Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

I am Richard Feynman and I approve of this blog

Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.


Henry Bauer, Peter Breggin , Harvey Bialy, Giordano Bruno, Erwin Chargaff, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Crick, Paul Crutzen, Marie Curie, Rebecca Culshaw, Freeman Dyson, Peter Duesberg, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Fewster, Galileo Galilei, Alec Gordon, James Hansen, Edward Jenner, Benjamin Jesty, Michio Kaku, Adrian Kent, Ernst Krebs, Thomas Kuhn, Serge Lang, John Lauritsen, Mark Leggett, Richard Lindzen, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, George Miklos, Marco Mamone Capria, Peter Medawar, Kary Mullis, Linus Pauling, Eric Penrose, Max Planck, Rainer Plaga, David Rasnick, Sherwood Rowland, Carl Sagan, Otto Rossler, Fred Singer, Thomas Szasz, Alfred Wegener, Edward O. Wilson, James Watson.

Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

(Click for more Unusual Quotations on Science and Belief)

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Are AIDS skeptics flagging? A few inspirational words from Rafe Esquith

In AIDS, activists of the skeptical kind range widely in type and scientific expertise. They go from the few notable scientists willing to step forward and confirm that the most intensely reviewed scientific literature demolishes the reigning paradigm, to lay people who smell numerous rats and say so loudly and clearly even though they cannot always quote the scientific literature to advantage.

It is surprising that any of them survive. Together, they face a wall of resistance from well placed scientific opponents, the fellow traveling daily and weekly media, careerist government officials, hugely profitable global drug companies, pandering mainstream publishers, confidently uninformed Hollywood personalities, trench-informed doctors and nurses, authority wielding NGO personnel in afflicted foreign countries, statistically adept UNAID researchers, smugly collegial grant officials in establishment foundations, fearful AIDS patients, angry gay activists, and a vast flock of sheep.

By flock of sheep which we mean the high proportion of such woolly, baa-ing critturs, temperamentally speaking, among the uninformed public, who apparently now have an almost religious belief in this paradigm inculcated by ads for testing, AIDS walks, NIH officials appearing on the Charlie Rose show, the coverage of New York Times reporters and editors, AIDS runs in Central Park, social endorsements by movie stars, and so on, so that questioning it subjects the AIDS skeptic to being recategorized as insane and possibly dangerous.

Faced with the immovable mass of this international congregation of the high church of HIV-AIDS, it would hardly be surprising if after many years the irresistible force of AIDS truthseeking might falter in its determination, and truthseekers bow down under the weight of their social burden.

However, the surprising thing is that few of them do so. In fact Truthseeker, having long acquaintance with many of these naive idealists of science and human nature, knows few examples of any important dropout, let alone any turncoat, among the ranks of this frequently ragged rebel army, more than one of whom live on the verge of eviction while their opponents roll in the financial hay.

The only exceptions we can think of right now are Jad Adams, a young British author who after early on writing one of the best book exposes of what he saw as the self-evident AIDS boondoggle early in the affair (Jad Adams, “AIDS: The Virus Myth”, St Martins Press, 1989) apparently retired injured in the aftermath of a storm of scurrilous press attacks in London (though also some support in Nature, see early post here) and moved on to other topics to pay the rent, and Walter Gilbert.

The renowned molecular biologist Gilbert, 1980 Nobel prize winner for a seminal advance in the lab analysis of DNA, was a star at Harvard until he retired to pursue his artwork. Years ago he was quite willing to say to this writer for publication that Peter Duesberg was probably right about HIV and it was quite possible that AIDS had another cause entirely, and later he went on record on film saying so. The quote is now used by the skeptics (eg see http://www.virusmyth.com/ site, a repository for key skeptic texts up to the last couple of years, when the webmaster ran out of money) as an exhibit to show that, with Kary Mullis, there are two Nobelists who support their questioning.

For several years Gilbert even used Peter Duesberg’s 1989 review in the Proceedings of the National Academy as an impeccable example of how to challenge a paradigm for his graduate student seminar. Interestingly, as Nature Biotechnology’s founding science editor Harvey Bialy has pointed out, not a single one of Gilbert’s brainy graduates was moved to write a rebuttal and make their name at the beginning of their careers. Could this be because, tutored by Gilbert, they all recognized its unanswerable quality? But eventually Gilbert tired of the press exposure and cried off further interviews on the topic, perhaps understandably (though in the view of some, still irresponsibly) preferring to conserve his political capital for his own fights.

Of course, the unswerving dedication of AIDS skeptics to their cause may simply be a reflection of the fact that the AIDS establishment, secure and even smug in its dominance of all information outlets from the New York Times to Charlie Rose to science journals to college textbooks, has seen fit not to offer any cash sum to persuade any of them to cross over.

Certainly no one has contacted Truthseeker with a substantial offer, which we find vaguely insulting. How is it that our efforts to illuminate this situation, and turn over the stone beneath which numerous Truthconcealers hide, has met with no attractive counter offer? We hereby announce our willingness to entertain any offer of any kind significantly over the six figure mark. Please email “Sellout@newaidsreview.com” as soon as possible.

After all, it is not as if such an offer is without precedent. One merely has to turn to page 177 of what is currently the definitive evisceration of the theorizing and antics of the AIDS-HIV paradigm and its promoters, “Oncogenes, Aneuploidy and AIDS: A Scientific Life and Times of Peter H. Duesberg”, by Harvey Bialy, North Atlantic Books (see earlier post). Here we find a prime example of temptation from the devil.

In the fall of 1994, as Bialy tells it, Duesberg was invited to the San Francisco opera by an old colleague from the NIH passing through on the way to China, one Stephen O’Brien. At drinks afterwards O’Brien reached into his tuxedo and fished out a folded manuscript, saying “This has already been accepted at Nature. All you have to do is sign.”

