Rich Major, Poor Major

Petroleum engineers: They shall inherit the earth.

Petroleum engineers: They shall inherit the earth.

Researchers at Georgetown made news this week with listings of the college majors that lead to both the plumpest and leanest paychecks. Topping the plump list was petroleum engineering (yes, there’s a major for that), followed by such practicalities as pharmacy administration, computer science, and a slew of other engineering majors. The majors with the slenderest earnings included the performing arts but mostly occupations such as social work, human services, community action, early childhood education, and counseling psychology—in other words, professions defined by helping people.

None of this is surprising, and much of it could be chalked up to the way things are, this side of the Kingdom of God. Still, the Rich Major, Poor Major lists do raise questions about our colleges and universities. Are they simply training students to slot themselves into professional growth sectors like petroleum engineering? Or are they also finding ways to prepare young people for lives and careers of service to their communities and to their world?

Recently I had occasion to speak with undergraduate students who spent the past summer doing internships in the nonprofit and public sectors. These internships are almost invariably unpaid, and most of the students said they would not have been able to take them on, without special grants made available to them by their school—Boston College. They would have been unable to forgo the summer income and come up with the money for room and board in, and travel to, places ranging from Washington, D.C. and The Hague to the Dominican Republic.

“Men and Women for Others”

I say this not to give special kudos to BC (with which I’m associated). Its civic internship program is fairly limited and no more than what you’d expect from a Jesuit institution that speaks constantly of nurturing “men and women for others.” The point is that colleges and universities need to back up their rhetoric about service and the public interest with initiatives of this kind.

What follows is my account in the latest edition of Boston College Magazine, but first—a note about “men and women for others.” It has become a buzz phrase on Jesuit college campuses, and it’s heartening to simply hear a student speak those words, regardless of how he or she chooses to put them into practice. The slogan, though, has more of a theological and social edge than many of them would suspect. Here’s the original rendering, in 1973, by Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the beloved Superior General of the Society of Jesus:

Today our prime educational objective must be to form men-and-women-for-others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ—for the God-man who lived and died for all the world; men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors; men and women completely convinced that love of God which does not issue in justice for others is a farce.

 And here’s the piece about the interns:

In late May, Samantha Koss ’14 began a 10-week internship at the U.S. embassy in The Hague, Netherlands, expecting to do research as assigned and otherwise assist embassy staff. She didn’t realize the embassy was shorthanded. And so, about once a week, she found herself walking or riding her bike to the Dutch foreign or defense ministry for a démarche (defined in the dictionary as a “diplomatic representation”). Accompanied by a career foreign service officer on each occasion, Koss would engage in discussion of a U.S. policy position with a Dutch counterpart. Details are classified, but she can say the meetings dealt with matters ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to the melting Arctic ice cap. Koss usually had several days to get up to speed on an issue before the démarche session. “It’s diplomacy, basically,” says the international relations major.

For Koss—who aspires to the diplomatic corps and plans to take the notoriously difficult Foreign Service Officer Test in October—it was her dream internship. Just weeks before she was to leave for The Hague, however, reality intruded. “I didn’t have the financial means to come out here and work for free. It wasn’t going to happen,” Koss recalled with a doleful shake of the head during a Skype interview in July. She spoke from the four-bedroom house (a minimalist cube-shaped structure owned by the State Department) that she shared rent-free with another female embassy intern. The Abilene, Texas, native did not start packing her bags until mid-May when Boston College’s Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy awarded her one of its 20 Civic Internship Grants for this year.

Founded in 2008, the Clough Center aims to provide undergraduate students with opportunities to acquire “the skills of civic engagement.” Over the past four summers, the center has presented stipends to 63 undergraduates for uncompensated work in municipal, state, and federal government offices (including the courts) and in nonprofit service agencies, both domestic and international. (A similar Clough Center program underwrites internships of Boston College Law School students.)

