Yesterday, I was dismayed to find out two professors in the meteorology department at San Jose had posted a picture of themselves about to set fire to a book, presumably because they disagreed with its contents. The picture was taken down but not before it was captured, because the idea of professors literally — not figuratively — burning ideas is such a shocking one.
And here I thought the whole process of getting a doctorate involves coming up with ideas and/or supporting or refuting ideas. I thought a professor who was handed a book he or she disagreed with would take advantage to write a long, wordy, obtuse point-by-point article and get it published in an obscure journal, whereupon another professor will then respond to the article with another long, obtuse critique. And so academia goes round and round. I guess just “burning” the book and posting a picture is easier for the lay public to understand but how do you respond to that other than saying “what are you thinking?”
This story hit home particularly since my son has been taking classes with San Jose State’s math department for several years. The math department is a lot of fun. They celebrate Pi Day, they host and sponsor a math circle for local teens who want to learn more about math topics, and the head of the department likes to toss juggling clubs around with the students. After Neil’s math abilities surpassed mine, they took him under wing and taught him calculus and linear algebra, and he’s enjoyed the classes and the professors. Rather than incinerating ideas, they toss extraneous books and magazines onto a free rack near the department office, which Neil often raids.
I also love meteorology. In fact, one summer when I was Neil’s age, I wanted to become a meteorologist. I spent a lot of evenings watching the sunset (events on the horizon are good predictors of the next day) and desperately failed in my attempt to “salt the clouds” to create rain. So still in search of a lab science, I looked into the department at San Jose State — which is one of the two colleges in the vast CSU system which offers such a major. They have their own weather station on the roof of their building. How cool is that! So I sent them an inquiry to ask if Neil could sit in on one of their introductory classes or if at the very least we could arrange to see the weather station. I got no response to either inquiry, so I bought a used copy of the second edition of the text one of the syllabi for the course mentioned, and we muddled through it ourselves.
I could have also sworn that like just 15 minutes ago (ok, that is last year or the year before), the department used to be called Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, not Meteorology and Climate Science. At least for the beginner, understanding weather is all about currents. And like the currents, it’s always changing. Our old text talked about the ozone hole; now it’s about climate change, worrying that the weather is changing too fast in one direction or another; back when I was a kid it was killer smog and the coming new Ice Age. Given that it changes every 20 years, what’s exciting about weather should always be up for argument, shouldn’t it?
So I really hope there was a context to that picture that I’m missing, other than what it looks like. Was it to go with a critique, as in now that we’ve “burned” this book with words, watch it “burn” for real? Did the author somewhere in the book dare those who disagreed with it to set themselves on fire? Are they getting a huge grant from some environmentalist organization to explore new forms of natural energy, and they thought the book was so full of hot air, it’d be an efficient source? Perhaps all the prospective students for this year declared their passionate hatred of anti-global-warming arguments, and this bold statement will bolster departmental enrollment.
Meteorology is a legitimate, honest science, even if it essentially comes down to weather changes all the time, and wow, isn’t that exciting. I’m hoping this book burning will blow over, like a thunderstorm, rather than being the harbinger of our educators trying to destroy anything and anyone they don’t agree with.