The text turned out to be, under the heading “HIV causes AIDS: Koch’s postulates fulfilled”, a rehash of the arguments of the self-serving epidemiology of AIDS that purported to show that HIV is the cause of AIDS, while assuming it.

When Duesberg took the mansucript in hand (he was to be listed as one of the three co-authors, and thus redeemed in the eyes of the world and restored to his previous cardinalship as the incorruptible and reliable authority in the field) and corrected its content and its title, Steve O’Brien wrote to him that though he considered Duesberg “one striking exception” to the numerous “blatant examples of fraud in science”, he thought that his “campaign that HIV does not cause AIDS is not so compelling and I am afraid wrong, just wrong” and that “I believe you should consider signing the article for your own good.”

Of course, Duesberg didn’t sign it and the article never ran in Nature, eventually surfacing in the obscure Current Opinion in Immunology two years later, with a note saying mysteriously that Duesberg had declined joint authorship. The letter, meanwhile, reposes in the Peter H. Duesberg Archive of the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. Anyone who can gain access to it can read who it was that Steve O’Brien had in mind when referring to scientists who had perpetrated “blatant fraud” in duping the scientific community, a list which unfortunately is omitted by Bialy’s book on the advice of the publisher’s lawyers.

Anyhow, with this precedent in mind we find ourselves humbled that no representative of the AIDS establishment has approached us with an offer of any kind, and while encouraging them to do so, we realize that it is simply an indication of how unimportant we are compared to Peter Duesberg, on whose metaphorically mighty shoulders ride all who call attention to the anomalies and absurdities that have been airbrushed out of the AIDS picture.

Let’s acknowledge that Duesberg in declining the opportunity to sell his soul to the devil and put his name to a paper which he found repellent was not just giving up renewed membership in the Bob Club, as the AIDS scientific establishment was known in the early days. He was giving up millions of dollars, both in the renewed flow of Government funding for his laboratory that would quickly come with collegial status and also the private investment money which of late in various ways magically streams into the pockets of scientists who get a slice of the action.

Some of that money flows into the pockets of many of the AIDS-HIV promoting groups listed above who cooperate and coordinate with each other in maintaining the AIDS-HIV paradigm and its consequences. In fact, the few journalists such as Celia Farber brave or foolhardy enough to pursue their investigation of the underside of AIDS are having a field day finding out just how heavily dependent on drug company money are AIDS-HIV activist groups. The inspiring answer is that the drug companies fund their operations to a high level, and that the agitation seen at AIDS Conferences would never happen without this kindness.

As far as investigative journalists go, in AIDS, at the moment as far as we know Farber is unique except for Liam Scheff, the young journalist who took the lid off the AIDS Orphans Used as Drug Test Guinea Pigs scandal in New York (see earlier post). That such people exist let alone continue their work and their moral outrage under current conditions seems amazing to us. But neither shows any signs of weakening.

Nor does the remarkable Harvey Bialy, the founding science editor of Nature Biotechnology who now teaches at the Institute of Biotechnology at the Autonomous National University of Mexico in Cuernevaca. Bialy, however, having delivered his broadside against the tyranny of Duesberg’s opponents in both cancer and AIDS, in the form of his hyper-intelligent, no-foolishness-overlooked book last year, is waiting for the slow but possibly explosive final outcome of this sleeper, which takes the lid off the egregious bending, subversion and diversion of science into profitable but ultimately empty cul-de-sacs in both fields, as it works its way through the reading lists of those in the know towards the attention of outside journalists and other interested parties, such as government officials, congressional staff and just possibly in the end the public prosecutor responsible for detecting scams on the public purse.

Meanwhile Bialy has apparently taken refuge in art for the moment, starting a heavily visited weblog featuring his collages and poetry at http://bialystocker.net/ which is strongly influenced as is all his Web posting and email by humor drawn from the Goon Show, a British radio show of the fifties featuring Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, whereby Bialy develops and speaks in the voice of Eccles, an alter ego drawn from the show.

This tendency to metamorphise from an earnest AIDS discussionist into a humorist is an urge felt by many in the game of critiquing AIDS-HIV ideology from the famously witty Peter Duesberg on downwards, including this author. Perhaps it is caused by the inescapable tediousness of repeating the same obvious flaws in the AIDS-HIV hypothesis time after time to the slower witted adherents of the paradigm, many of whom seem to have given up independent thinking almost completely. That, and the hilarity induced by the sheer gigantic absurdity of some of the unscientific beliefs promulgated with a straight face by the powers that be in the field.

Just to take one example, the idea of an army of testers going around in major American cities and now increasingly among the hapless poor of Namibia and other African countries, and points further east in Asia and Russia, using a questionable test for antibodies to an agent to mark future victims of the disease supposedly caused by the agent which is typically absent, is such an outrage to common sense, let alone science, which tells us that in any other case whatsoever antibodies are a sign of cure in the absence of the agent, this idea is such an absurdity that it is impossible for its humor to remain repressed, however unhappy the result may be when the unfortunate Namibians, Indians and soon Chinese are beset with lethal “drug cocktail” antidotes at cut rate prices from the global drug companies via aid from UN member nations and their NGOs partly funded by the right-thinking promoters and audiences of large rock concerts.

Laughter at this cartoonish if ultimately murderous picture is in fact one of the few rewards of an uphill fight that never seems to get anywhere for the skeptics of AIDS, so the example of an idealist such as Rafe Esquith who has achieved such magical results by pushing his vision against the envious and petty resistance of his colleagues is worth quoting.

Actually it is Esquith who is worth quoting for the encouragement his example offers to all such idealists who find themselves alone in the crowd they are trying to benefit.

Who is Rafe Esquith? A teacher who has achieved miracles with passion and purpose.

