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Global gripe, no grudge against Chomsky … and more.

 

PENN MAY BOAST OF GEOGRAPHIC DIVERSITY,
BUT GAZETTE IS
STUCK IN THE UNITED STATES

I believe Penn prides itself on the geographic (read global) diversity of its students (or is it Wharton Grad?). Yet the material in the Gazette remains very United States-focused. In itself, there is nothing wrong with that—except it does not capture all that is happening with the magazine’s non-U.S. readership. In addition to a story about a U.S.-based alumnus’s collection of Mexican art (terrific collection, by the way) [“Art From a Land of Sun and Shadows,” September/October], why not a Wharton Graduate alumnus, Indian-born, naturalized American’s contemporary Indian art collection in Singapore?
   
Meanwhile, I am seriously considering redeploying my annual contribution to the Gazette for a Wharton Graduate cause.

Tarun Kataria WG’85
Singapore

 

ALLEGATIONS ABOUT ZELLIG
HARRIS ARE “ABSURD FALSEHOODS”

As linguists we were pleased to see some coverage of the recent history of our field and of Penn’s role in it in the Gazette [“Speech!”, July/August]. Unfortunately, Mr. Hughes’ piece repeats a number of misapprehensions that should have been checked. Perhaps most egregious are the speculations of Dr. Anthony Kroch, [professor and chair of linguistics] about the early reception of Chomsky’s work at Penn. The allegations that Zellig Harris was a behaviorist who was angry at his former student, Noam Chomsky, for “mentalism,” and that the faculty and students of the time consequently “hunkered down and waited for the fad to blow over,” are absurd falsehoods.
   
This is empty gossip, belied by the many students (including ourselves) who matriculated in linguistics, by the many visiting researchers associated with the Transformations and Discourse Analysis Project, and by the long series of research papers, monographs, and books produced during that period and continuing today. We know from our own experience as students in the department during the years 1948 through 1998 that the work of Chomsky and his collzeagues was much discussed, as indeed were many other schools of thought. Penn’s linguistics department has always been distinguished by its pluralism in matters of theory and its inattention to matters of personality and academic politics, and we would hope that this legacy of Harris and Dr. Henry Hiz, [emeritus professor of linguistics,] is continued.
   
There is indeed a fascinating story to be told about the first linguistics department in the United States, and the many contributions of its faculty and students to modern linguistics and computer science (among other fields). The telling of that story with appropriate respect for the facts would present an opportunity to correct other errors uncritically repeated by Mr. Hughes, especially as pertain to the characterization of Harris and his work.

Michael Gottfried C’76 G’76 Gr’86
Harrisonburg, Va.

Daythal Kendall Gr’77 GEE’82
Glenside, Pa.

Richard Kittredge Gr’69
Rawdon, Quebec, Canada

Bruce Nevin CGS’68 G’70 Gr’98
Edgartown, Mass.

Naomi Sager Gr’68
New York

Richard Smaby Gr’68
Brookville, Pa.

 

Samuel Hughes responds: For the record, I did check the section on Zellig Harris (including Dr. Kroch’s comments) with someone who studied under him, namely Dr. Lila Gleitman Gr’67. Apart from suggesting some technical corrections to my discussion of transformational grammar, she found nothing in Dr. Kroch’s comments that struck her as false. While she remembered Harris with great affection and a sense of deep intellectual debt, she acknowledged that they had a falling out. When I asked her why, she replied: “So far as I know, it was because I became a Chomskyite, but of course Zellig may have had other reasons instead or in addition.”

LETTER ON DATING OF DINOSAUR FOSSIL SHOWED
CAVALIER DISREGARD
OF PROVABLE SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

The letter by John Shirk C’83 included in the September/October Gazette requires an answer. Mr. Shirk has dismissed the accepted dating methods as “unreliable” without any basis of proof. Rather, he accepts the word of a monk who said that the world was created in 4004 BCE—I think on a Thursday afternoon. His cavalier disregard of the determination of the age of the earth ignores hundreds of years of provable scientific research showing that the Earth is far older than a few thousand years.
   
The age of the Earth has no direct relation to evolution, since, as bacteria are showing us, the process can happen rapidly. I wonder if science was not taught to the Class of 1983.

Lester D. Shubin C’49
Fairfax, Va.

 

KEEP SCIENCE AND RELIGION SEPARATE

Your correspondent from the Class of 1983 complaining that the age of dinosaurs contradicts a literal reading of the Bible is not a poster-boy for higher education. Obviously he learned nothing about science and the scientific method while at Penn. Science, if in error, has mechanisms for correcting itself. But dogmatic reliance on a book, no matter how convincingly holy, is doomed to remain wrong. That same book was used to prove that the Earth was flat and that Galileo was wrong. Keep science and religions separate!

John Wolff EE’54
Lancaster, Pa.

 

THOSE TROUBLING BONES

I certainly was edified by the letter of John Shirk, who explained that the idea of dinosaurs roaming the Earth 100 million years ago was false, as proven by the Bible. However, there are those troubling bones in museums. If the Earth is only a few thousand years old, our ancestors must have been awfully unobservant not to notice those large nasty reptiles. Perhaps they pretended not to see them—but no, they couldn’t have been that stupid. Could they?

Stanley A. Plotkin GM’63
Emeritus professor of pediatrics
Philadelphia

NOT IN THE WARS YEARS CLASSES,
MAYBE, BUT DEFINITELY IN THE WAR

Congratulations to the Classes of the War Years and to the 300 men and women from the Classes of 1942 through 1949 who participated in the War Years Reunion, and once again followed in the footsteps of the Class of 1939 [“Life Was Not Carefree,” July/August].
   
From privates to generals, nearly half (about 600 members) of the Class of 1939 were in military service during World War II, topped by our Bob Fortes, a major general with 26 awards. The Class was represented in every service—Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, WAVES, OSS, the Manhattan Project, plus Nursing and the Red Cross. There were Navy captains, lieutenants, ensigns, and Army ranks from general to colonel to private. Some disarmed enemy bombs, one flew 77 missions in the Pacific, others stormed the beaches at Normandy and in the South Pacific.
   
As veterans of the war, the Class of 1939 proudly salutes the “War Years Classes” who came behind us.

Harold B. Montgomery W’39
Ambler, Pa.

 

CONTEXT BE DAMNED!

I am in complete agreement with Edmund Pascucci W’41 [“Letters,” September/October]. The ethnic slur about dagoes should never have been printed by your publication.
   
In his lame attempt at an explanation, the editor “regrets any offense taken by readers.” What did he expect—hearts and flowers? He speaks of “context.” Context be damned! If that’s the best the Gazette can do for an editor, then both the editor and those who select the editor should be replaced.

Edward Delemmo C’50
Swarthmore, Pa.

 

SHAME ON HIM, TOO

In his letter expressing his outrage at the use of a slur to describe his ethnic group, Mr. Pascucci doesn’t hesitate to include the gamut of equally offensive terms (one of them twice) to illustrate his point.
   
His point is well taken, I’m sure. But I am also sure that we are intelligent enough to identify ethnic slurs without having them catalogued, or used gratuitously. Sensitivity works both ways.

Thea Clark CGS’97
Philadelphia


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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/1/01

 

 

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