I’ve been teaching at elite colleges for over twenty years, and one thing that persistently frustrates me is the students’ generally fluent ability to manipulate symbols without seeming to engage with the underlying context. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, and all that. My theory is that in high school these students were trained to be able to write a five-paragraph essay on anything at all.
I was reminded of this when reading an article on the recent airline disruptions in Europe, where Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum writes:
A friend with no previous interest in airline mechanics explained over the phone how two planes had already been affected. Another proffered a detailed description of the scientific process by which the ash enters the engine, melts from the heat, and turns back into stone–not what one wants inside one’s airplane engines, really.
Others have become mystics. A British friend sees this as “judgment for the bad things we have done to the Earth.” . . .
So far, so good. But then:
Though it is uncanny, I [Applebaum] do understand why some want science to explain this odd event and why others see the revenge of the volcano gods.
Huh? It seems a bit . . . anthropological of her to put science and “the volcano gods” in this sort of parallelism. It’s no big deal, really, it just reminds me of a remark I once read that newspapers were better in the old days: Back when “journalists” were “reporters” and didn’t have college educations, they just reported the facts and had neither the obligation to understand the world nor the inclination to smooth out reality to fit the contours of their well-rounded sentences. As a college teacher, I’m the last person to endorse such an idea, but it does have its appeal.
P.S. No, I doubt that Applebaum herself thinks of scientific and volcano-god explanations as equivalent. But that’s my point: she wrote something that she (probably) doesn’t really believe and, I suspect, she didn’t really think clearly about, just because it fit the flow of her article. It was symbol-manipulation without full context.
I see this trait everywhere. Perhaps there is a case for revision classes on logic, and rationale for journalists and others alike.