Three Mile Island Syndrome
IF you were lucky enough to have been a reader of this journal in March of 1978, you may now remember where you heard it first. In that issue, we (more or less) accurately predicted not only the recent mishap at Three Mile Island but also the collision of a southbound Metroliner (a crack train, that) with a hastily abandoned repair vehicle of some sort. "We are," we told you, "in the hands of people who say they know what they're doing, but they don't." We called them "self-styled experts failing in the work they said they could do and excusing themselves because the work is difficult." Those are precisely the people who smash us into tampers and bring us to the brink of "super-prompt critical power excursion," as the old AEC once called "meltdown." It sure is good to know, isn't it, that there couldn't possibly be any such ninnies scratching their heads and tapping the dials down in the bunkers and silos of the North American Air Defense Command.
Curiously enough, in the same piece we cited Adam Smith's observation that when people of the same calling consort together, the result is always a conspiracy against the public. That, in the context of recent calamities, must bring at once to every mind dark suspicions about the National Council of Teachers of English. In every control room and laboratory in America, in the cockpits of aeroplanes and the swivel-chairs of agencies, wherever meters are read and decisions made and dials twiddled, this sinister confraternity has planted unwitting agents. Dr. Fu Manchu never had it so good.
It wasn't even hard. All they had to do was convince us that painstaking accuracy in small details was nyet humanistic and not worth fussing about in the teaching of reading and writing. They seized and promulgated, for instance, the bizarre notion that guessing at unknown words was more creative than learning the sounds of letters, thus providing us with whole bureaucracies full of nitwits whose writing, at best, is made out of more or less approximate words that might sort of mean something or other. After all, if your teacher applauds your creativity when you read "supper" for "dinner," you're little likely to grow up caring about the difference between parameter and perimeter.
The NCTE worries about the "trivializing" of competence tests by persnickety questions on punctuation and spelling, preferring that student writing skills be judged "holistically" and with no "emphasis on trivia." (College English, March 1979, pp. 827-828.) By that, they mean that student writing should be judged subjectively by members of the teacher club (who else could provide a "holistic rating"?), and that skills like spelling and punctuation, objectively measurable by mere civilians, are to be held of little or no account.
One NCTEer, a certain Seymour Yesner, a public school teacher in Minneapolis, questions whether spelling or capitalization "is as important as presenting ideas in logical sequence." Sure. There must be millions of kids who haven't been taught too much about the relatively undemanding skills of spelling and punctuation but have nevertheless mastered the rigorous discipline of "presenting ideas in logical sequence."
Another, James Hoetker of Florida State University, laments a competence test "that makes no mention at all of student creative work . . . or appreciation." You can't get away with pretending to teach spelling and punctuation; the facts will find you out. Creativity and appreciation, however . . .
The most pathetic whimper, and probably the most revealing, comes from one Thomas Gage of Humboldt State University in California. He bemoans "thirty-five performance indicators which are clearly utilitarian" and because of which he fears that "little humanistic education can be provided." That's the heart of the matter.
Whether or not NCTEers can teach things like spelling and punctuation, who knows? In any case, they obviously don't want to. They want to wear the robes of prophets and priests and peddle to their students the same bogus "humanistic" attitudes that were peddled to them in the teacher academy. They want to preside over rap sessions on values clarification and play charades of holistic creativity and appreciation enhancement.
Children always learn something in school, but what they learn is seldom what we had in mind to teach. Children who grow up under the influence of the humanistic education mongers, what do they learn? They learn that hosts of errors will be forgiven for even the pretense of good intentions. They learn that shabby workmanship brings no penalty, especially in the context of anything silly or self-indulgent enough to be put forth as "creative." They learn that the mastery of skills is of little importance, for even the supposed teachers of skills have found comfortable jobs in spite of their indifference to those skills and, not infrequently, in spite of an obvious lack of those skills. They learn to be shoddy workers in any endeavor, comforting themselves, as their teachers did, by fantasies of a holistic excellence unfettered by precision in small details, or "emphasis on trivia."
Then they take jobs with power companies and railroads, where machines and toxic substances, unmindful of "holistic ratings," take heed only--and always, always--of the little things, the valves and switches, the trivia.
Song and Dance in Tennessee
Dear Underground, I have been reading and studying you magazine for sometime and I truly do enjoy reading it. The onliest thing is, is that it is hard to study out what it means. A least always. I don't mean the Latin or whatever it is in the "headlines" which I can skip them anyway but it seems to me that folks up North make things out harder than they have to be some time and you could learn from us as well. You take Philosophy, as any one would call it a hard "subject" (but not in Knoxville) because you would want to read about the material dialects and the rational. Still, I think you would very seriously do it but end up finally with book learning that is alright in its place, however, life must go on as they say. You will see from the "enclosed" that Philosophy does not have to be hard, and not even Existentialism that is the hardest known Philosophy. It tells about Anand Kumar Malik and his course he is teaching called The Existential Student, and very well put by the "headline." "You are hereby invited to become no one but yourself." It gives a good feeling and the smiling face picture really gets the message across. Any one who could get themselves down to the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville this summer, could learn Existentialism and Humanism thrown in as the flyer says in only four (4) weeks in the dept. of Education, and that's what it is about after all. If I may give some quotes from the flier you will see that school can be fun, when the students learn "to sing their own song" and "to dance their way through life." It gives some selected writings too, and as I said there is not a thing wrong with book learning, but I have to admit that I don't recognize the names, except Elizabeth Lacey tells me that a friend of hers has a whole book of Philosophy by that Mr. Kahlil Gibran, or probably Prof. Gibran, and she says that he is "very good." (Exact quote!) They will have existential music and existential art slides, and "making your own existential painting." Best of all is they will "relate themselves to themselves through self-understanding" and that makes good sense if you ask me in my humble opinion. Maybe you shouldn't think school should be all that hard as you seem to think some times, because here is Mr. Malik whose not only an education teacher but he can teach Existentialism too, and he even lets the students figure up their grades so there won't be all that worry about flunking (failing.) Now that is the whole difference right there between the teachers and the others, and I bet you you won't find any cheerful smiling face picture drawn up at the top of any fancy medical school flyer. You take doctors and lawyers and even I hope you don't mind my saying so some of your college professors and you will find there is more than just one stuffed shirt between them. That is because all those "subjects" they study they make them so serious as though somebody's or other life depended on it. Life isn't all a rose colored glass, you know, and it is good to have faith that our school teachers can learn Existentialism and dance through it with a song in their heart nevertheless. I know you hate mistakes, so I looked up the hard words.
Jack "Dirty Hands" Sartry