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Mr. Michael Rychlewski



Welcome to College Writing! This is a class that will prepare you for the rigours of college work and college thinking. We will work on the following goals:

1.       Improving the ability to read, comprehend and verbally articulate complex, “college-level” writing.

2.       Developing the skills necessary to write clear, correct, concise, coherent, cogent, “college-level” essays.

3.       Building cultural literacy to better engage in the world around you.

4.       Enlarging vocabulary skills and applying them in real-world situations.

In order to build the support you will need to become better writers and thinkers, we need to work together.  The following expectations will help us become the classroom community we will need for success.

Come on time.  You need to be in the classroom at 7:45. College and the work-world require punctuality. We would be doing you a disservice if we did not hold you to those same standards.  You will receive 5 points daily for being present and on time.  If you do walk in late, quietly hand the teacher your tardy pass and have a seat.  If the class is working on an assignment, find out what you need to do by quietly asking a student seated nearby. Please note that constant tardies and absences will affect your grade dramatically.

Come prepared.  You will need a spiral notebook, a two-pocket folder and at least two pens. Depending on the class size, you may or may not also have a textbook, Patterns. We will inform you if you need to bring your copy to class.

Follow deadlines.  You will have reading and writing assignments to be completed outside of class.  Completing those on time is not only crucial for your grade, but also prepares you for full-class discussions and group work.  Because we understand that this is not your only class, we will always give you at least two nights to write essays.  If you are having technology issues (your printer died, etc.), you may email your essay to your teacher instead.  However, this must be sent to us prior to class in order to be considered an on-time assignment.

Late work.  You may turn in assignments one day late, but they will be subject to a ten-point deduction. If you are turning in a late assignment, be sure to write “LATE” on the top, along with the date it is being turned in.

Revisions and retakes.  All writing is re-writing. First drafts are seldom anything more than initial attempts. That said, we still expect your first drafts to be proofread for spelling, grammar and punctuation. If we find more than a couple mistakes, your first grade will be a zero. Since the first draft is factored into the final grade, you do not want to begin with a zero. Note: we may confer with you personally over your rewrites instead of marking up your paper. Be prepared to tell us what you did in those rewrites.

Feedback.  Finally, we want to hear from you.  We will be doing lots of things this year: working in groups, completing individual work, work-shopping essays, collaborating on online projects, exploring art and history, examining great pieces of writing, and watching excellent films and videos, among other things.  We want to know what parts you are enjoying and what parts you would like to change.  This is your class!  Be engaged and help shape it! 

Note: If you have more questions about the class, click "Questions" at the top. You can also look at last year's Overview in "Archives." Much of what we're doing this year will be the same as what we did last year.



Welcome to College Writing. As you probably know, the ability to write well is an essential ingredient for college success. Most college courses require you to write lengthy papers, create research documents and take essay exams. To succeed in these courses, you need to do more than just pre-write, draft and revise. You need to think and write metaphorically, develop rhythm and balance, avoid clichés and faulty logic, summon a dynamic vocabulary, and combine sentences and paragraphs for power and effect. In addition, you should be able to intelligently converse on important contemporary issues, understand the pivotal events and people of previous eras and constantly ask Paul Gauguin's three questions:   "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" In short, you need to express yourself in bold, clear, elegant language. This course will show you how.

Let’s cover the basics step-by-step.

THE PURPOSE: The purpose of this course is to prepare you to read, understand, speak, write and think more clearly and logically by exposing you to the types of organizational patterns, rhetorical strategies, and syntactical templates you will encounter in college.

THE GOAL: The goal is for you to be a successful college graduate--with a sophisticated vocabulary and a wide interest in cultural literacy--who will become a life-long reader, learner, thinker, writer and doer--a person who will positively contribute to our  democratic society.

THE GENERAL PLAN: In this course you will be reading and writing across several fields of learning in a variety of rhetorical styles. We will use two core texts. The first will be Patterns for College Writing (9th edition), an excellent anthology that has a wide selection of non-fiction prose. It examines issues in the social and natural sciences, in law, and in the humanities and offers several selections in the areas of history, ethnic studies, language and biography—all subjects you may encounter in college. It also contains three excellent opening chapters on the writing process. Our second core text will be I Say / They Say, a clear and useful  primer on how to use writing templates to enter into intelligent conversations on a number of wide-ranging topics. It is imperative you learn how how do this. It is not enough to have your own opinions; you must also weigh them against other points of view. This is what educated people do. These templates will be extremely helpful in creating a structure for your arguments, especially if you feel you are not as strong as you'd like to be at organizing and expressing your thoughts, or if you feel you are conversing in a subject that you know very little about. I will ease you into this by modeling templates in a subject you know a lot about: popular music. Using these two books (and other materials), you will write to imitate, to discover, to explore, to amuse and to persuade, sharing your drafts with fellow students in a seminar atmosphere, creating your own writing portfolios and improving them using various rubrics and sequencing methods. In addition, you will build both your vocabulary and your cultural literacy, which you build by being exposed to history, music, art, sports, photography and film. Intelligent people know what "stoic" means; they know who Ella Fitzgerald is, they know Citizen Kane. Finally. you will develop proper research skills, focusing on the processes involved in gathering information, in using the correct methods for documentation, and in understanding and recognizing plagiarism.

In addition to the selections from Patterns in College Writing and I Say / They Say, we will read one book each quarter: The tentative list for 2011-2012 will read as follows: Quarter 1: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser; Quarter 2: Into the Wild by John Krakauer; Quarter 3: Survival at Auschwitz by Primo Levi; and Quarter 4: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. Though very different in style, substance and purpose, these four books examine many of the important social, cultural, and philosophical issues of our time. We will also be looking at Op-Ed columns from various newspapers because it is imperative that we know what is going on in our world. And, of course, there is a presidential election coming in 2012. You should be aware of how that election will effect you. We will also have access to an horizon library--a collection of articles from such august publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Harpers, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Sunday Book Review--as well as other media sources that cover a broad political and cultural spectrum. I strongly encourage you to bring any articles that you feel will contribute to our library. Finally, we will be looking at various texts from recent AP Language and Composition exams, as I will be offering the best writers in class the opportunity to take the AP Language and Composition Exam next May, provided they have not already taken it. A passing score of 4 or 5 can earn a student three hours of college credit.

NOTE: Attendance is crucial in this class. When you are late and/or absent it adversely affects your grade. I expect you to be in the class on time and ready to work. Late assignments are  acceptable within a reasonable time, provided you have a legitimate excuse (illness, doctor's appointment, family problems, religious holiday). Handing in make-up work three weeks late is not acceptable. Coming without materials is not acceptable. Disrupting the class is not acceptable. I expect you to be professional and respectful. The world runs because people expect things (and get them) on time and in an orderly manner. This is what is meant by “professional conduct.” You'll  notice professional conduct is currently 10% of the grade. Every week or so I'll look at my attendance to see who was present, prepared, on time and acting in a professional manner.


NOTE: I want no spelling mistakes on your typed essays. You have spell-check on your computers. Use it. It’s not my job to clean up the sloppy spelling of high school seniors. In the second quarter I will add two other stipulations--subject-verb agreement and consistency in tense. By the end of the year, you should be able to hand in first drafts that are free of those errors. If you’re a student who makes those errors, now is the time to stop. What happens if I get an “essay” with a spelling error on it? It’s simple--I won’t accept it. Nor will I mark the spelling error. I will just give it back to you with an “S” at the top of the page. You will have one day to correct it and hand it in. Use your spell check! My methods may appear draconian; they are not. It is better you discover the expectations of college professors in senior year of high school. Trust me.


NOTE: I usually show a movie at the end of each semester, an important film that you probably have not seen. We analyze it and write on it. Movies are important and need to be discussed as well.


Here is how I will grades. This may be subject to change.


40% assignments

20% homework

10% essay exams

10% projects

10% professional conduct

10% drafts/portfolios


Here is the grading scale.


 A = 90

 B = 80

 C = 70

 D = 60

 F = 59 and below

 Not handed in = 0


NOTE: It behooves you to do all the assignments. A "zero" will destroy your average.


NOTE: There are formative assessments and summative assessments. Formative means the degree to which you improved from point-in-time A to point-in-time B; summative means your score earned on a test at a particular point-in-time. Your "drafts/portfolios" are formative assessments. Your essay exams are summative assessments.





What do you want me to learn this year? (What would I want to learn this year?)

  1. I expect you to understand the complex relationships that exist among exigency (what is motivating the writer to write), audience (what kind of readers might act on the author’s words), and purpose (what the author intends the readers to do should they wish to act on his or her words), recognize how these different relationships necessitate different genres (each with different protocols that need to be observed), and apply this knowledge to your own writing.
  2. I expect you to find organizational patterns (comparison and contrast, extended definition) and rhetorical appeals (the good character of the writer, the emotions of the reader, the logic of the argument) in various readings, understand how they work, and be able to use them in your own writing.
  3. I expect you to engage in dialectical thinking. That is, to imagine the world from a point of view that is 180 degrees opposed to yours, to analyze that point of view and to use your understanding of it to examine your values, clarify your thinking, and improve your writing. You should be able to write on both sides of on issue so clearly and persuasively that I have no idea which side you subscribe to.
  4. I expect you to learn proper research methods, realize that serious research engages in a dialogue with an academic tradition, and uphold that tradition in your writing.
  5. I expect you to generate ideas through the use of graphic organizers, rubrics, and sequencing methods so that you can take almost any rhetorical situation, understand it clearly, and write effectively on your understanding.
  6. I expect you to improve your vocabulary so you can sound like an educated adult when you get to college.
  7. I expect you to understand the world that existed before you were born. Remember Cicero: "Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child."

How are you going to sequence this course? (How would I like the course sequenced?)

What to teach first, second (and even tenth!) is difficult for any teacher, but especially in teaching writing, where there is so much is happening in any given text and there is so much recursive thinking. Nevertheless, we need to start somewhere. I'm going to spend the first half of the first quarter on the writing process as explicated in Patterns and I Say / They Say. Once we have familiarized ourselves with invention, arrangement, drafting/revising and the use of templates, we will devote the rest of the first quarter (and into the second) to understanding and using organizational patterns and rhetorical strategies. We will study organizational patterns by reading and reacting to the essays in Patterns in College Writing, and we will study rhetorical strategies by examining and applying the elements on my "wheel of rhetorical analysis." This wheel--of which I intend to make copies for everyone--explores the different ways texts work, from the big picture (Ex: exigency--what motivates the author to write) to the small picture (Ex: literary devices--the choice of a particular word). Hopefully from this base knowledge we will have enough skills at our disposal to write a research document. Half of the second quarter will be devoted to that activity. I will offer you the opportunity to examine student research papers from recent years, discovering and discussing what works and what doesn't. In addition, all during the year we will be building both our vocabulary and our cultural literacy.

By the second semester we will have expanded our horizons enough to examine and discuss how these organizational patterns and rhetorical strategies work across a series of increasingly more sophisticated texts, similar to the ones you will encounter in college. Hopefully we will come to understand the importance of process in writing in a very concrete way. And begin to engage in conversation with the world around us.

Throughout the course we will be creating a seminar-like atmosphere where we read and criticize each others' essays. I'm hoping to do that at least two days a week. It's imperative that you have this hands-on experience.

In addition to reading in the textbook and writing about what we have read, there will be other interesting activities as well. For example, we will examine visual texts--ads, commercials, TV shows, films--and analyze them using the rhetorical strategies we're studying.

How much writing will you expect from me? (How much writing should I expect from myself?)

It's difficult to quantify writing. It's not always about the amount for words. Let's just say there will be a fair amount of writing. Bring a spiral notebook on day 2; it will be your writer's notebook for the semester. In it you will enter your writing prompts from the beginning of each class, and I will assess it down the road. The bulk of the writing, though, will occur elsewhere--composing our college essays, using templates to discuss popular music and writing at least two essays using the ideas and methods in the first three chapters of Patterns. I’m hoping that during this process you will imitate styles you like, react to ideas that provoke you, and reflect on your own world views. As the second quarter begins you will start doing your independent research. (details to follow) As the year progresses there will be many “essay suggestions” using the different organizational patterns in the book and my own handouts. I will also ask you to write a "self-reflection essay" near the end of every quarter, detailing your progress. Hopefully we can confer one or two days a week to develop both our independent essays and our research documents.

NOTE: Any essays that you want criticized by me or your peers should be typed on one side of a single page, New Times Roman, 12-point is standard, unless you have more than a page, then use font size 11...etc. Also note again, that I won’t accept or criticize any essay if there is a spelling error.

Can I expect a fixed schedule from week to week? (What kind of a schedule should I want?)

I always like to begin each class with a brief writing activity: a photo, a painting, a quote, a song, an object, a poem, a short passage of prose, a scene from a movie...then dive into our work. We will find very early, however, that we are all at different levels and while I will try to teach in the upper quadrant of ability, I may have to repeat and re-teach certain lessons. This will offer the students who are moving along at a brisker pace the time and opportunity to explore more deeply their own writing. Or to examine some of the resources in our room. So, while I will focus on organizational patterns, writing templates, popular music, the college essay, vocabulary, cultural literacy, the building of our horizon library, and reading Fast Food Nation, I cannot guarantee a fixed specific schedule every week

Will I get to talk to you personally about my writing? (Do I want to talk to my teacher personally about my writing?)

I’ll try my best to make time for each student, but please realize a lot can be learned in classes and in groups. My plan is to model the writing workshop for the class a few times before we do it as a group. I want to show you how and an honest and well-articulated  reaction can reflect the text back to the writer in ways that are surprising, illuminating and helpful. Hopefully, after a few weeks students will break off into pairs or groups and apply this methodology while I’ll circulate and monitor. This way every student will have had at least one round of criticism before they create their second draft. Please note that I will expect you to come in with certain problems or questions about your writing in mind. It is important that you be active in this class. Passivity is NOT encouraged. Near the end of the quarter, each of you will confer with me individually or in small groups. You will discuss your weaknesses and strengths as writers and create a year-long plan that you will implement by focusing on whatever rhetorical strategies and analyses seem appropriate to you based on your expertise and interests. Some of your single-page papers will expand into full-blown essays; others will die on the vine. New ideas will be constantly introduced--from discussions, from your own and other students’ writings and from the readings during the year, perhaps even as off-shoots from you research work.  I will try to be there as you select your particular path. Remember, I want this to be a lively, supportive and effective class where you will develop your skills and build your confidence. I want you to leave high school absolutely convinced you will be able to write well on any subject when you get to college.

Will my writing ever leave the classroom? (Do I want my writing to leave the classroom? Why?)

My goal is to have every student in the class publish something, especially in our school literary magazine. In addition, it would be great to send pieces off to outside literary magazines and writing contests (in print or in electronic publications). I’m convinced each of you has things to say and ways to say it, and I’m sure you want the chance to be heard. You can earn that chance by learning how to write well. It isn’t given to you. But if you are passionate about the world you live in and your own future in it, you will create the energy needed to succeed. Believe me--you want to succeed. Otherwise, you would not have signed up for this course.

How are you going to grade me? (How should I grade myself?)

Ah, grades! The necessary evil of education. Let me be blunt—I don’t care much for grading in writing classes. Students come in at all different levels, and I would prefer to address their improvement over the course of the year. I think it's important that you consider grading yourself. You know your weaknesses and strengths. You know how much you’re putting into your work and how much you’re improving from week to week. You know how much you're rewriting to make your work better. Here is what I am going to do the first quarter. I am going to assign written homework once or twice a week--sometimes continuing the writing activity of the first few minutes of class, sometimes with questions that I think would be interesting to write about, sometimes on a subject that I think you should research. I expect each of you to do these assignments. I may read some, scan others or simply make a check mark in my grade book to indicate that I have entered them as work completed. For every four essays assigned and completed you will get 100 points, If you did 3 of the 4 you will get 75 points...etc. From time to time I will check the free-writing you do in your writer's notebook at the beginning of class. I will make some comments, and we will confer about a grade. By the five-week mark, I will have a pretty good picture of where you’re at, and during a brief conference at that time we will both “suggest” a progress report grade. Your grades will sometimes be open to some negotiation. I would like to think that we can come to a consensus about grades without any conflict.

Is this the most important class I will ever take in high school? (If yes, why?)











4 essential elements in good college writing

1)  Attention to mechanics. This means spelling and punctuation, sentence fragments, run-ons, comma splices...etc. Some college writing teachers will crucify you: one mistake and your grade drops to a "C," no matter what.

2)  Demonstration of analytical skills. This means being able to discuss the theme, tone, mood, style, exigency, purpose and audience of a given text. It's more than just the main idea in an essay, poem, newspaper article, or media presentation. You have to show you can enter into a text, find out how it works and explain the effect it has on the reader.

3)  Indication of follow-through. This means the ability to develop a specific idea in detail, support that idea with meaningful facts, illustrations, experiences, analogies, quotes--or whatever is needed to make the thesis or premise clear--and carry that idea all the way through an essay to a logical and well-considered conclusion.

4)  Evidence of organization. This means provide adequate transitions from one idea to the next so the reader can follow easily. This implies the ability to move away from the 5-paragraph model of writing into a more sophisticated form of expression.

NOTE: Some of the ideas above were cleaned from "Whistling in the Dark"  by Merrill J. Davis  © 2006


10 characteristic of "good enough" writing

1)   Rationality. Organized according to a logical plan or purpose and proceeds by a series of logical steps from it's initial premise to a logical conclusion.

2)   Conformity and Conventionality. Exhibits decorum and propriety appropriate in style and thought to the academic universe in general and to the discipline in particular.

3)   Adherence to Standard English and Rules. Uses conventional grammar, mechanics, and spelling.

4)   Decorum. Stays within decorous boundaries. Not too friendly, casual or presumptuous in tone. Sensitive to ability, age, class, religion and occupation.

5)   Self-Reliance, Responsibility, Honesty: Observes the honor code and avoids plagiarism and piracy.

6)   Order. Is reasonably well organized. Gets to the point quickly. Moves step by step to the destination. Stays on subject. Shows scaffolding.

7)   Modesty in Form and Style. Doesn't call attention to the writer but to the subject. Always moderate and temperate. The tone is quiet, steady and inconspicuous.

8)   Efficiency and Economy. Reads tight and clean, omits needless words. (But remember the process is repetitive, erratic, recursive and messy.)

9)   Punctuality. Is handed in on time. Both academic and business worlds must run like clockwork in order to function well.

10) The Upshot. What is better than "good enough" writing? Evidence of the writers critical thinking; grappling with multiple, perhaps contradictory, sources and ideas; questioning both authority and one's own convictions; experimentation with genre, language and other attributes of form, style, persona and voice. In short, writing that grabs the reader by the throat from the first sentence and never lets go.

NOTE: Some of the ideas above were cleaned from "Good Enough Writing: What is Good Enough Writing, Anyway?" by Lynn Z. Bloom  © 2006


The Council of Writing Program Administrators Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition

This document can also be downloaded as a PDF.

Adopted by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA), April 2000; amended July 2008.

For further information about the development of the Outcomes Statement, please see

For further information about the Council of Writing Program Administrators, please see

A version of this statement was published in WPA: Writing Program Administration 23.1/2 (fall/winter 1999): 59-66


This statement describes the common knowledge, skills, and attitudes sought by first-year composition programs in American postsecondary education. To some extent, we seek to regularize what can be expected to be taught in first-year composition; to this end the document is not merely a compilation or summary of what currently takes place. Rather, the following statement articulates what composition teachers nationwide have learned from practice, research, and theory. This document intentionally defines only "outcomes," or types of results, and not "standards," or precise levels of achievement. The setting of standards should be left to specific institutions or specific groups of institutions.

Learning to write is a complex process, both individual and social, that takes place over time with continued practice and informed guidance. Therefore, it is important that teachers, administrators, and a concerned public do not imagine that these outcomes can be taught in reduced or simple ways. Helping students demonstrate these outcomes requires expert understanding of how students actually learn to write. For this reason we expect the primary audience for this document to be well-prepared college writing teachers and college writing program administrators. In some places, we have chosen to write in their professional language. Among such readers, terms such as "rhetorical" and "genre" convey a rich meaning that is not easily simplified. While we have also aimed at writing a document that the general public can understand, in limited cases we have aimed first at communicating effectively with expert writing teachers and writing program administrators.

These statements describe only what we expect to find at the end of first-year composition, at most schools a required general education course or sequence of courses. As writers move beyond first-year composition, their writing abilities do not merely improve. Rather, students' abilities not only diversify along disciplinary and professional lines but also move into whole new levels where expected outcomes expand, multiply, and diverge. For this reason, each statement of outcomes for first-year composition is followed by suggestions for further work that builds on these outcomes.

Rhetorical Knowledge

By the end of first year composition, students should

Faculty in all programs and departments can build on this preparation by helping students learn

Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing

By the end of first year composition, students should

Faculty in all programs and departments can build on this preparation by helping students learn


By the end of first year composition, students should

Faculty in all programs and departments can build on this preparation by helping students learn

Knowledge of Conventions

By the end of first year composition, students should

Faculty in all programs and departments can build on this preparation by helping students learn

Composing in Electronic Environments

As has become clear over the last twenty years, writing in the 21st-century involves the use of digital technologies for several purposes, from drafting to peer reviewing to editing. Therefore, although the kinds of composing processes and texts expected from students vary across programs and institutions, there are nonetheless common expectations.

By the end of first-year composition, students should:

Faculty in all programs and departments can build on this preparation by helping students learn


Academic and standards and outcomes as applied to writing.

Illinois State Content Standards and Common Core Skill Outcomes

CONTENT Standards (Illinois State Standards or  National)

      Student will know...


SKILLS Standards (College Readiness Standard or Common Core)

       Student will be able to...


Classroom expectations and how to be successful in this course.


We expect a professional attitude throughout the year. This means on-time, prepared , respectful of peers, and willing and able to work effectively in groups.


How to annotate various literary fiction and non-fiction? texts.


How to define and use powerful vocabulary words.


How word choice shapes meaning and tone.


Understand what cultural literacy is and its importance in their own relationship with the world at large.


Where the college room is and how to use the resources there as they prepare for post-secondary educational experiences.

Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. (W.11-12.1)


Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. (W.11-12.2)

Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (W.11-12.4)

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.  (W.11-12.9)

Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes.  (W.11-12.10)

Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.  (W.11-12.3)


Performance Task/ Assessment that demonstrates mastery of this content objective



Performance Task / Assessment  that demonstrates mastery of this skill objective


Students will identify individualized goals for the improvement of their writing.

Students will annotate pieces from Patterns for College Writing (possible opening pieces include "My Mother Never Worked" (p. 96) and "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police" (p. 101)).

Students will have periodic quizzes on course vocabulary.


Students will incorporate class vocabulary words into their writing.


Students will build their cultural literacy by exploring and writing responses to articles, essays, photographs, paintings, music, and films (such as Midnight in Paris).


Students will begin to build portfolios where they will collect their writing, create reading and vocabulary lists, and reflect on what they have read.


Students will visit the college room and meet the college counselors.


Students will respond to a free-response essay prompt to produce a sample piece of writing.


Students will read essays and identify high-quality writing techniques.


Students will respond to academic writing prompts in well-developed essays that make clear claims supported by logical evidence.


Students will begin to draft their college essays.


Students will begin using essay templates from the classroom text They Say / I Say.


Students will produce written self-reflections evaluating class performance.











Accommodations for Special Education: Individual needs will be met according to IEPs.

Interdisciplinary Connections: Students will gain a basic understanding of historical moments and eras and understand why they are (or a sense of history is) so important in contributing to the development of an educated adult who participates as a citizen in a democratic society.


The Rhetorical Triangle:  Understanding and Using Logos, Ethos, and Pathos

Logos, ethos, and pathos are important components of all writing, whether we are aware of them or not. By learning to recognize logos, ethos, and pathos in the writing of others and in our own, we can create texts that appeal to readers on many different levels. This handout provides a brief overview of what logos, ethos, and pathos are and offers guiding questions for recognizing and incorporating these appeals.

Aristotle taught that a speaker’s ability to persuade an audience is based on how well the speaker appeals to that audience in three different areas: logos, ethos, and pathos.  Considered together, these appeals form what later rhetoricians have called the rhetorical triangle.   

Logos appeals to reason. Logos can also be thought of as the text of the argument, as well as how well a writer has argued his/her point.

Ethos appeals to the writer’s character. Ethos can also be thought of as the role of the writer in the argument, and how credible his/her argument is.

Pathos appeals to the emotions and the sympathetic imagination, as well as to beliefs and values.  Pathos can also be thought of as the role of the audience in the argument.

                                                  LOGOS (Reason/Text)



PATHOS (Values, Beliefs/Audience)       ETHOS (Credibility/Writer)                     

The rhetorical triangle is typically represented by an equilateral triangle, suggesting that logos, ethos, and pathos should be balanced within a text. However, which aspect(s) of the rhetorical triangle you favor in your writing depends on both the audience and the purpose of that writing. Yet, if you are in doubt, seek a balance among all three elements. Questions to help you recognize and utilize logos, ethos, and pathos The following questions can be used in two ways, both to think about how you are using logos, ethos, and pathos in your writing, and also to assess how other writers use them in their writing. 


·         Is the thesis clear and specific? (for help with thesis statements, see the Revising Thesis Statements handout)

·         Is the thesis supported by strong reasons and credible evidence? 

·         Is the argument logical and arranged in a well-reasoned order? 


·         What are the writer’s qualifications? How has the writer connected him/herself to the topic being discussed?

·         Does the writer demonstrate respect for multiple viewpoints by using sources in the text?

·         Are sources credible? Are sources documented appropriately?    

·         Does the writer use a tone that is suitable for the audience/purpose? Is the diction (word choice) used appropriate for the audience/purpose?

·         Is the document presented in a polished and professional manner?


·         Are vivid examples, details and images used to engage the reader’s emotions and imagination?  

·         Does the writer appeal to the values and beliefs of the reader by using examples readers can relate to or care about?

One Final Thought

While the above questions can help you identify or utilize logos, ethos, and pathos in writing, it is important to remember that sometimes a particular aspect of a text will represent more than one of these appeals. For example, using credible sources could be considered both logos and ethos, as the sources help support the logic or reasoning of the text, and they also help portray the writer as thoughtful and engaged with the topic. This overlap reminds us how these appeals work together to create effective writing.










NOTE: I may use some of the lesson plans that follow during the 2014-2015 school year. TBA

Schurz Unit Plan


First and Last Name: Michael Rychlewski  

Course:  College Writing                   

Subject Area: English Language Arts                               

Grade Level: 11/12  




LESSON PLANS    We have assemble two groups of 100 words each. Dig into them and start using them.





























































































































Achilles' heel





















































































































Please note that these are possible lessons plans we will draw from. They will not necessarily be taught in numerical order.


          INTRODUCTION TO THE CLASS:  General discussion of materials: notebooks,

          texts, Op-Eds, attendance, Wheel or Rhetorical Analysis, HORIZON LIBRARY, my


          Remarks about the course not covered in this web-site.

          September 11, 2001. Re-actions twelve  years after the event.

          Discussion of current events through articles as a means to generate writing ideas.

          Look at and discuss a film?

          Read and discuss a current Op-Ed or articles students bring.

          Hand out Patterns in College Writing anthology. Discussion of the introduction to

          this anthology in class with some small assigned readings from it.

          Hand out Fast Food Nation. Have one-third of it read by the end of the 4th week,

          finished by the end of the 6th.




1.      We discuss understanding assignments and share assignments from other classes.

2.      We discuss the purpose, differentiating items on list at bottom of page 16.

3.      We apply inform/assess/instruct to an essay for new students to the class.

4.      We brainstorm in groups on esoteric and arcane subjects

5.      Do exercises 1 & 2 on P 20-21. Volunteers wanted to discuss!

6.      Differentiating subject from topic. Apply checklist to Spanish Armada. Volunteer wanted to type for LSC projector!

7.      Do exercises 3 & 4. 3 at home, 4 as small groups in class.

8.      Open free-writing vs. focused free-writing. I model some examples.

9.      Do exercises 5 and 6.

10.  We walk through “Formulating a Thesis” very carefully

11.  We read “A Hanging” by George Orwell and use the text to support the thesis statement on p 31.

12.  Possible exercises 8 through 11




1.      We’ll discuss how to recognize the clues in an assignment so that you know what

      organizational pattern to use.

2.      We’ll constantly re-visit the checklist in the text book so that you can internalize the


3.      We examine ways to open—not only FIQQSS (fact, image, question, quote, surprise, story) but “definition,” “background,” “contradiction.”

4.      We will bring in essays without the opening paragraph, partner up, reading what is given to us and then create the opening essay.

5.      We will examine tone lists to make sure the tone is correct for each piece.

6.      We will discuss how to make body paragraphs unified, coherent and well developed.

7.      We will practice trying to create body paragraphs where the main idea is implied.

8.      We will discuss how to use key words, pronouns and transitions for coherence.

9.      We will try to internalize transitions.

10.   We will do paragraph work where we try to marshal support through examples,

       reasons, facts, statistic, details, expect opinions, and personal experiences.

11.   We will find a common subject that we can work on together as a class. Perhaps

       why Chicago is such a great city. First narrowing topic, then developing thesis, then

       marshalling support. (We may also apply this to a visual text)

12.  We will examine the ways to conclude: A) reviewing your key points

        B)  recommending a course of action C) Making a prediction D) Offering a relevant


13.  We will discuss the importance of a formal outline.




1.      We will remind ourselves of some keys to good drafting—begin with the body

       paragraphs, get ideas down quickly, take breaks, triple space to allow for

       intra-linear annotations, pace yourself to anticipate at least two more drafts.

2.      We will remind ourselves that revision is not only proof reading and editing.

3.      We will read our drafts aloud in class to a partner and critique using the guidelines for peer critiques and a peer-editing worksheet.

4.      We will demonstrate the proper note-taking during a one-on-one conference with the teacher.

5.      We will examine and discuss the first, second and final student drafts in the chapter.

6.      We will discuss and perhaps write on the development of our own drafts and use that has part of the “self-evaluation essay)

7.      We will examine the important final editing checklist (p 66-67)




          Read Narration Intro in Patterns for discussion

          Read “Only Daughter” and do the journal entry on page 88 in your journal notebook

                for class discussion. This is a great way to write your first essay in the class, tell

   some stories about your family, and think about who you are.

          Read “My Mother Never Worked” and do vocabulary project # 3 on page 100 for

                     class discussion in your journal notebook. Good verbs are very important in

                     writing. Also do writing workshop #1 on page 100 in your journal notebook.

                     Find out something about your parents that you didn’t know. 


      Additional essay suggestions: 1) Narrate an important event where you came to 

      understand your family heritage. 2) Narrate an event where you felt totally lost, as if

      in a wilderness, and how you either summoned the skills to survive or were helped by

      someone to survive. NOTE: In both cases you should ask yourself who the audience

      for this might be. Use new words.




   Read Description Intro in Patterns for discussion.

   Read “Words Left Unspoken” and answer # 1 in purpose and audience on p. 156 in

              your journal notebook.

   Read “Once More to the Lake” This is a very famous essay.

   Print: “Once More to the Lake” from the Internet and mark it up for imagery,

              vocabulary and tone. Do ALL the comprehension questions on page 180 in

  your journal notebook. Do the journal entry on page 181 in your journal



    Additional essay suggestions: Describe a person, place or thing using only ONE of the

    following senses: sound, touch, smell or taste. Use new words.




          Read Exemplification Intro in Patterns for discussion.

          Read “Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space”

                    Do all four questions for purpose and audience on page 227 in your journal


          Read “The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society.” Do # 2 in vocabulary projects on

   page 237 in your journal notebook. We need to discuss subjective and objective

   writing. This is a good essay to do it with.


     Additional essay suggestions: 1) Should certain animals have more rights than others?

     Give me examples and why. 2) Give me examples of selfless actions. That is, actions

          that demonstrate thinking about others first. You may wish to prioritize them (first

          make a list). Or you can profile a person who constantly engages in them. Use new



      LESSON 7


          Read Process Analysis Intro in Patterns for discussion

          Read “On Fire” on page 280 and do # 3 and # 5 in style and structure on page 283

                in your journal notebook. (I may read from Young Men and Fire.)

          Read “The Embalming of Mr. Jones” Answer all 6 questions of style and structure on

                     page 290 in your journal notebook.

          Print “The Death of Benny Paret” from the “Archives” page of my web-site. This is a

          very famous essay and a great piece for rhetorical analysis.


          Additional essay Suggestions: How to…sleep in class without getting caught, get

          people motivated, dump your boyfriend, sing in the shower, mess with your little

          sister’ s mind, show generosity without calling attention to yourself, dress cool

          cheaply, get money from your parents, watch goldfish die, make people laugh, cook a

          meal; pack a snowball, do what you fear to do. Use new words.


    LESSON 8


          Read Cause/Effect Intro in Patterns for discussion

          Read “A Peaceful Woman Explains Why She Carried a Gun,” Do # 1 in purpose

                      and audience on page 349 in your journal notebook.

    Read “The Tipping Point.” Do writing workshop #1 and #2 on page in your journal

                notebook. These two questions are rich with possible essay material. You

                should have lots of empirical evidence to support your arguments.


     Additional essay suggestions: Discuss the cause/effect relationship between 1) lying

     and love, 2) singing and community, 3) competition and self-esteem, 4) money and

     power, 5) friendship and honesty. These  are complicated relationships that will force

     you to think. Use new words.


     LESSON 9


           Read Comparison/Contrast Intro in Patterns for discussion

           Read: “Grant and Lee, A Study in Contrasts.” Do # 1 in purpose and audience on

                      page 389 in your journal notebook. Do # 3 in style and structure in your

                      journal notebook.

      Read “Sex, Lies and Conversation.” Answer the journal entry on page 412 in

                 your journal notebook .


           Additional essay suggestions: Pick two contemporary people to compare and

           contrast. Choose people that allow you to also make some larger statement about

           different views of the America we live in. You can choose rock stars, sports figures,

           politicians, teachers, people you know. Use new words.


      LESSON 10


          Read Classification and Division in Patterns for discussion.

          Read “The Men We Carry In Our Minds.” Do all four questions in style and structure

                      in your journal notebook.

          Read “The Ways We Lie’ and answer any three questions of your choice in the

                     journal notebook. Do # 1 and # 2 in style and structure in your journal



     Additional essay Suggestions:  People, places, objects, emotions, ideas, events. Pick

     one of these subjects and discuss how you would divide and classify examples of

     them. Use new words.


      LESSON 11


          Read Definition Intro in Patterns for discussion

          Read “Why I want a Wife.”

          Print  “Why I Want a Wife” from the Internet and mark it up for rhetorical analysis.

          Read “The Wife-Beater.” Do # 1 in purpose and audience on page 523 in your journal

                     notebook. Do # 2 in style and structure on page 523 in your journal notebook.


     Additional essay suggestions:  Define life as it applies to abortion, cryogenics or

     Artificial intelligence. Do some research first and cite a couple of sources. Use new



      LESSON 12


    Read Argumentation and Persuasion Intro for discussion.

