Author Topic: The language of literature and science  (Read 11007 times)

Joe Carillo

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The language of literature and science
« on: August 13, 2018, 04:49:08 PM »
One of the things a lecturer or writer eventually learns with a rough shock is that it’s hardly possible to communicate anything that the listener or reader doesn’t already know, perhaps in one form or another at least.

When I was a university sophomore long, long ago, my vivacious English III professor learned as much to her consternation. She asked me: “Mr. Carillo, in Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘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 /Crushed.’

Secretly amused that she could be that dense, I said confidently: “Exactly what it says, ma’am. God’s glory will shine brightly like aluminum foil shaken in sunlight, and will 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 fiftyish 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: “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 gave me the feeling that she was lecturing to distinguished chemists at the Royal Academy of Science in London, which we 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. 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 have an anomalous situation where they could justify their sheer inability to teach by cavalierly pre-announcing that they’d pass, say, “no more than 25% of the class.”

In science as in literature, however, few things are self-evident and self-explanatory on the surface and even beneath. This is why we need real, patient, enthusiastic science teaching, using words and symbols that are already in the learners’ minds. Teachers should not only force abstruse chemical or mathematical constructs on students but judiciously use analogy and metaphor to make them less intimidating. They must work hard to make students love science instead of fear it. They should abandon shallow teaching and academic posturing and make an honest-to-goodness effort to make them think logically and clearly.

This is already the 21st century, and it’s time our people finally understood the workings of language and science; it’s time we put an end to the vicious social and political ignorance that confounds us all. Until then, we will be prey to political and religious charlatans. We will be prey to hucksters and pollsters using pseudoscience and the mass media to play around with the nation’s destiny.

They will continue with impunity to put just any kind of person and rhetoric on television and radio under all sorts of false pretenses, then use pseudoscience to proclaim that person fit for the highest post of the land. Nothing else can stop them.

Think how preposterous it would have been if some campus pollsters asked my classmates if I’d  be fit for student government president even if they knew me as the country bumpkin that I was, totally clueless about Hopkins and oxidation numbers and valences even if I happened to be a popular paid endorser of memory pills on campus TV (which of course I wasn’t).

You can bet your life that those pollsters would have used statistics to make me fit the post of student government president—even if I were the squarest of pegs in a round hole!

This is a very slightly refined version of an essay, 227th of the series, that appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the July 1, 2003 issue of The Manila Times, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.