Letters to the Editor

  • Information Revolution
  • Military History
  • Dow 36,000
  • Misunderstanding China
  • Betty Friedan
  • Waldorf Schooling
  • Editor's Note

    Information Revolution

    In "Beyond the Information Revolution" (October Atlantic), Peter F. Drucker equates the computer with the steam engine and draws analogies between the e-commerce of today and the railroads of yesterday. He uses the term "fuel" metaphorically to describe information and other driving forces, but he makes no reference to the true fuel that drove the Industrial Revolution and contributes greatly to driving the Information Revolution. Coal was the principal energy source used to raise steam, and today it provides most of the electric power that is fundamental to the operation of computers. It is interesting to reflect on the continuity of a simple, low-tech substance like coal over several centuries, and somewhat ironic to consider that a dirty, unglamorous, prosaic material provides the basic drive for the glittering, high-tech world of the Information Revolution.

    Doug MacFarlane

    As a fifty-five-year reader of The Atlantic, I faithfully read and digested Peter Drucker's "The Information Revolution." But my principal reaction to the article was "How much do all these technological marvels that lie ahead really matter?"

    Such happiness as we may experience in life comes from temperament, health, marriage, children, our work and those we work with, the simpler pleasures of life, concern for the welfare of others, and religious faith or ethical commitments. Don't we all know this -- if we think about it?

    Reo M. Christenson

    Military History

    Having read Robert D. Kaplan's "Four-Star Generalists" (October Atlantic), I found myself in the unusual position of partly agreeing with the author's argument but deploring his overall message.

    Kaplan is correct in pointing out that military history does not get as much respect in academic circles as it should. As a professional historian and a university instructor who has taught a good number of military-history courses, I have long witnessed how the field, despite the undeniable appeal that it has for students, is largely and unfairly ignored -- even actively disdained -- by the majority of college faculty members.

    It is, however, possible to boost military history too much. To begin with, "popular" does not always mean "good." Yes, many military historians, several of whom Kaplan cites, have done cutting-edge research and written excellent works. But the vast majority of military-related publications fall into the category of "hobby" history. Kaplan speaks with approval of the large number of military-history books crowding the shelves of stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. What he does not say is that most of those books are thinly researched potboilers or cheaply produced coffee-table tomes, all serving up the same conventional wisdom about the same popular topics: particularly the Civil War, arms and armor, and the Second World War. Marketing decisions, not sterling scholarship, are responsible for the fact that military writing dominates the history lists of trade booksellers.

    Even more questionable is Kaplan's claim that military history "comes closest of all the liberal arts to being a hard science." (Tolstoy, for one, would howl in agony to hear a remark like that.) Such an unsubstantiated (and ultimately unscientific) statement is hard to swallow, considering that many of the contemporary works mentioned above rely on tired clichés and minimal scholarship, and that a good number of the classic military historians Kaplan highlights are famous for having played fast and loose with facts. Every college freshman knows (or should know) that Herodotus' details about the Persian Wars are often less reliable than a National Enquirer headline; that Thucydides allowed himself a great deal of poetic license in writing an eloquent funeral oration that Pericles almost certainly did not deliver; and that Livy was more of a literary cheerleader for Rome than an accurate chronicler. True, there are many military-history works, old and new, that measure well against any yardstick of academic verifiability. But if one wants scientific rigor in historical writing, one can do just as well -- and sometimes better -- by turning to the many social and economic studies done by historians who have toiled in archives, parish churches, and local survey offices, unearthing and piecing together fact after fact with painstaking meticulousness.

    John McCannon

    I was very pleased to read Robert Kaplan's article calling for greater recognition of military history as a discipline. But war's lessons are so brutal, and seem so obvious, that we may all too easily assume we have (finally!) learned them, and that military history is just that -- over and done with. We watch newsreels of parades in 1914 or Nazi rallies in 1934 and marvel at the naiveté of the past. We rent movies about youths dying in mud or jungles and recoil at the senselessness of it all. The hard truth of the matter is that wars actually tend to make a lot of sense, and that it is indeed dangerously naive to believe otherwise. The proper aim of serious military history is to demonstrate that there are usually quite "rational" (if ruthless) reasons why wars are started, that there is almost always an inexorable logic to the progression of a war, and that the world it leaves behind has been shaped less by bullets and bombs than by the more basic forces of economics, ideology, and geography. Wars are not terrible aberrations or tragic accidents of history but rather the results of history. Our results. Those "horrors of war" are the horrors occasioned by humanity's bad but unbreakable habit of trading lives for territory, wealth, status, or security. As long as we desire these things, history will keep time in Finest Hours and Days of Infamy.

