A smart friend once asked me, when I consulted him about a magazine I wanted to start, “What will it be against?” In my sunny youth, I had trouble answering the question, even as I appreciated its wisdom. But now a partial list fairly leaps to mind: lies, greed, stupidity, cruelty, arrogance, injustice, indifference, incompetence. The difficulty is not in finding enough specific problems that fall within these categories, but in finding new ones. Even better, finding problems that can be solved. Two articles in this issue stand out because the problems they
describe admit solutions.

Our cover story, by Harriet A. Washington, examines the growing evidence that infectious disease can stunt intellectual development and even reverse it. This is a problem of almost unimaginable consequence. At least a billion people, most of whom live in underdeveloped nations with inadequate health care, suffer from malaria or other serious diseases implicated in lessening intellectual capacity. But the problem is not exclusive to poorer nations: the warming southern latitudes of the United States offer increasing hospitality to these diseases and their effects, making this a domestic issue as well as a global one.

Establishing the preeminence of health in matters of intelligence creates clear pathways to a solution. If poverty per se is not the problem, then the fix can fall this side of its longed-for but unlikely elimination. And speaking of intelligence, or its deficit, it’s worth noting that if infectious disease is the chief culprit here, then arguments about genetic inferiority become even less plausible than they already are. So the solution to making the world a smarter place, increasing the capacity of people to lead useful, satisfying lives, begins with the acknowledgment that solutions exist: medical, pharmaceutical, hygienic. Many people and organizations have worked on these problems for a long time, we know. But perhaps the old slogan about a mind (make that a billion minds) being a terrible thing to waste will add new impetus.

When we asked Carol T. Christ, the former president of Smith College, to draw out some lessons from the Sweet Briar situation, we did not imagine that she would offer a practical plan for saving not just Sweet Briar but all small liberal arts colleges. Since she is now director of Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, she tossed in a fix for big public universities at no extra charge. Her piece shows how the problems of the two very different types of institutions are interlocking, and how the strengths of each can offer solutions for the other. Seems simple, but it does require a willingness to cooperate. For colleges like Sweet Briar Christ predicts, choosing to give up some autonomy could be the difference between institutional life and death.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up