Category Archives: Guest Blogger

US Constitution in Intensive Care

Trump has made my political science students skeptical — of the Constitution

By David Lay Williams

They used to love the Federalist Papers. Now they see holes in the essays’ arguments.

June 7, 2019

Portrait of James Madison painted by John Vanderlyn. Madison was one of the three authors — along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton — of the Federalist Papers. (N/A/Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation. )

Thomas Jefferson called “The Federalist” — the collection of essays written by John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in 1787 and 1788, urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution — “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” Through the years, many others have echoed that high praise. The political writer George Will recently said the 85 essays, written for a few New York newspapers, under the pen name “Publius,” are surpassed as a work of political philosophy only by Aristotle’s “Politics.”

I’ve been teaching “The Federalist” to college students since I was a graduate student in the 1990s. While the arguments defending the Constitution’s provisions still stimulate students, I can report a striking change in their reactions to the work since the election of President Trump. Students today are far more skeptical of the argument in “The Federalist” that the Constitution’s famous checks and balances would be sufficient to keep a demagogue from attaining the presidency, for example — or exerting malign power should he attain office. They are dubious when Publius asserts that neither Congress nor the president could ever be susceptible to corruption, in part because of the Constitution’s structure. In short, they are more skeptical about the Constitution itself.

Smart students, of course, have always argued with some assertions in “The Federalist.” Some have always challenged Publius regarding the morally problematic compromises on slavery — the decision to allow the slave population to increase the voting power of slave states through the infamous three-fifths rule, for instance. They unsurprisingly object to the anti-democratic nature of the Senate (two senators per state, regardless of population) and the electoral college. Yet until now, there was a general sense in the classroom that these essays advanced a comprehensive, farsighted and relatively successful political philosophy — and that Americans have been largely lucky to have had the good fortune of such a founding.

But when I taught the seminar again this spring — for the first time since Trump’s election (I had last taught it in 2014) — the experience was radically different from anything had encountered before. The students approvingly noted that Hamilton was aware of the danger of states succumbing to the rhetoric of aspiring leaders who “beg[an] their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants” (Federalist 1). But they pointed out that the system Publius defends led to the election of a president who makes outlandish claims about the “tremendous crime” immigration brings, exaggerates violence in urban areas like Chicago, and retweets statements posted by white nationalists — and generally appeals to people’s basest instincts.

Publius repeatedly seeks to demonstrate how the Constitution will be uniquely capable of preventing corruption, including from “foreign gold” (Federalist 55); such corruption, he argues, would have to penetrate several branches of government to succeed undetected. (He also suggests that the incorruptibility of the Continental Congress should assure readers the proposed new government would be similarly immune to outside interference.) Yet students wonder whether the president’s failure to divest himself of various investments has specifically invited such corruption. And they wonder how Americans might even discover evidence of such corruption, given his concealment of his financial records, even after Congress has demanded it.

Publius insisted that by providing a buffer between the people and the direct election of their president, the electoral college was designed to provide a “moral certainty, that the office of president, will seldom fall to the lot of any man, who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” namely, “ability and virtue” (Federalist 68). To rebut that argument, my students point to the president’s flouting of established legal, political, institutional and moral norms, and even his penchant for petty name-calling.

The authors of “The Federalist” also thought that Congress — particularly the Senate — would tamp down the passionate excesses of the people, should they be stimulated by “artful misrepresentations” from any source (Federalist 63). But now my students watch as senators hold their tongues, terrified of being ridiculed on the president’s Twitter feed or angering Trump’s base.

Some students now see the Constitution as a flawed document, destined from the beginning to fail; for others, it has simply outlived its usefulness.

One might be tempted to explain the turn against “The Federalist,” and the Constitution, by arguing that students have been primed by leftist professors to reject everything associated with dead white men and the Western canon. But I continue to teach Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke and Tocqueville to generally approving classrooms. Students still delight in the insights to be gained from debating topics including Plato’s philosopher-rulers and Rousseau’s concept of the “general will.” Their skepticism seems limited to this one book.

