Volume Five, Number Six............September 1981

The Principals of the Thing

ENTIRELY by coincidence, in this issue we bring you yet another piece about written English and the work of the mind as practiced by a high school principal. That title, of course, once named the principal teacher in a schoolhouse, but now it usually suggests some pushy apparatchik who, if he ever did teach, found teaching an insufficiently self-esteem enhancing career option for one of his talents. Hard, too.

Among schoolteachers, the folklore is that principals start out as gym or shop teachers. Untroubled by homework to grade or assignments to read, they have lots of time to sit around in the evening rap-sessions for which the local teacher academy grants graduate credits. They become counsellors, or coordinators' or facilitators, even perceivers. Then, untroubled by homework, and so forth, they soon become principals, thus passing easily from the. lowly rank of "teacher" to the lofty one of "educator." So it is that the principal of any given school is not likely to present an example of disciplined scholarship and intellectual prowess.

Indeed, from the examples we've seen, we are ready to guess that principals can rarely present an example of basic minimum competence. They write either the vapid jargon of educationism, or the awkward distortions of baffled, but pretentious, ignorance, or some pathetic, malformed hybrid offspring of the two.

Most educationists, however, will claim that principals are chosen not for the quality of their English, but for their administrative abilities. It is not a principal's job to be a scholar or an intellectual, but rather to know the standards, to make judgments, to keep order. Even if we were willing to agree that such things were paramount in the work of a principal, which we're not, we would have to assert that it takes either superstition or simple stupidity to suppose that those who couldn't even learn to write clear, conventional English will suddenly, as we dole out their Ed. D.'s, grow in knowledge and wisdom.

Educationists are hot for "self-expression." Good. Let them eat it. A piece of writing is the expression of a self, a portrait of the mind of its maker. What incoherencies, inconsistencies, incongruities, and incivilities we find in the one, we must suppose in the other. Writing is public evidence of private acts, the concrete record of knowledge ordered, or not, thought pursued, or not, and understanding discovered, or not.

That is why we teach writing, if we do: not to make a nation of writers, but so that students can consistently do and assess the work of thought, and know and understand themselves (and maybe some others) at the same time; so that they can know, and even know that they know how to know, the difference between thoughtfulness and nonsense, between order and confusion. We wonder how many public school principals would want teachers to teach those abilities. It's not good for the dignity of your exalted rank, to say nothing of your self-esteem, when even the students gather to cackle at your memos.

We are going to make a special effort, this academic year, to bother those bozos. All we need is the evidence. And many of our readers are teachers--with principles.


We regret to say that most readers of this issue will find, at the end of the first line of the first column on page 3, a word that looks like "or." Earlier in the press run it looked like "of."


The Other Ignorant Army

"When the community appeals to higher standards of academics, that always kills spiritual values. All those schools like Yale and Harvard started out as Christian schools, but then they got concerned with quality."

THOSE are the words of the Reverend Mr. Rex Heath, quoted in Time, June 8, 1981. Heath directs the life of the mind and the search for knowledge at the Mother Lode Christian School in Tuolumne City, California. He speaks as one who might stoutly profess obedience to at least two thirds of the first and great commandment: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind. Sixty-six and two thirds percent falls short of the perfection commanded elsewhere, of course, but maybe it's a passing grade at the Mother Lode Christian School.

Heath is a member of what calls itself the Moral Majority, a populous club of dedicated television watchers who have so industriously practiced tube-boobery that they can claim to detect important differences between the randy imbecility of "Three's Company" and the mawkish imbecility of "Little House on the Prairie." Other members of the Moral Majority (or, in memory of that president who brought into Washington the doctrine of salvation by faith, not works, the Peanut MM) are the Secretary of the Interior, who expects that the Second Coming will take our minds off the high price of fuel, and a certain Robert Billings, a functionary of the Department of Education. In his manual for promoters of new schools safe from concerns with quality, Billings, whose perceptiveness surpasseth that of the guidance counsellor who can detect a two percent drop in self-esteem way down at the end of the hall, ordains that "No unsaved individual should be on the staff!"