    Read “The Declaration of Independence.” Write your own personal declaration of

               Independence using 10 of the vocabulary words on page 568 in your journal

               notebook. Additional essay suggestions: Persuade me of something. Use new




    Combining the Patterns




Further Reading from Patterns for College Writing

      The Way to Rainy Mountain

      The Storm

      The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society

      How to Escape from a Bad Date

      The Lottery

      Television: The Plug-in Drug

      Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls

      A Peaceful Woman Explains Why She Carries a Gun

      Grant and Lee; A Study in Contrasts

      The Men We Carry in Our Minds

      Five Ways to Kill a Man


      Letter from Birmingham Jail

      Violent Films Cry “Fire” in Crowded Theatres

      A Modest Proposal

      Strange Tools


      LESSON 15

            Research I

             1) An introduction to research: some basic rules.

             2) A brief discussion of the philosophy of research.

             3) A group research projects in search of a thesis.

             4) Individual Research Project: Students will be able to understand and create a

                  research paper following the necessary 10 steps: 1) choosing a topic and a thesis,

                  2) creating a preliminary outline, 3) locating primary and secondary sources,  4)

                  preparing bibliography and note cards 5) writing a final outline and adjusting

                  thesis as necessary  6) writing a first draft, 7) conferring with peers and teachers

                  over the first draft,  8) revising, 9) writing a second draft, 10) proof reading and

                  writing a final draft.


IMPORTANT RESEARCH NOTE: consider subjects that you can research easily. This means there's lots of information on them. Explain your choices; don’t simply give me a list. If your interests lie in the military, research that. If you intend on becoming a beautician, I want a plan. If marine biology is your passion, start fishing. Should this method fail, I will offer you subjects that have considerable publications available. Do not research something where you can not find materials!


LESSON 16-20

     Research II, III, IV, V (TBA)



    The Wheel of Rhetorical Analysis I.

          Step right up! Meet the Great Mandala! Meet the Greeks! An Intro to Logos, Ethos

          and Pathos. Meet "le mot juste," as Flaubert would say. Let's do some trope hunting!

          Lets go syntax and diction fishing!

          HW: Pick a rhetorical appeal and really hammer me with it. Make me not want to kill

                   your puppy.


      LESSON 22

         The Wheel of Rhetorical Analysis II

         Tighter focus on Exigency, Audience, Purpose. How they work together. Some

         examples in speeches:

         1) Queen Elizabeth's Speech to her troops on the eve of the Spanish Armada

         2) Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

         3) Barak Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

4       4) Steve Jobs 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford University

         5) TBA or student selected


       LESSON 23

         The Wheel of Rhetorical Analysis III

         Tighter focus on Exigency, Audience, Purpose. How they work together. Some

         examples in non-fiction.

         1) Norman Mailer's essay on the Death of Benny Paret

         2) Virginia Woolf’s memoir of fishing with her father

         3) from “Speak, Memory” by Vladamir Nabakov

         4) from “An Eloquence of Grief” by Stephen Crane

         5) from "Oh, America When You and I Were Young by Luigi Barzini.

         6) "First Fact" by Paul Metcalf.

         7) "Near a Church" from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee.

         8) "A Brother's Death in Italy" by Vera Brittian

         9) TBA or student selected


     LESSON 24

         The Wheel of Rhetorical Analysis IV

         Tighter focus on Exigency, Audience, Purpose. How they work together. Some

         examples in fiction.

         1) The "Madelaine Passage" from Remembrances of Things Past by Marcel Proust

         2) The opening page of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

         3) TBA or student selected


     LESSON 25

         The Wheel of Rhetorical Analysis V

         Tighter focus on Exigency, Audience, Purpose. How they work together. Some

         examples in poetry.

       1) "Above Pate Valley" by Garu Synder

       2) "The Portrait" by Stanley Kunitz

       3) "Parsley” by Rita Dove

       4) "On the Death of Friends in Childhood" by Donald Justice.

       5) TBA or student selected.


     LESSON 26

         The Wheel of Rhetorical Analysis VI

         Tighter focus on Exigency, Audience, Purpose. How they work together. Some

         examples in advertising

         1) Print ads for products

         2) Print ads for political parties

         3) Television commercials for products

         4) Television commercials for political parties.

         5) TBA or student selected.


      LESSON 27

         The Wheel of Rhetorical Analysis VII

         Tighter focus on Exigency, Audience, Purpose. How they work together. Some

         examples in the books were reading for the year.

         1) passages from Into the Wild

         2) passages from Fast Food Nation

         3) passages from Notes of a Native Son

         4) passages from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.


      LESSON 28

         The Wheel of Rhetorical Analysis VIII

         Tighter focus on Exigency, Audience, Purpose. How they work together. Some

         examples from Op-Eds.

        1)  What is an Op-Ed and what's it's purpose?

        2)  Op-Ed selections  from the New York Times.

        3)  Ways to apply what we've learned so far towards analyzing them.

        4)  Everyone will subscribe to the New York Times. It's free!


       LESSON 29-30

          The Wheel of Rhetorical Analysis IX and X  (TBA)


       LESSON 31

          The AP Exam Question 1: analyzing persuasive strategies

          1. Previous AP selections TBA


       LESSON 32

          The AP exam Question 2: analyzing style

          1. Previous AP selections TBA


      LESSON 33

          The AP exam Question 3: open-ended question

          1. Previous AP selections TBA


      LESSON 34

              Discussion and text analysis of Fast Food Nation.

1)      We will discuss eating habits and the importance of diet in our culture, appraise

       various statistics that show, for instance, that the obesity rate in Americans is

       33% higher than it was 10 years ago.

2)      Students will use "post-its" in book, identifying any page or information that

       looks interesting or that they may have questions about.

3)      Students will work in groups to lead the class through various chapter and


4)      Students will write two essays: one where they analyze the rhetorical features of

       a particular passage and one where the respond to an open ended essay


              5)   Possible video: Supersize Me.

              6)   Possible close textual reading

7)      General discussion of investigative reporting, researching techniques and

       questions of plagiarism.


      LESSON 35

          Discussion and text analysis of Into the Wild   

1)      Some reading from influences of Into the Wild: Tolstoy, "Solitude" by Thoreau,

      Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey.

2)      We’ll read it together and discuss intelligent reading strategies. You’ll finish it by

            week # 16.

          3)   Brief conferences (if possible) as you read Krakauer silently.

          4)   Reading quiz on the middle section of Into the Wild.

5)      The  Big picture. Discussion of purpose and structure of book and possible

      application to college writing assignments. Playing of “Northwest Passage” by

      Stan Rogers.

6)      Medium Picture. Discussion of the purpose and structure of a chapter: # 14, The

           Strikine Ice Cap, with particular attention to phrases and words that students might

           use to inhabit the mind of the writer. HW: list 20 words, phrases or sentences from

           the chapter and discuss how ten of them might be used in your own writing.

7)      Close picture. Rhetorical analysis of paragraphs from chapter #14, The Strikine

      Ice Cap. Discuss the use of syntax in the middle three paragraphs of page 134.

      Discuss use of diction in the last three paragraphs of page 136. Take notes in your

            writer's notebook..

8)      Charting use of pathos in the book. I will read from a passage TBA and you will

      mark your pathos index. We will follow with a discussion on how to apply this

      strategy to your writing.

9)      Outdoor sound tape. Thoreau, Derrida, Abbey and others. A discussion of


HW: Pick a chapter you’d like to write about. Read it three times!


      LESSON 36

              Discussion and text analysis of Notes of a Native Son



      LESSON 37

              Discussion and text analysis of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek



      LESSON 38

              Discussion and text analysis of a film


      LESSONS 39-40            

              Discussion of other visual texts



      LESSON 41

          A graphic organizer for dialectical thinking

List of Positives





FIQQSS intro paragraph

(fact, image, question, quote, story, surprise)

List of Negatives






Body P 1 = Example 1



Body P 2 = Example 2


Body 3 = Example 3


Body P 4 = Strongest opposing argument to thesis is presented and refuted.



       LESSONS 42-45

             Various rubrics, writing starters, use of active verbs list, and complex sentence organizational patterns.



...In case you haven't read enough.

As I said earlier, I want to you all to write "self-reflection” essays. In the 9th week of the first quarter I want you to submit your first one, detailing your contributions during the quarter. In your essay you should consider the depth and breadth of your writing, the level and quality of your class participation and your ability to meet deadlines. I will also expect a plan outlining those essays (including the research paper) that you intend to work on or rework in the second quarter, along with a brief explanation as to why you have chosen them. At the end of your essay please advise me as to what grade you deserve for the first quarter. I’m sure you know what sort of work "A" students do. And I’m sure you know what an "F" is. If you have done only half of the work, your grade should be clear to you. If you do not hand in this essay—covering all the parameters above--I will assume you want an F. I will also expect an updated "self-reflection essay" at the end of the semester further detailing progress. No one will pass the semester without submitting these self-reflection essays.

Why do I want this?  Because it's important that YOU build YOUR writing skills and develop and re-evaluate YOUR own value systems CONSTANTLY. Not only this year, but all YOUR life. I'm hoping the activities in this class will help you achieve this. Be ready throughout the year to THINK ABOUT what you're writing and to write about that thinking. These self-evaluation essays are not to be filled up with idle remarks. I expect a very serious self-analysis. Why? Because real thinking goes on when people think about their writing. It is essential that YOU engage in this sort of meta-cognition.

This course will not boring, believe me. And at times it will be a lot of fun. For instance, I will encourage you to do automatic and resurface writing activities that will generate lots of ideas for you, lead you on a road to self-discovery and help you produce more interesting texts. Remember: YOU will be choosing subjects to write on from YOUR reactions to the readings and activities in the class. YOU will discover YOUR research subject and write and share YOUR discoveries in a lively research workshop atmosphere.

I look forward to this year and I hope you do too. This is the year you will become college students.

Let me end here with a famous excerpt from Joan Didion’s 1975 Commencement Address at the University of California Riverside.

“I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't think that progress is necessarily part of the package, I'm just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that's what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.” – Joan Didion, Commencement Address at U.C. Riverside  





























The Ethicist / ChUCk Klosterman / NEW YORK TIMES




By A. O. Scott

More than a century ago, Frank Norris wrote that "the Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff," an observation that Philip Roth later used as the epigraph for a spoofy 1973 baseball fantasia called, naturally, "The Great American Novel." It pointedly isn't - no one counts it among Roth's best novels, though what books people do place in that category will turn out to be relevant to our purpose here, which has to do with the eternal hunt for Norris's legendary beast. The hippogriff, a monstrous hybrid of griffin and horse, is often taken as the very symbol of fantastical impossibility, a unicorn's unicorn. But the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster - or sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people - not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation - claim to have seen. The Times Book Review, ever wary of hoaxes but always eager to test the boundary between empirical science and folk superstition, has commissioned a survey of recent sightings.

Or something like that. Early this year, the Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." The results - in some respects quite surprising, in others not at all - provide a rich, if partial and unscientific, picture of the state of American literature, a kind of composite self-portrait as interesting perhaps for its blind spots and distortions as for its details.


And as interesting, in some cases, for the reasoning behind the choices as for the choices themselves. Tanenhaus's request, simple and innocuous enough at first glance, turned out in many cases to be downright treacherous. It certainly provoked a lot of other questions in response, both overt and implicit. "What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose?" Gertrude Stein once asked, and the question "what is the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years?" invites a similar scrutiny of basic categories and assumptions. Nothing is as simple as it looks. What do we mean, in an era of cultural as well as economic globalization, by "American"? Or, in the age of James Frey, reality television and phantom W.M.D.'s, what do we mean by "fiction"? And if we know what American fiction is, then what do we mean by "best"?


A tough question, and one that a number of potential respondents declined to answer, some silently, others with testy eloquence. There were those who sighed that they could not possibly select one book to place at the summit of an edifice with so many potential building blocks - they hadn't read everything, after all - and also those who railed against the very idea of such a monument. One famous novelist, unwilling to vote for his own books and reluctant to consider anyone else's, asked us to "assume you never heard from me."


More common was the worry that our innocent inquiry, by feeding the deplorable modern mania for ranking, list-making and fabricated competition, would not only distract from the serious business of literature but, worse, subject it to damaging trivialization. To consecrate one work as the best - or even to establish a short list of near-bests - would be to risk the implication that no one need bother with the rest, and thus betray the cause of reading. The determination of literary merit, it was suggested, should properly be a matter of reasoned judgment and persuasive argument, not mass opinionizing. Criticism should not cede its prickly, qualitative prerogatives to the quantifying urges of sociology or market research.


Fair enough. But there would be no point in proposing such a contest unless it would be met with quarrels and complaints. (A few respondents, not content to state their own preferences, pre-emptively attacked what they assumed would be the thinking of the majority. So we received some explanations of why people were not voting for "Beloved," the expected winner, and also one Roth fan's assertion that the presumptive preference for "American Pastoral" over "Operation Shylock" was self-evidently mistaken.) Even in cases - the majority - where the premise of the research was accepted, problems of method and definition buzzed around like persistent mosquitoes. There were writers who, finding themselves unable to isolate just one candidate, chose an alternate, or submitted a list. The historical and ethical parameters turned out to be blurry, since the editor's initial letter had not elaborated on them. Could you vote for yourself? Of course you could: amour-propre is as much an entitlement of the literary class as log-rolling, which means you could also vote for a friend, a lover, a client or a colleague. But could you vote for, say, "A Confederacy of Dunces," which, though published in 1980, was written around 20 years earlier? A tricky issue of what scholars call periodization: is John Kennedy Toole's ragged New Orleans farce a lost classic of the 60's, to be shelved alongside countercultural picaresques like Richard Fariña's "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me"? Or is it a premonition of the urban-comic 80's zeitgeist in which it finally landed, keeping company with, say, Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City"? What about story collections - I. B. Singer's, Donald Barthelme's, Raymond Carver's, for instance - that appeared between 1980 and 2005 but gathered up the work of earlier decades? Do they qualify? And - most consequentially, as it happened - what about John Updike's four "Rabbit" novels? Only the last two were published during the period in question, but all four were bound into a single volume and published, by Everyman's Library, in 1995. Considered separately, "Rabbit Is Rich" (1981) and "Rabbit at Rest" (1990) might have split Updike's vote, which "Rabbit Angstrom" was able to consolidate, placing it in the top five. If Nathan Zuckerman had received a similar omnibus reissue, with "The Counterlife," "The Human Stain," "American Pastoral" and the others squeezed into one fat tome, literary history as we know it - or at least this issue of the Book Review - would be entirely different.

THE question "what do you mean by 'the last 25 years'?" in any case turned out to be a live one, and surveying the recent past caused a few minds to wander farther back in time. One best-selling author (whose fat novels seem to have been campaigning for inclusion in this issue long before the editors dreamed it up, even though not even he bothered to vote for any of them) reflected on the poverty of our current literary situation by wondering what the poll might have looked like in 1940, with Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald - to say nothing of Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis - in its lustrous purview. The last time this kind of survey was conducted, in 1965 (under the auspices of Book Week, the literary supplement of the soon-to-be-defunct New York Herald Tribune), the winner was Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," which was declared "the most memorable" work of American fiction published since the end of World War II, and the most likely to endure. The field back then included "The Adventures of Augie March," "Herzog," "Lolita," "Catch-22," "Naked Lunch," "The Naked and the Dead" and (I'll insist if no one else will) "The Group." In the gap between that survey and this one is a decade and a half - the unsurveyed territory from 1965 to 1980 - that includes Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" and William Gaddis's "JR," as well as "Humboldt's Gift," "Portnoy's Complaint," "Ragtime," "Song of Solomon" and countless others.

Contemplation of such glories lent an inevitable undercurrent of nostalgia to some of the responses. Where are the hippogriffs of yesteryear? Could they have been dodos all along? Not to worry: late-20th-century American Lit comprises a bustling menagerie, like Noah's ark or the island of Dr. Moreau, where modernists and postmodernists consort with fabulists and realists, ghost stories commingle with domestic dramas, and historical pageantry mutates into metafiction. It is, gratifyingly if also bewilderingly, a messy and multitudinous affair.


It is perhaps this babble and ruckus - the polite word is diversity - that breeds the impulse of which Sam Tanenhaus's question is an expression: the urge to isolate, in the midst of it all, a single, comprehensive masterpiece. E pluribus unum, as it were. We - Americans, writers, American writers - seem often to be a tribe of mavericks dreaming of consensus. Our mythical book is the one that will somehow include everything, at once reflecting and by some linguistic magic dissolving our intractable divisions and stubborn imperfections. The American literary tradition is relatively young, and it stands in perpetual doubt of its own coherence and adequacy - even, you might say, of its own existence. Such anxiety fosters large, even utopian ambitions. A big country demands big books. To ask for the best work of American fiction, therefore, is not simply - or not really - to ask for the most beautifully written or the most enjoyable to read. We all have our personal favorites, but I suspect that something other than individual taste underwrites most of the choices here. The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject.


They are - the top five, in any case, in ascending order - "American Pastoral," with 7 votes; Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" and Updike's four-in-one "Rabbit Angstrom," tied with 8 votes each; "Don DeLillo's "Underworld," with 11; and, solidly ahead of the rest, Toni Morrison's "Beloved," with 15. (If these numbers seem small, keep in mind that they are drawn from only 125 votes, and from a pool of potential candidates equal to the number of books of fiction by American writers published in 25 years. Sometimes cultural significance can be counted on the fingers of one hand.)

Any other outcome would have been startling, since Morrison's novel has inserted itself into the American canon more completely than any of its potential rivals. With remarkable speed, "Beloved" has, less than 20 years after its publication, become a staple of the college literary curriculum, which is to say a classic. This triumph is commensurate with its ambition, since it was Morrison's intention in writing it precisely to expand the range of classic American literature, to enter, as a living black woman, the company of dead white males like Faulkner, Melville, Hawthorne and Twain. When the book first began to be assigned in college classrooms, during an earlier and in retrospect much tamer phase of the culture wars, its inclusion on syllabuses was taken, by partisans and opponents alike, as a radical gesture. (The conservative canard one heard in those days was that left-wing professors were casting aside Shakespeare in favor of Morrison.) But the political rhetoric of the time obscured the essential conservatism of the novel, which aimed not to displace or overthrow its beloved precursors, but to complete and to some extent correct them.

It is worth remarking that the winner of the 1965 Book Week poll, Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," arose from a similar impulse to bring the historical experience of black Americans, and the expressive traditions this experience had produced, into the mainstream of American literature. Or, rather, to reveal that it had been there all along, and that race, far from being a special or marginal concern, was a central facet of the American story. On the evidence of Ellison's and Morrison's work, it is also a part of the story that defies the tenets of realism, or at least demands that they be combined with elements of allegory, folk tale, Gothic and romance.


The American masterpieces of the mid-19th century - "Moby-Dick," "The Scarlet Letter," the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and, for that matter, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" - were compounded of precisely these elements, and nowadays it seems almost impossible to write about that period without crossing into the realm of the supernatural, or at least the self-consciously mythic. This is surely what ties "Beloved" to "Blood Meridian." Both novels treat primordial situations of American violence - slavery and its aftermath in one case, the conquest of the Southwestern frontier in the other - in compressed, lyrical language that rises at times to archaic, epic strangeness. Some of their power - and much of their originality - arises from the feeling that they are uncovering ancient tales, rendering scraps of a buried oral tradition in literary form.


But the recovery of the past - especially the more recent past - turns out to be the dominant concern of American writing, at least as reflected in this survey, over the past quarter-century. Our age is retrospective. One obvious difference between "Invisible Man" and "Beloved," for instance, is that Ellison's book, even as it flashes back to the Depression-era South and the Harlem of the 1940's, plants itself in the present and leans forward, to the point of risking prophecy. "Beloved," in contrast, concerns itself with the recovery of origins, the isolation of a primal trauma whose belated healing will be undertaken by the narrative itself. And while "Blood Meridian" is far too gnomic and nihilistic to claim such a therapeutic function for itself, it nonetheless shares with "Beloved" a vision of the past as an alien realm of extremity, in which human relations are stripped to the bare essentials of brutality and tenderness, vengeance and honor.


In some ways, the mode of fiction McCarthy and Morrison practice is less historical than pre-historical. It does not involve the reconstruction of earlier times - the collisions between real and invented characters, the finicky attention to manners, customs and habits of speech - that usually defines the genre. But to look again at the top five titles in the survey is to discover just how heavily the past lies on the minds of contemporary writers and literary opinion makers. To the extent that the novel can say something about where we are and where we are going, the American novel at present chooses to do so above all by examining where we started and how we got here.

IF "Beloved" and "Blood Meridian" pull us back to a premodern American scene - a place that exists beyond realism and in some respects before civilization as we know it - the other three novels trace the more recent ups and downs of that civilization. Indeed, it is only a small exaggeration to say that "Underworld," "American Pastoral" and "Rabbit Angstrom" are variations on the same novel, a decades-spanning tale rooted in the old cities of the Eastern Seaboard. Needless to say, the methods, the characters and the voices are quite distinct - no one would mistake Roth for DeLillo or Updike for Roth - but these are differences of perspective, as if three painters were viewing the same town from neighboring hillsides.

The three novels do what we seem to want novels to do, which is to blend private destinies with public events, an exercise that the postwar proliferation of media simultaneously makes more urgent and more difficult. Rabbit Angstrom, high school basketball star, typesetter-turned-car-dealer, as carelessly loyal to his country as he is unfaithful to his wife, is an incarnation of the American ordinary made exemplary by the grace of God and of Updike's prose. Especially in the later novels, his consciousness becomes the prism through which the unsettled experience of the nation is refracted. The war in Vietnam, the racial agitations of the 60's, the moon landing, the Carter-era malaise, the end of the cold war: all of these are filtered through Rabbit's complacent gaze. So are less dramatic but no less consequential shifts in manners and morals, in taste and sensibility. Food, sex, cars, real estate, social class, religion - everything changes from "Rabbit, Run" to "Rabbit at Rest," even as the deep continuities of American life, embodied in the hero's transcendent laziness, appear to triumph in the end.


"Rabbit Angstrom" is not, strictly speaking, a novel of retrospect; it was written in the present tense and in real time, each segment composed before the end of the story could be known. Because of this - because Updike's gift for observing the present has always outstripped his ability to animate the past - "Rabbit," like the great Russian and French realist novels of the 19th century, becomes an unequaled repository of historical detail. Next to it, Updike's attempted multigenerational chronicle of 20th-century American history, "In the Beauty of the Lilies," looks thin and stagy.


Alongside Rabbit there is Zuckerman, his near contemporary, and like him the product of a small, industrial mid-Atlantic city. More pointedly, perhaps, there is Swede Levov, the hero of "American Pastoral" (Zuckerman being the self-effacing narrator), who is, like Rabbit, a star athlete in high school and whose nickname curiously recalls Rabbit's ethnic background. But while Rabbit is, for all the suffering he endures and inflicts, a fundamentally comic character, his destiny arcing toward happiness, Swede's trajectory is tragic. Fate has raised him high in order to see how far he might fall. He contains traces of Job - his fidelity to America tested by brutal and arbitrary misfortune - and also of Lear, snakebit by one of the most floridly and obscenely ungrateful children in all of literature.


The agonized question that ripples through "American Pastoral" is "what happened?" How did the pastoral America of Newark in the 40's and 50's - an Eden only in retrospect - come apart? And its selection over Roth's other books is indicative of how important this question is taken to be. Over the past 15 years, Roth's production has been so steady, so various and (mostly) so excellent that his vote has been, inevitably, split. If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction over the past 25 years, he would have won, with seven different books racking up a total of 21 votes. Within these numbers is an interesting schism. The loose trilogy of which "American Pastoral" is the first installment - "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain" are its companions - accounts for 11 votes, while 8 are divided among "Sabbath's Theater," "The Counterlife" and "Operation Shylock," and another 2 go to "The Plot Against America." The Roth whose primary concern is the past - the elegiac, summarizing, conservative Roth - is preferred over his more aesthetically radical, restless, present-minded doppelgänger by a narrow but decisive margin.

A similar split occurs among DeLillo's partisans, who favor the historical inquiry of "Underworld" over the contemporaneity of "White Noise." (There were also two voters who chose "Libra," a more narrowly focused historical fiction and in some ways a rehearsal for "Underworld.") Like "American Pastoral," "Underworld" is a chronologically fractured story drawn by a powerful nostalgic undertow back to the redolent streets of a postwar Eastern city. Baseball and the atom bomb, J. Edgar Hoover and the science of waste disposal are pulled into its vortex, but whereas Updike and Roth work to establish connection and coherence in the face of time's chaos, DeLillo is an artist of diffusion and dispersal, of implication and missing information. But more than his other books, "Underworld" is concerned with roots, in particular with ethnicity. Nick Shay, at first glance another one of his tight-lipped, deracinated postmodern drifters, turns out to be a half-Italian kid from the old East Bronx, and the characteristic rhythms of DeLillo's prose - the curious noun-verb inversions, the quick switches from abstraction to earthiness, from the decorous to the profane - are shown to arise, as surely as Roth's do, from the polyglot idiom of the old neighborhood.

So the top five American novels are concerned with history, with origins, to some extent with nostalgia. They are also the work of a single generation. DeLillo, born in 1936, is the youngest of the five leading authors. The others were born within two years of one another: Morrison in 1931, Updike in 1932, Roth and McCarthy in 1933.


Their seniority, needless to say, is earned - they have had plenty of time to ripen and grow - but it is nonetheless startling to see how thoroughly American writing is dominated by this generation. Startling in part because it reveals that the baby boom, long ascendant in popular culture and increasingly so in politics and business, has not produced a great novel. The best writers born immediately after the war seem almost programmatically to disdain the grand, synthesizing ambitions of their elders (and also some of their juniors), trafficking in irony, diffidence and the cultivation of small quirks rather than large idiosyncrasies. Only two books whose authors were born just after the war received more than two votes: "Housekeeping," by Marilynne Robinson, and "The Things They Carried," by Tim O'Brien. These are brilliant books, but they are also careful, small and precise. They do not generalize; they document. Ann Beattie, born in 1947, is among the most gifted and prolific fiction writers of her generation, but her books are nowhere to be found on this list; not, I would venture, because she fails to live up to the survey's implicit criterion of importance, but because she steadfastly refuses to try.


Expand beyond the immediate parameters of this exercise, and the generational discrepancy grows even more acute: add Thomas Pynchon and E. L. Doctorow, Anne Tyler and Cynthia Ozick, John Irving and Joan Didion and Russell Banks and Joyce Carol Oates and you will have a literary pantheon born almost to a person during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Further expansion - by means of a Wolfe here, a Mailer there - is likely to push the median age still higher. Think back on that 1965 survey; it's hard to find an author on the list of potential candidates much older than 50.

IS this quantitative evidence for the decline of American letters - yet another casualty of the 60's? Or is the American literary establishment the last redoubt of elder-worship in a culture mad for youth? In sifting through the responses, I was surprised at how few of the highly praised, boldly ambitious books by younger writers - by which I mean writers under 50 - were mentioned. One vote each for "The Corrections" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," none for "Infinite Jest" or "The Fortress of Solitude," a single vote for Richard Powers, none for William T. Vollmann, and so on.


But the thing about mythical beasts is that they don't go extinct; they evolve. The best American fiction of the past 25 years is concerned, perhaps inordinately, with sorting out the past, which may be its way of clearing ground for the literature of the future. So let me end with a message to all you aspiring hippogriff breeders out there: 2030 is just around the corner. Get to work.

© NY TIMES 2006



August 10, 2010|By Ernesto Lechner, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Ana Tijoux is not your average rapper.

On "1977," the lush title track off her new album, she raps about her life so far, from childhood in exile and rebellious adolescence to maturity as a young woman. But her rhymes don't rhyme. The words don't bounce off each other with the expected repetition of most commercial fare.

Instead, Tijoux's lyrics boast an internal logic of their own. Breathlessly, she raps, manipulating syllables, exploring the beauty of the Spanish language — a staccato rhythm here, an unusual metaphor there. The result is a new sound in the burgeoning genre of Latin rap. Even Radiohead's Thom Yorke has paid notice. Recently, he listed "1977" among his current faves on his band’s Web site.

2010 is shaping up to be a transformative year for the Latina rapper. As Latin music continues to mutate and evolve in new directions, three noteworthy recent albums have a female MC at the core of their sonic DNA. There's Tijoux, who was born in France to parents from Chile and currently resides in Santiago, and two groups from Colombia: Bomba Estéreo and Chocquibtown. All three albums are on Nacional Records, a Los Angeles-based label that specializes in the Latin Alternative market.

Rapping came naturally to Tijoux. In the late '90s, she was the female MC with pioneering Chilean hip-hop group Makiza. She went solo in 2006, and continued to develop a unique flow.

"There isn't a logic or theory to what I do," Tijoux explains from her home in Santiago, where she spends much of the day taking care of her young son. "I taught myself how to rap — and eventually reached a fortuitous moment when I discovered my own style, or signature."

Tijoux's take on her artistry is as complex and contradictory as her rapping. On "Crisis de un MC," from "1977", she describes in painstaking detail the insecurities of a musician — or any artist, really. The contradiction between her natural shyness, her desire to isolate herself from the world, versus her need to make art with words and expose her soul onstage."I'm faced with an inner contradiction that is nothing short of explosive," Tijoux says. "When you're onstage, there are all these euphoric people at the venue, and for a moment, you wish that you could be at home. Interacting with an audience is a beautiful thing to do, but there's also a violence to it. When I started doing photo shoots, I would panic and sweat profusely.... No one told me that it was part of the job. Slowly, you learn how to deal with your insecurities."

Chocquibtown follows a musical path that was pioneered in the late '90s by Cuba's Orishas: party-friendly hip-hop with a distinct Afro-Caribbean zest. With their feel-good call-and-response choruses, songs like "De Donde Vengo Yo" and "Somos Pacífico," included in Chocquibtown's debut "Oro," are all about celebrating Colombia's cultural heritage without dwelling on the country's painful realities (for example: "todo el mundo quiere irse de aquí, pero nadie lo ha logrado" — everyone wants to leave this place, but no one has managed to do it.)

The trio of Miguel "Slow" Martínez, Carlos "Tostao" Valencia and Gloria "Goyo" Martínez hail from Chocó — one of the country's poorest provinces, marked by its large Afro-Colombian population. Goyo's uncle is Jairo Varela — legendary leader and composer with salsa supergroup Grupo Niche.

The influence of tropical music on Goyo cannot be underestimated; at times, the swing in her voice suggests the invisible presence of famous cumbia divas like Leonor González Mina or Totó la Momposina."I grew up in the town of Condoto, next to a river, surrounded by music," says Goyo, during a break from an extensive European tour. "My father was a record collector. He had a music room, devoid of light or furniture. Its only luxury was a huge LP collection: Michael Jackson, El Gran Combo, Marvin Gaye. No one could have imagined that there was music from all over the world in that little room in Condoto. And yet, his collection gave me a broad panorama of sounds. It made me the performer that I am today."

Colombia's other powerhouse female MC is Liliana Saumet, vocalist with Bogota's Bomba Estéreo. The group began as an instrumental outfit, mixing cumbia with electronica and a strong dash of psychedelia — much like Richard Blair's Sidestepper, founder of the electro-cumbia school of thought.

Alternating between rapping and singing, Saumet injected a reckless sexual intensity that permeates "Blow Up," the band's U.S. debut. Bomba's bouncy radio anthem, "Fuego," is all about fire and adrenaline. On "Cosita Rica," she describes in detail a night of clubbing and ferocious lovemaking.

"People often see my lyrics as daring, or sexual," says Saumet, who is articulate and polite, almost soft-spoken. "I grew up in the Atlantic coast of Colombia, where language is meant to be sensuous. People are warm. There's the beach, of course — the sweating, the ocean breeze touching your skin."

Goyo and Saumet come from different backgrounds within the same vast nation. And yet, both were raised to the sounds of the shimmering tropical hits that define a big part of Colombia's cultural identity.

"My mom's favorite artist was [Afro-Caribbean singer-songwriter] Joe Arroyo," offers Saumet. "I grew up singing his songs. There are a lot of outside influences in his music. The ships that arrived to the Colombian coast in the '60s and '70s brought records of funk and African music. The local sound systems would play them, and people like Joe would assimilate those influences."

Similarly, it is the collision of cultures that makes the music of Tijoux, Bomba Estéreo and Chocquibtown so intriguing. In the end, the voice of a female MC is just one of many elements that separates these bright new hopes from the competition.

"Women have always played a big part in Latin rap," says Juan Data, a San Francisco-based DJ who has been writing about the genre since the '90s. "I can't really explain why that is, but compared to American rap, the Latina MCs occupy a place of honor in this music. I guess that in a scene as macho as rap, a woman who establishes a strong presence of her own will always enjoy an extra bit of respect."




Our schools were conceived decades ago to meet the needs of another age. It's time for a serious redesign

By Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Los Angeles Times

March 4, 2005

Our high schools are obsolete.

By obsolete, I don't just mean that they are broken, flawed and underfunded--although I can't argue with any of those descriptions.

What I mean is that they were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Today, even when they work exactly as designed, our high schools cannot teach our kids what they need to know.

Until we design high schools to meet the needs of the 21st Century, we will keep limiting--even ruining--the lives of millions of Americans every year. Frankly, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow. The idea behind the old high school system was that you could train an adequate work force by sending only a small fraction of students to college, and that the other kids either couldn't do college work or didn't need to.

Sure enough, today only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship.

The others, most of whom are low-income and minority students, are tracked into courses that won't ever get them ready for any of those things--no matter how well the students learn or how hard the teachers work.

In district after district across the country, wealthy white kids are taught Algebra II, while low-income minority kids are taught how to balance a checkbook.

This is an economic disaster. In the international competition to have the best supply of workers who can communicate clearly, analyze information and solve complex problems, the United States is falling behind. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world.

In math and science, our 4th-graders rank among the top students in the world, but our 12th-graders are near the bottom. China has six times as many college graduates in engineering.

As bad as it is for our economy, it's even worse for our students. Today, most jobs that pay enough to support a family require some post-secondary education. Yet only half of all students who enter high school enroll in a post-secondary institution.

High school dropouts have it worst of all. Only 40 percent have jobs. They are nearly four times more likely to be arrested than their friends who stayed in high school. And they die young because of years of poor health care, unsafe living conditions and violence.

We can put a stop to this. We designed these high schools; we can redesign them.

We have to do away with the outdated idea that only some students need to be ready for college and that the others can walk away from higher education and still thrive in our 21st Century society. We need a new design that realizes that all students can do rigorous work.

There is mounting evidence in favor of this approach. Take the Kansas City, Kan., public school district, where 79 percent of students are minorities and 74 percent live below the poverty line. For years, the district struggled with high dropout rates and low test scores. In 1996, it adopted a school-reform model that, among many other steps, requires all students to take college-prep courses. Since then, the district's graduation rate has climbed more than 30 percentage points.

Kansas City is not an isolated example. Exciting work is under way to improve high schools in such cities as Chicago, Oakland and New York.

All of these schools are organized around three powerful principles: Ensure that all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work; that their courses clearly relate to their lives and goals; and that they are surrounded by adults who push them to achieve.

This kind of change is never easy. But I believe there are three ways that political and business leaders at every level can help build momentum for change in our schools.

First, declare that all students must graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship. Every politician and chief executive in the country should speak up for the belief that children need to take courses that prepare them for college.

Second, publish the data that measure our progress toward that goal. We already have some data that show us the extent of the problem. But we need to know more: What percentage of students are dropping out? What percentage are graduating? And this data must be broken down by race and income.

