Up Pops Optimism
Just yesterday I was conducting a workshop for teachers, and one of them said, "Look, we made a lot of progress with some of these ideas in the 1960's, and now they are all gone. How can you be optimistic once again?" I simply said that to be an educator and pessimistic is an inconsistency. Good ideas will keep popping up…and we will try to inject them into the system.
GOLLY, what fun it must be to be a genuyine educator and get interviewed by Edward B. Fiske, the Education Editor of the New York. Times. Fiske is certainly a man who might display the typical thinking of educators accurately and completely, but there is no need to worry. He would never do that sort of thing to an educator.
We've been reading, with rue and chagrin, Fiske's interview of John I. Goodlad, educator. Goodlad, once the dean of a teacher-training academy in California, has recently had his name associated in some way or other with a bound volume of printed pages. It is called A Study of Schooling, and it is the end-product (a happy term) of eight years of what the educationists call "research" -- questionnaires, evaluative instruments, perception/assessment doohickies, and punch cards.
What made us sad about the interview was that we couldn't help comparing our own education editor--a crude and pushy wiseacre--with the courteous, considerate, Fiske.
Our man might actually upset an educator who said what is cited above, which Goodlad did in the interview with Fiske. We can hear him now: "Just a minute there, buddy, just a goddam minute. How about a little list of all those great ideas of the 60's? Does that mean stuff like relating to the Eskimo experience by chewing blubber in the open classroom and toting around cute little chickie eggs and staging mock weddings complete with caterers for God's sakes so that little kids who still can't keep their noses clean can learn all about family living and alternative lifestyles?"
You can see why we keep him at his desk. Still, we almost wish he had been there when Fiske, referring to a weird notion that students ought to do well on some sort of test before getting diplomas, asked Goodlad if he "liked the approach."
Goodlad did not like the approach, and he hastily recited the incantation that educationists always use to ward off any approach of the demon of mere cognition: "Tests measure a very narrow array of student behaviors."
"Oh, yeah," our man would surely have sneered. "You must mean that piddling little array of those few, trivial ‘behaviors' that actually can be measured by testing. Silly stuff like skills and mere knowledge, eh?"
And he might even have verged on rudeness at Goodlad's sloganized rehearsal of the real aims of government schooling, which can not, of course, be "tested" by objective inquiry, but only judged and pronounced upon by the very people who concocted them: "Higher scores do not necessarily mean that the educational system is getting better. Higher scores don't mean that you have improved the abilities of youngsters to tackle new problems, to develop all of their senses in creative kinds of activities or to get along with others."
Although Fiske had the courtesy to let all that rubbish pass without comment, and without asking whether it might be those ideas that brought us all those "courses" in appreciating and relating, our education editor would have put some snarky questions:
So what would higher scores "necessarily" mean? Are you saying that even if more students had more knowledge and more skill, it wouldn't make "the system" better? That seems stupid, of course, and suggests that we should judge "the system" on something other than its effects, which would get you people off the hook, but it's also nasty. Did you mean to say that the system is more important than the students, so that you can blithely derogate some obvious benefit to the latter because it may "not necessarily" prove a benefit to the former?
And what the hell is that "tackle new problems" business? Do you imply that schoolchildren are busily at work "tackling" a whole bunch of new problems, from which significant enterprise they should not be diverted by trivial tests of their power to solve some old problems? Could you name about five or six of those indubitably fascinating new problems and tell us how the kiddies are doing on them?
Could it be that one of those "new" problems really is comparatively new, having afflicted us only since the day that saw the first meeting of a course in educationism--the problem of getting the hell out of school before your mind is turned to tapioca by a crew of cretinous busybodies developing all your goddam senses through collage and leading you into the pathway of righteous getting along with a bunch of significantly unspecified "others" in rap-sessions on the toleration of everything and the diligent practice of diffidence, irresolution, flattery, hypocrisy, and obsequiousness?
He does get carried away. And, we must admit, he sometimes actually turns a bit nasty. We wouldn't dare to print what he said when he heard all about Goodlad's terrific proposal for what he calls "head teachers":
Let's say an elementary school has 400 children. I would divide that school into four units of 100 children each and then assign to each team ["unit"?] the equivalent [?] of four teachers. Then I would want to take those four positions and divide them up in different ways.
One of them would be a "head teacher," with a doctorate in the tasks required for that position: understanding children and learning, the ability to diagnose learning disabilities, and the ability to prescribe the kinds of treatment to correct deficiencies in learning.
There, you see? There's not really anything wrong with the schools or the people who operate them. it's all those damn children, with all of their pestilential disabilities and learning deficiencies, who have sunk us under that rising tide of mediocrity. What we need now is not, as ignorant civilians have been led to believe by all that "nation at risk" ruckus, teachers who actually know science and math and history and language. What the teachers need (if they want the "head teacher" bucks) is more educationism courses, naturally, and some "doctorates in tasks," so that they can do the real work of a teacher--the diagnosis of deficiencies and the prescription of treatments. And, as it happens, such a "head teacher" program will work no hardship at all on any of Goodlad's old pals in the teacher academies, who are a little troubled these days by a small cloud on the horizon.
