Five Best Tuesday Columns

Home Ec, job quality, 9/11, and the glorious works of the Hubble

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Bret Stephens on extracting meaning from 9/11  December 7, 1951, the tenth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, passed with little ceremony, writes Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal. "Time magazine skipped the Pearl Harbor anniversary altogether." The tenth anniversary of 9/11, though, will be different. There will be speeches, ceremonies, and the opening of the World Trade Center memorial plaza. "All this is unavoidable and largely appropriate," Stephens writes. "But there is some irony in the fact that our frenzy to memorialize is inversely proportionate to our collective capacity to extract meaning from memory." Stephens points to the new memorial, two sunken reflecting pools where the towers stood with brass plates naming almost 3,000 victims. "Despite the impressive scale and the affecting nod to the individual dead, there's no getting around the sense that the central element of the memorial is emptiness, a giant vacancy." While 9/11 was in part about loss, the memorial is exclusively so, and does no tribute to 9/11 as a "day of giving," he says, referring to first responders, volunteers, and the passengers on Flight 93. "A better 9/11 tribute would reflect those deeds, not sound an echo to the nihilism that was at the core of al Qaeda's designs." But a problem that goes deeper than design is that in 1951, America could look back and see the end of the war as a "bookend" to what was started at Pearl Harbor. "The war that was begun on September 11 has no bookend. We don't even know whether we are in the early, middle or late chapters--or whether we're still in the same book." We separate the day from the controversial wars and debates that came after it, which is dangerous. "Dangerous because we risk losing sight of what brought 9/11 about. Dangerous because nations should not send men to war in far-flung places to avenge an outrage and then decide, mid-course, that the outrage and the war are two separate things." Things were different on December 7, 1951, Stephens writes. "The principal memorial that generation built was formed of the enemies they defeated, the people they saved, the world they built and the men and women they became. Our task on this 9/11 is to strive to do likewise."

Paul Osterman on job quality and quantity  MIT professor Paul Osterman writes that he led a research team to the Rio Grande valley to study the remarkable job growth there, often touted by presidential aspirant Rick Perry. "Too often, what is lost in the call for job creation is a clear idea of what jobs we want to create," Osterman writes in The New York Times. "The median wage for adults in the Valley between 2005 and 2008 was a stunningly low $8.14 an hour (in 2008 dollars). One in four employed adults earned less than $6.19 an hour." Across America, too, one in five adults works a job that pays poverty-level wages. The research group sought to understand the effect of this job climate in Texas, interviewing many, "including two directors of public health clinics, three priests, a school principal and four focus groups of residents. Everyone described a life of constantly trying to scrape by." People discussed the choice each month between utilities bills, their fear that an unexpected crisis could put them on the street, and their inability to pay for basic needs. Children do not get enough parenting and budget struggles strain marriages, he reports. "Contrary to the antigovernment rhetoric, there is much that the public sector can do to improve the quality of jobs," Osterman writes. When people are paid a living wage, studies show their productivity rises and turnover falls. "Today, polls show widespread support for upgrading employment standards, including raising the minimum wage--which is lower, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it was in 1968. It's time for the federal government to take the lead in creating not just more jobs, but more good jobs."

Helen Zoe Veit on reviving home economics classes  For most, the words "home economics" bring to mind "bland food, bad sewing and self-righteous fussiness." But Helen Zoe Veit argues in The New York Times that "reviving the program, and its original premises--that producing good, nutritious food is profoundly important, that it takes study and practice, and that it can and should be taught through the public school system--could help us in the fight against obesity and chronic disease today." The original idea behind home economics was that housework and cooking could be studied scientifically. "When few understood germ theory and almost no one had heard of vitamins, home economics classes offered vital information about washing hands regularly, eating fruits and vegetables and not feeding coffee to babies, among other lessons." As these ideas spread, home economics began to feel redundant, she writes. But today, too many Americans don't cook for themselves. Cheap processed foods have led to an obesity problem. Cities and states who try to regulate diets, by taxing junk food for instance, have often come up against popular opinion. "Clearly, many people are leery of any governmental steps to promote healthy eating," she says. "But what if the government put the tools of obesity prevention in the hands of children themselves, by teaching them how to cook?" As a child in North Carolina, Veit says her home ec class learned to fry a doughnut. When she moved to Wales with her family briefly, the class learned to make vegetable soups and meat and potato pies from scratch. "I remember that it was fun, and with an instructor standing by, it wasn't hard. Those were deeply empowering lessons, ones that stuck with me when I first started cooking for myself in earnest after college." Such lessons should be offered to more Americans, she says.

James Bullock on replacing the Hubble  On a weeknight in UC Irvine's astronomy department, you will find graduate students that "have come here from all over the country and the world to sit in windowless offices and make a fifth of the money they could make back home or up the street," writes James Bullock in the Los Angeles Times. "Why? They want to unlock the universe." America has long been the place where big discoveries, like understanding the Milky Way as just one galaxy among many, were made. Many of them are thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope. "Many of the graduate students filling astronomy departments at University of California campuses, as well as Caltech and Stanford, have come to the state to explore and analyze terabytes of Hubble data. ... We want these intelligent, dedicated people to live in our cities, to make their discoveries at our universities and to raise their families--the next generation of bright minds--right here. But without a replacement for the Hubble, these bright minds may well migrate to China, where funding for astronomy is rising steadily." The Hubble is nearing the end of its life span and will soon fall out of orbit. A House Appropriations Committee recently recommended that the government not fund its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. "The Webb would be 100 times more powerful than the Hubble, capable of studying other solar systems for signs of life and surveying the most distant galaxies in the universe. The loss of the Webb telescope would not only rob humanity of the opportunity to search for life on other worlds, but it would also waste the $3.5 billion already invested in its development and years of hard work by hundreds of people across the country," Bullock writes. Viewed in this context, we should lobby the government to spend the last sum of money required to build and launch the telescope so America can maintain its status as a place of discovery.

Ron Klain on the GOP debate  This week's Republican presidential debate presents different opportunities and challenges for different candidates. Many have suggested that Rick Perry has the most to do, but Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Joe Biden, disagress. "Perry does have a long way to go before his front-runner status is cemented, but in this debate, he needs to establish only one thing: sure-footedness," Klain writes in Bloomberg View. "Perry in 2011 is drawing support from many voters who have never heard him utter more than a sound bite or two--a tenuous position." Perry must not commit gaffes, must speak well about national security and economics, and reassure supporters. Mitt Romney has the most to prove, writes Klain, because he has lost his status as front-runner by moving right to compete with Perry and Bachmann, making him look unsure. "Romney needs to use the debate to reclaim the middle ground, showing that he can stand up to Perry and Bachmann instead of trying to emulate them." Perry's "outrageous" statements on Social Security and Medicare, for instance, could provide Romney with talking points and a path the middle ground. Bachmann, meanwhile, should focus less on the front-runners and more at curtailing the progress of Herman Cain and Ron Paul by arguing that the right should unite behind her. Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich need to find a new idea or narative to avoid fading and reclaim relevance. "If all the other candidates need to stretch in some way on debate night, Cain and Paul just need to keep firing up their supporters with uncompromising, hard-line positions that lack broad appeal, but resonate with true believers," Klain says. "And what about former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum? He should just enjoy his time in the limelight, which is probably coming to an end soon."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.