Monday, August 20, 2007

MEMOIR: Teaching at a college that wouldn't take me as a student

Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism enjoys the same eminence in its specialized field as the Harvard Graduate Business School or Yale Law School possess in their professions. A degree from one of these institutions is a cachet on the resume of a young graduate. The prestige attached to his or her degree presumably gives the student a leg up in the search for a job in the student's field.

That's why I decided to apply to Columbia's Graduate J-School when I graduated from New York University's School of Commerce with a major in journalism in 1948. The job market was exceedingly tight that year as young war veterans, fresh out of college, swarmed to find a newspaper or magazine job. I figured that a Columbia Graduate J-School degree would strengthen my unimposing credentials.

But I was discouraged from submitting a formal application for admission. I was told that Columbia's Graduate J-School sought applicants with B.A. degrees in the liberal arts. My hapless degree from NYU was a bachelor of science, which suggested to Columbia authorities that I was obviously culturally disadvantaged. (I do not know whether the school still maintains the same admissions policy.)

I was disappointed by the rejection. But I rationalized that I might have wasted my time and money at the Columbia Graduate J-School. As an undergraduate journalism major at NYU, I had taken occupationally-oriented courses in news reporting, editorial writing, editing, critical writing, typography, and other tools of the journalistic trade.

These very same professional courses were what Columbia's Graduate J-School offered for a master's degree. In short, I decided that I really had nothing new to learn there and nothing to gain other than the prestige associated with a degree from that exalted school.

In 1981,I was finally in a Columbia J-School classroom--not as a student but as an adjunct lecturer, teaching a course on reporting and writing about business. This was essentially what I had been doing since my undergraduate college days. For nearly two decades I had been a Washington correspondent and writer and editor at Business Week magazine and a Washington correspondent for the Newhouse Newspapers. Even without a master's degree, the J-school dean decided that I had the credentials to teach the course.

In all candor, I got the job only because the professor who normally taught the course had suddenly become ill. I was a last-minute selection as a substitute before the course began. I had been recommended by a colleague who was a regular adjunct faculty member. My assignment was only for the upcoming semester. I had never taught before, and I was given no guidance on how to conduct the course. As I recall, there were about 30 students in the class.

At the time, my primary job at Business Week was to write corporate profile articles that usually ran as cover stories in the magazine. I decided to employ some of my published profile articles as case studies. My plan was tell in clinical detail how I reported and wrote the pieces, and in the process reveal the tricks of the trade in reporting and writing about business.

I would explain how to find and use news sources, interview techniques, methods of double-checking critical facts, handling attribution questions, and related news-gathering techniques--all in the context of the corporate world.

The course ran for nearly five months. I was amazed that I was never monitored by the school's dean or other authorities, nor was I ever asked to submit reports on the course's progress. Evidently, however, I must have done something right. The feedback on my performance as a first-time lecturer was impressive. That was the conclusion I drew from the overwhelmingly favorable teacher evaluation reports submitted by the students at the end of the course.

I never did follow up on the careers my students established after graduating. But three young women in the class were subsequently hired by Business Week--and without my intervention or influence. One eventually became a senior editor of the magazine shortly after my retirement. Another was recruited by a rival news magazine, wrote two books, and is now a journalism professor at a local college.

I like to think that even though I had been rejected as a student applicant to Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, as a faculty lecturer I had done my bit to maintain the school's image as an Ivy League-type collegiate institution.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hopelessness and madness in Iraq

The hopelessness and madness of the Iraq war is vividly depicted in a documentary film entitled "Occupation: Dreamland" which I have just seen. The film, which was produced in 2005, is now available in DVD from Netflix and probably from Blockbuster.

It runs for about two hours and has no preconceived political agenda. The film simply shows what it's like to be a U.S. soldier now fighting in Iraq, and it is far more insightful and dramatic than the war reporting in the print media or on television.

The film follows a platoon of the 82rd Airborne Division on patrol in the town of Faluja, searching for Sunni insurgents and caches of weapons. In tropical heat, the troops are burdened by armored vests and heavy backpacks as they march down streets, forcibly entering homes and intruding on groups of locals gathered in a coffee house.

Their mission is complicated by the fact that they cannot easily distinguish innocent people from legitimate enemies. There do not appear to be any local folk who are genuine friends. Only one squad seems to be accompanied by an Arab interpreter.

The other troops cannot communicate with the Iraqis they meet. Nevertheless, they are supposed to take into custody suspicious Arabs for interrogation at their outfit's makeshift headquarters. And all the while, the paratroopers are vulnerable to attack from snipers concealed on roof tops or in bunkers.

The film shows the troops barging into private homes as women and children huddle together on the floor, terrified by the intruders. Most male family members are hauled out of the houses and driven to the headquarters to determine whether they are bad guys who will be detained or harmless men allowed to return to their homes.

One GI, troubled by his own actions, declares that if foreign soldiers ever barged into his own home in Chicago the way he and his buddies were doing, he would try to kill them.

In surprisingly candid remarks recorded in the film, it is obvious that many of the American soldiers are confused about their mission while patrolling Faluja's dangerous streets. Even more telling, they sound as if they are uncertain why they are in Iraq to begin with.

A sense of purpose and direction is clearly missing. It is noteworthy that these are professional, volunteer soldiers and not reservists or National Guardsmen griping about having been unexpectedly shipped overseas for prolonged combat duty.

Americans who still believe that our invasion of and occupation in Iraq is a noble endeavor should be required to see "Occupation: Dreamland."