Vlad Perju, the center’s director and an associate professor of law, points out that student interns in public service fields rarely enjoy a paycheck. “It’s a big problem,” says Perju, noting that, for the many students who need to make and save money in the summer, full-time unpaid internships are “just not doable.” To qualify for a Clough award, a student must line up an internship before seeking the scholarship. Amounts have ranged from $900 to $4900, depending entirely on how long the internship runs.

“I didn’t have too strong a Plan B,” says Elizabeth Blesson ’15, an award recipient this summer. She adds that she probably would have returned to her job of the previous three summers, filing medical records at a Long Island, New York, hospital. The Lynch School of Education student went instead to the District of Columbia Public Schools headquarters. She helped coordinate job fairs for teachers laid off because of school closings, and she participated in a weekly seminar on education reform and school leadership offered to 80 summer interns.

A student’s academic record is a key factor in deciding on a Clough award. So is the nature of the internship, which has to in some way foster what the Clough Center mission statement describes as “thoughtful reflection” on the opportunities and demands of constitutional government.

A think tank qualifies. Damian Mencini ’14 worked with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent, nonpartisan research center in Washington, D.C. Using news sources such as Al Jazeera television and the English-language Libya Herald, Mencini, who is from Denver, helped to track the movements of jihadist groups in a region spanning central Asia to North Africa. “We call it the arc of instability,” says Mencini, whose research will figure in the project’s coming publications. Narintohn Luangrath ’14 spent her summer helping to track the worldwide movement of migrants and asylum seekers, at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration. She drafted background papers on the forced migrations that followed crises such as the 2011 Libyan uprising.

Highly partisan activities, such as political campaigning, do not qualify for Clough internship support, but a responsible position with an elected officeholder does. In Trenton, New Jersey, Christopher J. Grimaldi ’15 aided Governor Chris Christie “as a medium between the Christie administration and the media,” he said. The political science major’s chief task was to draft press releases for which he researched policy issues and dug through the Republican governor’s past speeches. Other Clough interns assisted Democratic legislators from New York, California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, and Texas, working either in Washington or in district offices.

Six Clough students went to the State Department—all (except Koss) in Washington. In early June, military threats emanated from Egypt—and that caused Andrew Ireland ’14 to drop everything he was doing at the department’s Office of Conservation and Water. The threatened target was Ethiopia, now building a dam that Egyptian leaders say could hinder the flow of water through the Nile into their country. Ireland’s supervisor asked him for a quick background paper on a conference in Cairo at which politicians spoke incautiously of bombing Ethiopia or arming its rebels. Within a day, he prepared a three-and-a-half-page summary based on press items retrieved from an unclassified Central Intelligence Agency database.

On many other days, Ireland, a biology major and international studies minor, drafted memos on illegal trafficking of tusks, horns, and fangs extracted from endangered elephants, rhinos, and tigers, mostly in Africa. His research served as briefing material for higher-ups. “The assistant secretary of state is as high as I’ve seen it go,” he said, lifting a hand above his head in a July interview by Skype from his family home in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. He was speaking of Kerri-Ann Jones, head of the department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs. Ireland and 20 staff members in his office met weekly with Jones.

Ecological concerns took Alexandra Moscovitz ’15 to the Dominican Republic, where she interned for the nongovernmental Caribbean Sustainability Institute. She had been there the previous summer and, with a local potter, created a gasification stove with an 18-inch-high, oval-shaped ceramic chamber. Gasification stoves run on crop waste (seeds, leaves, and other residue) rather than firewood that requires tree-cutting. “We weren’t able to find another ceramic gasification stove, so I think we made the first,” she says, explaining that ceramic is more durable than the metal often used in stoves of this kind. Returning this summer with assistance from the Clough Center, Moscovitz helped dozens of families swap out their inefficient conventional fuel stoves for her environmentally friendly ones.