We thought of the passion of Peter Duesberg and his supporters last night when PBS rebroadcast the latest POV segment, a documentary about Esquith. Rafe Esquith is an elementary school teacher in “Koreatown”, Los Angeles, whose teaching led the New York Times to call him a genius and a saint.

Esquith is by his own account an ordinary man distinguished by two things, a passion for teaching and faith in his charges, who consist of 9-11 year olds from a district in Los Angeles which has many ambitious immigrant parents from countries such as Korea and Mexico who send their children to the school, but who do not speak English at home.

In some kind of educational miracle Esquith has taught their children to read and act Shakespeare, and he has achieved such winning success at this that the children have given invited performances in the old Globe theater in England, at the Supreme Court, for the National Press Club, and at Shakespeare festivals around the country. Do these eager kids understand the plays they read and act in? The documentary shows that they understand them well enough to cry and laugh with Shakespeare’s characters as they read. They recite the lines with more meaning than many professionals.


The New York Times

September 6, 2005

TELEVISION REVIEW; Through Shakespeare, Lessons of Life And Devotion


In a fifth-grade classroom in a poor and dangerous part of Los Angeles, Hobart Boulevard Elementary School pupils (mostly Latino and Asian) are doing ”Hamlet.” They are so good at it that at one point Sir Ian McKellen, who has played Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, Richard II and Richard III, drops in to watch, to do a little recitation of his own and to praise them.

”The best thing about the Hobart Shakespeareans is that they know what they’re saying,” Sir Ian tells them, adding that this cannot be said of every adult who has ever appeared in a Shakespearean play.

In Mel Stuart’s fine and passionate documentary ”The Hobart Shakespeareans,” which has its premiere tonight on the PBS series ”P.O.V.,” several things are clear. The 49-year-old teacher, Rafe Esquith, is a genius and saint. The American education system would do well to imitate him. These children’s lives have been changed by their year with this man. And it is not all about Elizabethan drama.

Mr. Esquith’s pupils play guitar. They name the six states that border Idaho. They discuss whether Huckleberry Finn would be doing the right thing to turn in his friend Jim, a runaway slave. They visit the Lincoln Memorial on a class trip.

Their classroom world operates like the real one: with money. In this case the currency is play money, in which they are paid salaries. It costs more to sit at the front of the class than in the back. Not doing your homework brings a $50 fine. At Christmas, Mr. Esquith gives them real Barnes & Noble gift certificates.

But it is the yearlong study of a single Shakespearean play that symbolizes Mr. Esquith’s methods and his success. It is thrilling to hear Brenda De Leon read a speech of Ophelia’s beautifully, to watch Lidia Medina express Gertrude’s pain and to see Alan Avila, who was considered a problem student by a previous teacher, tackle the title role of the melancholy Danish prince. At the outset, Mr. Esquith explains what ”Hamlet” is about: death. ”They’re throwing skulls all over the graveyard,” he says.

During Christmas vacation, the children in the play come in every day to work on it. Mr. Esquith tells the camera that this is teaching them discipline, teamwork and sacrifice. He is a man fond of mottoes: ”Be nice and work hard.” ”There are no shortcuts.” As Hamlet says: ”Words. Words. Words.”

But words have impact. This is clearest, on a class visit to the campus of U.C.L.A., Mr. Esquith’s alma mater, when he tells the children: ”This is the life you’re working for. You can do this.” He has Ivy League pennants on his classroom wall, gifts from former students who have gone on to those schools, to prove it.


The Hobart Shakespeareans

PBS, tonight at 10, check local listings.

Directed and produced by Mel Stuart; Alex Rotaru, co-producer, editor and cinematographer; Tamara Blaich, Chad Baron, associate producers; additional photography by Damani Baker, Chad Baron, Jerry Henry and Mel Stuart.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Permissions | Privacy Policy

As usual, Esquith’s accomplishment is partly an uphill battle against the conformity and inertia of those less inspired. While the children often go on to Yale and Harvard, Esquith is left dealing with the hostility and envy that national attention and money from Oprah Winfrey and other sponsors has engendered among the other teachers at the school, which the documentary omits, but which can be read in the news coverage of what is to many people the most sensational story in teaching.

What we like and think is relevant here is the courage Esquith has shown in the face of years of overwork, underfunding and sniping from his colleagues.

While Esquith has won honors, such as the National Medal of Arts from President Bush (which he keeps locked away in a cabinet for safekeeping) and the National Teacher of the Year Award (which he accepted wearing a tuxedo with his white tennis shoes), his peers have not always been kind. He has received hate letters from fellow teachers who feel their efforts have been overlooked in light of Esquith’s national attention, and he gets his fair share of cold shoulders on campus.

His classroom too has come under fire — vandalized and burglarized by gang members. And his students say they are picked on for being in the Shakespeare productions, ostracized as “snobs” by former teachers and fellow students alike. For Esquith, it’s not about making an easy path for his students but about opening doors for them to work hard and create better lives for themselves.

However, support for Esquith’s valiant efforts to prove that kids can achieve wonders if properly inspired now comes from other successful people, perhaps demonstrating one of life’s great principles, that those who attempt great things must seek support from the great and not from the small.

At first, Esquith and his wife, Barbara, funded his program out of their own pockets and with prodigious expenditures of their time and energy. Today, donations from major corporations and private individuals cover the cost of the class’s extra-curricular activities None of these funds are used to supplement Esquith’s salary as an inner-city school teacher.

Some say that Esquith’s successes are the product of a singular sense of mission, and therefore not examples broadly applicable to an education crisis in which poor kids in poor schools fall ever farther behind. But what Esquith has proved, albeit through singular sacrifice, is that with the best educational tools – tools that society could provide if it wanted – any kid can succeed. That, for Rafe Esquith, is the American dream.