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Catholic Church's Jewish cardinal

The death earlier this week of France's Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger underscores the very sensitive issue of Jewish identity. The traditional Orthodox Jewish view is that some one born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, but that Jewish identity is erased if a Jew converts to Christianity or any other religious faith. The late French cardinal steadfastly challenged that view. (In recent years, the Reform Jewish movement began to also accept persons with Jewish fathers as the basis for Jewish identity.)

Lustiger, who was the archbishop of Paris until his retirement two years ago, was born to Polish Jewish immigrant parents in Paris. In 1940, after the German occupation of France, he was hidden with a Catholic family where he was exposed to and converted to Catholicism at age 13.

Two years later, his mother, who had objected to his conversion, was deported to a Nazi German concentration camp, where she died the following year. His father, who had also objected to Lustiger's religious conversion, survived the Holocaust. When Lustiger was ordained a priest in 1954, his father sadly observed the ceremony from a seat far back in the church.

During his life, even as a Catholic cardinal, Lustiger always insisted that he had remained a Jew after his conversion, outraging Orthodox Jewish authorities. He remained fluent in the Yiddish language and often visited Israel, where he had close relatives.

In 1995, during to one of his visits to Israel, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi charged that Lustiger had "betrayed his people and his faith during the most difficult and darkest of periods" in the 1940s. The rabbi dismissed Lustiger's claim that he had remained a Jew.

Lustiger responded: "To say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in the other camps."

To my knowledge, he never tried to justify or explain how he could be both Catholic and Jewish. But he evidently embraced the concept of Jewish ethnicity, a once controversial theory that is now generally recognized by virtually all Jews. The ethnicity factor is, of course, a key element in the Zionist philosophy that led to the creation of Israel.

The ethnicity argument is that Jewishness is more than a religious faith. With a common language and written alphabet (Hebrew), history, tradition, and culture, Jews are also an ethnic group. Historical and geographic circumstances, however, led to the emergence of three separate Jewish ethnic sub-groups--Ashkenazim (European), Sephardim (Mediterranean), and Mizrahim (Middle East and central Asia)--all of whom possess these common characteristics.

Some would even argue that belief in Judaism as a religion is not necessarily a requirement for Jewish identity. The late Cardinal Lustiger obviously held this view. Proponents of this view would note that there are atheists, secular humanists, and cults calling themselves "Jews for Jesus" and "Messianic Jews" who claim to still be Jews and retain certain Jewish cultural symbols.

Indeed, the Jewish establishment does recognize atheists and secular humanists born of Jewish mothers (or fathers, according to the Reform movement) as fellow Jews. But because of the historical trauma of centuries of Christian persecution of the Jewish people, the line is drawn against the acceptance of Jews who have converted to Christianity.

This is not only the view of Judaism's Orthodox and Conservative branches, but also of the liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements. This is a highly emotional question that probably reflects the once primitive elements of tribal loyalty.

So while France's late Cardinal Lustiger still considered himself a Jew, the Jewish community at large did not. Nevertheless, had he been discovered in his boyhood shelter, even as a Catholic convert, he would clearly have been a candidate for the German death camps because of the dictates of Nazi racial theories.

In fact, thousands of other Jewish converts to Christianity perished during the Holocaust because they had at least one Jewish grandparent. Ironically, Israel has borrowed the same standard but, obviously, for far more benign reasons. The Jewish nation offers automatic citizenship to those with a single Jewish grandparent even if they do not necessarily practice the Jewish religion.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A skinny guy views the obesity hysteria

I'm avoiding the usual content of this blog--commentaries on world affairs and personal memoirs of the past--to voice a complaint about a very personal matter.....

I've been favorably described by people who know me as being lean, slender, slim or even trim. But the truth is that I'm just a skinny guy--maybe scrawny would be more accurate--who has devoted much of his life struggling to gain weight. I'm probably one of the few men who ever lost weight during his first year of marriage. I've barely gained a pound since my discharge from the Army six decades ago.

I am thus unable to relate very well to the current hysteria about obesity. Media horror stories about the danger of being over weight and the growing reports of a national obesity "epidemic" do not register with me. I wince at all the ads and promotions trying to peddle weight loss programs to me while I fight valiantly to gain weight or to just preserve what I have.

For most of my adult life, I've been about 5'10", have rarely weighed more than 150 lbs., and have been as low as 135 lbs. (In old age, I've shrunk about an inch.) I recognize that doctors probably consider most people like me healthier than very overweight folks. Just because we're thin, the doctors claim that we're not vulnerable to the ailments of very fat people.

That may very well be true, but my own medical experience has shown the virtue of carrying some extra poundage in reserve. Over the years, e.g., when I've been hospitalized or seriously ill, I invariably lost valuable pounds and wound up looking emaciated. And then began a battle to regain the lost weight.

The effort was never easy. My wife and my late mother would testify--complain would be more accurate--that I'm not a big eater. Even when I am seduced by some high-calorie delicacies, such foods never put weight on me. Weight-conscious friends are stunned and envious to learn, e.g., that before going to bed at night, I regularly consume a generous dish of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, followed shortly by a large chocolate bar and a glass of milk. It's become a ritual that I observe faithfully, but with no effect on my weight.

Considering the current obsession over obesity, my view about body weight is undoubtedly sacrilegious. But people should acknowledge that those of us who are skinny and who constantly fight to gain or preserve pounds also have a weight problem, but obviously of a different dimension. I'm irritated that the current hysteria over obesity obscures the travails of skinny folks like me even though we're suddenly regarded as having a fashionable look in certain circles.

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