Finally, every state should commit to turning around failing schools and opening new ones. When the students don't learn, the school must change. Every state needs a strong intervention strategy to improve struggling schools.

If we keep the system as it is, millions of children will never get a chance to fulfill their promise because of their ZIP code, their skin color or their parents' income. That is offensive to our values.

Every kid can graduate ready for college. Every kid should have the chance.

Let's redesign our schools to make it happen.

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune



 Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune 

 Of all the things to love about “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the modern classic that celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend, the first appears in the opening paragraph.

 "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow,” begins author Harper Lee. “When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.”

Stop right there. “Assuaged.” Lee could have chosen any number of words or phrases more likely to be understood by a boy nearly 13 or his sister, Scout, the narrator, four years younger: “Eased,” “Relieved.” “A distant memory.”

Instead she went with the ancient, storied and exquisite “assuaged,” which has its roots in the Latin suavis, meaning pleasant, from which we also get not only the word “suave” — meaning smooth — but also the word “sweet.” Pull it apart a bit further, and you find the etymological DNA of “persuade,” which arises from the idea of making something pleasant to another person.

So Jem's recovery doesn't simply ease his mind, it smoothes and sweetens his mind; it convinces him that his future is unaltered.

My twins, who were themselves nearly 13 when we read the book together recently, reacted with impatient dismay when I lingered, as above, on “assuaged”: Two sentences into the story, and we're already pausing for pedantry?

Little did they know. Lee's rich use of language — much of it redolent with what Scout calls her father's “last will and testament diction” — is a particular pleasure of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” one that I admit I'd missed in hurrying through previous readings as a busy student and a nostalgia-minded adult.

Apothecary. Impotent. Taciturn. Unsullied. Dispatched (as a synonym for murdered). Impudent. Courteous detachment. A vapid repertoire. A malevolent phantom. Morbid nocturnal events. Predilection. Domiciled. Stumphole whiskey. Beadle. Nebulous. Meditatively. Foray.

And those are just some of the words from the first chapter I highlighted and explained when I became a parent seeing the book through the eyes of children.

Lee was not just showing off her erudition, nor was I just trying to give the kids a leg up on the vocabulary portion of their SATs. The rigorous formality of the writing — which can be easy to gloss over as you follow the intertwining stories of Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of rape — reflects the rigorous formality of Depression-era Alabama in which the novel is set. It also reflects the cerebral nature of Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem's father, the lawyer who coolly confronts the malignant, nonchalant racism that's part of the formal structure of his society.

Today's reader is outraged by the guilty verdict from the all-white jurors at Robinson's trial. But “To Kill a Mockingbird” is not the angry book it might have been had it been written just a few years later, when the civil rights movement with its attendant fury was in full swing.

The bigotry that convicted the innocent man is “just as much Maycomb County as missionary teas,” says the phlegmatic Atticus shortly after the verdict.

Critics have since noted that Atticus is too decent for his own good — he applies even to vicious racists his dictum “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view; until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” A true hero would never acquiesce as he does to injustice.

I see that point. Finch, so irreproachably cool and respectable, so educated and moral, plowed the ground for the true, real-life heroes whose triumphs followed the publication of this novel.

Will my children remember “assuaged” or any of the other words, terms and allusions I defined for them in what became a 172-page glossary/albatross? Will they be inspired to hunt, as they write, for the perfect word and not its merely adequate cousin? I hope at least a little.

But more, I hope they remember the biggest thing to love about “To Kill a Mockingbird” — the lesson imparted by those words that courage isn't always flashy, isn't always enough, but is always in style.




by Julia Keller

January 15, 2006

It's a mere slip of a book, slender and bendable, with a mud-colored cover broken only by the vivid red of an opening flower and the small white type of its title. They make chocolate bars bigger and heavier than copies of Sebastian Barry's "A Long Long Way" (Penguin, 2006).

The physical fact of "A Long Long Way" -- its humble, unobtrusive presence in a world full of books with come-hither covers and screaming titles -- is a lot like the novel's protagonist, Willie Dunne. He's a quiet, gentle young man from Dublin thrust in the middle of the deliberate madness known as World War I.

He sees things. He suffers. But it's all painted in the dull browns and laid-back grays of Barry's understated prose; there are no operatic flourishes, just the solemn march of one terrible thing after another.

And it's fiction -- pure, absolute, unrepentant fiction. Neither Barry nor his publisher would deny it. No reader could possibly be misled. Indeed, Barry's novel is a reminder of just how crucial fiction really is. Fiction isn't truth, but it can tell the truth. As the late John Fowles so beautifully put it, fiction can be "as real as, but other than, the world that is."

At present, however, the concept of telling readers what a book really is -- whether it represents events that actually happened or events the author employs to create a plausible alternative universe -- appears to be a lost art. And while there's much hand-wringing about how this might affect non-fiction, I'm frankly more concerned about its impact on fiction.

Last week brought a number of accusations that author James Frey had fibbed a bit in the memoir "A Million Little Pieces," his somewhat hysterical recitation of degradation and subsequent redemption. Frey, for his part, has acted as if calling him essentially a novelist is akin to dubbing him a serial killer.

The real issue, of course, is one of veracity, not genre. It's a matter of truth in advertising. Readers deserve to know the contents of what they're putting in their heads, just as they deserve food labels to tell them what they're putting in their bellies. Still, I find it amusing that Frey and other memoirists scream in agony at the faintest suggestion that their books are primarily works of imagination, not recollection. This spectacle -- authors such as Frey shrinking back in horror from the label "fiction" -- is enough to make fiction feel downright inferior.

Memoirists like to talk about "their" reality as opposed to "the" reality, claiming that fact and fiction aren't separate entities dwelling behind high walls of demarcation. Rubbish. Both fact and fiction are better served by the rigorous distinctions between them. And that's why apparent fabulists such as Frey are dangerous: Not only because they besmirch fact -- which they undoubtedly do -- but also because they besmirch fiction.

Fact can take care of itself. There will always be people willing to insist on proper evidence and meticulous sourcing in books and articles that lay claim to complete accuracy; somebody will always be checking up. The truth-hounds who recently sank their teeth into Frey's backside are proof of that -- and more power to them.

But it's fiction I worry about; fiction, which is already marginalized in a culture that sees it as somewhat frivolous and definitely expendable.

Good timing

"A Long Long Way," a finalist for England's Man Booker Prize, has come along at just the right moment. It comes as historians such as David Fromkin and David Stevenson, in "Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?" (Vintage, 2005) and "Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy" (Basic Books, 2005), respectively, reassess this war from nearly a century ago and find new things to report about it, new perspectives and insights.

It comes as, sadly, the absolute line between fact and fiction -- and it is absolute, no mater what the memoirists say -- is being smudged by those such as Frey who truly don't respect either.

History is always on its way to being essentially fiction; it is always moving toward a story. As events and their particulars recede further and further from us -- indeed, as the people who were there to witness those events inevitably die and a new generation replaces them -- history becomes increasingly the product of imagination. Informed imagination, to be sure; but imagination, still. It henceforth exists solely as enlightened recapitulation. As research-infused meditation. As, in effect, hearsay.

And that's where fiction enters the story: not as a substitute for fact, but as something other than -- yet important as -- fact.

The powerful new accounts of World War I by historians might suggest that facts are all we need: only facts, carefully deployed in context. Barry's novel, though, suggests that there is always more to say about conditions of extremity such as war. The view from up there -- among the kings and politicians and generals -- always requires as well the view from down here, among the men in the mud. "`Anyway, they don't write books about the likes of us,'" grouses a squadmate of Willie's. "`It's officers and high-up people, mostly.'" They do write such books, books about people whose remarks aren't taken down by dutiful stenographers and donated in bound volumes to libraries. Such books are called novels. Yet fiction always has to fight for its place at the table, to argue for its importance in light of the unquestioned primacy of fact.

Fact needs fiction. It needs fiction to tell the rest of the story, the story that lives not in archives or transcripts or photographs, but in the innate human desire to make stories out of experiences. There may not have been a flesh-and-blood Willie Dunne who served in World War I, but there is, rising up from the pages of the Irish novelist's work, a platoon of Willie Dunnes, "dozens and dozens falling under the weird and angry fire."

A different beast

A history book can offer casualty counts, but only fiction can offer this: "The approach trench was a reeking culvert with a foul carpet of crushed dead. Willie could feel the pulverized flesh still in the destroyed uniforms sucking at his boots. There were the bodies of creatures gone beyond their own humanity into a severe state that had no place in human doings and the human world. ... What lives and names and loves he was walking on he could not know any more; these flattened forms did not leak the whistle tunes and meanings of humanity any more."

Fact goes about its business with well-tailored efficiency and unassailable authority, marching along smartly, while fiction brings up the rear, stumbling and daydreaming -- but it's still needed, still desperately relevant.

Ultimately, fact and fiction are trying to do the same thing: In Barry's lyrical phrase, to aspire to get at "all the matter and difficulty of being alive, in a place of peace and a place of war." There's quite a distance between Barry and Frey, and not just because a century divides the events they are describing. One tells a different kind of truth in his fiction, and the other apparently tells a lie about the truth. A long long way, indeed.

© Chicago Tribune



By Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago attorney and author, and James Warren, a Tribune deputy managing editor

April 4, 2006

In Chicago for their annual gathering, the nation's newspaper publishers should sit down with some politicians and school principals. All three parties are impacted by the real Culture War. Not the one between left and right over gays, guns and abortion, but the one between the "we" who still read a daily paper and those who don't.

"My wife and I read three papers a day," says a law professor friend. "But my daughter who's in graduate school, not a one. And my son, 19, doesn't read a paper at all either."

Yes, newspaper reading has dropped around the world. But that's a half-truth at best. The share of Germans over the age of 14 who scan a daily paper is nearly 80 percent. The French and Scandinavians, among others, read much more than we do too.

So don't be so quick to blame the Internet, TV news, iPods, IMing or even unrelenting attacks on the evil "mainstream media." It's too facile. Other countries have most of that, as well as Britney Spears, nincompoop shock jocks and pro wrestling. But newspaper reading in those countries hasn't collapsed as far as it has here.

The crisis in America, where ironically we have the world's highest rate of bachelor's degrees, is that if people don't read papers, they generally won't vote. The crisis of the press here is a crisis of democracy too. The single best indicator of whether someone votes is whether he reads a paper, according to political scientist Martin P. Wattenberg in his book, "Where Have All the Voters Gone?" But the converse is also true. Whether one votes is a much better indicator than a college degree as to whether one is reading a daily paper.

The reaction between these two trends, a decline in voting and the decline in the reading of dailies, is what scientists call autocatalytic. One drives the other in a downward spiral. The under-30 young read far less, and vote far less--and according to their teachers, have fewer opinions. Not reading, not having political sentiments, they aren't especially capable of voting intelligently anyway.

What can we do now?

Let's start with public education. In the Northwest Ordnance of 1787, Thomas Jefferson slipped in a famous mandate of public schools for basically one reason: to turn kids into citizens able to govern themselves. But we take democracy for granted. The founders could not. No one had ever attempted such a huge experiment: to test whether the common people could manage the public business.

Critical to public education was telling children not that they merely could but that they had to vote: It was a moral obligation. And to exercise that obligation, they had to be literate enough to read a paper. If they didn't read a paper, they couldn't follow a legal argument and sit on a jury. Unless they read a paper, they couldn't cast a vote; it would be too dangerous to the country. Jefferson opined, "If I had to choose between newspapers without government and government without newspapers, I'd choose the latter."

But teaching students to read a paper is virtually the last thing anyone in America expects from a school, especially in this test-driven era of No Child Left Behind. The purpose of education is now largely vocational or economic, preparing students for job and career, while filling a dizzying array of state and local mandates, including AIDS awareness, obesity prevention, anti-bullying and fire-safety programs. The civics element is gone. And the industry's traditional link to schools, its Newspaper in Education program, evolved into more of a gambit to boost circulation than a means of thoughtful civics instruction.

History, civics and other "political" subjects need to play a big role not just for the college-bound but also the armies who will at most have high school diplomas. A year ago the Chicago Tribune ran an estimate that only 47 percent of high school graduates from public schools in Chicago went on to any college work at all, and most of those soon dropped out. They depart having been cheated out of the civic skills they need to vote and take part in the great policy debates over allocation of the country's income (Social Security, welfare reform, Medicare, etc.).

There are many ways to recast public education to save the press and the democracy. One approach is four years of civics and four years of American history. "Four years of civics" might include one old-fashioned civics course, a current-events course, a course on problems of American democracy, and a final course that involves in-service learning and volunteer work.

Another approach would be for the state school system to publish a "student paper" that is given every day to students. The paper would consist of articles taken from newspapers around the state. The plan here is to turn the reading of the paper into a daily habit.

If publishers want to save themselves from long-term demise, they must consider reinvention of their papers' content and dramatic hikes in traditionally anemic marketing and promotion efforts. But they should also push for a new public education quite different from that envisioned by No Child Left Behind.

Worry a bit less about the Wall Street analysts and a bit more about the principals and the taxpayers on the local school boards. Sit down with them, but with a bit of care since school leaders rightfully feel put upon by too many mandates. And think about paying something for civics courses, which may turn out your future readers. It's the democratic thing to do--and maybe the industry's best hope to stay alive, even flourish.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune




By Jodi S. Cohen and Darnell Little, Tribune staff reporters.

Tribune staff reporter Tracy Dell'Angela contributed to this report

April 21, 2006

Of every 100 freshmen entering a Chicago public high school, only about six will earn a bachelor's degree by the time they're in their mid-20s, according to a first-of-its-kind study released Thursday by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The prospects are even worse for African-American and Latino male freshmen, who only have about a 3 percent chance of obtaining a bachelor's degree by the time they're 25.

The study, which tracked Chicago high school students who graduated in 1998 and 1999, also found that making it to college doesn't ensure success: Of the city public school students who went to a four-year college, only about 35 percent earned a bachelor's degree within six years, compared with 64 percent nationally.

Researchers say they're not exactly sure why Chicago schools alumni graduate from college in such low numbers, but that poor preparation during high school and too few resources at the college level contribute to the problem.

"Just focusing on getting kids to survive in high school isn't going to be enough," said study co-author Elaine Allensworth, a researcher at the consortium, a group that works closely with Chicago Public Schools. "This report raises a lot of issues that the colleges need to struggle with."

Schools chief Arne Duncan said the grim statistics in the report and the variation in college rates among city high schools are no surprise--they are what is driving massive private investment in high school reform.

"When students here are unprepared for college or the world of work, they are condemned to social failure," he said. "We're doing everything we can to dramatically change the high school experience for our teenagers."

Among other findings:

- Students who graduated from high school with a grade-point average below 3.0 were unlikely to graduate within six years, lacking the study skills that contribute to college success. Only about 16 percent of students with a high school GPA between 2.1 and 2.5 graduated during that time, compared with 63 percent of students who had a 3.6 GPA or better.

- African-American and Latino students from Chicago high schools have the lowest graduation rates--lower than the national average for those groups and lower than their white and Asian peers from Chicago. Just 22 percent of African-American males who began at a four-year college graduated within six years.

Chicago high school graduate Nigel Valentine, 26, is on the 10-year plan. He graduated from Kennedy High School in 1997. After getting an associate's degree from Daley College in 2003, he is now a junior at Northeastern Illinois University. He expects to graduate next year.

"Originally, I was hoping to be out in four or five years," said Valentine, who is studying criminal justice. He says he blames himself and a school system that didn't ensure college readiness. "It's all about preparation. The structure of the classes in high school and elementary school were not up to par."

The study also found varying degrees of success among colleges in graduating students from Chicago schools.

Of the Chicago students who start as full-time freshmen at Northeastern, only 11 percent graduate within six years.

Northeastern officials said the study is unfair to the university, which primarily serves non-traditional students, including many part-time students who take an average of 9 years to graduate. Many students are older, low-income and work while in school, said Provost Lawrence Frank.

But Frank said the study does point "to things we need to address," particularly improving the experience for freshmen. The university next fall will require that all freshmen take a small seminar class with a maximum of 24 students. Sophomores will receive more advising about course selection and major.

To be sure, there were limitations to the study. It only provided graduation rates for students who enrolled full time in a four-year college. It did not include students from alternative high schools or those eligible for special education. Researchers also did not have graduation data from every Illinois college, and DePaul University, Northern Illinois University and Robert Morris College were among those left out.

The researchers used data from the non-profit National Student Clearinghouse, a group that collects data from secondary school officials who want to track their graduates. More than 2,800 colleges participate.

Carole Snow, an executive associate provost at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said many students start college unprepared in math and writing.

The university recently opened a math learning center where students can get tutoring and work on study skills.

About 46 percent of UIC students, including Chicago public school graduates, complete college within six years.

Loyola University has one of the highest graduation rates for Chicago students. About 66 percent complete college within six years, nearly the same as the school average.

Loyola Vice Provost John Pelissero attributes that success to individualized student attention, including mandatory academic counseling. All freshmen also get a peer adviser.

The researchers said that the study could help high school guidance counselors better advise students about where to go to college.

"Our kids could be making better choices than going to U. of. I. Urbana," said co-author Melissa Roderick. "That is a very significant statement on that college, and they need to be paying attention to that."

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where some of Chicago's brightest students enroll, only 42 percent graduate within six years compared with 81 percent of all students, according to the study.

Robin Kaler, spokeswoman for the Urbana campus, disputed the consortium's numbers and said the graduation rate for Chicago students is nearly 65 percent.

"It is still not acceptable to us," said Kaler, who attributed the low number to a challenging environment at U. of. I. "We work hard to attract and identify students that we think can succeed. ... There is no way to predict perfectly who is going to have the most success and who isn't'"

She said the university has worked on improving student advising, with several colleges now requiring it. The advisers are supposed to not only monitor a student's academic progress, but also connect them with career-focused clubs and other services. The university also started a program last fall called "University 101," which is intended to teach students how to study, conduct research, and locate programs and services at the university.

That program came too late for Crystalynn Ortiz, 19, who started at the Urbana campus in fall 2004 after graduating from Prosser Career Academy in Chicago with a 4.5 GPA. She dropped out of U. of. I. after the first year, and now attends nearby Parkland Community College.

"I wasn't prepared to go to U. of. I. I got my first bad grades and then I wasn't motivated to do well," she said. "I felt really unprepared in study habits, how hard it was going to be here." Ortiz said she lives two blocks from U. of I.'s campus, and takes the bus to Parkland. Some of her friends and family members don't know she flunked out, and she hopes to do well enough to return. "For me, this is low. This is bad. I shouldn't be at Parkland. I should be at U. of I. so I am trying to get through this and get back in," she said.

- - -


Six in 100 Chicago public high school freshmen will receive a bachelor's degree by the age of 25, according to a study that tracked 1998 and 1999 high school graduates.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune



Garrison Keillor

December 2, 2005

I got to put on a tux and go to the National Book Awards in New York a couple weeks ago and eat lamb chops in a hotel ballroom and breathe air recently exhaled by Toni Morrison and Norman Mailer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other greats and near-greats of the trade.

I was there as an innocent bystander, not a nominee (God forbid). Having never won a big prize, I am opposed to them on principle: They are an excrescence of commerce and a corruption of the purity of artistic creation. Nonetheless, it was good to see the brilliant young novelist William T. Vollmann pick up the trophy for fiction and that grand old man W.S. Merwin get the nod for poetry. If you can't be the creator of Harry Potter or the decoder of da Vinci, winning a big prize is some consolation. It gives you reason to believe you may not have wasted your life after all.

The urge to write stuff and put it between covers is powerful, as one can see by the godawful books that emerge every day--vanity, thy name is publishing!-- and anybody with the authorial urge ought to visit the underground stacks of a major public library and feel the chill of oblivion. Good writers such as Glenway Wescott, John Dos Passos, Caroline Gordon, gone, gone, gone. They had their shining moment and then descended into storage, where they wait for years to be opened. Sometimes, to placate the ghosts, I take a book off the shelf that looks as if nobody's opened it for a few decades and I open it. And then I close it.

Emily Dickinson died unpublished, and her work eventually found its way from deep anonymity to the pantheon of American Lit, and now her grave in Amherst, Mass., is one of the most beloved anywhere in the world. She is the patron saint of the meek and lonely. A devout unbeliever, she lies under a tombstone that says "Called Back," and here, every week, strangers come and place pebbles on her stone and leave notes to her folded into tiny squares. Perhaps they are unpublished poets too. As Emily said, success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed. She would have known about that.

People like to speculate about her love life, but their chatter about that is dull stuff compared to the poems, the flies buzzing and the horses turning their heads toward eternity and the narrow fellow in the grass and "Hope is the thing with feathers" and all--the lady was a fine piece of Yankee free-thinking who dwelt in the richness of Victorian language. Through her poems, you can enter the mind of New England, from which seeds blew westward and blossomed across the country. You read her and, whether you know it or not, your vision of America is elevated.

One reads books in order to gain the privilege of living more than one life. People who don't read are trapped in a mineshaft, even if they think the sun is shining. Most New Yorkers wouldn't travel to Minnesota if a bright star shone in the west and hosts of angels were handing out plane tickets, but they might read a book about Minnesota and thereby form some interesting and useful impression of us. This is the benefit of literacy. Life is lonely; it is less so if one reads.

I once got on the subway at 96th and Broadway in Manhattan and sat down opposite a handsome young African-American woman who was reading a book of mine. The train rattled along and I waited for her to smile or laugh but she didn't. She did, however, keep reading. I stayed on the train past 72nd and 42nd and 34th and finally it was too much for me--if she had slapped the book shut and tossed it away, it would've hurt me so bad, so I got off at 14th and I was a more thoughtful man for the rest of the day. A writer craves readers, but what passes between him and them is so intimate that it's unbearable to sit and watch.

Questions for class discussion: (1) Is the author using irony when he declares he is opposed to prizes? (2) What is "excrescence"? (3) Have you ever sat reading a book and then realized that the author was sitting across from you and as a joke, you kept a straight face?




By Lara Weber


November 11, 2007

Go to an exotic developing nation. Be charmed by throngs of beaming children. Meet with locals who have big plans and no funding. Donate seed money. Build a school, or a clinic, or a library. Feel like a hero.

Then watch it fall apart, as things so famously tend to do in places like Africa.

Oprah Winfrey knows what I'm talking about. Building a girls school in South Africa and then having to confront allegations of sexual abuse and malfeasance at the school, as she did in the last few weeks, cannot feel heroic. But because she's Oprah, she gets the unenviable honor of watching her dream fall apart (or at least crumble a little) in front of a global audience.

She's not the first to stumble, of course.

Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers and other aid workers in Africa have been there too, as I was, riding the development roller coaster in remote towns and villages across the continent. The budgets may be smaller, but the highs and lows are just as intense.

I've been watching Winfrey get to know Africa since 2002, when I had just returned from two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia and caught a televised special about her visit to South Africa. The pure joy and compassion she exuded carried me straight back to my first days in Zambia. Winfrey was smitten with Africa, and I knew exactly how that felt.

Since then, she has been on a journey that is so familiar to so many volunteers -- the euphoria, the idealism, the connection with the community -- and I've been rooting for her. Cautiously.

Her pet project, an ultramodern elite school for a select number of girls in South Africa, rings of a Western solution to an African problem. At the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, she wants to shower the girls with luxury to boost their self-esteem and turn them into leaders. Hmm.

I thought back to my experience in Zambia, where jealousy (ukwa in the local Senga language) could, at the least, stop the best-intended projects and, at the worst, lead to murderous vengeance.

A small stack of children's books sent to me for my village by well-meaning friends set off a firestorm of ukwa. For days, the village swirled with nasty accusations of special treatment, and ill will grew between families. I couldn't distribute the books and finally opted to start a tiny library at my house where the children could come to read. No bloodshed, thankfully, but the joy of sharing the books had been completely deflated.

Winfrey's 450 lucky girls, receiving free education and luxurious housing and clothing, certainly would face an unfathomable amount of ukwa. Surely there are local advisers explaining these issues to Winfrey, right?

Or has her team, like so many of us in the Peace Corps, been too swept up in idealism to notice that a $40 million campus, with theaters and a beauty salon, might be overkill? And that the lavish surroundings could even have harmful consequences in a culture where jealousy runs much deeper than the petty envy we experience in our culture?

The sexual abuse allegations have put Winfrey's African journey back on the world stage. They also show how complicated development work can be. In an e-mail discussion with other former Peace Corps volunteers, many of us who served in Africa were sympathetic to Winfrey's situation and commended her for stepping up quickly to take responsibility for the problems at her school. It's a lesson in accountability that some volunteers should take note of, one told me.

But we also recalled so many projects that failed because of corruption and deep traditions that condoned abuse, prostitution and sexual relationships between teachers and students.

I remembered happily befriending a group of European development workers who had descended on my village to install new water sources, only to discover that they were paying the local girls $10 for sex. In the local economy, $10 is like picking the winning lottery numbers. How could I persuade the girls not to cash in?

Navigating an environment of deep poverty, shifting social mores, corruption and rampant disease is disorienting for the best of us. It gets complicated fast, and it's hard to know where it's going to get messy unless you've been in it for a long time.

Career aid workers and lifelong missionaries spend decades getting to know the local culture, learning the language and exploring ancient traditions that hold a tight grip on the present day.

For Peace Corps volunteers, in a country for a meager two years, the rule is to take it slow, start small, learn the culture, make our projects sustainable -- sort of the anti-Oprah approach. In Zambia, my group of volunteers was advised not to start any project until we had lived in our villages for at least three months. Even that was probably too soon.

If only Winfrey could have been in the Peace Corps, lived in a village, tried to do something as simple as distribute a stack of children's books. Would she have built her academy? Or would she maybe have considered developing 100 teachers colleges with that $40 million instead?

I'll keep watching Winfrey live out her celebrity-style volunteer experience, and I'll still root for her. But -- if she hasn't already done so -- I invite her to get to know a few Peace Corps volunteers. To talk to someone who was taught by a volunteer and was inspired to become a teacher. To hear about projects that failed. And to visit some of the thousands of programs around the world that thrive today because they weren't dependent on large grants or beautiful buildings.

Then I hope Winfrey will teach her millions of viewers and fans that changing the world isn't so easy after all. It can still feel like the greatest high. It's always worth the effort. But it doesn't always work as shown on TV. The real test comes when things fall apart: Are you willing to adapt to put them back together?




By Johnathon E. Briggs

November 11, 2007

Teachers, writes education activist Jonathan Kozol, are not "drill sergeants for the state." Yet in many of America's 93,000 public schools, the high-stakes testing environment fueled by the No Child Left Behind law has left teachers feeling like "robotic drones" who regurgitate mandated curriculum. Is it any wonder that nearly 50 percent of new teachers in urban public schools quit within three years, by Kozol's estimate?

Kozol's latest book, "Letters to a Young Teacher," imagines a series of exchanges with "Francesca," a first-time teacher at an inner-city Boston school who is a composite of instructors Kozol has corresponded with over the years.

Kozol, 71, is himself a former public school teacher. He has spent nearly 40 years condemning the inequalities of education, most recently in 2005's "The Shame of the Nation," in which he exposes the often worsening segregation in public schools.

Kozol spoke to the Tribune before a recent visit to Chicago. An edited transcript follows:

Q. What is driving young teachers from the classroom?

A. When No Child Left Behind was sold to Congress, the rhetoric of the White House insisted that our urban schools were full of mediocre drones [as teachers]. There are some mediocre drones in public schools, just as there are mediocre senators and presidents. But hopelessly dull and unimaginative teachers do not certainly turn into classroom wizards under a regimen that transforms their classrooms into miserable test-prep factories.

So the only real effect of [the law] is to drive away the superbly educated, high-spirited teachers we're trying so hard to recruit. When I ask them why [they leave], they never say it's the kids. They always say it's this absolute decapitation of potential in children that is the unintended consequence of an agenda that strips down the curriculum in order to teach only isolated skills that will appear on an exam.

Q. What advice do you offer young teachers?

A. Use some wise and simple strategies to prevail without discouragement. Reach out to the parents [of your students] as quickly as you can. Befriend the wisest of the older teachers. Try not to demonize your principal. Recognize that the principal is under the same sword of fear and anxiety that you've been under.

Q. Why are you so critical of No Child Left Behind?

A. If No Child Left Behind had worked, I would not be so adamant in my beliefs. In fact, it has not worked. The 4th-grade gains claimed by [U.S. Secretary of Education] Margaret Spellings are illusory. They are testing gains as a result of teaching the test. They are not learning gains. If they were learning gains they would persist. I visit the same 4th-graders four years later when they are in 8th grade, and I find that they cannot write a cogent sentence, comprehend a simple text or, worst of all, participate in a discerning class discussion because they've never learned to ask real questions, but only to provide the scripted answers.

Q. No Child Left Behind is currently up for reauthorization before Congress. What changes should be made to the law?

A. In my long conversations with senior members of the Senate Education Committee, I've argued for three specific changes.

First, high-stakes standardized exams ought to be given only every other year from 3rd to 8th grade. Schools should instead rely far more seriously on useful testing known as diagnostic tests, in which the teacher actually learns something useful about the child.

Second, I strongly recommended that Congress require that states certify that class size in an urban district is at the same level as the size in an affluent suburban district and that every child ... receive the same two or three rich years of preschool education before a standardized exam can be used to penalize a child, school or teacher.

Third, Congress should amend the transfer provision to require that states facilitate and, where necessary, finance the right of transfer across district lines in order to enable the parents of inner-city children who are in chronically failing schools to place their children in high-performing and far better-funded public schools, which often are only 20 minutes from their homes.

Q. The Chicago Public Schools system is more than halfway through a school reform initiative known as Renaissance 2010 that aims to close dozens of low-performing schools and replace them with 100 innovative ones. More than half the new schools are charters. Are charters a solution?

A. I'm not opposed to all charter schools. I think it's naive to believe that charter schools can ever meet the need. Despite their claims that their schools are not selective in the students they enroll, the kids whose parents even hear about these schools and whose parents know how to navigate the application process are inherently self-selective.

Q. The CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan, has repeatedly called for education-funding reform, saying that relying on property taxes to fund education has resulted in disparities between wealthy suburban districts and struggling rural and city schools. What alternatives are there to funding public education?

A. Arne Duncan is absolutely right. So long as Illinois relies more heavily than almost any other state on local property wealth, you will never have a genuine meritocracy. You will always have a hereditary meritocracy based on the accident of birth. The only answer is to get rid of the property tax almost entirely as the basis of school funding. Or, if it continues to exist, to pool the property taxes into a common pool ... and then distribute those funds equitably to every single child in the state adjusted only for cost of living or the greater or lesser needs of children in specific districts.

Q. What can school districts do to close the achievement gap between black and Latino children and their white counterparts?

A. What counts most in education is ... the high quality of the teacher, the strong morale of the teacher and the number of children in that classroom. If we want to know what works in closing the achievement gap, we don't need to search for isolated exceptions in major urban systems. All we need to do is look at any great suburban system in which children thrive as a matter of course, not as a matter of exception.

Q. What impact will the recent Supreme Court decision have on efforts to integrate the nation's schools, which are resegregating at an alarming rate?

A. In his partial concurrence, Justice Anthony Kennedy opened up a means of pursuing integration so long as it is not race-specific. Congress has a golden opportunity to require states to allow transfers across district lines without ever introducing race into the debate, solely for the reason that the child is in a chronically low-performing school.

Q. Do you ever lose heart?

A. The reason I don't lose heart is, despite everything, there are far more marvelous teachers in these urban schools than you would ever guess if you listen to the politicians who condemn them. I do believe that in the long run the high morale of our teachers is our most precious asset. If they lose their delight in being with the children, they won't stay, and we'll lose everything.



(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.



By Nathan Thornburgh

It's lunchtime at Shelbyville High School, 30 miles southeast of Indianapolis, Ind., and more than 100 teenagers are buzzing over trays in the cafeteria. Like high schoolers everywhere, they have arranged themselves by type: jocks, preps, cheerleaders, dorks, punks and gamers, all with tables of their own. But when they are finished chugging the milk and throwing Tater Tots at one another, they will drift out to their classes and slouch together through lessons on Edgar Allan Poe and Pythagoras. It's the promise of American public education: no matter who you are or where you come from, you will be tugged gently along the path of learning, toward graduation and an open but hopeful future.

Shawn Sturgill, 18, had a clique of his own at Shelbyville High, a dozen or so friends who sat at the same long bench in the hallway outside the cafeteria. They were, Shawn says, an average crowd. Not too rich, not too poor; not bookish, but not slow. They rarely got into trouble. Mainly they sat around and talked about Camaros and the Indianapolis Colts.

These days the bench is mostly empty. Of his dozen friends, Shawn says just one or two are still at Shelbyville High. If some cliques are defined by a common sport or a shared obsession with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, Shawn's friends ended up being defined by their mutual destiny: nearly all of them became high school dropouts.

Shawn's friends are not alone in their exodus. Of the 315 Shelbyville students who showed up for the first day of high school four years ago, only 215 are expected to graduate. The 100 others have simply melted away, dropping out in a slow, steady bleed that has left the town wondering how it could have let down so many of its kids.

In today's data-happy era of accountability, testing and No Child Left Behind, here is the most astonishing statistic in the whole field of education: an increasing number of researchers are saying that nearly 1 out of 3 public high school students won't graduate, not just in Shelbyville but around the nation. For Latinos and African Americans, the rate approaches an alarming 50%. Virtually no community, small or large, rural or urban, has escaped the problem.

There is a small but hardy band of researchers who insist the dropout rates don't quite approach those levels. They point to their pet surveys that suggest a rate of only 15% to 20%. The dispute is difficult to referee, particularly in the wake of decades of lax accounting by states and schools. But the majority of analysts and lawmakers have come to this consensus: the numbers have remained unchecked at approximately 30% through two decades of intense educational reform, and the magnitude of the problem has been consistently, and often willfully, ignored.

That's starting to change. During his most recent State of the Union address, President George W. Bush promised more resources to help children stay in school, and Democrats promptly attacked him for lacking a specific plan. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has trained its moneyed eye on the problem, funding "The Silent Epidemic," a study issued in March that has gained widespread attention both in Washington and in statehouses around the country.

The attention comes against a backdrop of rising peril for dropouts. If their grandparents' generation could find a blue-collar niche and prosper, the latest group is immediately relegated to the most punishing sector of the economy, where whatever low-wage jobs haven't yet moved overseas are increasingly filled by even lower-wage immigrants. Dropping out of high school today is to your societal health what smoking is to your physical health, an indicator of a host of poor outcomes to follow, from low lifetime earnings to high incarceration rates to a high likelihood that your children will drop out of high school and start the cycle anew.

Identifying the problem is just the first step. The next moves are being made by towns like Shelbyville, where a loose coalition of community leaders and school administrators have, for the first time, placed dropout prevention at the top of the agenda. Now they are gamely trying to identify why kids are leaving and looking for ways to reverse the tide. At the request of a former principal, a local factory promised to stop tempting dropouts with jobs. Superintendent David Adams is scouting vacant storefronts for a place to put a new alternative high school. And Shelbyville's Republican state representative, Luke Messer, sponsored a bill, signed into law by the Governor two weeks ago, that will give students alternatives to traditional high school while imposing tough penalties on those who try to leave early without getting permission from the school district or a judge.