The great danger in all this, it seems to me, is foreshadowed in “The Federalist” itself. In Federalist 49, Publius defends the choice to make amending the Constitution so difficult. Too many changes, too quickly, would “deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on every thing, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.” Without respect for the foundational law of the nation, he worries, the republic would become unstable and perhaps even collapse — the fate of Rome and all previous republics, as he well knew.

Americans have been working for well over two centuries to build that “veneration” that successful constitutions require — yet Trump is eroding it. His election and subsequent behavior is diminishing respect for the entire system the Framers created. And once people lose faith in the constitutional order, politics can, as Publius suggested, spiral out of control.

The Framers insisted that, despite how hard it is to amend the Constitution, the people would always retain the right to remedy future problems. But as Jean-Jacques Rousseau once cautioned, as states grow older, fixing structural problems becomes ever harder: “The people [in long-established republics] cannot bear even having someone touch their faults to get rid of them, like those stupid and cowardly invalids who tremble at the sight of a doctor.” Yet if citizens overcome that hesitation, he added, a sickly republic can be “reborn from its own ashes and, eluding death’s embrace, recapture the vigor of youth.”

The most promising way to redeem the Constitution may be for Congress to embrace the uniquely constitutional solution of impeachment, which Publius envisions as the proper response to the profound “abuse or violation of some public trust” (Federalist 68). The revelations of the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III clearly establish such violations. The remaining question is whether Congress — “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country” (Federalist 10) — will do what’s necessary to save the system.

Old Time Religion in the French Manner

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

By ROBERT ZARETSKY
Published: September 5, 2012

Old Time Religion, in the French Manner
frenchclassHulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbi

With the start of the school year, the nation has quite suddenly been pulled into a debate over the role and responsibilities of the public schools. Should they limit themselves to teaching skills and broadcasting knowledge? Or must they also furnish the foundations of morality — the ethical groundwork that will allow students to make sense of the world?

Oddly, the debate has sprung up not in the United States, but in France. Even odder, just as they would be in the United States, the opponents in France are secular humanists and religious conservatives. Oddest of all, it is the secularists who are pushing for the old time religion of moral instruction, while the faithful are more than a bit dubious.

In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Vincent Peillon, the Socialist government’s Minister of National Education, called for the revival of la morale laïque, or secular morality, in primary schools. This concept, Peillon explained, means teaching students to distinguish between justice and injustice, and good and evil.

But he quickly disabused those American observers who wondered if he was channeling William Bennett, secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. French schools, he declared, must “inculcate the notions of universal morality, founded on the ideas of humanity and reason … . The capacity to reason and criticize, to doubt, must be learned at school. France’s recovery is not only material, but also intellectual and moral.”

Like écoliers bursting out of the school door at recess, politicians and commentators fell over one another in their reactions to Peillon’s remarks. The minister of education under Nicolas Sarkozy, Luc Chatel, viciously tweeted that Peillon had repeated the notorious chestnut from Philippe Pétain, the ruler of Vichy France, who called for a “redressement moral” in 1940. (It happened to be in the same speech in which Pétain announced France’s surrender to Nazi Germany.) Other conservative politicians denounced the proposal as an ideological Trojan Horse, while Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right Front National applauded: “Secular morality is morality that obviously derives from our Christian morality. So much the better if it is taught.”

No less obviously, Le Pen consulted neither French Jews nor French Muslims about “our”— i.e., France’s — Christian morality.

Peillon had scarcely regained his feet when a second herd of critics, issuing from cathedrals and churches, stampeded his way. The Catholic thinker Bertrand Vergely hailed the reintroduction of a single code of morality into the school system, but wondered if the Socialists — “who have devoted the last 40 years to the destruction of the meaning and sense of morality” — were best equipped to undertake the task.

Similarly, the editor of France Catholique welcomed Peillon’s remarks, but asked if a consensus was possible. “Will we teach our children,” he asked, “that the right to be different implies the acceptance of same-sex marriage?”

Some Socialists, in fact, were also leery about a government, even their own, defining one and just one code of moral values for France’s school children. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, expressed misgivings about an “official” set of morals being taught in the schools. His doubts make him and the French Catholic hierarchy strange bedfellows: an openly gay politician who supports same-sex marriage, Delanoë, though he clearly has a different moral compass from the Catholics, shares their concern about the state affirming a single magnetic “north” for one and all.

