This article first published in Harker News Online on Jan. 20, 2013
Harker’s maturing endowment program produced six scholars this year, all seniors, who each presented their papers in late April to fellow students, parents, faculty and administrators in the Nichols Hall auditorium.

Established in 2009, the John Near Excellence in History Education Endowment Fund, the first of its kind at Harker, was joined by the Mitra Family Endowment for the Humanities in 2011, and since then there have been nine Near scholars and four Mitra scholars, including this year’s awardees.

The $300,000 John Near fund, established in memory of the 31-year veteran of Harker’s teaching staff who passed away in 2009, was made by his parents, James and Patricia Near, to, in John Near’s words, “help develop the history department, both through the acquisition of resources and providing growth opportunities for both faculty and students.”

Harker parents Samir and Sundari Mitra (Shivani, grade 12) established the Mitra Family Endowment, which matches gifts to the annual giving campaign up to a total of $100,000.

This year’s papers ran the gamut from traditional historical research to an examination of social conditions.

One of the Mitra scholars is actually a Mitra. Shivani Mitra chose an enduring topic for both artists and feminists: Frida Kahlo, the iconic Mexican painter who explored politics, art, feminism and sexuality during the course of her life. Mitra frankly discussed Kahlo’s sexuality, paintings and politics, often referencing Kahlo’s diary, but the most notable portions of the paper were Mitra’s analyses of the crossovers and tie-ins between these three facets of Kahlo’s nature. One example:

“Frida, who was a supporter of the communist party with Diego (Rivera), wore the clothing that symbolized communist allegiance without acknowledgement to the social norm for women to never be involved in politics. In addition to challenging the political position of females, Frida refused to take on the feminine attitude that wives were supposed to in her second marriage. In a personal essay about Diego for an exhibition of Diego’s work in 1940 Frida wrote, ‘Some people may expect me to paint a very personal, ‘feminine,’ anecdotal entertaining portrait of Diego, filled with complaints and even a certain amount of gossip …’”

“In the beginning of my sophomore year I took AP Art History with Ms. (Donna) Gilbert,” Mitra said at the reception, “and I fell in love with this subject. Art history allowed me to learn about the historical periods and individuals of the past through a painter’s hand or a sculptor’s tools filled with color, texture and emotion that really took me back in time and history. When this opportunity came up, I was intrigued by the idea I could explore one of my favorite artists, Frida Kahlo, in much more depth.”

Near scholar Nina Sabharwal chose one of the most enigmatic episodes in the personal history of the United States’ founding fathers: the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton that resulted in the death of Hamilton and the destruction of Burr’s political life.

Dueling was regarded as the only honorable way to settle a dispute not then actionable under law, and both men were familiar with the practice both as a deterrent and as a remedy for those making disparaging remarks. Indeed, Hamilton lost his beloved eldest son, Phillip, to a duel prior to his own death and, according to “Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, Hamilton had been on the fringes of six other duels, including acting as a second or adviser. Neither Burr nor Hamilton lived an unimpeachable life. Burr schemed to enrich himself and further his political ambitions becoming a controversial figure in U.S. politics as the young country worked out its growing pains. Hamilton was equally busy trying to solidify his place in U.S. politics and history, and the two clashed in the political arena more than once.

“This project has been a culmination of the years of learning in our history classes,” said Sabharwal. “The research skills I’ve acquired will be invaluable to me in college.”

Sabharwal’s conclusion is that “the famous duel was the result, largely, of ill-will formed between the two men over many years. In the specific, Burr accused Hamilton of speaking ill of him in society and sent his second to call on Hamilton. The deadly meeting between the two seems almost inevitable when their history together is examined.”

Near scholar Ashvin Swaminathan delved into political and musical history to plumb the premise that two of the United States’ most influential composers, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, both sought to illuminate Hispanic forces in America in their works, especially Copland’s “El Salón México” and Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”

“I really like history because I like finding historical connections between various events,” said Swaminathan, “and I like music and the study of musical history, the study of how the evolution of music and how composers were influenced by the sociopolitical climates of their times. I really wanted to do this research because there has already been much research done on European classical music and how European composers were influenced by the politics of their days. I wanted to create an American parallel for that. Doing this research project has really influenced what I am going to study in college.”

Swaminathan’s work is best defined by a paragraph from his paper: “Copland’s 1936 symphonic work “El Salón México” may be viewed as an artistic reaction to the contemporaneous Mexican Repatriation, and Bernstein’s 1957 musical “West Side Story” must be taken as a politically overt response to the youth gang violence that plagued New York City throughout the 1950s.”

Thus, Swaminathan begins his journey to illuminate what motivated these composers to create works that exposed the cultural pressures of a then-much-overlooked segment of U.S. society. Copland’s composition was stimulated by the forced, government-mandated Mexican repatriation of the 1930, when 500,000 or more people of Mexican heritage, including U.S. citizens, were forced to return to Mexico.

Bernstein’s “West Side Story” is a reflection of the frustration built up as Puerto Ricans emigrated to the U.S. when laws changed granting them citizenship and as World War II created jobs for them on the U.S. mainland. Many ended up in New York.

Swaminathan notes in his paper, “The combination of heightened unemployment on the island, greater perceived job opportunities in alluring mainland U.S. cities like New York and increased affordability of airfares led to a sudden, exponential rise in the migration rate of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland. From 1950 to 1959, a total of about 470,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S. mainland.”

