A Big "A" for Effort
The essential factor that keeps the scientific enterprise healthy is a shared respect for quality. Everybody can take pride in the quality of his own work, and we expect rough treatment from our colleagues whenever we produce something shoddy.
[The words of Freeman Dyson, a physicist, in The New Yorker for August 6, 1979, page 40.]
WELL, sure, but let's be reasonable. There are, after all, enterprises in which rough treatment for shoddy work would be downright churlish. When your kids come home from camp, do you tell them that their pots are lumpy and leaky and their popsicle-stick pencil-holders all askew? Do you inform that sweet old lady who plays the harmonium at choir practice that her rhythm is uncertain and her accidentals accidental and that she'd do better playing on a touch-tone telephone? And how about that tap-dancing at the junior high talent show, and the mimeographed newsletter your Aunt Tabiatha emits every Christmas?
Now, if you'll just give such things a little humanistic thought, maybe you can enhance your values on a holistic basis in the good old affective domain. Then, when your neighborhood principal sends out a page of ungrammatical babble, maybe you'll be sensitive enough to give him as much consideration as you give the baton twirlers in the homecoming parade. It's honest effort that counts, isn't it, and that principal is doing the best he can.
Those of us who have landed steady jobs in the schools understand these things, and we always give each other A for effort, and never, never, any of that rough treatment stuff. When our colleagues undertake a modification of the sequencing of modules within clusters exposing students to a variety of experiences including module instruction in basic skills, do we mutter about a shared respect for quality? We do not. We know that that's the best they can do, and we give them A for effort. When the guy down the hall is teaching intercultural sensitivity enhancement through sampling the foods of many lands, do we fret about some utterly hypothetical distinction between academic study and those swell self-enrichment courses at the Y on Thursday nights? We do not. It's a shared respect for academic freedom that keeps this enterprise healthy, and if we find blintzes better than bibliographies and pizzas more to be prized than papers, that's academic freedom and none of your damn business, or any elitist physicist's either.
Physicists, you must realize, are unlikely to share those humanistic values inherent in things like experiential curriculum development and the making of collages from scraps of uncooked pasta. They have little appreciation of the noncognitive aspects, phases, and factors of observation-participation-involvement and painting on velvet.
So let's just restrict that "rough treatment" stuff to the physicists, OK? After all, those birds are dangerous. What they do might even have consequences, for God's sake!
Up the Jolly Roger!
THE professionals of education at Glassboro include a bunch who practice what they call Developmental Education. ("Developmental" is a face-saving code word for "remedial.") On August 29, 1979, our doughty developmentalists met to lay their plans for the coming year. One item of business was a stern warning to one and all not to write any memos lest they fall into the hands of some agent of The Underground Grammarian.
We received the news with mixed feelings. It's good to know, of course, that taxpayers may spend a bit less for paper this year, but we wonder: Is this clear admission about the degree of their confidence equally a clear admission about their competence?
It is astonishing that the developmentalists meekly accepted this shocking and degrading direction. They were being told, in effect, that they could not be trusted to make, in public and permanent form, creditable displays of the work of their minds. Did that suit them?
Those who, all unknowing, can't devise clear thought in coherent, conventional prose are merely ignorant. They deserve instruction, not disgrace, but we may still question the wisdom of offering them shelter and sustenance in the professoriate. What, then, might we think of those who, knowing that they cannot devise clear thought in coherent, conventional prose, continue nevertheless to accept the shelter and sustenance? How much better might we think of those who are so uncertain of their skills in thought and language that they will not risk the appraisal of their colleagues?
Professors, unlike wind-up toy salesmen or jockeys, are morally obliged to display to one another the work of their minds. When they neglect to do so, the worth of the academic enterprise is diminished. When they refuse to do so, that worth is destroyed utterly, and they show themselves freebooters, renegade officers, as it were, who, having accepted from the king their commissions and commands, make off with his ships and serve the realm no longer but themselves only.
Those who fear the just consequences of bad work can prevent them by doing good work.
