Monday, July 18, 2011

Logical Nonsense

Words can lose their meaning, and when they do, utterance becomes nonsense, even it it seems logical.

This example of logical nonsense was reported by Peter S. Latham, J.D., and Patricia H. Latham, J.D., in Newsbriefs, the newsletter of the Learning Disabilities Association of America (November-December, 2009, Volume 44, No. 5).

A child with learning and attention disorders in a public school district had been described by his teachers as having trouble paying attention in class and completing his assignments. His problems got worse in high school and his mother asked the school district for a psychological evaluation. School psychologists evaluated the child and concluded that he did not qualify for special education services, in an evaluation which was subsequently found to be legally inadequate. The child’s parents sought private professional evaluation which resulted in a formal diagnosis of ADHD and several forms of learning disability. The private specialist recommended placement in a structured, residential learning environment, and his parents enrolled him in a private academy serving children with special needs.

His parents notified the school district of the private placement and sought a due process hearing to require the school district to pay for it. The hearing resulted in the determination that the school district had not offered an appropriate education and confirmed that the private school placement was appropriate, so the school district had to pay for it.

The school district sought judicial review in U.S. District Court, on the basis--here is the logical nonsense--that the child’s parents were barred from reimbursement for his private special education placement because he had not previously received special education services. Of course, the reason why he had not received special education services was because the school's psychologists had found him ineligible on the basis of an inadequate assessment.

The U. S. District Court, unable to discern between logic and nonsense, agreed with the school district’s reasoning. The parents appealed that ruling to Circuit Court which, restoring sense, reversed on the grounds that eligibility for private special education wasn’t conditional on having first received special education in the public schools. The school district appealed to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the Circuit Court's finding for the parents. So sense won out in the end, this time at least.

D. L. Pendlebury, commenting on the depth of language that he could not include in his translation of sections of the Afghan Sufi poet Hakim Sanai's "The Walled Garden of Truth" (published by Octagon, London), reflects on the way "the hypnotic power of linear verbal communication" underlies the loss of meaning in speech in Western societies. "We are effectively anesthetized to words; and perhaps precisely for that very reason we have been more enslaved by them than any other culture in history..." (p. 62)

I can't help wondering whether the school district's attorneys and administrators really believed their nonsense or whether they felt that they had to come up with something and that was the best they could do. And I can't help wondering whether the U. S. District Court judge who held for the school district really believed the school district's nonsense, or whether he (or she) knew it was nonsense but felt compelled to support the school district for some other reasons.

A lot of psychotherapy is about restoring sense to language from which sense has become separated.