Shelbyville, a town of almost 18,000 located on the outer fringe of the "doughnut" counties that ring Indianapolis, seems an unlikely battleground in the war on dropouts. Despite a few oddities--it's home to both the oldest living Hoosier and the world's tallest woman--it is an otherwise pleasantly unremarkable town. The capital is just a short drive away, but miles of rust-colored farmland, mainly cornfields waiting for seed, give the area a rural tinge. Most people live in single-family houses with yards and fences. Not many of them are very well off, but there's little acute poverty, as a gaggle of automotive and other factories has given the town a steady supply of well-paying jobs. Violent crime is rare, and the town is pervaded by a throwback decency. People wave at one another from their cars on Budd Street. They chitchat in the aisles of Mickey's T-Mart grocery store.

For years, Shelbyville had been comforted by its self-reported--and wildly inaccurate--graduation rate of up to 98%. The school district arrived at that number by using a commonly accepted statistical feint, counting any dropout who promises to take the GED test later on as a graduating student.

The GED trick is only one of many deployed by state and local governments around the country to disguise the real dropout rates. Houston, for example, had its notorious "leaver codes"--dozens of excuses, such as pregnancy and military service, that were often applied to students who were later reclassified as dropouts by outside auditors. The Federal Government has been similarly deceptive, producing rosy graduation-rate estimates--usually between 85% and 90%--by relying only on a couple of questions buried deep within the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. The survey asks whether respondents have a diploma or GED. Critics say the census count severely underreports dropout numbers, in part because it doesn't include transients or prisoners, populations with a high proportion of dropouts.

In 2001, Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, published a study that peeled back the layers of statistical legerdemain. Poring over raw education data, he asked himself a basic question: What percentage of kids who start at a high school finish? The answers led Greene and subsequent researchers around the country to place the national graduation rate at anywhere from 64% to 71%. It's a rate that most researchers say has remained fairly static since the 1970s, despite increased attention on the plight of public schools and a vigorous educational-reform movement.

Starting a year ago, the people of Shelbyville began to admit the scope of their problem by asking themselves the same simple questions about who was graduating. It helped that superintendent Adams was new to his job and that the high school's principal was too. They had a clean slate and little incentive to make excuses for the old way of doing things.


Sarah Miller, 28, was victim of those old ways. An intelligent but rebellious teenager with a turbulent home life, Sarah began falling behind in attendance and classwork her freshman year. Like many other 15-year-olds, she had a talent for making poor decisions. She and her friends would often skip out of school after lunch and cruise up and down Broadway. Teachers rarely stopped them, but school authorities knew what she and her friends were up to. One morning Sarah went to the school office to discuss getting back on track but got a surprise. One of the administrators asked her point-blank, "Why don't you just quit school?" "I was just a kid," says Sarah with a laugh. "It was like they said the magic words. So I told them, 'O.K.!' And I left."

Sarah never set foot in a high school again. She got her GED, but now she's too afraid to try community college, she says, because she doesn't want to look stupid. Although she has a house she owns with her husband and a fine job serving coffee, biscuits and small talk at Ole McDonald's Cafe in nearby Acton, Ind., Sarah is not without regret. "It would have been nice to have someone pushing me to stay," she says. "Who knows how things would have turned out?"

Researchers call students like Sarah "pushouts," not dropouts. Shelbyville High's new principal, Tom Zobel, says he's familiar with the mind-set. "Ten years ago," he says, "if we had a problem student, the plan was, 'O.K., let's figure out how to get rid of this kid.' Now we have to get them help."

But can educators really be faulted for the calculation, however cold, that certain kids are an unwise investment of their limited energies and resources? That question quickly leads to the much thornier issues of class and clout that shape the dropout crisis. The national statistics on the topic are blunt: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, kids from the lowest income quarter are more than six times as likely to drop out of high school as kids from the highest. And in Shelbyville, nearly every dropout I met voiced a similar complaint: teachers and principals treat the "rich kids" better. "The rich kids always knew how to be good kids," says Sarah in a more nuanced version of the same refrain. "So I guess it's natural the schools wanted to work with them more than with the rest of us." The poor kids, though, are exactly the ones who need the extra investment.

Shelbyville leaders hope to change the prevailing mentality. At a cavernous high school gym in nearby Columbus, I watched the boys' basketball sectional semifinal with Shelbyville mayor Scott Furgeson. The Shelbyville Golden Bears' 21-0 regular season record had turned the town's usual Hoosier hysteria into Hoosier histrionics. As his constituents cheered on the good kids--the lithe, clean-cut basketball players who were dominating Columbus North High School--Furgeson paused to think about the other kids. Before becoming mayor, he spent 22 years managing the local Pizza King franchise. Every year he had to hire up to 200 teenagers, many of them dropouts, just to keep 10 full-time positions staffed. Those teenagers, failing in life as they had failed at school, were often the children of people Furgeson had seen quit school when he was a student at Shelbyville High 25 years before. The dropout problem, he says, corrupts the community far beyond the halls of the high school. "I worry that we're creating a permanent underclass," he says.

John Bridgeland, CEO of the Washington-based public-policy firm Civic Enterprises, says it's that type of attitude shift, more than legislation, that is likely to lead to change. Messer's 2005 bill made Indiana one of six states in the past five years to raise its minimum dropout age to 18 from 16. (Twenty-three states still let kids drop out at the younger age without parental consent.) Bridgeland, who co-wrote the Gates Foundation--funded report, supports the age hike but warns that states can't legislate in a vacuum. "These laws have to be coupled with strong support from the school and the community," he says. Underlying that conviction is perhaps the most surprising finding of the Gates survey: just how few dropouts report being overwhelmed academically. Fully 88% said they had passing grades in high school. Asked to name the reasons they had left school, more respondents named boredom than struggles with course work.


Susan Swinehart, 17, was an honors student her freshman year. She also joined the yearbook staff and found that she loved selling the $300 full-page yearbook ads to local businesses like Rush Shelby Energy and Fat Daddy's restaurant.

But the social cauldron of high school weighed on her. She didn't get along with the cheerleaders on the yearbook staff. And her avid interest in Stephen King novels and TV shows about forensics earned her a false reputation, she says, as a glum goth girl. So she started ditching class, barreling through the Indiana countryside alone in her Dodge Neon, blasting her favorite song, The Ghost of You, by My Chemical Romance--a song, as she puts it, about missed opportunities and regret.

"I'd rather regret something I did," she says, eyes welling with tears, "than regret something I didn't do." For her, sitting in a classroom biting her tongue and waiting to graduate when college wasn't necessarily in her future was a form of inaction. Working, saving money, starting her adult life--that was taking the initiative.

In cases like Susan's, American public education may be a victim of its own ambition. Rallying around the notion that every child should be prepared for higher education, schools follow a general-education model that marches students through an increasingly uniform curriculum, with admission to college as the goal. But what happens when a 17-year-old decides, rightly or wrongly, that her road in life doesn't pass through college? Then the college-prep exercise becomes a charade. At Shelbyville High School, as elsewhere, the general-education model became an all-or-nothing game that left far too many students with nothing.

Two months ago, Susan told her mother Kathy Roan that she was dropping out. "I wanted to kill her," says Kathy. But Kathy had her own bitterness about Shelbyville High. Two decades earlier, she too had been angered by the indifference of the school. She dropped out as soon as she turned 16.

On Feb. 22, Susan's mother went to school with her to sign her out of high school. That night Susan applied for more hours at the Taco Bell where she worked and promptly stayed for the 5 p.m.--to--2 a.m. shift. The other women on the graveyard shift gave her hell for quitting school. They were mostly dropouts themselves, says Susan, who reminded her that even at fast-food chains, anyone who wants to advance needs a diploma or GED. She had, they told her, just broken something that could not be easily put back together.

Susan says she will prove them wrong. She has started a Pennsylvania-based correspondence course that both her mother and sister completed. For $985, it provides textbooks, online tests and teacher support via phone and e-mail. The rush to cash in on dropouts has made such correspondence courses and "virtual high schools" the Wild West of secondary education, a multimillion-dollar industry that can offer a valuable second chance but has suffered at times from poor oversight and a dizzying array of self-styled accrediting institutions, many of which aren't recognized by mainstream colleges.

There is, not surprisingly, partisan division over the dropout problem. Liberals say dropouts are either a by-product of testing mania or an unavoidable result of public schools' being starved for funding. But more conservative reform advocates, like Marcus Winters, a senior research associate at the Manhattan Institute, disagree. "Spending more money just has not worked," he says. "We've doubled the amount we spend per pupil since the '70s, and the problem hasn't budged."

In Indiana, however, there is a bipartisan consensus about the state's latest antidropout measure. Shelbyville representative Messer, former head of the Indiana Republican Party, is no stranger to partisan politics, but his strongest partner in pushing for the measure was a liberal Democrat named Stan Jones, who is now the state's commissioner of higher education. The bill they championed had, fittingly, both carrot and stick. Students who drop out before age 18 could have their driver's license suspended or their work permit revoked unless their decision was first approved by a school or judge. But students who found the high school environment stifling could take classes at community colleges. The dual approach struck a chord, and both houses passed the bill unanimously.

Messer acknowledges that his law is no panacea. He's fond of saying he can't legislate away teenage mistakes. And indeed, Kentucky, Georgia and West Virginia have had similar laws on the books for a number of years, but critics say there's no proof that the laws have worked. Still, he says, "some kids are dropping out because it's easy and it's O.K. That is going to change."

On a national level, No Child Left Behind--the metric-heavy school reform that President Bush would like to expand in public high schools--was designed to make schools accountable for their dropout rates. But it hasn't been carried out very seriously. The Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income and minority students, issued a scathing report in 2005 about how the Federal Government stood by while states handed in patently misleading graduation numbers: last year three states didn't submit any, and for many states, the figures were clearly inflated.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings tells TIME that much is being done to get better data on dropouts. She points to the National Governors Association resolution last year to set, for the first time, a common definition of a dropout that all states will use to report graduation rates to the Federal Government. But it's a nonbinding compact. And critics say the government is trying to slash funding for important support programs, including the Carl Perkins Act, which has funded vocational education across the country since 1984. Spellings says President Bush has proposed converting Perkins and other support programs like GEAR UP and Upward Bound into block grants for states to choose their own fixes. As long as states get results, says Spellings, "we're not going to prescribe particular programs or strategies like vocational education."

Superintendent Adams believes he has come up with the right prescription for Shelbyville. The high school has established a credit lab, a sort of open study hall that lets at-risk kids recover credit from classes that they have failed. The principal at the elementary school is trying to identify at-risk kids in first grade. In the middle school, students are taking high school--graduation pledges, promising to be onstage with a diploma along with the rest of their class.

The district will also continue to support the Blue River vocational school, where more than 300 juniors and seniors spend their afternoons learning trades from nursing to marketing to auto-body repair. And there is a plan to build an alternative high school, which Adams envisions as a low-key place where, if they want to, kids can eat a doughnut while instant-messaging friends during loosely structured study hall, so long as they get their work done at some point. "Too many kids, at their exit interviews, say, 'I'm just done with this process--50 minutes, bell, 50 minutes, bell,'" says principal Zobel. "With the alternative school, I could give them an option, another environment to be in."


On the edge of Shelbyville's Old Town square, now a roundabout with a paved parking lot in the middle, there's a statue of one of central Indiana's most famous literary characters, a sort of Hoosier Huck Finn named Little Balser. The main character of The Bears of Blue River, a book for adolescents set in the woods of frontier-era Shelby County, Balser spends his days striking off into the wilderness, slaying countless bears (and even an Indian or two) and worrying his parents sick. He is the prototype of an American teenager, a combustible combination of independence and irresponsibility.

Ryan Tindle, 21, carried that legacy to its modern-day extreme. In middle school, he started ditching class, trying to escape a tough home life by ingratiating himself with older kids who played rough. So it was little surprise when he traveled the well-worn path of the troublemaker, dropping out of high school and promptly beating up an older kid so severely that Ryan was sentenced to a year at Plainfield Juvenile Correctional Facility. Once inside, one of the few times he picked up a pencil, he used it to stab another inmate in the hand. He felt that he had to prove himself, he says, after witnessing weaker kids being assaulted at the facility. The attack earned him a stint in isolation in Cottage 13--"the cage"--and that, says Ryan, is where he got religion about schooling.

"My family always thought I was going to be worthless," he says, "and for the first time, I saw they were right."

As soon as he was released, Ryan went back to Shelbyville High School and asked to re-enroll. The Ryan Tindle that administrators knew, however, was nothing but grief. Wary administrators balked at letting him back in. He had to wait until a new principal arrived before he could convince the school that he was serious about his new leaf. But now he had to catch up quickly on a lot of lost years. "I went back with a fifth-grade education," he says. "That was the last time I had paid attention in school."

In the end, it took him nearly two years of a grueling schedule to finish what he started. From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., he sat in class at the high school, then took three hours of night school for basic reading and math. To everyone's amazement, he finished.

Ryan is working hard these days. He wakes up before 5 every morning to go to his job at a car-parts factory, where he works on the line and earns less than $10 an hour. On Saturdays and Sundays, he trains new employees at the local Arby's. In all, he takes home about $23,000 a year. He would like to go to college someday, he says with a slightly embarrassed grin, to study criminology. He wants to be a cop.

For now, however, graduation is reward enough. He pulls a laminated card out of his wallet. It's his Shelbyville High School diploma, miniaturized. "I'll always be able to look at that diploma and smile," he says. "It's the best thing I've ever done."

If Ryan's redemption seems remarkable, that's because it is. According to a 2005 report from the Educational Testing Service, the company that runs the SATs, federal funding for second-chance programs, such as the night school Ryan attended, dropped from a high of $15 billion in the late 1970s to $3 billion last year. Yet the stakes in the struggle to get students to graduate are higher than ever: an estimated 67% of prison inmates nationwide are high school dropouts. A 2002 Northeastern University study found that nearly half of all dropouts ages 16 to 24 were unemployed.

Finding good work is only getting harder for dropouts in the era of the knowledge-based economy and advanced manufacturing. Knauf Insulation is Shelbyville's largest employer, with more than 800 workers. Salaries start at $16.50 an hour, and the benefits at this German company are, well, positively European. In one of its factories along the Blue River, a row of mammoth 2400° furnaces spin the plant's secret recipe of sand, soda ash, borax and limestone into billions of billowy glass fibers, which will be cooled, packed and cut into battens of fiber-glass insulation. The workers running the furnaces are the last of a dying breed: people holding good jobs who never earned a high school diploma. Thirty years ago, the men came from as far away as the hills of Kentucky and proved themselves steady workers. Today they earn as much as $60,000 a year.

It's a fine life, but these days high school dropouts need not apply. Even a GED is not sufficient for a job here anymore. Take a tour of the factory floor, and the main reason is clear. Some workers--entry-level employees--stand at their stations and pluck irregular pieces of fiber glass from the line. It's mostly mindless labor, but the giant whirring belts and chomping insulation cutters are run by adjacent computer terminals called programmable-logic controllers. When the floor boss goes on a coffee break, it's the floor workers who must operate the controllers. In today's factories, no worker is more than a boss's coffee break away from needing at least some computing skills. And now more than ever, says Knauf president Bob Claxton, the company wants to invest in the continuing education of its workers so they can keep up with new technologies--an investment that might not be worth making if those workers lack high school basics.

But the firm's requirement of a high school diploma is as much about a mind-set as it is about a skill-set, says Claxton. A diploma "shows that these applicants had the discipline to gut out a tough process," he says. "They learned how to get along with people, some of whom they may not have liked so well, in order to achieve their goals." A GED, he says, doesn't prove they can do that.

Even the dropouts who do land factory jobs can find work tougher than they thought. A relative helped Christine Harden, 18, find work in a local car-parts factory four months after she dropped out of Shelbyville High. But she has to get up at 4:30 a.m. to make the first shift every day, and she says her back is killing her. "All my friends who are thinking about dropping out, I tell them, 'Don't do it,'" she says. "This is real life out here. It's not easy."


I met Shawn Sturgill's parents in the living room of their ranch-style home around the corner from Shelbyville's cemetery. At age 15, Shawn's father Steve, with a child on the way, dropped out of high school and then spent more than a decade battling drug abuse. He was born again six years ago, he says, patting the thick wooden cross around his neck. He has been clean since and has a high-paying job burying fiber-optic cables. But his turnaround came too late to be a model for his three older children, two of whom dropped out of school.

Shelbyville schools are performing triage on Shawn's education. For much of the day, he is in credit lab, working at his own pace to recover classes he has failed. Every afternoon he goes to the Blue River school, where he is enrolled in auto-body-repair courses.

Shawn has a tough road ahead of him. Though he will attend his class's graduation ceremony to watch his peers get diplomas, he won't be on stage, at least not yet. Even the school's efforts to speed up his credit recovery haven't been enough, so he will have to return for a fifth year at Shelbyville High. It's no fun for a 19-year-old to be in high school. Shawn is already a big guy who doesn't like to draw attention to himself.

But Shawn's hopes are bolstered by his plan. Auto-body work is not just a passing fancy for him--even when he's not at the vocational school, he is working on his Camaro, which most recently needed a new bumper. His favorite TV show, of course, is Pimp My Ride. He wants to save for tuition at Lincoln Technical Institute in Indianapolis so he can continue to develop his auto-sculpting skills. He rattles off the industry rates--car painters make an hourly wage of $22, collision techs $17--and he wants to get there. So he laughs it off every time somebody asks him in the hallway, "Hey, you're still in school? I would have thought you'd drop out by now."

Shawn's friends who have dropped out are, for the most part, struggling. A couple of them got their GED and are working in factories, but others are shuffling through menial jobs--one works at the car wash, another is washing dishes. A few, says Shawn, aren't doing much of anything except playing video games at their parents' houses. But Shawn says he is serious about not becoming a part of their dropout nation. "I've already went and put 12 years into this thing," he says. "There's no use throwing it all away."

  © Nathan Thornburgh 2006




Julia Keller

The first time I read "The Things They Carried," I had a chip on my shoulder roughly the size of Texas — which was only fitting because that's where author Tim O'Brien lives.

But I didn't know that then. I only knew that I'd read a lot of books about the Vietnam War, and a lot of books about a lot of wars, and everybody was telling me I just had to read "The Things They Carried." It was originally published in 1990. But this was 2000, and I thought I knew all I cared to know about that complex and terrible time.

Give it, I thought, a rest.

Still, duty called, and so I read it. Filled with resentment, stewing in a sour attitude of, "Great, another war book — hooray," I read it. Didn't want to, didn't think I needed to, groused about it even as I plopped down with the paperback — that giant chip on my shoulder made standing precarious — and read.

The chip vanished. The world changed.

"The Things They Carried" is not a war book. It's a life book. A death book. A dream book. A memory book. It's a book about writing, about being young, about falling in love, about watching people die, about wishing they didn't have to, about learning how to bring them back — how to bring everything back — with stories.

I've never been the same since I read it. And I'm not alone. "The Things They Carried" has sold millions of copies. High schools and colleges have made it a staple of the curriculum. A special 20th anniversary edition is now available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in hardback, paperback and e-book.

O'Brien, 63, a quiet, humble, self-effacing guy who always seems to be wearing a baseball cap, just wound up a coast-to-coast tour on behalf of the new edition. His final stop was in Chicago this month.

Reading the book now, he says, "is like remembering a stranger. I can remember sitting in my underwear in front of an old Wang computer and writing the first chapter." He laughs softly. "That guy had all of his hair. And not so many lines around his eyes."

It took him five years to write "The Things They Carried," he recalls. He has revised it a few times for subsequent editions — "I'm never wholly satisfied with any book, good reviews or bad" — and he revised it yet again for the 20th anniversary version. "I went through it and added little fixes here and there. Added a word or two. I doubt many readers would be able to notice what I did. But it's an improved book."

ard to see how it could be. A series of 22 linked stories, some just a few pages long, "The Things They Carried" is eloquent and grisly and mysterious and funny. It's ugly and it's beautiful.

It's about a guy named Tim from a small town in the Midwest who is drafted and sent to Vietnam.

Is it autobiographical?

O'Brien, a guy from a small town in the Midwest — Austin, Minn. — who was drafted and sent to Vietnam, hates that question. "People want answers. Strict answers. If you have a literal mindset, this book is frustrating," he says. "I think people forget that truth evolves. It's not a hard and fast thing. Truth changes. It's slippery and evasive, particularly if you're in a situation of great stress or trauma.

"Whenever I'm speaking somewhere and someone raises a hand and says, ‘Is it true?' a little trap door opens in my heart. I want to say, ‘Go back and read the book again.'"

O'Brien has written other fine novels as well, such as "Going After Cacciato" (1978), "In the Lake of the Woods" (1994) and "July, July" (2002). The Vietnam War figures in all of his work, he says, either obviously or obliquely.

"I came from a small, conservative town. I believed certain things. I remember being taught, ‘Thou shalt not kill.' Then you find yourself in a place where you'd better kill — or you'll be court-martialed. If that doesn't challenge your sense of self and your sense of truth, I don't know what will."

He has two sons, 6 and 4, and his next book is about being an older dad. But it's also about Vietnam, he adds. He just doesn't know how yet. "It's there. No matter what I write about, the feel of 1969 is still there."

Here's how he puts it in "The Things They Carried":

"You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present … That's the real obsession. All these stories."

Later in the book, he writes: "War is hell, but that's not the half of it." The rest of it is stories.



Copyright 1998 New York Times

With all due respect to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., A.S. Byatt, William Styron and the others who, acting at the behest of the Modern Library, produced a list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the century, the truth is that the entire endeavor is so drenched in caprice as to be close to silly.

You might be able scientifically to pick the 100 best-ever baseball players, because there would be a certain statistical basis to rely on. The same is not the case with works of the imagination. Still, the purpose of the exercise was to provoke discussion, always a good thing.


Should Ulysses really have been No. 1, especially when one suspects that almost nobody, probably including most members of the Modern Library panel, has ever read James Joyce's difficult masterpiece from cover to cover? How can Joseph Conrad's immortal Lord Jim be No. 85, while Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm ends up 59th? And here's another question that emerged from a recent conversation duly provoked by the Modern Library list: How many of the books would still be on the list if it had included works of the 19th century, as well? My own quick answer is, not many.


Indeed, when one starts examining this issue a bit more closely, the Modern Library list of 20th-century writers virtually demonstrates that the 19th century was a greater epoch for literature. In any case, I offer that statement (one that is certainly no more outrageous than some of the choices in the Modern Library list) as a challenge for rebuttal.


It is true, of course, that the Modern Library list has many very good novels: two by Joyce as well as works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Graves and Virginia Woolf, along with books by Henry James and Joseph Conrad, 19th-century men whose greatest works squeaked in just over the 20th-century line.


But on the 19th-century list would be Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, Jane Austen and Mark Twain ("the Lincoln of our literature," said William Dean Howells). Comparing Virginia Woolf with Jane Austen, in my view, is similar to comparing Samuel Richardson of Clarissa with Henry Fielding of Tom Jones, as Samuel Johnson did. "There is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson's than in all Tom Jones," Johnson said.


I would say that there is more literary genius in every chapter of Austen than there is in the entire oeuvre of Woolf. To the Lighthouse is a fine but somewhat precious and dull work, certainly not one to be mentioned in the same breath with Pride and Prejudice; yet it got the 15th spot on the Modern Library list.


The greatest monuments in American literature are, I would argue, Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. Indeed, what serious person could maintain, if those two books had been included, that they would not have ended up higher than the two top American entries on the Modern Library 20th-century list, The Great Gatsby and Nabokov's Lolita?

These latter two works are indisputably great, but I do not believe that either of them has the mightiness of theme, the narrative power or the transgressive originality of the Melville and the Twain.


Among the other 19th-century novels that would crowd out most of the 20th-century selections: Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray; Billy Budd, by Melville; Middlemarch, by George Eliot; Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy; and at least six books each by Dickens and Austen. That is not to mention Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter or The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. If I am right that the 19th-century list would be greater than the 20th-century one, the next question is, why?


his is not easy to answer, given the difficulty of ever knowing why the literary imagination seems to flourish at certain times and in certain places but not in others. Perhaps the 19th century was greater than the 20th because, except for the Napoleonic Wars that opened it and for the American Civil War, it was a period of relatively small and short military conflicts. As Jason Epstein, senior editor at Random House, puts it, the great war of the 20th century lasted with some brief interruptions from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the end of the Cold War in 1989.


It has been argued that civil or international turmoil is a stimulus to great writing. But the hypothesis here is that the 20th-century wars were so devastating that they led to a loss of spirit and confidence, both of which are necessary for the production of great literature.


"The 19th century was fundamentally an optimistic, progressive century," Epstein said. "Things were going to get better. The 20th century was riddled with angst and disillusion, and each century produced its appropriate literature. The consensus in retrospect is that the 19th century produced greater literature than the 20th, so the conclusion would seem to be that optimism is better for literature than pessimism."


World War I and the powerful despondency that it created, the disgust with the human animal that it generated, aided in the development of an overelaborated, introspective sensibility that, while critical to the modernism pioneered by Joyce, also led literature toward self-consciousness and away from events.


And in this sense, the literary age of feeling, of personal, sexual, political and stylistic exploration, seems somehow smaller than the literary age of great moral and philosophical narrative. The priority given to literary experimentation in the 20th-century novels of politics and consciousness seems to have operated in the recent Modern Library list.


How else to explain why Lolita, To the Lighthouse and Portnoy's Complaint are high on the 20th-century list, while Conrad's Lord Jim, a far greater work, in my opinion, than any of those three, ended up No. 85?


Maybe I'm all wrong, but I don't think so. Surely my preferences are no more capricious than ranking Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as the fifth-best book in English of the century, a strange choice indeed!



By Chris Jones
Tribune theater critic
Published September 20, 2006

You can set "King Lear' on the moon, or -- like the Goodman Theatre's endlessly audacious Robert Falls -- in a post-apocalyptic Eastern European world of guns, vodka, petty fiefdoms and crushing sexual cruelty. No matter. This great play will still try to spin around the same axis.

You will either walk with Lear toward the most painful kind of self-knowledge or you will stand, open-mouthed in the nearby rubble, and stare coldly at a body hastening toward the same death that awaits us all.

To watch Falls' astonishingly nihilistic "Lear," a colossal, eye-popping operatic production that has defiantly shorn the play of its decency, is to peek out onto some kind of terrifying no-man's land laid out before you with the most brutal kind of precision.

This is a "Lear" in which even that selfless servant Kent, whom some of us have spent our entire adult lives admiring, picks up a tire iron with brutal, violating intent. Has our world really come to that?

It is legitimate, of course, for a world-class theatrical artist such as Falls to make the case that, yes, it has. Or, in the worlds of Slobodan Milosevic or Nicolae Ceausescu or the fall of Baghdad, it surely did. And whatever barbs one might throw at Falls' unctuous, arrogant auteurism -- and there are narrative liberties taken here that will have Chicago's tragic purists spitting nails in the Goodman Theatre's direction -- this is a carefully wrought directorial vision expressed with such intensity and detail that it envelops its audience in a small-time world of expansive scale.

Falls' "Lear" is a show that deserves to move beyond Chicago, and it will set people talking wherever it lands. And at least half the room will be arguing that it doesn't have much to do with Shakespearean tragedy.

Some will hate this show. I deeply admire much of it -- especially the consistency, profundity, clarity and audacity of its conception. But even when viewed by its own rules, there is a gaping hole in the show's side. Falls knows precisely what he wants to do with everyone in the play, with one exception. And that's the guy whose name makes up the title and who is supposed to be our way into the play.

Actually, no Shakespearean director is obliged to follow some rule of tragic magnitude or even to consider the full vision of a play. "King Lear" will survive the Falls "Lear," just as it survived those cheery, tacked-on endings common in the 19th Century.

When it comes to the depiction of human cruelty -- or the evocation of the arbitrary nastiness of the cosmos -- this is a "Lear" sans pareil. Here, that privileged bad-boy Falls is like a middle-age, Midwestern football hooligan given all the theatrical toys money can buy. Whether it's popping one of poor Gloucester's eyes into a frying pan or lubricating some of the duller scenes with scenes of unscripted copulation, this show displays a twisted, seriocomic sensibility that lands somewhere between Jacobean tragedy and the Tarantinoesque. School groups be warned.

No modern American director is better than Falls at making a play's iconic moments pop with fresh irreverence. Here, the first lines of dialogue are delivered by two men at urinals. When Lear divides his kingdom, he cuts up a piece of cheap cake doled out at a drunken party held in his honor. And Edgar -- typically a paragon of filial virtue -- is rendered as a pill-popping rich kid.

Often, these counterintuitive characterizations work brilliantly. Edward Gero's superbly acted Gloucester, for example, brilliantly captures the lazy stupidity of a second-tier arriviste -- he calls to mind some sad-eyed patronage worker in a city government under federal investigation. Jonno Roberts' deftly underplayed Edmund is, aptly, a nightmare to watch. And Laura Odeh's complex Cordelia is not the usual pure soul, but an ineffectual girl from a rough family who tries but always knows she can't escape.

Falls goes over the top in the case of Lear's daughters Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotton) and Regan (Kate Arrington), who have colorful moments but read mostly as strangely costumed, sexually obsessed ugly sisters who change little in the course of the night. He's playing with archetype, sure, but also enjoying it too much.

Often, the actors' hearts leaven Falls' excesses. Steve Pickering's Kent does shocking things, but the actor's soul burns through nonetheless. And although Falls has turned Albany (a character who usually sees the error of his ways) into an amoral incarnation of Edward Albee's George, the actor Kevin Gudahl salvages some humanity.

Which leaves us with Lear -- not the most desirable order of priority. Stacy Keach, a distinguished and truthful actor, offers a performance of characteristic detail but insufficient scale. His "Lear" -- sad, fusty, overwhelmed, uncertain, clinging to what's left of his world -- is both truthful and intermittently moving, especially in the second act. But he's like a single-story urban artifact, beloved of preservationists but crumbling at the hands of a city planner more interested in the brutalist suburban skyscrapers.

Keach, who tackles Lear as if this is a tragedy (which it ain't), doesn't fully belong to Falls' world yet alone sits at its center. It's a balance that could be fixed, if Falls paid less attention to the writhings at the side and more to the capable star lost in the middle.

After the first scene, we're left wondering whether Lear is the last half-decent leader this wretched place of Falls' imagination ever had, or whether he's a loathsome, brutal dictator about to get both a show trial and his comeuppance at the hands of the mobster family he created. By the end of the night, it sure feels as if Falls licked his lips, kissed off any last remnants of tragic obligation and picked the latter. Keach, a tragic actor in the grand tradition, hasn't yet fully imbibed the Kool-Aid.




Gary Shteyngart

Since fiscal year 2008, I have been permanently attached to my iTelephone. As of two weeks ago, I am a Facebooking twit. With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person — solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film. And, increasingly, irrevocably, I am a stranger to books, to the long-form text, to the pleasures of leaving myself and inhabiting the free-floating consciousness of another. With each passing year, scientists estimate that I lose between 6 and 8 percent of my humanity, so that by the close of this decade you will be able to quantify my personality. By the first quarter of 2020 you will be able to understand who I am through a set of metrics as simple as those used to measure the torque of the latest-model Audi or the spring of some brave new toaster.

 “This right here,” said the curly-haired, 20-something Apple Store glam-nerd who sold me my latest iPhone, “is the most important purchase you will ever make in your life.” He looked at me, trying to gauge whether the holiness of this moment had registered as he passed me the Eucharist with two firm, unblemished hands. “For real?” I said, trying to sound like a teenager, trying to mimic what all these devices and social media are trying to do, which is to restore in us the feelings of youth and control.

“For real,” he said. And he was right. The device came out of the box and my world was transformed. I walked outside my book-ridden apartment. The first thing that happened was that New York fell away around me. It disappeared. Poof. The city I had tried to set to the page in three novels and counting, the hideously outmoded boulevardier aspect of noticing societal change in the gray asphalt prism of Manhattan’s eye, noticing how the clothes are draping the leg this season, how backsides are getting smaller above 59th Street and larger east of the Bowery, how the singsong of the city is turning slightly less Albanian on this corner and slightly more Fujianese on this one — all of it, finished. Now, an arrow threads its way up my colorful screen. The taco I hunger for is 1.3 miles away, 32 minutes of walking or 14 minutes if I manage to catch the F train. I follow the arrow taco-ward, staring at my iPhone the way I once glanced at humanity, with interest and anticipation. In my techno-fugue state I nearly knock down toddlers and the elderly, even as the strange fiction and even stranger reality of New York, from the world of Bartleby forward, tries to reassert itself in the form of an old man in a soiled guayabera proudly, openly defecating on Grand Street. But sorry, viejo, you’re not global enough to hold my attention. “Thousands of Uzbeks Flee Violence in Kyrgyzstan.” “Gary, what do we want to do about Turkish rights?” “G did u see the articl about M.I.A. + truffle fries = totes messed up.” I still have to eat, and when I finally get to my destination that taco tastes as good as my iPhone said it would. But I am not dining alone. The smartphone, my secret sharer, is in my other hand. Even as the pico de gallo is dribbling down my chin I am lost to the restaurant, the people, the commerce around me, my thumb pressing down the correct quadrants of the screen to tell the world just how awesome this taco is, even as “Kyrgyz Authorities Order Uzbeks to Remove Barriers,” while “A Third Filipino Journalist Is Killed,” and, over “In Eritrea, the Young Dream of Leaving.”

I dream of leaving, too. Heading upstate in the summer­time with a trunk full of books, watching Roose­velt Island sweep by in a rainstorm, I wake up from the techno-fugue state and remember who I am, the 37 analog years that went into creating this particular human being. Upstate I will train for my vocation, ­novel-writing, by tearing through the Russian classics that gave me my start, reading up on those frigid lovelorn Moscow and Petersburg winters while summer ants crawl up my shins. In the meantime, I will start conjuring my next book, one that with any luck may still be read on paper by live human beings five years from now. In my quest for calm, I have a surprising ally. As far as I’m concerned, American Telephone & Telegraph has done more for the art of reading and introspection than all the Kindles and Nooks ever invented. Because up in the exalted summer greenery of the mid-Hudson Valley, completing an AT&T call is like driving a Trabant from New York to Los Angeles: technically feasible but not really going to happen.

I am sitting underneath a tree beside a sturdy summer cottage rebuilt by an ingenious Swedish woman. The birds are twittering, but in a slightly different way than my New York friends. I open a novel, “A Short History of Women,” by Kate Walbert, a book I will grow to love over the coming week, but at first my data-addled brain is puzzled by the density and length of it (256 pages? how many screens will that fill?), the onrush of feeling and fact, the surprise that someone has let me not into her Facebook account but into the way other minds work. I read and reread the first two pages understanding nothing. Big things are happening. World War I. The suffragist movement. Out of instinct I almost try to press the text of the deckle-edged pages, hoping something will pop up, a link to something trivial and fast. But nothing does. Slowly, and surely, just as the sun begins to swoon over the Hudson River and another Amtrak honks its way past Rhinebeck, delivering its digital refugees upstream, I begin to sense the world between the covers, much as I sense the world around me, a world corporeal and complete, a world that doesn’t need the press of my thumb, because here beneath the weeping willow tree my input is meaningless.

