Volume Four, Number One............January 1980

Reflections at Three

We are neither peddlers nor politicians that we should prosper by that use of language which carries the least meaning. We cannot honorably accept the wages, confidence, or licensure of the citizens who employ us as we darken counsel by words without understanding.

THIS ISSUE marks our third birthday, a happy event, some would say. For us, it is made all the happier by the knowledge that some others will observe this day with clenched teeth and digestive disorders.

The passage quoted above appeared in our first issue. We cite it partly as a birthday observance, but also as a melancholy reminder of the innocence with which we began. We truly imagined that it was only out of haste or heedlessness that so many members of the academic community wrote ignorant and incoherent English. We believed that when they realized what they were doing they would take care to stop doing it. We were wrong.

Some of them, it turned out, simply were ignorant and incoherent, unfortunate victims of the anti-academic educationism in whose service they now labor. They could not have mended their minds had they chosen to, which they didn't. Even worse, many others proved to be peddlers and politicians, sellers of scams and devices, and projectors of Lilliputian empires. In their case, the traditional academic reverence for clarity of language and thought must give way to the Fifth Amendment.

Accordingly, the results of our first three years of nagging have actually been the opposite of what we expected. Our victims do, to be sure, make harsh demands of secretaries and quietly ask friends to help them with the placement of modifiers. Committees quarrel occasionally about some phrase, and at least one department, the one in charge of remedial programs, naturally, has simply forbidden its members to commit writing in public. More and more documents appear either with many names of putative authors, or none. Reports and recommendations are conspicuously labeled "DRAFT," as though inanity and mendacity were little things that could be "fixed" later, like the doublespace after a colon.

These things are not signs of a longing to clarify thought through the practice of clear writing. They are maneuvers. When found wanting, the peddlers and politicians of education will undertake to do better only when they can make such amendment contingent upon "increased funding." Lacking that, they respond to criticism by devising stratagems that will, they hope, protect them from more criticism. They don't mind being peddlers and politicians, but they would rather not be called peddlers and politicians.

We no longer hope to improve them, but only to remove them. We expect to succeed, too, because we will bring against them the most arrant accusations of unnatural vice and unmitigated folly, the most glaring testimony to ignorance and weakness of mind, the most damning and defaming weapons that we can find--their very own words.

The Holistic Hustle

FORTUNATELY for American educationists, there is never any dearth of trashy and popular fads, the raw material of curricular novelty. The half-life of most bold innovative thrusts is less than that of the pet rock or the nude encounter group, and pedagogical gimmicks have to be cooked up more often than situation comedies. But, thanks to the fertile inventiveness always inspired by exuberant greed, the master schlockmongers will always provide the educationists with full measures of readily adaptable inanities.

Of course, there is a difference between the peddlers of pop and the educationists. The peddlers of pop are skillful. When promoters have deposited the take from Woodstocks and Earth Days, the educationists come limping behind with mini-courses in the "poetry" of rock and roll, and environmental awareness. In a frantic scramble after what crumbs may fall from the merchants' tables, they rush to "teach" soap-opera-watching, the casting of horoscopes, and the throwing of the Frisbee. Coming soon: Elvis, the copper bracelet, and the T-shirt as literature.

Future historians of education (how's that for a dreary calling?) will understand better than we that the most powerful influence on education in our time was not new knowledge of the psychology of learning, not the rise and dominance of the electronic media, not the fervor for democratization that followed the civil rights movements, not even the newly awakened public recognition of the tensions between the demands of an increasingly automated society and a reinvigorated and often anti-materialistic individualism, but, purely and simply, the Big Mac. Our schools are, in almost every respect, analogues of the fast-food industry, although there probably is some nourishment in the Big Mac. Even the slogans are the same: Have it your way; We do it all for yoo-oo-oo.

It's not surprising, therefore, that educationists respond to public discontent not by trying to improve what they do, but by trying to "educate" the public into some other "perception" of what they do. In education, as in the fast-food business, it's called "image enhancement," and, like all flackery, it's done with slogans and buzz words. When the public finally noticed, for instance, that fewer and fewer children were learning to read, the educationists quickly discovered that "learning disabilities" were far more common than anyone had ever suspected. Therefore, we ought in fact to praise the schools for doing such a great job with swarms of undernourished, disaffected imbeciles, many of whom were also myopic, hard of hearing, hyperactive (if not lethargic), or even lacking in self-esteem.

Now, pestered by complaints about student writing, the educationists have drawn from the bottomless pit of mindless pop a bucket of inspiration, the Whatever Turns You On Plan for the Enhancement of Public Perceptions Concerning Student Writing. They call it "holistic" grading. It will improve grades dramatically without requiring any improvement in the teaching of writing. It will work even in schools where there is no teaching of writing. Now that's educationism.

Most of what we've heard about holistic grading has come from the horse's mouth, the National Council of Teachers of English. We now have a report from another part of the horse, the Educational Testing Service, which is offering "workshops" in holistic grading:

With this method, the essay is read for a total impression of its quality rather than for such separate aspects of writing skill as organization, punctuation, diction, or spelling. The method takes a positive approach to the rating of compositions by asking the reader to concentrate on what the student has accomplished rather than on what the student has failed to do or has done badly. Holistic scoring is both efficient and accurate. The standards by which compositions are judged are those that the readers have developed from their training and from their experiences with student writing.

We have to presume that the written parts of tests given by ETS will be "rated" in this "efficient and accurate" fashion from now on. In a few years, we'll hear that the writing crisis, if indeed there ever was one, is over.