The "Christian" school movement (it may comfort some other Christians to see those quotation marks) is a natural, but often bizarrely mistaken, reaction to the dismal failures of the government school systems. (Can that Heath, for example, actually believe that the public schools incite godlessness by "appealing to higher standards of academics," whatever that weird locution might mean?) To some it obviously seems that such a movement is at least a return to the "basics," including deportment and posture. And it is true that many shoestring academies teach elementary reading, writing, and ciphering far better than the public schools.

If they do, however, it is not because they are Christian, but because they are shoestring. Most of the teachers are amateurs, utterly uncertified. They just don't know, poor dears, that before you can presume to teach, you need some courses in how to relate, both to self and others, as individuals and groups; that you must be able to perceive and diagnose each and every child's unique combination of cognitive style and learning disability; and that you must be proficient in utilization of audio-visual devices and implementation of remediation via packets of nifty learning materials. Serenely ignorant of all that, and then some, the earnest ladies of the kitchen table curriculum just go right ahead and teach. Some of them can probably even make lemonade, right in their own homes, from actual lemons!

So the Christian schools--or any small schools that can exclude from their faculties the graduates, saved or not, of schools of education--can provide in a relatively short time that "basic minimum competence" that, in the public schools, is still the misty and ultramundane El Dorado of our highest aspirations. But what then? Is there a life after basic minimum competence? What will be the point of reading and writing, themselves only the barest beginnings of thoughtful literacy, at the Mother Lode Christian School, where the vigilant Heath, supported, you'd better believe, by exactly like-minded colleagues, sleepeth not, neither slumbereth, keeping guard against diabolical appeals to higher standards of academics?

No school governed by ideology--any ideology whatsoever--can afford to educate its students; it can only indoctrinate and train them. In this respect there is no important difference between the "Christian" schools and the government schools, although the ruling ideology of the former is more completely codified and publicly proclaimed. In the same respect, for that matter, those schools are not unlike those of the Soviet Union, which also claim to have on their side THE TRUTH, although the latter do seem to be the more devoted to excellence in training.

Having made such assertions, we are led to wonder what hope there might be of discussing them with Rex Heath, and how such a discussion might go. Would both parties be willing simply to admit that such a discussion might at least be instructive, and might, at best, provide new understanding on both sides? Would both be willing to do the homework, read and consider the thoughts of many different minds, seek and organize what can be known, separating it scrupulously from what can only be inferred or postulated? Could they so much as agree that knowing, inferring, and postulating, as well as the expectably parlous believing, are in fact different from each other? Would both be willing and able to discern and reject even their own non sequiturs and false analogies? Could there even be agreement that such a discussion should be governed by logical principles?

Lacking such conditions, and the skills and propensities that impose them, there can be no thoughtfulness, no weighing of conflicting assertions, no search for understanding, no inquiry into meaning or worth, and thus, no judgment. There remain only such things as beliefs, whims, fancies, notions, and wishes. And bunk.

Those skills and propensities that impose the conditions in which we can think are the substance of education, fortuitous side-effects, sometimes, of training, and absolute impediments to indoctrination. The skills are the skills of language, the power of clear and accurate statement, and of coherent, rational discourse. The propensities are the habits of a mind accustomed both to practicing the work of thought in language and to pondering it as done by others. Among those propensities are the certainty that rational discourse will lead to new understandings, since the possibilities of language have no limits, and, for the same reason, the doubt that any understanding can ever be final and perfect. "For us," said Eliot, himself a Christian resolute to the point of relentlessness, and whose works do not appear very often on lists of approved reading in the "Christian" academies, "there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

And an "educator's" business--if that word, now routinely usurped by the likes of professors of audio-visual methodology and assistant superintendents for supplies and Rex Heath, can ever be rescued from facetiousness--an educator's business is trying, and leading students into all the ways of trying: testing, refining, probing, weighing, inquiring, essaying, doubting, wondering, searching. A trainer is properly excused from such concerns; an indoctrinator must anathematize them. Thus it is that the "Christian" academies, out of the very principles on which they are founded, can never educate anyone.

