The Conversation

Readers respond to our March 2016 cover story and more.

America by Air

In the March cover story, “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” James Fallows summed up three years of reporting that belie the popular perception of a nation in decline. The financial journalist Justin Fox, writing in Bloomberg View, said, “The piece is a wonderful, hopeful reminder that this country can be a wonderful, hopeful place.”

As a lifelong Alaskan and former U.S. senator, I was simultaneously interested and appalled when picking up the March 2016 issue of The Atlantic. I was drawn to the cover story because of my background as a small-business owner, but I noticed that my home state—which is bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined and has more shoreline than the entire rest of the U.S.—was nowhere to be found on the cover illustration. Yes, Alaska is facing some serious effects of climate change, but we have not yet melted into the ocean! (I also noticed that our sister state, Hawaii, was missing on your cover.)
Kudos to writer James Fallows and his wife, Deb, for unearthing the real story about the revival and reinvention of America as technology and creativity change the way we live and do business. Having traversed Alaska many times by small plane, I can relate to the magic of landing in a village and observing people in rural places exercising great ingenuity to build the local economy. I have seen new fish-processing plants, aluminum-boat fabrication, kids fixing fishing nets and building airplanes, elders working on policy issues, and entire communities celebrating with music and native dancing. I met Mr. Fallows when he visited Alaska years ago, and I am certain he experienced this to some degree at that time.
James and Deb’s goal was to travel this country and tell the more complete story of America today, and that was accomplished. To make sure your readers always get a complete picture of our vast country, please include all 50 states in every map, every time. If it takes a visit to Alaska to guarantee inclusion on the map, please come up! I am certain that once someone has experienced the flora, the fauna, and the people here firsthand, our state is not easily forgotten.

Mark Begich
Anchorage, Alaska

The Math Revolution

In March, Peg Tyre explored what’s behind the surprising surge in some American teens’ math fluency: a new, almost entirely extracurricular “pedagogical ecosystem.”

The problem with math education—and perhaps with education in other fields—can be summed up by this quote from Peg Tyre’s article: “The roots of this failure can usually be traced back to second or third grade, says Inessa Rifkin … In those grades,” instruction “is provided by poorly trained teachers who are themselves uncomfortable with math.” I have long thought that teachers in the lower grades particularly should not only love and understand young children, but also be broadly knowledgeable, broadly curious, and unafraid of any subject. They should be as comfortable moving between and linking what we too often consider separate subjects as young children are. In short, our most highly qualified teachers should be those in the lowest grades. But until we make elementary-school teaching an honored career that attracts those who could be our most talented teachers and rewards them adequately with pay and respect, we will continue struggling to fix or remediate problems of students’ interest and competence in the higher grades.

W. Barkley Butler
Indiana, Pa.

Peg Tyre’s article filled me with admiration. Though I had an outstanding education in public schools, it seems even the youngest student in the article has mathematical knowledge that far outstrips mine. An educator now myself, however, I find it’s the teachers I envy. They are allowed to use their expertise, intelligence, and imagination to create these deep-learning experiences. Perhaps the students’ success is due to what these programs do not have: a focus on data regarding student “achievement” to “guide instruction” and get every student “on grade level” in order to assess “teacher effectiveness.”
This is the language of “teacher accountability,” which inevitably insists on tidiness and orderliness rather than messy exploration; the sequential doling-out of smaller and smaller pieces of information rather than unpredictable discovery; and the endless fragmentation of skills into elements small enough to be assessed—and therefore too small to be useful in any meaningful way.
I pray these examples of pedagogical success will draw the attention of those with the power to make changes.
Ellen Anderson
Philadelphia, Pa.

Peg Tyre and the people she writes about are onto something important about not just math instruction but education in general. She finds that step one is to discover the hidden talents in some kids and then give those kids the chance to speed ahead. The result is young adults who are happy with their skills and who are in a position to make a big contribution.
What’s good for kids gifted in math is good for kids gifted with all the other skills that often lie buried—spatial reasoning, humor, sculpture, guitar playing, memory, etc.
Our schools have a big job, and maybe searching out hidden talents and developing them is more than they can take on. They do a better job of dealing with a limited number of subject areas and pointing out where we are deficient. Then we get endless drilling in those areas. And an endless reminder of our deficiency. That’s the flip side of this article: the long line of kids who don’t have math brains who are made to drill endlessly in algebra that they likely will never use.
Let this new direction for math minds be the direction for us all: Find out what each kid is good at, and build his or her education around that strength, for the benefit of that kid and everyone else.
Eric Reenstierna
Newton, Mass.

Saving Soccer

In March, Amanda Ripley profiled Doug Lemov, an expert on teaching techniques whom the U.S. Soccer Federation has enlisted to advise coaches (“Can This Man Save U.S. Soccer?”).

I’m honored to have had my work with the U.S. Soccer Federation profiled by Amanda Ripley. Coaching is teaching, of course, just in another setting, and I’m happy to see attention given to the potential power of supporting coaches to help them conquer its challenges—for the benefit of our national program and, more important, for the benefit of the millions of young people who grow and develop by playing the game. That said, I strongly disagree with the implications of the headline in The Atlantic. U.S. Soccer needs no saviors—its interest in the mechanics of teaching is, if anything, a sign of unusually sound long-term decision making. Further, if it did require a savior, it would certainly not be me. I play a tiny role in helping the organization address a key element of long-term success, and the coaches with whom I work teach me as much as I teach them.
Doug Lemov
Delmar, N.Y.