For the moment, dissension and doubts over Peillon’s defense of secular morality are the only traits that seem to be universal. If nothing more comes of this affair, it will be a pity, for it touches on a vital issue for the future of the French Republic. Among the “republican” values Peillon deemed universal are knowledge, devotion and solidarity. Could they be any more relevant today, he rightly asked, when society is awash in “the values of money, economic competition and selfishness”?

Nevertheless, it is impossible to overlook the great differences between today and the late 19th century when la morale laïque was first proclaimed. When public education became a cornerstone of the fledging Third Republic, France had recovered with dizzying speed from its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Though dramatic economic disparities existed, as did competing interpretations of the nation’s revolutionary heritage, France surged with optimism. Whether reflected in the World Exposition of 1889 (which gave the Eiffel Tower to the world) or the triumph of justice in the Dreyfus Affair a few years later, France was on a roll.

Nothing seems farther from the truth today. With three million unemployed and economic growth near zero, caught between the domestic need to spur demand and a European imperative to cut its deficit, France — now home to some five million Muslims whose place in the nation is endlessly debated — seems largely impotent to inflect its destiny. In a recent poll, nearly two out of three respondents declared they are pessimistic about the future. Indeed, at the very moment Peillon announced his project, his school system was grappling with the cut of 13,000 teaching and staff positions made by the previous government.

Hardly the moment, it seems, to hold a national debate over the teaching of secular morality. Or is it? Clearly, France needs a citizenry armed with the skills, languages and knowledge to compete successfully in a radically changed world from their 19th century ancestors. But as the historian Jean Baubérot argues, these students also need something else. The teachers of the Third Republic helped their students, he notes, to reflect on the balance between rights and duties, as well as the need to respect certain principles essential for a dynamic democracy. Their descendants should expect nothing less of their students or of themselves.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College.

“It’s a culture you can sum up as T’es nul”

British lecturer Peter Gumbel attacks French education culture

A British academic has provoked a storm by claiming that the French education system robs its pupils of their self-esteemPeter G
Peter Gumbel began to reconsider his rosy view of French education when his own children started school in Paris.
A British teacher at one of the leading universities in Paris has produced an extraordinary indictment of France’s admired schools, saying they humiliate pupils and could learn much from other countries, including Britain.

In a book to be published this week, Peter Gumbel, a lecturer at the Institute of Political Science – known as Sciences Po – attacks a classroom culture that brands students “worthless” and that he says is counterproductive and contrary to France’s republican ideals. On achève bien les écoliers? (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They?) has already provoked a storm.

“Why is France the only country in the world that discourages children because of what they cannot do, rather than encouraging them to do what they can?” Gumbel writes. “I believe France is missing a key element of what’s wrong with the school system, an element that is immediately apparent to any foreigner who comes into contact with it: the harshness of the classroom culture.

“It’s a culture you can sum up as T’es nul (You’re worthless). You hear these words all the time in France.”

Gumbel says studies by World Health Organisation groups and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Europe reveal that, in France, more than six out of 10 schoolchildren complain of being anxious, four in 10 have difficulty sleeping, and more than two in 10 have a stomach or headache at least once a week. “These studies show that, while French children score quite highly in European studies on their ability and performance, when asked they rate themselves below countries with low levels of literacy,” he said. “So even when they have the ability, their self-esteem has been knocked out of them.”

Gumbel’s book praises British schools, which may surprise UK parents accustomed to having them compared unfavourably with those across the channel. He told the Observer: “Although the French with their national curriculum have maintained standards and avoided being dumbed down, their system focuses on the transmission of knowledge and doesn’t even remotely address the child or their wellbeing.

“There is more to school than getting good marks, and in Britain schools are not just a about your brain but about sport and arts and finding lots of different ways of excelling. The British system may focus less on results, but it nurtures self-esteem, personality and character, which is something totally missing from the French system and this is tragic.”

