Education Going to Pot
IN the shifty phantasmagoria
of educationism, it is hard to guess what the words mean. Take your best
shot at an old favorite: individualized. Good. Now check your guess
with reference to a few items in The Illinois Primer of Individualized
"Student [!] will stay oil potty chair
and perform needed function at least once a day."
"Student will regulate bowel movements
and independently toilet self with success by the end of the year."
"Upon entering lavatory student will
grasp underpants in order to pull them down--90 percent criteria level."
We would've thought that if there were one
thing, one lousy thing, that those officious meddlers
could not seek to control under the rubric of individualizing
and "uniqueness of the individual," it would be...surely...Oh,
the hell with it.
You can read all about it in "The Law
of Regularity," by Jack Frymier, in The Educational Forum, XLIV:2,
put Out at Ohio State U., Columbus.
The Gingham Dog
and the Calico Cat
FOR some reason, we
have not convinced the rapidly multiplying proponents of the back-to-basics-with-the-Bible
"education" movement that we are not on their side. What's
wrong with us that we haven't figured out how to offend those usually
truculent and combative enthusiasts? We have had no trouble in offending
their mirror-image counterparts, the silly educationists, who hold exactly
the same thematic belief--that knowledge and reason are not enough,
and who "educate" by exactly the same method the modification
of behavior through persuasion addressed to the sentiments. The details
don't matter where the principle is rotten.
One of those "Christian" school
newsletters recently reprinted portions of a piece called "The Answering
of Kautski," in which we considered similarities in educationism
and bolshevism. We quoted Lenin's famous line about "teaching"
the children and planting a seed that will never be uprooted. We also
quoted (and the reprint did include) a much less familiar Leninism, saying
that most people are not capable of thought, and all they need is to "learn
The readers of the newsletter were presumably
confirmed in righteousness by an essay linking what schools do to what
Lenin said. It did not occur to them, apparently, that Luther, to whom
Reason was just "the Devil's whore," also said as much, and,
in so saying, echoed whole choirs of orthodox theologians.
There is only one Education, and
it has only one goal: the freedom of the mind. Anything that needs
an adjective, be it civics education, or socialist education, or Christian
education, or whatever-you-like education, is not education, and
it has some different goal. The very existence of modified "educations"
is testimony to the fact that their proponents cannot bring about what
they want in a mind that is free. An "education" that cannot
do its work in a free mind, and so must "teach" by homily and
precept in the service of these feelings and attitudes and beliefs
rather than those, is pure and unmistakable tyranny. And it is
exactly the kind of tyranny, "tyranny over the mind of man,"
to which Thomas Jefferson swore "eternal enmity" on--on what?--on
"the altar of God."
Jefferson was not a bolshevik. He wrote
to a nephew:
Question with boldness even the existence
of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage
of reason than that of blindfolded fear.
No bolshevik can say the equivalent in his
system of belief: Question boldly even the existence of the dialectical
process and the withering away of the state. Jefferson's admonition ought
to raise provocative questions for those who like to claim that the Republic
was founded on their "religious" principles, but it doesn't.
Bolsheviks are not the only ones who never think of asking certain questions.
Reason is not the Devil's whore. It is the
whore's Devil. To those who have sold their minds for some comfortable
sentiments and comforting beliefs, Reason is The Adversary to be hated
and feared, the bringer of doubt and difficult questions, the sly disturber
of The Peace. To children who are led into whoredom, it matters not at
all which sentiments and beliefs they are given in return for the
freedom of their minds. Whatever the fee, they cannot judge its worth.
Sometimes it seems that every illusion that
cripples the mind is taught in schools. The silly notion that if one ideological
faction is wrong the other must be right is planted in our minds by the
belief that true/false tests have something to do with education.
We imagine some real difference between Republicans and Democrats, liberals
and conservatives, government educationists and church educationists.
They are all alike. Their prosperity depends on our believing that beliefs
and sentiments, theirs, of course, are somehow finer, nobler,
more virtuous or humane than mere Reason.
Half past twelve is coming on, and neither
the church cat nor the dog in the manger has slept a wink. Should we do
something, or should we hope that they'll eat each other up? Will burglars
steal this pair away? Will the "Christian" newsletter
reprint all this?
Instruments of Precision
Their two is not the real two,
their four is not the real four.
Prof Prods Pol!
WE HAVE long hoped to
find a good, concrete example, with numbers, of what Emerson must have
had in mind when he said, speaking of those whose minds have been replaced
by the orthodox slogans of some faction, that even their numbers are not
the real thing. It is a puzzling statement, for Emerson could hardly have
meant that they were so bad at computation that they always came up with
wrong numbers. He could only have meant that even when they said
something that the rest of us would take to have a specific meaning, they
did not exactly say that.
