Years and years ago, I earned a bachelors degree in cultural anthropology. I thought at the time I might end up in academia, but graduate study didnt work out. This past couple of weeks, Ive taken a couple of sociology lectures for another note-taker who was away. Most of my classes in the last three years have been in dentistry or other clinical sciences, so I found the sudden familiarity a little jarring, like Temuera Morrisons New Zealand accent in that Star Wars prequel. And kind of embarrassing, actually. Blimey (I thought), we humanities students really think were all that, dont we?
Lest you think Im solely ragging on sociology: last semester, I took one of the two weekly lectures in an economics paper, to which I had much the same reaction, although there it was more comfortable because, as a former humanities student active in politics, I have a long-established habit of looking down my nose at the Commerce Division. And Health Sci too, now I come to think about it medicalization is a favourite tut-tut word in certain academic circles. Well, Commerce deserved it, Health Sci didnt, and we in Humanities really werent holding the high ground we thought we were.
Let me try and explain what its like. When I was a kid, one of the many books knocking around our house was a shabby little paperback from about the 1960s entitled 100 puzzles for kids or something, and I remember it because it actually had 101 puzzles but the last one was a trick one that didnt have a proper answer. A hotel has fifty rooms, and one day fifty-one people turn up wanting accommodation. The hotelier thinks for a bit. He puts the first guest in the first room, then takes the second guest aside and says If you could just wait here while we get this sorted out. Then he puts guest number three in room number two, guest number four in room number three, and so on until guest number fifty-one is placed in room number fifty and the hotel is full.
Now this was one of the first hints I had that my brain doesnt work quite like other peoples. According to the book, most people are bamboozled they know theres a flaw somewhere, but they can turn it over and over in their heads for hours before they suddenly go Of course! The second person hasnt got a room! But to me, reading the puzzle, it was so obvious that the second person hadnt got a room that I turned it over and over in my head for hours wondering what the mystery was supposed to be.
In economics and sociology, its not a guest who hasnt got a room; its a foundational concept that hasnt got a basis. You introduce that concept, and proceed to derive the rest of the course from it. It becomes a sort of base-camp assumption for the students thoughts, like mass-energy conservation for physics students or Darwinian natural selection for biology students. By the end of the first semester, its become so familiar that they assume anyone who questions it is simply ignorant.