Other Clough interns were Bridget Manning ’15 at Boston-based United Planet, which links young people to service opportunities abroad; Rebecca Kim ’15 at the Supply Education Group in New York, which is piloting low-cost private schools in developing-world slums; and Daniel Ryan Cosgrove ’16 at the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, district courthouse. In the fall, all will become Clough Center Junior Fellows, with the opportunity to attend Clough-sponsored forums, meet with guest lecturers, and participate in other activities that might include contributing to the Clough Undergraduate Journal of Constitutional Democracy, published each spring.

The expectation, says Perju, is that Clough Civic Interns will “bring their experiences back to the campus” and contribute to an environment of “thoughtful and informed discussion about public matters.” But, he adds, the ultimate purpose is to help nurture “the next generation of leaders in the civic sphere.” …read more

College: An Employment Agency with Gothic Towers?

With this item, TheoPol resumes its weekly schedule.

Gasson Hall, Boston College

As the parent of a high-school junior who will be deep into the college search soon enough, I’ve been forced to reflect on the purposes of a college education. My philosophical conclusion is that college is fundamentally about two things: getting into the habit of lifelong learning, and forming or developing yourself as a person. My parental view is less untroubled. I grapple with the idea that college is really about spawning a career and, by the grace of the financial gods, eluding the demons of monstrous debt.

These perspectives are not naturally allied, and increasing numbers of middle-class families are acting on the latter assumption and making stark choices about college.

Last month, the gigantic student lender Sallie Mae issued its annual report, How America Pays for College. Among other sobering results, the study found that students are dropping out of the humanities right and left, stampeding toward degrees such as nursing that would appear to make them more employable. More than ever, families are eliminating college choices—for example, the high-priced liberal arts school that offers a well-rounded education—because of costs. And, for the first time in recent memory, more than half of all college students are living at home.

How are the thought leaders of the liberal arts responding to these realities? In the circles I travel in, some are doubling down on the message that a university is not an employment agency with gothic towers. On the contrary, students are there to discover their passions, to learn how to think and to serve others, according to many of the messengers.

One of the more colorful among them is Father Michael Himes, professor of theology at Boston College. Several times this past summer, he delivered the word to incoming students and their parents at Boston College’s freshmen orientations, one of which I attended in June, not officially as a parent but as a contributing writer for Boston College Magazine. Here’s part of my rendering of the Himes presentation:

After a preamble about how “robust conversation” defines a great university, Himes arrived at his core contention. A great university is not about finding a job or “adding a zero to a starting salary line” or even getting into graduate school, he said. “Don’t get me wrong,” Himes went on in his curiously blended accent, part Brooklyn and part Britain (having grown up in the borough, around relatives from abroad). “It’s terribly important. It’s just not what a university is good at. It’s not what it’s about.” He continued—“It’s about producing intellectuals.” These are people who are never completely satisfied with an answer to a big question and always keep probing. Their rallying cry is, as Himes put it, “Yes, but.”

At a place like Boston College, he said, students ask questions about human existence, about who they want to become, and how they can channel their passions and talents into service to the world. During the Q&A, a parent asked from his seat in a middle row what “we,” parents, should fear most about what lies ahead in college. Himes replied in an instant—“that at no time in the next four years will your student shock you and fill you with horror.” The response brought down the house, although a disproportionate share of the high-spirited clapping and cheering appeared to come from younger hands and voices.

Part of me wonders if this is an ivory tower version of Mitt Romney’s Thurston Howell-like advice to students: “Borrow money from your parents if you have to.” The variation might be—Worried about paying for college and earning a livelihood after you graduate? Become an intellectual! On its face, it’s a non-response.

But leaving aside “intellectual,” the case that Himes makes is not without its practical side. He’s shrewd enough to know that a narrow vocational training for jobs today might not help much tomorrow, and that young people, most of all, need to learn how to think, analyze, communicate, and problem-solve. Or at least that’s the belief of those who take the leap of liberal arts faith.