“With all my thrilling experiences in the movie business, this was a wonderful film to shoot,” says producer/director Mel Stuart. “We can see these kids blossom and open up. It’s a testament to the powers of art and to the difference one thoroughly committed person can make.”

It is on the record of people like this, who show that commitment and passion can achieve the world in the end, that one can expect the AIDS idealists to succeed sooner or later in opening up the door to free speech and outside review in this problematical field, where the truth seems to be that two decades and billions of dollars, not to mention many lives, have been wasted barking up the wrong tree.

Here are a few paragraphs from Esquith’s book, “There Are No Shortcuts”:

Perhaps I have an unusual view of the world of education, but each and every day I walk into my classroom and I remind myself of something important: I remember whom I work for. It’s not my principal, who is a good guy with many positive qualities. It’s not any of his assistants, some of whom I like and some of whom never met Will Rogers. It is certainly not the children, although some teachers forget this and actually believe the children should have an equal voice in the daily running of a classroom.

I work for the parents and the taxpayers. They are the people who pay me and they are the people I serve. It’s my job to provide them with the best service I possibly can. This is not always easy or convenient. I simply believe that anyone who becomes a teacher must accept that there are certain parts of the job not described in the contract. As a teacher, I accept the fact that not all the children will be easy to teach. I know that I will often be called on to stay after school to help a child in need. I know that large amounts of my personal time will be spent shopping for my class and planning my lessons. My wife, Barbara, a nurse for fifteen years, taught me that her shift at the hospital did not end when the clock struck a certain hour; it ended when her patients were well cared for, comfortable, and in the hands of the next shift. If that meant staying an extra hour on certain days because a patient needed a hand held or a back rubbed, Barbara was there. It was the job. The same is true for other service professions, and teaching is no different.

In an elementary school, the single most important factor in determining the progress of your child is: Who will be the teacher for the year? Your child will be spending thousands of hours with this person. We all know that the teacher creates the weather in a classroom. Will it be a happy place? Will your child be challenged without being frustrated? Will your child have a voice? We have all been in classrooms and know that it’s the teacher who holds the answers to these crucial questions.

As a parent, one of the best things you can do for your elementary-aged children should happen a few months before their next school year. This is the time when schools begin to pencil in which teacher will teach which grades. Most parents know nothing about this process. When this selection occurs, the current school year is well under way and the parents have been to Open House, have seen report cards, and have had a parent conference. Most parents assume that they’ve done their duty until they turn up the following year to meet the new teachers and check on their child’s progress. Yet one of the most important things parents can do is to be part of the process of teacher selection for the next school year. I’ve seen schools where the local PTA is actually part of the hiring process, and this is as it should be. But this isn’t what happens at the Jungle and many other schools, and parents need to know what is going down.

Not too hard to see a parallel here with disease science, practised as a profession rather than a vocation, and as a consequence filled with mediocrities whose ambition is realized through politicking rather than passion for discovery.

Certainly what is happening in science in some quarters is not what the public thinks, and it needs to send its representatives to find out what is going down.

This is the story in the LA Times


September 6, 2005

latimes.com : Education

Shakespeare, to expand their globe

# A Koreatown teacher sets high goals for his fifth graders. The results are chronicled in a PBS documentary.

By Merrill Balassone, Times Staff Writer

The bell shrills at Hobart Elementary in the heart of Koreatown, signaling the end of the school day. The campus quickly empties, but no one budges in fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith’s classroom. Instead, more children file in; some perch on filing cabinets bordering the room and some former students, still enjoying summer vacation before the start of middle school, pack into the back.

Today is an important day for this group, the Hobart Shakespeareans, and a hush falls, punctuated only by excited whispers. The cast list is being announced for this year’s Shakespeare production, “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

The children, ages 9 to 11, know there are months of work ahead of them. Esquith has asked them to sacrifice video games and television. These children, many from immigrant families who don’t speak English at home, will memorize and perform the unabridged work. But they are inspired by the students from years past, who have traveled the country to perform and attended top-notch universities, and whose fans include actors Ian McKellen and Michael York. Many alumni, some still children themselves, return to help the new actors memorize their parts and master the rhythm of the lines.

The young troupe is the subject of a PBS documentary, “The Hobart Shakespeareans,” directed by Mel Stuart that premieres on “P.O.V.” at 9:30 p.m. Friday on KCET in the Los Angeles area. The hourlong film chronicles the group’s year of rehearsals as they prepared for their performance of “Hamlet” in 2003.

Esquith’s students suffer from poverty and struggle against the influences of gangs and drugs, which result in a culture of low expectations. To compete with students from more privileged schools, his classes work twice as hard. His rallying cry, echoed in a banner at the front of the classroom: “There are no shortcuts.”

Nearly all his students arrive at 7 a.m. — an hour before school starts — for extra math work and spend their recess and lunch breaks learning guitar. After school is Shakespeare rehearsal, and on Saturdays and vacations, students practice grammar and math, while alumni can get SAT tutoring and help with college applications. The students read higher-level literature, such as “Lord of the Flies,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”

“I ask these children to defy the culture of their neighborhood,” Esquith said. “I want my kids to know that they’re just as good and just as American as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington or Dr. Martin Luther King. My worst fear is that they will become ordinary.”

Brenda De Leon, 12, who starred in the production of “Hamlet” as Ophelia, said her experience as a Hobart Shakespearean broadened her horizons and taught her to set higher standards for herself.

“In other classes, they don’t expect much — if you got average grades they would be happy with you,” said Brenda, who now hopes to attend an Ivy League school and become an AIDS specialist. “I was very shy and wouldn’t participate in class. In Rafe’s class, there was lots of work and lots of sacrifice, and I learned I had to be excellent all the time.”

