LESS THAN WORDS CAN SAY

by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Ten
Grant Us, Oh Lord

One of the most important uses of language in all cultures is the performance of magic. Since language deals easily with invisible worlds, it's natural that it provide whatever access we think we have to the world of the spirits. Even in cultures that overtly deny a belief in the spirit world, the anthropologist from Mars would discover in their language evidence that denies the denial. The Jiukiukwe address elaborate incantations to the Great-grandfather Anaconda just as the Manhassetites exhort their cars to start and the stock market to rise. Wherever language exists, it is used in the attempt to constrain, or appease, or flatter, or beseech the spirit world.

Typically, the language of incantation is oblique and arcane, always distinguished in some formal way from the language of everyday speech. The gods and spirits are ordinarily not addressed by name, unless you really have their numbers and can command them, and the benefits sought are usually phrased in delicate euphemisms and contrived circumlocutions. There are also, in all languages, certain magical words, words not common in the daily lexicon and sometimes known only to the initiated few. If you know these words, you can at least compel the attention of the spirits. For any speaker of a language, its use displays his license of membership in the culture and elicits from other members whatever is included in the list of privileges and benefits, but a more special form of the language can admit him to inner circles. The most special forms of all are understood to admit him into the spirit world itself. It is not uncommon that the priestly caste of a culture goes even beyond a special form of the language and adopts, if only for ceremonial purposes, an entirely different language.

We have no more confidence in the priests, but that is by no means to say that we have no more confidence in magic. We have simply consecrated new priests to its service. We cannot, in fact, abandon magic, because our language assumes the existence of persons and powers not of this world, the world of immediate experience, and if among them we can perceive "mankind" and "gravity," we can also perceive such things as "Lady Luck" and "fate." These entities are not in the corporeal world; they dwell in language. They can be evoked and, in some sense, dealt with, through language, provided, of course, that we know exactly what to say. The assumption of a spiritual reality underlies "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art" as well as "Rain, rain, go away." It is the root of poetry. It is also the root of lots of gibberish--the abracadabras and open sesames of our time.

The new priests are rarely found in churches. They flourish everywhere. Wherever some inner circle of initiates undertakes to deal in arcane formulae with the insubstantial, there must be a priesthood. It will have all of the gimmicks and trappings of any other priesthood. The candidate for consecration will have to undergo lengthy training in lore and ceremony and much study of the holy writings and will, at the last step, have to satisfy the adepts that he is worthy to sit in their company. Once admitted, he will be granted powers and privileges, among them the power of a highly specialized form of language and the privilege of being taken seriously by the multitudes when he utters it, however little meaning they may take from what he says.

Many of these priests are professors. They have learned their lore and lingo in our colleges and universities, and there they lurk. Sometimes, to be sure, some of them go into classrooms to practice the skills of Delphic utterance and to look for the occasional promising novice whose calling can be confirmed through his aptitude for Delphic utterance, but mostly they spend their time in untroubled meditation and earnest prayer. To them we turn for the fruits of their meditation and prayer. What, we ask, is the meaning of it all? How can we know the good? How will it fare with us in the future? Their answers are prompt and lengthy, but unintelligible. They meditate, you see, on inputs and parameters, on teaching situations, learning situations, passing situations, and even on situation situations, and on things like general insight into the knowledge of a discipline. And for the answers to those universal questions that vex us, they pray not to some god for favor but to some grant for funds.

In the whole United States of America at this moment there are only twenty-seven college professors who have not at one time or another sat around with a few accomplices and plotted to think up a good gimmick for a government grant, and the wording of the prayer that would bring the money. (A grant from some foundation is even better; those G-men are fussy about little things like bookkeeping and expense accounts.) Grant-getting has become one of the regular duties of some professors and administrators. Many colleges and universities have established whole bureaucracies devoted to grant-getting, and energetic hustlers, who never forget, like the rest of us, that Barnum was right, go from campus to campus offering, at stiff prices, seminars, workshops, conferences, and revival meetings on the art of the successful grant prayer.

The enterprises supported by these grants often reach some interesting conclusions, or "findings," as the priests call them. They frequently discover some truth on the order of: Cornered animals will fight. Orphans, they reveal, don't get enough attention from their parents. It has been definitively demonstrated at public expense in New Jersey, for instance, that students who are learning to write learn better the more they write. That's not all. The same "studies have shown" that teachers of writing teach better in those rare cases when they themselves can write. Those conclusions may have cost a lot of money, but they're worth it, wouldn't you say? Knowledge is power.