Prostrate Trouble at NJEA
THERE is a kind of thoughtlessness that is not exactly stupidity. It is a failing seen in ordinarily intelligent people who, under the influence of self-interest, prefer to evade clarity of thought in precise language, giving themselves instead to recitation of the vague and comfortable. They write prostrate prose in which they let themselves be walked all over by verbal inaccuracies and the failures of logic that those inaccuracies always cause. Such prose is especially dangerous because it often sounds like common sense around the old pot-bellied stove. We will consider a case of cracker-barrel cant from the ruminations of one James P. Connerton.
Connerton is the new executive director of the New Jersey Education Association.* All we know of him is what we read in the NJEA Review of January, 1979, to wit, that he has now returned to New Jersey after ten years spent in unspecified enterprises "in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Michigan, and other states." How many other states, deponent saith not, but he doth say: "His goals are our goals. Our aspirations are his aspirations. Our joy and our pain are his joy and pain." The pain probably has to do with moving expenses.
Deponent is Frank Totten, the president of NJEA. Here's more of what he writes:
Together we are the NJEA. All of us have made us what we are today. What we will be in 10 or 20 years depends on our determination, our forsight, our hard work, and our togetherness.
Jim Connerton is determined, farsighted, hardworking and one of us. As in the past, we'll do it together. We will determine our future and the future will be better because we have worked together.
Welcome home Jim. We need you. The present and the future will be better for us because we'll work through them together.
That has a quaint charm, no? It sounds like the language in which invocations are spoken at the firemen's annual clambake and certificates of achievement awarded at Little League banquets. Very American. However, we'd be readier to accept it--even to applaud it--if only it had begun with the traditional Unaccustomed As I Am. In this case, though, we might feel more confident about the future of civilization if one of the state's best-known schoolteachers seemed more accustomed to written English, even to such trivia as comma splices and paragraph logic.
Never mind. Totten is only a harbinger. The har that he binges is an article in which Connerton speaks his mind: "Our ‘top' priorities."†
Strictly speaking, we can not name more than one priority, or first thing, but the plural is irresistible to those who want to dignify anything they think they may someday prepare to begin to get ready to do something about or even just to think about. When a word means almost anything, it means almost nothing. To name something is to distinguish it from all the other things.
At the NJEA, they seem to have so many priorities that they have to distinguish them from one another, calling some of them "top" priorities. We must assume that they have also some middle priorities and bottom priorities.‡ Of top priorities, Connerton explores a mere twelve. Here's what he says about a vexatious top priority indeed:
Every reasonable person concedes that we can't hold the parent accountable for the color of a child's hair, that we can't rate the minister by the number of parishioners who break the Commandments, and that we can't blame the coach when a linebacker misses a tackle. Most people also concede that we can't judge teachers by the scores their students make on tests--especially on tests approved by some state office in Trenton that does not mesh with the local curriculum. Students should be evaluated by a variety of relevant measures, and so should teachers.
That "every reasonable person" is a rhetorical gimmick similar to a speaker's promise to make no mention of the well-known fact that his opponent is a thief and a pederast. In this case it is less effective, for it introduces either a shocking inanity or some hitherto unimagined cataclysm in genetics. But Connerton knows his audience. His pains are their pains, you'll recall, and they feel an almost intractable pain whenever they hear "accountable." By using the word in this context, he deludes readers into swallowing his absurdity, because they are predisposed to think that to hold parents "accountable" for attributes passed on to offspring is to castigate them for dereliction. If Connerton had said that in plain English, he would have avoided the absurd only to fall into the irrelevant. "Every reasonable person," and even some members of the NJEA, would have asked, So what else is new, Jim?
Having grounded his argument firmly on a proposition that is either preposterous or pointless, depending on how we understand "accountable," but having thereby won the hearts and minds of thoughtless readers, Connerton offers two further propositions meant to be analogous to the first. However, if they were plain statements of fact, which they are not, they could be analogous only to the irrelevant version of the first proposition. In order to be analogous to the other possible version, the absurd one, they would have to be obvious misrepresentations of fact, which they also are not. Therefore they are not analogous to the first proposition. In one way, that's lucky for Connerton, since even schoolteachers might be able to spot three logical monstrosities in a row. In another way, it's unlucky. His second and third propositions are analogous to the business of evaluating the effectiveness of teachers, and they suggest the opposite of what Connerton wants to say.