As a Shakespearean, Brenda also took trips: one to perform in front of 1,000 people in Hawaii, where she also swam with dolphins; a trip to Ashland, Ore., for its annual Shakespeare Festival; Washington, D.C., for a tour of American monuments; and South Dakota to learn about Native American heritage.

“Before, I felt that Koreatown was the whole world,” Brenda said. “Then I saw that there were better communities and neighborhoods. There weren’t always gangs.”

Esquith said the trips are an opportunity to teach the children real-life skills, such as how to manage a budget, plan meals and even tip the maids.

“When we travel, we won’t stay in Motel 6 — that’s not what we’re working for,” he said. “I’m tired of walking into a hotel and seeing that the only Latinos there are the workers. I want my Latino students to be running these hotels someday.”

As a young teacher, Esquith worked four jobs, including graveyard shifts, to raise the money for trips and to purchase books and musical instruments for his students. Still, he would arrive at Hobart at 6:30 each morning wearing his signature uniform: a crisp button-down shirt, sweater vest and tie, with white Adidas sneakers.

His schedule eventually took him past the brink of physical exhaustion, but even that didn’t slow him down. He once climbed out of a hospital window after a severe asthma attack so he wouldn’t miss a trip with his students. It took pleading from his wife, Barbara, a registered nurse, to make him realize the toll on his health.

“I had to grow up a little bit,” Esquith said. “If you’re all passion and no brains, you’re not effective. You’re no good to anyone if you drop dead.”

In 1992, an alumnus from Esquith’s first year of teaching, by then in his third year of Yale Law School, came to his rescue. He set up a nonprofit organization called the Hobart Shakespearean Foundation that now brings in about $200,000 a year in donations.

The documentary shows snippets of the troupe’s “Hamlet” performance, which is interspersed with rock songs and performed in Esquith’s classroom with stage lights and bleachers set up for the audience, which included British actor York.

“I cannot watch Mel’s documentary without being moved to tears,” York said. “There’s such a bad rap about education, immigration and all these ills, but here’s someone who has a solution and the dedication to carry it out. Rafe says his big fear is that the kids will be ordinary, but you have the sense that none of them are.”

York said he was particularly moved by a scene in which the students read an excerpt from “Huckleberry Finn” dealing with Huck deciding whether to turn in his friend Jim, an escaped slave, to the authorities. The children take turns reading, their sobs choking the words as they are overcome with emotion.

“I was truly amazed, and I’m not just talking about the Shakespeare,” York said. “It’s all the other things that go along with it — the extraordinary civility of the children.”

The motto “Be Nice, Work Hard” is another tenet the Shakespeareans must live by. On a recent afternoon during recess, the classroom is full of students who are learning to play guitar. The walls are covered with pennants from the nation’s top universities — Yale, Stanford, Harvard. Under the pennants are placards inscribed with the names of the students who now go there, with the date they graduated from Esquith’s class.

While Esquith has won honors, such as the National Medal of Arts from President Bush (which he keeps locked away in a cabinet for safekeeping) and the National Teacher of the Year Award (which he accepted wearing a tuxedo with his white tennis shoes), his peers have not always been kind. He has received hate letters from fellow teachers who feel their efforts have been overlooked in light of Esquith’s national attention, and he gets his fair share of cold shoulders on campus.

His classroom too has come under fire — vandalized and burglarized by gang members. And his students say they are picked on for being in the Shakespeare productions, ostracized as “snobs” by former teachers and fellow students alike. For Esquith, it’s not about making an easy path for his students but about opening doors for them to work hard and create better lives for themselves.

“I’m just this really ordinary guy that stuck with it,” Esquith said. “My job is done when they’re ready for their lives.”

This is a review from San Antonio Current by Steven G. Kellman:


A lesson in teaching

By Steven G. Kellman


In The Hobart Shakespeareans, one instructor proves again that children rise to meet expectations

To find an early advocate of dumbing down the curriculum, look to Shakespeare’s Desdemona. “Those that do teach young babes/ Do it with gentle means and easy tasks,” she tells Iago. However, though Rafe Esquith reveres Shakespeare, the tasks he sets the young babes in his classroom are far from easy. Esquith teaches fifth grade at Hobart Elementary, a large public school serving a neighborhood in central Los Angeles so tough that the building sometimes has to be locked down to protect the children from violence outside. Most of his students are either Latino or Asian, and none speaks English as a first language. Yet Esquith inspires his 10-year-old charges to mount a production of Hamlet that astonishes Ian McKellen. “You understand every single word,” the master actor tells the young performers, in awe of an accomplishment that eludes most college students, and even their professors. “Once they’re in a culture of excellence, they do fine,” says Esquith about the correlation between expectation and achievement.

Fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith uses Shakespeare to teach vocabulary, fencing, ethics, and more. His unorthodox, award-winning dedication to a Los Angeles public school is documented in P.O.V.’s Hobart Shakespeareans.

The Hobart Shakespeareans focuses on preparations for the staging of a Shakespeare play that concludes the school year for each successive cohort under Esquith’s tutelage. It is a grander example of San Antonio’s “Shakespeare in the Barrio” program. But the film, which is scheduled for broadcast on KLRN-TV Tuesday, September 6, at 10 p.m., as part of the PBS P.O.V. series, is not confined to Elizabethan drama. Esquith also teaches math, geography, history, music, and baseball, as well as discipline, civility, and compassion. “We do Shakespeare because I personally love him,” he explains. But Hamlet becomes a pretext for the study of vocabulary, fencing, ethics, and much else.

“Be nice. Work hard.” If a secular institution must have commandments carved in granite, those two rules that govern the world according to Rafe would do just fine. The children enrolled in Esquith’s class are not there because of any special tracking. They happen to live in the impoverished district and are fortunate enough to be assigned a teacher so dedicated to his profession and pupils that he voluntarily comes to school six days a week. Esquith even holds sessions during vacations, and, until wealthy patrons began making donations, paid for group trips with his own funds. He expands the boundaries of the California classroom by taking his students to Washington, Gettysburg, Williamsburg, and Mount Rushmore. In a society that honored teachers as much as politicians, the pedagogical paragon of Hobart Elementary would be immortalized on the face of a South Dakota cliff.

