What the Titanic Can Teach Us About Surviving Climate Change

What the Titanic Can Teach Us About Surviving Climate Change

by Michael Weishan

The Titanic leaving Belfast shipyard, one day old. Exactly two weeks later she would lie on the bottom of the Atlantic.

The time is 11:39 PM April 14, 1912 and the largest moving object mankind ever created is about to rendezvous with destiny.

In a little more than 60 seconds, a several-thousand-year-old piece of ice will scrape along the hull of a two-week old liner named Titanic [all external links are to wikipedia unless noted], dooming the glittering pride of the White Star Line. She carries on this her maiden voyage 885 crew catering to 1317 pampered passengers, with just 20 lifeboats, enough to hold roughly half of those on board. Why so few? A little noticed lobbying effort a decade earlier by the major shipping lines had successfully argued that lifeboats (expensive to build and maintain, and worse, consuming revenue-generating deck space) were unnecessary in an era of water-tight doors and wireless communication. Modern technology, shipwrights claim, render their vessels virtually unsinkable, a view shared by three of the most competent nautical experts of the age, now hastily summoned to the bridge of the suddenly silent liner. In command is Captain Edward Smith, the commodore of the White Star Line. His presence aboard this crossing is intended as an honorific farewell: on reaching New York, he will retire from a largely uneventful 50-year career at sea. With him, naval architect Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, aboard to fine-tune last-minute details and make notes for improvements to the Titanic’s two sisters, the earlier Olympic, and a behemoth still in the ways, to be christened Gigantic. Finally, the man who had envisioned and willed this transatlantic trio into existence, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line. These three, with a over a century of nautical expertise shared between them, know more about the Titanic than anyone else on earth.

Yet despite this vast know-how, they are utterly powerless to alter their shocking circumstances: having quickly surveyed the ship after the collision, designer Andrews reports to a stunned Smith and Ismay that the Titanic will be on the bottom of the Atlantic within two hours.

Setting aside this tragic narrative for a moment, let’s examine our own present situation, as we recently did at the “Beyond Tomorrow: Safeguarding Civilization Though Turbulent Times” conference at Harvard University in October 2015, co-hosted by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation and El Camino Project [link to external site]. Speaker after speaker, Ambassador Bruce Oreck, ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, and NASA historian Erik Conway among others warned that we, as a nation and as a planet, are in dire trouble; embarked on a one-way journey that will end at best badly, and at worst tragically; and that we now face critical choices that must be met with courage and resolve. A ripple of disquieting realization washed over the conference participants, many of them students just beginning their lives, as each struggled to find a balance between optimism and pessimism, hope and despair. Surely, many asked, it can’t be as bad as all that?

Captain Edward Smith

The reaction was eerily the same that starlit April night in 1912. Early on, before the Titanic’s wounded bow began visibly settling into the 29º F water of the Atlantic, few passengers cared to leave the glowing decks for the dark cramped lifeboats now dangling from the davits. (Had the passengers known there had never been an evacuation drill and that many crewmen were unfamiliar with the process of lowering the boats, even more would have resisted.) As it was, the first few lifeboats were lowered pitifully under-filled, most of the passengers preferring to wait in the luxurious warmth of the library, the smoking room or the grand first class stairway, where the large clock portraying “Honor and Glory Crowning Time” relentlessly tick-tocked down the seconds, poignant counterpoint to the beat of the ragtime tunes being played by the ship’s orchestra. It was a scene of surreal calm, the last moment of peace many there assembled would ever know.

Thomas Andrews

“Surreal calm.” Does that strike a foreboding yet familiar note? Down deep, most of us know that our planet is in trouble. Whatever your political stripe, your belief set, or whether you think the sea will rise 2 inches, 2 feet, or 10 feet over the next century, all you have to do is take a critical look around — like Thomas Andrews — and “sound the ship” to realize the proverbial engines have stopped and we’re taking on water. A sampling of alarming facts:

    • 80% of the Earth’s original forests are now gone, and in the Amazon alone we lose 2000 trees a minute.

    • 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are now distributed across the world’s oceans, with a half-life that exceeds hundreds of years for many types of debris.

    • The desert has claimed one-third of the globe and is advancing into fertile dry lands on four continents.

    • Species extinction has risen from a normal rate of 1-5 per year to 20 per day. By 2050 half of all Earth species will be threatened.

    • Because of increased C02 uptake, the pH of the world’s oceans has fallen from 8.2 to 8.1, a 25% increase in acidity. By the end of the century, ocean pH is projected to reach 7.8. Fossil records reveal that such drops have previously triggered global mass extinctions.

    • While energy demand in the West is projected to remain relatively flat, global energy demand will increase by 70% in the next 25 years due mostly to a rise in developing-world consumption.

  • By 2050, even with sustainability initiatives in place, the human race will need 50% more energy, 40% more water, and 35% more food.

Of course, the great unspoken bugaboo behind all these figures is overpopulation, but few of even the most vocal climate change campaigners dare address this topic, and certainly none of our current crop of spineless politicians has the courage to do so. The issue is far too politically and religiously charged, and telling ugly truths never wins votes. But no prescient talent or special technological expertise is required to understand that adding an additional 3-4 billion people to our planet in the next several decades will overwhelm an already overburdened ecosystem. Even if climate change were entirely dismissed, these and many other indicators from across the planet show that the planet simply can’t maintain 10 billion humans, each trying to increase his or her share of a petroleum-soaked consumer-driven pie.