Well, surely Fiske understands all these things. He must have known that the simple truth about Goodlad's plan wouldn't be news that is fit to print.
The Mouths of Babes
"Everybody thinks that Russia is the bad guy. We found out that the U. S. A. is just as bad because we're doing a lot of things like they are, like making nuclear weapons, like we dropped the first bomb... We got the whole thing started."
"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."
The second quotation is from Cicero. It is one of those sayings that lodge themselves securely in a quiet corner of the mind, only now and then nagging for attention and elucidation. The words seem to have the ring of truth, but what, exactly and in detail, do they mean?
Our ruminations on that question have been helped along prodigiously by the first quotation. It is the "work" of a thirteen-year-old schoolboy somewhere in Wisconsin. A child. A child whose teachers have apparently been admitted to the greater mysteries without having to pass through the tedious apprenticeship of the lesser. They have not taught this child much about the natural form of the sentence, but they have told him who "got the whole thing started.'
We found this schoolboy's understanding of what happened before he was born (which must be rigorously distinguished from his knowledge of what happened before he was born) in a column in the Times & World News of Roanoke, Va., July 11, 1983.
The author, Harold Sugg, a journalist, suggests that the child might have been given some knowledge before he was handed an "understanding"--knowledge about the progress and intentions of German scientists, about the well-founded fears of Einstein and other refugees, Roosevelt's perfectly prudent reaction to Einstein's letter, and Truman's dilemma, unresolved to this day, and, like any of history's "what if's," unresolvable by anything less than the mind of God.
Regular readers will easily sniff out the source of the schoolboy's "understanding." It is, of course, the "packet of materials" put out by a teachers' union, the National "Education" Association. That handy-dandy guidebook for teachers who are ignorant of what occurred before they were born was "to dispel misconceptions [specifically in junior high school children] about nuclear war and the buildup of nuclear arms." When we discussed this project last December, we wondered whether that teachers' union had come up with some new and hitherto unsuspected knowledge, or whether they would dispel misconceptions in their usual way, i.e., by modifying children into some new feelings without bothering about mere knowledge. But, of course, we didn't really wonder.
Now that we have some evidence as to their methods, we want to consider their enterprise from another point of view.
They did indeed proclaim that their program of megadeath education was meant to "dispel misconceptions" in teenagers. What can be the meaning of that curious qualification? If there were some line of argument or collection of knowledge that would in fact dispel misconceptions about nuclear war in teenagers, why on earth would it not have precisely the same effect on anyone of any age?
Surely, knowledge is knowledge, and reason, reason. There can hardly be several of each, severally suitable to different ages. Some persons, to be sure, and no matter what their age, still have minds so credulous and unpracticed that knowledge and reason do not touch them, but if the NEA does in fact command the knowledge and reason that would dispel misconceptions in teenagers, then it must be able to do the same for many of the rest of us.
So why are we left in darkness? Why hasn't this union, ordinarily loud in protesting its devotion to the common good, dispelled all our misconceptions and brought us, in this most critical issue, to a national consensus? Why are some of us still in confusion as to who the good and the bad guys are and who started it all?
Or, to put it in a more useful way, do you imagine that those "teachers" would dare to do in public, before an audience of educated adults, whatever it was they did to bring that little boy to his shallow and altogether pitiable "understanding" of history?
Do you suppose that the little boy's teacher shares his belief? If so, how does such a gullible and uninformed person get to be a teacher? And if not, how is such a teacher anything other than a hypocrite and a molester of children? How else are we to describe one who would take advantage of a child's natural ignorance and pliability in order to arouse in him certain feelings and beliefs that will suit the manipulator's purpose?
Perhaps, however, there is a third possibility that seems, at first, slightly less horrendous. It may well be, for such is the standard practice of those educationists, that the devisers of holocaust education actually admitted (to themselves, but certainly not to the rest of us) that such a study might prove, well, just a bit "advanced" for the juvenile mind to understand "correctly," and thus in need of some judicious and pedagogically practicable adjustment. After all, to bring a child of thirteen to a mature and thoughtful understanding of so large and vexed an issue might take years and years! There just isn't going to be all that time in our nifty little mini-course. We'll have to leave something out, all that science and history and politics stuff, maybe, all those confusing mere facts.
Years and years. Yes, that is what it takes even to begin to form a mature and thoughtful understanding of any serious human issue, years and years of finding and ordering knowledge, and rational inquiry, and living, and paying attention to living, and always, always, living under the decent government of vigilant doubt.