The Hobart Shakespeareans

Dir. Mel Stuart

Some dissent.

Mercedes Santoyo, his principal, hints at the envy that Esquith’s international attention has aroused in fellow teachers. But director Mel Stuart (best known for the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) offers no elaboration. Sixth-grade teachers must consider Esquith a hard act to follow. Except for a glimpse of him lecturing in Houston, we are shown no interaction between Esquith and others except his adoring students and his devoted wife, Barbara. Nor do former students testify to his influence during a career spanning two decades. Ignoring the neighborhood, the camera remains riveted on Esquith at work. While reading about Huckleberry Finn’s moral dilemmas, several students are moved to tears. Learning about the reading list – including Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and A Catcher in the Rye – that these fifth-graders master, a viewer is moved to wonder why Johnny can’t read in twelfth-grade classes elsewhere. Like Jaime Escalante, who – portrayed by Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver – taught calculus and self-esteem to disadvantaged youngsters in East L.A., Rafe Esquith is an inspiration to us all, and an admonition to all those Texas leaders who lack and limit education. •

©San Antonio Current 2005

This is an interview with Rafe and the filmmaker Mel:


The Atticus Finch of Hobart Elementary

By Terrence McNally, AlterNet. Posted September 6, 2005.

In a stunning new documentary, a fifth-grade teacher at one of the nation’s largest inner-city schools inspires his students to lead extraordinary lives, despite language barriers and poverty.

Documentaries today may be giving us what we hunger for. The film March of the Penguins, which reveals the birds’ harsh and glorious Antarctic mating season, has become the second highest grossing documentary in history, behind only Fahrenheit 9/11. Another documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, takes us inside a ballroom dancing competition for New York City’s fifth graders. A third film, The Hobart Shakespeareans (premiering on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 6), made by filmmaker Mel Stuart, follows Rafe Esquith’s fifth-grade class in inner-city Los Angeles as they learn to perform a full-text Hamlet by the end of their school year.

Whether it’s penguins or fifth graders, all these documentaries are about goodness, dedication and purpose, as well as respect and treating others well. There’s something joyful and painfully touching when we see the life force in action with purpose.

Rafe Esquith leads his fifth graders through an uncompromising curriculum of English, mathematics, geography and literature. His classroom mottos are “Be nice. Work hard,” and “There are no shortcuts.” Every student performs in a full-length Shakespeare play. Despite language barriers and poverty, many of these Hobart Shakespeareans move on to attend outstanding colleges.

Esquith, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended the city’s public schools, has taught fifth grade at Hobart Boulevard Elementary for over 20 years. “I don’t want my students to be ordinary,” he says. “I want them to be extraordinary because I know that they are. If a 10-year-old, who doesn’t speak English at home, can step in front of you and do a scene from Shakespeare, then there is nothing that he cannot accomplish.”

TERRENCE MCNALLY: Rafe, what led you to teaching and to Hobart Elementary?

RAFE ESQUITH: I became a teacher because my father taught me that a life without service is a wasted life. I found I had a knack for teaching, I taught at a middle-class school for two years. Great kids, but they didn’t need me. I was challenged by a principal to come to Hobart School, where there are 2,400 children, and I realized that we were a perfect match. These were kids who want a way out, and after many years of teaching, I figured out a way to help them get out.

Mel, what led you to this documentary?

MEL STUART: Luck. That’s a very important part of being a filmmaker. You have to be lucky. I was read in the paper that Rafe had won an award for teaching inner-city schoolchildren, nine and 10 years old, a curriculum that included performing Shakespeare. I’m a Shakespeare nut, have been since I was 13 and saw Henry V with Olivier. So I called Rafe and asked him, “What play are you doing next year?” and he said, “Hamlet.” I said, “Perfect, that’s the one I want to do.”

I was initially attracted to the film because of the Hamlet hook, but when I watched it, I saw so much more. What did you know before you decided to do it, and what surprised you?

MEL STUART: I went there planning to do Hamlet, but it turned out, they were playing baseball to learn to be American citizens, they were simulating a money economy in the classroom, they were reading the most incredible books. Rafe was guiding them through the great books of our literature.


MEL STUART: Fifth-graders reading Catcher in the Rye and Malcolm X, or Huckleberry Finn. You see the effect it has on these kids. I only wish that my own children could have gone to Rafe’s class. I made the film because I want the whole nation to know what Rafe can do with children that don’t have the background and the money that other children in this country have.

Rafe, in the film and in your book you mention a turning point, when you realized that you were a pretty good teacher and you were a teacher kids liked, but that you weren’t making the difference you needed to make.

RAFE ESQUITH: You’re too kind. The truth is, I was failing, because the real measure of a teacher is not that the kids like him or that they do well at the tests at the end of the year. The real measure is where are these children five years from now, 10 years from now? What am I giving to these children that they’ll be using for the rest of their lives?

One night when I was really ready to give it up, my wife Barbara said, “Rafe you ought to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird.” In Atticus Finch, I found the model I was looking for. Early in that book his children ask, “Are we gonna win?” Finch says no. But he doesn’t run from the courtroom, he goes in and fights the fight anyway, because he believes strongly in Tom Robinson’s innocence and he’s going to speak the truth.

My classroom is that courtroom. I feel all the time that I’m a very ordinary human being, but what separates good teachers from other teachers is good teachers don’t give up. I tell the children not to give up. That means I can’t give up either.