Gumbel’s attack has touched a nerve in France. On radio talk shows, his views have had overwhelming support from parents; his book was also given a six-page review in the respected news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

Philippe Meirieu, a professor in education science, admitted: “Our way of testing and evaluating [pupils] discourages creativity and the personal involvement of the pupils. This is the cause of the relative passivity they show and that Peter Gumbel deplores. If pupils hardly ask questions in class it’s because they don’t really feel bothered about what they’re being told or fear being stigmatised by their classmates.”

Patrick Gonthier, secretary- general of France’s second-biggest teaching union, Unsa Education, said: “Our teaching staff could take this as an attack, but they are not being blamed. It’s the whole French school system that is stubborn to change and remains profoundly elitist and dedicated to the grading and the selection of the best. For this to change and other teaching methods to be introduced into classes there has to be a strong consensus among professors, parents and politicians to challenge this elitism and focus on the success of everyone at school, and we are far from having that.”

Gumbel, 52, who also works as a journalist, has lived in Paris since 2002 and was prompted to criticise French schools, colleges and universities after putting his two daughters, now aged 10 and 13, into the education system.

“There are 16,000 new teachers entering French schools this term who are undoubtedly very clever but haven’t the slightest idea about how to teach, and that is scandalous,” he said. “The key to good schools, as other countries have discovered, is having good teachers.”

‘Nobody talks about happiness’

I used to think that French education was the best in the world, writes Peter Gumbel. Perhaps a little old-fashioned, but unlike the British or the Americans the French had resisted the temptation to dumb down their curriculum. That meant children left school at 18 with an admirably comprehensive knowledge of history, geography, maths, science and the liberal arts. And you didn’t need to spend a fortune on private schools, because the state system provided the best education in the country.

Then we moved to Paris and sent our two daughters to school.

The teachers seemed good on the whole, and the programme was as rigorous as anticipated, but something was amiss. There were obvious symptoms: tummy aches and other signs of stress, an unhealthy phobia about making mistakes and flashes of self-doubt. “I’m hopeless at maths,” my eldest daughter declared one day. “No, you’re not, you just need to work at it harder,” was my reply. “No, daddy, you don’t understand anything. I’m hopeless.”

It was only when I started teaching at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris that I figured out the problem. Better known as Sciences Po, it’s part of the “grandes écoles” network that has traditionally trained France’s political and business elite. To get in you need to have done fabulously well at school. The big surprise for me was not how bright these students were – and most are very, very bright – but how low their self-confidence was. Getting them to participate in classroom discussions was like pulling teeth. Exam time was trauma time: every year, several burst into tears during the oral.

That’s when I started wondering whether my experiences were simply anecdotal or part of a bigger, system-wide pattern. It didn’t take long to find a wealth of international comparative studies, conducted by the OECD and other respected institutions.

They show conclusively that French children overall are more anxious and intimidated in school than their peers in Europe or other developed countries. They’re so terrified by the idea of making mistakes and being lambasted for them, that they’d rather keep their mouths shut than put their hands up.

The French education system has focused so narrowly on the transmission of knowledge that it has ignored that other key function of school: to build character and personality. There’s almost no art, sport or music. Teamwork is an alien notion, as are such basic pedagogical concepts as positive reinforcement, and teachers receive only scant or no training in effective classroom techniques.

The French are right to uphold standards, particularly when compared with Britain, but in the classrooms they go about it the wrong way. As one reviewer of my book told me: “You’ve broken a taboo. Nobody ever talks about happiness at school here.”

On achève bien les écoliers (“They Shoot Schoolkids, Don’t They?”), by Peter Gumbel, will be published this week in French by Grasset.

Gumbel

More on the calculus as the language of mathematics

I know I don’t have a right to say this, that calculus is the language of mathematics. I’m not a mathematician, nor am I even good at math. Whatever it is that I’m calling mathematics, I do like, and have at various points in my life, all in the times since my own schooling, not during it, been fascinated by mathematics, math problems, and especially the calculus, which I’m now calling the language of mathematics because it now seems to me to include most everything else.

My own experience, no more than glimpses of the beauty of math through a dark glass as sit were, does makes me think that everyone could profit from some experience of the calculus, no less than of Shakespeare’s language, Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-Flat (Notturno),  the geological history of the earth, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and any number of other of man’s achievements.