The search for a grant usually begins with an impromptu worship service also known as brainstorming or as a bull session. The term "brain storm" was coined in 1906 by Harry Thaw's lawyer. Clouds of witnesses had seen his client pumping bullets into Stanford White, so it seemed that the defendant would need something more than an alibi that would place him in a bowling alley in Union City that very evening. Accordingly, the cunning advocate convinced the jury that Thaw had suffered, that very evening, a violent fit of passing madness, a brain storm, which momentarily excused him from certain moral imperatives. Thus Thaw escaped the electric chair. We must presume, therefore, that there is no point in taking what would seem the appropriate action with regard to the concoctors of grant proposals. It would probably be impossible to get a conviction.

Brainstorming sessions go something like this: Some professors are dawdling over coffee in the faculty dining room. They are complaining about the quality of the students these days, the difficulty of finding parking spaces immediately adjacent to the buildings in which they teach occasionally, the stupidity of the dean, and the difficulty of promotion. One of them adds that he can't stand to teach in room 322 because the blackboard is at the back of the room behind the students, and when he wants to draw some cabalistic symbols, he has to thread his way through the desks. In another age, this wouldn't have been all that bad, but nowadays the girls are wearing denim workshirts buttoned up to the neck. Someone suggests moving the furniture around, but this is ignored as not worthy of an academic discussion. Why not, someone else asks, just stay there and lecture at their backs? Maybe the students would learn more because they wouldn't have to pretend to be attentive, and besides, it's easier to check your zipper. By now things are getting serious.

The bright young radical, an assistant professor who used to have a beard when he was only an instructor, points out that the traditional arrangement of a classroom is militaristic, even fascistic, and therefore unsuitable for a nonauthoritarian education in a democratic society. Wouldn't it be interesting to see what would happen if all classes were taught from behind? That does it, of course, and someone says the words, the incantatory formula that opens to the faithful visions of a new, and better, much better, world: "I bet you could get a grant."

Even right after a big lunch, college professors are hungry. Someone says, Hey, why don't we write it up? What can we lose? A little time, that's all. Time is something college professors can find lots of, and we can easily imagine the document that might come of the idle rapping: "A Proposal to Study Pedagogical/Instructional Outcomes as Related to the Unconscious Symbolism of Traditional and Non-Traditional Placement of Individual Learning Stations within the Primary Learning-Facility Location . . ." Of course, that's just a rough draft.

That language is necessary. No project officer would look twice at the naked truth. "What would happen" must become "Pedagogical/Instructional Outcomes," and it would be even better if "behaviors" could be fitted in somehow. (If you speak of "behavior" in the singular, your degree is revoked and you are sent to do penance by teaching in a ghetto school in Tulsa. You may, however, speak freely of "a behavior.") "Placement" seems insufficiently modified. There's no such thing as too much modification, and "Placement" has only the meager "Traditional and Non-Traditional." After all, anyone who knows what he's talking about has to prove it by making it clear that by "placement" he means putting something somewhere in a place, and that place is in space, right? Right! Let's have "Spatial Placement." Come to think of it, "Proposal" is standing there naked-it has no modifier at all. How about "Tentative"? God, no! We'll never get a grant with anything tentative. Maybe "Research Proposal"? Not bad. Or even "experimental." I mean, it is an experiment, after all. Even better. Why not take both? "An Experimental Research Proposal." That should do it. Someone murmurs, How about "theoretical/experimental"? and although that's obviously a good idea, it's too late. The phrase has already been jotted down in big, black capital letters.

Someone now suggests "subliminal" in place of, or even in conjunction with, maybe with a slash, "unconscious," but nobody else likes it. It sounds too Madison Avenue, and it might take some of the bite out of "Unconscious." "Unconscious" is a very potent word-it's something psychological, Freud, you know, and it's very "in" these days. On with the work. Desks have been handled very nicely with "Individual Learning Stations," but it won't hurt at all to change that to "Individualized Learning Stations." Everyone is delighted with "Primary Learning-Facility Location" for classroom, and the hard part is done. We now have the proposal in what is ritually known as its "finalized" form:

An Experimental Research Proposal to Study Pedagogical/Instructional Outcomes/Behaviors as Related to the Unconscious Symbolism of Traditional and Non-Traditional Spatial Placement of Individualized Learning Stations within the Primary Learning-Facility Location

Of course, it still needs some work, now that we see it in its finalized form. "Study" is puny and insufficiently affective. After all, we're not just going to study something; who'd pay us for that? We have to be more positive. Let's try "evaluate"; everybody is willing to pay big for "values" these days. Even "to evaluate," however, seems a little pale. We'll probably end up with "to critically evaluate" or perhaps "to critically/objectively evaluate." That has the power of the slash and shows that we're not stodgy about infinitives.

