Letters to the Editor

Winter 2017

The article in the Spring 2017 Grinnell Magazine, “Studying Arabic for Fun” [Page 32], took me back to my four years of taking classical Greek “for fun” with [Bill] McKibben. (It’s hard to know how you could take classical Greek for anything but fun.) 

In the third year, studying Plato, McKibben found out I was also taking German. He gave me an assignment: read a German philosopher’s take on Plato and present it to the class. I didn’t really have enough German to understand the philosopher. Comparing his work with Plato seemed insurmountable. 

I wandered the library looking for higher-level German students or philosophers or both. When I presented my findings to the class, they exploded with outrage and/or puzzlement and argued among themselves about the topic. 

Afterwards I went to visit McKibben to apologize for my failure. He looked at me for some minutes and then said, “It’s good to have something impossible to do once in a while.” Plato’s philosophy passed by me, but those words have come to mind a number of times in my life. Thank you, Grinnell, for continuing to hire teachers who have a great sense of humanity.  

- Linda Fiene Wagner ’64

I read with interest the feature “Chemistry in Copenhagen” in the Fall 2017 edition [Page 33], but was disappointed that the article dismissed bidets as a “silly topic.” When my wife returned from a trip to Japan two years ago extolling the virtues of the bidet, we quickly bought one (on Amazon!) and it has become one of our favored appliances. 

The bidet is often a source of discussion at parties, but it has also contributed to improved hygiene and a reduction in toilet paper consumption. Several friends and family members have purchased bidets after visiting our house! 

I recommend Grinnell College purchase bidets for all of their toilets for sustainability reasons: you will be amazed in the reduction in toilet paper, at a cost of slightly increased water use! Your students will thank you too.

- Emily Resseger ’02

I was saddened to learn of the death of Michael Cavanagh in August 2017. The English department at Grinnell holds a special place in my heart as an English major and 1974 graduate — Michael Cavanagh, Edward Moore, James Kissane ’52, Peter Connelly, among others at the time. 

I am grateful to Grinnell for the education that I received, for the opportunities afforded me, and for the socially and politically charged debates to be had and lessons to be learned. The times were tumultuous, but I have fond memories of studying Joyce, Woolf, Auden, Yeats, Keats, Shelley, Milton, and Shakespeare in hallowed halls. 

I still have my notebook on modern British literature from Cavanagh’s class. And evidently through the years, more offerings followed: A Joycean walk through Dublin, poetry-writing classes, a book on Seamus Heaney. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. Thank you.

- Anne Barriault ’74

When reading “When Work Doesn’t Work as Well as It Could or Should” [Fall, Page 26], I was struck by how redundant much of the material was. 

We’ve all heard, or at least should have heard, of “issues” with workplace layouts. Should we have cubicles? Should we have open layouts to inspire creativity/decrease overhead costs? 

Regardless of the outcome, this is a tired conversation. If Grinnell wants to inspire its current populace (and disinterested alumni) to do more and better, churning out another tired article that replicates masses of tired articles is not the way to do it. 

As for the topics within this article, “Is it time to toss the organizational chart?” and “What to ask before you take that new job,” better advice would be to have a Grinnell graduate to find a job with a company that will appreciate their knowledge and input. My honest advice would be, if you’re working for a company that would fire you for “pushing yourself hard and taking risks,” it sounds like you work for an outdated organization that’s about to fail anyway. Why waste your time and talents on a company that won’t be around long enough to appreciate them? 

If you’re going to write about a subject, please invest some time into it. You have a whole breadth of resources from alums who I’m sure can actually share some insight into the markets into which your current students will soon transition. 


- Emily Bajet ’12

EclipseAfter seeing the “That’s So Grinnellian” photo of the eclipse viewing in the Fall 2017 issue of The Grinnell Magazine, I thought I’d share how this Grinnellian and her family viewed the eclipse: homemade pinhole viewers and no viewer at all (thanks, Kartik Sheth ’93, for the interlaced fingers tip). Photos were taken in Boothbay, Maine of Storck with her nephew Harry.

- Holly Collins Storck ’93

Fall 2017

I loved reading the article “Portrait of a Teacher: George Drake ’56” [Page 20, Summer 2017]. I formed a special relationship with George. To this day, I believe in the phrase “everything happens for a reason” in large part due to our meeting. The year George took over as College president, 1979, I was elected SGA [Student Government Association] president. I ran on a unique campaign proclaiming myself “not just president for the next year, but messiah for the coming millennium.” The campaign was printed in papers nationally by UPI and caused quite an uproar among conservative ministers and others. (I wonder how much worse it would have been with the Internet.) It seems they didn’t have my sense of humor.