This article misses a major point. It is not clear at all that you can create a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo by focusing on creating a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo. These types of players have always emerged out of cultures where soccer is played in the streets, in the schoolyards, and in any open space, and not treated as an after-school activity where kids go to be trained.
It is worth noting that basketball, a sport unique in the U.S. for its pickup culture, is probably the only major sport where the country continues to produce its share of the best male players in the world. We underperform in soccer, hockey, and even baseball, all sports where regimented training has taken the place of informal play.
In Cambridge, we are experimenting with a very different model. We have strengthened our “in town” leagues, where kids play with kids they know. We are also providing opportunities for informal pickup soccer, without the presence of coaches. We may not be saving U.S. Soccer, and I’m not suggesting the next Messi is playing on our fields, but our numbers are way up and the kids are having a great time. What could be better than that?
Jason Targoff
President, Cambridge Youth Soccer
Cambridge, Mass.

Amanda Ripley’s dismissal of the success of U.S. women’s soccer as owing “more to speed and athleticism than to technique” ignores two decades of dominance. I wish Ripley would have acknowledged that she was calling U.S. men’s soccer unimpressive and mediocre rather than attempting to equivocate the men’s continuing struggle to compete internationally with the women’s struggle to gain domestic recognition, fair treatment when it comes to field conditions and television airing, and appropriate salaries despite their three World Cup wins and four Olympic golds since 1991.
In addition, the claim that the U.S. has never produced a Lionel Messi ignores the fact that two women players—Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers—were the only two Americans on FIFA’s list of the 125 greatest soccer players of all time, as well as the fact that Abby Wambach has the record for most international goals scored, by a male or female player.
Leah Rachel von Essen
Chicago, Ill.

An Author’s Work

In March, William Deresiewicz examined Annie Dillard’s body of work (“Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?”).

I was delighted to see a review of one of my favorite authors. William Deresiewicz seemed to fully appreciate the brilliance of Annie Dillard’s philosophically and theologically layered poetic prose. I even followed him as he moved into a critique of her “hypocrisy and spiritual snobbery” as well as her lack of an ethical imperative. However, Deresiewicz goes too far when he claims that Dillard is limited (and thus pushed into silence) by her drive to tell and retell one big thing—“that we are born with souls but die in bodies.”
Since when have our great artists needed to push multiple conceptual agendas on us throughout their careers? Isn’t the very fact that they pick at the same idea again and again from varying viewpoints and voices why we appreciate them so?
I think we prefer artists like the novelist Cormac McCarthy, who returns to death and suffering with such raw honesty; or Frank Lloyd Wright, whose minimalist architectural lines many people can name by sight; or Béla Fleck, whose exquisite explorations on the banjo have yet to get old. It is precisely Dillard’s constrained focus on the immanence of the transcendent in this dying world that is so compelling.
Annie, if you’re listening, don’t stop giving us new visions of a world that is both holy and firm.
Christen Yates
Charlottesville, VA.

Critiquing the Critic

Leon Wieseltier reviewed the new book by the New York Times film critic A. O. Scott (“Critic Without a Cause,” March).

I’m glad Leon Wieseltier had so much fun with my book, Better Living Through Criticism. I must however challenge the assertion at the end of his review that I “believe in brunch.” There is nothing in my book to support that claim, and minimal fact-checking would have confirmed that I hold no such belief. Indeed, one of the very few aesthetic principles to which I am committed is the absolute rejection, on philosophical and ethical grounds, of that monstrous and strangely popular hybrid meal, even if I do occasionally enjoy eggs Benedict and a Bloody Mary on weekend mornings. I think I ate waffles with Mr. Wieseltier in Manhattan once, but I insist that was breakfast, and I think he would agree.
A. O. Scott
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Advice and Consent

In March, Sam Tanenhaus reviewed Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book, Exit Right (“The Leftist Origins of the Rabid Right”).

Sam Tanenhaus quotes from an essay written by James Burnham for The American Mercury in which Burnham writes that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “is married to the sister of John K. Fairbank, of Harvard,” and then goes on to say that an unidentified individual testified “under oath that he [Fairbank] was a member of the Communist Party.”
There are two errors here. First, my father, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., was married to the sister of Fairbank’s wife, not to Fairbank’s sister. Second, John Fairbank was never a member of the Communist Party. That charge was part of a smear campaign by McCarthyites against Fairbank because, as a leading scholar of Chinese affairs, he saw events in the Chinese civil war differently from right-wing supporters of Chiang Kai-shek. Indeed, Fairbank was a man so distinguished in his field that Harvard named its center on China after him—today called the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
Stephen Schlesinger
New York, N.Y.

The Big Question: What Are the Best Last Words Ever?

(On, readers answered April’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

10. Rhett Butler’s priceless last words to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Terry Desser

9. B. P. “Pearl” Roberts, a well-known hypochondriac in Key West, Florida, on her gravestone: i told you i was sick.

Dan Hunsberger

8. “I have been, and always shall be, your friend. Live long and prosper.” — Spock to Captain Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

David Shinn

7. Karl Marx: “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”

Matt Kerr

6. Can there be any better last words than the dolphins’ in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “So long, and thanks for all the fish”?

Steven R. Mohr

5. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” — Union Major General John Sedgwick, reprimanding his men for ducking for cover, just before he was killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania.

Eleanor Hall

4. As the 100-year-old Bob Hope lay dying, his wife asked him where he preferred to be buried. His reply was “Surprise me.”

Robert Lichtman

3. Beethoven’s: “I shall hear in heaven.” A poignant wish, much deserved.

Jim Rettig

2. Thoreau was supposedly asked on his deathbed whether he was ready to meet his maker. He responded quietly, “One world at a time.”

Reverend Ken Phifer

1. Oscar Wilde has my vote: “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.”

Kent Erickson

To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail Include your full name, city, and state.