Add effects of climate change back into the picture, with millions of people from Boston to Bangladesh displaced by flooding and storms; critical infrastructure like our antiquated electric grid crippled; food supply distribution networks disrupted or destroyed by climate-induced sectarian strife; and vast tracts of formerly bountiful farmland in the American West, Central China and Northern Africa reduced to desert, nd you have an almost 100% surety of societal collapse. To quote lines from James Cameron’s movie version (link to imdb.com) of the Titanic tragedy:

J. Bruce Ismay

Ismay: [incredulously] But this ship can’t sink!

Thomas Andrews: She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can…and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.

Let me then be equally clear: The Western lifestyle we enjoy in America in 2015 simply cannot be sustained, and it especially cannot serve as a model for the developing world. It is “a mathematical certainty.”

We have at last met our iceberg, and it is us.

So now what? Will it be “women and children first” as they did on the Titanic, or infinitely more likely in this self-centered age, “every man for himself?” As our species faces the grim realities, we can benefit from the lessons learned on a doomed transatlantic liner in 1912.

First and foremost: we must candidly and immediately acknowledge the full extent of the crisis.

Given their staunch Edwardian belief in the infallibility of human progress, Captain Smith, Andrews and Ismay may be forgiven for doubting that their “unsinkable” wonder could founder beneath their feet. One minute all was well, and the next, disaster. Yet the ship’s command quickly and accurately assessed the situation, overcame very powerful disbelief — especially hard because physical manifestations of the growing tragedy were not yet generally visible — and made the critical decision to abandon ship. At best, this would mean a highly perilous operation, which would subject passengers to a harrowing descent 70 feet down the side of the ship in tiny open boats only to strand them a thousand miles from shore in a freezing sea, surrounded by icebergs. If for some reason they were wrong, that things weren’t as dire as Andrews believed and the ship somehow remained afloat, they would have subjected their passengers to a potentially fatal ordeal that would destroy the reputations of all three men and damage the White Star Line irreparably.

But Smith did not hesitate. The order came to lower the boats, and it was this rapid acknowledgment that the impossible was in fact probable that saved the 710 passengers who eventually made it to New York. Despite the risks, despite the incredulity, despite the open resistance from passengers, one by one tiny boats began to drop into the frigid North Atlantic. Companion to this dreadful acknowledgment was another more frightful realization, silently admitted by only a select few, but equally valid today: not everyone would be saved, but every second spent in denying the realities of the present meant even more casualties. Our Internet-linked society has no excuse to deny or ignore the severity of our ecological crisis. Unlike those in 1912, we can see the iceberg. In fact, we’ve known about it for decades. We, in 2015, must follow the example of these three men: we must admit that the impossible has occurred and begin to make our plans based on worst-case scenarios, not the best. This was the basic premise explored at the Beyond Tomorrow conference.

We cannot use looming disaster as an excuse to do nothing.

In the Victorian era, the model of gentlemanly sangfroid was to meet one’s fate with silent resolve and grim reserve. But to modern eyes, going down with the ship simply yields another corpse. Picture millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim, who returned to his cabin, donned formal gear, and told everyone who would listen that he and his valet (who seemingly was offered no other choice) “we’re dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen.”

Really? Was that all a gentleman could do, dress in white tie and tails to passively await the end?


Benjamin Guggenheim and valet awaiting their fate in James Cameron’s movie version, Titanic.

History is pretty clear on this point: fortune favors the brave, and the brave favor action. As members of our planet’s privileged educated elite, we all become Benjamin Guggenheims when we intellectually acknowledge the coming crisis, but continue our carbon-soaked lifestyles unabated and unaltered, on the theory that we will either be dead before the worst comes, or, that small changes won’t matter anyway, so why bother? Small changes DO matter, then and now. On the Titanic, witness all those who fought to free the last collapsible lifeboats; or who like the artist Frank Millet, went below decks to aid steerage passengers who didn’t speak English; or the wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, who stayed at their posts frantically signaling for aid until the power failed minutes only minutes before the ship foundered. Even a few of the passengers already in the lifeboats rose to the fore, including the soon-dubbed “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, the rough-and-tumble Colorado mining heiress who shared her ample clothing with shivering survivors, took an oar to help row, and then verbally bullied the lifeboat’s reluctant crew until they agreed to return and search for survivors in the water. None of these valiant actions altered the trajectory of the main event, but they did mitigate the degree of the disaster in many ways. Those who were saved, were saved through action, not inaction.

The same is true today. While truly “sustainable” environmental policies are a myth (sustainability is defined as “continuing indefinitely” and no current technology or program comes even close to meeting that mark) the net effect of these initiatives is positive as long as they don’t lull us into believing that the crisis isn’t upon us. The water is still creeping up the decks, but every direct action that attempts to mitigate the problems confronting us multiplies the scope of possible outcomes exponentially.

Don’t depend on technology to rescue us.

One Beyond Tomorrow participant, New York Times columnist David Brooks [link to NY Times], expressed a commonly held skepticism about doomsday scenarios. “Challenges to civilization have occurred before, and always something comes along to save the day,” he stated. Many people clearly want to agree, cherishing the hope that some sort of technology will be invented to reverse global warming or drastically lower carbon emissions. This is a conveniently comforting sop, which we must immediately abandon.

