Point of View

By Norman Boucher / September / October 1998
November 24th, 2007

When Patrick Moynihan '87 was occasionally stopping by the BAM offices last year to interest Assistant Editor Chad Galts in his work running a school near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Galts had only the vaguest notion of the journey he was about to undertake. Last winter, he and photographer Maggie Steber left behind the Starbucks and health clubs of Providence and New York for a country where visits from doctors are so rare that marines are required for crowd control when they arrive. Soon Galts and Steber were seeing hundreds of people line up before tables moved outside in impromptu clinics, Haitians seeking treatment for everything from parasites to knife wounds. Bringing in the doctors and working alongside them was Moynihan, who a decade after leaving Brown has been on a most remarkable journey of his own ("The Missionary").

"I had never been in a Third World country before," Galts says. "The concentration of misery was unbelievable. It takes a while to work that stuff out." After a week of following Moynihan as he worked in his school and in these clinics, Galts found himself reaching an intolerable point. On his last night in Haiti, he retreated to a hotel in Port-au-Prince to try to regain perspective. Even Steber, who has been photographing in Haiti for fourteen years, finds the country's hardships difficult to take. "Maggie told me," Galts says, "that even after all these years, there is always a point when she just has to go somewhere and have a good cry."

Galts's experience is a reminder of how easy it is for one's perspective to become familiar and comfortable, how quickly one's experience of the daily dramas of a lucky life can narrow insight and thought. In a similar way, Robert Scholes, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, is trying to redirect our perspective on the teaching of English. By now, of course, the combatants in the culture wars have established well-entrenched, familiar positions: to save our culture we must either return to the old ways of doing things or destroy them in favor of brand-new ones. Equally smug and comfortable, both positions are also equally false in Scholes's view. What's needed, he argues in his new book, The Rise and Fall of English (excerpted as "Does English Matter?"), is a return to the idea of truth and lasting values, but within the context of today's culture and media. The way to Shakespeare's sonnets, he argues, may be through a forest of bumper stickers, advertising copy, film, and Web surfing. Like it or not, Scholes's argument asks us all to confront reality and deal with it.

Fresh insights often - though not necessarily - come with change, and among the new insights President E. Gordon Gee has offered up since arriving on campus last January has been a new perspective on Title IX ("A Sporting Chance"). His decision to put the litigation behind him was not so much an abandonment of Brown's earlier view of the case as it was a broadening of that view. True, Gee decided, the University must have the freedom to manage its own athletic programs, but are the courts really the best way to achieve this? Gee's insight was that reality at times can be a matter of perception as well as principle. To someone in Iowa, he says, Brown has appeared to be a University dragging its feet in providing equal opportunities for women, no matter what the court briefs say. And because the University over the years has in fact been a pioneer in providing such opportunities, it has to make sure that perception and reality are one.

Offering up fresh perspectives, questioning conventional ways of thinking: these are the duties of a good magazine and a first-rate university.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
September / October 1998