We can find plenty of that, of course, not
only in Academe, but even out there in The World, which may be no better
a place after all. The big Twos and Fours, which we hear as "The
People's Democratic Republic of Whatever," or "Quality Education,"
always turn out to mean not what we might have thought. Our obtuseness
may require a dose of Reeducation, or, as some apologist for life
adjustment remediation enhancement schooling will name it sooner or later,
"People's Democratic Quality Reeducation." Arbeit macht frei.
But such examples seemed not quite right.
We wanted numbers. Now, thanks to three alert readers, all on the
mailing list for a newsletter sent out by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we
have them. Some professor (of what, you guess) wrote Moynihan,
who happens to be a professional politician, some helpful hints for the
art of gogy, either peda- or dema-. Here are the excerpts quoted in the
[Your] material had a readability level
of 10.8-11.2. This means that it would be considered readable to people
who had at least a tenth grade reading level. In order to broaden the
"target audience" of your newsletter and to make your message
more accessible to more voters, I might suggest that such material be
written at a lower level of readability.
Moynihan must be an extraordinarily patient
man. Or maybe he's just so busy trying to rustle up "increased funding
for quality education" that he can hardly take time off to study
the work of the mind as done by the quality educationists who will get
to spend the increased funding. Here is Moynihan's reply:
This is how technique traps us. The intended
meaning is that I should write at an eighth grade level, or something
such. But the professor has said I should lower the readability level
of what I write. Surely that means to make it less readable! It seems
to me the professor was not clear.
Why Moynihan calls that stuff an example
that shows how we are trapped by technique is hard to fathom. Can he believe
that "the professor" is just too good at something, in
command of too much technique, or a master of a skill too technical
to assure mere accuracy? If so, it would not be surprising. It has long
been an article of our folklore that too much knowledge or skill, or especially
consummate expertise, is a bad thing. It dehumanizes those who achieve
it, and makes difficult their commerce with just plain folks, in whom
good old common sense has not been obliterated by mere book-learning
or fancy notions. This popular delusion flourishes now more than ever,
for we are all infected with it in the schools, where educationists have
elevated it from folklore to Article of Belief. It enhances their self-esteem
and lightens their labors by providing theoretical justification for deciding
that appreciation, or even simple awareness, is more to be prized than
knowledge, and relating (to self and others), more than skill, in which
minimum competence will be quite enough.
It is possible, of course, that Moynihan
shares the delusion, and for all the same reasons. The chosen goals (and
probably the inner needs) of politicians are not in any important way
different from those of the educationist. But if this politician really
thinks that that educationist just got "trapped" by his devotion
to the stern demands of "technique," then the republic stands
in greater peril than we thought. Let's hope that Moynihan was just trying
to be polite.
We are not polite. We can say that "the
professor" is a boob and a charlatan, and a mealy-mouth too, with
his hokey "material," and his just-between-us-realists-no-offense-intended
quotation marks on "target audience," and that pussy-footing
"I might suggest" when he is in the act of suggesting. That
sort of thing is usually just an involuntary verbal twitch, pitiable but
disconcerting. (Technique does not trap us; ignorance of technique
traps us.) But that cliquish use of the word "material" is--well--material.
Educationists just don't feel right,
and feeling is accounted a way of knowing in their world, about
books. A book is the work of a mind, doing its work in the way that a
mind deems best. That's dangerous. Is the work of some mere individual
mind likely to serve the alms of collectively accepted compromises, which
are known in the schools as "standards"? Any mind that would
audaciously put itself forth to work all alone is surely
a bad example for the students, and probably, if not downright anti-social,
at least a little off-center, self-indulgent, elitist. Such a mind might
easily bore somebody, since only a very few people can possibly feel an
interest in highly specialized subjects. And then there's the problem
of self-esteem, a frail flower, easily bruised by the unfamiliar, by arcane
references, snooty allusions, and, especially, by prose that is simply
not written at the right grade level. It's just good pedagogy,
therefore, to stay away from such stuff, and use instead, if film-strips
and rap sessions must be supplemented, "texts," selected,
or prepared, or adapted, by real professionals. Those texts are
called "reading material." They are the academic equivalent
of the "listening material" that fills waiting-rooms, and the
"eating material" that you can buy in thousands of convenient
eating resource centers along the roads.