That just about does it. All that remains is to cook up a few corroborative details, stuff like the instruments (that means tests), the controls, the hypotheses, the expected findings/outcomes, and the questions that the study/evaluation will be centered around. (These things are invariably described as "centered around" something. That is, of course, a metaphysical proposition understood by the priests, but a mystery to us laymen.) Now we can shoot the whole thing off to HEW or someplace, and with a little bit of luck and the favor of the hidden powers we'll all be on half time for the next two years. That means longer lunches and more brainstorming, and, who knows, why not, maybe we can even think up another grant.

Historically, priests have never troubled to deny that their language had the effect of concealing secret things from the uninitiated but revealing those things to the adept. Nor did they feel any need to deny it, since those were goals thought legitimate by both parties, who were in agreement that in language was the key to open doors into other worlds, but that to use it required some special and difficult mastery. Ancient priests, however, seem to have used their special mastery of language to talk about (and even to) things that they at least believed to be real, although impalpable, and inexpressible in any other way. The brainstorming grant-seekers, on the other hand, know very well that a desk is real and palpable and easy to express and therefore choose to veil it as an Individualized Learning Station, thus suggesting mystery where they know there is none. Where the ancient priests spoke in such terms as they could devise of things not to be understood in the ordinary vernacular, the modern priest speaks of things easily understood in language not easily understood. The mystery has migrated from the thing itself to the language. Under the circumstances, in this age of disbelief, they've done the best they could. They have the words, but they just don't have the tune. Where the language of magic was once the visible shell of the unimaginable within, all that is unimaginable now is the shell, because what is within is obvious and prosaic. The modern priests have no substantial core, not even an imagined one, to put at the heart of the arcane language of incantation and prayer.

Consider this passage from a grant-seeking proposal meant to do something or other about the training of teachers:

(1) Teaching is the application of a systematic series of actions directed toward specific ends. [Italics in original.] (2) Within the general system of teaching acts are many subsets of actions and processes. (3) For example, based upon developments in philosophy, psychology, and communications theory, teaching and learning are now seen as reciprocal relations within a specialized system of information processing. (4) Teaching also requires the ability to relate knowledge of the processes of human growth and psycho-social development to the instruction of individuals and groups. (5) Translation, transformation, and organization of subject matter into meanings appropriate for the age or ability of learners is another process within teaching.

Knowledge is a collection of statements. Not all our statements, however, are statements of knowledge. Language wouldn't work if it didn't have abiding forms and structures, but sometimes it doesn't work just because it has those forms and structures. We're free to put anything we like into the natural forms, and, because the forms are natural, it's easy to conclude that we have said something because we have said it in the same form in which we might in fact have said something. Since it makes some sense to say "lions are dangerous," we may think that any other statement in that same form will make some other sense. This form, however, is so brief and clear that not many of us would be confused into thinking that "lions are ultimate" has to mean something just because of its form. When both form and matter are more complicated, it's easier to be confused.

Remember the questionnaire. Take the perfectly reasonable statement, "A goal of teaching is to give students knowledge." Not especially startling, or even useful, it is at least a statement that can be accepted as meaning something. It is an empirical hypothesis that could imaginably be checked through observation and experience. Its form, however, is a container into which we can pour whatever we please. We can say, as that silly questionnaire did say, "A goal of teaching is to provide general insight into the knowledge of a discipline." It sounds fine; but if you bother to think about it, you see that it is nonsense. Of course, you're not expected to think about it; you're expected to feel about it.

When you solicit the favor of the hidden powers with prayer, you do not presume to instruct them in matters intellectual. It is not your wish that they understand what you say, but that they love you for saying it. Consider the first sentence in the passage quoted above: "Teaching is the application of a systematic series of actions directed toward specific ends." It is grammatically impeccable. It sounds just like a meaningful statement. It is meaningful. It, too, is an empirical hypothesis that we might conceivably confirm or confute through experience and observation. It has, furthermore, the sound of authority, with all those careful modifiers and distinctions. Can't you just see some gray, distinguished professorial gent, tweed and pipe, pushing his glasses up on his forehead, staring awhile in deep thought at the book-lined wall of his study, and revealing at last, you hanging on his every word, not only that teaching is a systematic series of actions but that it is actually directed toward specific ends? Those words are even put in italics, which means that this is the heart of the matter, and you'd better pay attention if you want to learn something.

