LESS THAN WORDS CAN SAY

by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Fourteen
The Turkeys that Lay
the Golden Egg

Consider P. (That's not his real name, of course; his real name is Legion.) He is a member of the most elaborate and successful bureaucracy since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Is there a Kafka hidden away in one of its back offices? Maybe, but he surely isn't P. P's prose is somewhat less interesting than K's, although it does have one unusual quality that Kafka never managed to achieve. While Kafka can be translated into English, P cannot:

Our program is designed to enhance the concept of an open-ended learning program with emphasis on a continuum of multi-ethnic, academically enriched learning using the identified intellectually gifted child as the agent or director of his own learning. Major emphasis is on cross-graded, multi-ethnic learning with the main objective being to learn respect for the uniqueness of a person.

Blot out all thought of trying to figure out what he means--it doesn't matter. Concentrate on P as a person, or even as the uniqueness of a person.

We already know a lot about P, because we have seen similar productions turned out by many of his ilk. He is one of those educationist types, no longer a teacher, if he ever was one, but a permanent bureaucrat, one whose love of children has excused him from their presence as persons so that he may respect their uniquenesses as persons. We can be sure that he knows and uses, perhaps even thinks that he understands, all the typical jargon of his calling. We can guess that he has taken many courses in pedagogy and academic administration and that he knows all about guidelines and curricula and what the studies have shown. His writing suggests also certain personal qualities. It is pompous and self-important, intended to impress the reader with the skill and erudition of the writer. Most of it, moreover, seems to be taken from "the literature," that is, the utterances and pronouncements of all the other P's. Because we can't tell if there is any thought in what he says, we obviously can't tell if there is any original thought in what he says, and we can only guess that there probably isn't. Let's guess that, by all means. All right--that's enough. We have a fairly good picture of P.

Now ask: Is P unusual? That seems unlikely. We find so many examples of P-ness, especially in the administrators of the schools, that we have to guess that there are many like P, hordes of them, in fact. They are the people who sit around sending each other pieces of prose like the one above. They take them seriously. They are the people in charge of education. Politicians come and go, but these educationistic bureaucrats are permanently bedded down in secure bureaucracies and protected from criticism by the opacity of their words and their claim to an expertise that you and I cannot possibly hope to understand. They will make the future.

Go back now to politicians, more P's, come to think of it. Although politicians do come and go, they are able to do much mischief during their brief tenure. As you saw in that business of "simplified" English, politicians especially love issues that can't possibly hurt them. Nowadays, they have discovered the turkeys that lay the golden eggs in our educational disorders. Because few people can read anything much more complicated than the instructions on the child-proof caps, the politicians can without risk espouse the cause of simplification. For the same reason, that is, because it is without risk, they can advocate improved teaching of reading in the schools.

If we really believed that the reading of schoolchildren could be improved, then we wouldn't need to worry about simplifying all our contracts and regulations, of course. But to politicians a little contradiction like that doesn't matter. What matters is that they take a stand in favor of good and against evil. Accordingly, in state after state, legislators are making laws intended to ensure what is now called a minimum competence in all high school graduates. It's a popular cause, and many reasonable people have been tricked into supporting it. Only a yahoo would attack it, it seems. Nevertheless, it is a very bad idea for the future of literacy, and, when combined with the simplification madness, it assures a never-failing supply of docile voters and mindless consumers. It assures also, like the Black English mania, that the technological skills of the future will be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. For those people, that's good.

Here's how the process goes. Politicians begin to notice that the citizens have been worked up about declining literacy. After asking around, they discover that there's hardly anyone who will come out against literacy, so they decide to do the virtuous thing however difficult and politically dangerous. They say: Enough! Our high schools must prepare every citizen and voter to cope with the world. No more social promotion! No more functional illiterates! Freedom of opportunity for all! And the people applaud.

What next? Tests, of course. We will give tests to those students, and those who can't pass can't graduate. What could be more logical? And how will we make those tests? We'll go to the professionals, the educators, the people who have been sending all of those illiterates out into the world, the people who caused this problem in the first place. They have by now surely mended their ways; even they have come out in favor of literacy. It's a great new day for education and freedom and politics in general.

Here is what happens down at the bitter end of the process. Don't forget P, the chap who wrote that stuff about the cross-graded multi-ethnic learning. He and his friends are the ones who will figure out how to measure literacy. Who else is there to do it? The legislators are a little short on literacy themselves, and P and company have all kinds of certificates and diplomas, to say nothing of a well-established bureaucracy and the secret lodge language. They are the people to whom the legislators turn. P and his pals will "devise instruments" to guarantee minimal competence in reading and writing in all high school graduates.

As horrifying as that is in theory, it's much worse in practice. It means that P will end up giving tests in which literacy is measured by a student's ability to choose between "who" and "whom" and to put a colon after "Dear Congressman:" Now that is the kind of stuff that P knows how to measure. He probably does know the difference between "who" and "whom," and very probably can even say, after only a moment's reflection, hard things like "just between him and us." Judging from the passage cited, we may even conclude that he has some control of commas and understands at least one use of capitalization. If those are the kinds of things that constitute literacy, however, then it's hardly worth fussing about. Knowing those things obviously hasn't helped P at all. If we really mean to stamp out illiteracy, then we're going to have to start by stamping out P.

Indubitably, the literate person is familiar with the conventions of "correct" English and can use them or even fool around with them as he chooses. Knowing the difference between "who" and "whom" is like knowing how to finger scales; the one doesn't make you literate and the other doesn't make you a musician. The writer who doesn't know the difference between "who" and "whom," like the musician who doesn't know how to finger scales, had better have one hell of a lot of talent. There are such people. They are amazing, but they are not produced by schooling. Such people, in fact, ought to stay away from schools and protect their talents. The ordinary student has little if any talent, and if he is to become literate he will need to know all the mechanical trivia we can teach him. That, however, will not make him literate.

