Volume Six, Number Eight............November 1982

Sayings Brief and Dark

In accordance with their textbooks, they are always in motion; but as for dwelling upon an argument or a question, and quietly asking and answering in turn, they can no more do so than they can fly. . . . If you ask any of them a question, he will produce, as from a quiver, sayings brief and dark, and shoot them at you; and if you inquire the reason of what he has said, you will be hit with some other new-jangled word, and you will make no way with any of them. Their great care is, not to allow of any settled principle either in their arguments or in their minds, . . . for they are at war with the stationary, and do what they can to drive it out everywhere.

NO, that is not an extract from a report of a convention of curriculum facilitators, or a tale told out of school by someone who escaped from a teacher academy with all of his faculties intact. It is--and we always find this sort of thing refreshing--a passage from Plato, who never even heard of educationists, and who never had to. He knew the archetype, the ideal, of which our bold, innovative thrusters are just local and ephemeral appearances--just our bad luck.

The speaker is a certain Theodorus, and he is talking not about educationists but about some Ephesians who have adopted the notion that knowledge is perception and, therefore, as mutable and diverse as the world and different for every perceiver. And it is because they deny the possibility of permanent and universally pertinent principle, or of any "truth" that might be supposed to exist whether anyone perceives it or not, that they are said to be "at war with the stationary."

We don't know much philosophy around here, but we sure do know a neat idea when we see one, and that is one neat idea. It means, among hosts of other neat things, that we are OK, that we don't have to know much philosophy around here. We can perceive just as well as the next monthly. And when you come to think of it, or even when you don't come to think of it, you can easily perceive it as a really democratic idea, the very idea we need to prove the worth of rap sessions in which eight-year-olds can decide all about abortion and alternative lifestyles and which passenger to throw out of an overloaded lifeboat.*

Theodorus, however, took no harm greater than exasperation from his visit to Ephesus. He was not obliged by law to spend twelve years among the practitioners of quality philosophy. Nor did he enroll in an Ephesian equivalent of a teacher academy, so that he might experience slogans and incantations relevant to outcomes-based instruction modalities and enhancement facilitation.

We, on the other hand, cannot go home. Athens is fallen, and Ephesians peddle tacky souvenirs among the ruins. There is no dwelling upon argument, but only the rap session, no quietly asking and answering in turn, but only privileged self-expression in the recitation of the latest notions.

We are led into these melancholy reflections by a sad and exasperated letter from a faithful reader. He is in the school business, but is obviously still a thoughtful person.

He was filling out yet another of those countless and mind-numbing forms that educationists, given sufficient funding, of course, dearly love to cook up and send around. (They call that "research," and the "answers"--usually nothing more than choices checked off by bored and angry people justifiably thirsty for revenge--they call "data.") The poor man, who is not an educationist, but a teacher, the lowest rank there is in the school business, read these words of wisdom from his betters:

As the individual staff member considers a program of self-improvement, attention should be given to the ability to impart knowledge.

Something must have snapped in his mind. We'll never know exactly what caused it. Maybe it was that lofty Passive Imperative: "Attention Should Be Given." Maybe it was the realization that he, a mere individual staff member, couldn't even identify those of his colleagues who might be of the other kind. In any case, he did what you are never supposed to do in the school business. He looked at one of those sayings, brief and dark, and actually thought about it. Should that sort of anti-social behavior become common in our schools, there would be an end to educationism, which depends absolutely, like any other cult, upon the credulousness of its adherents, and which, like any other cult, fosters credulousness by giving catechism the name of "education."

The brief, dark saying that caught our correspondent's mind was that pious and oft-intoned mantra: "The Ability to Impart Knowledge." How he thought about that, we can't tell you in detail, but in principle we can tell you, because the principles are stationary. He dwelt upon the question; he did not appreciate it or interact with it. He asked and answered in turn; he did not rap. He inquired the reason of what was said; he did not relate to the reasons for saying it.

He put questions like these: Does knowledge need imparting, whatever that is, or would telling be enough? When knowledge is told by stones and stars, who is the teacher, and in what statements can we describe the knowable properties of his "abilities"? If the imparting of knowledge is the telling of what is so, who can lack that ability, except the insane, the imbecilic, the comatose, the irretrievably deluded, or the pathologically mendacious? If, however, that imparting of knowledge is something other than the telling of what is so, what, exactly, are its properties? Can we consider the "ability" to do it, or judge whether it ought to be done, without knowledge of its nature? Is knowledge not that which needs beholding rather than assertion, and is the habit of diligent inquiry not the parent of beholding? As to the worth of teachers, and especially teachers of teachers, ought we not to judge of their habits and ways of inquiry instead of their self-proclaimed and utterly unintelligible "ability to impart knowledge"?

Still, as at least one man we know will surely testify, you can learn a thing or two--well, not from, exactly, but because of those people. Maybe that's the secret of a good teacher academy, a place where the students, sitting still and thinking, could just observe the educationists leaping from tree to tree in their natural habitat.