    D. Andrew Yamato

    If all that college freshmen know about Herodotus and Thucydides is that they stretched some facts, then these students have missed the whole point -- and all the riches -- of classical history and philosophy. Herodotus was the first writer to describe the clash of cultures, which Thucydides boiled down to timeless dicta regarding power politics. To read both writers is to recognize how the outlines and psychology of ethnic conflict in the Near East have changed little in 2,500 years. Whether Pericles delivered his funeral oration or not is far less significant than the philosophical truths included in Thucydides' account of it. As for Livy, his work reveals the resemblance between the trajectory of the Second Punic War and that of the Second World War, with Hannibal playing the role of the nihilistic aggressor and Roman senators grappling with appeasement. These works have been read for millennia precisely because of their eternal relevance and their compelling and clear prose styles. I can think of few worse tragedies in education than for such works to be ignored for the sake of often unreadable monographs that deny students direct contact with the ancients.

    Dow 36,000

    Although "Dow 36,000," by James K. Glassman and Kevin A. Hassett (September Atlantic), was interesting, the analysis and conclusion are fundamentally flawed. The authors use a dividend model to project what they call a "perfectly reasonable price" for the stock market. This calculation is the primary basis for their conclusion that the Dow Jones Industrial Average should be valued at 36,000 in the near future, if not today.

    In describing their theory the authors state, "A normal bond and a growth bond are equivalent in present value if the sum of the growth bond's interest rate plus its growth rate is equal to the normal bond's interest rate." They then apply that basic economic theorem to stock-market dividend yields and historical dividend growth to arrive at their forecast of Dow 36,000. However, in that textbook economic principle the growth referred to must occur in bond principal each year ... not simply in interest-rate payout, as the authors mistakenly assume. For simplicity's sake, let's take an extreme example: a growth bond that yields 0.5 percent with a 9.5 percent annual yield increase. That bond cannot have the same present value as a normal bond yielding 10 percent (0.5 percent + 9.5 percent), because it would require thirty-four years before the increasing yield of the growth bond matched the yield of the normal bond. Of course, total return would not be equivalent for many years after that (owing to thirty-four years of less than 10 percent yield in the growth bond).

    James B. Stack

    "Dow 36,000" argues that stocks are now vastly undervalued rather than overvalued. Inaccuracies and faulty logic abound in this article, but four errors stand out in particular.

    First, the "calculations" of present values are off. The authors claim to show that stocks are underpriced at about a third of their true value. Using as the discount rate their own estimates of yields and growth rates and the bond rate, stocks' present value is 0.80 (that is, not close to being worth buying). Using my slightly different estimates, stocks' present value is 0.47 (that is, stocks are selling for more than twice their value). My period in these calculations is fifty years -- far longer than most investors use. (The authors may use an infinite period; if so, this would be their fifth major error.)

    The authors' second major error is to extrapolate average growth trends from current elevated levels. It doesn't work that way. Historical trends in stock prices are lines cutting through cycles, between the highs and the lows. Future gains should be extrapolated from the level of these trend lines, not from a cyclical extreme point. Making this adjustment, I estimate that future capital gains will average -1.0 percent a year for the next decade (again using the assumptions of these authors). For twenty and thirty years the gains will average 1.1 percent and 3.2 percent a year. These are nominal gains, before deducting inflation. Real gains are therefore not even likely to be positive for twenty-five years or more, and much less likely to be high enough to satisfy investors expecting double-digit gains.

    The third major error the authors make is to believe that earnings can grow for extended periods at a far higher rate than national income. They forecast that the dividend-growth rate will continue at 9.4 percent. At this rate of growth, corporate earnings would increase from 15 percent of the national income to 50 percent in about seventeen years. If exceptional earnings growth persists, workers and/or governments get squeezed. Neither markets nor government would likely allow earnings growth to outpace everything else for very long. Either competition or unionization would increase, lowering profits, or government would intervene to prevent bloody revolution from developing. The authors' fourth error is to project that nominal growth in dividends will persist while they assume that inflation will be lower. This is a sneaky way to forecast an increase in real growth without saying so or having to justify the forecast.

    Douglas Korty

    Glassman and Hassett look at the data for return versus holding period and conclude, as many others have, that all one has to do to guarantee a high return from stocks is to hold the investment for a long time -- as if the investor had a choice. I call it the Louis Rukeyser argument: Pick a time, any time, and buy stocks. Hold them long enough and you will outperform bonds. The logical fallacy is that in real life nobody knows what the holding period will be. That is precisely the risk in stock investing. You don't know when you will need your money back to pay off your credit card, or buy into your company, or get divorced. The annual share turnover of the Dow stocks is around 75 percent. Use that as a proxy for investors' average holding period and you get about a year and a half. To the extent that stock investors don't control the holding period, the higher risk associated with shorter holding periods can't be controlled, and the authors' argument fails.

    But there is an even nuttier piece of illogic in the argument: the authors' theory of the Dow at 36,000 requires the willing, continuing subsidy of bondholders. Past markets have priced stocks and bonds to give different yields because a risk premium was attached to the projected economic benefit of stocks. Glassman and Hassett argue that this premium is irrational and that stocks and bonds should be priced to give a similar yield. They then suppose that all this pricing adjustment will be limited to stocks. Think about this, though. If everyone suddenly accepted the authors' logic, bondholders would no longer be willing to take 5.5 percent when for the same risk they could get 12.5 percent by holding stocks. Nobody would want bonds at the old yield, and bond prices would fall to give the new, improved yield, removing the impetus for higher stock prices.

    Dan Mayfield

    The core of Glassman and Hassett's theory of stock value consists of a giant fallacy. In the past, they remind us, stocks have almost always returned more to the investor, over long periods of time, than bonds have, so owning them entails less risk than holding bonds. Consequently, they assert, the market should bid up stock prices to the point where the expected return from stocks is no greater than the interest rate on Treasury bonds. But once the Dow Jones Industrial Average rises to 36,000 and its dividend yield falls to 0.4 percent, stockholders cannot reasonably expect a compounding yearly return of more than 6.5 percent, and even that outcome would require a generous growth rate of six percent. An "expected return" for stocks means that there is an equal chance that the ultimate return will fall short of the target or exceed it. Since twenty-year Treasury bonds are now paying the same 6.5 percent, the buyer of Dow stocks at 36,000 levels would stand a fifty-fifty chance that his portfolio would underperform bonds. No one is going to expose himself to the vastly greater short-term volatility of stocks if he cannot count on the near certainty of a superior return further down the road. For the same reason, the market demands nearly two percent more return from long-term bonds than it does from three-month bills, though both securities are equally "safe" in the sense that both interest and principal will ultimately be paid.

    Stocks are amply priced now. Using the authors' dividend-yield-plus-growth-rate formula, the universe of American stocks should return seven percent to eight percent over the next generation -- only one percent or so more than Treasury bonds, and no more than corporate bonds. I would be willing to bet Glassman and Hassett that even ten years from now, when earnings and dividends should have nearly doubled, the Dow Jones Industrial Average will still be closer to its current level of 11,000 than to their hyperbolic projection of 36,000.

    J. Douglas Van Sant

    The central thesis of the article by James Glassman and Kevin Hassett betrays a schizoid attitude about dividends. After belaboring the invalidity of the dividend yield as a valuation tool, the authors miss the clue and proceed to use dividends as their valuation tool. Along the way, their discussion presents a totally confused account of virtually every aspect of dividends in the current market. They muddle the consequences of tax law's favoring capital gains over dividends and then overstate dividend payout ratios -- that is, the percentage of net earnings paid as dividends. I defy them to find a stock other than a utility or a company on the ropes with a dividend payout ratio as high as 70 percent. Next they fail to take into proper account that the payout ratio of the Standard & Poor's 500 has been falling and that the dividend growth of the S&P 500 has not been keeping pace with the growth of earnings, whereas their "model" assumes stability in both figures.

