McShane's Puzzles: Apologia for Those Who Flunk Them
Philip McShane has had as one of his leisure specialties the provision of tantalising puzzles which are meant to provide samples of insight but sometimes, instead of promoting insight, reduce his readers to angry frustration.
I will take as point of departure for my reflections a single puzzle Philip once presented on his own to some learned society – I forget which. Those present were invited to find the meaning of the letters SMTWTFS; when it was clear they were getting nowhere, Philip rescued them from their frustration with the answer: the letters are the initials for the seven days of the week. Facing then the understandable chagrin of his audience at their failure and their irritated protest that they couldn’t be expected to find a sensible answer to such an absurd question, Philip informed them: ‘I gave the problem to a class in Grade School and they solved it.’
As one of the frustrated academics who didn’t solve the problem, I wish to reflect on this exchange, not just because, like the person in the Gospel, ‘I am willing to justify myself,’ but more importantly because it suggests an appropriate topic for the volume Michael Shute is editing in Philip’s honour, and gives me an opportunity to ponder once more a question we will never ponder enough or come close to exhausting: the working of the human mind as it strives to achieve and sometimes does achieve an insight. How does insight occur? How can it be encouraged to occur? And why in the present case did it not occur in the circle of academics, when it did to a Grade School class?
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