Going for the hard sell as interest in English major declines

Mary Garhart fell in love with reading in middle school, devouring Christopher Paolini’s fantasy novel “Eragon” and the “Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Then she moved to classics from Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities,” and Charlotte Brontë, “Jane Eyre.” She had a yen for writing. What’s more, there were literary influences in her family: a grandmother with a master’s degree in English, a grandfather who taught English.

So when Garhart entered the University of Maryland in fall 2011, she had no doubt about her field of study. “English,” she said, “is the obvious major.”

This has been true for generations of college students drawn to the poetry, drama, novels and other works of a language that has become a global medium since its origins centuries ago in the British Isles.

But for many, English is not so obvious anymore.

Like several disciplines in the humanities, English has faced hard questions in recent years. The Great Recession of 2008-09 led a growing number of students, urged by parents who want a “return” on their tuition investment, to pick majors they perceived as more likely to enhance their career prospects. This preoccupation with an economic rationale for going to college had been building for many years. But the economic downturn and its aftermath compounded job worries.

Numbers from College Park, home of the flagship public university of Maryland, tell a story that echoes in one way or another at schools across the country.

In fall 2009, there were 792 English majors among U-Md. undergraduates. That was nearly equal the total of computer science majors, 796. Five years later the computer science total had more than doubled, to 1,730. The total for English had fallen 39 percent, to 483.

English was hardly alone in decline. Down at least a quarter in that span were major totals for anthropology, art history, general biology and history.

At the University of Virginia, the English major count fell 18 percent from 2009 to 2013. History was down 31 percent; philosophy, 40 percent. Computer science was up 108 percent.

Nationwide about 50,000 students a year earn bachelor’s degrees in English, a total little changed in this century even as the number of degrees conferred in all subjects has risen nearly 50 percent. Students these days choose from an ever-expanding academic menu, with specialized majors in business, health, engineering, security, technology and other fields.

Fluctuations in demand are common. One topic might get hot as another cools. Arabic studies, introduced at College Park in 2008, has developed a solid niche. Interest in American studies has slid. The journalism major with a “multiplatform” focus has taken off as more consumers rely on digital news sources. The journalism major focused on magazines is being phased out.

Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts & Humanities at U-Md. since 2011, said there are often “ebbs and flows” in majors. But she acknowledged that her college, home to English, history and other core departments, must ramp up recruiting. Dill said she wants to “bust the myths” students might hold about the value of English and certain other majors in the job market.

“The approaches that we use in teaching the humanities and the arts … do give students the skills that employers are looking for,” Dill said. “And they also give students skills that are transferable to a lot of different kinds of work settings and situations.” Employers, she said, “need people who have broader capabilities to be creative and thoughtful.”

Across the country, humanities majors are under siege as politicians have questioned their economic value.

In January 2014, President Obama talked up the virtues of manufacturing at the expense of art history. “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” he said. “Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history.” (Obama later apologized for the remark.)

Last month, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a possible Republican presidential candidate, lamented in a speech that many students take on debt to obtain degrees that won’t lead to a job. “So you can decide whether it’s worth borrowing $40,000 to be a Greek philosophy major,” Rubio said. “Because the market for Greek philosophers is tight.”

There is much debate about the value of different degrees. It takes some graduates a while to reach their full earning potential. Others pursue lower-paying careers in public service that offer intangible benefits. There are powerful (and countless) arguments for why learning is valuable for its own sake. But many students and parents measure value in salaries.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, analyzing 2013 census data, found that college graduates ages 25 to 59 earned a median annual wage of $61,000. English majors earned a median annual wage of $53,000. Computer science majors earned $83,000.

The English department at College Park, recognizing that it must market itself, relies on an economic pitch. A leaflet in its office — “So, you’re thinking about majoring in English?” — tells prospective students: “Some of our English majors go on to teach, but many others become editors, writers, lawyers, businesswomen or researchers. Some English majors even become doctors!”

Garhart, 21, a senior from Anne Arundel County, wants to explore book publishing. An English major from the start, she also is minoring in creative writing. To boost her career options, she decided to pursue a second major in business management. After a nerve-racking process that included taking prerequisite classes in accounting, economics and statistics; gathering recommendations; and applying to the university’s Smith School of Business, she got in. She will need five years to finish her studies . Tuition and fees for Maryland residents, not counting books, room and board, total more than $9,500 a year.

Does she enjoy business classes as much as she does the Novel in America to 1914? Or Literature of London, which she took one spring?

“I don’t think I’ll ever love any other course as much as English,” Garhart said.

English professors are also keen to attract students who might not see themselves as literature buffs. This spring they offered a $100 prize to the student who could make the best promotional video on “what makes English the best major at UMD.”

Department chairman William A. Cohen said the faculty has also begun sending a letter to every student who earns an A in an introductory course and is not an English major.

“I am writing to you because I noticed that you did exceptionally well last semester” in class, the letter states, “and I would encourage you to consider English as a major (or a second major).” The letter says the major requires “just 36 credits” — of at least 120 required for a bachelor’s degree — “and is flexible enough to fit in easily with your other academic pursuits.”