Soon my friends will get off that Amtrak, they will help me roast an animal and some veggies, even as they point their iTelephones at the sky, praying for rain. Their prayers will not be answered. Connecting. . . . will flash impotently on the screen, but they will not connect. In the meantime, something “white nights” will be happening out there; the sun has set and yet it has not. With the animal safely in our stomachs, with single malts and beers before us, we can read or talk softly about what we’re reading, about the glory and sadness of finding ourselves this close to the middle of our existence (cue the Chekhov, cue the Roth) and as we do so the most important purchases we have ever made in our lives are snugly holstered in the pockets of our shorts, useless, as we commune in some ancient way, laughing and groaning, passing around lighted objects and containers of booze while thoroughly facebooking one another for real in the fading summer light.


Advice for freshmen from the people who actually grade their papers and lead their class discussions. 

College is your chance to see what you’ve been missing, both in the outside world and within yourself. Use this time to explore as much as you can.

Take classes in many different subjects before picking your major. Try lots of different clubs and activities. Make friends with people who grew up much poorer than you, and others much richer. Date someone of a different race or religion. (And no, hooking up at a party doesn’t count.) Spend a semester abroad or save up and go backpacking in Europe or Asia.

Somewhere in your childhood is a gaping hole. Fill this hole. Don’t know what classical music is all about? That’s bad. Don’t know who Lady Gaga is? That’s worse. If you were raised in a protected cocoon, this is the time to experience the world beyond.

College is also a chance to learn new things about yourself. Never been much of a leader? Try forming a club or a band.

The best things I did in college all involved explorations like this. I was originally a theater major but by branching out and taking a math class I discovered I actually liked math, and I enjoyed hanging out with technical people.

By dabbling in leadership — I ran the math club and directed a musical — I learned how to formulate a vision and persuade people to join me in bringing it to life. Now I’m planning to become an entrepreneur after graduate school. It may seem crazy, but it was running a dinky club that set me on the path to seeing myself as someone who could run a business.

Try lots of things in college. You never know what’s going to stick.

— TIM NOVIKOFF, Ph.D. student in applied mathematics at Cornell

• • •

Chances are, if you are taking the time to read this advice, you already have the quality necessary to undertake the intellectual challenges of a college education — a seriousness of purpose. What I want to speak to is much more mundane, but it will make your transition into college easier: amid the thrill and vertigo of change, be kind to and patient with yourself.

Remember to take some time away from campus — from the demands of schoolwork and the trappings of the college social life. Explore the town you’re living in. Meet people who are not professors or fellow students. If you spend all of your time on school grounds, then it becomes too easy for the criticism from an occasional unkind professor or the conflict with a roommate to take on a monstrous scale. And to let that happen is to suffer from a mistake of emphasis; college should be a part of, but not the entire scope of, your existence for the next few years.

In Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” characters are troubled and traumatized by their inability to maintain a proper “sense of proportion”; ordinary tasks — life itself, for one of the characters — become outsized and unmanageable.

I mention this not because I think your situation will be so dire if you don’t heed my advice, but mostly because “Mrs. Dalloway” is a great read, and I highly recommend it.

— WILLIE X. LIN, student in the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis

• • •

Universities are places where facts are made. Research is a collaborative process, so scientists need lab assistants, humanities researchers need library aides and graduate students need all the help they can get. A curious, competent undergraduate can always find work assisting a researcher.

Regardless of the field and the specific project, helping them helps you. The obvious benefits are new skills and invaluable experience. But there is also something powerful in seeing how the right experimental or analytical approach can sort through a mess of observations and opinion to identify real associations between phenomena, like a gene variant and a disease, or a financial tool and the availability of credit. With a window into the world of research, you will find yourself thinking more critically, accepting fewer assertions at face value and perhaps developing an emboldened sense of what you can accomplish.

Most important: research experience shows you how knowledge is produced. There are worse ways to prepare for life in an information age.

— AMAN SINGH GILL, Ph.D. student in the ecology and evolution department at Stony Brook University

• • •

Devices have become security blankets. Take the time to wean yourself.

tart by scheduling a few Internet-free hours each day, with your phone turned off. It’s the only way you’ll be able to read anything seriously, whether it’s Plato or Derrida on Plato. (And remember, you’ll get more out of reading Derrida on Plato if you read Plato first.) This will also have the benefit of making you harder to reach, and thus more mysterious and fascinating to new friends and acquaintances.

When you leave your room for class, leave the laptop behind. In a lecture, you’ll only waste your time and your parents’ money, disrespect your professor and annoy whoever is trying to pay attention around you by spending the whole hour on Facebook.

You don’t need a computer to take notes — good note-taking is not transcribing. All that clack, clack, clacking ... you’re a student, not a court reporter. And in seminar or discussion sections, get used to being around a table with a dozen other humans, a few books and your ideas. After all, you have the rest of your life to hide behind a screen during meetings.

— CHRISTINE SMALLWOOD, Ph.D. student in English and American literature at Columbia

• • •

First-years are under an unbelievable pressure not only to succeed, but to excel in college. They walk into a university already feeling guilty that they don’t know what they want to major in, or what their career path is going to be. But be comfortable with the fact that you don’t know anything. Nobody does.

During my first week in art school, I sat in a dark lecture hall as a professor asked questions I couldn’t answer and showed slides I couldn’t identify. I felt as if I was the only one in the room who didn’t have a clue. So, when my drawing teacher invited several of us students to a potluck dinner at her house, I was still worried that I was out of my league. But in this casual setting, everyone opened up, and I was able to talk about art in the most relaxed and personal way.

As we returned to the dorms in the back of our now-favorite professor’s pickup truck, I remember looking up at the night sky and the trees whizzing by and thinking, “This is what college is supposed to feel like!” Relax and enjoy the ride.

— EVAN LaLONDE, student in the M.F.A. program in contemporary art practice at Portland State University

• • •

During the first few months of college, everyone wants to make friends. But no one knows how to do it, so everyone is really friendly all the time. You are likely to find yourself feigning interest in and enthusiasm for a lot of things to ingratiate yourself with your peers. “You’re a semiprofessional mime? So cool. Where are you going out tonight?”

Eventually, mercifully, it all shakes out. Parties, activities, dorms and classes help you find people you actually like to talk to. That is, unless you’re in your room every night, on the phone with your high school sweetheart, who’s back home or at another school. Or worse, you’re leaving school every other weekend to visit your significant other. Break up.

You should break up soon because you are likely to break up over Thanksgiving, anyway. You’ll give it an earnest try, but you’ll start to resent each other for forming new attachments, for not really “getting” what it’s like at your respective schools, for being the reason you’re both missing out on important experiences, like the hectic social sorting that’s happening right now. Worse, other people will punish you for missing out: “Oh, yeah, the joke is kind of hard to explain. See, it started that weekend you were out of town.”

Going to the same college as your significant high school other will not necessarily solve the problem. This is what happened to me. My boyfriend didn’t like my new “scene”; I panicked because I felt that we were spending too much time — then too little time — together. We limped through the first two months of the first semester before we called it quits.

The college year went by, bringing a lot of new people and priorities into our separate lives. The following fall, we realized that all our growing pains had not diminished what was a very precious connection. We ended up getting back together and staying together through the rest of college. But we had to break up first.

— REBECCA ELLIOTT, Ph.D. student in the sociology department at the University of California, Berkeley



The photographs of Ernest C. Withers — of the Little Rock integration battle, of the Emmett Till murder trial, of the aftermath of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — are among the most powerful records of the civil rights movement. They have lived on in dozens of books and museum collections.

The work of Arthur Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot and Elia Kazan, from left to right, has been debated over time.

But would these images be seen differently if the captions noted that Mr. Withers was known in some circles not by his name but by an Orwellian cipher, ME 338-R — the code used by the F.B.I. to identify him in the reports he filed for many years as a paid informer?

The revelation that he spied on the very leaders who gave him unequaled access to the movement’s inner workings, published this month by The Commercial Appeal in Memphis after a two-year investigation, has shocked many friends and admirers of Withers. He died in 2007 after a long, distinguished career that also included taking important images of Negro League baseball and of the pioneers of the blues.

But beyond issues of personal betrayal, the news raised much more difficult and fundamental questions — ones central to photography and documentary work but to the history of art and popular culture as well — about artistic intent, about the assumptions and expectations of the viewing public and about the relationship between artists and their work.

There has been no shortage of reminders recently about the rockiness of this terrain. In July, word came that the painter Larry Rivers — no paragon of virtue, but generally seen as a kind of genial playboy of the New York School — had pressured his two adolescent daughters into appearing in films and videos in which the girls were naked or topless, interviewed by their father about their developing breasts.

This news cast a shadow over perceptions of his work, but should it, any more than Picasso’s deep misogyny or Caravaggio’s murderous temper has over theirs? Any more than T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism or Rimbaud’s probable connection to the African slave trade has over their poetry?

Or in an example with closer parallels to Withers, should we think “On the Waterfront” a lesser movie, or even see it in a different light, because it was directed and written by two men, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee?

On a comic, or maybe tragicomic, level the issue of deception and critical reception was also raised recently by “I’m Still Here,” the movie held out by its director, Casey Affleck, as a documentary of the unsightly celebrity disintegration of the actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is seen snorting drugs, abusing underlings and doing other things most people suspect all celebrities do.

Prompted in part by its disappointing debut at the box office, both Mr. Affleck and Mr. Phoenix confessed last week that it was all an act, an attempt to explore celebrity and media and the mutually abusive relationship the two have long had, with the public as their codependent child.

As a documentary — one in which uncertainty about its veracity or at least discomfort about its supposed honesty was meant to supply most of the energy and seemed to be, in fact, the motivating idea — the movie received generally horrible reviews.

Now that the switch has been flipped, and Mr. Phoenix’s crackup will be viewed as pure performance, the movie could become less interesting because it is less real. Or, perhaps, more interesting, because the destructive lengths both men went to in service of their critique has now been revealed.

The movie actually performed better in its second week of release, after the confession, than it did in its first. Part of that was undoubtedly due to the publicity, but maybe authorial intent, as scrambled as an egg in this case, doesn’t count for much after all, as it shouldn’t count in judging Withers’s work.

Mr. Affleck, appropriately, enlisted the words of Picasso in his defense: “Art is the lie that tells the truth.”

In one sense, there is no question in Withers’s photography that he was telling the truth and that the way he told it helped propel the movement he was documenting. As a lifelong Tennessean whose great-great-grandfather had been lynched and who was beaten by the police while covering the funeral of Medgar Evers, he had experienced the oppression of the South as fully as many of its black residents. And his best-known pictures — one of a crowd of black strikers in 1968 all bearing boldfaced signs proclaiming “I Am a Man” — were powerful indictments of that oppression.

But now there are lots of questions: how could he make such pictures while at the same time selling information he knew might hurt or at least hinder those fighting to end the oppression? Were there pictures he could have taken or published but didn’t because of it? Perhaps he kept the two lives somehow separate, a much more difficult idea to accept when thinking about the work of socially engaged artists.

“I think that we hope they’ll be the pure expression of that inner voice that most of us have that wants to better the world,” said Deborah Willis, chairwoman of the department of photography and imaging at New York University and an expert on the history of African-American photography. “But life is complex.”

Ms. Willis, who knew Withers for more than two decades and considered him a mentor, said that even if the many open questions about his involvement with the F.B.I. are answered to his detriment, “the photographs, I believe, will prevail; it doesn’t change the images.”

Brett Abbott, the curator of an exhibition now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, “Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties,” said the revelations might prompt some scholars to sift back through the entire body of Withers’s work to re-evaluate it in light of his work as an informer.

But he cautioned that even when dealing with art whose intentions appear to be relatively straightforward — as some documentary photography and film can, seeking to right a wrong, further a cause, stop a war — it is always “treading on dangerous ground” to try to locate the value of the work in the life of the artist or in his sense of morality.

“The ‘I Am a Man’ image is one of the enduring images of the civil rights movement,” he said. “And when you’re dealing with icons, it may not matter all that much what the biographical context of the person making that image was. Pictures like that take on a life of their own.”

Withers, whose work will soon be enshrined in a museum named after him on Beale Street in Memphis, is no longer around to speak for himself. But many other photographers and activists whose work helped define the civil rights movement are, and several have spoken up in his defense. Bruce Davidson, who documented the struggles in the South for four years, beginning with the Freedom Rides in 1961, said in an interview that even photographers who think they understand their motivations often end up having to separate them from their work.

“I once took a picture in 1962 of a very poor black girl in Shelby County, Tennessee, holding a big white doll,” said Mr. Davidson, who is white. “And I didn’t publish it for many years even though it was a powerful image and something I thought told the story. I didn’t put the doll there. I didn’t even say to the little girl, ‘Can you hold it a little higher?’ It was a true moment, but I didn’t know if people would believe it because it almost seemed too good to be true. And then a lot of years passed until it almost seemed like something someone else had taken. And that’s when I finally put it out, because then the time was right.”



Everyone accepts that “the rule of law” is the foundation of liberties in the Western world. But when did this hallowed tradition begin? Obviously there’s no exact moment, but one could reasonably point to the day in 1215 when, in a small borough outside London called Runnymede, King John was forced by his barons to sign Magna Carta. That document protected the rights of feudal lords, but in doing so it outlined — for the first time in history — legal procedures that even the king had to follow. These limitations are set out in Article 39 of the document, which states that “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”


An insider’s account of the war on terror.

By John Yoo.

292 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $24.


Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism.

By Bruce Ackerman.

227 pp. Yale University Press. $26.

This writ — or written order — has developed over the years as the principal check on arbitrary state power, the original human right, allowing a person who has been arrested to challenge the legality of that detention. It is called the “great writ,” habeas corpus, or “produce the body so that it may be examined.” Habeas corpus was codified by the British Parliament in 1640 and 1679 and is one of a handful of common laws explicitly referred to and protected in the American Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, the most zealous exponent of executive power among the founding fathers, noted that habeas corpus provided “perhaps greater securities to liberty and republicanism” than any clause of the Constitution.

But as of Oct. 17 of this year, this great writ has been substantially weakened in the United States by the assent of both the presidency and Congress. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 eliminates habeas corpus for anyone defined as an “unlawful enemy combatant,” as well as all aliens, including permanent residents — green-card holders — of the United States. There remains a form of judicial review for “unlawful enemy combatants,” but it is one that the administration seems allowed to bypass (though the exact legal status of unlawful combatants remains unclear). In effect, federal courts appear to have been stripped of their historic role in assessing the legality of detentions if the executive branch claims that these arrests are part of the war on terror.

How did we come to this point? Do the dangers of terrorists and terrorism require so broad a shift in the balance of powers and such an outright challenge to the liberty of the Republic? What is the justification behind these moves? John Yoo has tried to answer these questions in “War by Other Means: An Insider’s Account of the War on Terror.” He is well placed to do so. He was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department from 2001 to 2003 and became one of the principal authors of the Bush administration’s policies regarding arrests, detentions, interrogations and the treatment of prisoners. Since 2003, as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School, Yoo has vigorously defended the Bush administration’s legal actions and approaches.

At the heart of Yoo’s argument is the notion that we are at war. “If, during the cold war,” he writes, “the Soviet Union had sent K.G.B. agents to drive airplanes through American skyscrapers, the United States would have retaliated, our nation would have gone on a war footing. ... Why should status as an international terrorist organization rather than a nation-state make a difference as to whether we are at war?”

Everything in Yoo’s analysis follows from this fundamental premise. Detaining operatives of Al Qaeda presents no constitutional problem because they are, in effect, prisoners of war. “Hundreds of thousands of enemy prisoners of war were captured in Vietnam, Korea and World Wars I or II, and their imprisonment was never reviewed by an American court.” Think of all the objections people have made to the Bush administration’s policies and ask yourself, “If we were in the middle of World War II and these were German soldiers, would it be permissible?” Yoo acknowledges, for example, that the administration chose Guantánamo as the prison camp for suspected Qaeda warriors precisely because it did not want federal courts to have any jurisdiction over the place. For Yoo, since we are at war, we need an aggressive interpretation of executive power — inherent in the president’s role as commander in chief — and one that bypasses Congress, the courts and peacetime protections like checks and balances.

But are we really at war? And if so, who are we at war against? Is it just Al Qaeda or more than that one organization? Is it, as the president has often said, a war on terror itself? Many experts have pointed out that you cannot declare war on a tactic (terrorism). As the international policy analyst Grenville Byford noted in Foreign Affairs, wars are more fruitfully declared against proper nouns (Germany, Japan) than common nouns (terror, poverty). If this is a war, moreover, when will it end? How will we know it has ended and whether we have won or lost? These questions do not have easy answers, as Yoo’s own analysis demonstrates. While arguing throughout the book that we are at war, he also insists that we should not apply the most well established rules of war, the Geneva Conventions, to Qaeda prisoners because, well, we are not at war. The conventions are meant to apply to uniformed soldiers captured in war, and that does not describe prisoners in the current conflict.

The practical problems in applying the war model reveal the complexity of our circumstances. During World War II, there was rarely any doubt whether captured German soldiers were in fact fighting for the enemy. But with many of those captured as part of the war on terror, it remains extremely unclear whether they are, in fact, enemies of the United States. Is it necessary to torture some of them in ways that peacetime laws might prohibit? Yoo tends to answer these questions with assertions like “Both Porter Goss, the past director of the C.I.A., and Vice President Cheney, who know far more than they can reveal publicly, have said that such operations are vital to protect the United States from attack.” Well, that settles it then.

Against this “trust us” doctrine we have Ron Suskind’s richly reported details in his recent book, “The One Percent Doctrine,” which reveal how many people have been wrongly arrested, how often torture produced bad information and how few real benefits have been derived from these aggressive interpretations of law and foreign policy. Yoo explains that torturing Abu Zubaydah — Al Qaeda’s No. 3 leader — was vital to uncovering new plots against America. The president described Zubaydah’s harsh interrogation as crucial to the war on terror. But Suskind actually talked to those who did the roughhousing, and they told him that Zubaydah was in fact unimportant, a man in charge of minor logistics for Al Qaeda like travel for wives and children. What’s more, he was mentally unstable. “The guy is insane, certifiable, split personality,” the F.B.I.’s top Qaeda analyst told Suskind. He provided no information of value whatsoever.

Another complication is that traditionally P.O.W.’s have been held without trial because they were usually released when hostilities ended. But does this model apply in a war of indefinite duration? As the administration has found, as a practical matter, it cannot detain hundreds of people in a legal black hole with no end in sight. Yoo argues that “indefinite” does not mean “forever” and that if prisoners can be returned to their home countries without fear that they will start up terrorist activities again, then they should be released. But, as with much of Yoo’s analysis, everything is left to the discretion of the commander in chief. We are at war, after all.

But it is abundantly clear that the “war on terror” is not a war in the traditional sense and that we do not have an enemy in the traditional sense. In “Before the Next Attack,” Bruce Ackerman, a Yale law professor, points out that the problem of terrorism is not one of a single overarching state that has attacked us and threatens our existence. In fact a key feature of the modern world is that the state has lost control over violence. “The root of our problem is not Islam or any ideology, but a fundamental change in the relationship between the state, the market and technologies of destruction,” Ackerman writes. “If the Middle East were magically transformed into a vast oasis of peace and democracy, fringe groups from other places would rise to fill the gap.” Ackerman’s argument could be put differently. We are facing a situation that is actually more revolutionary than the one portrayed by the Bush administration. It’s not that we’re at war. It’s that the nature of peace has been fundamentally altered. From now on, we will have to worry about small groups, without countries or uniforms, who can cause us serious harm.

Ackerman accepts that the law-enforcement model is not appropriate for the challenge of terrorism, since our aim is not to investigate the next terror attack but to prevent it, in fact to pre-empt it. But that is still a different problem from the threat of a full-scale invasion by a great power. Most important, what we now face is likely to be a permanent condition, and this means we need new rules. Ackerman proposes an emergency constitution that would take effect after a major terrorist attack and would include some of the restrictions of the Bush administration’s approach. But it would also expire periodically and could be renewed only by ever-increasing Congressional majorities. Additionally, courts would be able to review any revisions. Ackerman’s solution may or may not be practical, but at least he confronts the problem intelligently, and he is surely correct to say that it’s not a good idea to respond to particular crises with ad hoc changes to our laws. If we don’t think through the basic structure of rules, rights and protections we want, every new attack will produce creeping but permanent limits on freedom.

There is one aspect of our new condition that neither Yoo nor Ackerman addresses in much depth — the broader political context. The United States is fighting a strange war indeed, one that is, in some fundamental ways, an extended campaign of public diplomacy against ideologies of extremism and violence. This campaign is not simply a matter of battling on the air waves with Al Jazeera across the Arab world. It is a matter of reaching into communities. The best sources of intelligence on jihadi cells have tended to come from within localities and neighborhoods. This information has probably been more useful than any we have obtained from waterboarding or sleep deprivation.

Yoo frequently cites a famous case of Nazi agents — Germans and German-Americans — who landed secretly on Long Island in 1942, planning to destroy key elements of America’s industrial strength: power plants, factories and bridges. They were arrested by the F.B.I. and tried by a military tribunal. The case reached the Supreme Court, which upheld the Roosevelt administration’s actions. Many of the justices did so uneasily, but they felt they could not really overturn the administration’s decision in the midst of World War II. The more notable aspect of this story, however, is that these men were arrested not because of any emergency powers of the executive branch. One of them, who had lived for some years in the United States, turned out to have stronger feelings of affection for America than for Germany. Soon after the agents landed, he contacted the F.B.I., which dismissed his tale at first, but he persisted and, finally, the men were arrested.

In its campaign against terror groups, the United States must summon all the strength and skills it can muster. But perhaps our most potent weapons are the sense people around the world have had that the United States is an exemplar of rights and liberties and that it lives by those principles even under storm and stress. When we suspend the writ of habeas corpus, we cast aside these distinctive weapons and trade them for the traditional tools of dictatorships — arbitrary arrests, indefinite imprisonments and aggressive interrogations. Will this trade really help us prevail?



By Matt Richtel

Nov 21, 2010 New York Times

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — On the eve of a pivotal academic year in Vishal Singh’s life, he faces a stark choice on his bedroom desk: book or computer?

By all rights, Vishal, a bright 17-year-old, should already have finished the book, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” his summer reading assignment. But he has managed 43 pages in two months.

He typically favors Facebook, YouTube and making digital videos. That is the case this August afternoon. Bypassing Vonnegut, he clicks over to YouTube, meaning that tomorrow he will enter his senior year of high school hoping to see an improvement in his grades, but without having completed his only summer homework.

On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

But even as some parents and educators express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory.

It is a tension on vivid display at Vishal’s school, Woodside High School, on a sprawling campus set against the forested hills of Silicon Valley. Here, as elsewhere, it is not uncommon for students to send hundreds of text messages a day or spend hours playing video games, and virtually everyone is on Facebook.

The principal, David Reilly, 37, a former musician who says he sympathizes when young people feel disenfranchised, is determined to engage these 21st-century students. He has asked teachers to build Web sites to communicate with students, introduced popular classes on using digital tools to record music, secured funding for iPads to teach Mandarin and obtained $3 million in grants for a multimedia center.

He pushed first period back an hour, to 9 a.m., because students were showing up bleary-eyed, at least in part because they were up late on their computers. Unchecked use of digital devices, he says, can create a culture in which students are addicted to the virtual world and lost in it.

“I am trying to take back their attention from their BlackBerrys and video games,” he says. “To a degree, I’m using technology to do it.”

The same tension surfaces in Vishal, whose ability to be distracted by computers is rivaled by his proficiency with them. At the beginning of his junior year, he discovered a passion for filmmaking and made a name for himself among friends and teachers with his storytelling in videos made with digital cameras and editing software.

He acts as his family’s tech-support expert, helping his father, Satendra, a lab manager, retrieve lost documents on the computer, and his mother, Indra, a security manager at the San Francisco airport, build her own Web site.

But he also plays video games 10 hours a week. He regularly sends Facebook status updates at 2 a.m., even on school nights, and has such a reputation for distributing links to videos that his best friend calls him a “YouTube bully.”

Several teachers call Vishal one of their brightest students, and they wonder why things are not adding up. Last semester, his grade point average was 2.3 after a D-plus in English and an F in Algebra II. He got an A in film critique.

“He’s a kid caught between two worlds,” said Mr. Reilly — one that is virtual and one with real-life demands.

Vishal, like his mother, says he lacks the self-control to favor schoolwork over the computer. She sat him down a few weeks before school started and told him that, while she respected his passion for film and his technical skills, he had to use them productively.

“This is the year,” she says she told him. “This is your senior year and you can’t afford not to focus.”

It was not always this way. As a child, Vishal had a tendency to procrastinate, but nothing like this. Something changed him.

Growing Up With Gadgets

When he was 3, Vishal moved with his parents and older brother to their current home, a three-bedroom house in the working-class section of Redwood City, a suburb in Silicon Valley that is more diverse than some of its elite neighbors.

Thin and quiet with a shy smile, Vishal passed the admissions test for a prestigious public elementary and middle school. Until sixth grade, he focused on homework, regularly going to the house of a good friend to study with him.

But Vishal and his family say two things changed around the seventh grade: his mother went back to work, and he got a computer. He became increasingly engrossed in games and surfing the Internet, finding an easy outlet for what he describes as an inclination to procrastinate.

“I realized there were choices,” Vishal recalls. “Homework wasn’t the only option.”

Several recent studies show that young people tend to use home computers for entertainment, not learning, and that this can hurt school performance, particularly in low-income families. Jacob L. Vigdor, an economics professor at Duke University who led some of the research, said that when adults were not supervising computer use, children “are left to their own devices, and the impetus isn’t to do homework but play around.”

Research also shows that students often juggle homework and entertainment. The Kaiser Family Foundation found earlier this year that half of students from 8 to 18 are using the Internet, watching TV or using some other form of media either “most” (31 percent) or “some” (25 percent) of the time that they are doing homework.

At Woodside, as elsewhere, students’ use of technology is not uniform. Mr. Reilly, the principal, says their choices tend to reflect their personalities. Social butterflies tend to be heavy texters and Facebook users. Students who are less social might escape into games, while drifters or those prone to procrastination, like Vishal, might surf the Web or watch videos.

The technology has created on campuses a new set of social types — not the thespian and the jock but the texter and gamer, Facebook addict and YouTube potato.

“The technology amplifies whoever you are,” Mr. Reilly says.

For some, the amplification is intense. Allison Miller, 14, sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying.

Most of the exchanges are little more than quick greetings, but they can get more in-depth, like “if someone tells you about a drama going on with someone,” Allison said. “I can text one person while talking on the phone to someone else.”

But this proficiency comes at a cost: she blames multitasking for the three B’s on her recent progress report.

“I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.’ ”

Some shyer students do not socialize through technology — they recede into it. Ramon Ochoa-Lopez, 14, an introvert, plays six hours of video games on weekdays and more on weekends, leaving homework to be done in the bathroom before school.

Escaping into games can also salve teenagers’ age-old desire for some control in their chaotic lives. “It’s a way for me to separate myself,” Ramon says. “If there’s an argument between my mom and one of my brothers, I’ll just go to my room and start playing video games and escape.”

With powerful new cellphones, the interactive experience can go everywhere. Between classes at Woodside or at lunch, when use of personal devices is permitted, students gather in clusters, sometimes chatting face to face, sometimes half-involved in a conversation while texting someone across the teeming quad. Others sit alone, watching a video, listening to music or updating Facebook.

Students say that their parents, worried about the distractions, try to police computer time, but that monitoring the use of cellphones is difficult. Parents may also want to be able to call their children at any time, so taking the phone away is not always an option.

Other parents wholly embrace computer use, even when it has no obvious educational benefit.

“If you’re not on top of technology, you’re not going to be on top of the world,” said John McMullen, 56, a retired criminal investigator whose son, Sean, is one of five friends in the group Vishal joins for lunch each day.

Sean’s favorite medium is video games; he plays for four hours after school and twice that on weekends. He was playing more but found his habit pulling his grade point average below 3.2, the point at which he felt comfortable. He says he sometimes wishes that his parents would force him to quit playing and study, because he finds it hard to quit when given the choice. Still, he says, video games are not responsible for his lack of focus, asserting that in another era he would have been distracted by TV or something else.

“Video games don’t make the hole; they fill it,” says Sean, sitting at a picnic table in the quad, where he is surrounded by a multimillion-dollar view: on the nearby hills are the evergreens that tower above the affluent neighborhoods populated by Internet tycoons. Sean, a senior, concedes that video games take a physical toll: “I haven’t done exercise since my sophomore year. But that doesn’t seem like a big deal. I still look the same.”

Sam Crocker, Vishal’s closest friend, who has straight A’s but lower SAT scores than he would like, blames the Internet’s distractions for his inability to finish either of his two summer reading books.

“I know I can read a book, but then I’m up and checking Facebook,” he says, adding: “Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.”

He concludes: “My attention span is getting worse.”

The Lure of Distraction

Some neuroscientists have been studying people like Sam and Vishal. They have begun to understand what happens to the brains of young people who are constantly online and in touch.

In an experiment at the German Sport University in Cologne in 2007, boys from 12 to 14 spent an hour each night playing video games after they finished homework.

On alternate nights, the boys spent an hour watching an exciting movie, like “Harry Potter” or “Star Trek,” rather than playing video games. That allowed the researchers to compare the effect of video games and TV.

The researchers looked at how the use of these media affected the boys’ brainwave patterns while sleeping and their ability to remember their homework in the subsequent days. They found that playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality than watching TV, and also led to a “significant decline” in the boys’ ability to remember vocabulary words. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

Markus Dworak, a researcher who led the study and is now a neuroscientist at Harvard, said it was not clear whether the boys’ learning suffered because sleep was disrupted or, as he speculates, also because the intensity of the game experience overrode the brain’s recording of the vocabulary.

“When you look at vocabulary and look at huge stimulus after that, your brain has to decide which information to store,” he said. “Your brain might favor the emotionally stimulating information over the vocabulary.”

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory.

In that vein, recent imaging studies of people have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self.

Researchers say these studies have particular implications for young people, whose brains have more trouble focusing and setting priorities.

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

“The headline is: bring back boredom,” added Dr. Rich, who last month gave a speech to the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled, “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Screens.”

Dr. Rich said in an interview that he was not suggesting young people should toss out their devices, but rather that they embrace a more balanced approach to what he said were powerful tools necessary to compete and succeed in modern life.

The heavy use of devices also worries Daniel Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is known for research showing that children are not as harmed by TV viewing as some researchers have suggested.

Multitasking using ubiquitous, interactive and highly stimulating computers and phones, Professor Anderson says, appears to have a more powerful effect than TV.

Like Dr. Rich, he says he believes that young, developing brains are becoming habituated to distraction and to switching tasks, not to focus.

“If you’ve grown up processing multiple media, that’s exactly the mode you’re going to fall into when put in that environment — you develop a need for that stimulation,” he said.

Vishal can attest to that.

“I’m doing Facebook, YouTube, having a conversation or two with a friend, listening to music at the same time. I’m doing a million things at once, like a lot of people my age,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll say: I need to stop this and do my schoolwork, but I can’t.”

“If it weren’t for the Internet, I’d focus more on school and be doing better academically,” he says. But thanks to the Internet, he says, he has discovered and pursued his passion: filmmaking. Without the Internet, “I also wouldn’t know what I want to do with my life.”

Clicking Toward a Future

The woman sits in a cemetery at dusk, sobbing. Behind her, silhouetted and translucent, a man kneels, then fades away, a ghost.

This captivating image appears on Vishal’s computer screen. On this Thursday afternoon in late September, he is engrossed in scenes he shot the previous weekend for a music video he is making with his cousin.

The video is based on a song performed by the band Guns N’ Roses about a woman whose boyfriend dies. He wants it to be part of the package of work he submits to colleges that emphasize film study, along with a documentary he is making about home-schooled students.

Now comes the editing. Vishal taught himself to use sophisticated editing software in part by watching tutorials on YouTube. He does not leave his chair for more than two hours, sipping Pepsi, his face often inches from the screen, as he perfects the clip from the cemetery. The image of the crying woman was shot separately from the image of the kneeling man, and he is trying to fuse them.

“I’m spending two hours to get a few seconds just right,” he says.

He occasionally sends a text message or checks Facebook, but he is focused in a way he rarely is when doing homework. He says the chief difference is that filmmaking feels applicable to his chosen future, and he hopes colleges, like the University of Southern California or the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, will be so impressed by his portfolio that they will overlook his school performance.

“This is going to compensate for the grades,” he says. On this day, his homework includes a worksheet for Latin, some reading for English class and an economics essay, but they can wait.

For Vishal, there’s another clear difference between filmmaking and homework: interactivity. As he edits, the windows on the screen come alive; every few seconds, he clicks the mouse to make tiny changes to the lighting and flow of the images, and the software gives him constant feedback.

“I click and something happens,” he says, explaining that, by comparison, reading a book or doing homework is less exciting. “I guess it goes back to the immediate gratification thing.”

The $2,000 computer Vishal is using is state of the art and only a week old. It represents a concession by his parents. They allowed him to buy it, despite their continuing concerns about his technology habits, because they wanted to support his filmmaking dream. “If we put roadblocks in his way, he’s just going to get depressed,” his mother says. Besides, she adds, “he’s been making an effort to do his homework.”

At this point in the semester, it seems she is right. The first schoolwide progress reports come out in late September, and Vishal has mostly A’s and B’s. He says he has been able to make headway by applying himself, but also by cutting back his workload. Unlike last year, he is not taking advanced placement classes, and he has chosen to retake Algebra II not in the classroom but in an online class that lets him work at his own pace.

His shift to easier classes might not please college admissions officers, according to Woodside’s college adviser, Zorina Matavulj. She says they want seniors to intensify their efforts. As it is, she says, even if Vishal improves his performance significantly, someone with his grades faces long odds in applying to the kinds of colleges he aspires to.

Still, Vishal’s passion for film reinforces for Mr. Reilly, the principal, that the way to reach these students is on their own terms.

Hands-On Technology

Big Macintosh monitors sit on every desk, and a man with hip glasses and an easygoing style stands at the front of the class. He is Geoff Diesel, 40, a favorite teacher here at Woodside who has taught English and film. Now he teaches one of Mr. Reilly’s new classes, audio production. He has a rapt audience of more than 20 students as he shows a video of the band Nirvana mixing their music, then holds up a music keyboard.

“Who knows how to use Pro Tools? We’ve got it. It’s the program used by the best music studios in the world,” he says.

In the back of the room, Mr. Reilly watches, thrilled. He introduced the audio course last year and enough students signed up to fill four classes. (He could barely pull together one class when he introduced Mandarin, even though he had secured iPads to help teach the language.)

“Some of these students are our most at-risk kids,” he says. He means that they are more likely to tune out school, skip class or not do their homework, and that they may not get healthful meals at home. They may also do their most enthusiastic writing not for class but in text messages and on Facebook. “They’re here, they’re in class, they’re listening.”

Despite Woodside High’s affluent setting, about 40 percent of its 1,800 students come from low-income families and receive a reduced-cost or free lunch. The school is 56 percent Latino, 38 percent white and 5 percent African-American, and it sends 93 percent of its students to four-year or community colleges.

Mr. Reilly says that the audio class provides solid vocational training and can get students interested in other subjects.

“Today mixing music, tomorrow sound waves and physics,” he says. And he thinks the key is that they love not just the music but getting their hands on the technology. “We’re meeting them on their turf.”

It does not mean he sees technology as a panacea. “I’ll always take one great teacher in a cave over a dozen Smart Boards,” he says, referring to the high-tech teaching displays used in many schools.

