Sunday, May 17, 2009

Run It up the Flagpole and See. . . what?

This was the sight that greeted visitors as they came up the main drive onto the Hampshire College campus shortly before Commencement.

The question is: why?

The College always sets out the flags of United Nations member states on festive occasions. So, nothing unusual there. And, given that the flags are arranged in a circle, every flag will by definition be next to two other flags. There are a total of 192 UN member states. Are you with me? So far, so good. This is the United States, so one could reasonably assume (yes, even in Amherst), that the Stars and Stripes would be front and center. And, either because this is Amherst, or simply because we try to fly the flags of all nations of the world, one could also surmise that the UN flag might be highlighted (the Town flies it on the Common, alongside the national flag). So, the US and UN flags are next to each other. Each therefore has a chance of being next to only one national flag out of the 191 remaining.

The flags next to the US flag are the UN flag and that of Israel.

What, as the saying goes, are the odds of that?

Yes, this could be your chance, by demonstrating understanding of statistical methods, to pass your quantitative skills requirement.

We don't like multiple-choice tests at Hampshire. In fact, most of us don't give tests at all, preferring essay assignments. But for the sake of argument, humor me, and give it a try.

As a cultural historian, of course, I see just these basic choices:
  • random, statistical chance (both the US and UN flags have a chance of being next to any one of the 191 other flags)
  • there may be some meaning to the choice, but it was just something those guys in Physical Plant did on their own when they set up for graduation, so it's anyone's guess and has no official meaning
  • the College, reeling from the bad publicity occasioned by the divestment issue and other controversies involving the Middle East, quite deliberately sought to send the implicit message—in particular to parents and prospective donors—that it is neither anti-Israel nor antisemitic
Which is it? You decide.

No comments: