory examination of the actual fossil record allows no question of the fact that evolution has occurred, regardless of the spurious and undocumented arguments on numerous websites.

To those who cannot accept the Law of Evolution because it means that humanity must be descended from an ape-like creature, I would say that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is an allegorical statement of just that fact. It is now known that animals much like ourselves have lived on earth for approximately 200,000 years (the African “Eve”), but there is little evidence of what psychiatrists call “consciousness of self” until about 40,000 years ago, when deliberate burials and cave paintings suggesting belief in a form of sympathetic magic appear.

Thus one could say that for three-quarters of the time that creatures human in form have walked the earth, they have lacked the mental or spiritual faculties that would distinguish them qualitatively from the apes. But one day, one of these creatures, faced with some untoward action by another, said something like, “That’s not fair,” or “That’s wrong,” and the knowledge of good and evil was born. From that moment on we were human.

This is what the biblical writer meant by “eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge” and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, where no nakedness nor judgment nor conscience, nor submission to a concept of “the Other” was possible.

John Berry C’63 Austin, TX

More Light than Heat

Physicians of faith may believe the Creation story as an anchor in their belief system, but they depend on evolution to explain relations between species and to manipulate aspects of that relation for medical purposes. Each concept has its place—there should be no conflict between them. We might use the example of theories of light—the wave theory and the quantum theory. Neither theory explains all of the observed phenomena, but each explains phenomena not explained by the other.

C. Brooks Henderson M’50 Dunnellon, FL

Don’t Equate a Religion with Its Radical Fringe Movements

H. Jordan Foster’s letter, “Tired Rationalizations,” [May/June] responding to Amina Wadud’s “Alumni Voices” essay, “One Faith, Many Fragments” [Mar/Apr] repeats two tired old confusions: the equation of Islam with the tribal societies that adopted it during the first few centuries after its founder’s death, and the assumption that any world religion exists in a pure or representative form.

You cannot equate a religion with its most radical fringe movements. There are over a billion Muslims worldwide and maybe a few million fundamentalists, only a tiny percentage of whom use their faith to justify violence.

As Beebe Bahrami points out in the article, “Understanding Pashto,” elsewhere in the May/June issue, Islam is more shaped by, than shaper of, local traditions in its various regions. In order to spread, early Christianity had to compromise with the customs of Western societies, such as slavery and capital punishment, and adopt pre-existing feast days and local deities, none of which appeared in its sacred writings. From the beginning, then, it splintered into many strains, based on the folkways of the societies it penetrated.

Similarly, Islam in northwestern Pakistan is practiced quite differently than in countries of varying traditions such as Indonesia, Turkey, or Egypt.

Dr. Wadud hardly condones “fundamentalist ideology.” In fact, she calls for a reformation of the mainstreams of Islam similar to that process undergone by Christianity 500 years ago, when the Roman Catholic Church was roughly the same age as Islam is now. Advocates of that Reformation, a few centuries after the church-sanctioned mass slaughters of the Crusades, were met with terrorist persecution, mass executions, and reactionary counter-reformation.

Only after dissident voices like Dr. Wadud’s attained enough volume to influence the secular political leadership were the various Protestant communities free of murderous retribution by agents of religious orthodoxy. As a result, many branches of Christianity are now free to openly bloom, and scholars of Christianity like Elaine Pagels and Jack Miles can do their work free of death threats. It was, however, a long, lonely, and dangerous road for the early reformers.

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam in its moral and ethical dimension is a magnificent instrument for the teaching and practice of peace and social justice. And like them, it has been perverted by an anti-modernist minority who would bring back the bad old days of puritanism, patriarchalism, and conservative theocracy that—let’s be honest—more than a few Christians and Jews wouldn’t mind seeing reinstated.

David Fenimore C’73 Reno, NV

Some Joke (Not)

Can you provide an explanation why the quotation, “It may seem like a stretch, but fighting infectious diseases or Republicans, at the end of the day I’m scrubbing my hands either way,” which appeared just above the class notes in the May/June issue, deserved such special emphasis and attention?

Chris Olmstead C’64 Atlanta

We received a number of letters and telephone calls from alumni readers about this. Most were quick to assert the writer’s right to voice her opinion in “Alumni Notes,” however little they thought of it, but questioned with some vehemence the editors’ good judgment—and our political motives—in giving it such prominence in the magazine.

As to the first, we do gravitate toward outrageous or otherwise surprising notes for that spot—the idea is to grab the reader’s attention—and we interpreted this particular comment as intended as humorous hyperbole. It appears I was too cavalier in assuming all readers would see it the same way, and I apologize for any offense caused by our highlighting of the quotation.

As to the second count, we must plead innocent. The Gazette has no set political sympathies, any more than Penn’s alumni will ever share one point of view, on politics or any other subject. And, as the letters in this section show, there’s no danger of that.—Ed.

Corrections & Clarifications

In the May/June “From College Hall,” it was Lao Tzu, rather than Confucius, who said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Due to a transcribing error, the comments attributed to Penn professors Michael Zuckerman and Peter Stallybrass were transposed in the “Gazetteer” article, “Revering, Rejecting, Rethinking Ben.”

In “Understanding Pashto,” the editors mistakenly referred to Dr. Whitney Azoy, who is male, as she.

Failing Grades,” in the March/April issue, gave the wrong age for Sociology Professor Ivar Berg, who is 77. The article also did not mention that a reprint of Berg’s 1970 book, Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery, was published by Percheron Press in 2003 with a new introduction by the author. The same press, headed by Eliot Werner G’74, also plans to reprint a similarly updated edition of The Credential Society, by Randall Collins, the Dorothy Thomas Professor of Sociology, who is featured with Berg in the article.

We apologize for the errors.

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