    I conclude that they use the rate of the thirty-year Treasury bond (giving us the handy little tip that we can find this rate "in any newspaper") when discounting future cash flows from dividends in order to arrive at the present value of these cash flows, although they fail to state this clearly and at one point toss in a puzzling disclaimer that the rate "is really not so vital." But, of course, the rate used to discount these cash flows is an essential element of the authors' valuation, leading us to conclude that Glassman and Hassett are apparently incapable of distinguishing the baby from its bath water.

    Having waded through this tedious dividend muddle, we await Glassman and Hassett's presentation of their brilliant new valuation method for the many already mature but non-dividend-paying stocks (such as Microsoft), a subject worthy of discussion. But the authors simply dodge the issue by declaring that all companies will eventually pay dividends -- an assertion for which they provide no support or even rationale. With Jeffrey Bezos, of Amazon, and other CEOs deliberately disavowing earnings, not to mention dividends, and many companies opting for share buybacks in lieu of dividends, this assumption appears entirely unfounded. The very interesting subject of precisely how this unique valuation of a Dow currently consisting primarily of dividend-paying companies will affect the significant part of the market composed of non-dividend-paying stocks is not even broached. Does the Dow simply break off and float heavenward while the MCIWorldComs sink?

    For a variety of reasons, including unfavorable tax treatment, dividends are indeed becoming less important, less utilized by companies, less an indicator of valuation -- that much is correct. Any valid revised stock-valuation method would not then be anchored solely to dividends. And so, after all these pages of scratching and calculating, the entire approach boils down (or evaporates away) to absolute zero.

    Charlene Gagon

    Crying "Excelsior," James Glassman and Kevin Hassett have now proclaimed their doctrine of stock-market nirvana in a new book, in a Wall Street Journal editorial, and in an Atlantic article. I searched the article fruitlessly for the date of the happy event. Finally, on the basis of the research by Jeremy J. Siegel cited in the article, I did a quick calculation of my own. The result? The Dow Jones Industrial Average will reach 36,000 in the year 2018, if we can wait that long. (As of this writing the Dow stood at 11,078.)

    My first reaction to the article, however, was "Nikkei." For those with short memories, ten years ago the Japanese stockmarket index soared in similar fashion to 36,000, shortly before peaking at 39,000 -- and then lost two thirds of its value over the next two years. (Even today, after a sharp recent advance, the Nikkei stands at less than half its peak value.) The Japanese are no longer ten feet tall, and during the recession of the 1990s they have been forced to disgorge many of the treasures bought during the real-estate and stock-market boom of the 1980s -- Rockefeller Center, most of Hawaii, and every Impressionist masterpiece that wasn't nailed down.

    Today Americans stand ten feet tall in their paradise of casino capitalism. But amid the euphoria created by the "wealth effect" -- the trillions of dollars in paper profits amassed by Wall Street investors -- American households have refused to put any of their record earnings aside for a rainy day. In 1999, for the first and only time since the bleak Depression year of 1933, they actually spent more than their paychecks. Other worrisome financial indicators in this period of unprecedented prosperity include a doubling of the number of personal bankruptcies and corporate-bond defaults over the past several years.

    Naturally, I'm impressed by the authors' back-of-the-envelope calculations, which they used to explain the market's ever-upward thrust. But I tend to favor my own explanation for the boom. Glassman and Hassett noted that on August 12, 1982, the Dow reached bottom at 777, but they failed to realize that on that day I retired from the Federal Reserve. Some Wall Streeter must have noticed, however, because my first day off the central bank's payroll coincided with the beginning of an almost unbroken seventeen-year period of investor exuberance, rational or otherwise. (That market reaction battered my self-esteem but bolstered my stock portfolio.) I could provide more details, but I'm busy right now assembling a shipment of tulip bulbs to peddle to Messrs. Glassman and Hassett.