The plan of the watertight doors on the Titanic, indicated by the bold vertical lines. The ship could remain afloat with first four watertight compartments flooded, which Andrews imagined the worst possible outcome of a direct head-on collision. The iceberg however had other ideas. Skipping along the hull of the ship, it damaged each of the first five compartments, cutting just far enough along the hull to allow the sea to spill from one compartment to another, dragging the ship down by the bow. Human technology has a poor track record when pitted against the forces of nature.

The Titanic clearly demonstrates the fallacy of putting too much credence in miraculous salvation. Repeatedly Captain Smith and others aboard the doomed liner thought they saw the lights of a ship just over the horizon, and they tried everything they could think of to signal this phantom-like vessel — Morse lamp, rockets, wireless. All in vain. The mystery ship, the Californian, was indeed there, just 10 aching miles away, but her commander inexplicably dismissed the Titanic’s signals as “company flares.” (Why any liner would be sending up gratuitous rockets mid-ocean he never explained.) Even worse, the Californian had a sole radio operator, asleep in his cabin when the distress calls came through. If the passengers and crew of the Titanic had hesitated to board and launch the lifeboats, expecting instead salvation from that almost tangible glimmering hope, no one would have survived the sinking at all. Yes, it’s possible some future technological advance may save us from ourselves at the last minute. It’s equally possible one won’t. We can’t afford to wait and see.

Don’t expect our national leaders to save the day.

After the grim decision to lower the boats, the three men most responsible for safety of the Titanic reacted in remarkably different ways. J. Bruce Ismay, who early on helped passengers into the lifeboats, inexplicably hopped into one himself and stepped off the deck of his sinking ship with thousands still on board. Captain Smith, after an initial burst of decisive action, became unresponsive and withdrawn as critical decisions mounted, and was last seen standing alone on the bridge, silently waiting as the water crept over the raised threshold of the wheelhouse. Thomas Andrews did what he could, going from stateroom to stateroom, urging passengers into the boats. According to one survivor’s testimony, he met his end in the smoking room, staring into a painting over the fireplace ironically entitled “Approach to the New World.” Another account has him frantically throwing deck chairs into the ocean to use as floats. Regardless, over a thousand people remained clinging to the rapidly sloping decks, and all but a few would be dead within the hour. The lesson here is clear. When confronted with overwhelming crisis, the leaders we so depend on may be unable to act effectively, and it falls to individuals and small groups to save themselves and others.

A perfect example: our own US government’s dysfunctional response when confronted by the early and evident signs of climate change as much as 40 years ago, a response which remains woefully lacking today. Democratic and Republican administrations alike might have moved decisively on environmental legislation when it could have been highly effective, but failed to act, as both parties were (and continue to be) held captive by special interests that reap huge short-term profits from the status quo. This same paralysis is evident across the globe, as time and time again world leaders sound an alarm, then fail to agree to practical steps. However, as our speaker Dr. Erik Conway pointed out, local, state and regional initiatives have been proven highly effective in changing national and international patterns of behavior. Dr. Conway cited California’s insistence on cleaner emissions standards for cars; this legislation, which was fought by auto manufacturers for decades in the courts, was eventually upheld. Loath to lose the lucrative California market, the manufacturers gave in, and shortly thereafter these rules became the national standard. Corporate America reacts to one thing only, the almighty dollar, and if enough dollars move to one side of the scale, even the most reluctant corporate players will switch sides. Another example: the organic/local food movement, which was pooh-poohed by government and business alike 30 years ago, but because of bottom-up pressure by consumers has become an important force that now shapes issues of health and lifestyle, as well as affecting economic decisions about land use and urban planning across the US and Europe. It’s clear that micro actions like these, especially when backed by purchasing power, often can and do have macro effects.

Lastly, don’t allow civilization to become another casualty.

In times of crisis, especially when human lives are at stake, it’s easy to push thought of saving elements of our culture — history, the arts, music, literature, language — to the side. But it is these very elements that constitute our human civilization, which, along with the rule of law, form the basis of the liberal Western democracy we enjoy. The value of art in a time of tragedy was clearly demonstrated on the Titanic by members of the ship’s band who calmly set up their instruments on the open deck as the lifeboats were loaded all around them. One might be excused in thinking that this was done from duty: they were crew after all. But they weren’t, which makes their actions all the more noteworthy. The White Star Line, in an effort to save money, carried them as private contractors in 2nd class. As such, these eight men had as much right to save themselves as any other passenger, but instead remained and played, according to many survivor accounts, until the decks became too steep to stand upon. The scene must have been almost unimaginable: the brilliantly illuminated Titanic, sinking by the bow into an absolutely flat black sea, so calm in fact not a crest rippled the mirror of a million stars that crystal night. There is absolute stillness other than the low rumble of people on the decks, punctuated by the shouts and creaks of the davits being lowered, and the periodic report as emergency flairs whistle into the sky, burst, then fade. Suddenly, through the frigid air, clearly audible to those on deck and even to those a quarter-mile away in the boats, arrive the first cheering notes of the “The Merry Widow’s Waltz,” the jaunty beat of ‘“Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Silver Heels,” or “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” and then, towards the end, more somber tunes like the wistful serenade “Songe d’Automne.’” Almost every survivor account mentions the music, and the effect this had in suppressing panic almost to the end: while the music lasted, hope remained. The eight musicians of the Titanic knew this instinctively, and because they did, surrendered their lives to a man. Music, the arts, literature, history — these are the elements that bind the veneer of civilized behavior to our lesser natures. As a species, we move forward without them at our utmost peril.