To be to Some chewed Books
Tasted Are Swallowed to digested,
and Others be, and Some be Few

NEVER spoken truer were words. And out are to quickly some spat be. Unfortunately, however, the natural good sense which instructs even very small children to spew noxious substances clean across the room is suppressed in the schools as anti-social and little conducive to the self-esteem of the teachers. The wretched little tykes, once the iron door of the schoolhouse clangs shut behind them, are required by law to swallow everything fed them by the bold, innovative thrusters who make up the ever-changing menu. Peanut butter guacamole yesterday, potato chips in aspic tomorrow, but never a smidgen of jam today.

Nevertheless, however improbable and nauseous their concoctions, it is usually possible to figure out what it is that they either imagine or pretend that they will accomplish. But now, in an unbook called Expressways, a sixth-grade "reading" text, we have a disgusting mess of unidentifiable substance whose supposed purpose we cannot even begin to guess.

It pretends to be an exercise in "correcting word order," and begins by asserting that "word order affects the meaning of a sentence," as some precocious (and thus, as you will see, disruptive) children will have noticed even before they reached the sixth grade. The exercise asks the students to do something about some supposedly garbled sentences. Some of them actually are garbled:

magician a Merlin was

Arthur enchanted an stone of pulled out sword of

Not quite as much fun as a barrel of monkeys, perhaps, but close. Even the dullest students should be able, as instructed, to "rewrite each group of words to make a clear and sensible sentence." But why, dammit? Why?

Is this what those educationists mean by "problem-solving"? Do they imagine, or pretend, that a garbled sentence is a "problem" for which all readers must be prepared lest they fail to comprehend deliberate distortions? Is it some "life-skill" enhancement intended to insure that the students will still be able to check the right boxes on comprehension tests when all the printers have gone mad? Are students, in fact, likely to write such garbled sentences?

To make a bad thing worse, the concocters of this silliness can't even garble skillfully. Having vouchsafed that "word order affects the meaning of a sentence," and having asked that students assemble "clear and sensible sentences" from "groups of words" that could never occur naturally, these reading experts proceed to dream up "problems" of this kind:

the knights made out of marble sat at a round table

persons in distress rescued the knights

some knights went in search of holy objects on quests

Try now to imagine the plight of those unlucky sixth graders--there are plenty of them--who can see, as anyone but a reading expert might, that those "groups of words" are "clear and sensible." If there is anything at all "wrong" about them, it is only that they will not win approval from the teacher, who can easily discover, by looking it up in the handy teacher's guide that comes with Expressways, that those clear and sensible sentences are not the clear and sensible sentences that the reading experts had in mind, not the "correct" solutions to "problems" that would never have existed in the first place if it weren't for the fact that the reading experts always need tricky new gimmicks to put in their unbooks.

The exercise pretends to ask a question about grammar, the system of principles by which we all, sixth-grade children included, can and do form any of an infinite number of possible sentences, including the three supposed "problems" cited above. But in fact, it asks a question to be answered out of that minimal kind of reading that is really nothing more than the reception of communication. And, probably for the remediation of those obstinate students who persist in suspecting that it is by form, not content, that a sentence is a sentence, there is a postscript to all this absurdity. It's called "Interaction":

Make up your own scrambled sentences about how Merlin could help you. Have a classmate unscramble your sentences.

It's not enough, you see, although it is required, that educationists commit nonsense. They are, as they are always saying, such giving and sharing people. And when they commit nonsense, everyone commits nonsense.


The Steaming Bird

This course is divided into two component parts: college coursework and laboratory. The college student is referred to as a Teacher Assistant whose principle [sic] task is to assist classroom teachers so as to gain insights into the many functions of the secondary school. Some suggested experiences for the Teacher Assistant are as follows:

EVERY once in a while, usually right around Turkey Time we like to bestow the prestigious order of the Steaming Bird upon an especially distinguished member of Glassboro's celebrated, Division of Professional Studies. But it's hard to choose. So many of them are so distinguished as to be utterly beyond our powers to distinguish.

No matter. Our trade union tells us that all faculty members deserve to be equally distinguished in every way, and with like egalitarian selectivity, we just reach into out file of Equally Excellent Examples of Professional Educationism and come up with a winner. And sometimes we just throw them up the staircase.

This year, our deliberations have led to the selection of one Miriam Spear, the author of the cited passage, and, we guess, a professional in the provision of experience's that lead to the gaining of insights. (It is never easy for nonprofessionals to figure out exactly what it is that they do over there; mere "teaching," which many amateurs might more or less recognize, they seldom propose.) She is surely describing some "course," but we can't tell you its name; she doesn't give it. We are glad to see, though, that it is made up not merely of parts, which even the bumblingest amateur might manage to achieve, but of the ever so much more state-of-the-art "component parts."

After that colon, there follows a long list of chores, which the "college student" (the very kind we have, by golly!) will surely be persuaded to look upon as "laboratory." Language does the trick. If you simply call a student a student, you can never be a distinguished educationist. A mere student will probably notice in just a few weeks that the supervision of corridors, buses, and cafeterias is an utterly mindless and unenlightening drudgery as well as a nasty kind of involuntary servitude. And, unless he has been properly re-oriented out of the amateurish notion that teaching and learning are works of the mind, he might actually decide to become a student of something rather than a teacher-trainee, thus diminishing the cost-effectiveness of the whole Division! However, if the same student is grandly "referred to as a Teaching Assistant" he may imagine that such dismal duties are really "experiences" leading to "insights." He may come to believe, as well, that pushing the buttons of audio-visual gadgets and running off dittos of "learning materials" are really scientific enterprises, meticulously designed and scrupulously conducted, in that laboratory component part of this neat course in professional insight-gaining.

