Brattleboro, Vt.

  • Word Improvisation

    Music of Silence

    Phyllis Rose ("The Music of Silence," October Atlantic) should consider the possibility that the reason "I will never get [my subject, Alain] to see my having written what he told me as anything but a violation of a confidence" is that that is precisely what it was. This is the kind of article that makes me think all writers should be belled, to warn passersby.

    Anita Janda

    If Phyllis Rose had put the last paragraph of her Brief Lives essay first, I would not have read it. How could she violate the wishes of someone who confided in her -- and how could you publish this violation?

    Penny Power

    I enjoyed Phyllis Rose's essay up to the point that she revealed that the subject of the piece had objected to its being written and had asked her not to have it published. At that point I felt as if I had been duped into invading this man's privacy.

    Rose justifies her rude behavior by insisting that her "national temperament" compels her to make things known. Tact and consideration are learned traits, not a derivative of one's national gene pool.

    The subject of her essay has chosen to live as a hermit, separated from the world for spiritual purposes. How selfish Rose is, for denying him that seclusion for professional (commercial) purposes. How condescending of her to complain that she'll never convince him that her essay is anything more than a breach of confidence.

    Mark Graham

    Phyllis Rose has violated trust by writing and publishing "The Music of Silence." Not only did she publish against the express wishes of her brother-in-law, but she brought us, the readers, into her exploitation. When I found, in the last paragraph of the story, that "Alain" had not wanted her to write or publish about him, I felt as though I had been a partner to a crime. If Ms. Rose had been writing to correct the wrongs of some abusive system, I would stand by her right to "make things known"; when she is presenting a personal reflection, I believe she has a responsibility to honor the wishes of her subject. Surely she would want the same respect.

    Rebecca Graber


    Writers are not professionally sworn to secrecy and do not, like psychiatrists and priests, promise confidentiality. On the contrary, it's their responsibility to testify.

    The writer's commitment to testimony and the monk's commitment to silence are incompatible and represent a serious difference of opinion and temperament, which I mentioned not to congratulate myself for being on the "right" side but to acknowledge the other position. My own ethics consist largely of trying to see both sides of a question and behaving with an absence of rancor and fanaticism. I'm not surprised that some people agree with the monk. A lot of me does too.

    My critics, however, point to a real dilemma: how can I be truthful about my own life without infringing on somebody else's?

    The notion that my "violation of trust" would have been justified if I'd been correcting the wrongs of some abusive system betrays a 60 Minutesunderstanding of the kind of truth-telling that goes on in essays and other forms of literature. If exposing abuses justifies what the writer of this letter considers a violation of trust, why shouldn't attempts to offer clarification, inspiration, or solace be justified too?

    I object to the cheapening of my motives that equates professional and commercial. The piece demanded to be written because of my mental involvement with my brother-in-law. Both as a member of my family and as someone who had great worldly success and turned his back on it, he figures large in my imagination, putting into perspective the way I live. His withdrawal is an envied possibility, a moral pole. In speaking truthfully about this for myself, I expect in some way to be speaking for others. A writer has no other justification.

    Are Schools Failing?

    As Peter Shrag notes in "The Near-Myth of Our Failing Schools" (October Atlantic), the case against our public schools is based on dubious historical and cross-cultural comparisons of student performance in standardized examinations. Although such instruments have their usefulness, they are not a particularly valid criterion. Far more important is the performance of public school graduates as they take their places in the work force or move on to higher education or advanced technical training. They must become a productive work force, an effective scientific establishment, a creative artistic community, and a strong military.

    So how are we doing? We just happen to have the world's most productive work force, the largest economy, the highest material standard of living, more Nobel prizes than the rest of the world combined, the best system of higher education, the best space program, the best high-tech medicine, and the strongest military. And in most of these categories the gap is widening rather than narrowing.

    These things could not have been accomplished with second-rate systems of public education.

    Walter H. Greene

    Peter Schrag says that special education "diverts huge sums from the regular classroom." Children with disabilities are not a diversion. The whole point of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is that all children are educable and entitled to the fullest possible participation in the school system. All children -- both those with and those without disabilities -- learn more and learn better when they learn together. The two biggest handicaps children with disabilities face are architectural barriers and the limiting stereotypes people carry in their heads and hearts. Thus, sadly, less than an A for Mr. Schrag.

    Walter J. Kendall III

    Peter Schrag fails to mention the enormously successful home-schooling movement started by John Holt and greatly expanded by Raymond Moore. Home-schoolers not only score higher on college entrance exams and have a warmer home life but also save the taxpayers a packet.

    Tertius Chandler

    Peter Schrag wants to persuade us that American education isn't as bad off as it is frequently portrayed. He cites the 1991 Sandia report, which showed that the education picture was less gloomy than the rhetoric of alarm allowed. The report, he says, was buried for two years by the Department of Energy, which commissioned it.

    However, in 1995 the Department of Education released a 150-page study titled Adult Literacy in America.It was based on interviews with and test scores of some 26,000 U.S. citizens above the age of sixteen. It didn't get much publicity either. The study showed that 90 million of our 191 million adult citizens possessed inadequate skills in math and reading English. The test used questions relating to everyday skills, such as reading a bus schedule, making out a bank-deposit slip, and understanding information contained in a newspaper.

    The study grouped adult Americans into five literacy levels. It found that 40-44 million people functioned at the lowest literacy level, and 50 million at the second-lowest level. The study considered both these literacy levels to be inadequate.

