The Mitra Family Endowment, established last year, has borne its first fruit. Sarah Howells, grade 12 and the first Mitra Scholar, added her effort to the handcrafted social and historical analyses produced by this year’s John Near Endowment scholars.
Howells chose a classic and controversial character for her subject and found an angle not fully explored in her paper, “Winston Churchill’s Efforts to Unify Britain From 1940-1941,” a look at his public relations efforts as they affected Britain’s morale in early World War II.
In 2011, Harker parents Samir and Sundari Mitra (Shivani, grade 11) established The Mitra Family Endowment for the Humanities, which matches gifts to the annual giving campaign up to a total of $100,000.
“The subject matters taught under humanities such as history, languages, communications and philosophy are critical skills and knowledge that develop well-rounded Harker students,” said Samir Mitra at last year’s reception. “Humanities is the bedrock of a superior education and will enable our students to stand out as recognized contributors in their future professions.”
“I knew I wanted to apply for the Mitra grant because I had enjoyed world history so much in my sophomore year,” said Howells. “So I took out a map of the world and realized I didn’t speak any languages other than English. I thought about Britain; my family was affected on two sides by World War Two, both in Poland and in Britain.”
Howell said narrowing down and firming up her topic was an effort, and working with her mentor, history teacher Ruth Meyer, helped. Too broad at first, her topic choices “quickly narrowed to Churchill’s remarkable unification of the government and retaining the trust of the people during the war,” said Howells.
During her research, Howells, who will attend Princeton in the fall, received a package of resource material from her mentor’s mother, still living in England, who had lived in Coventry during the war.
Howells noted, “The most interesting part of writing the paper was transitioning from the researching to the writing. That was the most difficult task for me, since I had a myriad of great resources but no idea how to put them all together.”
Howells took on a subject usually taken for granted – Churchill’s ability to relate to the “everyman” and to the highest in the land (he often personally briefed King George VI on the war’s progress) – and examined its worth in keeping the spirit of resistance alive in beleaguered England. Her examination of Churchill’s handling of the press and public to maintain a unified, confident home front is a unique view, and her writing, worth the read in itself, conveys the passion that Churchill used to inspire fellow politicians and those in the street. Her division of material shows the way for further research on how Churchill handled groups differently.
Like all good researchers, Howells pointed out the weakness in her own paper, the inability to examine the records of Mass Observation and Home Intelligence, a government bureau that monitored the public pulse, due to their volume and her limited access. Howells noted that lacking the confirming information in those records, it was hard to be sure of widespread public approval of Churchill.
“It’s been such a pleasure to work with Sarah,” said Meyer. “She is so balanced in her approach to research, she’s so steady in everything that she does, so well organized. There was this wonderful moment when she came to me with her outline, all of her sources in place, excellent organization – you so need that as a researcher. I just loved working with Sarah,” she said.
Then she addressed Howells: “I know you’re going to carry on with this, that this is the first seed in a long journey. Research is something that hopefully you’ll carry throughout your whole life; and keep looking deeper and deeper in to these questions you have been forming here and will continue to do so at Princeton.”
“Overall, the process of writing the paper was an exciting and challenging opportunity,” said Howells, “and I’m glad I could get a taste of what real humanities research is like before I head off to college.”
At the reception, Howells gave emphatic thanks to her teachers and mentor, “and the Mitra and Near families for having the guts to put forward such faith in us as students to be able to complete such ambitious projects. I don’t think I could have done this if you hadn’t suggested to me that I was capable of completing such a long senior thesis,” she finished.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Sundari Mitra, noting the scholars’ efforts to “inspire us parents. We are really honored and proud that whatever little we could do, that the school has utilized it in such a tremendous manner, so thank you Mr. Nikoloff, the faculty, everyone. I’m really touched and inspired.”
The $300,000 John Near Excellence in History Education Endowment Fund, 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.” Each year, three students receive a grant to pursue an independent historical or social study.
Near scholar Max Isenberg chose a subject Churchill, as a former First Lord of the Admiralty, would have been very interested in: the use of on-station naval power as a worldwide deterrent, something at which the British were old hands.