    William M. Burke

    James Stack says that one of our formulas is incorrect, an argument repeated in Barron's by Alan Abelson. Mr. Stack is wrong. The growth-bond equation we use is one of the foundations of modern financial theory, and is so commonly used that it is printed opposite the inside back cover of Brealey and Myers' famous textbook Principles of Corporate Finance: "If the initial cash flow is $1 at year 1 and if cash flows thereafter grow at a constant rate of g in perpetuity, PV [the present value of that stream] = 1/(r-g)."

    By stopping his calculations at fifty years, Douglas Korty is imposing the radical assumption that the firm goes bankrupt in fifty years. It is not surprising that this would affect value. Indeed, in our book we list five questions you should ask about a company before you buy their stock. To us, the most important one is "Will the firm still exist fifty years from now?" Dan Mayfield raises an excellent question:"Won't bond prices adjust instead of stock prices?" This question is treated at length in our book, where we draw on decades of economic research that suggests that bonds will not change in price.

    To J. Douglas Van Sant we say, if the Dow is closer to 10,000 than to 36,000 ten years from now, we will each give $1,000 to the charity of your choice. Charlene Gagon wonders whether firms will ever pay cash out to shareholders, as we assume. Clearly, the market agrees with us. Share prices would necessarily be at zero if investors believed that firms would never pay out dividends in any form. Perhaps Ms. Gagon should write a book to support her views, and title it Dow 0.

    Misunderstanding China

    Robert D. Kaplan's article "China: A World Power Again" (August Atlantic) refers more to Kaplan than to the current scholarship and knowledge about China. Kaplan's conceptions of China remind me of Jean Nicolet, who set sail from the French colony in Quebec in 1634 to expand the fur trade to China. According to Timothy Brook, Nicolet prepared for his journey by packing a "Chinese damask robe woven with flowers and multicolored birds," which most likely featured the imperially favored colors green and yellow. He landed on the west shore of Lake Michigan and, dressing appropriately, met the natives in the territory later known as Green Bay. (Perhaps the Packers adopted the Chinese colors!)

    Kaplan uses a thinly veiled mandarin argument to warn against possible chaos in China if liberal American advice regarding human rights and democracy is enacted. The arguments of Confucianists and communists dovetail neatly into a defense of the government and the rulers of the state. He provides the usual overview of a China that is hyperpopulated, flooded, and wracked with imperialistic invasions. Democracy, we are told, may ruin China, bringing about turmoil and socio-economic disintegration.

    Another history of China -- not the official text -- narrates the struggles by Chinese to promote human rights, constitutional law, freedom of expression, ecological protection, and a respect for universal, non-nationalistic values. If one wants to take a lesson from history, it may be well to look at how the Ming dynasty ended. Its economic prosperity was foiled by the traditional authoritarian structure of the ruling elite. Brook's study of commerce and culture in the Ming dynasty argues persuasively that despite the great progress and economic freedoms that developed, the patriarchal system not only survived but may even have grown stronger. Are we defending a new Ming dynasty?

    Richard C. Kagan

    Whether my argument can be construed as mandarin is less to the point than whether or not it has validity. Indeed, almost all the sites of war and human catastrophe in recent decades outside the ex-communist world -- Ethiopia, Rwanda, Nicaragua, Yemen, Kenya, Pakistan, Algeria, Sierra Leone, and so on -- have borne the same symptoms of population growth, unhealthy forms of urbanization, and resource depletion that China has. Even more to the point, in many such places large-scale, ethnically motivated murder occurred because of the way some of these demographic and environmental factors reacted with democratization. Recent tribal bloodletting in Nigeria, sectarian violence in the Pakistani city of Karachi prior to the October coup, and the mayhem in Rwanda are prime examples. China bears striking similarities to these places -- just read the history of China in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Rather than asserting that my argument can be confused with that of communists, Richard Kagan should remember that it is not only journalists who must make fine distinctions rather than crude comparisons but also academics. As for the Ming dynasty, population pressures on natural resources in fact contributed to its demise. Although crop yields went up to sustain a growing population through the first quarter of the seventeenth century, a lower living standard ensued.