I had no idea what to expect from a man who went to seminary. And I had heard from other SGAers that the previous president, A. Richard Turner, was very serious about how SGA was run, although I had no interaction with him. Was I going to find the same sentiments with George?

Of course, George couldn’t have been more opposite those concerns: He was very open-minded with a profound sense of humor. I remember initially and nervously addressing him as “President Drake” and he responded — with that great smile and a handshake — “SGA President Kramer.” We laughed, I learned to call him George, and from that moment on I felt comfortable around him. I would meet with George regularly to update him on student happenings. He never judged or interrupted. He was engaged and interested in everything I discussed with him, as was I with his suggestions. We worked together to make student life a little bit more interesting that year.  

In those days, we had a Skip Day, announced by the SGA president on KDIC. Some of the professors, especially in the sciences, were against this inconvenient nonacademic intrusion and scheduled tests for that morning. George was very supportive, feeling Skip Day was an important part of student life. He always seemed to be on the students’ side. In retrospect, this was one of the best years of my life in no small measure due to George’s enthusiasm for Grinnell.

It is so nice to read George is still actively teaching and engaging students with humor and open-mindedness. I hope to hear he is still doing so into his 100s!

- David Kramer ’80

Grinnell Professor John C. Dawson died Nov. 22, 2016, at the age of 90. A short biography was included in the Summer 2017 issue [of The Grinnell Magazine, Page 49], which also included an article [Page 50] by James Kissane ’52 that praised Professor Dawson for this commitment and service to the College, but did not discuss the nature of economics that he taught to majors for many years.  

The purpose of this brief article is to provide an introduction to that teaching as it was delivered in the early 1960s. At that time the more senior members of the Department of Economics included Kenyon Knopf (Ph.D. from Harvard), Robert Voertman (Ph.D. from University of Texas) and Professor Dawson. Newer members of the department were Robert Haveman and Phil Thomas. Professor Knopf taught economic history and microeconomic theory, but his economic history course was the more sophisticated of the two. Professor Voertman was an institutional economist who taught history of economic thought and comparative economic systems. Professor Haveman was a popular instructor in the one-semester introductory course, and he taught more advanced versions of microeconomic theory as well as economics of industry. Professor Thomas taught international economics. It is clear that, during these years, the department offered a solid, traditional (old-fashioned?) program in economics (that required no mathematics or formal statistical analysis), with one major exception — to which we now turn.

Professor Dawson earned his doctorate at Cornell University and was a student there of Morris Copeland, the inventor of the flow-of-funds system and one of the developers of the national income accounts in the 1930s and 1940s. Professor Dawson’s doctoral dissertation is a study of the flow of funds, and a version was published in the American Economic Review in 1958. He had joined the Grinnell faculty in 1957.

The flow-of-funds system is a part of the larger tradition of American institutional economics that includes earlier scholars Thorstein Veblen, John R. Commons, Clarence Ayres, J. K. Galbraith, and many others. The institutionalist school also includes empirical researchers such as Wesley Clair Mitchell, who was director of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) for many years. The original purpose of NBER was to document what goes on within a business cycle, and NBER is still the organization that officially dates the beginning and end of recessions. Copeland and Dawson were in this tradition of empirical documentation and analysis of the business cycle.  

The basic idea of the flow-of-funds system is to pay strict attention of the proper accounting of sources and uses of funds. Every entity in the economy has sources and uses of funds. Indeed, the entire economy, as represented by the gross domestic product accounts, has sources (personal consumption, gross investment, government purchases, and net exports) and uses (payments by businesses to households, business taxes, and funds held within businesses). And every sector has sources and uses of funds as well.  For example, households receive payments from businesses and transfer payments from government and use the funds for personal consumption, taxes, and personal saving. And the flow of funds accounts for all of the sectors (households, businesses, governments, and foreign sector) must be consistent. This paragraph is a verbal description of the most important diagram that Professor Dawson handed out in class.

So what did Professor Dawson teach to every economics major? Economics 307, Money and Income, usually taught in the fall semester, was the required course in macroeconomics and was his course. No one else taught this course as he did, as far as I know. Indeed, when Professor Dawson was on leave in 1964–65, Professor Voertman taught the course as a standard course in macroeconomic theory using a textbook. I know because Jim Hamilton ’65 and I were Professor Voertmann’s teaching assistants. In short, economics majors at Grinnell were required to take a course in macroeconomics that was not the typical course offered elsewhere.

Now it is time to say it. Econ 307 earned Professor Dawson the nickname of “Black Jack.” New majors or prospective majors typically signed up for the course after just a one-semester introduction to economics. Most of us knew little or nothing about accounting in the beginning. The course was difficult. Just what did Econ 307 contain?  I still have my class notes — my attempt to keep up with Professor Dawson.