Isenberg’s paper, “Arleigh Burke’s Submarine-Based Finite Deterrent: Alternative to the Nuclear Triad,” an examination of Admiral Arleigh Burke’s answer to ballooning costs involved with maintaining a three-point nuclear deterrent (aircraft, missiles and submarines, all carrying nuclear devices) was carefully researched and covered the salient points of the argument.
Burke, a hard-charger and destroyer flotilla commander early in WWII, proposed a Cold War all-submarine deterrent but could not sell the system politically. Ultimately, however, Isenberg states that the U.S. is moving towards a submarine-based deterrent as ICBMs and B-52 nuke-carrying aircraft become redundant politically and mechanically, justifying Burke’s proposal.
Isenberg, who will attend the University of Pennsylvania for the Jerome Fisher Management and Technology program in the fall in a dual-degree program for business and engineering, noted, “My favorite part of the entire project was looking at the competing theories of nuclear strategy, and how they had consequences not immediately obvious until later in the Cold War.”
Like Howells, searching out a topic was a significant part of the effort. “The process of narrowing down the topic was incredibly informative,” Isenberg said.
“The most difficult part of the project was finding solid first person sources, especially considering the tight classification of many details from the Cold War,” he added. “That difficulty partly contributed to my eventual focus on nuclear strategy as many of the major players in the development of the Triad and finite deterrence had published works, while a lot of the nitty-gritty details of submarines remain inaccessible.”
Isenberg is appreciative of the grant, thanking teacher and mentor Ramsey Westgate, Susan Smith, library director and history department chair Donna Gilbert for their help. “I don’t think there are very many schools of any sort that offer such a rare opportunity to do history research specifically and then give the leeway to explore the topic in such a thorough manner,” he said. “I would like to thank the Near and the Mitra families for creating this opportunity, this really unique chance for all of us to look at the world in a new way.”
Getting there included old-fashioned library research. “I had the great opportunity to visit the [Ronald] Reagan [Presidential] Library [in Simi Valley, Calif.], Isenberg said. “I got to look at a lot of first person documents – some of Burke’s own writings from the 1950s. This is where I really thank the Near family, for providing the opportunity to go down there.”
The voyage of discovery ranged throughout his subject. “I read that during the Cuban missile crisis, we had around 30 or 40 times as many bombs as the Soviets, so our misinformation definitely caused an overreaction,” Isenberg said. That mistaken belief “most definitely convinced people like [then-Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara and [President John F.] Kennedy to counter aggressively against Khrushchev’s overtures, who definitely portrayed a very strong Soviet nuclear arsenal when in fact it was very much inferior to the United States’,” said Isenberg.
Scholar Dwight Payne, grade 12, chose a current social topic and, as he was out of town during the reception, delivered his address via video. His work, “Can Charter Schools Close the Achievement Gap?” was mentored by teacher Kelly Horan, who noted Payne “wanted to undertake this huge statistical analysis and we quickly realized that was a dissertation and not a high school research paper. This was a great scope for him and he learned an immense amount from the process. He is quite inspired by all of it.”
Payne’s closely researched paper delved into the arcane world of evaluating charter school results. He located a number of studies which threw light on a portion of the process of evaluation, and allowed limited conclusions to be drawn on the efficacy of the charter schools studied. Payne identified some commonalities within the studies and used them for his next step, interviewing charter school administrators and examining the records of their schools.
The schools examined in this portion of the project had a spectrum of student results and, although Payne found and used common criteria for eliminating or at least accounting for bias, the differences between schools, including stability, age of students (one was high school, the others lower and middle schools), location, teaching methods and teacher evaluation and training methods made drawing firm conclusions problematic. Payne was comfortable, however, generally endorsing charter schools as an option for helping those desirous of helping themselves, feeling that time will only improve the system as learning processes are refined and expanded.
He agreed with Howell and Isenberg that finalizing his topic was a major challenge, “one that lasted nearly the entire research and writing process,” he noted. Other steps were hard, but the payoff is clear to Payne. “I absolutely love the research process,” he said. “I learned so much about the difficulties of social science research (and) the intricacies of education reform in general.”
When it came time to write the paper, “sifting through the breadth of literature was a difficult task,” added Payne, who will attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in business administration with a possible second major in either economics or psychology.
