Evolution a More Brilliant Way to Create

I was surprised to see letters published in the July|August Gazette (a presumably intellectual publication) in response to the article “Fit Enough” [May|June] that advocate some form of creationism.

My degree from Penn is a master’s in computer science. I also have a degree in theology from Boston College, so I am very interested in issues concerning religion and science, and I am especially interested in evolution.

My own private study has led me to three conclusions:

1. The theory of evolution by natural selection is an established scientific theory, as solid as the theory of gravitation. It is almost universally accepted by scientists, and it is fundamental to the biological sciences. Apparently, only in the U.S. is it seriously questioned.

2. Intelligent design may be an attractive philosophical or religious idea, but it is not a scientific theory. A scientific theory is a rigorously stated explanation of data derived from experimentation or observation. The theory is stated in a way that can be confirmed or refuted by independent scientific investigators, and it is usually published in peer-reviewed journals. Intelligent design proponents have not presented such a scientific theory.

3. Darwinian evolution provides no threat to religious faith (except to beliefs which are contradicted by facts, such as the belief that man and dinosaurs co-habited the earth 10,000 years ago). Many well-established scientists are people of deep faith.

I find myself becoming more amazed and thrilled by the world we live in as I realize how it came about by evolution. To me, evolution is a much more brilliant way for a God to create than by doing an ad-hoc design for each species.

J. K. Siberz GEE’69 Elm Grove, WI


Your Reply Here

When you have an article on evolution, you can expect virtually all of your readers with a Penn education to accept at least the premise that evolution is a fact. These people are unlikely to write a letter in support of evolution—it would be equivalent to supporting a round earth. Likewise, it seems a given that a small number of Penn grads misled by a literal belief in the bible or some other odd theory would be the ones to write in protest.

Unfortunately, glancing at the letters in the July|August Gazette gives the impression that most  Penn grads do not believe in evolution. I would suggest that, like The New York Review of Books, you give the writers of protested articles a space to reply after the letters of dissent.

Jeffrey Myers C’53 Medford, NJ


Render Unto Cesar His Section

Some of your letters about evolution and intelligent design in the July/August issue were, to say the least, astounding.

First, one should, I repeat should, quibble about the proper use of the name Cesarean (not Caesarean) section. A couple of thousand years before Caesar’s time, the great Persian hero Rostam was brought to life out of Rudabah by what we now refer to as a Cesarean section.

Although, in that case, the earth was created before 4000 B.C—the date calculated by 17th-century Bishop James Ussher based on a literal reading of the bible—unless, of course, Sumerian and Persian cultures were simply delusions, or inventions of the evolutionists.

On a more recent theme, how can we explain the “adaptation” of some viruses to antibiotics? I remember, when attending school in Poland, where I was born, and we were lectured about the Scopes trial, we—the students—thought that the teacher was pulling our respective legs.

Leon W. Zelby EE’56 Gr’61 Norman, OK


Older, but Less Smart?

I was startled by the sheer number of letters in which Penn graduates voiced support for creationism (and its thinly veiled counterpart, intelligent design). Most disheartening was that some of the letters dismissed all evidence for evolution in such a cavalier manner! It demonstrates that these people have no education in how science works.

Bad enough that they lack the capacity to understand the basis for evolution, but the broader implications for their comprehension of science is far worse, and a black mark on Penn for openly declaring, “Hey, this is the quality of our graduates!”

Granted, most of the authors of those letters graduated from Penn 25-51 years ago, but still …

Jerry D. Harris Gr’04 St. George, UT

The writer is the director of paleontology at Dixie State College.


NEA Position Misrepresented

In “Value-Added Education” [“Expert Opinion,” July|August], Walt Gardner misrepresents the position of the National Education Association (NEA) on pay-for-performance. Mr. Gardner claims that “the National Education Association opposes pay-for-performance outright.” This is a simplistic and inaccurate characterization. What the NEA is opposed to is pay based on student test-scores, which are imperfect measures of student performance and even worse measures of teacher performance.

Moreover, when discussing teacher pay, it is remiss to not address the fact that teachers are woefully underpaid in comparison to other professions that require similar complex skill sets. The intrinsic rewards of an education career are often used as a rationale to compensate for poor starting salaries. But low teacher pay comes at a very high cost. Close to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession during the first five years of teaching, and 37 percent of teachers who do not plan to teach until retirement blame low pay for their decision to leave the profession.

In reality, NEA supports many creative pay-enhancements: Paying teachers more to mentor newer colleagues; providing group pay that offers teachers the opportunity to gain greater autonomy and discretion in all school matters; giving teachers extra pay for extended contract years, extended days, and extra assignments; providing extra compensation to teach in hard-to-staff schools; paying teachers for the knowledge and skills they gain directly related to the mission of the school and/or their assignment; and rewarding teachers who have higher credentials directly related to their teaching assignment and/or the mission of their school. When provided as enhancements to a competitive and professional base salary, these types of efforts can support the teaching practice, improve student learning, and avoid many of the pitfalls caused by most merit-pay plans.

