Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times (Scribner, 2017) focuses on five masters of crisis leadership: British explorer Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and environmentalist Rachel Carson. Each, Nancy Koehn (PhD ’90, history) maintains, made themselves into courageous individuals in the crucible of unexpected adversity. Shackleton’s ship sank late in 1914, but he refused to give up or lose his men. Sailing over 700 miles in a 22-foot lifeboat to seek help, he returned for his men and not one perished. Lincoln faced repeated losses—his mother when he was 9, his only sibling, Sarah, when he was 19, Anne Rutledge (possibly his first love), when he was 26—profoundly deepening his empathy. Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) sparked the environmental movement, but she wrote knowing that she had metastatic breast cancer and very little time to live. These individuals also remind us that real leadership is self-effacing: Each subordinated personal well-being to larger goals of serving others—goals that demanded empathy, perseverance, and courage.
Natasha Warikoo (PhD ’05, sociology) explores race- and class-based inequities in admissions to three highly selective universities (Harvard, Brown, and Oxford). Rather than query administrators about college admission policies, Warikoo probes student perceptions. How do undergraduates make sense of privilege, inequality, and diversity in college life? The Diversity Bargain and Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities (University of Chicago Press, 2016), reports that American students make racially insensitive remarks less frequently than their British counterparts. But both groups internalized meritocratic assumptions. Even in conceding that race and class limited access to elite institutions, they still assume that they had been admitted on merit alone. They also embraced a distinctive “diversity bargain.” That is, they valued social and racial diversity primarily as a sort of personal enrichment opportunity (a richer educational environment) but discounted the need for more thorough-going steps to address underlying inequities that limit minority access to college education.
The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (MIT Press, 2017) examines Canadian scientific research during World War II and the Cold War. Edward Jones-Imhotep (PhD ’01, history of science) focuses on the ionosphere—an atmospheric layer rich in free electrons that can reflect shortwave radio signals (particularly at higher latitudes). Jones-Imhotep maintains that the ionosphere was the key not just to long-distance radio communication but also to Canada’s national identity. He examines a group of researchers led by Frank Davies (1904−81). Beginning as a section within Canadian naval intelligence (1942−46), the group evolved into the Cold War Defense Research Telecommunications Establishment (1950−69), with its work shifting from communications to detecting Russian missiles to satellite research. It also supported Voice of America and BBC propaganda broadcasts. Serving other masters (especially the Americans) stirred the Canadians to work on knitting together their own dispersed inhabitants, particularly through the Canadian Broad-casting Corporation’s Northern Service (established in 1958).
The Purloined Letter (Shearsman Books, 2017) is stunning, luminous, and dark, though not without hope. Fani Papageorgiou (AM ’98, history of science) employs kaleidoscopic imagery—literary (Flannery O’Connor, D.H. Lawrence, Matthew Arnold), geographic (the English cliffs of Dover, Greece, New York City), personal memories, facts from natural history and archaeology, and cultural boilerplate—that surprisingly resonates (“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”). She struggles for meaning and recompense, personal, emotional, artistic:
There is no tourniquet,
cry the seagulls.
All the king’s horses
and all the king’s men
won’t fix the laced bones
of your spine,
your derelict heart.
Connect the dots, we tell them,
make some sense of all this
I cannot, I cannot.
Specific phrases return—like a subterranean river or emotional ostinato that challenges the will: “Is the story we tell in our heads the most important one?” “Can one live and write at the same time?” On the evidence here, I would say, absolutely.