But this will never happen, as in my own case, until the content of a liberal education, math, music, art, science and the humanities, is no longer considered the substance of the school curriculum, but the on-going substance of our lives. for at the present time we have most of all we have impoverished the experience of the liberal arts by turning them over to the schools, and allowing popular culture to replace them as the principal content of our thinking and feeling lives.

As a civilization we lost the true path when we confined, at least for the young, their learning to their time in school. It wasn’t always that way. For most of man’s 100,000 plus years on earth learning was always the fixed and not dislodgeable accompaniment of life itself and never over except at death.

The calculus if beautiful. But it’s the rare kid in school who is able to appreciate this beauty. It takes time, as in my own case a lot of time. In school kids are rarely influenced, let along impressed or “knocked over” by the very best that has been thought and said (and done).

And if we insist too much on their grasping the beauties and truths of our lives, of some of what we have grasped only from many years of life experiences after school, we probably risk turning them even further away, insuring their falling even more tightly into the grip of the more comfortable icons of popular culture.

What to do? What to teach young children? I’m not going to write about this, other than to say that schooling should be most of all about acquiring skills, once with the bow and arrow, but now with any number of the countless instruments at our disposal, including pen and brush, measuring and mapping devices, computer programs, string and wind instruments, not to mention reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Knowledge will only come with time and experience. In any case what they “learn” in school they will forget unless they go on to use it in their lives. Whereas this is less true of skills, and if the skills taught have been well chosen for the individual learner it will be these skills that they will take with them no matter what they go on to do.

The tragedy of our public schooling, at least for a good number of kids, perhaps more than half if the critics are right, is not that the kids have acquired little knowledge and understanding of the liberal arts, but that they have dropped out of school entirely, or may have even graduated, but in possession of few or no skills.

But I’m getting away from my subject, which is calculus as the language of mathematics. Just today two experiences seemed to support my position. Earlier this morning I was watching a u-tube video of David Jerison’s Single Variable Calculus class on the Web via MITOpenCourseware.

His subject was implicit differentiation and inverses, but the language he used was mostly the language of trigonometry. He even said at one point that the “trig identities” etc. had to be learned and memorized, one had to achieve fluency in their use, as (he didn’t say it but I said it to myself) with acquiring vocabulary while learning a foreign language. So much of the earlier school mathematics seems to me now only to be a preparation for the calculus later.

The other experience was my discovery of Steven Strogatz’s 2009 Book, The Calculus of Friendship. Strogatz is the author of a recent series written for the New York Times,  He says it best:

From Fish to Infinity

Steven Strogatz

Steven Strogatz on math, from basic to baffling.

I have a friend who gets a tremendous kick out of science, even though he’s an artist. Whenever we get together all he wants to do is chat about the latest thing in evolution or quantum mechanics. But when it comes to math, he feels at sea, and it saddens him. The strange symbols keep him out. He says he doesn’t even know how to pronounce them.

In fact, his alienation runs a lot deeper. He’s not sure what mathematicians do all day, or what they mean when they say a proof is elegant. Sometimes we joke that I just should sit him down and teach him everything, starting with 1 + 1 = 2 and going as far as we can.

Crazy as it sounds, over the next several weeks I’m going to try to do something close to that. I’ll be writing about the elements of mathematics, from pre-school to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject — but this time from an adult perspective. It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it.



Steven Strogatz is a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University. In 2007 he received the Communications Award, a lifetime achievement award for the communication of mathematics to the general public. He previously taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received the E.M. Baker Award, an institute-wide teaching prize selected solely by students. “Chaos,” his series of 24 lectures on chaos theory, was filmed and produced in 2008 by The Teaching Company. He is the author, most recently, of “The Calculus of Friendship,” the story of his 30-year correspondence with his high school calculus teacher. In this series, which appears every Monday, he takes readers from the basics of math to the baffling.