It is also worth noting that many local NEA affiliates have agreed to innovative pay plans in their own school districts. However, it is crucial that NEA affiliates are involved in negotiating such decisions, rather than them being unilaterally imposed. While Mr. Gardner is correct in observing that Denver’s pay system, Pro-Comp, was a joint union-district plan, it must be pointed out that value-added methodology is not one of the nine pay components.

Simply put, good pay attracts good teachers. NEA believes that professional pay for public education employees is fundamental to achieving the goal of a qualified educator in every classroom—the most important ingredient of a great public education.

The key question for any compensation system is whether it is designed to improve teaching and learning or to advance short-term political goals. A comprehensive system must encourage the kind of things that make a difference in teaching and learning—such as experience, knowledge, and skills. It must be easily understood by all stakeholders, which is often not the case when performance schemes are based on complex statistical formulas, such as value-added models.

Marcia Magid C’82 Falls Church, VA

The writer is a senior policy analyst with NEA.


Good in Theory, Bad in Practice

Walt Gardner makes many valid points in his essay, “Value-Added Education.” As a public school teacher for the last 31 years in the suburban-Philadelphia Haverford Township School District, I heartily agree with Mr. Gardner’s opening comments regarding the absurdity of the No Child Left Behind Act. I take issue, however, with Mr. Gardner’s recommendation of “value-added,” “student-growth,” and “pay-for-performance” models for improving instructional effectiveness. These plans are classic “sound-good-in-theory but ineffective-in-practice” proposed solutions.

In addition to my teaching duties, I have served as president of our local teachers’ association for the last 10 years. (We are also members of NEA and the Pennsylvania State Education Association.) It’s true that the national and state teacher associations generally oppose “pay-for-performance” plans—and for legitimate reasons: There’s no evidence that these plans work, there are too many variables beyond the control of school districts (and certainly beyond the control of classroom teachers), and there is no objective way to judge one teacher’s effectiveness against another’s.

We all agree to the importance of effective teachers in the classroom. It is believed to be the single most important factor in student achievement. Finding a fair and objective way of measuring such effectiveness has proven, however, to be elusive.

Thomas E. Capista C’76 GEd’77 Havertown, PA


Make That One of the Largest?

I was pleased to learn that some 200 Penn students recently volunteered to help rebuild New Orleans [“Bridges to the Gulf,” July|August]. For the sake of accuracy, it should be noted this was probably not the largest student turnout. Several hundred students from Howard University, where I am on the History Department faculty, pursued an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) there this past April, according to one of my students, who was an organizer on her second ASB. She further informed me that hundreds more students volunteered but had to be turned away because of the lack of available accommodation.

During a time of cynicism regarding the young, it is important to recall these important acts of solidarity between the young and the unfortunate from Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

J. R. Kerr-Ritchie Gr’93 Washington


When Everything Changed

Sally Friedman’s article, “Class Envy” [“Alumni Voices,” July|August] brought back vivid memories of my first days at Penn beginning in September 1939. At that time, women had three campus choices: liberal arts, education, or nursing. I was enrolled in the bachelor of arts program in the College for Women. All my classes were in Bennett Hall and were exclusively for women. We could not use the Logan Library, nor were we permitted to even enter Houston Hall! We could not take any Wharton School courses.

Then came December 7, 1941 and everything changed. Suddenly, women were virtually the only students around, and the entire campus opened up to us. I changed my major to political science with a minor in economics because these subjects and their professors were available to us, as was the Logan Library.

Imagine—it took a war to open up these “non-traditional” courses to women. How wonderful that today the entire world of study is open to women who continue to excel in every field!

Incidentally, upon my graduation in February 1943 I was hired as a wage rate analyst at the War Labor Board because two of my professors, Dr. Perry Horlacher and Dr. William Loucks were then heading up that agency. So, in my small way, I contributed to the war effort—thanks to the change in curricula at Penn!

Selma (Ostrow) Kessler CW’43 Moorestown, NJ


Keep Them Coming!

Just a few words to tell you how very much I enjoyed the essays at the beginning of the July|August issue. Keep them coming!

Frederick H. Jackson G’48 Gr’50 Westboro, MA


Unfair Introduction

There are many objections one might raise to St. Augustine’s take on Original Sin. The piece quoting Elaine Pagels [“Gazetteer,” July|August] is worth a serious look. What is less worthy is the way in which Pagels herself is introduced. To represent her fans by the endorsement of the Modern Library, her enemies by the “conservative” Christian Intercollegiate Studies Institute, is to imply a solely ideological critique of her work.

In fact, her views of the relationship of Gnosticism to the dominant Christian tradition are highly controversial among established scholars dealing with Christian origins. I would be happy to attend a lecture where the less sensational, but perhaps better-grounded, reading of the Fathers had a fair hearing.