And then there’s the nagging question of being a person. College students need space and (dare I say) intellectual leisure to reflect on who they are, and what they have to offer to the world. I’m not sure if this could happen if they’re desperately seeking a career from day one. Not an easy question, but an important one, especially if you agree with Himes when he says: “Before you can do something, you have to be someone.” …read more

Can You Hear Me Now, God?

T.M. Luhrmann, author of "When God Talks Back"

In my prayer life, which waxes and wanes, I’ve paid a bit of heed to the old psychiatry joke that when you talk to God, you’re praying, but when God talks to you, you’re nuts. It’s not that I brush off the idea of human beings conversing in a meaningful way with ultimate reality. It’s that the communication lines are more static-ridden than many would like to believe. At times they’re down completely, it seems.

Admittedly, I have tendentious thoughts when I hear people say that God sent them a sign—to pull up stakes and move to Alaska, or turn left at the corner where they found an exceptional parking space. I’m prone to assign such belief to an incredible category that includes George W. Bush supposedly claiming that God told him to invade Iraq. (Was God also wrong about the WMDs?) Somehow I leave out of this dubious category the story of Martin Luther King Jr. on a sleepless night in the winter of 1956, nervously clutching a cup of coffee at his kitchen table, gripped by fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At that moment (as he often recalled), he heard the voice of Jesus promising: “I will be with you” in the struggle.

But I do think this whole question warrants a serious and thoughtful handling. That’s what T. M. Luhrmann offers in her recently published and highly readable book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Knopf).

A psychological anthropologist now at Stanford, Luhrmann spent two years attending services at an evangelical church in Chicago and interviewing members of that congregation. With admirable scholarly detachment, she tackles basic questions like how “sensible people” are able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being. One of her hypotheses is that some people are able to train their minds in such a way that they “learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness.”

Saw God

Surprisingly for a book about evangelicals, Ignatian spirituality comes up frequently. A number of the congregants interviewed by Luhrmann borrowed freely from the prayer and discernment practices of Jesuits, who, as these men like to say, seek to “find God in all things.” This past spring, while on assignment for Boston College Magazine, I was privileged to sit in on two small groups of undergraduate students as they reflected in this fashion on their lives and encounters with the divine.

The students belong to a campus faith-sharing network called Cura, which derives its name from the Jesuit expression cura personalis (Latin for “care of the person”). One of their favorite exercises is the “Highs and Lows,” which involves conversation about their ups and downs of recent days. Each member of the group also talks about where he or she “saw God.” For one young woman, it was in the warm and relieved smile of a driver who might have gestured differently after having to slam the brakes near Boston Common as the student jogged inattentively into the street, plugged into her iPod.

The Highs and Lows echo an Ignatian exercise called “the Examen” (from the Latin word for examination). It’s a spiritual self-review that involves prayerfully recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present at those times, followed by a decision to act in some way. “You’re asking God for light, and letting your mind roam over your day. And you’re looking forward to tomorrow, planting that seed,” Jesuit Father Michael Boughton, SJ, who directs Boston College’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality, told me. “Planting that seed” might mean deepening a friendship, reaching out to the poor, or strengthening one’s prayer life, the priest noted.

This is the mode of prayer that I most readily embrace. It has its roots not only in the writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, but also in the spiritual practices of the ancient Stoics, according to a number of authorities. What I like about the five-step Examen is that it leads the pray-er to focus on segments of time (a day, preferably) and to recall how he or she felt during specific moments. Only then can people adequately reflect on the meaning of those experiences and perhaps what God (or the collective unconscious?) was communicating to them.

I also like one of the premises of the daily Examen, which is that such discernment requires continual reflection and reevaluation, because understanding the divine intent is an iffy business. You might get mixed signals or no signals at all. You could be just plain wrong about what God (or the Truth) is bidding you to do, but at least you’ll be engaged in a thoughtful spiritual exercise that is notably free of nuttiness. …read more

Friending Aristotle

Just in the past week, I’ve spoken at different times with two young people who happened to mention that they’ve deactivated their Facebook pages. “It’s already made me more intentional about relationships,” one Boston College student told me a few days after deciding to log off for good. Acting on one intention, she arranged to have lunch with a friend.