Chip Brown’s Account of a Taliban at Yale

I do love this country. There is a certain greatness in America that is still with us (in spite of all that is wrong now and has been wrong in the past), a real, admirable quality that is always turning up if one has the eyes to see it. Courage and generosity, and being able to laugh at oneself and admit one’s mistakes, these are, I think, the words that best describe our country’s greatness. These qualities are easy to discern in the big events of the country’s history, in the survival of the early Atlantic seaboard colonies, the settling and the winning of the West, the making room in our public lives, alongside of the white males, first for women, then for Blacks, and now for all those who come to our shores from nearly every corner of the earth. These are generally recognized instances of greatness in our country’s history, but there are also innumerable individual instances of greatness, demonstrated by the actions of individual Americans and resulting from an inner sense of what is the right thing to do, and not from an outer awareness of convention, or tradition, or from fear of risk taking, or from a need to be well thought of, well remunerated, and the like. Americans have always reached out to people, whoever they are and wherever they be, disregarding whatever the particular circumstances and prejudices there might be surrounding these people and that might have stopped a lesser person from becoming involved, and have instead welcomed that “other” into their lives and hearts and homes.
In the instance before us the American with a “great soul” is Mike Hoover and the “other” to whom he reached out is Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, now 28 years old and a freshman at Yale, but a former roving Ambassador for the Taliban. Chip Brown in today’s NYTimes tells us this fascinating story. In what follows below I will be taking whole passages from Chip’s account.

In May of 2000, when he first met Rahmatullah at the airport in Quetta, Pakistan, Mike Hoover was a “hale, rangy, black-haired 56-year-old, mountaineer, cameraman, filmmaker, and possibly the only member of the American news media whose life was as eventful as Rahmatullah’s. He had been to both poles, all seven continents and, during the making of “The Eiger Sanction,” served as Clint Eastwood’s stunt double. He had one Academy Award, three wives, four children and 14 Emmys and had had many brushes with oblivion. In 1994, he was the only survivor of a ski-helicopter crash in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada that killed four people, including his second wife, Beverly Johnson (at one time the best female rock climber in the world), and Frank Wells, president of the Walt Disney Company.”

Typical? Well maybe not, but certainly American with a not untypical American story.

“In the 1980’s, Hoover slipped into Afghanistan for CBS News and filmed mujahedeen battles against the Red Army. The Afghans dubbed him Shutur, or “the Camel,” because he insisted on lugging his heavy camera equipment up trails in the Hindu Kush. Now, in May 2000, he was one of the few American news cameramen who had been given Taliban permission to visit Afghanistan since Clinton’s attempt to kill bin Laden with cruise missiles in August 1998. Rahmatullah had been assigned to take him around as a guide and translator and show him whatever he wanted to see.”

“Rahmatullah had a driver, and Hoover was traveling with another filmmaker, Cindy Carpenter Spies, who was working on a documentary about Afghan women. The party set off around noon for Kandahar in an old station wagon. After they had been going for a while, the driver pulled to the side of the road. He and Rahmatullah got out. They were in the middle of nowhere, and no one was around. “I thought this was it,” Spies recalls. “I thought, They’re probably going to kill us right here.” Hoover wasn’t sure what the two Taliban were up to until they faced southeast and got down on their knees to pray.

“Over the next three weeks, Hoover and Rahmatullah traveled around Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and formed a deep friendship. One night, a week or so into the trip, Hoover was sitting on the floor of the foreign office guest house in Kandahar, drinking tea as Rahmatullah and some other Taliban peeled potatoes and onions. Rahmatullah asked him a question.”

“Do you believe people are related to dogs?”

Dogs are not favored in Afghan society; the question dared him to contradict common sense.

“Yes,” Hoover said.

The Taliban all laughed in amazement.

“How can you possibly believe that? We are so different.”

“You see only differences. I see similarities.”

“Similarities! Like what?”

Hoover wanted his first example to be an intellectual bunker buster, so he thought carefully.

“Bilateral symmetry,” he said. The laughter stopped, which pleased him.

“What does that mean?”

“It means dogs have eyes on either side of their nose, just like humans. Dogs have two nostrils, just like humans. They have two lungs. They have toenails. They have a heart in the center of their chest. Dog blood and human blood are indistinguishable.”

