Thinking about Teapots

I spoke at a humanities outreach day for Year 9 students in Oxford last week. My question was ‘How is English different from Maths?’, and my answer was that Maths is more about learning systems of thought that make things seem simpler, whereas in English you more often learn to ask new questions about the world, and so make things seem more complicated. I also argued that in humanities subjects you always deal with human culture and the world around us, but in maths you start with abstract ideas, then apply them to particular situations. Yes, there are lots of interesting exceptions here—but I stuck to making this point to the audience with three examples.

First, I showed that learning English requires more than mastering rules and methods. Spelling bees test this kind of knowledge, but spelling champs don’t necessarily make amazing English language and literature students. It takes more life experience and exposure to culture to thrive at English, and I suggested that this is why you hear of Maths prodigies but not English prodigies. Point Two was an exercise in appreciating historicity (historical quality or character). I showed the audience a series of BBC homepages from 2011, 2008, 2004, 2001, 1997, and finally the first BBC homepage from 21st December 1996. My aim here was to provoke questions about how a webpage is specific to one moment in time. What methods are being used to attract our attention? How different will the webpage be in fifteen years’ time? Would someone looking at the website in 500 years’ time conclude that we’re weather obsessed given that the central box on the current homepage (i.e. in July 2011) shows the weather forecast—and would our futuristic friend be correct?

Then I looked at different ways to think about teapots. I showed the students the following complete poem by the American poet Samuel Menashe (the recordings on the linked page are great):

A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout.

With a little bit of critical jiggery-pokery (e.g. note that the letters ‘p-o-t’ appear three times), I suggested that the poem makes you think again about something so simple as a teapot, about its existence, and what is fulfilling about being ‘ful-filled’. The physical object of the teapot is essential to the poem, just as in English studies generally you can’t get away from lived experience, whether it’s society, the media, different cultures or what’s on your breakfast table. These thoughts are expressed using extremely controlled use of language (if you think this poem is absurdly simple, try writing another). In its odd little way the poem challenges common sense.

I drew a contrast with a mathematician who could tell you about the teapot’s volume or rate of cooling by applying analytical techniques to the object. And I asked a quick-witted philosopher who gave a presentation later about how a philosopher might think about a teapot. In reply he asked us to imagine a moderately warm teapot and two people, one of whom has lived his or her entire life in the Arctic. The teapot would seem very hot to that person, but merely warm to someone else. So does this mean that hot and cold don’t really exist? The teapot was a good example of the different types of question that each subject raises. Maths and science can quantify and suggest practical improvements to how a teapot is used; philosophy asks basic questions about what we do and don’t know, and English…well, English shows you how different people see and think about the teapot, which makes you appreciate how different people look at the world, and use language to express that viewpoint, and so English challenges your established patterns of thinking, and helps you appreciate language, culture and the world around you with fresh eyes and ears.