The King Canute Commission
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.
Reagan was right. The rising tide lifts all the boats. And the rafts, too. And all of the flotsam and jetsam, as well, the drifting grapefruit skins and beer cans, and the rotting bodies of dead things.
Now, "a rising tide of mediocrity" has just been detected by some sort of national commission on something or other about the schools. Gosh, it's scary. Even the commission's report seems, if that first quotation above is typical, to have been washed ashore by that very tide. That broken English about imposing the performance that exists has an unpleasantly familiar sound. We suspect that a couple of cagey educationists wangled slots on that commission and imposed the performance that exists in the report.
The second quotation is not to be found in the commission's report, but it should be. In fact, it ought to have been the report. It says it all, and in much better English. And it has this further virtue, that it speaks in the first person, not of some hypothetically imposed performance, but of what we have done and left undone.
In the manner of the typical social studies text, which is likely to ex plain the Civil War by saying that "problems arose," the commission's report laments all sorts of bad things that are said to have "happened" in the schools. The commissioners are perturbed to notice that courses in physics and courses in bachelor living carry the same credit, but hardly the same enrollment, in most schools. That, as they must know, didn't just happen. Persons did it, and they did it by design and out of policy. And while those persons were doing that, and perpetrating countless similar outrages, other persons were standing around leaving undone those things which they ought to have done. Put them all together--you get we. And that includes every member of the commission.
To whom, then, do they speak? To them who brought us to this, in the fond hope that those miscreants are now willing to do the only thing they ever could have done to improve the schools, which would be to seek some other line of work? To the idle bystanders, who have known all of this for years, and who will now suddenly decide to do their duty and set everything right, an endeavor that can never succeed until all the bums have been thrown out?
But there is no whisper in this report of the bums who must be thrown out if anything is to change. The sad state of the schools, which the commission aptly characterizes by its allusion to courses in bachelor living, is remarkably less sad for those vast legions of people who make livings from the fact that the deepest principles of American educationism do not merely permit but actually require courses in bachelor living, and other like travesties beyond counting. Such things were not smuggled in through the boiler-room in the dead of night. Commissions, committees, boards of "education," all approved them. Professors of education, who concocted such courses, commended them, and designed programs for "teaching" the "teaching" of them. Legislatures enacted them. Supervisors, developers, coordinators, facilitators, hastened into the service of every new empire and began at once the preparation of grant proposals for more of the same.
All those people, however some of them may have profited, were acting on principle, the explicit principle of American schooling for the last sixty years or so. It is, briefly and therefore all too simply, stated, the belief that the purpose of education is to bring about a certain kind of society, and that the individual benefits from education to the degree in which he is adjusted to that society. Combine that with educationistic epistemology in which mere knowledge is "the lowest level of learning outcomes,"* and you end up with what we have: the deliberate neglect of strict disciplines, which are not conducive to the persuasion and adjustment of students. Those bachelor living courses and all their siblings are not nasty growths on an otherwise healthy organism. They are the heart of the matter, and they will never go away unless the ideology that spawns them is specifically repudiated.
There is nothing even close to such a repudiation in the report. Taking pains to offend no one, the commission wags its finger in no discernible direction and never says what most needs saying: The trash must go! We must stop doing those things that we ought not to have done and do only those that we ought to do. The two cannot live together, for the bad will always drive out the good.
If it had said such things, however, the report would not have provided anyone with fresh ammunition in the Great War for Money. Good schools, stripped of all rubbish, would cost less money, but only the students would profit from such schools.
As only one of the many factions that make up the vast political entity we call "education," students have little clout. But all the other factions should be delighted by the report. It offers golden opportunities for academies of educationism, administrative bureaucracies, teachers' unions, purveyors and manufacturers of devices and materials, even guidance counselors and change-agents.
Well, maybe they just did the best they could. We can hardly expect to achieve "excellence" without a little compromise, can we? And when "the best," the champions of excellence who lack all conviction, are sent out to do battle with "the worst," those thrusters and adjusters who are filled with passionate intensity, what else would they do but cut a deal? You wouldn't want anyone to get hurt in a squabble over excellence, would you?
For, soothly, having eyes to see they
Æschylus - Prometheus Bound
The understanding, like the eye, whilst
it makes us to see and perceive all things, takes no notice of itself;
and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its
WE CAN now begin to make out, monstrously looming in the near distance, the swelling hulk of the next bold, innovative thrust, the great lurch forward into Thinking. It will bring us, at first, Basic Minimum Thinking. Next, so that consultants and departments of educationism may thrive even in an Age of Thought, there will come in-service thinking workshops, so that schoolteachers can acquire enhanced appreciations of this newest pedagogical modality. Then, either to pass the buck or spread the wealth, there will arise among us comprehensive programs of Thinking across the Curriculum, engendered by the exciting discovery that even in family living courses and driver training at least some rudimentary form of thinking might be justifiable. And, at the end of it all, professors of geography and Medieval literature will be hanging on to their jobs by teaching two or three sections of Remedial Thinking.
