Vol. 33 No. 11 · 2 June 2011

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Don’t look to the Ivy League

Howard Hotson has a polemic to make against the UK government’s higher education policy (a polemic I am sympathetic to), but in the process he issues some dubious statements about American universities (LRB, 19 May). ‘Market competition in the United States has driven up tuition fees in the private universities,’ he writes, ‘and thereby sucked out the resources needed to sustain good public universities, while diverting a hugely wasteful share of these resources from academic priorities to improving the “student experience" and debasing academic credentials through market-driven grade inflation.’

This sentence distorts the situation of American universities, their sources of support and their policies. I suppose in some cosmic economic analysis you could claim that American private universities consume too many resources, but there is no indication that economies on their part would go to support the public universities. These traditionally were funded largely by state budgets, that is by tax revenues, and ought still to be, though many states have deplorably underfunded them in recent years. The ‘elite’ private universities justify their high tuition charges through a policy of ‘need blind’ financial aid: that is, the claim that students will be admitted without attention to their ability to pay and given the resources they need. At the university where I currently teach, 60 per cent of students receive such financial aid, all of it in direct grants, not loans.

As for the debasement of academic credentials through ‘market-driven grade inflation’, I’d be interested to see Hotson’s evidence for his assertion. ‘Way back when,’ he writes, ‘the average mark in the US was supposed to be a C.’ Perhaps so, if you were partying with Scott Fitzgerald’s gilded youth in This Side of Paradise. I am convinced that the best universities now have a more serious, more academically committed, and harder-working student body, and that the rise in grade averages has something to do with this. American universities face multiple problems that are not altogether different from those in the UK. But I don’t see what is to be gained by demonising them in an otherwise justified critique of what’s going on in the UK.

Peter Brooks
Princeton University, New Jersey

Howard Hotson commits a textbook example of the fallacy of composition. He contends that the Canadian public university sector does better than the American on one-tenth the funding on the grounds that the University of Toronto outranks its highest-ranked American competitor, the University of Michigan. This ignores the fact that Canada pours a disproportionate amount of resources into Toronto and that the university has three undergraduate campuses, making it much larger than any American competitor. Indeed, there are at least a half-dozen American public institutions of comparable international stature.

Dhananjay Jagannathan
St John’s College, Cambridge

What’s what in Libya

Issandr El Amrani tells us that Misurata and al-Baida have ‘alternately’ changed hands, yet both fell to the opposition (or ‘rebels’) at the start of the uprising and have remained under their control (LRB, 28 April). Yes, Brega has changed hands repeatedly, but not Baida. More broadly, there is not nor has there been a ‘de facto division of Libya into east and west’. The Jebel Nafusa towns in the west (west of Tripoli) fell to the opposition in February, and the opposition has slowly consolidated its control there. Zawiya, west of Tripoli, fell to the opposition but was recaptured by government forces. Misurata is in the western half of the country.

Amrani is also wrong to say that the uprising is ‘mostly a Cyrenaican one’, unless he wants to write off the motivations and efforts of people in Misurata, Zawiya, the Nafusa towns and Tripoli too, where pro-government forces have killed and detained many. His assertion that recruitment to the uprising has ‘taken place largely through tribal affiliation’ is contradicted by the evidence and what the members of the Libyan opposition themselves say. The conflict in Libya is a liberation struggle that reaches across the country – its supporters call it the 17 February Revolution.

Richard Barltrop

When Judaism became portable

Keith Thomas suggests that in a world where divinity was habitually thought to be located in holy places, it was ‘remarkable that the first Christians should have rejected the whole notion of sacred space’ (LRB, 19 May). Yet their reconception of divinity as located within the individual – they were, he says, ‘encouraged to see themselves, not buildings or sanctuaries, as the temple of the living God’ – was part of a larger concurrent transformation within the Judaic religious imagination. The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 forced the rabbis of the era into a radical reconceptualisation of the locus of religious life: personal prayer replaced priestly sacrifices; everyday human actions – ‘deeds of love and kindness’, as the leading rabbinic authority Yochanan ben Zakkai described it – ensured the atonement that only set rituals within the sanctuary had previously effected; and the Sabbath table in every home replaced the altar. In effect, Judaism became portable; and diasporic religious life became possible. Without a priesthood, cult and external sacred space, the rabbinic imagination created new routes for the divine to be experienced within each individual: early Christianity was part of this post-cultic democratisation of religious self-expression. ‘Sacred space’ became internalised.