Amanda Bailey, an associate professor who is a Shakespeare specialist, said that when students make an astute comment in class, she often pulls them aside for a quick word of encouragement if they have not already declared in English. “You really have a knack for this,” she will say. “What’s your major?”

Typically, she emphasizes the “career viability” of the English major. “It doesn’t mean you have to be an English teacher,” she said. Medical, business and law schools are options. Good writers are in high demand in science, too.

The department’s recruiting efforts go beyond outreach. Its course catalogue includes more offerings with crossover appeal for the tech crowd: Literature in a Wired World; Writing in the Wireless World; Science, Gender and Classic Science Fiction; Literature of Science and Technology; and more. There is also broad cultural diversity — with many courses, for example, in literature from the African diaspora — as well as depth in the foundational texts: Chaucer, Shakespeare and the rest.

Will all of this work? Will English rebound at College Park?

Kent Cartwright, a veteran English professor and former department chairman, urged a shift in thinking at the highest levels of a university proud of its prowess in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “We’re so completely STEM-driven,” Cartwright said. The administration, he said, is “full of people with goodwill” toward the humanities. “But they see the well-being of the university in a certain kind of way. We’re just not part of it.”

Wallace D. Loh, president of U-Md. since 2010, disagreed. He said he likes to think of the university as a flower. “That flower has a long and very sturdy ‘STEM,’ ” Loh said. “But at the top of that STEM, there’s a flower, a blossom. And that flower is the humanities.” He said he walks around campus “with that metaphor of the flower in my head all the time. We have to nurture that blossom.”

Loh said the university is committed to maintaining a strong faculty in the humanities regardless of ups and downs in the number of majors. However, he said, if he had money to expand the faculty, and if someone proposed adding another expert in Victorian literature, “my answer is, well, not at this time.”

What about expanding faculty in computer science? Loh, worried that class sizes are nearing “intolerable” levels, said he would be more inclined to give that a green light.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.

Encouraging Teenagers to Read, by Choosing Books From the Non-Y.A. Shelves

CreditJessica Lahey

My sons have always been voracious readers. One started early, the other started late, but once they got going, both were hooked. Then, one day this winter, I looked around my teenager’s room and noticed something was missing. Where books once littered his room, I now find guitar picks, running spikes and dirty socks.

I’ve learned from experience that encouraging my children to engage in anything I want them to do requires a lot of finesse. When I’ve come right out and recommended books I think they will like, those titles are immediately blacklisted from their mental card catalog, because my very endorsement taints them with a mom-approved stink.

My solution is to “seed” my older son’s room with a wide range of books for him to find on his own time and on his own terms. I consulted with my local bookseller, Brenda Leahy, who curates a list of teenage recommendations selected from outside the Young Adult section of the bookstore. Once armed, I scattered the literary bait all over my son’s room.

Once I’d set the trap for my own son, I asked Daniel T. Willingham, author of “Raising Kids Who Read,” for more advice about how to help keep children reading as they get older, and how to entice those who have strayed from books back into the reading life.

Make reading for pleasure a priority at home. Early in elementary school, teachers tend to give children a choice about what they read, but once they hit third grade, students are asked not just to read for pleasure, but to learn. Consequently, teachers begin to dictate what — and when — children read. This shift in purpose and focus can color the entire reading experience until it reaches its lowest point around Grade 10. There will be plenty of required reading assignments at school, so model reading for pleasure at home, particularly as children get older.

Don’t offer rewards for reading. Research shows that while rewards can jump start reading, they ultimately have a detrimental effect on both motivation and attitudes toward reading for pleasure. Schools commonly offer pizza, stickers and ice cream parties in exchange for pages read, but these rewards don’t encourage students to read over the long term. Worse, they teach them to prize rewards over reading and value what has been read over what is being read. Treat reading not as the path to a golden ticket; but as the golden ticket itself.


CreditJessica Lahey

Give children the power of choice over the books they read for pleasure. Have a wide variety of books available and accessible at home and in school, but don’t push your preferences or judge what a child chooses to read. For those who are truly resistant, Dr. Willingham wrote in an email, “Our first job is to get them open to the idea that print is worth their time.”

Ditch the rules! Children need to be able to abandon books they don’t like, peek at the endings, and read books they love over and over again. “Don’t nag, praise, criticize content or otherwise control your child’s reading,” Dr. Willingham writes in his book. Rules are control, and control is the death of intrinsic motivation.

Think outside the Y.A. section of the bookstore. After a year of unsuccessful attempts to entice one eighth-grade boy with the offerings on my independent bookshelf, I finally succeeded with a nonfiction book about baseball, his favorite sport (“The Last Best League” by Jim Collins). If sports are not your kid’s thing, how about science? Try, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson or “What If?” by Randall Munroe. If a child loves animals, try “Following Atticus” by Tom Ryan or “Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived” by Ralph Helfer. You get the idea. Follow the enthusiasm in order to discover the book, rather than the other way around.