Late in the documentary, you say, “I’ve won these awards, I’ve written this book, I’ve got this documentary, I could make more money doing something else, and I’ve been here 20 years now … But for 20 years I’ve been telling them this is important. For me to walk away would make me a hypocrite.”

RAFE ESQUITH: Well, we always say, “No child left behind.” I see a lot of teachers now who win an award or two, and they write their book and they get their website, and then they leave. Talk about no child left behind, they leave them all behind! I can’t do that.

What are some of the things you’ve come up with over the years? It’s looks like a totally unique world inside your classroom.

RAFE ESQUITH: You’re right, we’ve created a different culture — a culture that’s different from the neighborhood in which these kids live, a culture different from society. We do it through character development. We have the children develop a code of behavior. Right now I’m not in the classroom, but I’ll come back in an hour after I’m done talking to you, and the kids will be behaving perfectly because they don’t behave for me. A lot of children try to please adults. I don’t want them to please me, I’m a very small part of the story.

The real heroes in this film are the children who have the courage to walk the path that I’ve laid out for them. That means a push for excellence. Our society doesn’t value excellence, and I don’t think excellence is a switch you can throw on at 3 p.m.: Hey, now it’s Shakespeare time, now we’re gonna be excellent! I want them to have a code of excellence in the way they approach their mathematics and their literature and the way they write and the way they speak in front of people, and the way they play baseball and travel on the road. It’s not a dog-and-pony show, it’s a way of life in Room 56.

If I were a young teacher at your school, and I said, “My God, I walked through the neighborhood to get here this morning, I’m looking at what’s around here, I’m looking at the way kids were out in the parking lot, how can I possibly do what you do?” How do you transform them? Why do your kids buy in?

RAFE ESQUITH: First of all, lesson one, you are the role model, and you have to be the person you want the children to be. I want my kids to work hard, so I’ve got to be the hardest worker they’ve ever seen. It’s not a question of preaching. I’m at that school at 6 in the morning, and right away, the kids go, “My God, this guy is really gonna work hard, so I have to work hard.” I don’t raise my voice to these kids, I don’t humiliate these children. I’m a tough teacher, but if I want them to be nice to each other, I better be the nicest guy they ever met. So rule number one, be the person you want the children to be.

Mel, I’ve heard you say that this is one of your favorite two or three projects of your career. That’s saying a lot. Why?

MEL STUART: Number one, it is the most cinéma vérité film I’ve ever made. Nothing was re-enacted. Everything was the only take. Rafe has that incredible quality which he’s shy to admit, he can talk and walk at the same time. In our business it’s very rare to find somebody who can go about doing what he’s doing and still talk to you. He’s doing his business, and the kids don’t care and the class goes on, and you have a tremendous sense of reality. I never had to ask Rafe a question twice, the right answer always came out of his mouth. It’s a very rare art, and Rafe has it. There were no re-takes.

How did you choose to shoot it with Rafe occasionally speaking directly to camera?

MEL STUART: No, he doesn’t talk to camera. He talks to me, and that’s a very important difference. I don’t want him to talk to the camera, because first of all, it’s a very hard thing to look at a camera and be yourself. Most of the time Rafe’s walking this way and that around the classroom, and he has a thought and just hits me with it. If he hit the camera with it, it would look false. It’s just the thoughts coming out of his head, but always on the nose.

And we mustn’t forget how important all the children are in this. There was a moment when I was interviewing the little boy who plays Hamlet, and I ask him, “What did you think of Huckleberry Finn? What kind of experience was that for you?” And he said, “Well, I thought the characters were interesting. They held a mirror up to nature.” A 10-year-old Mexican kid just used that as a phrase. It blew me away! That was just a wonderful moment for me.

A point you make even more in your book than in the documentary, Rafe, is the value of reading above all else. In teaching to change their lives, reading is something you find enormously important.

RAFE ESQUITH: We have a Wall of Fame in my classroom. We have all the former students up who are in college now. I tell the children, there are a lot of different kinds of kids up there. There are jocks and there are artists and there are wild kids and there are shy kids. But the one thing they all have in common is they all read for pleasure and they all read well.

One of the things that’s wrong with the schools today is that in throwing basal readers at the children, and getting them to take all their tests and everything — has anybody ever asked the children how they feel about the reading program? The kids hate it. They despise the reading program. The companies will say, “Oh, but test scores are going up.” Their goals have to do with fluency and speed. My goals have to do with pleasure and passion. There’s a scene in the film when the kids are reading Huck Finn, and they’re absolutely in tears as Huck has to decide between heaven and hell, whether or not he’s going to turn Jim in ….

That is very powerful. Ten-year-olds together in a school classroom coming to a point in the book, and they cannot control their emotions.

RAFE ESQUITH: That’s what reading is supposed to be. We just finished Tom Sawyer and kids were hysterically laughing as Tom hoodwinks his friends into whitewashing the fence. My class’s reading scores are so high because my kids love to read. They read all the time. And it’s not because I’m such a good teacher, but I put great books in front of them. We forget Mark Twain’s a great product. Children read him in the 1800s.

Most kids won’t get these books until years later, if at all. And these are not just fifth graders. Most of them are either Asian or Latino, and in their homes English is not the first language.

RAFE ESQUITH: There’s a key to that also. When they get thrown Steinbeck or Twain in the eighth or ninth grade, and are told, go home and read this, many children are going to home environments where it’s just not conducive for reading. That’s why we read these books together in the class. When people say to me, gosh Rafe, this takes a long time, I say well so what? I’m not in a hurry. When I say there are no shortcuts, that’s for teachers too. We can’t look for these simplistic solutions to complicated problems.

You titled your book There are No Shortcuts. You have it spelled out on a banner in the front of your classroom. Where did that phrase come from and what does it mean to you, to your kids, and to the larger American society?