That, as it happens, was a mistake. In the cool calm of the book-lined study you might be sucked into believing that you had been told something important, but when you can consider the words on paper, and in italics at that, you can see that this is a statement designed to leave a certain impression on those who pay no attention. That was the case, also, with that business about providing general insight into the knowledge of a discipline.

When we pay attention, we can see that the statement, while certainly reasonable, is simply worthless to anyone who does in fact want to understand teaching. It purports to tell us what teaching is and tells us what just about anything is. Take the name of whatever it is you do for a living, or, for that matter, as a hobby, and drop it into that form in the place of "teaching." It'll make sense. It will still be rubbish. But not, of course, worthless rubbish. Grant-seeking, after all, is also a systematic series of actions directed toward specific ends.

The second sentence has the same characteristic; it can describe anything we do: "Within the general system of teaching acts are many subsets of actions and processes." It is cunning, however, because it sounds as though the writer has thought something out and is now elaborating on the first sentence. He will be delighted if you nod your head and say, "Oh, yes. Now I understand. Subsets. Sure. Subsets of actions and of processes."

That sentence is a perfect example of the Principle of Unnecessary Specification. It's the sort of thing that's often found in the language of incantation, where it sometimes has poetic and impressive qualities: "We have erred and strayed . . . we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts." In such appearances, the elaboration of specification, probably an inheritance from certain typical forms of Hebrew poetry, often does provide delicate distinctions interesting to think about. In the modern priest-jargon, however, this is seldom the case. When we are told that a "general system" is made up of "subsets of actions and processes," our minds are not notably clarified.

Usually, in fact, such examples of the Principle of Unnecessary Specification are meant to be the opposite of clarifying. Indeed, its practitioners are traditionally careful not only to provide detailed specification where none is needed but also to withhold it where it is needed. What, for instance, are those presumed "developments in philosophy, psychology, and communications theory"? Furthermore, where specifications are provided, they are either obvious, as in the case of the subsets of actions and processes, or incomprehensible, like the miniature incantation in the fifth sentence: "Translation, transformation, and organization." A solemn sound. In some metaphysical fashion, the three are one in the mind of the writer, obviously, because when they finally get a verb toward the end of the sentence, it's the singular "is." "Translation, transformation, and organization . . . is another process within teaching." Who says faith is dead? This triune mystery is made up of lesser mysteries: The translation of subject matter into meanings, The transformation of subject matter into meanings, and The organization of subject matter into meanings. Quite a trick. That's not all. If they mean what they say, we have to conclude that the "meaning" of Magna Carta suitable for stupid nine-year-olds just wouldn't do for normal high school seniors.

Let's try to understand all of this. First of all, this writer seems to allow that there is such a thing as "subject matter." This is a handsome admission from an educationist, but it is not, of course, an endorsement of the foolish notion that subject matter is what is to be taught. The teacher, we see, has to take the subject matter and "translate" it into "meanings" appropriate for these or those students. If you're sitting there wondering what it might mean, for instance, to translate the formula for finding the area of a circle into "meanings" more appropriate for some students than for others, then you're just not thinking. For students in the Italian quarter, you talk about pizzas; for students in Dubuque, apple pie; in Laredo, tortillas. That's only the beginning. Now that the subject matter has been translated, it must also be transformed into, presumably, yet other meanings than those derived by translating it. And then organized. That part sounds simple at first, because we can imagine ways of organizing subject matter, while it passes understanding to see how we can translate or transform it. However, although we might organize subject matter in any number of ways, that won't be good enough.... Somehow, we must be sure that our organization converts the subject matter into "meanings" precisely appropriate for exactly these students.