Although the seeds of this movement can hardly be said to have been sown, they did at least fall among the thistles as long ago as 1981. In the fall of that year, when the young victims of the Basic Minimum Competence Frenzy came back to school for more of the same, the National Assessment of Educational Progress discovered that seventeen-year-olds had suffered "sharp declines in inferential comprehension." The results of its standard test, said the NAEP, seemed to "signal some erosion in older teenagers' thinking and evaluative skills."
At first, before the educationists realized that they were hearing the distant rumble not of a new storm of abuse but of an onrushing band wagon, they tried to explain away this new erosion by reminding us that we had burdened them with the old one. Here we are, fighting for functional literacy, they said, and bringing the blessings of minimum competence into the land! How can we, saddled with your petulant demands for mere basics, also be held responsible for the teaching of "higher-order" skills? We can hardly be expected to teach reading, writing, and ciphering, and also thinking at the very same time, you know, and without even a penny of thinking-funding either!
It must have that last point that lit their bulbs. Nowadays they say: Well, of course, we could teach thinking too, if that's what you want, but we would have to have . . . And their shopping list will make such folk as the environmental awareness educationists and consumer educationists look like shy pikers. As "vital" as all such educations surely are, Thinking Education deserves some big money.
And then there are serious considerations, which arise not so much from the silly, self-serving behavior of our educationists as from the ideological presumptions that underlie all their behavior, all their practices and beliefs. From those who have never even defined education except as anything and everything done in schools, who neither own nor seek any firm principles by which to distinguish education from training, or socialization, or persuasion, or even from entertainment, what can we expect as a definition of "thinking"? By what principles, if any, will the idolaters of the Affective Domain distinguish thinking from guessing, or hoping, or remembering, or daydreaming, or, for that matter, from their most prized "mental" acts, appreciating, relating, and self-esteeming?
And what evidence can we find in the results of their practice and the ludicrous curricula of their own academies as to the quality of the educationists' thinking about thinking? Are their inane questionnaires and the jargon-laden banalities of their pathetic "scholarship" the "pains and arts" by which they understand the understanding? Is it through awareness enhancement and arranging the desks in a circle that the torpid educationistic mind has come to take the grasp of itself, and to the power of leading others in that enterprise?
We already have a hint as to what "thinking" will become in the schools. The National Council of Teachers of English has recently discovered that "thinking and language are closely linked." (NYT, Education Survey supplement, Jan. 9, 1983.) Although that may seem a tiny step forward for that crowd, we have to see it in the pale and flickering light of their announced beliefs about the language to which they now find thinking so "closely" linked. Will the same rules of cultural relativity and political expediency govern their "teaching" of both? Will they concoct some kind of "holistic scoring" by which, without fussing about the "trivial mistakes," to judge of the better and the worse in the practice of logic? Will they discover other thinkings, just as "valid" and worthy of "respect" as that kind of thinking that just happens to be the current and socially acceptable habit of the "dominant class"?
The questions are, of course, rhetorical, for the NCTE has already begun to make just such discoveries. "A policy statement by [that] organization," says the Times,
suggested that teachers approach thinking skills from three directions--teaching creative thinking to recognize relationships that lead to new ideas, logical thinking to create hypotheses and detect fallacies, and critical thinking to ask questions and make judgments.
And there we have already three "thinkings," which is only the barest of beginnings in that blindly teeming system that has already brought us a swarm of "educations" and even a little pack of "writings." Soon there will he absurdities like Civic Thinking, Driving Thinking, Environmental Thinking, Family Thinking, and probably even Health and Personal Grooming Thinking, for so it is that empires grow and the goodies are passed around in the merry old land of educationism.
But there is much more at issue here than routine featherbedding, so, difficult as it is, we must try not to be facetious about the NCTE's "policy statement." (At this very instant, in fact, we are trying not to imagine how it came to pass that a band of schoolteachers suddenly decided, by golly, that the time had come for an official policy on thinking. Yeah. It's as though the Pope were to . . . Enough! We have to stop this right now.)
So let's examine their "policy." Do they truly suppose that "creative" thinking need not be logical thinking, that "logical" thinking is not the thinking by which to "recognize relationships that lead to new ideas," that "critical" thinking is going to detect fallacies without being logical thinking? Is the making of judgments achieved in one thinking and the creation of hypotheses in another? Do we need yet one more thinking, still to be named, by which to make judgment of hypotheses, and still another by which to form hypotheses about the provenance of weird judgments?