As to the other "component part," here called "college coursework," Miriam Spear is silent, but not strangely silent. Of the twenty-two entries that follow the colon, all but the last are either house-keeping chores, obscure generalizations like "Assist Department Chairman," or "Work with a club or other activity groups," or weird stuff like "Shadow Study."* Insights into functions, the many, many functions. The last entry says: "To be of service to the school in exchange for a learning experience." Well, with a laboratory like that, who needs any college coursework component part?

Educationists are pleased to imagine that experience is learning. Since they "read" only approximately, they suppose that Poor Richard was commending experience in the celebrated adage, rather than revealing it the teacher of last resort and the fool's last chance. Experience by itself can teach only knacks, which may indeed save a fool, but will hardly make him wise, or even a teacher. It is thoughtful, orderly discourse about experience that leads to understanding. Lacking that, we can't even be sure of learning the knacks that experience can teach.

You can test that for yourself by contemplating the cited passage. In spite of what you think, Spear has been a professional for a long time, and that is not her first try at prose.

And furthermore…

WE had fewer testy responses than expected to "The Children of Perez." Two readers wrote to say that such matters were beyond the scope (and they may have meant beyond the understanding as well) of this journal.

But the dangerous doctrines of a Perez, and the ideology out of which they flow, are protected from critical analysis in our schools, which think it good to persuade all the children into an undiscriminating "appreciation" of all known cultural heritages and "alternative lifestyles," without consideration of their implicit principles or lack of them. We approach that time when the educationists' already traditional neglect of "mere facts" like the provisions of our Constitution will be justified anew by the fact--which they won't call "mere"--that somebody might be offended by those provisions. As Perez now is.

Such a concern is not "beyond our scope," whatever that may be. Nor is it beyond anyone's scope. And that brings us to "understanding."

The search for understanding is the purpose of the critical examination of language. A scrupulous attention to mechanics and convention is only a paltry fussiness unless it reveals how and why those who seek admission to the greater mysteries will advance all the better through practice in the lesser. We want the schools to teach the skills of language not because that will make the students more genteel, but because it just might make them more thoughtful, and thus more likely to recognize and repudiate public displays of ignorance and unreason. Such displays, often further tainted by pandering mendacity, are the very substance of our politics and the chief agents of mindless factionalism. We are not going to wait until our Perezes dangle their participles. Their words are enough. To inquire into them is our right and duty.

A Brief Note from Central Control

We have to ask our readers' indulgence. This issue is late, and all issues from now until May will also be late. Several indispensable members of our staff, the typesetter, the printer, a few untitled gofers, and even the assistant circulation manager, were led away into ineptitude and disorder a couple of months ago. And it is only now, as October draws to a close, that they are beginning to drift back to work, more or less in their right minds.

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

Annual subscription: US & Canada, $10; others, $14.


* They actually do this in the schools. It's called the Lifeboat Game, which proves that school has its lighter side. The dull labors of math and grammar are offset by playful interludes of childlike chatter as to who shall live and who shall die.
    The game provides a dramatis personae clearly differentiated by "socially significant" attributes: age, sex, ethos, calling, and other such contingencies by virtue of which a person is also a local and temporal manifestation. This is not one of the contexts in which educationists choose to warble paeans to "the uniqueness and absolute worth of the individual." (Inconsistency troubles them not at all; they are at war with the stationary.) In this case, the verdict must be relevant," conducive to "the greatest good for the greatest number," and the exclusive focus on accepted notions of "social usefulness" assures that a decision will be made. Another kind of inquiry--whether it is better to do or to suffer an injustice, for instance, or whether the common good is more to be prized than the good--would preclude decision and spoil the game, sending all the players back to the tedium of math and grammar. Schoolteachers, in any case, are usually kept ignorant even of the possibility of such inquiries, but they have been told all about self-worth and how to enhance it.
     The children who "play" the game usually decide to dump an old clergyman, a man who is supposed to be prepared for that sort of thing--being fed to sharks by a committee of children, that is. A busty young country-western singer will be preserved. She has many long years ahead of her in which to maximize her potential and serve the greatest good by entertaining the greatest number. And she is supposed to be prepared for that sort of thing--being elevated to wealth and power by a very large committee of children.
     What a pity that Himmler and Goebbels and all that crowd are dead. They'd make really neat resource persons for the Lifeboat Game. Well, there's still Rudy Hess, and we might even find Mengele. back

† Some of the entries are sentences, some not; some of the latter are capitalized like titles, some are not. Such inconsistencies are remarkably frequent in educationistic writing. It is as though they can not help themselves, as though they so deeply hate ordered discipline and logical regularity that they can not bring themselves even to seem regular and disciplined, lest their prose admit principles they prefer to deny. back

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