Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Trend story alert!

This could become a running theme.


No wonder I don't understand my own generation -- they respond to hard times in a difficult world by taking philosophy. This is just the sort of "oh, that's interesting" piece that tops the Times most e-mailed list. And sure enough, there it is.

I don't mean to pick too hard. It's hard to apply narrative structure to human existence without fudging the truth (something a philosophy major really ought to have taught you).

I just watched the NCAA basketball championship and marveled yet again at what a large amount of chaos rules the game -- a missed free throw bounces to the right rather than straight back or to the left, resulting in an offensive rebound and another chance to score rather than a defensive rebound and the end of the possession. And then analysts look at these things, these affairs decided by a few moments and a couple points, and declare one team better than another. Kansas isn't better than Memphis. They just won this game, and that's it. It's incredible how powerful the narrative reach extends in sports. I heard Billy Packer mentioned as the game went to overtime that KU had "been there before," because the Jayhawks played in an overtime championship -- 51 years ago. Billy was alive then. The Kansas players, I'm afraid, were not.

Back to the Times. During my personal revolt against journalism, when I got to the point of intellectual maturity to deconstruct it, this kind of b.s. story turned me away enough to take a study abroad sabbatical and try to figure out what to do. It took another large step in intellectual maturity to realize that everything is a construction, and if you hold that against everything, you're left with nothing.

So now I'm in journalism, a social construction, writing about science, another social construction. I accept this for what it is.

This does not, however, take a story like this off the hook. It begins with a selection from our 'banned leads' list, the "this ain't your daddy's _______" brand of cliche. But thankfully, between all the quotes about how philosophy really gets at the heart of the everything we do. Perhaps. And this story has a some decent numbers, 50 to 100 percent increases in philosophy majors at a few schools, and a much more slight increase in the number of philosophy programs. That's fine. But the heart of trend stories' true evil is that they make sweeping claims on the basis of these kinds of statistics and a few catchy quotes from whomever they happen to find. There are more philosophy students than there were in 2002, so it's obviously the Iraq War casting a gloom over our entire generation and making us question the world.

I got a sociology minor as an undergrad, but I think this is why I found myself pulled to the hard sciences.

And then there's the ending:

"Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, said philosophy had other perks. She said she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive.

'That whole deep existential torment,” she said. “It’s good for getting girlfriends.'"

It's not terrible -- it's too easy. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- if it comes to you too easily, there's probably a reason.

No comments: