August 27th, 2009
A California college is now offering a course on Stupidity. Apparently, you have to be smart to take it, and so there goes that premise. Actually, the liberal arts school offering the course was once attended by President Obama, before he traversed the country for Columbia, but the course is a recent phenomenon, and back in the day Obama probably studied more conventionally titled subjects, like Politics or Social Justice. Still, I bet with his reportedly high IQ he would ace Stupidity.
The course description has been, understandably, held up for ridicule and is listed on various comedy sites all over the web, but it’s definitely not a gag.
Have you ever noticed how during the slow news month of August the media tend to focus on educational items? Maybe they think no one is really paying attention anyway and so why not toss in a few silly stories about how foolish we all are in the academy. All silliness aside, Stupidity appeals to me – that is, the course, not the human condition. I particularly like the part about how stupidity makes “itself felt in political life ranging from the presidency to Beevis and Butthead.” In a culture that celebrates the dumb and the dumber or re-elects a George W, you have to wonder what took the course instructors so long to develop the subject. How is it that stupidity can be so widely tolerated? Surely, much of the course is devoted to approaching that very question? Of course, by calling the course Stupidity the instructors are deliberately challenging our assumptions about what’s correct for academic study. You have to admire the instructors’ smarts. I say a study of Stupidity is way overdue. Recognizing it can help prevent it.
In this vein, a group of Canadian researchers recently published a paper that should make us very afraid of zombies. I already am, to be sure, especially the ones that love to suck on your brains, but it doesn’t hurt to have a research paper backing up one’s anxiety. It makes me wonder whether zombies would prefer stupid or smart brains, and how they can tell. A shrewd University of Ottawa professor and his team developed a “real-world” model based on the possibility of a zombie outbreak. Assuming zombieism is a disease and not just a feeling you get when you have a hangover, the mathematical model could be applied to any outbreak of any infection. The unfortunate findings are that “neither quarantines nor a cure for the zombie infection appear to stop the zombies from their eventual victory.” That’s good news for the living dead but not so great for the rest of us.
News of the zombie research project revealed an earlier Canadian paper, one produced but still unpublished a few years ago at Queens University by a professor and his graduate student: “The efficacy of vaccination for the eradication of rage-virus mediated zombieism.” The subject and intent were similar: how to devise an application with real-world relevance. As others have been pointing out in various blogs, this just shows you that mathematicians actually can have fun—even when they are being living-dead serious.
Well, perhaps not so coincidentally, the home pages of many university sites are now highlighting the possibility of a fall outbreak of H1N1 (the virus formerly known as swine flu). Memorial, as with many other large institutions, has developed a protocol for dealing with such an outbreak, as well as an early warning system aimed at educating the returning masses about protecting themselves in advance of the spread of influenza. The university-wide Pandemic Preparedness Planning Committee (PPPC) not only has an alliterative Peter-picked-a-peck-of-pickles ring to it but it smacks appropriately of Orwellian alarm. I’m not complaining. I would rather my university, like the Boy Scouts and a good date, were well prepared. The last thing we need is to be caught flat-footed – or wheezing– if and when H1N1 makes a highly infectious appearance on our campus.
Incoming students should feel at least somewhat reassured that Memorial is dedicated to fighting potential outbreaks of influenza. I cannot, however, speak for stupidity or zombies at this time.