The sad truth is that no single resolve will get us off the fateful voyage we’ve embarked on. Like the passengers on the Titanic, we’ve long since left the safety of the harbor, and now we find ourselves in peril mid-ocean, without hope of external rescue. Today, our Titanic is the planet, our sea, this empty part of the universe, where we are truly alone. And like those luckless souls of a century ago, it’s becoming rapidly clear to even the most ardent naysayers that we’re not going make our intended landfall.

Lamentably, we brought this tragedy on ourselves, and we will have to endure it to the end. But how we survive, how many survive, and how well, is still up to us.

Time to man the boats.

One of the Titanic’s lifeboats as photographed from the rescue vessel Carpathia, April 15th 1912.

Author, historian and PBS Host Michael Weishan is the Executive Director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard, a co-sponsor, with El Camino Project, of the Beyond Tomorrow Conference at Harvard University, October 16-18 2015.

©2015 Michael Weishan, all rights reserved.

Thanksgiving Eve Reception @ the FDR Suite

Not going away for Thanksgiving? All the better, as we have the hottest ticket on campus: the Thanksgiving Eve Reception at the restored FDR Suite! We’ll be dining from a state-themed menu of delicious hors d’oeuvres, everything from Florida shrimp cocktail, to California asparagus wrapped in Prosciutto, to Lousiana baked brie en croute, among many others. Plus some mouthwatering desserts! It’s likely to be some of the best food you’ll ever have at Harvard, all washed down with plenty of drink by the side of our crackling wood fire. Oh, and there’s music too, supplied by our 1898 player piano! In short, it’s a perfectly elegant way to begin the holiday season, and you’ll be the envy of your friends who went way.

The reception is open to all members and classes of Harvard College, however there are only 50 places, and there is always a long waiting list. SIGNUP REQUIRED. Also, given the demand, please do not sign up unless you are sure to be there!

Roosevelt Scholars Program

 “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

                                                                                                 – Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Address at the University of Pennsylvania
September 20, 1940


As Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt knew, democracy depends on fostering an active, informed citizenry, one which has been educated and encouraged to act beyond self-interest and consider the broader social good. Throughout the 20th century, educators considered it a given that the essential role of a liberal arts education—and the humanities in particular—was the explicit preparation of students to be responsible citizens in a democratic society.* Many scholars have gone even further. Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago has argued that humanities training is indispensable to maintaining viable democracies:

“Cultivated capacities for critical thinking and reflection are crucial in keeping democracies alive and wide awake. The ability to think well about a wide range of cultures, groups and nations in the context of a grasp of the global economy and the history of many national and group interactions is crucial in order to engage democracies to deal responsibly with the problems that we currently face as members of an interdependent world. And the ability to imagine the experience of another—a capacity almost all human beings possess in some form—needs to be greatly enhanced and refined if we are to have any hope of sustaining decent institutions across the many divisions that any modern society contains.”

Recently however, in the eyes of some in the higher education community—including prospective students, parents, policymakers, and some college administrators—the humanities and liberal arts have diminished in value. Since the Great Recession of 2008, students have been attracted at higher rates to fields in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in hopes of minimizing the risk of fewer job opportunities and lower financial returns, particularly as college tuition continues to rise. With the accelerating pace of technological change in the increasingly competitive and interdependent global economy, there has also been a national push to graduate students with a thorough understanding of STEM. This programming has become the focus of investments and initiatives in schools, government, nonprofits and corporations alike—conversely contributing in recent years to a national decline in the number of students pursuing humanities courses beyond general education requirements. (At Harvard, the percentage of humanities concentrators has dropped to about 16%.) Students of all demographics have been impacted, including low-income students who are the focus of this proposal. This current focus on STEM may lead many students to question the relevance and importance of the humanities and how they can be applied to real life. As a result, society risks being left with a shortage of individuals who are well equipped to address pressing social problems using lessons imparted by the humanities. Or, put another way, to quote educator Jan Liss, we may well suffer a dearth of “smart, informed people who are concerned with not making a living but rather making a life.”

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation seeks to address this challenge by providing students with a humanities-driven framework for developing the knowledge, skills, values and professional connections necessary to pursue socially responsible work and increased civic engagement that will have the potential to last well beyond their time at Harvard. Students in this program will be exposed to a structured curriculum that combines readings from American history and philosophy, as well as screenings from film, which will provide continual reference to the many examples of how the Roosevelts addressed a wide array of social problems in the United States during the 1930s-1950s. Additionally, there will be an eight-week summer internship in which students will be paired by interest with a mentor from one of Harvard’s many centers and institutes such as the Advanced Leadership Initiative, the Carr Center, the National Security Fellows, among others,  to work together on a mentor’s chosen social improvement project. To be clear: our goal is not to shift students’ intended study paths. Rather, we wish to utilize our special program of history and humanities training to subtly alter the trajectory of the students’ chosen careers, so that empathy for others and a desire for public service arc throughout their entire working lives.

As a result of participating in this program, students will:

  • Develop an understanding of American History when FDR and ER had significant impacts on the fabric of U.S. society and beyond (1930s-1950s).
  • Develop an appreciation for the arts and humanities and their role in solving social issues (i.e., how history can be used to frame and address social problems of today).
  • Learn to frame creative and practical solutions to current and future social problems.
  • Develop a sense of civic self-efficacy (belief that one’s civic actions will lead to change). Civic self-efficacy has been shown to lead to life-long civic action.
  • Develop ongoing relationships among the Scholars cohort and ALI mentors that continue after the conclusion of the program year, giving students ongoing access to social support and networking opportunities similar to those provided by Harvard’s private clubs.

