Author Topic: The Language of Literature and Science  (Read 9474 times)

Joe Carillo

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The Language of Literature and Science
« on: April 25, 2017, 01:21:25 AM »
One of the things a lecturer or writer eventually learns with a rough shock is that it’s hardly possible to communicate anything in words or ideas that the listener or reader doesn’t already understand. When I was a university sophomore long, long ago, my vivacious English III professor must have learned this from me to her great consternation.

She asked me: “Mr. Carillo, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Grandeur of God,’ what does this line mean?

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;  
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil

Secretly amused that she could be that dense, I said confidently: “Exactly what it says, ma’am. God’s glory would shine brightly like aluminum foil shaken in sunlight, and would splatter like oil if you try to crush it.”

She cut me down immediately: “A very simplistic view, Mr. Carillo. Isn’t there anything in that head of yours that tells you that God’s glory is like the sun in the day and the black darkness at night?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Oh, my goodness, from what province did you come from, Mr. Carillo?”

It was worse in Chemistry II. My sixtyish professor would quietly walk into the classroom like a sleepwalker. Once in front, she would permanently fix her gaze at the back end of the ceiling and start mumbling her impenetrable lectures in this textbook manner: “The oxidation number is equivalent to the valence but with a sign that expresses the nature of the charge of the species in question when formed from the neutral atom. Thus, chlorine in hydrochloric acid has the oxidation number -1, hypochlorous acid has a +1. The oxidation number of chlorine in chloric acid (HClO3) is in turn +5...”

She would talk nonstop, crossly waving off any question until she finished 45 minutes later. She always gave us the feeling that she was lecturing to distinguished chemists at the Royal Academy of Science in London, which we in class definitely were not. In my case, I was then a country bumpkin whose only science was that: (a) a pinch of sodium dropped onto water creates a teeny-weeny flash to form a precipitate called “sodium hydroxide,” and (b) a little windmill in a vacuum glass case rotates when its blades are exposed to sunlight.

In retrospect, I can see now that both my English and Chemistry professors were hidebound practitioners of what in linguistics is called the “transport view of language.” This view holds that language is simply a passive vehicle for conveying information from source to receiver; that is, “the medium is the language.” Modern communication theory holds, however, that the listener or reader is as active as the lecturer or writer in giving meaning to the content of the message.

Thus, if you knew nothing of Hopkins or his other poems, your English professor could twist Hopkins whichever way she wanted and you wouldn’t even know what she was up to. You wouldn’t know, too, what “oxidation number” and “valence” were unless your Chemistry teacher had first made them completely clear to you. With university professors allowed to foist the “sink or swim” method on their students, however, we often have the anomalous situation where they could justify their sheer inability to teach by cavalierly pre-announcing that they normally pass, say, “no more than 25 percent of the class.”

In science as in literature, however, few things are self-evident and self-explanatory on the surface and even beneath; many, in fact, are counterintuitive. This is why we need real, patient, enthusiastic science and English teaching, using words and symbols that are already in the learners’ minds. Teachers should not only force arbitrary interpretations or abstruse chemical or mathematical constructs on students but judiciously use analogy and metaphor to make new ideas less intimidating. Instead of foisting fear of them, they should work hard to make students like if not love English, science, and mathematics. They should abandon shallow teaching and academic posturing and make an honest-to-goodness effort to make students think on their own, clearly and logically. (circa 2006)

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently appeared as Chapter 133 in the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, ©2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: April 25, 2017, 01:26:57 AM by Joe Carillo »