According to one source, the United States census showed that by 1960 there were more than 600,000 New Yorkers of Puerto Rican birth or parentage, and Swaminathan notes, “As a consequence of New York’s changing ethnic composition, many rivalries arose between teenagers from different ethnic backgrounds; in 1955, New York was plagued by nearly 100 teenage gangs.” It was from these circumstances that Bernstein drew inspiration for “West Side Story.”

Nazi Errors
In a more traditional approach, Mitra scholar Apurva Tandon took on a subject daunting to professional historians, the short- and long-term effects of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed in 1931 and the subsequent violation of that pact in 1941 when the Wehrmacht invaded Russia.

The subject of the pact has been covered extensively by noted historians, but Tandon coalesces the primary mistakes by Hitler that led to the ultimate failure of the Third Reich to survive at all, including fighting an ideological war instead of a political/military war and the utter disregard for the economic dependence Germany had on trade with the Soviet Union that was suspended when the invasion of Russia began.

Perhaps her most interesting point, drawn from a Stanford University lecture by Timothy Snyder, was that Hitler saw his invasion as the second phase of the destruction of Eastern European states, after the Soviet Union had started the job. Tandon asserts Stalin’s purges and ruthless collectivization of farms prior to the start of World War II were the opening act to the main show – Barbarossa – of destroying the populations of the satellite states to produce Lebensraum, and that viewpoint has not been widely aired.

“I’ve enjoyed tackling one of the subjects that is so widely explored in the field,” said Tandon, “and just being able to come up with my very own take on that and then put it out there is scary but rewarding – so truly rewarding. My mind is already racing with another follow-up topic that I want to research in college that is kind of an offshoot of this topic, and having this kind of experience under my belt is what is going to make that possible.”

In her paper, Near scholar Apricot Tang discussed the most important amendment that never passed, the Equal Rights Amendment, as its journey was affected by two ardent feminists from the right and left, Phyllis Schlafly and Betty Friedan. One of the most controversial amendments to be proposed, it was opposed by labor unions and Eleanor Roosevelt, yet supported by President Dwight Eisenhower and the Republican Party. Roosevelt opposed it because it would block legislation designed to protect women workers from harsh factory conditions, and the amendment seemed designed to help educated middle-class women, and so labor unions opposed it, according to, an educational research site.

There were three life-changing points Tang experienced, she said. “First, I have found role models for myself. Seeking out the research has helped me be inspired by women such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Phylis Schlafly, all extremely courageous and strong women of their time. Second, I found myself through the research process: searching, reading, being lost, thinking you’re not lost, then returning to the black fold and the sources. It has been a process through which I have found myself. And third, I’ve been learning about the kind of writer, the kind of student and the kind of thinker I am.”

As the feminist movement grew in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the amendment seems, in retrospect, to be an obvious step forward in ensuring full rights under the law, but it was opposed by Phyllis Schlafly, a forceful, outspoken advocate for traditional womanhood. The amendment’s path in the 1960s and ‘70s could be seen as a reflection of the changing values Americans were all struggling with as Vietnam split communities, unions lost their ability to speak for the American worker and ethnic minorities advocated for equal treatment and protection under the law. Tang’s paper takes on the complex battle that shaped up between Schlafly and Betty Friedan, who founded the National Organization of Women in 1966 following publication of “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, which examined women’s roles beyond traditional expectations of homemaking and motherhood.

Mitra scholar Warren Zhang chose to look at societal economics in his paper on how technological growth negatively affected income equality as technology development replaced manufacturing as a major component of the U.S. economy. This ambitious effort delved into the complexities of the job market, maturing understanding of modern economics technological growth and what it meant to everyone from university graduates to line workers in assembly plants.

Zhang’s conclusion is stated in 10 words in the opening sentence: “Modern technology breeds inequality and inhibits sustainable, broad-based growth.” Zhang notes that the income gap between the college-educated and the high school-educated grew after World War II, saying, “A college degree replaced a high school diploma as the mark of an educated person, and high school graduates and high school dropouts increasingly became substitutes in the labor market.”

He goes on to discuss in depth the changes effected by rising wages for the college-educated, the effect of unionization on both workers’ earnings and their college-educated counterparts. Finally, Zhang presents evidence that the rise in wages for college-educated workers and their ability to work more efficiently due to technology (computers) and the drop in unionization has created a dichotomy in our economy that is not sustainable: “Because modern innovations only make a small subset of skilled workers more productive, they induce damaging, even crisis-provoking, inequality,” Zhang said.

“The important thing, and the crux of my paper, is this idea (that) skills buy technological change. If you work with computers, if it is your job to tell the ‘robots’ what to do, to create the programs that make modern life possible, then the rise of information technology has been a wonderful thing.

“On the other hand, if you have a manufacturing job or you are doing some sort of routine office work, there are robots and there is software that will do your job better, faster and more efficiently, and … will never demand vacation, and that is the crux of it. While the growth of information technology has made workers at the top much more productive and thus given them the skills to demand higher and higher wages, it is also much harder to have a middle class job and a middle class life style if you don’t have those skills.”

Next year’s endowment recipients, all seniors, have been chosen. Mitra scholars are Maya Madhavan, Anisha Padwekar and Monica Thukral; Near scholars will be Kevin Duraiswamy, Zina Jawadi, Divya Kalidindi, Connie Li and Angela Ma.


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