Volume Five, Number Nine............December 1981

Let Something You Dismay

We sent a junior member of our staff to Racine to take part in a conference about illiteracy in the schools. Conferers convened from all parts of the country, and from every branch of the service engaged in the Great War against Illiteracy. Some of them were, in fact, against illiteracy. Others were in favor of the war.

The latter, we suppose, hoped to go home armed with new inputs and feedbacks out of which to cobble some new grant proposals for new monies to pilot some new programs much, much better than the old new programs. And they probably did. Our man, however, came home suggesting that we might do better printing comic books.

On the first evening, in a brief but disquieting keynote address, Clifton Fadiman sounded what our man thought would surely prove the dominant theme of the conference. That turned out, alas, not to be so; but Mr. Fadiman's hypothesis has become, even more alas, the dominant theme of our conferences in the two and a half years or more that have passed since that evening.

Fadiman suggested that maybe there is some new thing under the sun. While education had never been a triumphant and thematic force in any time or place, he reminded those who might have been listening, neither had it ever been generally despised and rejected. Even those who had no education either wished for some or at least acknowledged, however grumpily, that it was probably all right for somebody to have some. Education has traditionally been held a Good Thing rather than a Bad Thing. And, leaving aside the occasional crackpot, no one seems to have taken the view that there shouldn't be any such thing as education.

But now, Fadiman had come to suspect, an enemy had appeared on the field, an enemy heavily armed, cunning and determined, an Attila of Ignorance ushering in the decline and fall of the always shaky empire of the mind.

That hypothesis, which Mr. Fadiman may not have expressed quite so luridly, seemed to us both provocative and plausible, however expressed. It seemed a possible explanation for the prevalence of some general conditions and attitudes in the schools, often supposed to have something to do with education, which are utterly unlike anything we have seen in the past. We find in students, teachers, and especially in the devisers of doctrine and makers of policy, automatic ideas and habits of mind as unprecedented as they are astonishing. They are ideas and habits so unlikely, even perverse, that they could hardly have just come about in the natural course of events. It does seem reasonable, therefore, to guess that they were brought about.

Consider ignorance. Ignorance, even in the schools, is neither unprecedented nor astonishing, and certainly no cause for the wringing of hands. It is depressing, of course, when those few students who fancy that they have heard of the Laws of Motion also presume that they have something to do with football. And the heart sinks when no one in a class of college seniors can describe Fascism, locate Viet Nam, name a third poet to rank with Robert Frost and Rod McKuan, list the Protestant Reformation and the Napoleonic Wars in chronological order, or even recognize certain words such as "heirarchy," "epigram," or "clamor." But all that, however late in the day, could be fixed.

However, the fixing is unlikely when those who don't know, and don't know that they don't know, also can't for the life of them imagine why they should know anything unrelated to their "needs," which turn out to be conveniently small. It is as though an ordinary, natural human propensity, the desire to know and even to understand, has been eradicated in them. It is not out of that desire that they come seeking "education," which is just the name of a process that causes diplomas. What idea of "education" do they have, and where did they get it?

We do know the answer to the second part of that question. They got it in school. That's where they've been all these years. And please don't tell us that they got it from their parents and peers, or from that wonderfully convenient culprit, "society." Where do you think their parents and peers got it? How do you suppose "society" came to be what it is? Who taught us that awareness is better (and easier) than knowledge, and that appreciation is better (and easier) than understanding? And who equates literacy with basic minimum competence, and rapping with thoughtful inquiry? Who says that schools are better than ever and proves it by counting diplomas?

Fadiman was right. There is an enemy of education, an enemy bristling with methods and materials, and even activities kits, sweeping all before it with programmatic thrusts and film-strip projectors.

But Fadiman was also wrong, or at least incomprehensive. Yes, the enemy is on field, running amok, but it has in fact won no battles, for the simple reason that there haven't yet been any battles. Those trampled crops and smoldering ruins, those disquietingly undersized corpses rotting in the streets, are neither the results of warfare nor the victories of a disciplined army. They are pillage and rapine, random depredations committed en passant by a mindless and leaderless rabble made up of people who may have heard of things like epistomology and logical fallacies and even the scientific method but can't for the life of them figure out why they should have to understand such things. But there can be no battles until the other army appears on the field.

But don't bother to listen for the neighing of its steeds just yet. Those who could, someday, consider beginning to prepare for battle all live in secure citadels. (They never did care much for the country folk, anyway.) They will think their duty done if they can just manage to prevent under-employed professors of educationism from seizing all the required courses. All they care to know of tactics is how to fake student outcomes and behavioral objectives so that they can sneak their own proposals through curriculum committees dominated by fifth-columnists, and past elementary school administrators retreaded as academic vice-presidents. The day of battle is far off.


A Little Heavy Thinking

from Gerald W. Brown

Professor of Education

California State University

How can we justify eight years of study of a foreign language when the foreign travel of the student may (probably ten years later) be in an entirely different sphere?

How can we justify intensive study of a foreign language when our "track record" in achieving fluency is so poor?

How can we justify the study of foreign language when such a large percentage of our population never meets up with a native speaker? Not only does the student get no practice, but also he acquires no motivation.

Some attention should be given to [the] claim that the failure to study a foreign language is [a] detriment to international understanding. Although such a statement would be difficult to demonstrate one way or the other, it is difficult to see how a knowledge of French would help understanding of the international situation in China, Japan, etc.

In my own sphere the people who are multilingual do not stand out as having a significant international understanding nor as educated men. I admit that monolingualism may be bad for business, and business may very well provide opportunities for their employees to learn, in a commercial language school, the specific language they need at the specific time they need it. Three essentials of language study come together at that point: (1) an able learner, (2) motivation to study, and (3) a ready opportunity to put the study into practice.