The whole story of our educationists can be told in miniature by the example of this "course" in the dispelling of misconceptions about a stupendously complicated issue. They are reluctant to teach those things that can and should be taught to children. They do not find that a sufficiently professional calling. They dream of being priests and prophets, lofty enlighteners, healers of disordered young psyches, beneficent agents of social change. Scorning skill and knowledge as "minimum," "basic," and "mere," they hustle their charges into "awarenesses," "perceptions," and "appreciations" of the Great Issues, as though such sentiments were ways of understanding. Even when they have faint inklings of the fact that it does take years and years to seek out mature and thoughtful understandings, they decide that children are children, after all, and that for them a childish and simplified "understanding" will be quite good enough, and surely better than none at all.
So it was, for instance, that the boy who was brought to "understand," all about nuclear war was not burdened with the study of history, which could take up a lot of time and would just confuse him. And that much is true; there is a lot of history, of which we can never know more than a little. "The well of history," Thomas Mann put it, "is very deep. Shall we not say that it is bottomless?" And so it is, as anyone who has actually studied history can testify. And that is precisely why we must study it.
The study of history is an antidote to arrogance and dogmatism, because it reminds us that even those who have great knowledge, especially those who have great knowledge, can not agree. It shows us that the "good guys and bad guys" theory of history is puerile nonsense, and that we can no more understand "who started it all" than we can know what "it all" is.
But our little boy did not read history. He was instead, as educationists say, "exposed to social studies."
The hokey cant of the educationists has at least this virtue through it they reveal, however unintentionally, what is really in their minds. Their routine admission of wanting to "expose" students to this or that is a way of saying that they want the children to "catch" something--an "appreciation," or an "awareness," or the most virulent infection of all, a "right response."
(A "right response," in pedagogical theory, has nothing to do with a "correct answer." The latter exists only in the merely cognitive domain, while the former floats in the affective. The correct answer, in fact, may actually prevent the right response, just as that little boy's right response might have been prevented had Harold Sugg been sitting in the back of the class and obstructing the dispelling of misconceptions with a few correct answers.)
The swamp of social studies is not deep. It is shallow, very shallow, fetid and septic. Shall we not expect that he who drinks of it will catch some thing? And that little boy in Wisconsin has indeed caught a "right response," for his meager understanding is dearly the understanding that was intended by those who "instructed" him.
So the third possibility turns out to be not less but more horrendous than the other two. The claim that some inquiries that are just too "advanced" for children to understand can be simplified or abbreviated so that children can understand what they can not understand is arrant nonsense and rank hypocrisy. In this program of nuclear warfare education, no inquiry at all was ever intended, no search for understanding through knowledge, but only the implanting of a certain belief in the uninformed and acquiescent minds of children. In Albania, too, the educationists call that "education."
If there are issues that children can not understand because their minds are insufficiently practiced and informed, and because they have little experience of living, then they can not understand them. Nor have they come to understand them when they have learned to recite the opinions of redactors and simplifiers claiming to be teachers.
And when they have learned that kind of lesson often enough--how often is that?--they will slip easily into the condition that Cicero had in mind: lifelong childhood. Childhood is not best understood as a time of life, for its time is variable and indeterminate. Childhood is better understood as a kind of life, the kind that is simply natural to those in whom the mind is still credulous and unpracticed. Such a mind can not seek understanding by knowledge and rational inquiry, but will readily accept and recite opinions delivered by anyone to whom credulousness grants authority. There is no point in asking, of the boy in Wisconsin, What did he know and how did he reason? The useful question would be: Whom did he heed? He heeded certain other children, who learned the same lesson in the same way.
This is the fact that lies at the heart of all of our troubles in "education," the fact that must ultimately defeat all attempts at reform. The children in the schools are just children, who might someday, if left unmolested, put away childish things. But the other people in the schools, the teachers and teacher trainers, the educrats and theory mongers, are confirmed children. They are, indeed and alas, exactly what they claim to be--"role models." And they represent the end of that process to which schooling is the means: the subversion of knowledge and reason, stern governors, by bands of cunning babies, feelings and beliefs.
If we can escape a nuclear calamity only through some brand of ideological indoctrination in all our children, then we might inquire as to whether we should escape it. But thus we will not escape; we rather make it all the more possible. Violence is an extremity of unreason, and we do not escape either unreason or violence by calling the one to save us from the other.
Nor can we hope that little children who have been dosed with unreason and praised for swallowing it will one day, by magic or luck, put on thoughtfulness and require, of any who would persuade them, knowledge and reason. If that is a part of the natural process of growing up, which is at least questionable, it can obviously be prevented, and by nothing more than a little modification in the affective domain and the relentless display of role models who have already been suitably modified.
And it is a great pity, for children can learn from other children. The very teachers that we now have could easily teach the younger children things like the skills of language and number, upon which all mature and thoughtful understanding must ultimately be founded. They could lead them into reading the words of the thoughtful, words to be stored up against need, for need will surely come. They could treat the younger children like what they truly are, inheritors of wealth beyond counting, the great record of our long struggle to understand "it all," which permits no shortcuts.
But that is to say that the smaller children might someday grow up if the bigger were to grow up today. What do you suppose the chances are?
Published eight times a year, September
to May, except January.
Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;