    Those are grim statistics, especially when one considers that in 1993 approximately 86 percent of adult citizens had received high school diplomas. The shocking fact is that hundreds of thousands of high school students who are functionally illiterate are awarded diplomas each year. How can anyone defend this practice? It makes the diploma meaningless.

    Schrag says, "The dumbest thing we could do is scrap what we're doing right." Looks like there's precious little to scrap.

    Ronald W. Dyke

    I appreciate Walter Greene's point that the nation's economic, scientific, and technological achievements seem (at least) to belie the claims of abject school failure, though I'm not sure that those achievements necessarily demonstrate the schools' academic success. Shocking as it may seem to all the partisans in our hot educational disputes, the schools, while obviously important, may not by themselves be the ultimate determiners of our national fortunes (or misfortunes). What is certain, as the letter about home schooling reminds us, is that no school, style of instruction, or (perhaps even) set of academic standards is appropriate for every student. Which is to say that almost every blanket statement (perhaps including this one) about "the schools" -- their performance, the standards they should set, the way they should operate -- is at least partly false, and every attempt to discuss or reform them on such a basis will probably fail.


    Mark Derr's insightful and timely article "To Whale or Not to Whale" (October Atlantic) contains one statement that might be misinterpreted: "The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead population appears to be increasing despite continuous hunting by Alaskan Eskimos." This is true as far as it goes. The bowhead population is clearly recovering from the past century's decimation by commercial whalers, and Alaskan Eskimos do take bowhead whales each year for ceremonial and subsistence purposes. Derr's statement implies, however, that whaling by Alaskan Eskimos might take place in a manner that jeopardizes the recovery of this stock. This is not true.

    Alaskan bowhead whaling is very carefully managed. The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock of bowhead whales is one of the best-studied stocks in the world. Its status has been intensively investigated, and the scientific basis for management has been thoroughly reviewed by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission. Under IWC rules aboriginal whaling cannot take place unless quotas are low enough to ensure the recovery of the stock. Therefore the bowhead quota set by the IWC is based on a series of conservative assumptions. Eskimo whaling is carefully monitored by the United States through a cooperative agreement with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which reports every whale that is struck, let alone landed.

    Alaskan bowhead whaling is a model of how to manage a scarce resource. Quotas are based on high-quality science. There is international oversight of a resource that is important to people in other countries. There is an effective program through which the government and local hunters cooperate to ensure that the quotas are not exceeded. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the bowhead population is recovering while Eskimo whaling is taking place.

    D. James Baker

    D. James Baker is exactly right: Eskimo hunting in no way jeopardizes the well-being of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead-whale population. More significant, the experience in Alaska shows that properly managed hunting need not drive whale populations to extinction.

    Word Improvisation

    In his Word Improvisation for October, J. E. Lighter states that the name of the jeep, a popular wartime military vehicle, came from the Popeye comic strip in 1936. My recollection is that "jeep" came from "GP," which was an abbreviation of "general purpose." If memory serves me well, the official designation of the jeep was "truck, 1/4-ton, 4 x 4, GP."

    Leonard N. Foster

    I read with some amusement your October Word Improvisation on POTUS. I have no doubt that the term was used by FDR, who dearly loved short forms. However, it was around a long time before that! My late father, Edward F. Smith, was born in 1890. By 1916 he was a newswire telegrapher -- or "brasspounder," as they were known in the trade. He operated the fastest leased press wire in the country (at sixteen years of age) for, I believe, the Postal Telegraph Company.

    Among his artifacts I have his handwritten notebook of "Phillips Code" abbreviations. This code, used by news telegraphers in conjunction with the original Morse code, includes POTUS for the President of the United States.

    Marian L. Helmer

    J. E. Lighter states that "the Oxford English Dictionaryfails to locate any example of First Ladybefore ... 1948." But the 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Of Thee I Singconcerns a breach-of-promise suit against a newly elected President of the United States by a disgruntled beauty-pageant winner. In Act II, Ira Gershwin has his plaintiff sing,
    I might have been First Lady
    But now my past is shady
    Oh, pity this poor maidie
    And there's the man who ought to pay!
    William E. Thoms

    The word jeepmade its debut in Elzie Segar's comic strip Thimble Theatre Starring Popeyeon March 3, 1936, as the cry of a small, odd-looking creature soon identified as "Eugene the Jeep."

    Acknowledging Segar, the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company built a "Jeep" truck in 1937. Army command cars and heavy gun tractors were called "jeeps" in 1940-1941, as were raw recruits. The soon-to-be-famous "jeeps" ("truck, 1/4-ton, 4 x 4") arrived late in 1940; some called them "peeps," to distinguish them from the larger vehicles. Field-testing selected Willys-Overland's "Model MA" over American Bantam's "BRC" and Ford's fortuitously named "Model GP." The well-publicized "jeep" driven up the Capitol steps in February of 1941 was a Willys. All three designs were scout cars, none was built to "general purpose" specs, and without Popeye, Ford's prototype "GP" might have been the "gupp."

    Thanks to Marian Helmer, who wrote to place POTUS within the Phillips Code, and to William Thoms for a 1931 First Lady.Now, can anybody find a pre-1993 First Cat?

    The Atlantic Monthly.All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; Letters; Volume 281, No. 1; pages 8-11.