"Wounded Colossus: Bringing America Back From the Brink" was the title of the annual Sam Seifter Memorial Lecture, presented by New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert to a packed Robbins Auditorium on October 15, 2009. The audience included members of the Seifter family, who were thrilled that Dr. Seifter's long-time wish to have Mr. Herbert give the annual Seifter lecture had been fulfilled — even though Dr. Seifter would miss the special event, having passed away in February. Those in attendance were not disappointed, as Mr. Herbert discussed his perspective on the present state of our country and offered his suggestions on how we must go about solving the serious problems he raised.
Bob Herbert (See complete photo gallery below)Before Mr. Herbert stepped to the lectern, Dr. Seifter — a member of Einstein's founding faculty and much beloved professor emeritus of biochemistry — was remembered, and the history of the lecture in his honor was explained. Established in 1993 by Dr. Valiere Alcena (Class of 1973), the Sam Seifter Lecture honored Dr. Seifter's career and contributions to social justice. This year, in recognition of Dr. Seifter's passing, the word "memorial" was added to the event name.
In his role as master of ceremonies, Dr. Alcena explained, "Dr. Seifter was my mentor and he was influential in shaping my career. I wanted there to be an ongoing way of recognizing how much Sam meant to so many, at Einstein and beyond."
Offering some examples of Dr. Seifter's illustrious career and his compassionate nature, Dr. Robin Walt Briehl, professor of physiology and biophysics and of biochemistry, related two stories. The first told of Dr. Seifter's actions during the McCarthy era, when he was instrumental in bringing faculty members to Einstein who had lost their jobs at other institutions as a result of the blacklisting that was taking place at the time. "What he did was a courageous protest and a humanitarian gesture," noted Dr. Briehl, who then told how Dr. Seifter initiated the creation of the King-Kennedy Program at Einstein, designed to encourage African-American students who lacked a strong science background to pursue careers in science and medicine. Following Dr. Briehl, Jonathan Abrams, Dr. Seifter's grandson, read "A Principal Uncertainty" from Dr. Seifter's collection of poems, Every Truth Its Season.
Mr. Herbert began his speech by referring to his youth. "Growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s and 60s, I saw that for all of its problems, the U.S. seemed to be moving in the right direction," he said. "The middle class was growing, college education was affordable, people thought it was cool to be smart and nitwits kept it to themselves. Although there were problems, the state of the country was very promising."
Sam SeifterHe continued, "Unfortunately, we have not been good stewards of that promise. Great American institutions, like newspapers and car companies, are going bankrupt. We are in two wars, and the economy is in shambles."
He wondered how we have gotten from there to here, and posited that we, as a country, have lost contact with reality. In talking about the issues of unemployment, and the shrinking middle class, Mr. Herbert shared various statistics about the severity of our economic situation, including the fact that, if adjusted for inflation, men in their 30s today earn less than their fathers did at that age. He also discussed the huge number of jobs — 10 million — that need to be created just to get our country back to the employment levels during the Bush administration. Of the dire need to address the impact of unemployment on our nation, he said, "We know cigarettes cause cancer in humans. Well, joblessness causes a kind of cancer in societies, and its metastasizing."
To tackle the most serious issues that the country faces, Mr. Herbert proposed a three-pronged approach. First, he suggested that we need to rebuild America — its aging infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and schools. "These days, it seems like the only thing we can build is sports complexes. We've got two stadiums for every team but we can't build schools... If we can find the money for wars and for bank bailouts, we should be able to find the money to do this," he said.
Next, Mr. Herbert offered that we need to fix education. "If we want to be a top society and compete in the global market, we need to make schools a top priority. We must rebuild schools, restock libraries, and curb the high dropout rate," he said. "There should be an ironclad commitment to making our public education system the best in the world."
Third, Mr. Herbert stated, "We have to stop these debilitating wars. No nation can flourish in a permanent state of war."
In concluding his speech, Mr. Herbert soberly noted that dealing with these three major problems — rebuilding our infrastructure, making education a top priority, and ending our involvement in war — is essential to getting America back on track and regaining the promising future of his childhood. "Reality is beckoning to us and we can't afford to ignore it much longer."
To watch Mr. Herbert's speech, please click here.
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Posted on: Monday, November 02, 2009