In that, of course, they are not worse than the government schools. They are only just as bad . What is anathematized in the "Christian" academies is, in the government schools, derided as "uncreative" by the practitioners of self-esteem enhancement; scorned as "authoritarian" by the rap-sessionists of values clarification; condemned as "elitist" by the basic minimum competence drudges as well as the smug egalitarians who rejoice that a few of the impoverished children who, if lucky, will spend their lives in dull and brutish labor, can nevertheless balance their checkbooks; and, by most others, whose training in the teacher academy never suggested the possibility of thinking about thinking, simply neglected.

It's no wonder that the Peanut MM thought it good to rise up and smite those troublers of the land hip and thigh. But it's no comfort either. We are not watching a struggle between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, but the benighted clash of ignorant armies, in which we, and millions of children who might have grown up to be thoughtful and productive citizens, are caught in the open between the lines.

However, here at The Underground Grammarian, we're not going to let ourselves be slain as noncombatants. For all that we've been saying for so long about the government schools, and without the slightest intention of refraining in the future, we're going to take their side. And we urge our readers (or at least those who are not at this very moment writing in to cancel their subscriptions) to do likewise and not to remain silent.

For us, the decision was not difficult. We asked some questions: Of the parties to this conflict, which is the more likely to forbid its students certain books and to make it harder for anyone to find them? Which would, if it could, close down pestiferous publications like this one? Which one, when sufficiently pressed, and we do intend to press, will eventually accuse its enemies of warring against God?

Furthermore, the government schools have one supreme, if unintended, virtue. They are such chaotic and Byzantine bureaucracies, ruled over by herds of inept and dull-witted functionaries, that some good teachers, genuinely devoted to the life of the mind, can often go undetected for years. For some few students, those dissidents make all the difference. But in the "Christian" academies, much smaller and tightly controlled, the dissidents are all too likely to be sniffed out quickly by the Unsaved Individuals Committee.

The issue is not curriculum or methodology or family life or even the private enterprise system. The issue is freedom. The mind simply cannot be free without the power of thoughtful inquiry. If the mind is not free to gather knowledge, to form understanding, to judge of worth, and then, out of the best that it can do in knowing, understanding, and judging, will what it deems good, then there can be no such thing as morality, a system intended to judge the worth of individual choices. The "Moral Majority" must be, in fact, some other kind of organization. Its avowed dedication to ignorance and thoughtlessness--Heath is not alone--belies its very name.

Lacking the informed, willing assent of thoughtfulness, obedience to even some presumably unexceptionable precept is just another passion, tepid though it well may be. And who can be led by unexamined precept into one passion can as easily be led into another. And still another. He can be neither free nor moral, only impassioned. Should there be enough of his kind noisily applauding themselves for the "sincerity" and "correctness" of their shared passions, they will show us what Yeats meant by the "worst," who are "filled with passionate intensity."

And what of the "best"? Are they out there? Is there a Mental Minority? Was Yeats right about them too? Have they "lost all conviction"?

It must be so. There is mostly silence, a silence that seemed at first disdainful, then tactful, then wary, and that by now has turned simple cowardice. Those educationists, who have so long trumpeted their love of excellence, have fled as usual into the mighty fortress of Low Profile Poltroonery. Maybe this storm, too, will blow over, or maybe a savior will come, bearing some really neat innovations.

Prudent publishers, busily gathering into barns and ever mindful of textbook adoptions in Texas, are eager to be oh so open-minded. Albert Shanker, hoping the ninety and nine can fend for themselves while he takes care not to lose a dues-paying one, tuts a tiny tut from time to time.

"Know ye not," wrote Saint Paul, who may have momentarily forgotten about the laborers who came late to the vineyard, "that they which run a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?" History, as H. G. Wells said, and that was way back then, "becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." And by "education" he didn't mean basic minimum competence or an indoctrination impervious to thoughtfulness. However, by "catastrophe" he meant catastrophe.

Just now, there seems to be only one runner on the track, and, unhampered by concerns with quality, undeterred by appeals to higher standards of academics, he isn't even looking over his shoulder.