This, you see, is a "positive approach." To fuss about organization, punctuation, diction, and spelling is the bad old negative approach that caused the whole flap to begin with.

To judge writing by this "holistic" method is like judging a musical performance without reference to rhythm, tempo, or dynamics, and taking no heed of false notes or of "organization." What could we say of a performance in which all of those things were wrong? We could certainly not judge it as a musical performance if we choose to give no weight to the attributes of musical performance. If we could consider things without regarding their attributes, which we can't, we wouldn't even know what the hell they were. It is only by their attributes that we can distinguish a musical performance from a billiard ball. It is by just such attributes as organization and diction, dismissed above as presumably optional "aspects," that we can distinguish between written composition and the egg stains on an educationist's face.

And that is a distinction that we had better learn to make. There will never be good, universal, public education in America until we learn, from their own words, that the people in charge of it are badly in need of an education. Educated people will not be deceived by such nonsense. Some knowledge of the history of thought and some skill in logical language can be expected of the educated, but they are not required for a degree in "education."

Educated people are likely to know what "holistic" means. They know, simply because they have the power of language and thought, that if something is more than the sum of its parts, it cannot be less than the sum of its parts. They even know what "aspects" are, and that to call punctuation, spelling, diction, and even organization, "separate aspects" of writing suggests either ignorance or mendacity. They know, too, that this slick hustle, designed not only to deceive the taxpayers about the state of student writing but also to make the grading of compositions one hell of a lot easier, may appropriately be called many things, but "holistic" isn't one of them.

"Contemptuous," however, is one of them. It is not out of kindness but out of contempt (and sloth) that educationists design ways to excuse students from the demands of good work. To tell a student that "what he has accomplished," however little that may be, is an adequate substitute for "what he has failed to do or has done badly," however much that may be, is not "humanistic" (they don't know the meaning of that word, either) or even humane. It is arrogant.

It is also unmistakably to imply that the mastery of good writing is not important. Do you suppose that those educationists would want their dentists or even their electricians "rated" by their "holistic" method? When pilots and flight engineers are licensed by "positive approaches" without regard for all those trivial "separate aspects" of their crafts, will the loyal members of the National Council of Teachers of English fly to the annual convention anyway, just to demonstrate their faith in a "total impression of quality"? Will they consult physicians whose diplomas have been granted in spite of "what the student has failed to do or has done badly"?

One thing must be said in fairness to the educationists who have packaged and touted the Holistic Hot n' Juicy: The standards by which they propose to measure students' work are no more rigorous than those by which they judge their own work. After all, the ability to write good English isn't required for a doctorate in education, so why bother high school kids about it? Of course, there may be some kids who aim higher and would like to do useful and respectable work that calls for the habits of accuracy and clear thought that come from the mastery of written composition, but the fast-food business doesn't work that way. When ETS serves up the Holistic Hot n' Juicy, everybody eats it.

And the educationists all get to do a little something for themselves too-oo-oo.


WHAT follows is a description taken from the course catalog of the Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota. The first word has been blanked out by our informant, who intended to protect the perpetrator, obviously the one who teaches these blankety-blank courses:

--?-- courses involve the inextricable interrelationships of different disciplines, but linguistic sophistication and communicative competence to improve interpersonal communication and international understanding are the all-encompassing objectives.

So how's that for linguistic sophistication and communicative competence? (The latter can only mean "any competence that communicates," and not, as the writer imagines, "competence in communicating." The difference is important. This writer has no competence in communicating, and his competence, such as it is, is all too communicative of that fact. )

Note the weasel-word, "involve," which is intended to mitigate the moral responsibility implicit in the making of an assertion. Lest they commit themselves, for instance, to the exact content of a course, thus putting themselves to the pain of understanding what the hell they're doing, school people wave airily in the direction of some vague generalities that a course may involve. This is especially true of educationists whose courses have no content but can be said to involve any absurdity that an idle tongue can find to utter.

Such folk, if ever they become involved in findings centered around reading books, will pronounce Raskolnikov a nontraditional student who became involved in an experiential continuum concerning ax-murder.

Brief Notes

GET OUT your hankies. Here comes a very sad story about Dale Woods and some of his colleagues at Northeast Missouri State University. Woods is Head of the Division of Mathematics there, and he has written us a poignant letter about a little problem they've been having.

Last May we considered a dreadful passage from Wisconsin Teacher of Mathematics, the work of one Marlow Ediger from NMSU. We called him, instinctively, a "math educator." Wrong, or at least sort of wrong. Woods says:

I read, with some interest, your Brief Notes. I would like to have you publish...a retraction or at least a note indicating the fact that Dr. Marlow Edigel is not a member of the Division of Mathematics, nor a member of the Division of Mathematics Education. Dr. Ediger does not teach courses in mathematics or mathematics education. Unfortunately, I do not have control over the articles he has published. I disagree violently with many of these articles and if I were a reviewer or an editor of journals in which these publications appear, I would not accept these articles for publication.

All members of the Mathematics Division are concerned with the fact that the Mathematics Division is getting undesirable publicity from these publications, and we hope that a correction...would assist somewhat in letting the public know that the publications are not from the Mathematics Division or Mathematics Education at Northeast Missouri State University.

Well, we are slightly sorry for Dale Woods, et al., but the academic community is a corporate body. It is not at all reluctant to pat itself on the back for the work of some of its members. If others bring it "undesirable publicity," then remedy, however difficult to accomplish, is still possible. Lacking the will to pursue it, the academic community will just have to take its raps. Those, we can provide.

Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre; nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

The Underground

Published monthly, September to May
R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager

Post Office Box 203
Glassboro, New Jersey 08028

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