    Betty Friedan

    Alan Wolfe ("The Mystique of Betty Friedan," September Atlantic) misses the point. To disparage Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique because parts of it rely on now-discredited sources is something like discrediting Copernicus because, in addition to upsetting the theory of a geocentric universe, he believed in ether and the four humors.

    It's not Friedan's philosophizing that carries a wallop; it's her brilliant demonstration of how the definition of femininity is so very malleable. In Chapters 2 and 9, "The Happy Housewife Heroine" and "The Sexual Sell," she showed how postwar women's magazines consciously engineered a new woman uninterested in anything but her appearance, home, and family, because this kind of woman made the best consumer for the spate of newly available home and beauty products advertised in those magazines.

    When my students read these chapters, they excitedly exclaim, "Hey, this is still happening!" That's why Betty Friedan's work is very much still happening.

    Corless Smith

    Alan Wolfe brought back a painful memory -- one I can now see as "classic Betty." Seventeen years ago I stood on a Pittsburgh curbside, enthusiastically awaiting Ms. Friedan's arrival from the airport. She had agreed to speak at our liberal-arts college, and I, as the chair of the Women's Studies Department, was to welcome her. We on the faculty had been changed by her words. Now we were to hear her speak in person. I felt so lucky.

    She surged from the door, ignored my outstretched hand, dropped her bag beside me, and strode forward. Her goddess mystique disintegrated on the spot. Her demeanor for the next forty-eight hours didn't vary. Neither has my disappointment, though I can now see that the personal is not always political; sometimes it is simply personal.

    Victoria Jean Dimidjian

    I found Alan Wolfe's "The Mystique of Betty Friedan" annoying for a number of reasons. First, it occurred to me, as a writer and social theorist, that it is abundantly and sophomorically foolish to waste pages impugning the validity, scientific or otherwise, of an epochal nonfiction best seller thirty-five years later, by variously attacking the data, reliability, or character of other writers whose later works served as examples and inspiration.

    Second, and this is of more interest, the significance of a theory (from Einstein's on relativity to Friedan's on women) lies in its predictive ability applied to new facts, phenomena, and events. It is not necessarily undermined by refutation of some of its assumptions or data. Einstein's relativity theory, for example, was refuted by Walter Kaufmann, a respected physicist, in the year it was published. Betty Friedan also does pretty well here. We don't read often these days about "bankers and their wives."

    Third, the process of writing a best seller, like law and sausage making, is best left behind closed doors. What agents, acquisitions editors, and marketing managers advise and demand, such as personalizing your story, separates the women from the girls. Similarly, no one, to the best of my knowledge, ever became an ongoing major American celebrity and political-movement leader -- beyond fifteen minutes of fame or six months of inspired influence -- by accident or through a lack of ambition and fortitude.

    Roy Morrison

    Waldorf Schooling

    Re "Schooling the Imagination," by Todd Oppenheimer (September Atlantic): Having worked in a Montessori school for a short time many years ago, with a kindergarten-age classroom, and now having the experience of watching my five-year-old niece and nephew grow up, one of the questions I have about the Waldorf system is the late age at which children are expected to be accomplished as readers. Late assessment of learning disabilities aside (a frightening oversight in my opinion), this is an idea that, by necessity, can work only if parents are willing and able to maintain their children in that private-school program for several years -- long enough, anyway, to see the Waldorf philosophy unfold. The parents would also have to be experts at teaching public relations and self-esteem to their children in order to shield them from their critical or well-meaning peers and relatives. Most parents now know that reading to children helps prepare them to read.

    Waldorf sounds as if it has some wonderful ideas to help encourage reading as a passion. Children -- if my own experience with them is indicative -- also want to read, however, and just about when they are five or six years old. If the Waldorf schools believe in presenting material creatively and in play, they can find a way to accomplish reading at an earlier age. One of the incredible things I witnessed as a teacher in the Montessori program is that with the teaching of phonics to even very young children, they were able to write their own stories as well as read. To see children as young as five years old creating something of their own in writing is an incredible privilege and a great way for little voices to be heard.