Teachers at Woodside commonly blame technology for students’ struggles to concentrate, but they are divided over whether embracing computers is the right solution.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Alan Eaton, a charismatic Latin teacher. He says that technology has led to a “balkanization of their focus and duration of stamina,” and that schools make the problem worse when they adopt the technology.

“When rock ’n’ roll came about, we didn’t start using it in classrooms like we’re doing with technology,” he says. He personally feels the sting, since his advanced classes have one-third as many students as they had a decade ago.

Vishal remains a Latin student, one whom Mr. Eaton describes as particularly bright. But the teacher wonders if technology might be the reason Vishal seems to lose interest in academics the minute he leaves class.

Mr. Diesel, by contrast, does not think technology is behind the problems of Vishal and his schoolmates — in fact, he thinks it is the key to connecting with them, and an essential tool. “It’s in their DNA to look at screens,” he asserts. And he offers another analogy to explain his approach: “Frankenstein is in the room and I don’t want him to tear me apart. If I’m not using technology, I lose them completely.”

Mr. Diesel had Vishal as a student in cinema class and describes him as a “breath of fresh air” with a gift for filmmaking. Mr. Diesel says he wonders if Vishal is a bit like Woody Allen, talented but not interested in being part of the system.

But Mr. Diesel adds: “If Vishal’s going to be an independent filmmaker, he’s got to read Vonnegut. If you’re going to write scripts, you’ve got to read.”

Back to Reading Aloud

Vishal sits near the back of English IV. Marcia Blondel, a veteran teacher, asks the students to open the book they are studying, “The Things They Carried,” which is about the Vietnam War.

“Who wants to read starting in the middle of Page 137?” she asks. One student begins to read aloud, and the rest follow along.

To Ms. Blondel, the exercise in group reading represents a regression in American education and an indictment of technology. The reason she has to do it, she says, is that students now lack the attention span to read the assignments on their own.

“How can you have a discussion in class?” she complains, arguing that she has seen a considerable change in recent years. In some classes she can count on little more than one-third of the students to read a 30-page homework assignment.

She adds: “You can’t become a good writer by watching YouTube, texting and e-mailing a bunch of abbreviations.”

As the group-reading effort winds down, she says gently: “I hope this will motivate you to read on your own.”

It is a reminder of the choices that have followed the students through the semester: computer or homework? Immediate gratification or investing in the future?

Mr. Reilly hopes that the two can meet — that computers can be combined with education to better engage students and can give them technical skills without compromising deep analytical thought.

But in Vishal’s case, computers and schoolwork seem more and more to be mutually exclusive. Ms. Blondel says that Vishal, after a decent start to the school year, has fallen into bad habits. In October, he turned in weeks late, for example, a short essay based on the first few chapters of “The Things They Carried.” His grade at that point, she says, tracks around a D.

For his part, Vishal says he is investing himself more in his filmmaking, accelerating work with his cousin on their music video project. But he is also using Facebook late at night and surfing for videos on YouTube. The evidence of the shift comes in a string of Facebook updates.

Saturday, 11:55 p.m.: “Editing, editing, editing”

Sunday, 3:55 p.m.: “8+ hours of shooting, 8+ hours of editing. All for just a three-minute scene. Mind = Dead.”

Sunday, 11:00 p.m.: “Fun day, finally got to spend a day relaxing... now about that homework...”



America's primary and secondary schools have many problems, but an excess of excellence is not one of them. Not only do our weak students fare poorly in international comparisons, so do our strong ones. Mediocrity is the national norm.

The very best students are the ones most likely to do things of great benefit to the rest of us — cure malaria, devise revolutionary inventions, start the next Apple or plumb the secrets of the universe. But we don't always put much importance on helping them realize their full potential.

A case in point is Evanston Township High School, which recently decided to eliminate a high honors freshman humanities course aimed at challenging the top students. Henceforth, these youngsters will be grouped with everyone else in a regular "honors" class in humanities. Next year, the same may be done with biology. Your kid is an honor student at ETHS? Heck, everyone is an honors student at ETHS.

It's hardly the only school in America where grouping students according to their ability is in disrepute. There is a widespread impulse to treat all kids as equally able and willing to learn. But the results often fall dismally short of the hopes.

When the Chicago public schools scrapped remedial classes for ninth-graders and put everyone in college-prep courses, "failure rates increased, grades declined slightly, test scores did not improve and students were no more likely to enter college," according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Among average and above-average students, absenteeism rose.

The danger in putting the brightest kids in general classes is that they will be bored by instruction geared to the middle. But their troubles don't elicit much sympathy. Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless told The Atlantic magazine, "The United States does not do a good job of educating kids at the top. There's a long-standing attitude that, 'Well, smart kids can make it on their own.'"

But can they? Only 6 percent of American kids achieve advanced proficiency in math — lower than in 30 other countries. In Taiwan, the figure is 28 percent.

School administrators in Evanston insist the change is aimed at making the curriculum more demanding, even as they make it less demanding for some students. Thanks to the abolition of this elite course, we are told, "high-achieving students" will profit from "experiencing multiple perspectives and diversity in their classes to gain cultural capital."

In other words, racial balance will take priority over academic rigor. Blacks and Hispanics make up nearly half of all students but only 19 percent of those in advanced placement courses and 29 percent of those in honors courses.

This is because minority students at Evanston generally score lower on achievement tests. Putting all students together is supposed to give everyone an equal opportunity.

But if you have a fever, you don't bring it down by breaking the thermometer. The low numbers of black and Hispanic students are a symptom of a deeper problem, namely the failure of elementary and middle schools to prepare them for the most challenging course work. Evanston has had a big racial gap in academic performance for decades, and there is nothing to gain from pretending it doesn't exist.

Schools that group (or "track") kids by ability generally get better overall results. Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, notes in a recent report, "Middle schools with more tracks have significantly more math pupils performing at the advanced and proficient levels and fewer students at the needs improvement and failing levels."

Why would that be? Teaching is not easy, and teaching kids with a wide range of aptitude and interest is even harder. Grouping students by ability allows the tailoring of lessons to match the needs of each group. Putting them all together is bound to fail one group or another.

Shortchanging gifted teens creates the risk of another unwanted effect: inducing their parents to leave. Families in Evanston can always move to neighboring suburbs with good schools, or they can opt for several fine private and parochial alternatives. Average students don't gain from being in the same classes as exceptional ones if the exceptional ones are not there.

We as a society have not been very successful at turning average students into high achievers. Maybe we'll have better luck doing the opposite.

Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at



By Ron Grossman

Sitting in a Paris cafe and reading the obituary of a complete stranger, I felt guilty for not going to the funeral.

I told myself I had an excused absence. This was a few weeks ago, when a tsunami of strikes was washing across France. The services were to be held in a provincial city, and railroad workers were shutting down trains on a random basis. Even if you managed to get someplace, there was no guarantee you'd make it back again.

Yet the thought was little comfort, considering how Henri Mathey managed to get to where he felt he needed to be, 70 years ago. The death announcement in Le Monde, the leading
French newspaper, noted that Mathey had been named to France's Legion of Honor — for serving as a fighter pilot with the British air force in World War II.

The moral of his story is a good one to think about on
Election Day, when Americans get to exercise a right he put his life on the line for: the privilege of choosing those who govern us. We may take it for granted, but most people throughout history have never known it. Through the centuries, kings and dictators didn't ask the advice of ordinary folks, they told them what to do.

And in 1940, it seemed like democracy's day had come and gone. Many European countries lay at Hitler's feet, having either been crushed by his armies or made their peace with the
Nazis. France had been overwhelmed by the Germans in the spring of that year, a defeat many French passively accepted. Some even welcomed it, establishing a puppet regime based on the Nazis' belief that an iron-fisted order was superior to a republic.

Mathey didn't buy that. Along with a handful of other French pilots he made his way to England, which Hitler planned to invade. The British were virtually alone. The U.S. was still neutral, and its ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, father of a future president, was telling
Washington that England didn't have a chance.

But Hitler's invasion plans were scrapped in the fall of 1940 when
Germany's generals concluded that the British air force couldn't be defeated, denying them the necessary air cover to launch an attack across the English Channel.

The story of the air war over England, the Battle of
Britain as it was dubbed, is well-known. It's been celebrated in movie images of Britain's saviors taking off from grass runways to do daily battle with Nazi bombers and fighters. Prime Minister Winston Churchill paid eloquent tribute to those pilots: "Never was so much owed by so many to so few."

Less well-known is the fact that not all those in the ranks of the "few" were British. More than 500 foreign pilots flew with the Royal Air Force in the critical months from June through October 1940. Many were from Commonwealth nations, drawn by patriotic ties to the motherland. But others came from nations under Nazi occupation. A dozen other French pilots joined Mathey. There were contingents of Polish,
Czech and Belgian airmen. Even a few Americans. They were all desperately needed, trained pilots being as valuable as aircraft to England when she stood alone.

They could have said: "Look, my country is out of it. Let someone else fight the war." But they didn't, and it was especially poignant to recall their decision, 70 Octobers afterward, as the French put on a display of democracy, warts and all.

Millions were demonstrating in the streets of Paris and other cities, protesting a change in the retirement laws. Fuel was scarce, garbage went uncollected. Yet France being France, the simple delights of everyday life continued.

On Sundays, the market neighborhood where we were staying hosted a singalong. An accordionist played songs of yesteryear like "Parlez-moi d'amour." Old and young, dressed to the nines, whirled their partners in a scene out of a
Gene Kelly movie.

There wasn't much dancing and no protests in Paris 70 years ago. Photos of the day show faces contorted with fear and sadness as victorious Nazi troops parade by.

Who knows if joy and the freedom to dissent would have returned, except for the decision made by Henri Mathey and others not to sit out the rest of World War II.

It's tempting to think that one person can't have much effect. It's also tempting to focus on democracy's messiness and the tendency of government to do and say foolish things. When strikes shut down France's refineries, a Cabinet minister suggested that airplanes take off with less than full tanks and buy more fuel somewhere en route. Tourists sighed with relief when he added that this procedure might not be workable for trans-Atlantic flights.

Yet recall that, for all its flaws, a representative form of government was something for which Mathey and his mates were eager to fight. When you step out of the house today, look skyward. Not so much with your eyes but your imagination. They are overhead — the Poles, the Czechs, the Belgians, the British, the Americans — providing air cover for democracy. They made their decision. How about you?




Just a few years ago, all anyone could talk about was how to make the Internet more free. Now all anyone can talk about is how to control it.

Book and newspaper publishers look for ways to protect their original content. Parents seek to shield their children from cyberbullying. Legislators explore mechanisms that will defend people’s privacy. Governments try to find the means to keep classified materials from leaking onto the Web. Entrepreneurs and public figures struggle to keep rivals or enemies from slandering them or their businesses. And more and more of us are terrified of being watched, filmed and uploaded, about as terrified as other people are titillated by watching, filming and uploading.

The miraculously convenient technology of the Internet has created an unprecedented simultaneity of moral functions. Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is like an incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of creation and destruction. It turns out that what was recently considered a brave new age of information was actually the first spasm in a long process of cultural realignment. We are all used to thinking of Google as though it were synonymous with the word “future.” In 50 years, people will be talking about Google the way we talk about the East India Company. We are still wobbling in the baby steps of the Internet age.

As Evgeny Morozov demonstrates in “The Net Delusion,” his brilliant and courageous book, the Internet’s contradictions and confusions are just becoming visible through the fading mist of Internet euphoria. Morozov is interested in the Internet’s political ramifications. “What if the liberating potential of the Internet also contains the seeds of depoliticization and thus dedemocratization?” he asks. The Net delusion of his title is just that. Contrary to the “cyberutopians,” as he calls them, who consider the Internet a powerful tool of political emancipation, Morozov convincingly argues that, in freedom’s name, the Internet more often than not constricts or even abolishes freedom.

Morozov recounts a speech given by Hillary Clinton a year ago in which she proclaimed the power and the glory of the Internet, speaking of “harnessing the power of connection technologies” to “put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights.” Clinton was perhaps not aware that, as Morozov wryly puts it, “the most popular Internet searches on Russian search engines are not for ‘what is democracy?’ or ‘how to protect human rights’ but for ‘what is love?’ and ‘how to lose weight.’ ” And she had perhaps forgotten the speech she herself made in 2005. On that occasion, she characterized the Internet as “the biggest technological challenge facing parents and children today,” calling it “an instrument of enormous danger.”

Clinton’s strange double perspective, in which the Internet is liberating in undemocratic societies yet fraught with potential harm here, is the kind of contradiction Morozov is out to expose. He labels it “digital Orientalism,” the belief that in repressive societies, the Internet can be a force only for benevolent political change.

He quotes the political blogger Andrew Sullivan, who proclaimed after protesters took to the streets in Tehran that “the revolution will be Twittered.” The revolution never happened, and the futilely tweeting protesters were broken with an iron hand. But Sullivan was hardly the only one to ignore the Iranian context. Clay Shirky, the media’s favorite quotable expert on all things Internet-related, effused: “This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.”

Two decades of inane patter about the magical powers of a technology of mere convenience had transformed Twitter — once the domain of “a bunch of bored hipsters who had an irresistible urge to share their breakfast plans,” as Morozov mordantly writes — into an engine of political revolution. Or as Jon Stewart put it, mocking the belief in the Internet’s ability to transform intractable places like Iraq and Afghanistan: “Why did we have to send an army when we could have liberated them the same way we buy shoes?”

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The Iranian protests against what the protesters believed was a corrupt election were brutally crushed because, as Morozov unsentimentally says, “many Iranians found the elections to be fair.” The elements of a successful revolution — the complicity of the military, of a powerful political class, of an almost universally discontented population — simply weren’t there. But the Internet boosters, from journalists to officials in the State Department, succumbed, Morozov says, to “the pressure to forget the context and start with what the Internet allows.” These people think only in terms of the Internet and are “deaf to the social, cultural and political subtleties and indeterminacies” of a given situation.

What was broadcast on Twitter and elsewhere was repression of the revolution. The Iranian regime used the Web to identify photographs of protesters; to find out their personal information and whereabouts (through Facebook, naturally); to distribute propagandistic videos; and to text the population into counterrevolutionary paranoia.

Nor did it help when a young State Department official named Jared Cohen asked Twitter to postpone planned maintenance work on its site to avoid interrupting the flow of messages from the protesters. Word of Twitter’s immediate compliance got out, thus increasing Iran’s, China’s and other repressive regimes’ resolve to exploit the Internet to their political ends.

In Morozov’s eyes, this sort of backlash to Internet “freedom” is routine. Polygamy may be illegal in Turkey, but that doesn’t stop Turkish villagers from using the Internet to find multiple wives. Mexican crime gangs use social networking sites to gather information about their victims. Russian neofascists employ the Internet to fix the positions of minorities in order to organize pogroms. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela wrote to a young critic on Twitter, “Hello Mariana, the truth is I’m an anti-dictator.” LOL!

As Morozov points out, don’t expect corporations like Google to liberate anyone anytime soon. Google did business in China for four years before economic conditions and censorship demands — not human rights concerns — forced it out. And it is telling that both Twitter and Facebook have refused to join the Global Network Initiative, a pact that Morozov describes as “an industrywide pledge . . . to behave in accordance with the laws and standards covering the right to freedom of expression and privacy embedded in internationally recognized documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Morozov urges the cyberutopians to open their eyes to the fact that the ­asocial pursuit of profit is what drives social media. “Not surprisingly,” he writes, “the dangerous fascination with solving previously intractable social problems with the help of technology allows vested interests to disguise what essentially amounts to advertising for their commercial products in the language of freedom and liberation.” In 2007, when he was at the State Department, Jared Cohen wrote with tragic wrongheadedness that “the Internet is a place where Iranian youth can . . . say anything they want as they operate free from the grips of the police-state apparatus.” Thanks to the exciting new technology, many of those freely texting Iranian youths are in prison or dead. Cohen himself now works for Google as the director of “Google Ideas.”

For Morozov, technology is a vacuum waiting to be filled with the strongest temperament. And the Internet, he maintains, is “a much more capricious technology” than radio or television. Neither radio nor TV has “keyword-based filtering,” which allows regimes to use URLs and text to identify and suppress dangerous Web sites, or, like marketers, to collect information on the people who visit them — a tactic Morozov sardonically calls the “customization of censorship.”

Morozov, born in Belarus, writes about the optimism of the cyberutopians the way Soviet dissidents once wrote about the optimism of Communist utopians. He also exhibits traces of the Eastern European intellectual’s fatalist gloom, from time to time seeming so overwhelmed by the fact of human nature that he despairs over the invention of any type of technology that might improve our lot. “Technology changes all the time,” he writes, “human nature hardly ever.”

For example, one way around the danger of a government’s confiscating a dissident’s hard drive would be to store information on the Internet, “in the cloud.” All you would need to gain access to your files would be your password. Even this does not reassure Morozov, however, who concludes that a repressive regime could always “learn the password by torturing the system administrator.” But this is like saying that because planes crash one must never fly.

For Morozov, the prospect of unintended consequences may alone discredit any type of purpose. Take the case of Andrew Sullivan. Hardly a political naïf, Sullivan responded to the Iranian protests out of an engaged commitment to human freedom. When the Iranian regime began its repression, he tirelessly documented the horror. Such bitter memories, now digitally preserved, give longevity to hope.

Morozov is vulnerable on another front as well. Making an argument similar to one put forth by Theodor Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School nearly a century ago, Morozov bemoans what he cutely calls “slacktivism,” the tendency of the Internet to distract a population from any type of serious political engagement. But the Internet’s infinite diversions have not kept Russian neofascists and Japanese nationalists from persecuting ethnic minorities, as Morozov documents. In some respects, a universal passiveness induced by distraction is a historical godsend.

And Morozov is too impressed by Kierke?gaard’s essay “The Present Age,” in which the philosopher excoriated the rise of mass journalism. Kierkegaard was prescient in much of his critique, but he left out one important fact. Mass journalism and democracy are inextricably entwined. Henry Luce and Comrade Stalin are two diametrically opposed animals.

But the pendulum has swung so far and so long to the cyberutopians’ side that a little extremism is needed to correct the imbalance. Morozov has dared to argue that the Internet has exposed democracy’s Achilles’ heel. Too often the morally malleable Web has the effect of crushing community under the weight of bad pluralisms and atrocious diversities. In that regard, the Internet is creating an egalitarian antidemocracy in which the strongest inhumanity tramples on the most eloquent rationality and decency.



Washington: Two months before the election, President Obama and Mitt Romney agree on one thing: the collection of states where the race will be decided.

Mr. Obama opened a two-day bus tour of Florida on Saturday, Mr. Romney set his sights on trying to put Virginia back in the Republican column. Television advertisements from both sides were filling the airwaves in those two vital states and six others from Nevada to New Hampshire, while outside groups supporting the candidates tested for traction elsewhere.

With the political conventions over, the battle to determine whether Mr. Obama will win re-election or Mr. Romney will become the 45th president of the United States is fully engaged. The race has been deadlocked, according to many measures, and each side was predicting that it would see no lift from its convention. That seems to have been true in Mr. Romney's case, while Mr. Obama's aides were hopeful that new polls due out this week would prove them wrong.

But for now, Mr. Obama may hold a slight edge because the race remains essentially tied, which means voter disappointment has not turned into a resounding call for his defeat despite the challenging economic climate.

"Now, our friends at the other convention were more than happy to talk about what was wrong with America but not talking about what they'd do to make it right," he told supporters on Saturday in Seminole, Fla., only a few miles from the site of the Republican convention.

Mr. Romney, speaking to veterans in Virginia Beach on Saturday, referred to the disappointing jobs report released a day earlier. "This week has not been a lot of good news," he said. "But I'm here to tell you things are about to get a lot better."

Presidential races take place on many levels, some easily visible, others more shrouded. As the clock runs down, both sides make tough decisions about which states to compete in and which to abandon. Advertising themes get tested and changed as strategists hunt frantically for the right appeals, and get-out-the-vote teams target wavering voters with tailored messages.

Behind closed doors, the candidates are preparing for the most crucial remaining events, the debates. And in courtrooms, lawyers are battling over who is on the ballot and who can vote.
Unforeseen events, economic or otherwise, could also still have a significant impact on the outcome of the race, much as the financial crisis did four years ago this fall.
Here are a few things to watch in the 58 days ahead:

Electoral Map

The roster of battleground states has not changed much, but one that Republicans had dearly hoped to put in play appears to have broken decisively: Pennsylvania. Mr. Romney spent time and money in the state, which voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections, but Republican strategists now say it seems out of reach.

Wisconsin, which has 10 electoral votes and is home to Mr. Romney's running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, may offer Mr. Romney the best chance to expand his options. Republicans have not won there since 1984, despite fighting hard in almost every election.

Wisconsin was not one of the eight states where the Romney campaign placed its first flight of general election ads late last week, but one party strategist said, "Keep watching."

By this point, Mr. Romney had hoped to put at least a few more states into safer Republican territory. North Carolina, which Mr. Obama narrowly carried in 2008, is at the top of the list. But the state is still competitive enough that Mr. Romney and Republican groups feel compelled to keep advertising there, complicating their hopes of making Wisconsin and Michigan more competitive.

Some Democratic strategists say that winning Florida remains a reach for Mr. Obama, but his visit this weekend suggests that the White House has not given up and at a minimum will make

Mr. Romney spend a lot more time and money in the state.

And Democrats say they are happily surprised by polls showing Mr. Obama running strong in Ohio, whose working-class voters have been exposed to heavy advertising portraying Mr. Romney as a job killer.


In a race that has featured little significant movement between the candidates, the three presidential debates this fall are taking on even greater importance.

For weeks, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have been preparing for their encounters on Oct. 3 in Denver; Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y.; and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

With each passing debate, millions of Americans will probably cast their ballot, given the rise of early voting and balloting by mail in many Western states.

The president, whose advisers have known him to procrastinate before preparing for big moments, has been studying his rival's positions and statements from the primary campaign. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts will play the role of Mr. Romney in debate practice.

Mr. Romney may be a little further ahead in his preparations. His aides began putting blocks of time in his schedule shortly after he emerged from the primaries in the spring. He started formal practice sessions last week at a remote estate in Vermont, where Senator Rob Portman of Ohio played the role of Mr. Obama.

Tens of millions of people will watch the debates - four years ago, viewership ranged from 52 million to 63 million - almost certainly a much bigger television audience than the totals for the conventions.

Ads and Messages

After spending the spring and summer trying to turn Mr. Romney's success as a business executive from a positive to a negative, characterizing him as uncaring about the middle class, Mr. Obama's aides and allies intend to graft their portrayal onto specific policy areas.

They suggested that one attack, building on the president's argument that Mr. Romney intends essentially to privatize Medicare, would contend that the Republican ticket's next target would be another immensely popular program, Social Security.
In the past, Mr. Ryan has supported adding personal investment accounts to Social Security, a fundamental shift in the program that most Democrats say would leave the elderly vulnerable to unpredictable swings in the financial markets.

Having intently studied the 2004 race, when President George W. Bush won re-election after defining Mr. Kerry on his terms during the spring and summer, Mr. Obama's advisers are convinced that the most crucial advertising period is already over, and that they accomplished what they had to by introducing Mr. Romney to the nation as a rapacious capitalist.

Mr. Romney's team is betting that early ad spending is largely wasted, and that a final and furious campaign will move the race in his direction when it most counts. The campaign's belief is that continued disappointing economic data will feed its slogan, "Obama Isn't Working," and give a new edge to the question that Mr. Romney is posing at every opportunity: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

On Saturday, the Democratic "super PAC" Priorities USA Action released an advertising campaign highlighting a study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center that estimated that Mr. Romney's plans would raise taxes on the middle class while cutting them for the wealthy. The Romney campaign has said the finding is based on flawed assumptions.

Like the Democrats, Republicans say they intend to link their broader economic message to specific policies: cutting spending and reducing the national debt, working to ensure the solvency of Medicare for future generations, cutting expensive regulations and avoiding tax increases.

Over the next two months, residents of swing states will see ads on the issues that matter most to them: foreclosures in Nevada, Medicare in Florida, military spending in North Carolina and Virginia, and, especially from the Republicans, the federal budget deficit just about everywhere.

Mr. Obama and his supporters are telegraphing a new campaign intended to paint their opponents as pessimists betting against America, as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. put it on Thursday night.

"They are extremely pessimistic because they want to tamp down people's enthusiasm about the future," said Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina.
But if Democrats go too far in that direction, Republicans will be ready to pounce and call them out of touch with reality.


There is one factor in the campaign that has yet to get much attention but could influence the outcome: third-party candidacies in many states, most notably that of former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee.
Mr. Johnson, who argued for free markets, fewer wars and the legalization of marijuana during his brief run for the 2012 Republican nomination, hardly shows up in polls. But he is on the ballot in more than three dozen states and is trying for more.

Mr. Johnson shares some of the cross-party appeal of Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who complimented him publicly last week. Advisers said Mr. Johnson's potential for cutting into Mr. Romney's support was greatest in Florida, where Mr. Romney is basically tied with Mr. Obama, but could also have an impact in Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

They said Mr. Johnson's potential to eat into Mr. Obama's support was greatest in Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin.

Republican officials have already tried to challenge Mr. Johnson's place on the ballot or are trying to in states including Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Many of the challenges have failed - courts recently rejected efforts to throw him off the ballot in Virginia - and Roger Stone, a Republican Party veteran who is advising Mr. Johnson, said he was optimistic that Mr. Johnson would qualify in all 50 states.

The Republican Party of Virginia also failed in a bid last week to remove former Representative Virgil Goode from the presidential ballot there. He is the nominee for the Constitution Party and could draw disaffected Tea Party adherents away from the Republican Party.


For the first time since the advent of public financing after Watergate, neither major-party candidate will accept matching funds, forcing both to keep raising money right up until Election Day. That means Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have to build substantial room into their schedules for fund-raising, including more time than they would like traveling to places that are not competitive politically but are flush with wealthy donors, starting with New York and Los Angeles.

At the end of July, when the last official figures were available, Mr. Romney and the related Republican Party presidential committees had about $186 million on hand, compared with about $124 million for Mr. Obama and the Democrats. On Saturday, Mr. Obama wrote in a Twitter message that his convention had prompted 700,000 new donations to his campaign.
Still, Mr. Obama's advisers have expressed concerns that the Romney war chest, combined with well-financed Republican super PACs, will swamp them and Priorities USA Action when it comes to advertising. But much of the Obama campaign's money is going into its sophisticated voter-identification and get-out-the-vote operation, which is fully up and running, while Mr. Romney rushes to build his own.

"We have a strategic advantage on the ground - the ability to turn our voters out and talk to persuadable voters - and that's what we're going to do," said Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager.

© 2012, The New York Times News Service


The Ethicist / ChUCk Klosterman / NEW YORK TIMES

 Can a Juror Ever Fudge the Truth?

About 15 years ago, while living in St. Louis, I was summoned for jury duty. The defendant was charged with two counts of murder. During jury selection, I was asked if I supported the death penalty. I don’t. I’m unalterably opposed to capital punishment. But I feared that potential jurors who did not support the death penalty could be automatically disqualified by the prosecution. So I said I agreed with capital punishment. That way, if it came down to it, I might help spare the defendant from execution. But this violated the oath I had taken to tell the truth. Was it ethical for me to lie in order to possibly spare the life of this defendant?

 Can I Use the Same Paper for Multiple College Courses?

When I was in college, I’d sometimes write a single paper that would satisfy assignments in more than one course. For instance, I once wrote a paper on how “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” expressed satire; I submitted it for assignments in both my poetry course as well as my completely separate satire course. I did not disclose this to either professor. When I share this with people, half call the practice cheating, and the other half call it genius. My niece told me it would certainly be grounds for expulsion at her college. In my mind, I was adding a level of intellectual complexity to my studies. Was this an ethical practice, or was I cheating?

 Should I Become a Woman and Risk Causing Pain to My Wife and Children?

I’ve been living the life of a married man for 20 years. I have a successful career and three children. All this time, however, I have battled gender dysphoria and the deep sadness that comes from living a lie. From the earliest age, I’ve been unhappy being male. I believed I would find happiness only once I was true to myself. I recently had my self-diagnosis confirmed, and I’m initiating a transition to living as the real me. There is a cost involved: pain to my family and stress on my career. Ethically, is it right to be “true to myself” even if that authenticity ends my otherwise happy marriage and damages the emotional stability of my three children? If I had to maintain the lie, the emotional cost would be tremendous; a transition would share the pain with all who love me but might result in happiness. What’s the ethically correct thing to do?

 Does an Honor Code Make It Too Easy to Cheat?

I’m a student at a university with an honor code that is taken very seriously. Professors place a lot of trust in students’ integrity: they assign take-home exams with conditions (no access to textbooks, notes or Internet) and they leave offices containing answer keys unlocked at all hours. Although I have never taken advantage of this trust, it has occurred to me that it would be easy to do so with little probability of being caught. I imagine this puts struggling students in an ethically precarious position. Do professors (and people in general) have an obligation to avoid creating situations in which it is both tempting and easy for others to behave unethically?



Oct 9, 2012 4:45 AM EDT

The current public-radio host and former writer of the popular New York Times Magazine advice column shares three of his favorite posts, collected in the book Be Good.

A year and a half after leaving The New York Times Magazine, where he wrote the popular Ethicist column for about a dozen years, Randy Cohen says he’s not thinking about or reading his successor, Chuck Klosterman. “There’s nothing to be gained from following your ex around,” Cohen said. He’s busy with his new public-radio show, Person Place Thing, where interview subjects talk about a person, a place, and a thing important to them. Cohen will be talking to comedian and Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman at the 92YTribeca Wednesday night.

Many of Cohen’s Ethicist columns are collected in Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything. Here are Cohen’s three favorites, with a brief explanation why:

1. Racist Patient

I like this one because it’s a clash of two goods. I admire that the physician is repulsed by the demand, but I liked it that he also allowed for the patient’s worth as a human being. He believed in doing what he could for the patient. It was admirable to wrestle with that, to put aside his own feelings, to seriously to consider this ridiculous request.

I am an anesthesiologist at a metropolitan hospital. A patient scheduled for an operation one day requested a female anesthesiologist, a request we were inclined to honor. When the anesthesiologist’s name was given to the patient, she wondered if the anesthesiologist was African American. When told that she was, the patient demanded a white anesthesiologist. It was 7:00 a.m., too early to contact hospital lawyers or the ethics board. What should we have done?

—D. W., Houston

I admire your inclination to put a patient at ease, but such requests are not exempt from moral scrutiny. If a patient told you she would be more emotionally prepared for surgery if she could go out to the hospital parking lot and drive over a couple of puppies, you would not lend her your car. Similarly, you should have rejected her racist request, explaining that your hospital does not consider race when making assignments. (If it did, the hospital could face legal claims from rejected anesthesiologists.)

‘Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything’ by Randy Cohen. 320 pp. Chronicle Books. $25. (Adam Nadel / Courtesy Chronicle Books)

You were wrong even to grant her request for a woman anesthesiologist. We rightly consent to some such demands but not to all and not unthinkingly. Most of us would accommodate a woman’s desire for a female gynecologist, deferring to the patient’s sexual modesty. (Although I hope that this customary justification, too, will pass away as we advance toward true gender equality.) But few would honor her request for a female clerk in the hospital gift shop. Because an anesthesiologist’s task does not intrude on sexual modesty, it was illegitimate to make sex a factor here. Surely other members of the surgical team were men but were not subject to patient veto.

UPDATE: Despite finding the patient’s request objectionable, the doctors granted it.

This column received some dispiriting responses when it first appeared, among them several emails from women asserting that a surgery patient’s being unclothed is in itself sufficient reason to preclude a male physician’s attending her. And not all came from religious fundamentalists, or at least from those who made overt references to faith. It would be lamentable indeed if such prudery moved us to a two-tiered, gender-segregated system of medical care.

Even more alarming were the emails that dragged affirmative action into this discussion. Neither those readers nor the patient had the slightest idea if that African-American anesthesiologist had entered school via affirmative action or gotten a leg up as the son of an alum or was a child genius who completed med school at age 2. For all anybody knew, the replacement she demanded was an old white guy who, not having to vie with women or African Americans for a spot in med school, was less skilled. In any event, affirmative-action students tend to graduate at the same rate as their classmates and go on to lives of equal accomplishment.

2. Fur Is Murmurred

This was a challenging new wrinkle on a familiar question. The solution at first looked a lot like hypocrisy.

Cleaning out the closets of the house we inherited from my husband’s great aunt, we found several fur coats. It didn’t seem right to stuff them in the Goodwill bag, so we kept them. I would never buy a new fur, but is it wrong to wear an old one I didn’t pay for, as a parody of fashion-conscious women who do? (Does parody count if I’m the only one who knows it’s parody?) If it’s wrong to wear the furs, what should I do with them?

—Hattie Fletcher, Pittsburgh

You certainly should not wear a new fur. A case can be made for some exploitation of animals—as food or in important medical research—when there is no meaningful alternative, and when their suffering is minimized. But there is no justification for harming animals to produce something as frivolous as a fur coat. An old fur, however, is a different matter, although not for the reasons you offer.

It’s insignificant that the fur was a gift; the animals in pain don’t care who pays the bill. And you are rightly wary of the parody defense, too easily invoked by those who, for example, construct a racist parade float and when criticized say it’s satire. How does an ordinary fur suddenly become a parody of itself? Are the words “I Am Heartless and Vain” shaved into the back? Now a coat made of live weasels or raw beef …

A more persuasive rationale for keeping the fur is that an attic coat can be grandfathered in (great aunted in?). It already exists, you do no good by tossing it in the trash; you do no obvious harm by wearing it. Except this harm—appearing in fur announces that doing so is acceptable. You are voting with your feet (if the coat is much too long for you). Your wearing the great-aunt’s fur does not injure any animals, but it does injure us, it coarsens our sensibilities as it declares our values.

Thus, if we concede the moral high ground to the Fur Is Murder (or at least Wanton Cruelty) crowd, you may not wear any new fur, but you may use—discreetly, privately—an old fur, a found fur. Make it into fur socks or a bathroom rug or an unseen lining for a cloth coat—utility without propaganda. If everyone follows that rule, the fur trade withers.

UPDATE: When this column first ran, I invited readers to suggest other uses for this old fur; more than five hundred people did. The most frequent idea by far was to make that old fur into a teddy bear—a collectible, a fond memento of the great aunt, a toy kids love. Several websites list seamstresses who perform these coat-to-bear conversions professionally. This seems to meet my criteria for fur reuse—utility without propaganda—but does convey an odd message to the child cuddling that former coat (and former mink). Perhaps that’s why I’m uneasy, this smacks too much of taxidermy. My objection may be aesthetic not moral, but I can’t help wondering what materials these hobbyists would use to construct a baby doll.

The next most popular idea was to give old fur coats to the homeless, an altruistic act to be sure. However, if wearing fur endorses its use, then even the poor should not wear them. There is no shortage of wool or down or Thinsulate coats to be donated. And there is something redolent of crumbs-from-the-rich-man’s table about dressing legions of the desperately poor in ermine. (Although it may well deglamorize fur to distribute it to poor folks.)