Recalling the exchange not long ago, Hoover said: “Now you could hear a pin drop — and it was a dirt floor. They were starting to get uneasy. There was a dog right outside. It was scraggly and covered with sores; I think the appropriate word for it would be ‘cur.’ When I finished laying out how they might be genetically related to the cur outside, they went off and started talking among themselves very intently. What they were discussing and what they wanted to understand was if what I was saying was true, would it fit within the teachings of the Koran. After a long time they came to the conclusion that it would.”

Chip’s account in the Times makes it clear that Mike Hoover recognized the worth of this young man, and brought him to Yale via Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he, Mike, now lives.

So who is Rahmatullah, the “other” in this story? Two anecdotes in Chet’s account are particularly revealing of the young man’s character, qualities that Mike and Yale probably recognized in turn.

Waiting to hear from Yale, Rahmatullah spent the holidays in Jackson Hole with Hoover. [While there] he spoke to students at several local schools…. After a talk to the young teenagers at the Jackson Hole Middle School, two boys approached Rahmatullah.

“Can we ask you a question? Have you ever been in a war?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell us about it? We want to be Army Rangers.”

He thought for a second. “Do you guys play video games?”

“Yeah,” they said, looking at him as if he had rocks for brains.

“I thought so,” he said. “Let me ask you, have either of you ever killed a chicken?”

They shook their heads. They didn’t know anyone who even had chickens.

“When was the last time you had to kill anything to eat?”

They were confused.

“I killed a goat before I came here,” Rahmatullah said. “I hated doing it. Go kill a chicken, and pluck it, and eat it,” he said softly. “And then maybe you will know a little bit about war.”

And then a bit later the writer has this to say:

Many distinctions could be drawn between his old life and his life at Yale. But he had seized on one.

“You have to be reasonable to live in America,” he said. “Everything here is based on reason. Even the essays you write for class. Back home you have to talk about religion and culture, and you can win any argument if you bring up the Islamic argument. You can’t reason against religion. But you cannot change Afghanistan overnight. You can’t bring the Enlightenment overnight.”

Well, I thought, what about that, “you have to be reasonable to live in America. Everything here is based on reason.”
And then, “you can’t bring the Enlightenment to Afghanistan overnight.”

Well, I’d like to believe that, not that you can’t bring reason to Afghanistan, but that everything here is based on reason. My own activities, such as reading books purchased through Amazon’s used book network, downloading newspaper and magazine articles from the Web, through it all constantly on the outlook for new ideas that I can then write about and share with my email correspondents, highly reasonable activity all that? I’d like to think so, and I’d certainly rather be called a reasonable man than a born again. But, “you have to be reasonable to live in America,” probably not.

So I wouldn’t agree with Rahmatullah that it’s the place of reason in our lives that is our most striking characteristic. (Nor was it probably that noticeable in France during the Enlightenment, followed as that was by the least reasonable period of their history.) In fact I don’t know many people whom I would characterize in that manner. I do know a lot of people for whom money, not reason, is most important. But I also know many Americans who are fundamentally good, who are extraordinarily generous with their time and money, who are quick to reach out and help others who have much less than they. It’s not so much by the place of reason as it is by the place of generosity in our lives that I would judge the greatness of our country. And right along with that generosity, and an inseparable part of it, is the American’s ability to look to the worth of the man or woman underneath whatever might be the clothes he or she is wearing, the color of that person’s skin, the social or economic class to which the person might belong. I would say that people in general, no less than Americans, may be called great souled or magnanimous when in their dealings with others they disregard the external factors of others’ lives and see them and relate to them for what they are underneath. Only for the scientist, perhaps, are externals all important. Most of us try to go directly to the essence of things beyond the externals, or at least we would like to think we do. For when the externals, one’s social position, one’s bank account, one’s golf game are all important, well then we’re in big trouble. And most important we are much less the man or woman that we could be. Up until now I’d like to think that America’s times of greatness have overshadowed the instances of its littleness. For some of us they have, and for others they haven’t, and today we find ourselves divided because of our differences in this regard. I think it was one an instance of greatness that had Mike Hoover bring Rahmatullah to Jackson Hole, and another one when Yale University accepted Rahmatullah as a freshman at the college.