It’s been two weeks since I seeded my son’s room, and I am happy to report that the experiment has been a success at home. He has devoured two books so far this week (both on running: “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein and “14 Minutes” by Alberto Salazar) and when I took the two he rejected (“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher and “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford) to school, they were were snapped up by students as soon as I put them on the shelf. My victory was short-lived, however, as later that day, my students deemed the day’s assigned reading “boring” and “stupid,” thus proving the point about the power of choice, and reminding me that when it comes to teaching and parenting, progress is always two steps forward, one step back.

A full listing of the Dartmouth Bookstore’s “Adult Picks for Teens” is available here.

Why Did People Stop Saying “Thou”?

We know language changes—we don’t say thee and thou anymore—but have you ever wondered why? Often, it’s not clear, but there’s a particularly satisfying answer when it comes to these two pronouns.


Mignon Fogarty,

When did people stop using thou?

Sponsor: This episode is brought to you by lynda.com, an easy and affordable way to help individuals learn. Instantly stream thousands of courses created by experts on business, software, web development, graphic design and more. For a free trial visit lynda.com/grammar.


A couple of weeks ago, after I talked about how the pronoun you fills so many roles, I started wondering why we stopped using thee and thou.

It turns out that English used to have formal and informal pronouns like many other languages. German has Sie and du, French has vous and tu, Spanish has usted and tú, and during Shakespeare’s time, English had thou and you and thee and you.

Thee and Thou Were English’s Informal Pronouns

Since thee and thou have survived mainly in religious and poetic writing, you may be surprised to learn that thee and thou were the informal pronouns. Yup. You was formal, and thou was informal.

In a book called The Personal Pronouns in the Germanic Languages, Stephen Howe says that in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, thou was generally used to address someone who was socially inferior or an intimate. For example, parents called their children thou, and children called their parents you, but then the use of thou sharply decreased in the seventeenth century, starting in London. Thou was used the longest in areas that were farthest from London, and in fact, it’s still used in a few regional dialects including those in Yorkshire and Cumbria, which are both quite a bit north of London.

When Social Status Became Unclear, People Started Using You More

The reason people stopped using thou (and thee) was that social status—whether you were considered upper class or lower class—became more fluid during this time. You had social climbers striving to talk like the upper class, so they used you all the time instead of thou, and since you couldn’t be as sure as you used to be about who was in what class, it was safer to use you instead of thou because you didn’t want to risk accidentally offending someone in the upper class by using the wrong pronoun. You didn’t want to call someone thou when you should have used you!

What Do the Quakers Have to do With Thee and Thou?

Sometimes questions come up about whether the Quakers were involved in the loss of thee and thou. The Quakers actually used those pronouns longer than almost everyone else. They favored what they called “plain language,” and they aimed to be egalitarian, embrace humility, and avoid markers of class and status. They believed that addressing a social superior as you fanned the flames of vanity. As an aside, they also refused to use titles such as mister or your ladyship, and this could get them in trouble if they ended up in court because they also refused to address a judge as your honor. 

Although I didn’t find anything definitively convincing, a couple of sources speculate that anti-Quaker sentiment could have hastened the demise of thee and thou. Since fewer and fewer people were using the pronouns, they became associated with Quaker-speak, so if you didn’t like the Quakers, you were probably even less likely to use thee and thou.

Thee and Thou Became Insults

Plays and legal documents from the time do show that people were using thee and thou as insults too. The attorney-general at Sir Walter Raleigh’s trial taunted Raleigh by saying “All that he did was at thy instigation, thou viper; for I thou thee, thou traitor.” And a 1913 article in Harper’s Magazine recounts a story from George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, on the trouble he encountered when using thou. “We were often beset and abused, and sometimes in danger of our lives for using these words to some proud men, who would say, ‘What! You ill-bred clown, do you thou me?’” It’s hard to understand now, but at the time, it was almost unthinkable to call a superior thou.

So it seems that English lost its informal pronouns because people were afraid of offending those who thought of themselves as upper class and because some people were actively using the pronouns thou and thee as insults.

It’s interesting that more recently it’s the formal pronouns that are being used less often in languages such as Spanish and German. It seems that our values are different now—today, we value informality more than formality.

The sources I found include much more detail and nuance about how thee and thou used to be used, more about where they remain, more examples of how they were used as insults in plays and legal proceedings, and more about the Quakers’ attitudes on language. It’s great reading if you’re interested, so don’t skip the sources below.

See also Why Does I Take Plural Verbs.


Firth, A. “Summary: Thou and You.” Post to Linguist List 7.599, Tuesday, April 23, 1996. http://www.quaker.org/thee-thou.html (accessed November 29, 2014).

Hamm, T. “This History of Quaker Plain Speech.” YouTube, QuakerSpeak channel. June 19, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBIVNK5Lq58 (accessed December 11, 2014).

Higg, R.M, Blake, N.F., Romaine, S. and Burchfield, R.W. (eds.) The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 4. Cambridge University Press. 1992. http://j.mp/1vwK20Q (accessed November 29, 2014).

Howe, S. “The Personal Pronouns in the Germanic Languages: A Study of Personal Pronoun Morphology and  Change in the Germanic Languages from the First Records to the Present Day.” Walter de Gruyter & Co.: Berlin. 1996. http://j.mp/11EE4iR (accessed November 29, 2014).

