Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Ignorant not stupid

I had French lessons for ten years in school in England, where it was the standard foreign language. It didn't do me much good when I went to spend Easter in Paris when I as 16. The poor Parisians were at a loss to interpret my mangling of their language as to accent, syntax and vocabulary. With the wannabe sophistication of Hemingway or Becket, I went into a bar and asked for a tasse cup of red wine. But that's another story. One of the early exercises,  at about the age of 8, in mastering a foreign language was learning how to tell the time in French. One of my classmates did not, at that age, know how to tell the time in English. I guess I remember that because it was so exceptional. I imagine we later seized on the poor fellow and mocked him unmercifully before flushing his head down the toilet.

It's a case of the Curse of Knowledge, where you can't imagine what it's like not to know something. It was one of the reasons why American Blacks did so poorly at Early IQ tests: they were asked to make judgement calls about stuff that was completely alien to their culture. The [white] chaps who devised the questions could not even see that there was an issue because they were so locked into the own cultural milieu that much of it became an invisible backdrop. To poor blacks, these obvious-to-all-thinking-bourgoise allusions just caused bafflement. I've written before about how some salient points of the language I use, although English, are incomprehensible to the kids at The Institute. I try to modify my words to maximise communication without patronising anyone.

I was reminded of these cultural deficits last week in Research Methods class.  I'm giving them an exam this week and had hunted out some example of data for them to analyse for the mock exam, The mock exam is a way of coaching them in the key concepts, so that nobody is totally at sea for the end of term assessment. You can check out the dataset which is the weights of the US rowing squad at one of the Olympics. I picked it because it deals with sporty things and so seemed sensible for both my Strength & Conditioning and Sports Rehab classes. On top of that, Ireland had a rare medal win at the Rio Olympics by a pair of rowers from Skibbereen Co. Cork who went viral with their laconic humor. One of the boys in the class is a rare Dubliner, proudly working class and city-bred.  "What's a cox?" the Dub asked. I replied.  "s/he's the small one at the back of the boat who steers because all the big chaps are progressing with their backs to the direction of travel"  . . . I used to be one of them myself as part of my very expensive education. "Why are they facing backwards?". I stopped there; the young feller had never imagined, let alone seen, rowing in action, it seemed hopeless to proceed with explanation.

Another question to ask about the rowers is whether, statistically, the light-weight "LW" rowers weigh significantly less than the others. To make the problem 'easier' I marked out two columns of data marked 'Open' and 'LW'. "What's 'Open' ?" asked one woman. My 'Socratic' answer started "You know what Open is in golf or tennis? The US Open? Rory McIlroy? It means unrestricted, how might that apply to rowing weights?"To each rhetorical question, I could only see mounting confusion. So I paused and said "You're a credit to your parents with your politeness. I know you want me to shut up and just tell you what Open means in this context and here I am rambling off in two different directions neither of which relates to boats. I am sorry, I'll try not to do it again.". Then I realised that I had used the term 'cox' in my question, whereas the dataset used 'coxswain' and this internal inconsistency would be wholly opaque and grossly unfair to people who, because of their cultural heritage, are ignorant of rowing as Ulysses' land-locked Scythians:
carry your well-planed oar until you come
to a race of people who know nothing of the sea,
whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all
to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oar

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