Those marvelous numbers that "the professor"
has derived do, in fact, measure something, but not what they pretend
to measure. A score of 10.8 means: If this stuff were being considered
for a place on our list of approved reading material, we would have to
point out that it is only after almost eleven years of our professional
tutelage that the average student will be able to achieve scores that
indicate basic minimum competence in filling in blanks and checking the
appropriate squares on a standardized reading material comprehension assessment
instrument, which is "standardized" because we design
it to go with the stuff that we use as reading material suitable for students
who have had almost eleven years of our tutelage.
If you sniff a whiff of madness in such
notions of "measurement," you must have been reading not simply
with comprehension but with understanding. Something important depends
on making some clear distinction between the two. Educationists seem to
have made, in their practice, a distinction like this: Comprehension is
what is shown by the ability to make or recognize more or less accurate
rephrasings of what you have just read; Understanding is an inner feeling
by virtue of which we can correctly "relate to" people and ideas.
Some such distinction must inform their belief that knowledge just isn't
enough, and may not even be needed at all, for the accomplishment of the
higher goals of education, which lie in the realm of attitudes
We won't quarrel with that definition of
comprehension. We will quarrel instead with the educationists'
apparent notion that comprehension is the point of reading. It
is not. Only in some very special cases is comprehension the point of
reading--in things like recipes and "reading material." The point
of reading is understanding, and comprehension is to understanding
as getting wet is to swimming. You must do the one before you can hope
to do the other, but you don't do the other simply because you do the
Comprehension permits us to answer the question:
What does it say? Understanding permits us to begin answering an endless
series of questions starting with: What can we say about it?
The difference can be demonstrated by Emerson's
sentence, with which this all began: "Their two is not the real two,
their four is not the real four." What score "the professor"
would give it, we don't know. But we do know that those "professors"
presume that the syllable is the quantum of comprehension, and that short
words are by nature easier to comprehend than long words--"sloth,"
for instance, easier than "laziness." The same applies to sentences;
the shorter, the easier. Emerson's sentence is made of fourteen words
and probably is a bit long for reading material, but it is made
of two almost identical sentences joined by a comma, and uses only seven
different words, each of them a common monosyllable. So its "readability"
score ought to be very low. Somewhere in the middle of first grade, any
child ought to be able to "comprehend" it. And then?
The professor's reading is not the real
reading. His readability--and this misled Moynihan to the right
conclusion--is not the real readability. It is an essential attribute of
"reading material" that it be appropriately comprehendable at
a certain grade level, which makes it, at any grade level, agonizingly
unreadable. That could account for a few other things.
A WEIRD consequence
of teaching reading as though its point were comprehension is bafflement
in an encounter with metaphor, a bafflement so extreme that it can cause
a blindness to metaphor, in which the "reader" doesn't even
notice that he hasn't been able to "comprehend" something. When
"students" of literature are asked about a metaphor, they will
often admit, while affirming that they did "do the
reading," that they hadn't "stopped to think" about that.
They are hardly to blame. They have been
taught not to read but to do a reading, to eyeball along to the
end of a text, hesitating briefly, if at all, to make some surmise as
to the meaning of an unfamiliar word, one they haven't "had."
Since many of them are not too good at phonetics, that can often be an
astonishingly wild surmise. There is no good reason to stop and
think about anything. That will just cut your reading speed, and speed
is almost as much the sign of a good reader as comprehension. Besides,
there can be no point in bothering to puzzle something out until, and
unless, it shows up among the comprehension questions down at the
bottom of the reading material. There is even less reason to figure
the hard stuff out if the questions turn out to be what they call "thought"
questions. "Thought" questions usually start with something
like: How would you feet if...
Then those "readers" grow up and
turn into "the professors."
We once did a piece on a superintendent
in Tulsa who replied to public critics by citing a "futurist,"
Peter Wagschal, in whose view we really don't have much need of literacy
anyway. From that, the superintendent did some ghastly futurizing of his
own. Here's how we described his response to the taxpayers:
In the finest frontier fashion, he stood
up tall in the middle of Main Street at high noon and told the rabble
that maybe they'd like to talk it over ...with...Pete (The Persuader)
Wagschal, who somehow happened to drift into town. True grit.
A reader sent a copy to Wagschal. He replied,
explaining that he could hardly be blamed for the fact that someone
had believed what he had written. But he must have had at least
some inkling that that was a less than perfect exculpation. So he went
on to close with a clincher. Never in his life he said, had he ever been
Over the Rainbow Way up High
are definitely not in Kansas anymore. We noticed this weird fact
only recently, when an itinerant nostrum peddler was accused of some pretty
sharp practice and wound up defending himself before a federal grand jury.
He testified that what he had done was strictly A-OK, and that he knew
this because he had discussed it all in a face-to-face meeting with Jesus.
When asked how he knew that it was Jesus, he replied that he had
recognized him from his picture.
