Longtime readers will acknowledge my predilection for jokes, the older, the sillier, the better. Here’s one of my favorites from junior high: What’s the difference between an elephant and a grape?
Answer: If you don’t know, I’m not sending you to the store for grapes.
The absurd implication, that someone might come home from the market with a shopping bag chockfull of elephants still tickles me half a century away from eighth grade. I suppose you can take the boy out of the junior high, but you can’t take the junior high out of the boy.
Here’s an updated, if no less incongruous riddle: what’s the difference between a medieval surgeon and a modern college admissions advisor?
History teaches us that doctors of 500 years ago offered nothing of medical value to their patients, nothing that would help their patients to survive anyway. There was no science to speak of–an understanding of statistics was centuries in the future; antibiotics weren’t invented until the mid 1900s—doctors were making it up as they went along. No X-rays, no EKGs, no microscopes, no nuthin’. Medieval surgeons proposed bloodletting through the cutting-edge technology of the time—leeches.
Doctors had no idea if their charges would survive. Most people with infections did not. Indeed, babies born in Shakespeare’s time—early 17th century—weren’t Christened until they were a year old. Because the odds were that the little bundles of joy would be in the ground before their first birthday.
So what did doctors do? They told patients, “Based on my dazzling insight and sophisticated medical knowledge, I can tell you that you’re gonna die.” Which was a pretty good strategy if you think about it. Because either the patient did in fact die, in which case the doctor could claim to be a brilliant diagnostician. Or the patient recovered, in which case the doctor could assert that he was a magnificent healer. The reality of course was that the doctor had no more insight as to whether the patient would recover than a roulette ball comprehends whether it will land on a red number or a black one.
Which brings me—finally you might say—to certain theories and advice from non-professionals. Will I be admitted to my first choice, highly selective, early decision college? asks a starry-eyed hopeful high school senior. To which their father’s best friend might respond, no, not a chance, no way, and then go on to reference frozen spheroids and the underworld.
Which again, if you think about, makes sense. Because if the student is indeed rejected from the “top” school—as 19 out of 20 qualified applicants are—the advisor looks like a brilliant diagnostician. And if through some fortunate roll of the dice, the applicant is admitted, the triumphant advisor can say, See? You were admitted! That’s because I gave you such good advice! I directed you to use a semicolon in your essay! And I called the admissions office at the college! I have influence! I made this happen!
Speaking of semi-colons and spurious causal links, which of the following seems the more likely scenario? Would a medieval doctor tell the truth? Our knowledge of anatomy, germs, and the infectious model of disease, is desperately limited. I don’t know why you’re sick. I hope you get better.
Of course not! To the contrary, the doctor is going to puff out his chest and mumble–in Latin: your bodily humors having developed inactive eukaryotic, non-androgenic sequences which have impinged on your bile ducts resulting in a decreased pharmacological matrix.*
Which cannot help but remind me of family friends pontificating to well-meaning applicant families: list your extra-curriculars in order of importance to the college grouped conceptually with Times New Roman type submitted eleventy-seven days before the restricted early decision deadline proofread by Foghorn Leghorn.
So what’s the difference between a medieval surgeon and a clueless family friend?
If you don’t know, I’m not sending you to the store for advice about applying to highly selective colleges.
* I am grateful to a website the link to which I can no longer find for helping generate these clever pseudo-scientific words.