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08 February 2011


In college, my friend Joe and I had a pretty good way of coping with annoying classmates (the ones who would waste the time of everyone else in class by talking out of turn and trying to get into pissing matches with the professor). We'd draw them (or, stick figure versions of them), and then draw wavy lines emanating from all the places stink could possibly come from on a person. Armpits, feet, butt, mouth, etc. It was good fun, and we still occasionally reference Stinklines #2 or Stinklines #4 when we get together.

I've just started doing some post-bacc work at City College of New York to ease myself back into academia and to shore up some holes in my undergrad work as I'm applying to grad schools, and while I've only had three days of classes so far, I'm really enjoying it. Really and truly. I had no idea how much I've missed learning. It's funny because I've spent so much of the last few years teaching kids SAT strategies, so I'm in classrooms a lot, but I totally forgot how great it is to be in the seats, instead of at the front. I have not missed, however, being in a lecture of 300 people and discovering that 2 rows behind me, there is a Stinklines.

My microeconomics professor tried to illustrate a point today about impure public goods by asking us to imagine a system by which, instead of countless umbrella vendors taking to the streets when it rains in NYC and countless hapless New Yorkers buying cheap umbrellas with a 10 minute lifespan, there were simply buckets of umbrellas at the door of every building in New York. Umbrellas would become essentially valueless. Nice job professor, point made.

No. Wait. Someone behind me wants to argue that such a system wouldn't work! She says, in increasingly exasperated tones, as though she's impatiently explaining something to a child, that people are lazy, and would just keep the umbrellas instead of dropping them in the buckets. Duh! No amount of explaining from the professor that it's a simplified example to illustrate a point will do. She is steadfast; she will accept no further explanation. Such a system is deeply flawed. It's ridiculous. She knows. She is a Stinklines.

A Stinklines will not back down once she's begun. She operates as if the only way she'll be satisfied is if she's able to extract an apology from the professor for ever saying something so silly in the first place. She knows only her own concrete reality, and will not suffer others who might see the world differently. She is smarter than the professor, and in reality should be teaching the class herself.

Lest you think I'm intolerant, I feel I should clarify what a Stinklines is not. He is not just someone who speaks up a lot in class. Questions are wonderful and encouraged, and often I was wondering about the same thing myself. He's not even someone who argues with the professor occasionally.

A Stinklines is a person who argues without thinking critically, so convinced is he of his righteousness, about minutae usually only tangentially related to the topic at hand. He sits in wait for the entire class period for the professor to say something he finds suspect, and pounces. He is almost always wrong. He is never convinced of this.

We speak in simplified terms because that's how we massage ideas in our minds. That's how we learn. High school physics students learn the principles of Newtonian physics and how to apply them in frictionless vacuums, even though real life scenarios are anything but. Students of philosophy perform thought experiments in theoretical constructs that could never in a million years exist. In the same economics class, we operate under the fictional universe in which all economic actors make fully-informed decisions motivated by self-interest 100% of the time. But a Stinklines thinks it's really necessary to argue about the viability of a free umbrella exchange system in New York City.

1 comment:

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