The participants in the program will be students from lower-income backgrounds who are receiving Harvard Financial Aid and engaged in work-study. The Foundation chose to focus on this population to address the documented barriers these students face in accessing resources and professional networks, barriers which diminish their ability for civic engagement and the doing of social good.   

Why Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt?

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world… Without concerted citizen action …we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

                                                                                               –Eleanor Roosevelt
Remarks delivered at the United Nations
March 27, 1958

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, often working as partners and in concert with many others, sought solutions to problems that remain with us today: poverty and economic inequality, civil rights and voting rights, environmental degradation, conservation of natural resources, and—in the wake of World War II—a search for world peace and universal human rights. They both made mistakes. Still, they met their world with an unshakeable faith in the capacity of the American people to participate in democracy and triumph over adversity. They inspired in Americans a sense of faith, hope and charity that created a citizenry that not only met the challenges to democracy of the 1930s and 1940s, but also spread prosperity, democracy and internationalism around the post-war world.  They were optimists and instilled in others the sense that human problems can and must be solved.

Born into America’s aristocracy, ER and FDR shared a commitment to improving the general welfare, particularly for those less privileged. Far more than noblesse oblige, they believed there was a practical morality that obligated everyone—not just the privileged—to work to make the world a better place, and their lives exemplified this bond. The Foundation intends to use their example to reignite that model by immersing the students in the empathetic world-view of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt—where people achieve success by strengthening their communities, their country, and their planet, and through that, themselves.


The Roosevelt Scholar Program (RSP)

Research literature has demonstrated that there is a relationship between family socioeconomic status and adolescent civic engagement. Adolescents who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to come from families that are civically engaged, and that can serve as role models in this area; they are less likely to receive civic education; they have fewer developed civic skills; and they are less likely to be confident in their ability to effect social and political change as adults. It is clear that these incoming Harvard students would greatly benefit from opportunities to develop these skills through mentorship and to make the professional connections that will help them put their ideals into action—in short, they need to overcome what has been termed the “civic engagement gap.”

In winning a place at Harvard, first-generation and lower-income students have already shown a superior sense of drive and dedication by surmounting obstacles not faced by their wealthier peers. What then would happen if a select subset of this group were immersed in a deep-dive of studies that (1) presents them with models for positive political and social engagement, (2) reinforces the necessity of their active civic participation in support of democracy, (3) encourages them to expand their conceptions of empathy and altruism and provides the means to do so, and (4) offers them an unparalleled opportunity to expand and advance their chosen career path while maintaining a commitment towards making the world a better place? Thus, the Roosevelt Scholars ™ Program.

Program Description

In late December of each year, a committee of Harvard faculty and administrators will select fifteen members of the then-current Harvard freshman class to become “Roosevelt Scholars. ™” (This designation is deliberate, acknowledging the legacies of both Franklin and Eleanor.) These Scholars will come from diverse backgrounds, but will share a single requirement: that they receive financial aid from Harvard and must contribute a specified dollar amount to the cost of their education by working during the school year and summer recess. The Foundation will provide one-year stipends for these fifteen Scholars in the amount of those contributions, thereby freeing them from their job requirement during their freshman spring semester, their first summer as a Harvard student, and sophomore fall semester. In return, they will dedicate eight to ten hours per week in those two semesters, and a summer internship to programming and activities devised by the Foundation.

The Inaugural 2019 Roosevelt Scholars during a practicum in the Hudson Valley. From left to right, Mohammed Ahmed, Brian Seo, Shavonna Jackson and Sheila de la Cruz.

During their freshman spring semester, the Scholars will spend those eight to ten hours per week in seminars and colloquia designed by the Foundation, to elucidate the history and legacy of Franklin and Eleanor, particularly their exemplary record of public service; to provide intimate learning opportunities with world-renowned experts who will introduce the Scholars to the interconnectivity of the humanities; and to facilitate one-on-one time with world-thought leaders to better understand the issues confronting our interwoven global existence.  (A proposed allocation of this academic time is shown in Appendix A. Sample topics and leaders for these seminars are listed in Appendix B. Proposed evaluation methods are detailed in Appendix C. )

In April of their spring semester, Scholars will be introduced to potential mentors from Harvard’s various fellowship programs. These Fellows are world leaders in all fields—including medicine, law, education, government service, entrepreneurship and social enterprise—who have chosen to apply their skills and practical life experience to help solve significant social problems and focus on public service in the next phase of their careers.

During the spring semester, those  Fellows who wish to commit to working with and mentoring a Scholar, and who have substantially developed their plans for solving the social problems they have chosen to address, will be selected as Mentors and matched one-on-one with Scholars interested in the proposed projects of their mentors.

Over the course of the following summer, the Scholars will engage in meaningful work and research on these projects as directed by their Mentors, as well as participate in a specially designed practicum “Framing the American Experience.” Curated readings and study visits to  Plymouth Plantation, the Mills at Lowell, and the FDR Presidential Library at Hyde Park, among others, will underscore for our Scholars the importance of an informed and empathetic citizenry.