As for teaching every student in our schools and colleges a second language, how are we doing with English?


The Leaning Tower of Babel

HERE at Glassboro State, we have no language requirements. Nor do we have any foreign language requirements. This may seem strange to someone out in the world, but most of us think it a very good and proper thing. In fact, to suggest the possibility of a language requirement around here is like asking for a bacon sandwich at a bar mitzvah in Brooklyn.

There are--let's face it--certain subjects that are just not suitable for study in the schools, and one of them is foreign language. The study of any foreign language is an egregiously unhumanistic enterprise in which even good students can actually make an indubitable error! That's humiliating and undemocratic. The students who make many errors will suffer regular and irretrievable diminutions of self-esteem, and those who make only a few will stand in danger of becoming elitists. Those are risks that we cannot and will not take, especially with all those earnest young people who truly love children and, resisting the lure of the lucrative but inhumane careers that they might have found in commerce and technology, have come to us to be made into professionals of schoolteachering.

And fortunately, while we do still permit the study of a few foreign languages here, we find that most of our incipient schoolteachers don't even need to be advised to choose Puppetry Workshop or the History of Jazz rather than French or German as what we call "humanities electives." They know a humanity when they see one.

There's nothing humane about irregular verbs, and an obsession with foreign language is even more dehumanizing for the teachers than for the students. The teachers are supposed to know the irregular verbs. And the case endings--all of them. And the use of the imperfect subjunctive. And thousands of un-American idioms. You can be pretty damn sure that any teacher who is actually an expert in some foreign language has put more effort into rote learning than into relating to self and others, and will almost certainly be more interested in the mere facts of a narrow discipline of dubious relevance than in the true goals of education: appreciation, awareness, global and/or environmental consciousness, and rap sessions on death and Gay Rights. We are not the least bit interested in turning out that sort of teacher, thank you.

And furthermore, these people who indulge in foreign language study often pick up some uppity, anti-social notions about language itself. They start getting persnickety about what they are pleased to call "accuracy," and they snootily pretend that they can't understand what it means to experientially enhance some aspects of remediation implementation in the sphere of interpersonal communication, which tells you how little they really care about self-expression and creativity, a couple of our other true goals.

But there's nothing to worry about. Our Division of Professional Studies--an airborn division at that--will see to it that there is never a foreign language requirement here. Why, just last year, when our little foreign language department proposed a few reading courses that just might, some day, be required by a couple of other little departments with no discernible future and thus little to lose, our professionals, who make the rules for the curriculum committee, thank goodness, nipped that little old foot in the door right in the little old bud. Those ivory tower foreign language teachers had neglected (heh heh) to list the expected student outcomes of foreign language reading courses! You see? The teachers themselves can't find a good excuse for studying foreign languages.

However, while there is no danger of an eruption of foreign language study at Glassboro, trouble looms elsewhere in Academe. We have heard reports of schools, and some of them public schools, once again offering courses in Latin! And of students actually taking them instead of alternative lifestyle education or the poetry of rock and roll. And, even worse, along comes a certain Cynthia Parsons, suggesting (we guess), in the Christian Science Monitor, that teachers should study foreign languages as part of their training! Can you believe it? How long do you suppose our teacher academy, or any other, could survive such a bizarre requirement? Hell, if our teacher trainees were that kind of people, the kind who memorize and fuss about trivial details, they wouldn't make very good teachers, now would they? And many of them probably wouldn't even have to become teachers!

We haven't actually read Cynthia Parsons' essay, of course, and we're not about to. We've heard it all before. Besides, we have read Gerald W. Brown's cogent answer to Parsons, excerpts from which we have reprinted below for your edification.

That Brown is a man with plenty on the sphere. Notice how wisely he eschews any vain discussion of that tired old elitist notion that the study of foreign language has some sort of effect on the habits and discipline of the mind. He sticks to the facts. And it is a fact, by golly, that many of those kids suckered into foreign language study could find themselves, ten years later, if then, in that entirely different sphere. And for the hapless student of Latin, it could take even longer.

By the same logic--and it's high time that we started paying it more than lip service--we've been wasting a lot of time, time that could be devoted to career education, on stuff like physics and trigonometry. We have, to be sure, seen to it that very few students will actually take such courses, but their mere existence is a continuous drain on energies and funds that could better be spent in truly humanistic enterprises. How many of our students, after all, will ever end up, never mind in ten years, in physics spheres or trigonometry spheres?

And any who do can always, as Brown correctly points out in the case of those few who choose to learn some foreign language purely for personal profit, learn all the physics or trigonometry they please, along with any other narrow specialization that suits them, at one of those commercial schools. The commercial schools do not share our high standards. They'll teach anything, anything at all, without the least concern for its social utility or its potential for creativity enhancement or even its suitability for mainstreaming. All they do is teach. They don't even care about behavioral objectives.

And, as only a professor of education could, Brown explodes the old "international understanding" myth by discovering that a knowledge of French will not help you with the international situation in China. Or even Japan. Professors of education know all about international understanding and the right way to foster it. They're the ones who showed us how to enhance intercultural multi-ethnic appreciation through folk-dances of many lands, and how to teach children to relate to the Eskimo experience by chewing blubber.

Brown makes many fine points, but his last is his best. What is it with you laymen? We've already shown you that we're not even teaching English, and here you are nagging us to teach some ridiculous foreign languages! And if, as Brown astutely reminds us, our poor track record in achieving fluency proves that it is pointless to teach a foreign language for eight years, what does our track record in twelve years of teaching English prove?

Brown is right. If you want your kids to learn narrow academic specializations, why don't you just send them to commercial schools? Our business is quality education.

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.

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