Lawn, R. “Tu and Twitter: Is it the end for ‘vous’ in French?” http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19499771 BBC News Magazine. September 6, 2012.  (accessed December 3, 2014).

Liberman, M. “George Fox, Prescriptivist.” Language Log website. October 24, 2010. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2732 (accessed December 11, 2014).

Lounsbury, T. R., “Pronouns of Address.” Harper’s Magazine, Volume 126. 1913. p.202. http://j.mp/1yhnLXq (accessed December 3, 2014).

Walker, T. Thou and You in Early Modern English Dialogues: Trial, Depositions, and  Drama Comedy. John Benjamins Publishing. 2007. http://j.mp/1rIj6X6 (accessed November 29, 2014).

“Politeness in Early Modern English: The Second Person Pronouns.” http://www2.nau.edu/~eng121-c/politenessin%20AME.htm (accessed November 29, 2014).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


A 101-year-old shares her best advice for young women

“Just go ahead and do your thing no matter what,” says Marian Cannon Schlesinger to today’s young women.

At 101 years of age, she is still painting, writing, watching Rachel Maddow, and reading two newspapers a day.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, many of the people who can recall the era in detail have passed on.

Marian Cannon Schlesinger was married to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., historian, speechwriter and special advisor to President John F. Kennedy, living in D.C. and raising four children during his Washington years.

Well-traveled, having studied in China prior to their marriage, she returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts after their divorce. She has written and illustrated five children’s books and, in 2012, published the second volume of her memoirs: “I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People.”

I sat down with her recently to hear about her time in Washington, memories of being raised an “academic child” at Harvard, advice for independent women, and recipes for leading a “full life.”

Amidst all the cheering from individuals such as “Lean In’s” Sheryl Sandberg, many educated women of privilege in America have opted out of careers and public engagement to raise families, touting domesticity as a singular focus, in part because the alternative juggling act is so difficult and the infrastructure in the U.S. to support working parents is so paltry.

A centenarian who participated in a relatively traditional marriage might be the last person one would expect to call these women out.

But when I talked to her, Ms. Schlesinger refocused the conversation on responsibility as much as personal happiness: “Well-taken-care-of women who are well-educated, highly intelligent, well-read — a woman who has all this quality, all this talent, all this energy and yet nowhere to put it — I don’t know,” she said. “I would start by saying you can involve yourself in local problems. There are all sorts of things that have to be tended to in the world.”

What are you working on and doing with your days at this point?

Reading the newspaper, watching television and working on another book.

You spent your entire childhood among luminaries. Your father was the Francis Lee Higgins Professor of Physiology at Harvard for forty years. Your mother was a celebrated novelist and helped found Planned Parenthood. Were you impressed by all of this?

I think that’s why June Bingham and I used to have such fun over the whole thing in Washington. We didn’t take it very seriously because we had seen something of the world before we arrived.

We had a lot of fun as a family and we always had lots of people coming in and out of the house. My mother ran an “open” house really and she’d take care of all these sort of crazy relatives who had nervous breakdowns and things like that. These two wonderful aunts lived with us. So, I had three mothers, in a way.

My mother was very active in politics. She was out in the world and my two aunts were professional women and, for that period, it was rare. One of them was a founder of medical social services at Massachusetts General Hospital and the other, who had beautiful taste, owned a children’s store in Harvard Square from which generations of children were clothed.

How did you end up in China to study art after college?

“My mother sent each child after they completed college to some exotic place to sink or swim.”

My sister was married to John Fairbank and they were living in China at the time. My mother sent each child after they completed college to some exotic place to sink or swim. After Radcliffe, I took the trip by myself across the United States, got a boat in San Francisco headed for China.

How did that influence you?

A gentleman came every day and taught me how to use a Chinese brush and the whole technique of the way Chinese painting is done. There is something about the use of a Chinese brush, which is just an exquisite instrument, and it taught me so much about how to draw. A lot of people don’t draw. They just paint. I draw and paint but I feel that drawing is basic to my kind of art and I feel as though my time in China refined my work.

john f kennedeyUniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

What was the Kennedy presidency like for you?

Very go-go, if you know what I mean. And of course, it was very exciting too. There was the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis in Cuba, those were real crisis, and then there was an awful lot of bogus stuff too.

Like what?

Oh I don’t know … I had an awfully good time.

Have politics changed today?

It was kind of like a small town in the Kennedy days. There were parties every night. We often dined at the White House. It was really mad.

There was a real family feeling—I think that was somewhat fostered by Bobby Kennedy and Ethel because they had a great sense of family. You’d go out to their house in Hickory Hill and there’d be all sorts of people gathered at their place. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was there, young law clerks and, oh, all sorts of other people. I can’t remember. I’m only 101 years old!

I think I was perhaps not as aware of political violence or what was involved. I was aware of the civil rights work but I wasn’t as sensitive to it as I became later on. A lot of this good work was going on at the time but I suppose I was preoccupied by the momentum of it all including raising my four teenagers.