The Foundation will carefully monitor the development of each Mentor/Scholar relationship to facilitate a meaningful long-term learning/mentorship experience for each Scholar. It is hoped (and to be encouraged) that these relationships continue throughout the Scholars’ undergraduate time at Harvard and beyond, providing an interconnected networking experience not unlike that of Harvard’s exclusive private clubs, though here based on merit rather than wealth or family connections.

We expect this mentoring program will create a small cadre of Scholar alumni who each year will enter all fields of endeavor with their perspectives sufficiently altered by their RSP experience so as to contribute just a little less to themselves, and, especially as their number grows, a great deal more to their fellow human beings.



Goals of the Roosevelt Scholars ™ Program

  • Intellectual engagement with the arts and humanities will enrich the Scholars’ lived experiences.
  • Engagement with thought leaders on contemporary issues will encourage Scholars to frame their own creative and practical solutions to social problems.
  • Project work with the ALI Fellows will build practical problem-solving skills.
  • Personal engagement with the ALI Fellows will inaugurate a mentor-mentee relationship that continues after the conclusion of the program year, giving the Scholars unparalleled access to career networking opportunities, similar to those provided by Harvard’s private clubs. • Succeeding cohorts of Roosevelt Scholars ™ will build a network for future collaboration and the application of the principles of engaged humanism to the public good.


Potential for Replication

Other prestigious colleges and universities across the country sponsor post-career leadership programs similar to Harvard’s ALI. The RSP is envisioned as a model for other programs seeking to reintroduce the concept of active humanism and the public good to undergraduate education, as well as providing unparalleled opportunities for inter-generational learning and mentorship.

About the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation is based at Adams House, Harvard University and is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that builds on the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to address pressing domestic and international problems. Through active cross-disciplinary collaboration between policy-shapers, scholars and students, we seek to introduce tomorrow’s decision-makers to the New Deal philosophy that inspired the most effective and long-lasting reforms of that era:  bold, persistent experimentation and, above all, harnessing the power of hope to promote a spirit of social cooperation and activism.

Our current initiatives focus on:

  • impacts of climate change and automation on high-risk populations
  • threats to democracy across the globe
  • dangers of rising American isolationism
  • building a thoughtful and creative citizenry to better address the disruptions of the 21st century

The FDR Foundation is uniquely positioned to achieve its mission because of our location at the center of one of the most vibrant intellectual communities on the planet: Harvard University. In addition to being able to tap renowned experts in almost every imaginable field of endeavor, each year some 1,500 of the world’s most talented undergraduates arrive at our doors, able to carry the Roosevelts’ message of intellectual vigor, compassion and hope to towns and cities in every nation on earth—but only if they are exposed to it.

While we celebrate the lives of two famous Democrats, we believe the leadership evinced by Eleanor and Franklin transcends party lines, and we count supporters from both major parties in our ranks. Although located at Harvard, we receive only in-kind support from Harvard University. Our activities to date have been entirely funded by individuals and organizations that believe in what we do, and we truly need your help to continue our mission as we seek to develop the Roosevelt Scholars ™ Program.


Roosevelt Scholars ™ Program Development Committee 

Jennifer Childs-Roshak, MD – Director, Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts

Kathleen Colemen – James Loeb Professor of Classics, Harvard University

Henry Louis Gates – Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University

Robert Heckart – Senior Fellow Harvard University 2016 Advanced Leadership Initiative; Treasurer, FDR Foundation; Senior Counsel, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP

David Huebner – Former United States Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa;  Partner at Arnold and Porter, LLP

Martin Karplus – Theodore William Richards Professor of Chemistry, emeritus at Harvard University, Emeritus; Nobel Laureate, Harvard University

Robert Kiely – Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English, Emeritus; former Faculty Dean of Adams House, Harvard University

Cynthia M. Koch, PhD – Resident Historian, FDR Foundation; Past Director, FDR Presidential Library

Michael McCormick – Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History; Chair, Science of the Human Past, Harvard University

Judy Palfrey MD – Faculty Dean of Adams House; T. Berry Brazelton Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School

Sean Palfrey MD – Faculty Dean of Adams House; Professor of Medicine, Boston University

Paul Revel – Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration; Founding Director, Education Redesign Lab, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

Hugh Blair-Smith – Spacecraft Computer Scientist; Author

Aubrey Threlkeld, PhD – Educational Consultant; Lecturer, Harvard University



Throughout the 20th century,  it was considered a given that the essential role of a liberal arts education – and the humanities in particular – was the explicit preparation of students to be responsible citizens in a democratic society (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013; Delbanco, 2012; Holm, Jarrick & Scott, 2015).

Many scholars have gone even further. Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago has argued that humanities training is indispensable to maintaining viable democracies: Nussbaum, M. C. (2010). Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, students have been attracted at higher rates to fields in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in hopes of minimizing the risk of fewer job opportunities and lower financial returns, particularly as college tuition continues to rise. (Berman, 2013; Harvard University, Arts and Humanities Division, 2013; Heiland & Huber, 2014). With the accelerating pace of technological change in the increasingly competitive and interdependent global economy, there has also been a national push to graduate students with a thorough understanding of STEM (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013; Delbanco, 2012; Ossola, 2014).

Develop a sense of civic self-efficacy (belief that one’s civic actions will lead to change). Civic self-efficacy has been shown to lead to life-long civic action (Littenberh-Tobias & Cohen, 2016)

This gap stems from differences in groups with respect to access to resources and professional networks, as well as documented lower levels of civic self-efficacy, all of which create barriers to entry to resources for doing social good (Lechner, Pavolva, Sortheix, Silbereisen & Salmela-Aro, 2017; Litterberg-Tobias & Cohen, 2016).