We can expect some normal amount of ox-coveting and idolatry in any congregation; but, should sinning increase inordinately and persist obstinately, as illiteracy has in the schools, we might indeed think to "rate" the shepherd of the flock. Furthermore, meek as they are, ministers would probably reject the implication that their work can be presumed to have no effect at all. Are teachers defending themselves by claiming that what they do cannot be presumed to have any effect? Why else would Connerton imply as much about the ministers? Maybe that's why we don't see those cute billboards anymore, the ones that used to say, "Teachers make the difference."
And those hard-eyed entrepreneurs who invest in football teams do indeed blame coaches--and fire them, too--when more and more linebackers miss more and more tackles. It's only amateurs who want to talk about "how you played the game." Does this analogy tell us that schooling should be judged as leniently as amateur athletics, and that we should be good sports, saying of each newly graduated illiterate, Well, that's how the ball bounces? If we were willing to concede that, do you suppose that Connerton would then concede that teachers should get the same salaries as those guys who coach the Little Leagues?
[That, in fact, is not a bad idea. A volunteer teacher force might well attract a better class of candidates, educated, people unsullied by "education" courses. More on this anon. Ed.]
We have to presume, having heard of no mass defection from the NJEA, that most of the schoolteachers in New Jersey read this passage and found no fault in it. They were apparently content to find themselves defended in a ragged mishmash of non-sequiturs and false analogies that would earn a big fat F in any freshman logic course in the country. It must have reminded them of the papers that always guaranteed a big fat A, and perhaps even a cheerful, rubber-stamped smiling face, in all their education courses.
Whether or not Connerton knew what he was doing, who can say? But we can say that if he did he is an exceedingly clever writer, who knows that teachers are not too good at noticing fallacies. If he did not know what he was doing . . . well, that's not our problem. He is paid for the work of his mind not by taxpayers but by schoolteachers.
This tiny passage raises colossal questions: Does it reflect accurately the intelligent power of the average teacher in New Jersey? If so, we have given the teaching of our children into the care of the slow-witted. Or can it be that our teachers can see through this stuff but choose to let it stand because they like it, presuming (oh, so correctly) that it will prove effective in persuading a slow-witted public? Must we choose between dullness of mind and self-serving cynicism? What can we hope for where the interest of teachers is best served by the stupidity of the people? Do you want a world in which reasoning like Connerton's is accepted without question?
This is the most depressing text we have ever examined. It suggests a horrifying hypothesis, to wit, that, far from failing in its intended task, our educational system is in fact succeeding magnificently, because its aim is to keep the American people thoughtless enough to go on supporting the system. What educationists may say or even believe that they are doing is not to the point. Their self-interest is evident, and the cogency of their thinking is at least questionable. A hypothesis must be tested by reference to facts and its ability to account for the facts.
Now do your homework. Find some facts to test that dismal hypothesis. Brace yourself. You're going to have a bad day.
Published monthly, September to May
Annual subscription: US & Canada, $10; others, $14
* This is a subsidiary of the National Education Association, a trade union devoted entirely, if properly, to the welfare of its members. When the NEW studies educational problems, it discovers that what is good for schoolteachers is good for America. back
Mysteriously inappropriate quotation marks are a hallmark of written English in New Jersey, where roadside stands sell "fresh" tomatoes and community bulletin boards in supermarkets announce the availability of welding "equipment," some of it "unused." The taxonomy of the mysterious quotation mark has yet to be concocted, but the principle out of which it must grow can be stated: A writer's every twitch sends a message all its own. In "top" we may have an example of the Condescending Quotation Marks, which, always on some word more at home in a lower level of discourse, a remote and disreputable cousin at the wedding feast, announce that the writer, no stuffed shirt, no sirree, is perfectly willing to talk like one of the "guys." On the other hand, however, these may be the Artful Dodge Quotation Marks meant to justify some over-worked vulgarism for which the writer could find no "viable" alternative. This phenomenon deserves more study. Should you find some good examples, please send them on to us. back