There were so many things played upon me at the time. I wasn’t involved with the mechanics of getting elected at that point. I wasn’t active in politics until afterwards when I went on a trip with Scotty Lanahan, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s daughter, who was a great friend of mine, and two other women. We went out and campaigned for Johnson in 1964. That was terrific fun. I never had such a good time as that.

What advice do you have on how to be a free-spirited woman?

Just go ahead and do your thing no matter what.

Also, my mother had said, ‘It doesn’t really matter if your house is that dirty. Go ahead and do your thing. Don’t pay too much attention to housekeeping.’ Of course, she did have a nice maid who came in every day but we didn’t have any live-in servants. My mother did most of the cooking. Sometimes it was not so good, but it was adequate.

In those days, women who had higher education, especially back in my childhood, were rather rare. The fact that they’ve gone out and gotten this education has differentiated them from other people in a way.

But there are strong women everywhere whether they have higher education or not! There have always been strong women.

This idea that feminism was created in the last twenty years is ridiculous. When you think of all the women that went across the continent in covered wagons. Really. It’s ridiculous. It’s a lot of baloney. If they’d read a little history, they’d find out that women have been powerful characters all through the history of the United States.

Young Woman with Hat and SunglassesFlickr / Chris JL

You must recognize, though, that some women still can’t find their voice?

I think there are a lot of privileged women who are frustrated. They just don’t know what they want to do and they need to go out and use their education and talent. I’m very fortunate because not only do I paint but I also write. I had plenty to do.

“I think I’ve been very lucky. But I think that I’ve made some of it for myself. I never gave up. I wanted it all, in other words, and I think I really almost got it all too.”

I was thinking about a friend of mine who, before she married, was quite active in Massachusetts politics. And then she married a man who was very well off and she was well-supported and had two children and then, once the children were all grown up, here she was well-supported and not even doing anything with it.

Well-taken-care-of women who are well-educated, highly intelligent, well-read – a woman who has all this quality, all this talent, all this energy and yet nowhere to put it—I don’t know. I really feel very sorry for them.

What would you say to these women?

I would start by saying you can involve yourself in local problems. There are all sorts of things that have to be tended to in the world.

Early on I decided being a painter was what I wanted to be but I wanted to be a lot of other things too. I wanted to write. I wanted to play tennis. I wanted to have a lot of friends. I wanted to have a lot of beaus. I think I’ve been very lucky. But I think that I’ve made some of it for myself. I never gave up. I wanted it all, in other words, and I think I really almost got it all too.

I was thinking the other day about never giving up. I remember when my husband and I separated and I stayed on in Washington for about a year before I moved back to Cambridge on my own. […] But then I sort of gathered myself together, moved back to Cambridge and got organized.

How did you get organized?

I renewed a lot of friendships.

What was it like to be neighbors with Julia Child?

She was terribly busy. I’d have people over for the afternoons and she’d come but I’ll never forget the time I had to her to lunch before she went back to California. I must say I made a very good meal and she said, ‘oh, Marian, this is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.’

What did you make?

Gnocchi. We made gnocchi, green salad and fruit for desert. Pretty good and the gnocchi, it was delicious too.

Where do you get your news?

I read two newspapers a day. I also read The Nation and The New Yorker, which has become such a bore. Every once in a while there’s a wonderful murder in Vanity Fair which I love, especially a society murder, if you know what I mean?

I like to watch Rachel Maddow, if I can stay awake that late, I like her so much and Chris Matthews and Mister Ed who I love on MSNBC.

Favorite places to dine out in Cambridge?

God, I can’t remember. No one went out to dinner in the ’50s.

But I will tell you what I used to do with this great friend of mine, Sheila Gilmore, who was an original. She was the stepdaughter of the Harvard philosopher Alfred Whitehead and her husband was a professor of history at Harvard. She and I used to go to the original Legal Seafood down in Inman Square. We used to set up at the counter and I’d have a dozen oysters and a martini. I’ve forgotten what she had but I always remember this. It was my idea of the perfect meal.

Any thoughts on the Red Sox?

I think they’re terrific but I can’t stay awake and watch them. I find the Patriots are rather an irritating group – so full of themselves. I prefer the Red Sox to the Patriots.

Craft CoffeeFacebook/Craft Coffee

Do you have any habits or secrets to living to be 101?

I drink a cup of coffee every morning. My nice son brings me a cup of coffee and he’s done that now for some years, which I think is terribly nice of him.

Her son Andrew chimes in: “You have a drink every night.”

A pretty watered down drink! It’s symbolic more than anything

What advice do you have on how to live a full life?

Just keep going.

Have lots of people in the house and lots of different kinds of people – young, old, black, white, people from all over the world. People have always energized me.

Your hope for the next president?

Good old Hillary would be okay.