Howard Cooper
London N3

The ‘rag well’ Keith Thomas remembers from his childhood in the Vale of Glamorgan may have disappeared, but one survives at Trellech, between Chepstow and Monmouth. In addition to being a rag well, it has alleged medicinal properties, being in effect a chalybeate well, with supposed health-giving properties from iron salts in solution, as in Tunbridge Wells. There are no naturally occurring iron deposits in Trellech, now a village but one of the biggest towns in Wales in the 13th century, when the de Clare family exploited local resources to produce arms there. As a result, the water in the rag well passes through large quantities of medieval iron furnace slag, where it absorbs the iron salts. This would suggest that its medicinal properties date only as far back as the late medieval period.

John Owen


Hilary and Steven Rose (LRB, 28 April) gloss over the problems associated with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). Females (XX) with the condition do not have a ‘penis’. The genital enlargement affects the clitoris, through which urine does not pass. These females also have a uterus and ovaries and thus are capable of bearing children. They may have skin enlargement resembling a rudimentary scrotum but it contains no testes. Surgical intervention to restore or create ‘normal’ female external anatomy is not simply governed by ‘cultural norm’. CAH invariably requires lifelong hormone treatment to supplement adrenal insufficiency. Additional hormone replacement to counteract any foetal masculinisation incurred in an XX baby might be considered not as the mandatory intervention described by the Roses, but as a kindly response to the difficulties involved in trying to restore the full sexual and gender potential of those with CAH.

Nigel Ganly

The Death of Edith Cavell

Susan Pedersen writes about Britain’s ‘second most famous nurse’, Edith Cavell (LRB, 14 April). It is a curiosity of literary history that Gottfried Benn, the German expressionist poet, was present at her execution in his official capacity as surgeon major to the German army in Brussels: he confirmed Cavell’s death, closed her eyes and laid her in her coffin.

These details come from the eyewitness account ‘How Miss Cavell Was Shot’ (‘Wie Miss Cavell erschossen wurde’), which Benn published in the National-Zeitung on 22 February 1928. It appears he was moved to write the piece partly by the execution in Boston of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti – one liberal paper in Berlin had called it a ‘judicial murder’ – but also to refute the suggestion in the silent film Dawn, released in 1928 with Sybil Thorndike in the lead, that Cavell had been dispatched with a ‘mercy shot’.

Although not unsympathetic to Cavell, Benn justified the execution as a historical necessity: ‘World history is not the basis of happiness and the posts of the Pantheon are smeared with the blood of those who act and then suffer, as demanded by the law of life.’ His tone is an odd mixture of Prussian coolness and appeal to the new Weimar feminism:

How is the shooting of Miss Cavell to be judged? It was all quite official and legal. She acted as a man and was punished by us as a man. She worked actively against the German army and she was crushed by this army. She had entered into the war and the war annihilated her. The French, too, shot a woman as a spy. I believe that today’s woman not only understands this outcome but demands it.

Disobligingly, Thea Sternheim, wife of the dramatist Carl Sternheim, who lived in Brussels at the time and knew Benn well, confessed in her diary (published in five volumes in 2002) that she found Benn a bit too gimlet-eyed: he saw the execution with the ‘frightful objectivity of a doctor cutting up a corpse’. Benn’s effortless mastery of the first-hand report as an exercise in style prompted the left-wing writer, and pioneer roving reporter, Egon Erwin Kisch to write an article a year later which concluded: ‘Benn is a snob … who has no idea about the world but treats it’ – i.e. in the manner of a doctor.

Iain Bamforth

Unfair to Bright

Jackson Lears treats John Bright unfairly (LRB, 19 May). Bright may have been a ‘theatrical orator’ but it’s not true that he ‘couldn’t be bothered with political detail’ or that he only picked easy targets. His opposition to the popular Crimean War led to his vilification in the press, accusations of treachery from other MPs, and the loss of his Manchester seat in 1857.

Michael Davies

Interpretations of History

Ella Raff has my sympathy when she writes about her unstimulating A-level history course (Letters, 19 May). After I retired from full-time teaching 12 years ago I offered to run a Mathematics for Adults course for the WEA. They turned me down because I didn’t intend to aim for NVQ, Key Skills or any other official accreditation. It was a jolt even so to hear Charles Clarke – secretary of state for education and skills – declare that ‘the age of education for education’s sake has passed.’

Howard Millbank


I thought the whole point of illusions was that what you see is not what you get. The illustration of the Müller-Lyer illusion on Jerry Fodor’s piece defeated the object of the exercise in that the upper line, which was supposed only to appear longer, was actually longer by nearly two millimetres (LRB, 28 April).

Penelope Woolfitt
London N10


Some editions of the previous issue of the LRB were missing the last three words of Jenny Diski’s piece. Thanks to the many who rang and said we needed lessons in sub-editing. We probably do, but this isn’t evidence of it. Some things are mysterious. For those who didn’t ring and didn’t write: the words were ‘wore a wig’.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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