Another hurdle was maintaining objectivity. “It was difficult to swallow my own biases going in to the process and accept that most of the literature I read presented inconclusive or conflicting data,” Payne said. “From that knowledge, however, it was rewarding to conduct interviews that examined specific examples of successes or challenges that were illuminating despite an overall conclusion regarding the effectiveness of charter schools in closing the achievement gap. I particularly enjoyed meeting with school leaders and I was very inspired by their dedication. The administrators who I interviewed were incredibly helpful and eager to share their work; I am immensely grateful to them.”
Payne knows he had a rare opportunity. “I’ve learned a lot particularly from my advisor Mrs. Horan, who I would like to wholeheartedly thank for her wisdom and patience as she helped me through this long process. I would also like to thank the entire history department for its commitment to us as young researchers – myself and the other scholars – and the Near and Mitra families for allowing us to pursue this remarkably high-level research in a high school setting.”
Senior Cole Manaster, like Howells and Isenberg, chose a military topic with political ramifications. His effort, “The Changing Dynamic of Unconventional Warfare: The U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam and Their Impact on Modern War,” traced the development of Special Forces first as trainers of villagers in war zones to strengthen them against enemy efforts, then in their roles as covert, uniformed operators behind enemy lines. Manaster documented the status of Special Forces as, following WWII, they grew from a compound of various forces – Army, Navy, Marine and CIA – to the ultimate acceptance of these forces and their integration in the overall military effort.
Today, we are all familiar with the effort to capture the “hearts and minds” of non-combatants in military zones, and Manaster illustrated how that effort grew from early efforts to keep South Vietnamese and other indigenous groups in Vietnam from falling, or being forced, under the influence of North Vietnamese communists, while noting that Special Forces mandate also puts them in the most dangerous situations a soldier is likely to face, i.e., behind enemy lines.
“I was fascinated by this facet of the war – how special forces were used, he said, “so I looked at how they were used in the Vietnam War and somewhat how they have been used since.” Manaster, who will be going to the University of Southern California next year as a business administration major, said he “wanted to be able to use the things I have learned in my history classes and all my classes, “ but noted “the toughest part of writing such an extensive paper was keeping myself on track time-wise,” leading to a great truth of human nature. “I’m not a procrastinator, but when you have a year to do something it isn’t usually the top priority until it’s too late, if that makes sense.”
His topic firm, Manaster found the next step a challenge. “If I could do it all again, I would probably have spent more time solidifying my outline before writing the paper itself. What I had in my outline made the writing process itself immensely easier, but I think I probably could have done even more, looking back on it now.
“In terms of the process, this was very exciting for me,” he continued. “It’s the first yearlong paper I’ve ever written and there is something completely different about that from a normal classroom paper.”
“I was really happy to be Cole’s mentor,” said Carol Zink, history teacher. “I’ve seen his intellectual growth and development over the years and it’s always tremendously rewarding for a teacher to get to see that.”
Zink noted one of the challenges Manaster had in pursuing his research is that is it difficult to find unbiased sources on this topic. “There are a lot of books that are ‘Yay-rah, Green Berets!'” she said, “and then there are other books that say the United States should never have gone into Vietnam in the first place and they (the Green Berets) were the dirty dogs in the deal. It is very difficult to try to walk the middle line and I know that was a struggle for Cole, but I know he persevered.”
Pam Dickinson, John Near’s widow and director of Harker’s Office of Communication, again represented the Near family. “Like last year, I felt very much as though Mr. Near was channeled with the presentations,” Dickinson said. “The research about charter schools and public education, how fabulous is that? And the submarines: John’s father was in the Navy so we talked a lot about that. And Churchill, he loved Churchill. And he would always talk about how in the AP curriculum there is never enough time to examine the Vietnam period. He would be incredibly proud. I’m honored to be here on behalf of his parents and it is a wonderful thing what the Mitras have done. Congratulations – you all have done a wonderful job.”
Manaster echoed the thanks of the other scholars, adding, “All of us have put in a lot of work and it is exciting to see our papers truly come to fruition and to have this at the close of our senior year, as well. I’m very honored to have been a part of this program and it is something I’m going to remember for a long time.”