The ordinary citizen in the streets imagines that teaching geometry, for example, must be a fairly straightforward business, at least in principle. You show the students the assumptions and explain the principles; you demonstrate the methods; you provide problems and guide their practice; you go logically from step to step, and the students can learn not only geometry but skills and discipline useful for thinking in general. Wrong. For professionals of education, if we are to believe this document (and you had better believe it), the geometry itself is only the humblest first entry in a hierarchical structure of acts and subsets of actions and processes and reciprocal relations within a specialized system of information processing and the relation of knowledge to the processes of human growth and psycho-social development to the instruction of individuals and groups. There. Then there's the business of translating geometry into those appropriate meanings, and transforming it ditto, and organizing it ditto. Now you can understand why the teacher of geometry in your local high school may be a little weak in the geometry itself and why that unfortunate girl in Pennsylvania can't punctuate. They have spent most of their time in college not actually studying things like geometry and punctuation. They have been occupied with the solemn contemplation of all the subsets of actions and processes, in all of which they were "taught" by gurus to whom naked geometry and mere punctuation, of which they may well have known nothing at all, were nothing more than convenient starting places for an exercise in transcendental elaboration. The study of education isn't like the study of plants or history; it's like the study of angels.

You must not be curt when you address the hidden powers. They have all the time in the world, and you must come before them as one who is properly initiated into their ways. To address a prayer to the grant-giver, you must show that you have what a court of law would call "standing." That's why the Principle of Unnecessary Specification is so important. Anyone who would confess, for instance, that he is concerned with mere "instruction" cannot expect much of a hearing from the grant-giver. That's why this document is careful to explain that it is interested in the "instruction of individuals and groups." You and I would think it enough to say "instruction" and understand that there isn't anyone else to instruct except people, who come to be instructed either as individuals or groups, because there isn't any other possibility. Obviously, the grant-givers, either as individuals or groups, do not need to be instructed as to this; they must want to know the nature of our hearts, or something. The pious heart, you can be sure, would have gone on beyond "individuals and groups" if only some further category had been imaginable. The writer was probably a bit saddened to have to say such a meager thing, and it may have been to make up for it that he devised the sonorous "translation, transformation, and organization" formula for the next sentence.

The Principle of Unnecessary Specification is, of course, a great convenience for writers who need to pad out what little they have to say, and it is certainly true that many a grant proposal has been rejected out of hand because it wasn't long enough, but padding isn't the only purpose of that splendid principle. It has genuinely incantatory intentions and powers. It can make the obvious seem profound, and the simple, complicated. It can, furthermore, make the trivial seem very important indeed. Skillfully used, it projects an atmosphere, one might even say an aroma, of great insight and expertise about anything we might write. It is the incense of incantatory prose, and a few deep whiffs can transport the intoxicated worshiper into what grant-seekers of all persuasions would surely call "new levels of awareness." When we ascend to those new levels, we do so not in elevators, but in "integrated single-module vertical transportation systems," as they are in fact called in government documents, and the mentor who elevates us must be an "integrated single module vertical transportation system operations engineer."

This may be silly language, but it is not the ignorant language of that schoolteacher in Pennsylvania. It is carefully and knowingly contrived. In fact, the constraints that must be observed in this language are even greater than those laid upon the priests and necromancers of earlier ages. They had to satisfy only the hidden powers and, occasionally, each other. These modern spell-casters must always be mindful of pesky and impertinent outsiders who nowadays presume to poke their noses into all sorts of things too deep for them. The very taxpayers and parents of schoolchildren have come to think that they have some right to understand--and even to question--the intentions of the rulers and the clergy, the professionals, as they call themselves. It's exasperating, but lacking a general return to the social beliefs and standards of an earlier and easier time, there isn't a hell of a lot to be done about it. Nevertheless, although they can't send an uppity laity back into the Dark Ages, they can at least find a way to keep it in the dark. Their language must serve the double purpose of showing the hidden powers that they deserve the dough and making the ordinary layman believe that what they think about is terribly complicated and important, too complicated for him to understand and too important for him to meddle with.

In this respect, the passage cited above is not entirely successful. We can understand it, with a little attention, and we can see that what little it says is so general and obvious that it's not worth saying and that most of it says nothing that means anything at all. The writer, of course, would still object that mere laymen cannot understand such technical and esoteric things, but his objection would carry little conviction. We've caught him in just too much nonsense. He is not a truly great writer of balderdash, just a hack.

He misses greatness because, not having read Luther, he sins but meagerly. His transgression is puny because while his heart is in the world of noncognition, he wants to sound cognitive, like some of his respectable colleagues who still deal with discernible facts. He doesn't mind living in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, but he and his close neighbors have made a pact among themselves not to give out their addresses. In short, he is willing to utter nonsense, but he is afraid to be caught doing it, so he has to sound analytical and "official."

Like love, however, perfect inanity casteth out fear. The next writer has not only moved into the land of noncognition but has even taken up arms in its perpetual war of worldwide conquest.


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