The literate person is in control of those techniques special to writing rather than to speech. He can formulate sentences that make sense. He can choose the right word from an array of similar words. He can devise the structures that show how things and statements about things are related to one another. He can generate strings of sentences that develop logically related thoughts, and arrange them in such a way as to make that logic clear to others. He can make analogies and define classes. He can, in writing, discover thought and make knowledge. Because he can do these things, he can, in reading, determine whether or not someone else can do these things. He is familiar with a technology of thinking. To accept anything less as our definition of literacy is to admit that hardly any of us will ever be able to think about anything. That may be true, but to admit it is to assure it.

P is illiterate. He cannot do those things. Wait. Maybe he can do those things but for some reasons of his own chooses not to. In that case, he is worse than illiterate; he is depraved. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he is merely illiterate. When we realize that, we also realize that "minimum" is the important word in the "minimum competence" game. P is going to set some standards having to do with things like "who" and "whom." He'll call them, naturally, behavioral objectives. He'll devise some instruments to measure the behaviors. The teachers will teach the students the "who" and "whom" business, along with colons, maybe. The students will take the tests. A number of them, perhaps lots of them, will "pass." Behold. A minimum competence in literacy will have been achieved. Legislators and educationists will shake each other by the hand. The former will be reelected; the latter will be promoted. The citizenry of America will be enriched by millions of high school graduates who now know the difference between "who" and "whom."

The minimum competence school of education is nothing new. We've had it for many years, but we didn't talk about it until we discovered that we could make a virtue of it. Obviously, any system of schooling in which there are tests and passing grades is a sort of minimum competence system--if you pass, you pass; but that's not exactly how the minimum competence system is now construed. Now we try to find out just how little we can get by with and pronounce it enough. The current crisis is simply the result of a disagreement as to how little is enough. The school people want it to be as little as possible, and the politicians want it to be just enough to convince the citizens that something has been done, and somewhere in the middle they will meet and compromise. In some states now it is enough if high school seniors can read and write like the eighth graders of another age, but in other more demanding states it is necessary for high school seniors to read and write like the tenth graders of another age. States' rights, you know.

In effect, the minimum competence movement will simply assure that millions of American students will take just a little longer to reach that degree of incompetence that we can now expect in the ordinary high school graduate. This, in turn, will mean that it will take just a little bit longer for millions of American students to reach that degree of incompetence that we can now expect in the ordinary college graduate. This, in its turn, will keep graduates of both high schools and colleges out of the job market a bit longer. Unemployment will decline because those who might have looked for work are still busy wrestling with "who" and "whom." Educationists will point with pride to their new "rigorous" programs, and politicians will point with pride to the efficaciousness of their economical policies. America will prosper.

That's not all. The educationist establishment will wax fat with the addition of diagnosticians and remediationalists and devisers of instruments and coordinators of curricula and directors of programs and all of the supporting services and paraphernalia that must go with all of those things. The teacher corps will grow, and teachers will demand and get more money for the arduous increased labor involved in teaching the advanced skills of fourth-grade reading and writing to sixth-grade students. Everyone will profit. Well, perhaps not everyone.

Here is someone who won't. This poor fellow went to high school not too long ago. Then, even more recently, he went to college. His major was political science, his minor, sociology. In his major, his grade average was B plus, in his minor, B. These grades used to mean a better than average student; now they mean an average student, except, of course, in education courses, where such low grades are uncommon. This poor chap's name is also Legion. He's your standard model college graduate. Now he needs a job, and here he is, applying for a modest enough position in the world of free, private enterprise:

Dear Sir:

I am seeking a job as an insurance adjuster; and it is with this in mind that I am writing to you and your company. I first became interested in an insurance adjuster job through my best friend. He is an insurance adjuster with a large national company. After having talked to him I have decided that an insurance adjuster job is the type of job and career that I would enjoy. I sought placement with the company that he works for, however at this time they were unable to find placement for me with their company; and as I am very interested in becoming an insurance adjuster I have decided to seek placement with other insurance companies. My first approach to trying to find placement with other insurance companies was to go to a personnel agency which had listed several adjuster positions that they had. However after having visited a personnel agency I decided that they were not the best approach in trying to find placement with other insurance companies. Therefore, my second approach and the one that I am using now is to send a letter with my personal resume to all the insurance companies operating in the state of North Carolina, stating that I am seeking placement with their company as an insurance adjuster. After you have read my letter and studied my personal resume, if you and your company have an opening within your company for an insurance adjuster and are interested in me as a candidate for the position, I would be very interested in talking to you.

What will become of him? Do you think that he can make it as an insurance adjuster? Do you think anyone will give him a chance to try? Would you? His writing is not fraudulent like P's; it's merely pathetic. We can easily imagine hours of bafflement and pencil-chewing, the unsuccessful struggle to answer the demands of an unfamiliar technology. His letter is awkward and inept, like a child's gift of a pencil pot made of Popsicle sticks glued around a soup can, and every bit as revealing of what P would probably call "the uniqueness of a person." That is, not at all. Nevertheless, this poor boy is what our schools have called minimally competent at the very least, and so he will be for the rest of his sad and meager life. Some useless but interesting questions arise. How much reading did he do as a student of political science and sociology, disciplines not noted for a lack of discursive and theoretical prose? What makes him think that this is how writing is supposed to go? What did his professors say about his writing? Was it with discursive prose like this that he earned his good grades? The questions are useless, of course, because the answers are obvious. Again and again, for all those years of his education, someone said of his skill, "What the hell, it'll do." To require anything more of him would have been just too much trouble. Nevertheless, he's one of our successes. Just try to imagine the failures.


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