Surprisingly, such gifts are acceptable to PETA; that organization has itself sent fur coats to earthquake victims in Iran and refugees in Afghanistan. Those who are put off by the thought of a war victim huddled in my imaginary Aunt Minna’s fox stole may be comforted to know that PETA also uses old fur coats in educational displays and for animal bedding. This last use is similarly endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States, which sends old furs to licensed wildlife rescuers who make nesting materials out of them for orphaned and injured animals.

Other oft-submitted suggestions: donate that old fur to a local theater company; make it into a pillow or fur throw; give it to a science teacher for static electricity lab work.

3. Adderall

It’s exhilarating to be wrong. It gives you a fresh way to see the question.

A friend and I will soon take the LSAT. His father, a psychiatrist, gave him Adderall to help him take the test. I asked my friend if he could share some with me, and he said that would be unethical. Is it? Isn’t his dad’s giving him the Adderall unethical?

—Name withheld, Austin, TX

Medical ethics does forbid a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs to a close family member, but there is no druggie’s code that bars his son from sharing ill-gotten pills. The more important question: is it ethical to use Adderall and the like not in response to some malady but to boost academic performance?

For you to take what some call “study drugs” may violate the law, endanger your health, and if those pills are ineffectual, waste your money, but doing so does not offend ethics, at least in some classrooms. If there were a safe, legal, and effective pill that let you learn French in a day, you’d be mad (fou!) to shun it. You do not forswear studying by electric light because Lincoln relied on his fireplace. You need not reject a learning aid merely because it comes in convenient chemical form. Many a student uses coffee to gain extra study hours.

Performance-enhancing drugs might give their users an unfair advantage over their unpilled peers. But academe does not exist on a level playing field. Deans, test-givers, and students themselves routinely accept greater inequities. Few who attend magnificent universities see this as an unethical edge over students at more modest colleges. Some students have parents who are lawyers, but nobody forbids those parents to help their kids learn. The equal-access problem would be solved if the health center handed out free Adderall to all. Until that utopia arrives, it might be heartening to realize that most students have easy, albeit illegal, access to these drugs.

Some foes of these drugs call them academic steroids, arguing that, as on the football field, those who decline to take them—and thus avoid the attendant health risks—cannot compete with those who do. Arguments supporting the use of such drugs would be more persuasive if a university were essentially a contest for grades; it is not.

Here is a more potent moral argument against these drugs: they undermine education itself and not just the drug-taker. This was what my daughter asserted when she was a student at a small liberal arts college. These are not so much study drugs as cramming drugs. They make you more adept at amassing facts but no more able to deeply engage with, for example, art or history. Also pernicious, by relying on rote memorization, you arrive at class unable to fully participate in the discussions that are central to learning, and thus fail in your duty to your fellow students, to your professors, to the academic community you voluntarily joined.

She’s right. And so I must amend my conclusion, there is no ethical barrier to taking such drugs in classes that rely on individual work—math, Latin—but you may not take them in classes where you are expected to interact with your fellow students—political science, literature. But to prep for the LSATs? Go nuts.

UPDATE: The letter writer acquired Adderall from someone other than her friend, but she didn’t like it—“it made me nervous”—and stopped taking it long before the LSAT.

From Be Good by Randy Cohen. Copyright © 2012 by Randy Cohen. Reprinted by permission of Chronicle Books.



The Price of Equality     Alison Wolf’s ‘XX Factor’

By KATRIN BENNHOLD        Published: October 4, 2013

Earlier this year, Sheryl Sandberg asked the members of a mainly female audience of undergraduates at Harvard University to stand up if they thought one day they could be C.E.O. of their company or even president of the United States. Many stayed seated. For the chief operating officer of Facebook and the fledgling elite she was addressing, one crucial barrier on the road to gender equality may well be what Sandberg calls the leadership ambition gap — the lack of

women with the self-confidence to “lean in” like men.



How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World

By Alison Wolf      393 pp. Crown Publishers. $26.


But running for president is not a concern most women lie awake nights thinking about. And it is this quiet majority that Alison Wolf, a professor of public sector management at King’s College London, draws attention to in “The XX Factor,” her brisk, rigorously researched volume on the economic rise of (some) women.


I say “some” because Wolf, like the French writer Elisabeth Badinter, argues that universal sisterhood is dead, with an elite of well-educated women moving away from the rest. “Whereas through most of human history it made sense to talk about ‘women’ en masse,” Wolf writes, “today it very rarely does.” The women of recent feminist manifestoes, she contends, have become a class apart, with their own ambitions and concerns — concerns shared not by most women, but by elite men.


These women, like their male counterparts, now marry later and have fewer children than their less-educated sisters. They take shorter breaks from paid full-time employment (a reverse from past trends) and claim an ever greater share of overall female income while relying on nannies and other household help. And although the professional world of the elites is increasingly integrated when it comes to gender, most women, including those domestic helpers, tend to work in professions that are still very much segregated along gender lines.


One result: Men and women at the top marry each other more, exacerbating income inequality and reducing social mobility in Western societies.


Wolf’s book is a sobering reminder that as it is currently framed, the work-family debate smacks of elitism. The dominant narrative of middle-class women seeking to combine fulfilling jobs with more quality time for family clashes with that of poorer women, who have long worked for pay because they had to. Stereotype-busting innovations like shared parental leave and shared part-time working arrangements between parents are not just cultural propositions. They are luxuries that only relatively well-off couples can afford.


Here is where Wolf makes her most provocative but also her most problematic assertion: “Adult female employment today isn’t a common shared experience in the way that tending home and family used to be,” she writes. Gender equality for professional women comes at a price, Wolf implies. She does not explicitly attribute blame, though she seems to come close: “Without the new servant classes, elite women’s employment would splutter and stall,” she writes. True. But their elite husbands rely on those nannies and housekeepers just as much.


Class has always been a major divider. Surely, it would have been difficult to speak of shared experiences between the working-class women of the Industrial Revolution and the “daughters of educated men,” as Virginia Woolf described them. Yet for all the important differences, women in the early 21st century still share distinct hurdles based on their sex, independent of class — from everyday sexism and sexual violence to the mother of all challenges, motherhood itself.


If there is one thing the would-be Sandbergs of this world and their nannies have in common, it is that maternal stereotypes still govern how women are expected to behave. It explains why female leaders who display traditionally “male” characteristics are penalized — “aggressiveness” and “brusqueness” clashing with the compassion and softness associated with women, with mothers. It explains why the caring professions are so overwhelmingly dominated by women (and why they are so badly paid). And it may explain why, even though Wolf’s book successfully reminds readers of the many revolutionary changes to women’s lives over the past century, it is also surprisingly quick to regard certain remaining gender differences as “normal.”


We are told that women earn less for “big (and immovable) reasons.” “Women get pregnant. Women give birth. And women breast-feed,” Wolf writes. “They are the ones who take the main child-care role. . . . Women generally prioritize family.” She can sound uncomfortably nostalgic for what she calls a “golden age” of “female altruism,” when “the most brilliant and energetic women in society” worked in the charitable or caring professions — never mind that they often did so for low or no pay. Yes, one may regret that many highly educated individuals, men and women, are today more motivated by money than by compassion. Changing this would require a society that recognizes, with greater remuneration and greater respect, the nurturing work that is so often cast as “female.” We have a long way to go.


If these passages feel old-fashioned, Wolf redeems herself by taking us on a journey across time and oceans and even DNA that is well worth traveling.


At times, “The XX Factor” reads like a “Guns, Germs, and Steel” of women’s roles, so vast is its scope. We learn about family structures in primate societies (baboons have harems, while Titi monkeys are monogamous and chimp mothers apparently rely on a circle of female relatives rather than males for foraging) and the sexual behavior of 21st-century (human) teenagers. Wolf compares the speed of emancipation in emerging economies — the breathtaking emergence of China’s female billionaires, the ambition of South Asian high school graduates — with the status of women in Western societies at equivalent levels of development. (The Westerners lose.)


A recurring theme is the power of economic incentives, but also the power of values that have begun permeating even some of the least outwardly egalitarian societies, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where women are now prominent in higher education.


Wolf quarrels with more than a few well-worn clichés. When you take into account average total work hours for men and women inside and outside the home, the famous “second shift” of working mothers (a concept we’ve clung to since 1989) is shown to be a myth, she says, citing time-use studies from many countries. And the nuclear family — that ancient corset of gender roles that for centuries defined and reinforced the division of labor between the sexes and was supposed to disappear with more equality — is, among some demographics, having a quiet postfeminist renaissance. “Among the elites, the family hasn’t disintegrated as a result of women’s new workplace opportunities,” Wolf writes. “It has morphed into something as formidable as ever.”


In short, with “The XX Factor” Wolf accomplishes a rare feat: She combines real breadth with real depth. No matter how much you think you know about this hotly debated subject, and whether or not you agree with every one of Wolf’s ideas, you will come away from her book with new information — some merely amusing, but some foundation-shaking.





Journeys into the Wilderness: what is gained and what is lost.

Additional exercise to Into the Wild Lesson Plan

Students will write an essay using a three-circle Venn Diagram to discuss what is gained and what is lost in journeying into the wilderness. They will focus on Chris McAndliss (the protagonist of Into the Wild), Jon Kraukeur (author if the book) and Jerimiah Johnson (a fictional character based on Jim Bridger, the most famous American mountain man)

1.     They will come with a venn marked with losses and gains for both McAndless and Kraukeur

2.     They will discuss in groups and in class their findings/opinions.

3.     They will see the movie and take notes on their venn.

4.     The class with discuss the movie

5.     I will provide the students with comparison/contrast sentence and  transition sentences that focus on discussing three subjects at one.


All three men_____

In additional, each______

Still, only one of the men ______

None of these travelers_______

A was _____ than B and B was _______ than C

Both A and B were ______, while C was.

A, however, had a very different______than B and C

Interestingly C was the only__while B was partly____and C completely____

If there was one common _______, it would be that _______

 NOTE: Students may wish to connect these wildernesses with college.


Make It Green

September 14, 2001


If there is to be a memorial, let it not be of stone and steel. Fly no flag above it, for it is not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world. Let it be a green field, with trees and flowers. Let there be paths that wind through the shade. Put out park benches where old people can sun in the summertime, and a pond where children can skate in the winter.

Beneath this field will lie entombed forever some of the victims of September 11. It is not where they thought to end their lives. Like the sailors of the battleship Arizona, they rest where they fell.

Let this field stretch from one end of the destruction to the other. Let this open space among the towers mark the emptiness in our hearts. But do not make it a sad place. Give it no name. Let people think of it as the green field. Every living thing that is planted there will show faith in the future.

Let students take a corner of the field and plant a crop there. Perhaps corn, our native grain. Let the harvest be shared all over the world, with friends and enemies, because that is the teaching of our religions, and we must show that we practice them. Let the harvest show that life prevails over death, and let the gifts show that we love our neighbors.

Do not build again on this place. No building can stand there. No building, no statue, no column, no arch, no symbol, no name, no date, no statement. Just the comfort of the earth we share, to remind us that we share it.






Welcome. We will be creating and showing our reseaching on

















The Death of Harry Patch:

Britain says farewell to last survivor of the trenches of World War I, a conflict that still echoes in the British imagination


August 09, 2009|By Henry Chu, Tribune Newspapers


WELLS, England — The cathedral bells pealed for an entire hour, tolling not just one man's death but the near passing of an era.

Harry Patch was 111 when he died two weeks ago, and his body was laid to rest last week after a memorial service in the medieval city of Wells in southwest England.

But it wasn't for his longevity that hundreds of mourners lined the streets and gathered solemnly on the Wells Cathedral lawn under rainy skies. It was to honor the British Army's last survivor of the trenches of World War I, the last soldier on these shores who bore witness to the blood-soaked conflict that forever changed Europe and the course of the 20th century.


England's last living veteran of World War I is Claude Stanley Choules, 108, a British-born seaman who served in the Royal Navy during the war and now lives in Australia, British defense officials said.


Not that Patch, a modest fellow, would -- or could -- have picked that role for himself. Nor could he have foreseen, as an 18-year-old plumber's apprentice drafted into the infantry, that his funeral 93 years later would be attended by masses of people he had never met: diplomats and aristocrats, veterans and civilians, all of whom converged on Wells from across the country to pay their respects.

"He was both a national icon and, at the same time, an ordinary man," said his friend Jim Ross to mourners inside the cathedral and the untold numbers who watched the midday service live on television.


Soldiers from Britain, France, Germany and Belgium escorted Patch's flag-draped coffin to the church, a reflection of his plea for peace and reconciliation in his later years. After the service, a duo of buglers sounded the "Last Post," Britain's version of America's taps.


The outpouring of emotion over Patch's death was yet another reminder of the fact that, nearly a century later, World War I continues to exert a hold on the British imagination unmatched by any of the conflicts since, even though, tragically, the "war to end all wars" didn't.


Unlike in the U.S., whose "Greatest Generation" was composed of those who fought in World War II, for Britons and countless other Europeans that distinction belongs to the soldiers who endured misery and death by the millions on the fields of Flanders in Belgium.


The tremendous death toll is part of the reason. Britain and its imperial territories lost 900,000 soldiers in the war, leaving almost no family untouched. Go to even the tiniest village in the British countryside and you'll find a monument in the parish church or on the village green commemorating the sacrifices of local young men who fell in the war.

"A whole generation was wiped out," said Monica Williams, 64, two of whose great-uncles were killed in battle.


The huge losses and grinding war of attrition also served as a social leveler in class-ridden Edwardian England. The sons of noblemen and commoners mingled in the frontline trenches.


The war's legacy has lived on in various, and sometimes unlikely, corners of British culture. Some of the finest English verse of the 20th century was produced by soldier-poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; their works are still studied by British schoolchildren today. More recently, critics have lauded author Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy of books, which deal with the psychological damage wrought by the conflict.


The creators of the 1980s historical sitcom "Blackadder," starring Rowan Atkinson of "Mr. Bean" fame, set its final season during World War I, ending with an emotional knockout that's still talked about years later in which the main characters charge over the top of their trench and get ruthlessly cut down.


In November 2008, Patch and two other World War I veterans, Henry Allingham and William Stone, attended the annual Armistice Day ceremony in London. But Stone died Jan. 10, 2009, and Allingham on July 18. Patch followed exactly one week later.


This year's Armistice Day service will be the first with no veterans attending from the Great War.

Patch, who outlived two wives and two sons, never spoke about his wartime experiences until after he turned 100 and reluctantly submitted to interviews. A former gunner, he revealed that he was haunted for the rest of his life by the deaths of three men who were killed when a German shell burst above them.


Patch was wounded in the September 1917 incident. A medic removed shrapnel from his groin without anesthesia while four of his comrades pinned down his limbs.

Toward the end of his life, his dam of silence broken, Patch became a vocal advocate of peace and was proud of his status as one of the dwindling band of Great War veterans in Britain.




World War I Stories

The British refer to World War I as "The Great War." But the Second World War overshadowed it in holocaust and in the shaping of modern history. Thus we may also call World War I "The Forgotten War." These very short stories (many of them true) explore experiences, ironies, tragedies and triumphs of this Great and Forgotten War.




For Kosovo! M. Stanley Bubien


"The date, tell me the date!"

"T-t-today," I said, hands clasped behind my back, hiding their trembling, as I concentrated upon the words. "Today i-is---"

"Not today," our leader barked, "damn you! The da---" he fell into a fit of coughing, leaning front-wise upon the table, though it hardly bent under his form. His aid, and second-in-command, moved to intervene, but he waved the assistance aside.

We waited until the tremors in his body slackened, and he dropped, breathing wetly, into a chair.

"Thehhh..." he rasped in an attempt at speech, but shook his head. Clearing his throat several times, yet to no avail, he finally gestured to his aid.

"Our instructions for you are clear," the aid lifted a pistol from the table. "You will be first in the line."

"F-f-f-first?" I stammered. "Are-are you s-s-sure?"

"Absolutely! You are our most capable shot, and the automobile will pass first position the fastest."

I nodded.

"Freedom for Kosovo!" the aid stated solemnly as he presented the firearm.

"F-f-f-reedom." I replied, unclasping my hands slowly, but before bringing them forward, clenching my fingers into a fist. Yet that simply caused the whole of my forearm to tremble as I reached toward the pistol. I closed my eyes as I grasped it, but another palm, cold and clammy, laid itself upon mine.

"Unity!" our leader said, having found voice once more. "Won with the blood of their 'fearless leader.' Pah!" He spat on the floor. "Our hands are already blackened, but blood will pave our path. Are you up to this task?"

I stiffened, for to express doubt now would certainly mean my own death. "A l-l-land united for u-u-s and all Serbians, its r-r-rightful heirs." I said, though my hand still shook.

At that moment, his grip tightened, the firmest grasp he had ever thrown upon me. "Ah! You are for the task! These aggressions will not abide, and you, my friend, you will have the first opportunity to free our land from such treacheries.

"The instant that he dies, it will be for Kosovo. And his people---all people!---will know the Serbian wrath cannot be contained."

The three of us stood there at that moment, each with a palm surrounding the pistol.

"The date, I ask again. The date?" our leader said in a tone that had earned him his post, though in contrast, he had become so pale, he seemed to fill the darkened room with a glow.

"Twenty-eighth, June," I stated with perfect annunciation.

"In the year of our Lord 1914," our leader continued. "Then, the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne will fall."

And as one voice we repeated our rallying cry. "For Kosovo! Union or death!"

They released the pistol, leaving it fully in my possession. They had finished with me, this I knew, and made my exit. I fled to the street, and falling against an alleyway wall, I held my hand before me. Through the moonless night I could not see it, but I knew that, still, it shook as though it would never stop.


Attempted Assasination:  M. Stanley Bubien

Our motorcade wound slowly through the streets while throngs lined the walkways. Mixed amongst the varieties of flowers waved hand-held cloths, some makeshift flags, others less intricate but sporting the Imperial colors. Over the grinding of the automobile's engine, I no longer heard the cheers, though I assumed they still came, and to which I answered with searching eyes lingering methodically upon random faces while maintaining my standard blank, slightly disapproving expression. This was the extent of which the crowd received from me, for my arm had long ago tired and I refused to lift it again, even to loyalists such as these.

The other arm, however, I dutifully wrapped about my Sophie---a luxury I seldom enjoyed because of the staunch customs court life imposed upon royalty, especially those like myself who---as my uncle deemed it---"foolishly" chose a wife outside the nobility. Certainly for this breach the court attendants treated me a laughingstock, but such judgements I easily ignored, for customs were only binding socially, and my Sophie's companionship afforded me whatever impetus I required to cast aside any and all embarrassment.

"Enjoying your anniversary gift?" I asked loudly enough to be heard over the engine. She nodded her response. This gave me comfort, for, though I hated travelling into our annexed territories, it accorded the opportunity to skirt the restriction keeping Sophie from sharing my automobile while upon our homeland soil.

I rested my free hand upon Sophie's belly, "And how does our newest son enjoy riding with his father?" My expression remained entirely unemotive for our surrounding subjects, but I knew Sofia could read my heart through the light caress.

In answer, she placed her palm upon mine, allowing herself the smile that I myself would not. "Our son rests both in comfort and security. Just as his mother does whenever in the arms of her Duke."

Earlier in life, my demeanor would have broken at such sentiment, but ages in court had taught me well, and my countenance did not waver in the slightest. I did, however, pull her closer, imperceptible to those without, but enough to lend my Sophie every assurance I could offer.

It was a sunny Baltic morning, and as the motorcade circumnavigated River Miljacka en route to City Hall, a light Sarajevan breeze carried to my ears pieces of the conversation between the front seat occupants, a Count of the family Harrach and our driver. This sensorial mixture compelled my gaze to drift out upon the smooth waters of the river. But, at that moment, a sharp report cracked from the opposite side of the automobile, tearing my attention back to mob on the street.

"Bravo!" the Count cried as he slapped his legs. "A flat tire! Now we shall have to stop!" He was looking directly at the driver---far too comfortable in his home city to sense any danger---and missed the man near the light post throwing the package in our direction.

Fortunately for Sophie and myself, the driver was not as much a fool as the Count. He pushed the accelerator. The auto, however, did not respond immediately, and the package arced undeviatingly toward us.

"Sophie!" I cried as I sat upright and threw my arm outward. My elbow met the package painfully, deflecting it over the rolled-back canopy and behind the automobile. I could not turn completely around to see where the package went, but it was of no import, for I received my answer when the bomb exploded, throwing only a flash of light heat over us.

Police appeared from the crowd and went to work instantly and efficiently, apprehending the bomber who had cast himself into the shallow river for escape, clearing away the uninjured, and assessing the damage upon the automobile to our rear. I held Sophie low in the seat and scanned the remaining crowd until we received the order to move on.

With our arrival at City Hall, I turned my attention again to Sophie. Though still shaken, she understood my expression and tipped her chin dutifully. Accepting her consent, I leapt out as my door was being opened and marched directly toward to the Mayor, covering the distance in four great strides. Seeing my approach, I do believe he cowered.

"Mr. Mayor, this is outrageous!" my voice boomed as I encroached upon the squat, egg-shaped man. "One comes here for a visit and is received by bombs! It is outrageous!"

The Mayor's eyes darted from side-to-side, seeking counsel from his advisors, but they remained stiffly mute as my own entourage caught up with me. He took a blustering breath, and his cheeks puffed up as he stuttered, "Muh... ah... mmm..." Lifting the kerchief he had held prior to my approach, he wiped it across his forehead, an action which seemed to return him to a semblance of sanity. He grasped for words, but stuttered nonsense yet again. With lowered head, he brought a fist to his mouth and cleared his throat into it three times in succession. He then faced me, and commanding a politician's smile to his lips, he spoke.

He began in a rather stilted tone but gained further composure as he continued. A comical figure this man was, deserving of the most desperate hilarity, for---and I believe my nostrils may have flared with this realization---instead of addressing my accusation, he had launched into his prepared speech.

"Your Royal and Imperial Highness!" the Mayor bellowed. "Archduke Franz Ferdinand, we welcome you! Our hearts are full of happiness as Austria-Hungary graces our humble city with her blessing, for on this 28th day of June, the Year of Our Lord, 1914, she honors us with her finest nobility..."

He continued to prattle on, and I noted privately to myself that this was yet another of the multitudinous reasons I so despised visiting the provinces. Though I remained at attention, I felt Sophie's presence beside me and I longed desperately to be in the automobile again, speeding away from this pompous ass with Sophie once more in my arms. My sole consolation was that it would be soon---though indeed, not soon enough.


Delible Ink on Paper: M. Stanley Bubien

"I did not want this," I told my Chancellor, proffering the "Danger of War" declaration I had presently signed; no more than spidery letters, delible ink on paper, something so fragile that it could be easily frayed, torn, burned even; and yet it fully prefigured an inevitability, preparing our armies for mobilization.

"Ah, Majesty," he replied, accepting the order for the Admiralty. "Yesterday, you howled your anger at the Russians. Called your very own cousin Nicholas the most unrepeatable of names! It seems to me that the evening's passing has left you overly cooled. May I reiterate once again that this is most certainly for the best."

"Humph," I waved off my previous day's rage with a sweep of my good arm. "And how, pray tell, will this be for the best?"

"On so many occasions, I have heard you, yourself, declare your intention to achieve a 'Place in the Sun' for the German peoples."

"Of course," I agreed, matter-of-factly. "As Kaiser, I have striven for this noble goal."

"Ah, but all that remains of Europe are places of shade." He waved the document before me. "This, however, changes so much. It opens so many possibilities. First, against those uncivilized Slavs. And also, as you certainly need no reminding, the Eastern occupied territories of those nameless Poles."

I hunched silently within my seat, my great teak desk before me, spanning forward, extending sidewards in its girth, immovable, save by the strength of five men, in its mass. I always sought a measure of potency leaning upon this desk, for the strength of its ancient trunk held me up and sustained me at times. Oft considered the most powerful man in Europe, this desk, more than anything else---territories, armies, navies---allowed me the luxury to believe as much once or twice during my rule. Just as now, it seemed the only thing solid enough to prop these pages, the weightiest the world has ever known, which I had scattered upon it over the last several days.

"I hate the Slavs, though it is a sin to say so, it is most certainly the truth." And with that confession, I brought myself to my feet, and strode around the desk, advanced to the open part of the room, and paced with boots thumping firmly upon the flooring, while in contrast, the medals upon my uniform rattled lightly.

"All men are sinners," the Chancellor informed me, as his eyes followed my progress, to and fro, about the chamber. "That much we both know. But to hate those who deserve your hatred? I am not convinced that such a thing is evil."

I halted, turned fully on him, and cocked my head. "Be that as it may, I believe it was these feelings, in part, that motivated me to agree to your declaration of support for Emperor Joseph and Austria-Hungary."

"Well," the Chancellor began in a slightly contradictory tone, "I must point out that the Emperor has been a mighty ally for quite a number of years."

I exhaled and nodded. "Certainly."

"And in the tradition of our Teutonic ancestors, we are honor-bound to adhere to that agreement. And you have been informed that the Austrian army has already began their invasion of Serbia."

"Yes, of course," I said, gesturing toward the page in my Chancellor's hand, "and with the Russian army moving as well, I realize the necessity of this."

He broke into a grin. "You should also realize that this is merely a beginning. Once we have taken our place in the sun, you shall no longer be known as Kaiser."

My eyebrows furled. "Oh?"

"Leading the German peoples to victory, certainly many will refer to you as one of legend; even, I must say, as a god!"

I thrust myself forward, threw a clenched fist toward his projecting nose, and, index finger extended, I cried, "Fool! Get out! Take that damnable order and leave." Unabashed, he complied to my command with a bow. He retreated, and the door creaked wide, and he twisted slightly, and as he stepped through, I called afterward, slightly less gruffly, "pray, my friend. Pray that it goes no further than this. For if England enters this struggle alongside Russia, I will then be at war with both my cousin and nephew."

He hesitated, grasped the jamb, arched his neck slightly.

I knew his thought, knew the words he would speak, so surely I could speak them myself. "Go!" I ordered, halting his response, and driving him finally from my presence.

"A god," I shook my head, "humph, damnable fool!"

And with that I glanced upon my desk the papers, in reality, a small pile, emblazoned with various official seals, spun of such delicate pulp, yet again I fully realized that only this teak masterwork could prop such a burden. For, in the two days that they had flooded across my desk, I had come to know them, memorize them, and, above all, despise them.

But it was one in particular, a Serbian document, a reply---a full capitulation, no less---to the most formidable, and absolutely absurd, demand imposed by the Austrian state upon her enemy. I lifted it lightly between fingertips, and it flopped slightly as I studied it.

"Fool," I had called my Chancellor. But surely that was my designation, for this document, sent to Austria-Hungary several weeks ago, had been completely ignored by myself until day before yesterday. And there, in the margins, in an ink so delible, were words that I should have written not two nights ago, but twenty. "A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it every reason for war is removed---" Unable to read any further, I allowed the page to drop to the floor.

"God," my Chancellor had called me. And yet, alone in my office, before my great teak desk, I considered also the statement I had halted him from speaking in his departure. For, as he well knew, today I was totally powerless; war would soon rage across our land, and there was not one single thing that I, the Kaiser of Germany, could do to stop it.


A Moment of Indecision: M. Stanley Bubien

It was a moment of indecision, a single instant, but even after four years, the consequences to my hesitation are still being paid out. Could I have guessed at the time, though? Surely not. Surely not. Especially on such a bright, sunshine-filled day.

The crowd had thinned by the time I approached the shop, hoping to procure a small meal and a curbside seat from which to view the procession. A slightly haggard young man came out bearing a sandwich and brushed past me.

"Gavrilo?" I said, spinning after him.

He hesitated.

"Gavrilo?" I repeated.

He glanced back at me, squinting sallowly as though he were evaluating a rival from the street corner. But, recognizing me, my old roommate's demeanor relaxed and we clasped hands. His grip had weakened in the intervening years though he was a youth of barely twenty.

"What are you doing here?" I asked. "I thought you opposed the Empire. 'Filled with imperialist dogs' you used to say, yes?" I laughed while Gavrilo answered with darting eyes---always the understated one.

"How have you been, then?" I asked.

Gazing about, he replied, "Getting along," his voice sounding as though it lacked oxygen. "You look quite fair yourself," he continued. "Married yet? I seem to recall a courtly maiden striking your fancy."

Never a healthy man, but always a barbed wit! We both laughed, for he referred to a woman he himself had introduced me to---the daughter of a politician. Yes, she had struck my fancy, but her father---he had struck my jaw! I touched my mouth and Gavrilo laughed harder.

"You rascal," I told him. "You knew her father wanted her married to the Mayor's son."

"Is that right?" he feigned ignorance.

"I still marvel that you shared acquaintances with such an influential family. Quite well-connected for such a young radical."

He nodded, "I have a tendency to know people."

"Often to your own foul purpose," I joked, but a dark cloud passed over Gavrilo's demeanor. From down the lane, a clacking reached us, but neither Gavrilo or myself gave it attention. I decided to change subjects, "And you, Gavrilo, are you betrothed?"

Unfortunately, I made poor choice of subjects. Gavrilo's head drooped as though he were examining his shoes. "Almost," he replied in near whisper. The noise from down the street resolved into a rumble and the crowd began thickening about us. Still staring at his feet, Gavrilo coughed once and said, "I have not the time for love these days, having returned to Sarajevo on a matter of some urgency."

His sandwich crinkled while, as if choreographed to the crush of paper, the noise of engines filled our block. Afraid to say more to Gavrilo, I reached out to grasp his shoulder as I had oft in times past.

"This is the wrong way!" a voice cried from the street. "Go back to Apple Quay!"

Gavrilo looked up, and before I gripped his shoulder, he dropped his sandwich and took a single step to brush past me. From his jacket he pulled a revolver, pointing it at the nearest of the vehicles pausing before us. Within the automobile, I realized, sat the man everyone had come to see, the Heir Apparent, Archduke Ferdinand.

My arm remained outstretched, and though Gavrilo was moving forward, he hovered scant centimeters from my grasp. As I realized my predicament, all motion slowed---Gavrilo's waving gun, the converging crowd, the braking autos---as if time itself was attempting to avert coming disaster.

In these frozen seconds, events resolved within my mind. Three days prior, I had heard rumor of a Black Hand plot to retaliate against the Empire's annexation of our Bosnia-Herzegovina---an illegal maneuver on behalf of the Archduke's uncle that most Serbians opposed. Gavrilo's presence here made a sudden sense.

My hand approached Gavrilo---so frail, I would easily be able to wrest him backward. He took aim. I reached further. His finger slid against the trigger in an agonizingly slow progression. Palm outstretched, I sought to grab his coat.

And I hesitated---just for a moment---for I understood what Gavrilo set out to accomplish. Austria-Hungary's ruler, Franz Josef, a powerful, arrogant man, stole the land of our fathers believing he would force us to his will. So self-absorbed, he sent his nephew to review his troops on our own soil, further humiliating us upon the anniversary of our great defeat by the Turks. It was outrageous! He would pay---yes!---for underestimating the dangers of meddling in Serbian affairs...

In that instant, time returned to normal.

"Wait!" I screamed.

Before my hand fell upon Gavrilo, he stepped away from me and fired. The echo of two gunshots drove all other sound away, and from my vantage, I viewed the blood spreading from both Archduke and wife. I also heard the Archduke speak his last words.

"Sophie. Sophie. Don't die," he said in German. "Stay alive for our children."

As if this were a cue, the mob attacked.

"Gavrilo!" I cried, trying to reach him through the gauntlet of bodies, "Gavrilo!" They knocked him to the ground and kicked him mercilessly.

The bloody vision, the cracking gunfire, and my own hesitation all resounded within my head.


Madly, I forced my way into the mob, renting away those weaker than myself. In my furor, I reached the center, and there upon the ground lay Gavrilo, receiving blows like a dead man.

"No!" I cried, bending my foot back, but a police whistle wailed and I was thrust aside. Officers surrounded assassin, lifted him to his feet---for he yet lived---and bore him away.

"No!" I cried again, rushing forward to strike at my old friend, but I received a blow myself and collapsed upon the street.

"No," I sobbed. "No, no, no..." I repeated, for, with all my being, I wanted to kill Gavrilo. He forced the responsibility of two lives upon me, and, in a moment of indecision, I failed them. And could I have looked ahead four years, I would have sobbed all the more. For the millions---oh!---the millions! I failed them all.







The Devil’s Trap: M. Stanley Bubien

The rain had been falling for weeks, and I along with my comrades in arms were bloody soaked---soaked in our trenches, soaked in our dugouts, we either slept in wet clothes or stood with boots full of water.

"Grin and bear it," our sergeant blurted as he slogged into our trench. To illustrate, he grabbed off a boot and, draining it into the mud, he cried, "Aye! You see?" Which he followed with a belly laugh that rumbled like a Howitzer.

It was a most ludicrous sight, our sergeant, boot in hand with yellow water spilling forth, swaying as he made mockery of our situation. It was too much for the men---and myself as well. Pointing fingers or nudging our nearest mate, we let go a torrent of laughter that echoed the length of our trench.

This had to be more than poor old Fritz could take---his enemy across the field drenched in misery but guffawing as though sharing an ale with his pals down at the corner pub.

"What's this?" the sergeant squinted as he staggered to replace his boot.

Above the German parapet, a plank raised, upon which had been scrawled "The English are fools!"

The sergeant grunted, "not such bloody fools as all that!" and he waved myself and two others forward. We pressed our chests against slimy trench wall and, aiming over the top, we made quick work of smashing the sign to splinters with rifle fire.

"Jolly good! We've shown them!" the sergeant said too soon.

Another plank appeared, this time bearing the words "The French are fools!"

"Loyalty to our allies, men." And we destroyed this board as well.

"Bullocks," the sergeant said. He shook a bout of slime away and pointed across No-Man's Land. There rose yet another plank.

On instinct I fired, and these words I made out just as it disintegrated: "We're all fools! Let's all go home!"

The gunfire had silenced only moments before some of the men chuckled. They repeated the message and began talking amongst themselves.

"There's a deal of truth there. Why should this go on?" one said.

"The fighting men have no real quarrel with each other." another agreed.

And a riflemen who helped me extinguish the signs replied, "Bloody right! Let the old men who made this war come here and fight it out themselves."

Nods of ascent spread, and mine was one of them.

"Bloody right!" the sergeant broke in. "But who will go home first?" He glanced about, looking each man in the eye. "Will it be us?" He raised his chin toward the Germans, "or Fritz there?"

The question struck the men dumbfounded. I, however, peered over the trench in hope that the Germans were actually making a retreat. But alas no. I sank back down. We were, each side, caught by the same question---it was a trap, a devil's trap from which there was no escape.

The sergeant slapped me on the shoulder with a mucky hand. "Grin and bear it man," he said and marched away through the trench.


A Scratch on the Nose: Captain Phillippe Millet

"Twenty-two days in the trenches... The regiment has lost 500 men. As for me, I've only had a scratch on the nose, but the bullet which did that killed my pal outright."



No Longer have the Courage: M. Stanley Bubien


Upon repeating the official French commendation for valor, General Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre reached over to pin the medal upon the soldier's lapel.

The soldier's head followed the motion.

Joffre sucked a breath, for briefly the soldier's scar---cutting from his brow down through both eyes, and raking away the bridge of his nose---had given the impression that, though completely blind, he watched the decoration being attached. It was, Joffre realized suppressing a shudder, an illusion.

Afterward, he made an opportunity to address his Staff.

