The greatest myth about his class

The greatest myth about my class (“Actually, we’re not like that,” College Row, Spring 2011) is that it’s one generation.

Barry Scott ’11, via Facebook

Physics and karma

The work of Professor Arthur Zajonc presented in “An Integrated Life” (My Life, Spring 2011) is truly awesome—in the literal sense of the term.

But as a teacher of philosophy for four decades, and as an avid student of physics (thank you, Professor Arnie Arons), I consider the view that randomness of particles affects human decisions and actions as a regrettable misunderstanding.

Zajonc writes: “Quantum mechanics is inherently probabilistic…. In contrast, Buddhism believes that every single event has a set of causes which can be tracked to previous events. This is a fundamental divide of enormous significance in physics, and for the Dalai Lama to take it as a fact would really upset the tea cart of Buddhist philosophy.”

Why so? Whether the principle of karmic cause/effect rests on freedom or determinism, so long as there are consistent “patterns … over a collection of events” (Zajonc’s words), karma at the level of human decisions and actions is safe, regardless of the motions or positions of individual particles.

Consider, for instance, a solo violinist who draws bow across string to play just the right note with admirable feeling. Does the indeterminacy of the particles in the bow or string, or in the violinist’s hand or brain, or in the ears of anyone in the audience, have the slightest effect at the macroscopic level? I doubt it.

Or: Can you imagine a physicist on the witness stand saying, “Yes, I held the gun at the victim’s head and pulled the trigger, but the motion and position of each particle in the gun and in the bullet were indeterminable, so no one could predict where the bullet might go.” I don’t think so.

Joe Morton ’57
Towson, Md.

The writer is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Goucher College.

A clue to the T. rex diet

Fellow Theta Xi alumni Jon Cole ’67 and Nils Bruzelius ’68 have called my attention to the mention of the huge Tyrannosaurus coprolite from Saskatchewan as part of the Beneski Museum of Natural History’s exhibition Tell Me What You Eat (“Feeding frenzy,” College Row, Winter 2011). That specimen was discovered in 1995 by a member of the paleontology program I headed at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. We were excavating a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton nearby, in a tributary of the Frenchman River. Especially considering the (still) on­going debate over what and how Tyrannosaurus ate, we were astounded that the coprolite contained a great number of matchstick-sized splinters of bone, presumably from an ornithischian dinosaur, i.e., prey.

The area from which the notorious Tyrannosaurus turd came has produced a rich assemblage of vertebrates, including fishes, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds and an outstanding mammal fauna; the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary (including the boundary clay layer) is visible slightly higher in the section there.

I studied fossil mammals with Albert Wood at Amherst: he was at that time a world authority on fossil rodents. My graduate studies were at the University of Toronto, and my career was spent in Alberta, Saskatchewan and, finally, the Yukon Territory, studying fossil mammals (mostly small mammals) of Cretaceous to Pleistocene ages, but dinosaurs, marine reptiles and even fishes and birds came my way over the years. It has been a fascinating and enjoyable career.

John Storer ’66
Sechelt, B.C.

Politics and revenues

Re:  Hubert-Longsworth letter and responses: During my years at Amherst, I did not perceive that faculty members expressed politically partisan opinions.  There certainly was no attempt to sway students to be conservative or liberal in their political views.  The emphasis was clearly on our developing the use of critical thinking in all our course work.  As an example, the American Studies course provoked fine discussions without any expressions of partisan rancor.

I believe it would contribute to this correspondence if we were provided with specific details on which faculty members have stated they are opposed to free-market capitalism.  Since that is our current economic system in this country, it would certainly be folly for the college to function independently of it.  The fact that Amherst has an endowment with investments on stock exchanges shows dependence on capitalism.

I am quite concerned about the rhetoric found in Dean Woodman’s letter in the Spring, 2011 issue of this magazine.  He indicates that Amherst graduates may divert “financial support away from Amherst College in favor of institutions which favor private enterprise, individual freedoms and the principles espoused by the American Founders.”  I would ask Woodman to inform readers of this magazine which trustees, administrative staff, or faculty members do not support these three values.

I will close this letter by a most pertinent quote found on the Amherst website: “The college is fatal to favoritism, for its principles are freedom and justice, the principles of fair play, the principles of democracy.” —    George Harris, President, 1899-1912

Thomas C. Washburn '53

Fernandina Beach, Fla.

It is hard to know how to respond to Dean S. Woodman’s letter in the Spring 2011 Amherst. What evidence does he adduce to support his suggestion that the alleged liberal bent of the Amherst faculty colors their teaching? None. How can he assert that this country has, since 1945, been “centrist”? I guess the efforts of Joe McCarthy and current exemplars like Jim DeMint do represent a drag on progressive initiatives like civil and voting rights, the GI Bill, Medicare, Head Start and Upward Bound—all post-1945 laws—and some of the earlier adjustments to our social contract, like the vote for women, the right of labor to organize and to bargain collectively and Social Security.

I resent Woodman’s implicit blackmail: Either “favor private enterprise, individual freedoms and the principles espoused by the American Founders” or I’ll give my money to Pepperdine or Bob Jones or Oral Roberts. The letter’s vague and unsubstantiated assertions and the threat delivered with oligarchic arrogance constitute a negative commentary on the value of “an Amherst education.”

H.R. Coursen ’54
Brunswick, Maine

Higher education is on high alert but taking few proactive steps to address its deepening crisis. All of the warning signs are there. Outcries over price, uncertain funding and faltering demographics add to the din, as does the exchange of letters in our magazine.

There are fewer college-bound students and fewer affluent families able or willing to pay.

Growing skepticism over the value of most private colleges’ education (relative to what families think they will have to pay), is driving record numbers of students to public institutions at the same time those schools’ budgets are being gutted, lowering the number of students the public sector can accommodate and leaving those who are enrolled with a diminished educational experience, albeit with the perception of affordability.

In the simplest terms, college leaders can look at income and expense. In the past, much “planning” in higher education began by looking at mission and current business procedures and then adding the occasional exciting new initiative, and then looking at known and anticipated revenues—and then raising student fees to cover the inevitable gap.

A hot economy allowed that model to flourish. And colleges flourished with rich curricular growth and stunning expansion of facilities.

Now the high overhead of maintaining that which grew out of a different, departed world is threatening legacy employee benefit programs, trimming back athletics, shuttering eco-friendly vegan dining halls. Even academic programs are disappearing. As colleges are being challenged to assess whether they can afford their values, the planning paradigm of the past has to be flipped around and managed. Colleges have to forecast revenue first and then make expenses fit, and no matter how painful, they have to do this intentionally and collaboratively, and begin doing it as soon as possible.

Dan Lundquist ’76
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Editor’s note: Once in a while we learn something about a past cover subject that is too good not to share. That is the case with the exceptional swimmer Kendra Stern ’11 (“Big Fish,” Fall 2010).

Less than two weeks after being named NCAA Division III National Swimmer of the Year, Stern competed in the 2011 Eric Namesnik Grand Prix at the University of Michigan, where she qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials.

From Amherst magazine writer Justin Long: “Qualifying for the Olympic Trials is an amazing accomplishment on its own, but Stern’s weekend in Ann Arbor was beyond impressive. In addition to competing against some of the best swimmers in the world, she had to make the adjustment to a long-course pool, something other competitors at the Grand Prix didn’t have to worry about. (Stern’s adjustment from Division III to the Grand Prix would be like playing pickup basketball with your friends on a 7-foot hoop, then taking on the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena.) Stern responded brilliantly.”

She’ll spend the next year training. We’ll be watching.

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