August 2006 Archives

Cats is dogs?

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It's from Freeman Dyson's review of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spirit: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, from the June 22, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books.

At one point in this long essay, Dyson argues that "Parents with fundamentalist beliefs have a legitimate grievance, being compelled to pay for public schools which they see as destroying the religious faith of their children." If you're reared on the absolute church/state separation, as American agnostics like myself are, this is a pretty uncomfortable stance to encounter, because, well, it's kinda true. Dyson points to England's approach, which has since the nineteenth century been to teach religion in its schools. Not because religion is supported by the state, but because religion is part of England's culture, and it's something students should know about. He then acknowledges that this might not work in the United States, but argues that what's needed is a little less ideological rigor on all sides:

To be workable, a solution does not need to be scientifically or philosophically consistent. When I was a boy in England long ago, pepople who traveled on trains with dogs had to pay for a dog ticket. The question arose whether I needed to buy a dog ticket when I was travelling with a tortoise. The conductor on the train gave me the answer: "Cats is dogs and rabbits is dogs but tortoises is insects and travel free according." The rules governing religious education should be administered with a similar freedom of interpretation.

Postscript: the August 10, 2006 issue of the NYRB contains a letter from Nicholas Humphrey rather pointedly indicating that this episode is not from Dyson's life but from a cartoon in an 1869 issue of Punch. Reads the caption:

Railway Porter (to Old Lady traveling with a Menagerie of Pets), "STATION MASTER SAY, MUM, AS CATS IS 'DOGS,' AND RABBITS IS 'DOGS,' AND SO'S PARROTS; BUT THIS 'ERE 'TORTIS' IS AN INSECT, SO THERE AIN'T NO CHARGE FOR IT!"

Dyson's response:

My memory of travelling with a tortoise has two possible explanations. The first and more probable is that I heard of the conversation recorded in the Punch cartoon and transformed it over the years into a memory. This would not be the first time that I remembered something that never happened. Memories of childhood recollected in old age are notoriously unreliable. The second possible explanation is that the memory is accurate. In that case the conductor on the train knew the cartoon and said what he was supposed to say according to the script.

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