Adolescents who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to come from families that are civically engaged; and can serve as role models in that area; are less likely to receive civic education; have fewer developed civic skills; and are less likely to be confident in their ability to effect social and political change as adults. (Lechner, Pavolva, Sortheix, Silbereisen & Salmela-Aro, 2017; Litterberg-Tobias & Cohen, 2016).



Berman, RA. (2013). Humanist: Heal Thyself. Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10. Available at Http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/06/10/humanist-heal-thyself/ (accessed 11 July 2018).

Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (2013). The Heart of the Matter: the humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Available at: http://www.humanitiescom.org/_pdf/hss_report.pdf. (accessed 11 July 2018).

Delbanco, A. (2012). College: What it was, is, and should be (Vol. 25). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Harvard University, Arts and Humanities Division (2013). The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future. Cambridge, MA: Harvard mapping_the_future_31_may_2013.pdf. (accessed 11 July 2018).

Heiland, D. and Huber, M.T. (2014). Calls to action for arts and humanities in the US. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education. 13 (9-16).

Holm, P., Jarrick, A., & Scott, D. (2014). Humanities world report 2015. Springer.

Lechner, C. M., Pavlova, M. K., Sortheix, F. M., Silbereisen, R. K., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2017). Unpacking the link between family socioeconomic status and civic engagement during the transition to adulthood: Do work values play a role? Applied Developmental Science, 1-14.

Liss, J. (2009). Making the Case for the Humanities and Social Responsibly. www.projectpericles.org/projectpericles/news_events. (accessed 11 July 2018).

Littenberg‐Tobias, J., & Cohen, A. K. (2016). Diverging paths: Understanding racial differences in civic engagement among White, African American, and Latina/o adolescents using structural equation modeling. American journal of community psychology, 57(1-2), 102-117.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2010). Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.


Appendix A

Spring Academic Syllabus 

Overview: The academic portion of the RSP year is designed to give Scholars a thorough grounding in the most formative period of the 20th century, with an emphasis on how these events continue to shape the world today—and will shape that of tomorrow. That being said, the goal is not the accumulation of passive historical knowledge. Rather, the intent is to demonstrate how history may be wielded as an effective tool, fostering critical understanding of past successes and failures that can embolden by example, empowering our Scholars to seek imaginative new ways to tackle the problems of the future.



12 weeks

Each week:

2.5 hours reading

3 hours seminar

3 hours cultural activity

1.5 hours Friday lunch speaker


Scholars will watch Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts (14 hours) during winter break and intercession to provide general historical context.


Theme One: The Great Depression: Explorations of Inequality
Four weeks:

  1. Historical Introduction to the Great Depression
  2. The Dustbowl and the Impact of Human-Caused Environmental Disasters
  3. “Above All Try Something”: Experimentation and Economics
  4. Race and the Great Depression


Theme Two: The Fragility of Democracy
Four weeks:

  1. Introduction: The Roots of Liberal Democracy
  2. Interwar Years—Challenges to Liberalism: Communism, Fascism, Colonialism
  3. America’s Role in WWI and II as a Fight for Democracy
  4. Current Dangers


Theme Three: The Roosevelts and the Post-War Order
Four weeks:

  1. Introduction: The Roosevelts’ Post-War Vision
  2. Eleanor Roosevelt & the Promise of the Declaration of Human Rights
  3. Dismantling the Vision of an International World Order
  4. Reinventing the Vision: Possibilities and Promise



Appendix B

Sample Weekly Syllabi
Week Two of Theme One: The Great Depression: Explorations of Inequality
The Dustbowl and the Impact of Human-Caused Climate Change

Reading: James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  Scholars will read selections from the classic field notes and view photographs of three tenant families in the rural South during the Dust Bowl  — 3 hours
Visual Media: Movie: The Grapes of Wrath (1940John Ford’s movie-version of Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  — 2 hours
Seminar (Lecture and Discussion):  Michael Weishan, “The Dustbowl” power point; Cynthia Koch, “AAA: The New Deal Roots of Agribusiness.” —  3 hours
Friday Luncheon (Lecture and Discussion): “Poverty and Democracy: Modern India and the U.S.”                                                                                                                                                
Weekly Digest and Conversation       (Optional after lunch)
Online review and test to be taken before Saturday noon  — .5 hour


Sample Weekly Syllabi
Week One of Theme Two: The Fragility of Democracy
The Roots of Liberal Democracy

Reading: Selections from Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (second treatise), and the Declaration of Independence. —  3 hours
Visual Media: Movie: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)  How government for the people was supposed to work.              — 2 hours
Seminar (Lecture and Discussion): Jed Willard: “Ancient and Modern Roots of Liberal Democracy”   —    3  hours
Friday Luncheon (Lecture and Discussion):  Yascha Mounk: “Does Liberal Democracy Have a Future?”    —  1.5 hours       
Weekly Digest and Conversation      (Optional after lunch)
Online review and test to be taken before Saturday noon —  .5 hour

Sample Weekly Syllabi
Week Two of Theme Three: The Roosevelts and the Post-War World Order
Eleanor Roosevelt and the Promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Reading: Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, preface- chap. 3; chap. 9-epilogue. —   3 hours 
Visual Media: “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) Spencer Tracy and the fight for justice post WWII. —  2 hours
Seminar (Lecture and Discussion): Cynthia Koch: “Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of the United Nations”—3 hours
Friday Luncheon (Lecture and Discussion):  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: “Women Leading the Way”  —1.5 hours        
Weekly Digest and Conversation  (Optional after lunch)
Online review and test to be taken before Saturday noon— .5 hour


Appendix C

Evaluation Design and Metrics

In order to evaluate the new Roosevelt Scholars ™  Program, a mixed-method research design will be utilized incorporating both quantitative and qualitative data collection and analyses. This evaluation will be conducted under the direction of Dr. Jenny Bergeron, Director of Educational Research and Evaluation at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and her research team, Jeff Solomon and Courtney Hall.