RAFE ESQUITH: I’m a learner and I once took kids to the Hollywood Bowl to see the great cellist Lynn Harrell play, and Lynn loved my class so much he pulled his kids out of private school in Beverly Hills and put them at Hobart.

There’s an endorsement!

RAFE ESQUITH: It was pretty funny to have these two white kids at Hobart. One of them wound up at Vassar and one of them wound up at Princeton, and they’re still in touch with me all the time.

We went backstage to visit Lynn and a young cellist looked up at Lynn Harrell, who’s 6 foot 5, and the little kid said, “You know, I play the cello, Mr. Harrell, but it doesn’t sound like that, how do you do it?” And Lynn just looked down and said, “Well, there are no shortcuts.” I was in about my fifth or sixth year of teaching, and I said, “Boy, that encapsulates everything I’m trying to get across to these children.”

It’s almost like a small tribe who share a certain set of iconic rules.

RAFE ESQUITH: Being in Los Angeles and loving basketball, I always used to tell the children, there’s nothing magic about Magic Johnson. This talented man worked for hundreds of thousands of hours in lonely gyms when there weren’t people cheering him on to create that magic. There are no shortcuts.

You openly tell the children you want a better life for them than the one their school, their neighborhoods or even their families offer. On field trips you put them up at hotels and feed them at restaurants. “There’s a scene in the bus on the way back from Washington, when you address them about how they feel about going back to their normal lives. What’s your thinking behind all this? Do you get flak for it?

RAFE ESQUITH: I don’t get flak for it; as a matter of fact I’ve got 60 kids showing up at 6:30 in the morning.

I meant from other teachers or politically correct folk.

RAFE ESQUITH: Sure, I teach with 125 teachers. Most of them are incredibly nice to me, and eight or 10 believe I’m the anti-Christ. And that’s OK. The best teacher who ever lived was Socrates and they killed him.


RAFE ESQUITH: So if they’re not shooting at me sometimes I’m probably not doing anything right. I do want a better life for these kids and surely, to live in a neighborhood where you hear gunfire at night is not the best thing to envision in your future. There are other children in America who don’t have to go to bed with that. I’m just trying to level the playing field.

“The Hobart Shakespeareans” premieres on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 6. Check your local listings for times.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at kpfk.org), where he interviews people he believes can help create ‘a world that just might work.’

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3 Responses to “Are AIDS skeptics flagging? A few inspirational words from Rafe Esquith”

  1. Jad Adams Says:

    Thank you, Rafe Esquith, for the generous remarks on my contribution to the AIDS debate. However, I must correct the impression that I ‘retured injured’ after scurrilous attacks. There were indeed scurrilous attacks but also thoughtful support, I quote some of both on my website: http://www.jadadams.co.uk. I never backed down or retracted a word of my views in the face of bigotry. The facts are that I was working as a current affairs television journalist, mainly in the field of medicine, when I made my contributions to the AIDS debate: the documentary Unheard Voices (Channel 4 UK 1987) and The HIV Myth (St Martin’s Press 1989). I also wrote in newspapers, spoke at conerences and made radio and TV appearances until 1991 when I felt I was repeating myself. By that time I was also taking my career in the direction of my own discipline of history and I could no longer spend the time to keep up with the voluminous reading necessary to keep abreast of the AIDS issue. I felt I would not be doing a serivce if I were to keep recycling my previous contributions so I stopped. I wish those well who are still in the field.Jad Adams

  2. Francis Bacon Says:

    Thanks Jad for that update. I am not Rafe Esquith though, he is merely the teacher of Shakespeare to young children that I quote as an example of someone who survived the attacks of the ignorant and the envious.I am merely the scurrilous independent journalist that interviewed you for an article in 1989 on the AIDS dissidents, for a magazine whose editor in the end chickened out of publishing it for political reasons.

  3. Darin Brown Says:

    >> Faced with the immovable mass of this international congregation of the high church of HIV-AIDS, it would hardly be surprising if after many years the irresistible force of AIDS truthseeking might falter in its determination, and truthseekers bow down under the weight of their social burden.NEVER! On the contrary, this is a very exciting time, and many reasons to be hopeful. The truth is, despite the nay-saying repeated ad nauseaum in the press and science journals, the number of thoughtful people questioning the HIV paradigm has always been monotonically increasing. I need only compare when I first became aware of the debate in mid-1996 to now, 10 years later:1. In mid-1996, there was really only one significant dissident mailing list, with a subscriber list maybe in the neighbourhood of 100, or on that order of magnitude. Now, there are several different message boards, the largest of which has nearly 2,000 members.2. In mid-1996, there was really no major dissident website. There was Ben Gardiner’s database, and a few other resources, but no central website. Virusmyth.com was just about to be launched. Now, there are dozens of websites, message boards, blogs, etc.3. In mid-1996, Inventing the AIDS Virus and The Failure of Contemporary Science were just released. People were busy keeping up with responding to the newest “findings” on Ho/Shaw and protease inhibitors. The isolation debate was still novel. Now, we have Shenton’s book, a slew of books on AZT and Nevaripine, Bialy’s book, and Farber’s article and book soon to come.4. HEAL, Alive and Well, and ACT UP SF continue to grow and start new chapters.5. More and more scientists and doctors are supportive and willing to go on record, e.g. the ARAS list of 2300. None (not a SINGLE one) of the people I knew 10 years ago has “recanted”. Many have left to re-energize or for other personal reasons, but none that I know have changed their thinking.6. My own experience the past 12-18 months has been that people, apart from AIDS activists or scientists close to the HIV area, are more receptive and far less likely to be quickly dismissive. I think this is largely a combination of exhaustion with AIDS propaganda, a realisation in the back of many people’s minds that reality is not squaring with the rhetoric, and a growing dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine.So, there is hope. While the end of the road may not be in the immediate future, it’s closer than ever before.

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