Take: May 8, 2000
solving problems on paper is like fitting a size-12 calf through
a size-10 hole: "It don't work."
By Wes Tooke '98 (email:
morning, an hour before church, and I'm standing at the business
end of a very unhappy cow. Sometime near dawn the cow had tried
to give birth to a calf too big for her hips, and the result was
gridlock in the birth canal, a dead calf, and a very annoyed veterinarian.
For the last 90 minutes
he had pushed and pulled, sawed and cut, yet the calf was still
firmly lodged in his mother. I could tell the vet was on the verge
of surrender. After all, he had done a lot of very unpleasant work
for his 200 dollars, and this case seemed hopeless. Sure enough,
the vet slowly removed his hands from the cow, leaned back on his
haunches, and stared at Julius Fraley, the cow's owner.
"I'm thinking it
might be time to shoot the son of a bitch," the vet said. "I
can't fit a size 12 calf through a size 10 hole. It don't work."
Whether the cow lived
or died concerned the vet and me only in the abstract, but it meant
a great deal to Mr. Fraley. Good cows are expensive, and raising
cattle is a hard business. Mr. Fraley had considered shooting the
cow before he called the vet, but now that he'd thrown another 200
dollars on the table, he was understandably reluctant to give up
without a final effort. He shook his head.
"I don't know,"
he said. "You do this a lot more than me. But maybe we could
try and roll her on her stomach again?"
The vet, knowing that
he'd been condemned to more hard labor, just sighed. The next half-hour
was intense, the images vivid enough to follow me for a week. I
did my best to help, but I was just the unskilled pair of hands
assigned to either pulling or pushing. Early that morning, when
the vet had heard that I was from Boston, he had snorted in a way
that made me want to dive into the nearest car and drive faster
than the Duke boys for the nearest city. Now I understood why.
We did eventually remove
the calf, but at considerable cost to both the cow and my city-boy
stomach. As we hosed ourselves off outside the barn, both Mr. Fraley
and the vet confessed that this had been an especially difficult
case. I felt a small measure of vindication. When I left later in
the day, the cow was still alive, but had more tough times ahead.
No victory on a farm is ever permanent.
Laughably stupid suggestions
I've spent a lot of time
since I walked out of that barn thinking about the difference between
theoretical and practical experience. A few weeks ago I would have
said that I knew a lot about both rural life and the business of
raising cattle. I've read E.B. White; I'm well versed in a cow's
basic anatomy; I once studied farm policy. Yet any suggestion I
made to the vet in the barn would have been laughably stupid. Similarly,
if I told Mr. Fraley that he would be better serving Mother Earth
if he raised corn rather than cows, he would have given me a well-deserved
look expressing his contempt toward Massachusetts boys who don't
know anything about Missouri soil.
Yet during my time at
Princeton as a political economy major, I wrote countless papers
suggesting solutions to various political and economic problems-including
farm policy. In one politics class, we used to solve a major problem
with a one-page paper every week. The idea that the real solutions
to these problems might require something that soldiers call "ground
truth" never occurred to me.
A lot of people spend
a lot of time at Princeton teaching students that their opinions
matter. Which is a wise and wonderful thing to do. But if we graduates
never figure out the limits of our education, we're more likely
to be dangerous to society than helpful. Just as important as learning
to value your own opinion is learning when you are being a boob.
Yet browsing through CIT's online forums, I'm always shocked by
the number of Princeton graduates who will read 25 words on a complex
topic and then respond with a long, vitriol-ridden screed no more
informed than a page from the National Enquirer.
Ivy League arrogance
This year's debate over
Peter Singer has been an embarrassing case-in-point. Spend any time
in a major hospital, and you'll quickly realize that the right-to-die
and euthanasia issues warrant serious discussion by serious people.
I don't know whether or not I agree with Peter Singer, but I do
know that his books made me think about those issues in a frank
and disciplined way. I know I hope that the future doctors Princeton
graduates every spring-who might ultimately have a hand in designing
medical policy-will get both a theoretical background in these issues
at Princeton and practical experience in a hospital.
Therefore, while I was
interested to read the occasional informed letters to PAW opposing
Singer's appointment, the vast majority worried me. Why are so many
of us able to read an ill-informed editorial in the Wall Street
Journal, respond with our gut, and think that the rest of the
community will have something to gain from whatever words we scribble
on paper? Perhaps that's what people mean when they refer to "Ivy
So if I ever write another
paper on farm policy, I think I'll spend a lot less time in the
Woodrow Wilson School, and a lot more time in Houston, Missouri.
After all, that vet may not have gone to Princeton, but I never
saw any of my professors wake up early on a Sunday morning to pull
a dead calf.
-Wes Tooke '98