The evaluation will focus on program implementation and both the RSP’s short-term and long-term impacts. This information will provide data-based answers to the following questions:

Formative evaluation: Is the RSP being implemented as anticipated, according to the views of Scholars, RSP staff, and Mentors? Are there any changes that need to be made? What are the facilitators and barriers to implementation described by RSP staff and participants (both Scholars and Mentors)? How well has the pairing strategy worked? What are the dynamics between Scholars and Mentors like? What facilitators and barriers do Scholars and Mentors report, respectively? What changes need to be made to how Scholar-Mentor dyads are put together, if any?

Summative evaluation: To what extent will participation in the program result in: Scholars’ perceived sense of community among one another and with Mentors; an increased perceived sense of civic-self-efficacy; greater civic engagement; and an understanding of, and appreciation for, the relevance of the humanities—as covered in the program curriculum—to contemporary social problems? What are Scholars’ interests in pursuing an honors thesis and additional service learning opportunities, both at the beginning of the program and at the end of the program? Have these interests increased as a result of participating in the program? How has the program influenced Scholars’ post-graduate and career plans? How has the RSP affected Mentors’ attitudes toward their own professional work and their interest in working with additional students in a mentoring capacity?

Multiple methods of data gathering at multiple time points will allow for validation of study results, based on triangulation of methods and data sources. Quasi-experimental design approaches will be used where feasible.  For the undergraduate population, we will rely on a natural comparison group: students from low-income backgrounds who are selected and yet choose not to participate in the program.

  1. Input Data

Undergraduate Application Survey: To collect information on potential participants’ background characteristics, perceived civic self-efficacy and engagement, future plans and program expectations, an application survey will be administered to all applicants interested in participating in the program.

Undergraduate Background Variables: Admissions data will be collected to control for student background characteristics. This will be collected from the Office of Institutional Research and will include: 1) academic background characteristics such as GPA, test scores (i.e., SAT, verbal, analytic, and/or quantitative scores); 2) participation in service learning; 3) financial aid; 4) post-graduate/career expectations; and 4) other student background characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, and highest educational attainment of mother and/or father.

Mentor Application Survey: We will also elicit from Mentors what their pre-program expectations were for the mentoring relationship and its outcomes, their motivations for serving in a mentor capacity, and how their participation relates to their broader professional and personal objectives.

  1. Implementation

Formative evaluations: We will conduct formative evaluations to monitor and evaluate program implementation. This will include student exit surveys and focus groups each year to evaluate training, professional socialization opportunities, and mentoring experiences.

The focus groups will address participants’ views (both Scholars and Mentors) of how the program is being implemented, and the various effects the program might be having on them. Focus groups will be conducted towards the end of the program.

Moreover, we will assess Mentors’ views on how well they were matched with students, the extent to which they found their work with students both satisfying and successful, and what recommended changes they might have for the role of Mentors in subsequent iterations of the program.

To gage the perspective of RSP staff who are implementing the program, we will have ongoing conversations with them. Following each of these conversations we will document key points pertaining to how the program is running from their perspective.

III. Outcomes

Short-term outcomes: We will evaluate via a student exit survey Scholars’ perceived social and support; changes in student civic self-efficacy, and their appreciation for studying the past through historical examples and ethics/political philosophy (i.e., humanities) in helping to understand present social issues.

From the Harvard-wide Undergraduate Student Exit Survey we will evaluate student participation in service learning opportunities while at Harvard, completion of an Honor’s thesis and postgraduate plans/career placement.

We will also assess the potential transformative impact of the Mentors’ mentoring experiences on their approach to their own professional and civic involvement, their connection to Harvard University and their motivation to work with additional groups of students.

Long-term outcomes: To evaluate the program’s long-term outcomes, Scholar alumni surveys will be administered one and five years after graduation, to learn about their educational and career paths and civic engagement.

How Marguerite LeHand Shaped the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House

During the New Deal, Eleanor Roosevelt redefined the role of first lady and Frances Perkins broke ground as the first woman in the cabinet. And then there was Marguerite LeHand, whose official position was personal secretary to the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But a new book, Kathryn Smith’s “The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency,” and the private letters and other documents on which it is in part based, reveal that LeHand’s unceremonious title masked the outsize role she played. (Just like Perkins, she was a secretary, as most people understand the job title, in name only.)

LeHand was also Roosevelt’s companion, confidante, adviser and hostess at the White House and at Warm Springs, in Georgia. She counseled him on cabinet and court appointments and was the only staff member who referred to him as “F.D.” She also, at times, had the sole authority to forward a call at night to his bedroom, as she did when her fiancé, Ambassador William C. Bullitt Jr., telephoned from Europe in 1939 to report that Germany had invaded Poland.

Read More in the New York Times