This student is not alone. In December the New York Times ran a piece about Facebook resisters: people who refuse to join or choose to drop out. The prototype for the story was a premed student in Oregon who had a chance encounter with a woman in an elevator. He had never met her, but through Facebook knew that she came from a remote island in Washington State and had recently visited Seattle’s signature tower, the Space Needle. He had also seen family pictures of her older brother.

“I knew all these things about her, but I’d never even talked to her,” the college student told Jenna Wortham of the Times (he and the woman in the elevator had real friends in common). “At that point I thought, maybe this is a little unhealthy.”

These Facebook defectors are grappling with questions both personal and philosophical—questions enlightened by Aristotle more than two millennia ago in his immortal Nicomachean Ethics. What is friendship? Who shall I count among my friends, and why?

At Boston College, political science professor Robert C. Bartlett teaches classes in Aristotle’s Ethics, and he finds that students are most drawn to Books VIII and IX, which deal with numerous aspects of friendship. These days, the question that brews in class is more or less: How many of my 675 friends on Facebook would be considered actual friends by Aristotle? The students can take a good guess at the answer if they’ve kept up with the reading.

Varieties of Friendship

Friends fall into three basic categories, according to Aristotle. There are friendships of utility, based largely on what the friends could do for each other. There are friendships of pleasure, which often bring people together because of a shared hobby or interest. And there are friendships of virtue (Aristotle’s favorite): You like someone because he or she is a good person. You and your friend help each other lead the good, as in ethical, life.

Which of these would best describe some typical Facebook friends, like the kid you ran track with in high school and haven’t heard a lot from since? Bartlett’s sober answer is: none.

Together with University of Houston political science professor Susan D. Collins, Bartlett analyzes Aristotle’s view of friendship in a commentary included in a new and well-received edition of the Ethics, translated by them and published by the University of Chicago Press. (I write about the translation project in the current issue of Boston College Magazine). One of their basic conclusions is that friendship, in Aristotle’s understanding, is active. A friend is a part of your life and has been for some time. As Bartlett and Collins put it, “Friends go through life together.” They wish the best for each other and do things for each other’s sake. (In that sense, all friendships call for virtue, even those based largely on utility and pleasure). And friends “share in sufferings and joys,” the two scholars add.

To the student who wonders about his hundreds of Facebook friends, Bartlett will say they can’t all be real friends; each one can’t be a meaningful part of your life. If that’s true, then what are these friended folks? Simply put, they’re acquaintances (at best), Bartlett submits.

Two Cheers for Acquaintanceships

Many of us would not want to end the conversation right there.

For one thing, acquaintanceships are far from valueless. They can be glimpsed in the rows of parents who unfold their chairs and chat pleasantly on the sidelines at soccer games, and the neighbors who together keep vigilant “eyes on the street,” to use Jane Jacobs’s evocative words. These are not necessarily friends, but they encounter one another along some of life’s familiar pathways. With any luck they help nurture a feeling of civic friendship.

And how should we think about the people with whom we once journeyed more profoundly through life? It’s hard to let go of the belief that our high school or college buddies from long ago are still our friends, even if we know little about their lives today that’s not posted on Facebook. As Bartlett notes, Aristotle assigns the tender feelings we may have for such people to the category of “goodwill,” not friendship. I hear you, Aristotle, but grope for a word richer than “goodwill” to account for the bonds that were, and—in ways not easy to name—continue to be.

