I spent half my career in higher education as an administrator and professor of English at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Located on the city’s northwest side, it is 5500 north and 3500 west on the grid, not that far from O’Hare International Airport (ORD). I used to puzzle visitors by pointing out that Northeastern was actually southwest of Northwestern. “What?!” They would exclaim. It was a matter of context...
Northwestern, a private university, is located in the near-north Chicago suburb of Evanston, on the western shore of Lake Michigan. The University’s historical frame of reference is national, for when it was founded in 1851, it was in the northwestern corner of the then United States. Northeastern, as a state institution is, by contrast, in the northeastern quadrant of the State of Illinois. But as it happens, Northeastern is geographically southwest of Northwestern. Context here is everything.
Take another example. Positive is positive and negative is negative, right? Yes, but in medicine, when you’re testing for Covid, a negative result is positive as we usually construe that term whereas a positive test is negative. Go figure! The meaning of these terms depends once again on context.
Or here’s a third example. Today, as I write these words, it’s April 22nd, 2023. (There’s usually a one-month lag between my composing these one-page blogs and their publication on my website: www.reynoldruslan.com.) As you’ll recall, April 22nd is also Earth Day. Here in mile-high Boulder, Colorado, April is often a snowy month, and snow means cold. As someone who has lived for 17 years on O`ahu, Hawai’i, I have permanently thinned blood. So when I woke up this morning and saw four inches of fresh snow on what yesterday had been greening grass, I was a metaphorically unhappy camper. Hey, I thought to myself, aren’t we beginning the second month of spring today? Why is it 27 degrees Fahrenheit out there and still snowing?! But on second thought I remembered that our entire geographical region, including Colorado, has been undergoing a years-long drought. For this reason the federal government plans to limit use of the dangerously low Colorado River as a water source for its surrounding communities. Four inches of new snow should thus be celebrated, not criticized, for bringing much-needed moisture to this rain-starved land. Yet again the importance of context.
No doubt you can think of other situations where context makes all the difference. Here’s a final instance. Being an interesting and articulate conversationalist is a laudable personal trait. Yet engaging one’s neighbor in even a whispered exchange in a movie theater while the feature film is playing is totally out of place and the cause of blame, not praise, from one’s neighbors.
So, dear reader, when in doubt about whether something is good or bad, remember to consider the context. You and probably others around you will be glad you did.