    Denise Westcott

    I read with mixed emotions Todd Oppenheimer's article on Waldorf education. In part I was delighted, yet I also felt used. As a proponent of Waldorf education, I was quite pleased that an article devoted to the pedagogy and philosophy of Waldorf schooling had made it into such a widely read publication. Oppenheimer represented Waldorf in a positive light, and I especially appreciated his attention to the presence of Waldorf pedagogy in the public school setting. All students (not just those whose parents can afford to pay) should be exposed to the healing pedagogy that Waldorf has to offer.

    Nevertheless, I was quite distressed, actually furious, that Oppenheimer had used much of the information I gave him in our lengthy telephone interview last fall without mentioning my name in his article. His inclusion of the educational practice called "looping," John Dewey and the Progressive Era, and the difficulty of integrating other subject areas into mathematics were all part of our conversation. As an academic who has spent the past five years researching and writing about Waldorf education and whose livelihood depends on this research, being cited without the proper reference is, to say the least, devastating. To rectify this situation I expect credit and recognition for my contribution to Oppenheimer's article.

    Mary Barr Goral

    Our family thoroughly enjoyed the article about the Waldorf schools. When our daughter, Maggie, now a freshman in college, was in sixth and seventh grade, we lived in Germany. The first year, Maggie attended a German public school and learned the German language. At the end of that year a teacher recommended the Waldorf school to us. We had never heard of Waldorf but were immediately interested, because it was a ten-minute walk from home as opposed to fifty minutes of walking and subway rides. What a serendipitous decision that was. The building was lovely, the rooms pleasant with their soft pastel walls, the grounds full of flowers and gardens planted and tended by various classes.

    The main teacher, who was with the same students from first through eighth grade, was soft-spoken, patient, and well prepared. The program was wonderful, from the poetry recited every morning and the special saying recited on each child's birth day (Maggie's was every Friday) to the handwork classes (our collection includes a pair of velvet shoes, a doll, and a wooden bowl), the orchestra concerts (where we listened to the youngest on their kazoos and recorders and to the oldest performing their poised exam pieces), the handwritten and illustrated "textbooks," and even the rather unusual dance classes. My husband and I, though barely able to speak German, were welcomed and involved -- we attended parent evenings with the teacher once a month, baked cakes for the Advent Fest, were part of the calling tree to announce the arrival of field-trip buses. One of Maggie's friends from Waldorf has visited us twice (once to do her three weeks of service at a day-care center), and Maggie has visited the school on a trip back to Frankfurt. If we lived near a Waldorf school in the United States, I think that I would like to teach there, and Maggie would like to have continued there. Thanks for bringing back such happy memories.

    Ann Sullivan

    Denise Westcott, in questioning the Waldorf tradition of delaying the final stages of reading instruction until third grade (which in the private Waldorf system usually means until age nine), has hit on one of Waldorf's most questionable practices. Such a delay can miss crucial windows of opportunity for learning to read, and for catching learning disabilities early. However, reading experts who are knowledgeable about Waldorf methods point out that their approach -- which emphasizes oral storytelling and other work to develop the imagination -- builds a linguistic base that traditional reading instruction usually lacks. This turns Waldorf education into an especially significant commitment; in fact, interrupting Waldorf's approach to teaching reading is a risk unto itself, as Ms. Westcott suspects. Waldorf teachers fall down with reading when they become doctrinaire. Most experts argue that discouraging a child from reading early if he or she is eager to do so is not much better than pushing others to read before they are ready. These conflicts have been partly ameliorated in Waldorf public schools, which have generally moved the final stages of sound and word recognition from third to second grade. Judging from reading scores, that approach has been largely successful.

    I am sorry that Mary Barr Goral feels slighted. During the months of research this article involved, I interviewed scores of educators at length, many of them unidentified in my article, about the issues of concern to Ms. Goral. I'm glad to acknowledge her contribution to my research.

    Editors' Note

    We are grateful to Ben Marra Studios for permission to use photographs appearing in the book Powwow: Images Along the Red Road as visual reference for the cover art for the December Atlantic. For more information see Marra's Web site: http:www.halcyon.com/benmarra/.


    The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; Letters to the Editor - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 6-17.

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