Monday, July 23, 2007

Story Problem


I always used to have this hatred of "story problems." (A contemporary example from www.Microsoft/education: "Sami has twice as many CDs as Maria. Jamal's CD collection is one-and-a-half times the size of Sami's and three times as big as Maria's. If Maria could load her 6-CD changer three times without repeating, how many CDs does Jamal have?") I was offended that anyone would think of the language and scenario in the story problem as resembling a story, or would imagine that they were entertaining. They weren't just unentertaining, they were positively additionally painful. I don't think I believed that adults thought they were storylike; just that they thought there was some chance we would be entertained by any thing, in the same way that they bought children food they themselves would never eat. But I really couldn't get my mind around how anyone could use words and names in that way--who could stand to write the story problem, thousands of story problems?--let alone in the name of the "story." A little later, I tried to express my objection to painters' using the human figure when they clearly only intended something to balance the composition of the painting. I didn't like it when it was generic--which was also a problem with proverbs--or transparently instrumental. I don't mind this effect now in someone like Whistler, who may be making a Giacometti-like point about fragility or inconsequence. In fact I love this effect. I don't think I would've minded in 1974 either if I had felt that what was being expressed was "the nothingness of human affairs" (Paul de Man). That is a humane point; it was the not noticing or ever thinking about the fact that the figure was supposed to be a person that bothered me, which is what adults always conveniently fail to notice about children, especially their own children, whom they put there because there was an empty space . . . .

Image: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Falling Rocket, 1875 (detail)

1 comment:

orpheusfx said...

I really like this! It's like a story, but also like a poem. It moves in many directions yet flows wonderfully towards that heartbreaking turn at the end.

Wish my math problems were something like this, without a singular answer.