The books assigned for the class were classics such as The Great Crash 1929 by J. K. Galbraith and a couple of other books, a textbook on money and economic activity by Lawrence Ritter, and A Guide to Keynes by Alvin Hansen. But readings also included the latest Federal Reserve Bulletin, the Survey of Current Business [U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis], and a large volume titled U.S. Income and Output published by the U.S. Department of Commerce. I still have my copies of Galbraith, Hansen, and U.S. Income and Output.  

Professor Dawson paid little attention to Galbraith and the other standard books. Indeed, he told us to read Hansen’s A Guide to Keynes over a weekend. The Keynesian system as presented in Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money is complicated, and standard classes take weeks to cover it. Professor Dawson did lecture on Keynes briefly during the semester.

Econ 307 classes began with a basic introduction to classical and Keynesian macroeconomics, but by week three the class turned to accounting of national income and product. Homework was assigned based on data from U.S. Income and Output. This is followed by very detailed examinations of the gross domestic product accounts and of the sources and uses of funds for the various sectors of the economy. Then the course turned briefly to models of the macro economy, mainly the Keynesian model in which the economy is driven by aggregate demand (not supply). This was followed by material on the financial system, mainly the banking system (and how to do basic accounting for banks), leading to the mechanics of monetary policy. The course concluded with two topics: how to include the financial system in the flow-of-funds accounts, and how to use the flow of funds to create a Keynesian-type model. 

Professor Dawson taught an elective course in economic fluctuations in the spring semester in which we read a detailed study of the 1957–58 recession and a book by Wesley Claire Mitchell on the 1907 panic and did our own empirical studies. We also purchased our own copy of Keynes, which I still have. Since we knew quite a lot about how the economic data are compiled, we were taught to pull apart economic aggregates to locate the sources of economic fluctuations. For example, it turned out that the 1957–58 recession was driven largely by changes in business inventories (a component of business investment). We used our knowledge of data sources to do papers on the causes of the Great Depression and other fluctuations.  

I would wager that few economics majors of the day acquired such extensive training in empirical macroeconomics. And I would wager that no undergraduate program offers a course that consists mainly of flow-of-funds and national-income accounting methods.

John F. McDonald ’65 earned a doctorate in economics from Yale University in 1971 and taught economics and real estate for the next 42 years. He introduced basic accounting concepts in most of his courses but never did research on flow of funds.

- John F. McDonald

“Soccer coach (sort of) … ”? Don’t think so. “Coach Drake” was inspiring and determined; he took the heavy responsibility seriously and to the soccer team’s benefit. Coach Drake, former Grinnell track and field star, worked the team hard. It was run to the field for practice, run on the field for practice, then run back to the locker room after practice; run, run, run and Coach Drake ran with us. Fortunately, being the goalkeeper, I watched everyone else do the running! We were a disciplined, well-trained team and the record showed it, both on and off the field. Thanks, Coach. 

- Jim Soble ’63

I read with fondness, interest, and appreciation “Portrait of a Teacher: George Drake ’56.” In your listing of his roles at Grinnell, you omitted, in my opinion, perhaps his best role: exemplary mentor. Though that role is likely implicit in many, or perhaps all, of the listed roles, it was the one that had lasting effect upon me.

My senior year was my only year of overlap with President Drake, and it got off to a bad start. Shortly before the start of fall semester, he decided to change the long-planned date of Parents’ Weekend so that it would fall on a weekend with more sports activities, if I recall. When I received that announcement I was crushed — my parents had planned on coming to their first (and only) of my years at Grinnell. 

As soon as I got to Grinnell I went to meet President Drake and explain my displeasure: how he screwed up our long-anticipated plans, how my parents have very busy schedules and now can’t come, and further, scheduling it on the weekend of Rosh Hashanah was thoughtless, at best.

By his response and thus his modeling, President Drake taught me that leaders make mistakes [he didn’t change the weekend], and the best ones admit it, apologize, and do their best to rectify the situation. He did so with class, sincerity, and respect toward me, and my parents.

Throughout my career, when I found myself needing to recover from my own blunders, I have often replayed President Drake’s example in my head. I did so with the hope that I was a good-enough student of my one “class” with President Drake.

- Bruce A. Crane ’80

Having just returned from a visit with colleagues at Nanjing Normal University (the big new campus) with side trips to Hangzhou and Suzhou, I very much enjoyed reading this feature [“Around the World, Around the Table,” Page 28, Summer 2017]. My husband and I tasted many of the same dishes described in the story and had similar reactions to some of the more unusual foods. I think I missed the pig brains, but pig lungs, duck tongue, and intestines were definitely on the tables. The Global Learning Program sounds like a brilliant way to learn about history, culture, and cuisine of other countries. Congratulations, Grinnell, on this innovative learning experience!

- Lynne McAnelly ’75