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#NPRreads: Counting Casualties And Reauthorization Of The State Department

NPRreads is a weekly feature on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers from our newsroom share the pieces that have kept them reading, using the #NPRreads hashtag. On Fridays, we highlight some of the best stories.

This week, we bring you four items.

From NPR Washington Desk correspondent Brian Naylor:

With students back on campus at most colleges and universities, it's an appropriate time to wonder what, exactly, are they there for?

In the latest issue of Harper's magazine, William Deresiewicz argues "college is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about."

His essay, "The Neoliberal Arts," is subtitled "how college sold its soul to the market."

It's a fresh take on an idea that's gotten lots of traction in recent years. As Deresiewicz points out, demeaning the value of a traditional liberal arts education is something politicians of every stripe can rally behind. President Obama lectured that "folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree." And Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker attempted "to rewrite the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, one of the country's great public systems ... so that it would henceforth be to 'meet the state's workforce needs.' "

These political leaders have been urging that higher education re-orient itself to vocational rather than intellectual goals, and especially focus on the so called STEM programs, science, technology engineering and math.

But, Deresiewicz says "no one's really interested in science, and no one's really interested in math; interested in funding them, interested in having their kids or their constituents pursue careers in them. That leaves technology and engineering, which means (since the second is a subset of the first) it leaves technology."

Deresiewicz says the problem runs even deeper, noting that "it is not the humanities that are under attack. It is learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake."

Instead of seeing higher education in terms of market purposes, he writes, "we need to see it once again in terms of intellectual and moral purposes."

From NPR Foreign Desk correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro:

I spend a lot of time as a journalist dealing with death. One of the most vexing issues — whether it be in Iraq, Syria or Brazil — is pinning down how many people get killed in a given period of time. It's a surprisingly complicated issue. I've spent hours on the phone in a single incident trying to establish how many people were killed, often getting conflicting numbers. And that is for a single incident where the number of dead rarely exceeds a dozen. Imagine trying to figure out how many people have died in a place as chaotic as Syria. As Robert Muggah from the Igarape Institute in Rio de Janeiro writes in this article from The Guardian:

"As is often the case in war, truth is a casualty. Vital registration systems typically collapse, so official records of civilian deaths are unreliable. Governments and armed groups routinely exaggerate or distort the figures. Complicating matters further, there are also bitter disagreements among scholars and activists who study death tolls in the world's most violent hot spots."

Even in places such as Brazil — with among the largest number of violent deaths per year — reliable figures are hard to come by. And yet, there is no question that death tolls matter. Here in Brazil, for example, recent estimates show that young black males are overwhelmingly the victims of violent shooting deaths but whites have become much safer. That information goes against a common perception in the country that the wealthier whiter members of society are more often the target of crime.

Muggah goes through the different systems used to count the dead and how complex the math really is. The results also vary widely. In the Syrian conflict alone, the main groups deemed most reliable by journalists have estimates that range anywhere from 120,000 people killed to 330,000. It's hard to believe that a discrepancy the size of a small city exists when talking about human lives lost, but it does.

As Muggah writes, many people have a vested interest in inflating or diminishing death tolls:

"The truth matters. Yet governments often hide and downplay deaths. As a former US General Tommy Franks memorably stated when questioned about high casualty rates during the Afghanistan campaign: 'We don't do body counts.' "

But someone has to, and this is a good primer on how they come up with the numbers that come to define conflicts all over the world.

From Julia Holmes Bailey, weekend producer for NPR Newscasts:

As a State Department "brat," Politico's article on the lack of State Department authorization really hit a nerve with me.

As the article says: "Every two years, lawmakers are supposed to update America's overseas priorities and how they're executed." However, "without a reauthorization bill, Congress exerts ad hoc power of State: appropriators can specify funding for different agencies and attach restrictions to the money."

What I immediately grasped was that this meant that the State Department has effectively been ham-strung as the U.S. has been formulating its response to 9/11. It didn't have congressional authorization in 2003 when President Bush was making his arguments on how to respond to what he believed was evidence of Iraq having nuclear weapons.

More recently, as Congress repeatedly questioned former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over her accountability for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Congress still didn't pass a State Department reauthorization bill that would strengthen embassy security.

The article concluded with "Washington cares more about the military than statecraft," or as Ilan Goldenberg, a former staffer at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put it, "The Pentagon is much sexier stuff." This little detail made me look at the ongoing conflict in the Middle East in a different way.

And, from NPR Social Media Editor Lori Todd:

"Driven to Kill: Why drivers in China intentionally kill the pedestrians they hit." That attention-grabbing headline should have prepared me for what I read next and yet I was stunned by the grim reality that Geoffrey Sant painted in this piece.

It seems like a crazy urban legend: In China, drivers who have injured pedestrians will sometimes then try to kill them. And yet not only is it true, it's fairly common; security cameras have regularly captured drivers driving back and forth on top of victims to make sure that they are dead. The Chinese language even has an adage for the phenomenon: "It is better to hit to kill than to hit and injure."

Hit-to-kill and double-hit cases are common in China because of the country's laws on victim compensation. Guilty drivers will often reverse back over their victims because the compensation for killing someone in a traffic accident is significantly less than the possible costs associated with a lifetime of care for the injured.

While this article is exclusively about the hit-to-kill phenomenon in China, you can be certain that I'll be looking both ways each time I cross a city street. Money does weird things to people.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

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