Christopher Hitchens on Mortality


“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

“One should try to write as if posthumously,”Christopher Hitchens (April 13, 1949–December 15, 2011) famously opined in a New York Public Library talk three days before his fatal cancer diagnosis. “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others,” he advised young contrarians years earlier. How striking, then, becomes the clash between his uncompromising ethos and the equally uncompromising realities of death, recorded inMortality (public library), his last published work, out this week — a gripping and lucid meditation on death as it was unfolding during Hitch’s last months of life. But what makes the book truly extraordinary is his profound oscillation between his characteristic, proud, almost stubborn self-awareness — that ability to look on with the eye of the critic rather than the experiencing self — and a vulnerability that is so clearly foreign to him, yet so breathlessly inevitable in dying. The ideological rigor with which he approaches his own finality, teasing apart religion and politics and other collective and thus impersonal facets of culture, cracks here and there, subtly at first, letting the discomfort of his brush with the unknown peek through, then gapes wide open to reveal the sheer human terror of ceasing to exist.

We begin by seeing Hitchens, a true contrarian himself, defy death’s common psychology:

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of ‘acceptance,’ hasn’t so far had much application to my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read — if not indeed to write — the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.

One coping mechanism is stoic wryness:

To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

As a bastion of semantic clarity, Hitch doesn’t miss the opportunity to dismember a number of the metaphors we use about and around death, echoingSusan Sontag’s classic and revolutionary Illness as Metaphor in discussing the “war-on-cancer” cliché:

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

Still, Hitchens uses his death as a vehicle for advancing his lifelong crusade against religion, which earned him a spot as one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism” — along with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris — and takes a number of clever stabs at religion’s paradoxes:

Many readers are familiar with the spirit and the letter of the definition of ‘prayer,’ as given by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary. It runs like this, and is extremely easy to comprehend:

Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy.

Everybody can see the joke that is lodged within this entry: The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right. Half-buried in the contradiction is the distressing idea that nobody is in charge, or nobody with any moral authority. The call to prayer is self-cancelling.

But, every once in a while, between the busting of clichés, the complacent edge of his self-awareness softens and gives way to the real and raw human terror of his experience:

It’s normally agreed that the question ‘How are you?’ doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, ‘A bit early to say.’ (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, ‘I seem to have cancer today.’) Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask… It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’thave a body, I am a body.

Indeed, this daily attrition of bodily dignity, which bleeds into an attrition of character, is hard even for Hitch to intellectualize, try as he might:

Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. And at times it threatened, and now threatens daily, to disappear altogether. I had just returned from giving a couple of speeches in California, where with the help of morphine and adrenaline I could still successfully ‘project’ my utterances, when I made an attempt to hail a taxi outside my home — and nothing happened. I stood, frozen, like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow. I used to be able to stop a New York cab at thirty paces. I could also, without the help of a microphone, reach the back row and gallery of a crowded debating hall. And it may be nothing to boast about, but people tell me that if their radio or television was on, even in the next room, they could always pick out my tones and know that I was ‘on’ too.

Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs. In common with everybody else, I have played versions of the youthful ‘Which would you rather?’ game, in which most usually it’s debated whether blindness or deafness would be the most oppressive. But I don’t ever recall speculating much about being struck dumb. (In the American vernacular, to say ‘I’d really hate to be dumb’ might in any case draw another snicker.) Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’

The final pages of Mortality feature Hitch’s fragmentary scribbles from the days immediately preceding his death, concluding, poignantly, with this:

From Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams; set in Berne in 1905:

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts… and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own… Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.

Ackman Says Student Loans Are the Biggest Risk in the Credit Market

College students in the U.S. that take out federal loans are likely to see interest rates jump — potentially by a percentage point or more — in the coming academic year.
Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
Bill Ackman says the biggest risk in the credit market is student loans.

“If you think about the trillion dollars of student loans we have outstanding, there’s no way students are going to pay it back,” Ackman, who runs $20 billion Pershing Square Capital Management, said today at 13D Monitor’s Active-Passive Investor Summit in New York.

The balance of student loans outstanding in the U.S. — also including private loans without government guarantees — swelled to $1.3 trillion as of the second quarter 2014, based on data released by the Federal Reserve in October. The rising level has prompted investors and government officials to draw parallels to the subprime mortgage market before housing collapsed starting in 2006.

About $100 billion of federal student loans are in default, 9 percent of outstanding balances, according to a Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee update on student lending trends released in November.

Ackman, 48, said “young people are the kind of people that protest” and predicted that one administration or another will forgive student debt.

The investor, who last year trounced other money managers with a 40 percent gain in his public fund, said at the conference he doesn’t like fixed income markets generally because of very low U.S. interest rates and that investors should be wary of aggressive lending terms.

Another panel at the event — an annual forum used by hedge fund managers to highlight campaigns to push companies for change — was interrupted by about 20 protesters chanting and carrying placards demanding fairer wages. Security intervened and managed to usher the noisy-but-peaceful protesters outside of the fourth-floor Broadway Ballroom.

Bill Nye, TV’s ‘The Science Guy’; Earl Lewis, Academic and Philanthropic Leader; Bryan Stevenson, Attorney Specializing in Capital Defendants; New Jersey’s Jon Bon Jovi Comprise Rutgers’ Lineup of Speakers at Commencement

Speakers will be joined by CUNY professor and social activist Frances Fox Piven as honorary degree recipients

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Rutgers University has chosen multitalented educators and entertainers as commencement speakers for its May ceremonies in New Brunswick/Piscataway, Newark and Camden, N.J.