We can't tell you what happened then, but
we can sure tell you what didn't happen, because if it had
the papers would have been full of it for a week. So here's what didn't
happen: The jurors did not fall down on the floor gasping and choking
with laughter. The lawyers did not rush whooping from the room, holding
their pocket handkerchiefs before their streaming eyes. In fact, the only
normal human thing that happened there was that some nut said something
stupendously funny. But everything else was weird.
And only a few weeks later, the same mountebank,
still at large, staged a nuptial extravaganza in which a thousand or so
of his female followers were more or less married up with a like number
of his male ditto. All agog to discover more evidence toward an Over the
Rainbow Hypothesis, we tuned it in on the TV. Sure enough. They were all
Then along came Phyllis Schlafly. She has
not yet admitted to being Glenda the Good, but who else would go floating
around the country in such a big bubble? And she does admit that she intends
to do a whole lot of Good.
We read about all the Good she plans to
bestow on us in a New York Times account of a big "Over the
Rainbow Celebration" she threw in Washington (Thirty-five bucks a
head, and no Tupperware selling!) She took the occasion to announce
that she was even going to do Good in the schools, which was kind of a
thrill for us, because we do need all the help we can get, even if it
comes in a bubble.
Phyllis--gosh, we hope she won't mind if
we call her that; it's just that we feel we know her, oh so well--Phyllis
kicked off a campaign to stock all the schools and libraries with pro-family
books, presumably to replace the anti-family books, by "such
writers as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Hawthorne, and Twain," which are
being rooted out of schools and libraries by her "Eagle Forum"
squads. (We don't know what that is; we're guessing that it must be something
like the Lullaby League.)
Now we've actually read those writers, and
even lots of others "such as" them, but we never have been able
to figure which ones, and in which books, and exactly to what degree,
are pro-, or anti-, family, or neither, or both. Those writers
are slippery rascals, who portray lovely families and rotten families,
and people who do well, or ill, because of the one, or in spite of the
other, or both, or neither, or vice versa, if you know what we
mean by that. And what's a Mother to do?
So it seemed just peachy that Glenda the
Good was willing to take on the hard task of making judgments about books.
But then we started to notice something fishy about her powers of judgment.
She said that sex education, which we have
ridiculed for reasons that still seem cogent, was "a principal cause
of teenage pregnancy." If we had to rely on that line of argument,
even educationists would be able to laugh at us.
She said that her "greatest contribution"
was "making sure that eighteen-year-old girls won't be drafted,"
and that she just couldn't imagine "a greater gift." Well, we
had no trouble at all imagining not just one but lots of greater gifts
for eighteen-year-old girls, starting with the power of reason. But just
as we began to suspect that Phyllis might be a bit below her grade level
in creative fantasy as an alternative mode of cognition, she proved us
wrong. It turned out that she could imagine a greater gift, and
not just for the girls, but for all of us. "The atomic bomb,"
she proclaimed, "is a marvelous gift that was given to our country
by a wise God."
We can't tell you what happened next, but
we can tell you what didn't happen next. The party-goers did not
fall down on the floor gasping and choking with laughter. Jerry Falwell
(a reverend) and Jesse Helms (an honorable) did not rush whooping from
the room, holding their pocket handkerchiefs before their streaming eyes.
In fact, the only normal human thing that happened there was that some
nut said something stupendously funny. But everything else was
So it is in the merry old land of Oz: no
brains, but lots of diplomas. Honor and reverence, schooled in the "appreciation"
of everyone's Right to his opinion, which is as good as anyone else's,
have learned to "relate to" Unreason. Logic and fantasy are
just alternate modes of cognition, although the one is difficult and so
"elitist," while the other is immediately possible for all and
"democratic"; the one sets limits and encourages "authoritarianism,"
while the other knows no boundaries and releases "creativity."
Feeling, attitude, belief, awareness, are just as much sources of "knowledge"
as disciplined study, but disciplined study is far more likely than the
others, which are "humanistic," to bring "mere knowledge"
for nothing more than "its own sake." Rationality is cold, a
sly and clever stunt performed with tricky language; the babbling gush
of sincerity is a warm and welcome way of self-expression, which requires
not critical scrutiny, but tolerance for other "values" and
"points of view."
We don't see any hope of getting back to
Kansas. But if, someday, some teacher tells the students that it's time
to learn American history by role-playing the constitutional convention
while appreciating fife music, and the students all fall down on the floor
gasping and choking with laughter, then we'll be heading for home.
Neither can his mind be thought
to be in tune, whose words do jarre; nor his reason in frame, whose
sentence is preposterous.
Published monthly, September to May
R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
Post Office Box 203
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