But again, enough. Such a game of words could go on forever, just like the list of "thinkings." It is by means of such games, and out of a remarkably superstitious belief in the reality of anything that can be named, that they have cooked up such things as microteaching and experiential continua, which can be elaborated (and funded) without any consideration at all of what is meant by "teaching" or by "experience."
In educationists, there dwells the demon Kakepistemé, who spake by the prophets of socialization through Ed. Psych. 101. He diligently compels them to define backwards, and without regard to the nature of what is being defined. As to education, for instance, they begin by guessing that some socially acceptable "outcomes" must be the result of education-- making a living, for example, or appreciating a line from Hamlet, or being able to balance a checkbook and write a letter of application. Thus, by the educationists' definition, it is the same thing that brings about, in one case, the mind of John Stuart Mill, and, in another, the practice of brushing between meals.
So, too, will it be with thinking, for the educationists have no principle to distinguish it from their precious idol, problem-solving. Thus they can say, and believe, this sort of thing:
Thinking is the one skill that makes street-smart kids so adaptable. They know how to solve the problems of the street, and now they have to learn how to apply those skills in the classroom.
Those are the words, as quoted by the Times, of one Charlotte Frank, executive director of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the public schools of New York City. If there be justice in the fabric of the universe--a consideration that calls not for problem-solving but for thinking--Frank will be demoted to the lowliest rank in education, teacher, so that those adaptable street-smart kids can go and apply their skills in her classroom.
So, it is thoughtfulness is it, by virtue of which those street-smart kids are what they are? And it must be out of an even greater thoughtfulness--the "creative" kind, maybe?--that their older counterparts, and mentors, are what they are. And what of the rats, the astonishing, problem-solving rats of New York, not only surviving but actually prevailing in an implacably hostile and enormously complicated environment?
To lead, however successfully, in the streets or in the board-rooms, a life of problem-solving is to lead "a random life from year to year," a life directed not from within by principle, but from without by accident. There is surely no recommendation in the fact that countless millions lead such lives; there is rather a reminder that thinking is not a "survival skill." While the thoughtful may prosper by thoughtfulness, they also may not. Utterly unlike the street-smart kids, who know just what they want and exactly how to get it, the thoughtful are at least occasionally handicapped in the Great Struggle for Survival by nagging questions as to whether they should want what they want and whether the getting would he worthy. If Charlotte Frank is right. if success in the schools' version of Thinking Education comes easiest to the street--smart, then we know something about the schools. We don't need to damn the whole system and all of its deeds. Its Charlotte Franks will do that for us, as they always have.
Maybe she just wasn't thinking when she said that.
And that leads to the big question: Who are they to teach our children how to think? For years we have examined the dreadful language of educationism, not simply to display its pitiable ineptitude, which is merely entertaining, but to analyze the work of the mind as done by those who are charged with the making of theory and policy and the training of teachers for the public schools of America. We have to conclude that the "professionals" who make our schooling what it is must have been standing behind the door when Prometheus was handing out gifts. They persevere in blindly floundering on.
And it's too bad, because it is, in fact, so easy to teach the rudiments and habits of thinking that it could be done even in our schools! But first, those who are to do the teaching will have to follow Locke, and contrive, through art and pains, to do some thinking about thinking. To seek the understanding of understanding, the mind's grasp of itself, is nothing but the first stirring of thoughtfulness. After that, it gets easier, and even children can do that.
For that, we have the testimony not only of experience and Plato, of whom educationists seem to know nothing, but also of one Matthew Lipman, director of an Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, at Montclair State College in New Jersey. Here, in a letter to Basic Education (April, 1983), he says something very important:
I find myself quite uncomfortable with the notion that reason and inquiry skills are "higher order skills." . . . I find skills like classification, concept formation, inference, assumption-finding, criterion-analysis, analogy analysis, and the furnishing of reasons to be in fact rudimentary.
Much more worthy of being called "higher-order skills" are reading, writing, and computation. The reasoning and inquiry skills are relatively simple and eminently teachable. One might think of them, together with mental acts, as fairly atomic, in contrast with which reading, writing, and computation are enormously complex and molecular.
To begin the teaching of thinking with that understanding would make sense, but educationists, hearing, hear not. When they hear that "thinking" is not a "higher--order skill," they'll go right back to the professional stuff, writing letters of application for jobs and playing the Lifeboat Game.
Published eight times a year, September
to May, except January.
Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;
* See "The Master of Those Who Know," (VII, I; Feb; 83), for a consideration of the epistemology of educationism. back