William S. “Bill” Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, but best known as television’s “Bill Nye, The Science Guy,” will speak Sunday, May 17 (12:30 p.m.) at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s commencement at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway.

Earl Lewis, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a highly regarded historian and author and co-editor of seven books, as well as the 11-volume The Young Oxford History of African Americans, will address graduates Monday, May 18 (9 a.m.), at Rutgers University-Newark’s ceremony at the Prudential Center.

Bryan A. Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who is recognized for representing capital defendants and death row prisoners in the Deep South, and a professor of clinical law at the New York University School of Law, will deliver remarks Thursday, May 21 (9 a.m.) during the Rutgers University-Camden convocation and graduate student commencement at the Susquehanna Bank Center. Famed musician and native New Jerseyan Jon Bon Jovi – widely known for his roles as singer, songwriter, actor and philanthropist – will also deliver remarks.

The four also will receive honorary degrees: Nye, a Doctor of Science; Lewis, a Doctor of Humane Letters; Stevenson, a Doctor of Laws; and Bon Jovi, a Doctor of Letters. Additionally, Rutgers will award an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in New Brunswick to Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of political science and sociology, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Bill Nye
Bill Nye

Nye is a scientist, engineer, comedian, author and inventor, and a man with a mission: to help foster a scientifically literate society. Upon graduating from Cornell (where he later taught) with a degree in mechanical engineering, he went to work at Boeing in Seattle, and eventually developed a hydraulic resonance suppressor that is still used in Boeing 747 aircraft. There, he won a Steve Martin look-alike contest and became a stand-up comic and comedy writer, eventually leaving Boeing.In Seattle, “Bill Nye, The Science Guy,” came to TV, and from 1993 to 1998, Nye won seven Emmy Awards for writing, performing and producing. The show won 18 Emmys in five years. An accomplished author, he has written children’s and general audience books about science, including evolution, and on energy and climate change.

Nye’s current day job is as CEO of the Planetary Society, the world’s largest nongovernmental space interest organization. The society was founded by Nye’s astronomy professor at Cornell, Carl Sagan, among others. Nye and fellow members of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.

Lewis, who holds master and doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota, is a renowned historian and one of the nation’s leading scholars of African American studies. The son of a school teacher in the Jim Crow South, he overcame pervasive disadvantages of being educated in segregated elementary and middle schools. A member of the cohort that integrated his high school in Chesapeake, Va., he earned a National Merit Scholarship for Minority Students and attended Concordia (Minn.) College, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and psychology.

Well known for his leadership in higher education at the national level, Lewis is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on the boards of directors of the Educational Testing Service and the National Academies Board of Higher Education Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs Committee. He has also served on the boards of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Research Libraries and on many higher education task forces. He was a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

During his academic career, Lewis has held faculty appointments at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan and Emory University. At Michigan, he ultimately served as vice provost for academic affairs/graduate studies and dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. At Emory, he became provost and the executive vice president for academic affairs.

As president of The Mellon Foundation, Lewis oversees one of the world’s largest foundations, with more than $6 billion in assets. The foundation makes grants in five primary areas: higher education and scholarship in the humanities; scholarly communications; diversity; arts and cultural heritage; international and higher education and strategic projects.

Stevenson is a 1985 graduate of Harvard University, with both a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government and a Doctor of Laws from Harvard Law School. Since 1989, he has been executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a private, nonprofit law organization he founded that focuses on social justice and human rights in the context of criminal justice reform in the U.S. EJI litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged, poor people denied effective representation and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.

Bryan A. Stevenson
Photo credit: Robert Fouts
Bryan A. Stevenson

Stevenson’s work has won him national acclaim. In 1995, he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. He is also a 1989 recipient of the Reebock Human Rights Award, the 1991 American Civil Liberties Union National Medal of Liberty, and in 1996, he was named the Public Interest Lawyer of the Year by the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers. In 2000, Stevenson received the Olof Palme Prize in Stockholm, for international human rights, and in 2004, he received the Award for Courageous Advocacy from the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Lawyer for the People Award from the National Lawyers Guild.In 2006, NYU presented Stevenson with its Distinguished Teaching Award. He has served as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School. He has published several widely disseminated manuals on capital litigation and has written extensively on criminal justice, capital punishment and civil rights issues. He is also the author of The New York Times best-seller and multiaward-winning Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Jon Bon Jovi is the founder and frontman of one of the world’s best-selling musical acts, Bon Jovi, which has sold more than 130 million albums worldwide. The band’s last two consecutive world tours became the top-grossing tour in the world on each respective outing. As an actor, he has appeared in numerous feature films and television series and as a songwriter, he is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame who earned a Golden Globe for Best Original Song (1991) and a nomination for Best Original Song in 2012.