"Never again," he stated. "I mustn't be shown any more spectacles..." Pausing, he rubbed his brow, sighing as fingers ran upon the smooth flesh which stretched there. "I fear I would no longer have the courage to give the order to attack."





The Bolsheviks Were Ruthless: M. Stanley Bubien


The Bolsheviks were ruthless, even after my father abdicated. I may not remember details, but that I shall never forget.

"Don't worry Anna," my father had said, wiping my tears. "We're under their protection." I don't think he trusted them, but he tried to make us believe he did.

The house arrest lasted years---or so I've been told. What I do know involves visions of my mother's stern beauty and constant planning.

"Here's another diamond. I've tied it off." She handed it to me. I fingered it gingerly, and, as she taught me, obscured the heirloom within my favorite gown using needle and thread.

"You'll be a princess again when you wear that," my mother smiled, returning to her own sewing as if that action could return us all to the Czardom.

The Bolsheviks, however, denied us.

Even in his finest dress, I noticed the sweat upon my father's brow.

"Ah," the hulking Bolshevik said as he lead us downstairs. "What a portrait these children will make, sparkling like angels above." He rested his palm upon the shoulder of my gown. The gentleness of his gigantic fingers surprised me.

"Don't touch her!" my father commanded.

The Bolshevik turned a dark eye to him.

My mother brushed his grasp aside and scolded, "You cannot manhandle a princess so."

His gaze fell to the floor as if ashamed, "My apologies." His toothy grin, however, betrayed him.

The portraitist made an elaborate show of arranging us. First all seated, then in a circle about my father, then an embrace. Finally, he waved "Perfect!" with satisfaction. But something was amiss, for he had set us standing shoulder-to-shoulder in an awkward pose.

Stepping away, he grasped the curtain, "And now to the tools of my trade." With a tug, he revealed soldiers---many soldiers---aiming rifles at us. My mother's grip crushed my forearm as the room exploded with gunfire.

The bullets sparked as they bounced from my diamond-encrusted gown. But it still hurt. It hurt so badly, I actually passed out.

* * *

I awoke, slowly remembering as my confusion faded: Being dragged outside and cast asunder; The snow, dirt, icy wind. And the voices!

"I won't do the children."

"I will, then!" a throat rumbled. "Take your hatchet, use it on the Czar."

Someone grabbed my arm. Recognizing those gentle fingers, I opened my eyes to the hulking Bolshevik hovering over me.

"Ah!" the man screeched and jumped back, dropping his axe. In that instant, I took in the bodies of my family, the ground wet and red with blood. I leapt to my feet, kicked off my shoes and sprinted into the trees. I think that was my mother in me.

"Get her! There must be no heir! Find her!"

But I had had years to explore the forest, and I eluded them.

Or so the story goes.

I have read that account, and so many others that I no longer recall the exact truth. But details matter not. For my family died that day. Yet I lived. And so, too, do the Bolsheviks.



Man of War by Stephen Metcalf

How combat changed Paul Fussell and how Fussell changed Amercan letters

Last semester, once a week, I carried a heavy black bag with me down to Philadelphia to teach an English class at the University of Pennsylvania. The bag in question is a bike messenger sack, the kind you carry across your back, with a strap that latches smartly, with a little sealtbelt-like buckle, at your sternum. It’s big to begin with, but like Snoopy’s doghouse, or maybe Dr. Who’s Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside; or at least, always somehow heavier than itself and the sum of its contents. To boot, it distributes its weight awkwardly across my upper body, so that when I returned home from Philadelphia, two train rides later, to what city down-staters mistakenly call “upstate New York,” my spine felt gently but persistently misaligned, like I’d followed up an invigorating yoga class by field-testing a torture device—though only just up until the moment I smiled, the absolute minimum quantity of mettle proven, and cried “Uncle.”

If you’d asked me at the time why I was loading up my Tardis and suffering the unique pleasures (delay, flame-retardant décor, microwave odors, bad cell-phone etiquette) of domestic rail travel, I would have said: “”Paul Fussell.” Fussell, who died this week at the age of 88, was an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fussell had written a guide to poetic form and an equally fine critical life of Samuel Johnson when, in 1975, he broke out as an intellectual celebrity with The Great War and Modern Memory, which won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. The Great War tells the story of the destruction of the 19th century —of its class system and its faith in progress; really, of any way of living predicated on a stable system of value —by World War I. Out of the mass experience of pointless death, a new way of speaking and writing, devoid of euphemism, arose, a plain style we associate with Hemingway (“Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the number of regiments and dates”) but in England may just as easily evoke Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden —writers who saw action in the Great Fuck-Up, as infantrymen soon called it, writers who, as a result of firsthand acquaintance with the trenches, sought a way of making literature without any recourse to elevated literary diction.

The Great War chronicles the loss of the old rhetoric, of high pieties, of sacrifice and roseate dawns, in favor of “blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax,” as Fussell lists it at one point; the sound of “ominous gunfire heard across water.” Fussell himself fought in World War II, and himself wrote in a candid style. “I am saying,” he concludes one chapter in The Great War, as if replying to a margin note from a junior editor, “that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”

Fussell iterates the thesis at length, and the result is a unique kind of masterpiece —a plausible argument by an ex-warrior in favor of literature as the most appropriate measure of the immense shock of not only war, but all social change. (The Modern Library has rightly named The Great War to its list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books.) Fussell wrote other, wonderful books —his tour of forgotten British travel writing Abroad, and a sustained acid bath called Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (“Jewelry is another instant class-lowerer, like the enameled little Old Glory lapel pins worn by the insane and by cynical politicians working backward districts …”) And yet he was at his best, was most himself, when writing about organized killing.

This produced a funny kind of irony —small “i” irony, nothing on the scale of the grand historical irony unleashed by Passchendaele and the Somme —in Fussell’s work. It’s powerfully on display in the essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” for example, where he asks of John Kenneth Galbraith, who had argued that the single ordnance incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, was immoral: “What did [Galbraith] do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don't demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn't.” To this, Fussell later adds:

I was a twenty- one-year-old second lieutenant of infantry leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially fit for combat, in the German war I had already been wounded in the back and the leg badly enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act. When the atom bombs were dropped and … we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault—firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.

One merely notes: He did get his ass shot off. His is a tone of voice that, for being so candid, makes one slightly embarrassed for living in ordinary times. If only the man who has known war up close knows his true self, are the rest of us condemned to a lifetime of the ersatz? Fussell seemed to think so. He once told an interviewer: “You learn that you have much wider dimensions than you had imagined before you had to fight a war. That’s salutary. It’s well to know exactly who you are, so you can conduct the rest of your life properly.” The small “i” irony isn’t hard to spot: The writer who so detested the Georgian puffery that drew nations blithely into war was a master of its anti-style, with its abiding implication that only those like me have touched the true face of experience. It’s the voice of Orwell in Homage to Catalonia; a voice so authoritative that it, no less than propagandist hoo-hah and rosy sunrises, can make a fool want to go to war.

In my imagination (I never met him), Fussell had always been what an English professor should be: erudite, frank, worldly, unworldly, acerbic: library and cosmopolis unto himself. When, out of the blue, I was asked to adjunct a nonfiction writing class at Penn, I said yes, even though, as the crow flies, the gig made absolutely no sense. Every week I headed down to Philly on Amtrak, and every week I faced down the same revelation: that instead of the runnels of blood-strewn ditches, my prose is filled with pita chips, iced coffee, Facebook, and procrastination. Nonetheless, we front our losses as they come. I taught my class as honestly as I knew how; I loved my students; and every week, autumn falling over West Philly, I threw the black bag back over my shoulder, still blessedly heavier than itself, and the sum of its contents.





As the war's 100th anniversary nears, disputes erupt in Europe over how best to remember a conflict that claimed the lives of millions

FOLKESTONE, England — The war that was supposed to end all wars didn't. But who knew it would still be causing skirmishes nearly a century later?


As Europe prepares to mark the 100th anniversary next year of the outbreak of World War I, clashes have erupted over how best to remember a dreadful conflict that claimed the lives of millions and radically changed the course of human history. commemorations set across the continent, some want to recognize it as an important victory for nations such as Britain and France, which won at a heavy price. Yet that risks upsetting current ally Germany, which lost.


Others warn that the real lesson –— the madness of war — is in danger of being ditched in a show of militaristic pride; the focus, they say, should be on peace. But then how to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice?


The arguments, played out in both public and private, illustrate the fascination the Great War continues to hold on this side of the Atlantic and the ongoing debate over its meaning, even though hardly anyone alive now can remember it, much less have fought in it. For many Europeans, the 1914-18 conflict remains the defining event of their modern history, a cataclysm on a scale that no one had seen before and that sowed the seeds of a second global conflagration.


What began with the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist, on June 28, 1914, swiftly bloomed into a wider conflict between alliances of powers alarmed by each other's territorial ambitions, with Britain, France and Russia on one side and Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire on the other. Trench warfare and gas attacks introduced new horrors to the battlefield. By the time fighting ended four years later, the conflict had pulled in the United States and dozens of other nations.

In Britain, the cash-strapped government is planning four years of "national acts of remembrance," including films, lectures, museum installations, ceremonial vigils, community history projects and school trips to the fields of Flanders.


French President Francois Hollande is issuing an unprecedented invitation to leaders of all 72 nations that took part in the war to join him in Paris for its annual military parade in July. France, which lost more than 1 million soldiers, will also unveil its latest monument to the dead and recall the strategically vital but exceptionally bloody 1914 Battle of the Marne, the confrontation that left as many as half a million soldiers dead or wounded in about a week and led to years of hideous stalemate in the trenches of the Western Front.


Similar events are to take place in neighboring Belgium. Even Germany, considered the chief aggressor, is putting on a number of exhibitions for the centennial, emphasizing the sense of European Union unity so many decades later.

"Our look is at reconciliation, to have as many former enemies together as possible and to show that we have learned from our mistakes," said Norman Walter, a spokesman for the German Embassy in London.


But the nature and tone of some events elsewhere have become hotly contested, especially in Britain.


When Prime Minister David Cameron compared the upcoming commemorations to last year's Diamond Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II, many were aghast. They're concerned that the government's four-year plan, encompassing 2,000 exhibitions and events, will end up celebrating a war that should never have taken place. A coalition dubbed "No Glory," which opposes any downplaying of the war's terrible toll, has drawn the support of high-profile Britons, including actors Jude Law and Alan Rickman.

"Any remembrance of World War I that is run in a sane or humane way has to be about warning against any repetition," said Chris Nineham of Stop the War, an organization of peace activists. "That's not a political position. That's a humanitarian position."

Critics are leery of patriotic fervor or military pride in the official program; some even detect a political agenda at work, an attempt to reinterpret the past to justify a more hawkish current British foreign policy.


"If you read the literature around the event, there's an explicit commitment to rehabilitating one of the most terrible slaughters of the 20th century and indeed of world history," said Nineham, whose group is devising counterprogramming. "The reason why these people are wanting to rewrite history is to free them up to fight more wars in the future. It's not an academic question."


The British government denies that it is trying to glorify World War I and says it welcomes discussion on the historical questions.

Hew Strachan, a professor at Oxford, warns that depicting the war as merely an exercise in futility and carnage is also misguided, because it ignores the fact that many Allied soldiers and leaders believed their cause was just: preserving freedom and preventing German domination of Europe.


"I'm certainly not saying we should celebrate any war…. But on the other hand, if you have to fight a war, it may become important to win it, and so the notion of celebration within that context, for the victorious side, makes sense," Strachan said. "If you happen to believe that the values for which you're fighting are important ones, as they did in 1918 just as they did in 1945, then that also becomes important."


Disagreement over the war's significance, aims and prosecution is, in many ways, as old as the war itself. Polarization increased in the 1920s, particularly with the publication of "All Quiet on the Western Front"; later, the overarching narrative of incompetent generals but heroic soldiers — "lions led by donkeys," in the classic phrase — became widespread, Strachan said.


Unlike the 50th anniversary in 1964, when many veterans of the trenches were still alive, making dispassionate discussion more difficult, there's an opportunity now to look at the war more objectively and multidimensionally, said Nigel Steel, a historian at the Imperial War Museum in London.


The museum was created while World War I was still raging, as people then already understood the magnitude of the events and the importance of remembering. Its World War I galleries will reopen next summer after a $57-million refurbishment, providing Britain's most comprehensive view of the conflict, including not just accounts of exploits on the battlefield but the immense challenges and changes on the home front.


"We're about explaining and making sure people don't forget, within a broad historical context," Steel said. "We're here to explain why it happened. It's absolutely not about glorifying the war and presenting a triumphalist message."


Then there's the tricky question of diplomacy. Over the summer, British news media said Germany was concerned about Britain's four-year program and preferred for the events to strike a "less declamatory" tone that didn't dwell on assigning blame for the war.


Walter, the German Embassy spokesman in London, said "there was no and is no friction" between the two former antagonists — now firm friends — over event planning.


Hostilities, however, have broken out here in Folkestone, a port town in eastern England where tens of thousands, some say millions, of British troops embarked for the Western front.


The local member of Parliament, Damian Collins, has led a campaign to erect an arch at the top of the path trod by many of the soldiers down to the docks.


"You're following a journey whose physical landscape hasn't changed that much. For a lot of those soldiers, it would've been their last journey on home soil," Collins said.


But there are already two other World War I memorials near the spot, plus a contemporary artwork made of thousands of numbered rocks, one for every soldier killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.


For some Folkestone residents, the folly of war has now been compounded by the spendthrift ways of local officials who insist on building a new monument costing about $615,000.


"There's no need for it," said Nick Spurrier, a retired bookseller. "I don't know what a stainless steel arch actually tells you about the war. What does it speak of? I don't think very much."


A promotional brochure describes the project as a potential tourist attraction, which Spurrier finds "dishonorable."


"They didn't dig the trenches or fight the war to bring tourists in."


But plans for the arch are moving forward. It's expected to be unveiled in August, on the 100th anniversary of the day Britain and Germany declared war on each other.


"If they build it, they build it. On Aug. 4, I'll go over to France and spend some time in the district of the Somme," said Spurrier, who feels that the occasion calls for somberness, not showiness. "I think it's a ghastly mistake. But I can't do anything about it."





We are waiting for daylight in the place where we sank to the ground. Sinister and slow it comes, chilling and dismal, and expands upon the livid landscape.

The rain has ceased to fall – there is none left in the sky. The leaden plain and its mirrors of sullied water seem to issue not only from the night but from the sea.

Drowsy or half asleep, sometimes opening our eyes only to close them again, we attend the incredible renewal of light, paralysed with cold and broken with fatigue.

Where are the trenches?

We see lakes, and between the lakes there are lines of milky and motionless water. There is more water even than we had thought. It has taken everything and spread everywhere, and the prophecy of the men in the night has come true. There are no more trenches; those canals are the trenches enshrouded. It is a universal flood. The battlefield is not sleeping; it is dead.

Swaying painfully, like a sick man, in the terrible encumbering clasp of my greatcoat, I half raise myself to look at it all. There are three monstrously shapeless forms beside me. One of them – it is Paradis, in an amazing armour of mud, with a swelling at the waist that stands for his cartridge pouches – gets up also. The others are asleep, and make no movement.

And what is this silence, too, this prodigious silence? There is no sound, except when from time to time a lump of earth slips into the water, in the middle of this fantastic paralysis of the world. No one is firing. There are no shells, for they would not burst. There are no bullets, either, for the men.

Ah, the men! Where are the men?

We see them gradually. Not far from us there are some stranded and sleeping hulks so moulded in mud from head to foot that they are almost transformed into inanimate objects.

Some distance away I can make out others, curled up and clinging like snails all along a rounded embankment, from which they have partly slipped back into the water. It is a motionless rank of clumsy lumps, of bundles placed side by side, dripping water and mud, and of the same color as the soil with which they are blended.

I make an effort to break the silence. To Paradis, also looking that way, I say, “Are they dead?”

“We’ll go and see presently,” he says in a low voice; “stop here a bit yet. We shall have the heart to go there by and by.”

We look at each other, and our eyes fall also on the others who came and fell down here. Their faces spell such weariness that they are no longer faces so much as something dirty, disfigured and bruised, with blood-shot eyes. Since the beginning we have seen each other in all manner of shapes and appearances, and yet – we do not know each other.

Paradis turns his head and looks elsewhere.

Suddenly I see him seized with trembling. He extends an arm enormously caked in mud. “There there -” he says.

On the water which overflows from a stretch particularly cross-seamed and gullied, some lumps are floating, some round-backed reefs.

We drag ourselves to the spot. They are drowned men. Their arms and heads are submerged. On the surface of the plastery liquid appear their backs and the straps of their accoutrements. Their blue cloth trousers are inflated, with the feet attached askew upon the ballooning legs, like the black wooden feet on the shapeless legs of marionettes. From one sunken head the hair stands straight up like water-weeds. Here is a face which the water only lightly touches; the head is beached on the margins, and the body disappears in its turbid tomb. The face is lifted skyward. The eyes are two white holes; the mouth is a black hole. The mask’s yellow and puffed-up skin appears soft and creased, like dough gone cold.

They are the men who were watching there, and could not extricate themselves from the mud. All their efforts to escape over the sticky escarpment of the trench that was slowly and fatally filling with water only dragged them still more into the depth. They died clinging to the yielding support of the earth.

There, our first lines are; and there, the first German lines, equally silent and flooded. On our way to these flaccid ruins we pass through the middle of what yesterday was the zone of terror, the awful space on whose threshold the fierce rush of our last attack was forced to stop, the No Man’s Land which bullets and shells had not ceased to furrow for a year and a half, where their crossed fire during these latter days had furiously swept the ground from one horizon to the other.

Now, it is a field of rest. The ground is everywhere dotted with beings who sleep or who are on the way to die, slowly moving, lifting an arm, lifting the head.

The enemy trench is completing the process of foundering into itself, among great marshy undulations and funnel-holes, shaggy with mud: it forms among them a line of pools and wells. Here and there we can see the still overhanging banks begin to move, crumble, and fall down. In one place we can lean against it.

In this bewildering circle of filth there are no bodies. But there, worse than a body, a solitary arm protrudes, bare and white as a stone, from a hole which dimly shows on the other side of the water. The man has been buried in his dug-out and has had only the time to thrust out his arm.

Quite near, we notice that some mounds of earth aligned along the ruined ramparts of this deep-drowned ditch are human. Are they dead – or asleep? We do not know; in any case, they rest.

Are they German or French? We do not know. One of them has opened his eyes, and looks at us with swaying head. We say to him, “French?” – and then, “Deutsch?” He makes no reply, but shuts his eyes again and relapses into oblivion. We never knew what he was.

We cannot decide the identity of these beings, either by their clothes, thickly covered with filth, or by their head-dress, for they are bareheaded or swathed in woollens under their liquid and offensive cowls; or by their weapons, for they either have no rifles or their hands rest lightly on something they have dragged along, a shapeless and sticky mass, like a sort of fish.

All these men of corpse-like faces who are before us and behind us, at the limit of their strength, void of speech as of will, all these earth-charged men who you would say were carrying their own winding-sheets, are as much alike as if they were naked.

It is the end of all. For the moment it is the prodigious finish, the epic cessation of the war.

I once used to think that the worst hell in war was the flame of shells; and then for a long time I thought it was the suffocation of the caverns which eternally confine us. But it is neither of these. Hell is water.



There was a World War I fought for four years in the Italian Alps as well. The global warming has revealed bodies, guns, love letters. Here's the video link.

And here's a book about it:


And here's a review of that book.


Piers Brendon

The Italian front, often regarded as a sideshow, saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the first world war. A million men perished in what Ernest Hemingway called "the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery" of the conflict. According to another witness, Italian troops advancing shoulder-to-shoulder on Austrian trenches high on the Dolomites and the Julian Alps, their officers leading with drawn swords, looked as though they were attempting mass suicide. On several occasions, in gestures of mercy unique to this front, Austrian machine-gunners simply ceased fire. "Stop, go back!" they shouted, as the Italians tried to clamber over mounds of their fallen comrades. "We won't shoot any more. Do you want everyone to die?"

That certainly seemed to be the purpose of the Italian supreme commander, General Luigi Cadorna, whose homicidal endeavours extended to adopting the Roman punishment of decimation. This was the execution of one man in 10 (though Cadorna did not insist on that ratio) selected from units deemed to have shown a lack of pluck and dash. The shootings were carried out much as Hemingway described them in A Farewell to Arms. When one soldier in a batch of condemned men protested his innocence and said that he was the father of seven children, the divisional commander retorted: "Let us be done with this jabbering. Shoot them at once. Orders are orders."

Cadorna's orders were meant to terrorise his troops into unflinching obedience - like Stalin, he further encouraged them to go over the top by mounting machine-guns behind his own lines to fire on stragglers. But he was also anxious to demonstrate his own military virility, his implacable will to win. Proud, silent and aloof, surrounded by obsequious staff officers far from the guns, he projected an image of serene confidence. But he had no idea, apart from hurling his armies at bullets and barbed wire, how to break the military deadlock, and his progress was measured in vertical centimetres. If Field Marshal Douglas Haig - in Lloyd George's phrase - was brilliant to the top of his boots, Cadorna's brilliance never rose above his spurs.

Yet, as emerges from Mark Thompson's magnificent history of a struggle conducted amid snow, cloud and crag, Italy got the general it deserved. Hailed as Duce well before Mussolini monopolised that title, Cadorna embodied the sacred egoism of the fatherland. This was the quasi-fascist spirit of aggression that had plunged Italy into the war in 1915, when it joined the apparently triumphant allies in order to "redeem" its "natural" mountain frontiers. Nationalists were not just bent on grabbing land for mercenary reasons, as Winston Churchill assumed when he dubbed Italy "the harlot of Europe". They wanted a human sacrifice to save their country's soul. As one of Cadorna's corps commanders said, the massacre of infantry was a beneficent purge, "a necessary holocaust".

Thompson is wonderfully scathing about such necrophile nonsense, expressed most deliriously by the poet D'Annunzio and the Futurist Marinetti. They and their followers rejoiced in the vision of blood "spurting from the veins of Italy". They glorified war as "the world's only hygiene". They welcomed the prospect of mass destruction and rape: "We shall ransack the mothers' wombs with fire." And they damned the ideals of liberalism, socialism and democracy, which was fit only for "democretins". D'Annunzio, who compared the experience of battle to an orgasm, played a characteristically vicious role in the conflict, once ordering batteries to fire on a column of his compatriots who had been taken prisoner.

He also penned odes to Cadorna, contributing to a chorus of journalistic praise that helped to keep him in command despite his failures. Admittedly, criticism was difficult because of the all-pervading censorship, enshrined in a decree banning "false news" - ie the truth. This permitted the authorities not only to imprison Colonel Douhet, the prophet of air power, for exposing the supreme commander as a military primitive, but to arrest Neapolitan newsboys for shouting about Italian losses. The press also censored itself, cravenly but profitably participating in an elaborate system of official lying. The Corriere della Sera virtually acted as a ministry of information, with reporters drafting Cadorna's bulletins.

The clerk guilty of the greatest treason was its star reporter, Luigi Barzini, who witnessed the full horror of the war but dramatised it as a heroic adventure. He complained privately: "We are lurching from one disastrous action to the next, massacring whole divisions without inflicting equal damage on the enemy." Yet in print he hailed the supreme commander as a strategic genius whose theory of the offensive was irrefutable. It was much easier, Barzini assured his readers, "to attack uphill against dominant positions than downhill against dominated positions". Disgusted soldiers responded appropriately, using newspapers, as one wrote, "to wipe their arses". One propagandist who visited them at the front was awarded a bronze medal for valour and subsequently, wits quipped, a silver medal for his courage in accepting it - the same joke was later made about Mussolini's son-in-law, Ciano.

The organised mendacity was designed, among other things, to conceal the fact that Italy, the least of the great powers, was entirely unprepared to take part in the great war. The nation had been jockeyed into the conflict by its reactionary premier, Antonio Salandra, with the connivance of the contemptible little king, Victor Emmanuel III. Its conscript army consisted mainly of peasants in uniform, at first lacking leather boots, iron helmets, warm greatcoats and waterproof capes. The army also lacked heavy artillery, high explosive, machine guns and aircraft, to say nothing of flame-throwers and poison gas, which the Austrians used to ghastly effect. Italian wire-cutters were little more than secateurs. And the absence of rock drills meant that they could not dig trenches in the Carso, the harsh limestone plateau overlooking the Isonzo river, where shell-bursts erupted like volcanoes.

Food, too, was in short supply and Italian troops increasingly resembled emaciated scarecrows. When the Austrians counter-attacked in 1917 at Caporetto, where officers such as Erwin Rommel used new methods of infiltration, bypassing and cutting off strong points in anticipation of the blitzkrieg, Italian forces suffered a catastrophic defeat. Nearly 700,000 men were killed, wounded, captured or scattered. Italy lost ground containing 1.5 million people, thousands of whom starved to death under Austrian rule. Vittorio Orlando's new government dismissed Cadorna, who blamed the disaster on the ignominious faint-heartedness of Italian troops. But his replacement, Armando Diaz, stabilised the situation, abolished decimation, restored morale and led Italy to a belated victory as the central powers collapsed in 1918.

D'Annunzio famously spoke of a "mutilated victory". This was because Italy, despite gaining territory in the Tyrol and Dalmatia at the peace settlement, did not receive the spoils its epic bloodletting was thought to deserve. Mussolini was to play with diabolical skill on his countrymen's bitterness at what seemed to them a monstrous allied betrayal. He exploited something akin to a psychology of defeat. He drew mystical inspiration and political vitality from the carnage. As D'Annunzio put it: "Where masses of slaughtered flesh decompose, here sublime fermentations are born." Thus fascism sprang fully armed from the ashes of the great war. And the new Duce mobilised legions of its dead. Where allied war memorials spoke of peace, Mussolini constructed funereal fortresses like that on Monte Grappa. With commemorative tablets resembling gun ports, it was a quintessential emblem of fascist belligerence.

Thompson's account of all this is original, masterly and definitive. He has not only read everything about the subject, he has also tramped the battlefields and talked to centenarian survivors. His descriptions of the gore, guts and filth of attrition in a petrified wilderness are vivid and terrible. His character sketches are penetrating and precise. His judgments are incisive. He is particularly good on literary aspects of the war, delicately anatomising, for example, the work of Italy's foremost war poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti, which "burst like starlight from violence".

Perhaps Thompson's indictment of Italian military incompetence is too relentless. But nothing is more illuminating than his contrast between the modern British memory of the great war as a pointless shambles, and recollections in Italy, where it is seen as an expression of the most glorious qualities of the united nation. Rome's Museum of the Risorgimento displays this legend: "Splendid Italy, binding herself forever in sacrifice." Like Hemingway, we are embarrassed by words such as sacred and sacrifice, and reckon "the things that were glorious had no glory".



TWO SHIPS by Adam Gropnik


We make the turn toward the new year this January with trepidation. Well, we make the turn toward every new year with trepidation, but added to the anticipatory jumps this year are what might be called the retrospective willies. You don’t have to have a very enlarged sense of history to remember what happened last time Western Civilization sped around the corner from ’13 to ’14. Not so good. The year 1913 had been full of rumbling energy and matchless artistic accomplishment—Proust kicking off, the Cubists kicking back, Stravinsky kicking out—and then, within a few months, the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo and the troop trains were running and, pretty soon, the whole positive and optimistic and progressive culture was on its way to committing suicide. The Great War left more than ten million Europeans dead and a civilization in ruins (and presaged a still worse war to come). Naturally, a lot of people, staring at this year’s tea leaves—at rising new powers and frightened old ones—are searching for parallels between that ’14 and this one, and finding them. In theTimes recently, the historian Margaret MacMillan pointed out a few, clustering around the folly of “toxic nationalisms” that draw big powers into smaller local disputes, with the Russians trying to play a better hand today in Syria than they played in Serbia a century ago. 

Lodged somewhere in our collective memory of that catastrophe is an image, a metaphor of hubris, from just a year or so before: a great four-funnelled ocean liner, the biggest and most luxurious ever built, whose passengers, rich and poor, crowd on board, the whole watched over by a bearded man named Edward John Smith, with the chief designer, Thomas Andrews, along for the maiden voyage, too. Then the ship sets off from Southampton, sure of itself, unsinkable, until it comes to the ice fields of the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland—and speeds right on through them to its anchorage, here in New York. Because this ship isn’t the Titanic but its nearly identical twin sister, the Olympic, made at the same time, by the same people, to do the same job in the same way. (A single memorable image exists of the two ships in dock together.) The Olympic not only successfully completed its maiden voyage but became known as Old Reliable, serving as a troop carrier in the First World War, and sailing on for twenty years more. (A third, late-released liner in the same class, the Britannic, hit a mine in the Aegean, in 1916, while serving as a hospital ship, and sank, a true casualty of war.)

The story of the two ships is one to keep in mind as we peer ahead into the new year. It reminds us that our imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary. You have certainly heard of the Titanic; you have probably never heard of the Olympic. We have a fatal attraction to fatality. We don’t have one movie called “Titanic,” starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, about a tragic love and a doomed adventure, and another called “Olympic,” a musical comedy starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, about a happy voyage over. We have only one movie, and remember only one sad tale. If our history leads us to the First World War, then we imagine that we were always bound on that collision course, and we cannot imagine that, with a bit of luck and another set of contingencies, we might have been on the Olympic, not the Titanic. We search for parallels of disaster, and miss parallels of hope. False positives are the great curse of diagnostics, in historical parallels and prostate screenings alike.

Is it all chance and contingency, though? Do we not know what boat we’re on until the iceberg informs us? Leafing through recent books on the last encounter with ’14, you find one thing that does seem to have the chill of ice about it. Even open societies, sailing, so to speak, on the open seas of history, are not immune to the appeal to honor and the fear of humiliation. The relentless emphasis on shame and face, on position and credibility, on the dread of being perceived as weak sounds an icy note through the rhetoric of 1914—from the moment Franz Ferdinand is shot to the moment the troops are sent to the Western Front. The prospect of being discredited, “reduced to a second-rate power,” was what drove the war forward. The German Kaiser kept saying that he would never again allow himself to be embarrassed by the British. Lloyd George, in London, felt that Britain had to go to war or it would never be “taken seriously” in the councils of Europe. Needless wars are rushed along, it seems, by an overcharge of the language of honor and credibility, when the language of common sense and compromise would be a lot more helpful. When someone says, “Ram the iceberg! We can’t afford to let it make us look weak,” it’s time to run for the deck. Sanity lurks in sailing around the ice.

But, then, sanity doesn’t necessarily guarantee safe passage. Two boats set sail in those prewar years a century ago: the boat that sailed on and the boat that sank. Olympic or Titanic? Which is ours? It is, perhaps, essential to life to think that we know where we’re going when we set out—our politics and plans alike depend on the illusion that someone knows where we’re going. The cold-water truth that the past provides, though, may be that we can’t. To be a passenger in history is to be unsure until we get to port—or the lifeboats—and, looking back at the prow of our ship, discover the name, invisible to our deck-bound eyes, that it possessed all along. 

We make the turn toward the new year this January with trepidation. Well, we make the turn toward every new year with trepidation, but added to the anticipatory jumps this year are what might be called the retrospective willies. You don’t have to have a very enlarged sense of history to remember what happened last time Western Civilization sped around the corner from ’13 to ’14. Not so good. The year 1913 had been full of rumbling energy and matchless artistic accomplishment—Proust kicking off, the Cubists kicking back, Stravinsky kicking out—and then, within a few months, the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo and the troop trains were running and, pretty soon, the whole positive and optimistic and progressive culture was on its way to committing suicide. The Great War left more than ten million Europeans dead and a civilization in ruins (and presaged a still worse war to come). Naturally, a lot of people, staring at this year’s tea leaves—at rising new powers and frightened old ones—are searching for parallels between that ’14 and this one, and finding them. In theTimes recently, the historian Margaret MacMillan pointed out a few, clustering around the folly of “toxic nationalisms” that draw big powers into smaller local disputes, with the Russians trying to play a better hand today in Syria than they played in Serbia a century ago.

 Lodged somewhere in our collective memory of that catastrophe is an image, a metaphor of hubris, from just a year or so before: a great four-funnelled ocean liner, the biggest and most luxurious ever built, whose passengers, rich and poor, crowd on board, the whole watched over by a bearded man named Edward John Smith, with the chief designer, Thomas Andrews, along for the maiden voyage, too. Then the ship sets off from Southampton, sure of itself, unsinkable, until it comes to the ice fields of the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland—and speeds right on through them to its anchorage, here in New York. Because this ship isn’t the Titanic but its nearly identical twin sister, the Olympic, made at the same time, by the same people, to do the same job in the same way. (A single memorable image exists of the two ships in dock together.) The Olympic not only successfully completed its maiden voyage but became known as Old Reliable, serving as a troop carrier in the First World War, and sailing on for twenty years more. (A third, late-released liner in the same class, the Britannic, hit a mine in the Aegean, in 1916, while serving as a hospital ship, and sank, a true casualty of war.)

 The story of the two ships is one to keep in mind as we peer ahead into the new year. It reminds us that our imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary. You have certainly heard of the Titanic; you have probably never heard of the Olympic. We have a fatal attraction to fatality. We don’t have one movie called “Titanic,” starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, about a tragic love and a doomed adventure, and another called “Olympic,” a musical comedy starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, about a happy voyage over. We have only one movie, and remember only one sad tale. If our history leads us to the First World War, then we imagine that we were always bound on that collision course, and we cannot imagine that, with a bit of luck and another set of contingencies, we might have been on the Olympic, not the Titanic. We search for parallels of disaster, and miss parallels of hope. False positives are the great curse of diagnostics, in historical parallels and prostate screenings alike.

Is it all chance and contingency, though? Do we not know what boat we’re on until the iceberg informs us? Leafing through recent books on the last encounter with ’14, you find one thing that does seem to have the chill of ice about it. Even open societies, sailing, so to speak, on the open seas of history, are not immune to the appeal to honor and the fear of humiliation. The relentless emphasis on shame and face, on position and credibility, on the dread of being perceived as weak sounds an icy note through the rhetoric of 1914—from the moment Franz Ferdinand is shot to the moment the troops are sent to the Western Front. The prospect of being discredited, “reduced to a second-rate power,” was what drove the war forward. The German Kaiser kept saying that he would never again allow himself to be embarrassed by the British. Lloyd George, in London, felt that Britain had to go to war or it would never be “taken seriously” in the councils of Europe. Needless wars are rushed along, it seems, by an overcharge of the language of honor and credibility, when the language of common sense and compromise would be a lot more helpful. When someone says, “Ram the iceberg! We can’t afford to let it make us look weak,” it’s time to run for the deck. Sanity lurks in sailing around the ice.

But, then, sanity doesn’t necessarily guarantee safe passage. Two boats set sail in those prewar years a century ago: the boat that sailed on and the boat that sank. Olympic or Titanic? Which is ours? It is, perhaps, essential to life to think that we know where we’re going when we set out—our politics and plans alike depend on the illusion that someone knows where we’re going. The cold-water truth that the past provides, though, may be that we can’t. To be a passenger in history is to be unsure until we get to port—or the lifeboats—and, looking back at the prow of our ship, discover the name, invisible to our deck-bound eyes, that it possessed all along. 




In Flanders Fields

John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 May, 1915