Wednesday, 1 June 2016

I'd rather live with a good question than a bad answer

I'd rather live with a good question than a bad answer. - Aryeh A. Frimer

This quotation was on the Twitter profile of someone who followed me today, and it's perfect, both as an example of ancillary antonymy and parallelism (nerd stuff) and as an explanation for students about why we academics do what we do.

I make a policy of 'teaching the controversy' as they say. I try not to teach linguistic problems as if they are solved. We have models of how language works, but none of those models has explained everything. The models tend to contrast markedly in some of their basic assumptions--that is, their answers to basic questions like: Is language a mental faculty unto itself or part of general cognition? What is meaning? What does it mean for a word to be "meaningful"? etc.

That policy came about after my experience shifting from an undergraduate degree in Linguistics & Philosophy to a Master's/PhD program(me) in Linguistics at a different university. Wanting to excuse me from any repetitive material, the nice people at the new university asked "Which theories did you study?" And I couldn't answer. Because the way I'd been taught it, I didn't know it was called anything other than "Syntax". (It was Chomskyan stuff, and I enjoy the irony of the existence of a Chomskyan hegemony in Linguistics--at least in certain places.)

So, there I was doing my usual kind of teaching to an MA class at my current university. I think it may have been about the critical period in first language acquisition. Here are the arguments for, here are the arguments against. And a really frustrated student blurted out: "Aren't you ever going to tell us the right answer to anything?" And I said "If we knew all the answers, I wouldn't have a reason to get up in the morning." And so we talked a bit about how nobody really knows much of anything about anything. We have better ideas and worse ideas. And some of the ideas look better in some lights, and others look better in other lights.

At the end of her degree, the student came up to me and said that that "getting out of bed in the morning" answer had stuck with her and changed how she looked at things.

And that, my friends, is the highest compliment a teacher can ever get.

But if that situation comes up again, I'm going to follow on with that quotation from Aryeh A. Frimer, and I'll feel grateful to @kabrunotte for posting it.

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