Frequently using his spotlight for good throughout his career, Bon Jovi’s charitable efforts have always focused on helping those who help themselves. As these efforts grew to focus on affordable housing and hunger, he formally launched the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation (2006), which combats the issues that force families and individuals into economic despair. Through the funding and creation of programs and partnerships, the foundation supports innovative community efforts to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

In 2011, Bon Jovi opened the JBJ Soul Kitchen, a community restaurant in Red Bank, N.J., where patrons either pay a minimum donation or volunteer in exchange for their meals. In February 2015, the foundation provided financial backing for a second community restaurant, Spoon Full of Hope, in Superstorm Sandy-ravaged Union Beach, N.J.

Frances Fox Piven
Frances Fox Piven

Piven is an expert in the development of the welfare state, political movements, urban politics, voting and electoral politics. She has been politically engaged with improving the lives of America’s poor since the 1960s. She has taught at universities in the U.S. and Europe, and among her many books are the best-selling Regulating the Poor (1971); Poor People’s Movements (1977); Why Americans Don’t Vote (1989); Why Americans Still Don’t Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way (2000), co-authored with Richard A. Cloward; and Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (2006).Piven, who holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago, has received broad public recognition and numerous academic and community service awards for her work. As a co-founder of HumanSERVE, her work on voter registration reform prompted the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (known as the “motor voter” law). She is a past president of the American Sociological Association (2007), and the Society for the Study of Social Problems (1980), has served on the national board of the ACLU and was a founding board chair of The New Press.

Many children are living in Victorian conditions – it’s an inequality timebomb

What does it mean to be one of the richest countries in the world? I wondered this as I read through the report by the Children’s Commission on Poverty (CCP) at the end of last year, in which British children describe the hunger that comes with not being able to afford lunch, or the wait for a “good day” when their mum has 25p spare for a snack. I was reminded of this by the teaching union NASUWT’s warning this week that there are children in this country living in “Victorian conditions”, turning to charity for regular meals and going without a winter coat.

Britain’s economic recovery can be felt in the lives of “hardworking taxpayers”, David Cameron claimed at a rally on Easter Monday. Yet children are coming to school in dirty or fraying clothes, eight in 10 teachers surveyed report. Other children are vanishing halfway through the term, evicted and without a home near their school to go back to. I imagine it is difficult for them to feel the coalition’s economic recovery – if only their parents had worked harder.

The union’s message is clear: the financial crisis is impacting on the poorest children’s attainment. Hungry and tired children cannot concentrate in class. Living in a cramped flat or temporary accommodation means doing maths on your knee or producing English coursework with no internet, let alone your own laptop. Teenagers who are worrying whether their parents can pay this month’s rent are likely to become withdrawn, not confident students ready for university interviews.

There is no such thing as an equal life chance in Britain. This will not be news to the former free school meals child now scrubbing toilets for a minimum wage, or to the Eton alumni born to sit in Downing Street. The system is rigged – and it is rigged in favour of the ones who don’t need the advantage. That is the greatest irony of inequality and education: the school system is both the emancipation of the working class and confirmation of its place. Austerity’s architects could never have thought that growing inequality – where the elite have seen their fortunes rocket as the poorest suffer – would do anything but worsen this.

As further evidence of this, the educational “achievement gap” between richer and poorer children is widening, as of this year. Only one in three disadvantaged pupils is hitting the government’s GCSE pass target – compared with over 60% of their richer peers. And the education system literally divides children along class lines – our schools are among the most socially segregated in the developed world. We group together children of immigrants: 80% are taught in schools with “high concentrations” of other immigrant or disadvantaged pupils. Poorly educated parents – defined as those who don’t have five good GCSEs – see their kids taught together, shut away from advantaged children. Meanwhile, private schools continue to let privilege buy privilege. The best comprehensives and academies practice social selection by stealth, siphoning out the poor kids on free school meals.

“[Eating] depends really on what my mum’s situation is,” one child explained to the CCP inquiry. “If I don’t have the money I normally just wait until I get home [from school]. Or me and my friends always share food about and they normally give me something.”

It is comforting to pretend this sort of poverty is inevitable, as if inequality were genetic rather than the product of conscious political decisions. Choices have consequences and austerity is not good at hiding them: be it the children in the communities where low pay and benefit cuts have pushed more than half into poverty , or food bank signs among leafy, red-brick mansions.

But inequality goes deeper than what is visible. It is stigma, exclusion, and stagnated opportunity. We have become used to framing economics in short-termism. Why wouldn’t we? Poverty makes a habit of immediacy. High rents and unstable or low paid work force finding your children’s next meal to become the priority. This coalition has enshrined a culture of desperation, where some parents have to beg or steal for food, and even emergency council loans are taken from them. This damage is lasting.

In a decade from now there will be a second crisis, when the children currently learning while tired and hungry will be expected to compete in a labour market against the offspring of the families who were able to provide the luxury of a desk and regular meals. That is how inequality works. Today’s “Victorian conditions” will define tomorrow’s too. This government has sat back as a whole section of society is locked into long-term poverty.

It is 2015 and children in this country are going to school hungry, as they sit in class in dirty uniforms. Where exactly do we expect them to be in 2025? Austerity is starving the poorest out of their future.

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