All the same, everyone who desires a fuller appreciation of these questions will find a wise and discerning friend in Aristotle. “Without friends,” he writes in the Ethics, “no one would wish to live, even if he possessed all other goods.” …read more

The Exceptional American

In the United States, we the people cling to the idea that cherished values such as freedom and opportunity are somehow distinctively American. The accidental philosopher Yogi Berra expressed this sentiment beautifully in the late 1950s when he heard that the mayor of Dublin (as in Ireland, not Ohio) was Jewish. “Only in America!” he declared.

In many ways the role that religious faith plays in American politics is exceptional too. Unlike their counterparts in most Western democracies, American presidents continue to routinely invoke the deity in their addresses to the nation. Of course leaders of theocracies do the same, but the U.S. presidential invokers of faith also preside over a government that is religiously neutral. That is a rare juxtaposition.

In the American tradition, though, there’s an exception within the exceptionalism on this count. If you look at religiously tinged oratory by presidents at key times in our history, you’ll see that nearly all of them have tried, subtly or unsubtly, to cast their causes in the singular light of divine favor. All except, notably, Abraham Lincoln.

Instead of assuming the God-is-on-our-side posture, Lincoln proclaims in his Second Inaugural Address near the end of the Civil War, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Instead of presuming to know the whole truth about the crisis at hand, Lincoln lays claim only to the partial truth that “God gives us to see …”

Lincoln is different.

God Talkers in Chief

I recently had occasion to dig through a well-chosen collection of ten major presidential speeches projecting religious themes, courtesy of Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and Boston College Magazine (which asked me to report on a student-led “God Talk” seminar sponsored by the center). The Boisi staff, including associate director Erik Owens and doctoral candidate in political science Brenna Strauss, selected the items, which are available here.

One set of those texts relates to the theme of “National Crisis and War” and features oratory by FDR, Reagan, Eisenhower, and George W. Bush in addition to Lincoln.

In one entry, Roosevelt delivers a radio message from the White House to a nation still somewhat unalarmed by the Nazi threat. It’s May 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He warns that the Nazis worship no god other than Hitler and that our freedom of worship is at stake: “What place has religion which preaches the dignity of the human being, of the majesty of the human soul, in a world where moral standards are measured by treachery and bribery and Fifth Columnists? Will our children, too, wander off, goose-stepping in search of new gods?”

Similarly, primal religious emotions are painted on our struggles with foes in other commander-in-chief messages. These include Eisenhower’s First Inaugural Address in 1953 (he sees “the watchfulness of a Divine Providence” over America at the height of the Cold War), Reagan’s 1983 “Evil Empire” speech and Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, which introduced “Axis of Evil” into the lexicon.

Lincoln’s Ineffable God

And then there’s Lincoln, who was born 203 years ago on February 12. He’s the warrior-in-chief against the Confederacy, but there’s no Divine Providence watching preferentially over the Union, in his Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865), which is, as many have described, theologically intense. There’s no casting of political nets around God as Lincoln speaks of North and South:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Lincoln holds out the possibility that North and South alike might continue to pay, and rightly so, for America’s original sin—slavery.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

He concludes:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln’s 703-word Second Inaugural is by far the oldest item in Boisi’s “National Crisis and War” packet, and yet, it’s the most modern in its outlook. Theologically, it is freighted with uncertainty, ambiguity, and a sense of moral tragedy (even our deepest convictions cannot capture the truth), but as he probes the divine nature with soberness and humility, Lincoln arrives at a clear-eyed affirmation of religious faith and American purpose. Yes, Lincoln is different. Lincoln is now. …read more

Remembering the Godmother of American Cities

Jane Jacobs, 1961

During the 1950s and 1960s, urban planners had a dream: to remake cities in the image of suburbs. They strove to bring about smoother traffic flow with the construction of urban superhighways, less population density with the dismantling of old neighborhoods, and a strict separation of commercial and residential spaces (read: shopping malls and bedroom communities). The preferred method of effecting these changes was bulldozing.

Places like the West End of Boston, a working-class community of Italians and Jews, were razed and replaced by freeways or, in this case, superblocks of high-rise residential towers and barren, concrete plazas. In Boston, after demolition of the West End in 1958–59, city planners contemplated, with no more affection, another crowded district on their turf—the North End. In New York, plans were readied for the decimation of Lower Manhattan, to clear way for a 10-lane expressway.

When did America begin to turn a fresh eye toward neighborhoods like the North End and New York’s Greenwich Village? This isn’t anyone’s guess. In hindsight, the reassessment began 50 years ago, when a little-known writer who was raising three children in Greenwich Village brought forth a magisterial work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The 1961 book by Jane Jacobs was tantamount to a precision bombing of city planning agencies nationwide, as Jacobs laid unflinching siege to the then-reigning wisdom that large swaths of cities needed to be rebuilt from scratch.

City planners abhorred urban density, associating it with congestion and unhealthy conditions; Jacobs believed it was essential, partly because more people meant more “eyes on the street,” making all feel safer. She liked to see a mingling of functions—shopping, living, working, leisure—believing diversity made cities come alive. In that first book of hers, she pronounced Boston’s North End, with its cheek-by-jowl dwellings and shops, and sidewalks full of chatter, “the healthiest neighborhood in the city.”

Taking Down Moses

Jacobs died in 2006 at age 89. Her story is a cautionary tale against the tendency to theologize notions that are, at best, mere assumptions. Urban policy makers had turned ideas and practices—such as getting people off the streets for the sake of traffic flow—into solemn doctrines. The chief evangelist of this belief system was Jacobs’s nemesis, Robert Moses, the premier builder of his time and probably any time in American history.

As an urban activist, Jacobs had three epoch showdowns with Moses, beginning in 1958 when she rallied her West Village neighbors against his plan to run a four-lane highway through the middle of Washington Square Park, and ending in 1969. The last and most hair-raising of these projects was what Moses called the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the 10-lane superhighway that was set to pierce through Little Italy, Chinatown, the Bowery, and the Lower East Side, and completely destroy a district then known vaguely as the area south of Houston Street, now the thriving arts and shopping district Soho. The once-invincible Moses lost each of those battles.

Today, Jacobs is venerated widely as the godmother of urban America, the one who fought off the suburbanization of the city. In New York, her legacy is there to see. Just listing the would-have-been Moses projects—the highway through Washington Square Park, the razing of the West Village (yet another struggle), the dismembering of Lower Manhattan—takes the breath away. In each instance, Jacobs was the main stopper.

And many a neighborhood beyond Manhattan that had an appointment with the wrecking crew was also spared, owing in part to Jacobs. The protracted, grassroots campaign against the Lower Manhattan Expressway helped ignite a nationwide anti-freeway movement that frustrated similar designs in, among other places, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Memphis, New Orleans, Seattle, and San Francisco, as Anthony Flint documents in his 2009 book Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City.

Faith in the City

Jacobs eventually took up broader questions of ethics and morality, mostly in her later writings on economics and the environment. But her insights were never as profound as when she was simply noticing the ways in which apartment dwellers, store owners, truck drivers, schoolchildren, and others interacted on city streets—scenes related in Death and Life as part of “an intricate sidewalk ballet.” Like some of the greatest philosophers and theologians—Aristotle and Aquinas, namely—Jacobs reasoned inductively, drawing her conclusions about the world not from abstract notions but from the data of experience and observation. The prominent sociologist William H. Whyte once remarked that her research apparatus consisted of “the eye and the heart.”

A lapsed Presbyterian who forged close conversational ties with theologians at Boston College, Jacobs put her faith in humans and local communities. If she espoused any doctrine, it was their ability to forge vitality out of their spontaneous everyday interplay.

Most of it is utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial. The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need (Death and Life, p. 56, Vintage Books Edition).

Such faith made it possible for Jane Jacobs to attack the ersatz theologies of her time, with respect to urban policy, and to become the mom who saved Manhattan. …read more

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