The Great Iacono Flap

It has come to my attention that the announcement that I conveyed via the intercom the day following the Chester High-St. James basketball game which I disapproved of the loss. It was inferred, unfortunately, that I placed the reproach upon my coach. I wish to rectify that immediately.

CAN our schools ever hope to rise above their own principals? It seems unlikely. Consider for instance a certain A. N. Iacono, whose words, conveyed in this case via bulletin on December 12, 1980, you have just read. Iacono--Oops! We should have said Doctor Iacono. University of Pennsylvania, ya know. Fine old ivy league school. Real high standards. OK. Doctor Iacono is the principal of Chester High School in Chester, Pennsylvania. Here's the rest of his bulletin:

First, I had apologized to Mr. Wilson in the presence of Mr. White, Athletic Director, after the announcement for my error for which I maintain my innocence. Second, the following day, I made another announcement personally to Mr. Wilson explaining and apologizing for my actions. Third, I apologized to Mr. Wilson in the presence of Mr. Zyckowicz because of a grievance which was lodged. Fourth, I am apologizing to the faculty via my own volition and by no method a prompting from anyone because of those receivers of my announcement that perceived it as unprofessional.

I adhere to the dictum that professionalism must be maintained at all costs, and by no means would I thrust any aspect of our profession which may be construed as negative.

For the latter I abjectly apologize. However, I will continue to maintain my stance that I appreciate winning, and I want to be part of a winning team. This is by no means a reflection upon any individual but rather an indictment of my personality.

Yes. Well, we do agree, although we would prefer not to stick to a dictum, that "professionalism" should be maintained," whatever that means. However, we find it hard to figure out exactly what profession it is of which Doctor Iacono will so prudently thrust by no means (or method) any aspect which may be construed as negative. Doctor Iacono signs himself "Principal," but the quality of his prose, which he apparently does not disapprove of the loss, suggests something less than the academic and intellectual excellence that we might have expected of a learned Doctor and leader of youth in the ways of the life of the mind. In fact, if the basketball players of Chester High School can dribble and pass with twice the grace and precision, and love of excellence, with which their principal plays his little game, it's going to be one hell of a long season.

In spite of his lofty Far be it from me, and precisely because of incompetence in language, the medium of thought, the hapless Doctor Iacono does manage to thrust some aspects of his "profession" that must be "construed as negative." His solecisms and gaucheries are outward and visible signs of certain inward and ideological aspects,* the very aspects that have foisted upon us schools whose chief academic officers just can make sense--neither via intercom nor volition.

Buried in that ludicrous prose is the far from ludicrous belief that incompetence, which counts in sport, doesn't count in the mind. Doctor Iacono, an educationist who knows that self-esteem is far more important than mere accuracy and precision, blithely refers to his evidently garbled and thoughtless announcement as "my error for which I maintain my innocence"!

Farther down, there is even a hint that the "error" may have been no such thing at all. Doctor Iacono does make it clear that if there had been any "prompting" it would have been "because of those receivers of [his] announcement that perceived it as unprofessional." So there.

And there, in miniature, is the guiding ideology of educationism, an anti-intellectual, no-fault relativism, where it just wouldn't be fair if mere errors had consequences, and where the meaning of facts and events is not the object of thoughtful inquiry but rather a sentiment that some receivers may perceive. It is only through consistent application of such principles that we get such principals, who can neither dribble nor pass on paper, but who will thrust no negative aspects and will bravely maintain their stances that they appreciate winning.

The Underground

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Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune,
whose words do jarre,
nor his reason In frame,

whose sentence is preposterous.

* Educationistic readers will find all this easier to understand by reminding themselves that an aspect might just as well be a facet. Or a factor. Or a component. Or whatever. back

† But it may be that principals don't think of themselves as "academic" officers. A recent Bulletin of the Council for Basic Education quoted some school superintendent who apparently could see no irony at all in proclaiming himself "a leader in education except for curriculum." Those who automatically equate the money that is spent on the schools with "funding for education" would do well to consider the implications of those words. back

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