Walter F. Hart C’63 G’66 Tuckerton, NJ


Poor Taste, Out of Place

I was surprised to find the story “From Harrison House to Cathouse” in the pages of the Gazette [“Alumni Profiles,” July|August].

The tale of two alumni who opened a “modern interpretation of a 19th-century European bordello” that was, in their words, “classy sexy” rather than “trashy sexy,” in the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, seemed both absurdly out of place and in poor taste in a publication of higher learning.

Aside from my personal views on how these two individuals have decided to put their education to use, I was mostly shocked to see your magazine print a photo that included two women posing in lingerie. Is this a shining example of Penn’s values? Instead, why not spend your energy on the countless alumni who are creatively enriching the human condition in ways that do not involve a handful of the major vices and addictions of mankind. Take their advice: Be classy, not trashy!

Jessie Stolark, staff Philadelphia


Debate Reconstructed

Here’s the background on the “Wang-Bernstein debate” to which Vita Pariente refers, at which Dr. William T. Fontaine spoke from the audience [“Letters,” July|August].

Wang was David Wang, a Chinese exchange student from Dartmouth, who in 1957 was organizing White Citizens Councils at Ivy colleges as part of the North American Citizens for the Constitution. Bernstein was Yale Bernstein of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the debate—a rather generous use of the term—Bernstein and Fontaine trounced Wang. It’s all covered in the January 10, 1958 issue of The Daily Pennsylvanian in an article by Steven D. Ivins. I was on the DP staff and did the preliminary research along with two lead-up articles in the paper. I initiated his appearance at Penn.

A caption in Ivins’ article pretty well sums up Dr. Fontaine’s low-key intellectual emasculation of Wang: “[Dr. Fontaine] captured the audience by forcing Wang to convey the obvious impression that he wasn’t too sure of what he was talking about, but was certain he was accurate.”(!)

Lewis R. Elin W’60 ASC’61 Chicago


Naming Wrongs

I sincerely hope that one day another wealthy alumnus will donate funds to refurbish Claudia Cohen Hall, and will choose to remove Ms. Cohen’s name and replace it with another as donor Ronald O. Perelman has done in the recent renaming of Logan Hall [“Gazetteer,” May|June].

Certainly Mr. Perelman is wealthy enough to build monuments to his late wife. Actions of this sort ridicule the entire action of naming buildings to honor people. Mr. Perelman: Build something new, endow something, add a plaque, but don’t remove the name of someone whom a previous generation had chosen to honor.

Ross Hickok W’73 Oakland Park, FL


Arctic Memories

Somehow I missed the article on Elisha Kent Kane when it came out [“Explorer in a Hurry,” Mar|Apr]. I was in Kane Basin, named for him, on August 5, 1940 on board the schooner Effie M. Morrissey, owned and commanded by Robert A. Bartlett, who earlier had accompanied Peary in his attempts to reach the North Pole and who skippered over 40 expeditions to the Arctic, more than anyone else. We reached 80 degrees 22 minutes North Latitude that day, which was a record for furthest north and just 578 nautical miles from the North Pole.

The article states that Humboldt is the largest glacier in the world. That is not correct. It is the glacier with the longest face—60 nautical miles—but there are many glaciers the lengths of which, from the sea to their origin, exceed a hundred miles, both in the north and south Polar Regions.

It was so foggy that day that we could not safely approach the face of the glacier, but we could hear the bergs breaking off. Ten miles west the sun was out, and we had no trouble navigating. The captain tried to get to Littleton Island, an island Kane references in his account that lies a few miles south of the entrance to Kane Basin, but the ice was too thick and kept us about four miles away. I have pictures of that island in my records.

As a matter of some interest I, at age 83, am the only survivor of the crew of the Morrissey; the other survivor who was on with me, Austen Colgate, died earlier this year. The Morrissey, now named Ernestina, is still alive and is in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where we hope to get enough money to rebuild her and continue sailing. (She was originally launched February 1, 1894.)  My principal occupation at this stage of life is trying to raise enough money to achieve this goal. I have been a member of the Ernestina Commission (appointed by Governors Dukakis and Weld) and am constantly trying to raise enough money to see this done before I leave this earth.

My wife and I live on the Vineyard, a place I call heaven on earth. I finished out my working career as harbormaster and shellfish constable in Chilmark, and my wife retired from her work because of blindness a few years ago. My earlier working career was in Philadelphia as a lawyer.

Fred Littleton L’50 Chilmark, MA



In “Celebrating Penn on the Web” [“Alumni Profiles,” July|August], we misstated Matt Rosler’s graduation year. He is a member of the College Class of 1996. We also got Steven Feldman’s school and year wrong, in our cover story, “Bridges to the Gulf.” He is Wharton Class of 1984. Our apologies to both.

Evolution, education, and more.

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Last modified 08/25/08