THE UNDERGROUND
GRAMMARIAN

Volume Seven, Number Seven............November 1983

Real Good in Detroit

The more things a man is ashamed of,
the more respectable he is. G. B. SHAW

ONE of the most delicious ironies of our ironical time is the fact that schoolteachers often make less money than garbagemen. Although garbagemen seem to have reconciled themselves to this curious inequity perhaps out of a phlegmatic realism inevitably induced by their labors, schoolteachers have not.

How can it be, schoolteachers ask in letters to editors all over the land, that "society" holds them so cheap? Have they not labored mightily to make society exactly what it is today, clarifying values, facilitating appreciations, and teaching everyone how to relate? Have they not been the principal providers of universal public self-esteem, creativity, and social awareness? So how come they don't get no respect? What kind of society can it be that better rewards those who haul away garbage than those who produce it?

Such complaints seem, at first, indubitably justifiable. At least, they require of any thoughtful citizen a scrutiny of whatever differences can be discovered between garbagemen and schoolteachers:

While the work of garbagemen is of unquestionable social value, they never hire public relations experts to nag us about their selfless devotion to the common good. They don't even have a bumper sticker. That ought to he worth a few bucks.

When garbagemen ask for more money, they gladly admit that what they really want is the money. As to recompense for the self-sacrifice out of which they consented to become garbagemen rather than executives of multi-national corporations, they say nothing. Such reticence is surely worth a little more money.

Although they shouldn't be, garbagemen are just a little bit ashamed of what they do, and thus deficient in self-esteem. Schoolteachers are not the least bit ashamed of anything that they do. They have great big oodles of self-esteem. Would it not be an appropriately democratic redistribution of wealth to take some money, since they'll never part with that self-esteem, away from the privileged schoolteachers and give it to those emotionally deprived garbagemen?

The shame that arises from believing what the world tells us to believe is a form of slavery, but when shame arises from self-knowledge informed by a principled consideration of what is estimable and what is not, it is virtue. The same is true of self-esteem. Consider how estimable a little bit of decent shame would have seemed in the following case, recounted by Vermont Royster in The Wall Street Journal:

In Reidsville, N. C., a Southern Association consultant visited five elementary schools to assess their progress... After a "quick trip" through each of the schools, according to the monthly news publication of the city schools, the reports on all of them were favorable.

The consultant, so it says here, found many examples of student work that reflected the instructional program both in the classroom and on the hallway bulletin boards. "These were in most cases mounted attractively amid labeled with correct manuscript. There was a wide variety of student work evidenced ranging from creative stories to chocolate pudding finger-painting."

The school publication was thus happy to report "we're all doing fine" and that only "minor modifications" to the program would be required.

We can not begin to imagine the abominable practice that would be to garbage collection what chocolate pudding fingerpainting that reflects the instructional program is to education. We're sure, though, that any garbagemen who might indulge in it would rather not have that known. But schoolteachers know no shame. "We're all doing fine," they proclaim, tickled pink that the labels have, in most cases, "correct manuscript."

And then there's the case of Edward Ransom, who reported to work as a substitute janitor at Redford High School in Detroit. From the principal's office, he was sent to Viola Chambers, head of what is called, with more accuracy than was ever intended, a department of interdisciplinary studies. She did wonder, but not very much, apparently, why he asked whether she needed anything cleaned. She did, but she didn't know that, so she just handed Ransom his lesson plans and sent him to teach a couple of classes in what is called, again with more than intended accuracy, "social studies."

Wanda Hogg, an English teacher at Redford High, had this to say of Ransoms first outing as a teacher: "I heard he did real good."

Walter Adams, the principal, said that such a thing had never happened before, and that he had instituted an elaborate system so that it could not happen again. It's hard to see, however, why he should have been at all troubled by the event, since he also seemed to shrug it off with the astonishing admission that lesson plans are "structured so any teacher can instruct the class without having knowledge of that field of study."

So. What an unusual "profession" schoolteaching must he. A teacher is a teacher not by virtue of knowing what is to be taught, but by virtue of being named a teacher, which title is reserved for those who supposedly know, however vast their ignorance, how to teach. Thus a lawyer could he ignorant of law, needing to know only how to practice the law. And the knowledge of how to teach is obviously just a matter of following a lesson plan. Ransom did real good his first time out. And Adams sees no shame in assuring the public not that he will prevent bad teaching, for by his own definition Ransum did exactly what any good, ignorant teacher would do, but that he will prevent good teaching if it happens to be provided by a person not called a teacher.

If there is ever to be any significant improvement in the schools, from whom is it most likely to come? From the self-esteemers who believe that they're "all doing fine," or from those who are a little bit ashamed of something that is done in schools? And who seems to deserve more pay? The teacher who actually believes that there can be a teacher "without having knowledge," or the one who would be ashamed to be a party to such a disgrace?

Money and respect do go together. If we give teachers little money, it is because we give them little respect. If we give them little respect, it is because they give themselves so much. When they learn a little shame, we'll do the respecting, and the paying too.

We, and the People

The King Canute Commission Revisited

WE have received a thoughtful letter from a regular reader, an astute and well-informed person who assisted in the writing and editing of "A Nation at Risk," the report of the National Commission on Excellence.

It is one thing, he said, to disagree with the commission's opinions or to chide it for failing to say something that we think ought to be said. "But it is unfair," he added, "to give TUG readers the impression that the Commissioners have not expressed views that they have stated clearly--and which are in perfect accord with a view you take them to task for not having!"

He was referring to this passage from "A Lecture on Politics," in our issue for September, 1983:

Jefferson did not commend "informed discretion" as a graceful adornment for a lucky few. He prescribed it as a necessary condition for freedom in a democracy, for he knew that the latter does not ensure the former. And he prescribed it for "all persons alike...to the utmost."

And in the same essay we did indeed take the commission to task, saying that its emphasis on a nation at risk would ultimately deliver the making of school policy into the hands of the politicians. The notion that a nation can be educated is preposterous; only a mind can be educated. The notion that the education of a mind should be devised to serve the nation is mischievous; it will always concentrate power and influence in those who can claim to represent the nation as the "educators" of the people. It implies also the notion that the state is more important than a person, a notion which, thanks mostly to the socializing preachments of government educationists, we have somehow been persuaded not to abominate.

However, and in spite of its frequent appeals to the supposed needs of the nation, the report, our reader asserts, also says exactly what we say in the cited passage, and ought to be given credit for that. As evidence, he adduces this passage from "A Nation at Risk," p. 7:

Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people, which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that individuals ... who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchized, not simply from the material rewards that accompany effective performance, but from the chance to participate fully in our national life. A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture...

For our country to function, citizens must be able to reach some common understandings on complex issues, often on short notice and on the basis of conflicting or incomplete evidence. Education helps form these common understandings, a point Thomas Jefferson made long ago in his justly famous dictum:

"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion."

We are sorry to seem obdurate or contentious, and sorrier to seem, as our correspondent cautions, readier to discover enemies than friends. Nor do we doubt the hard work and good intentions of the commissioners. But we are not in "perfect accord" with what that passage says. We find it, in fact, whether so intended or not, an exoneration of the worst practices of government schooling, and an incitement to more of the same.

When "A Nation at Risk" first appeared, we thought of doing a piece on nothing more than the second paragraph of that passage, but it just seemed too difficult a task. We gave it up, excusing ourselves with Emerson's comment on advocates of any ideology: "Every word ... chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right." Now, however, we owe a thoughtful reader a reply.

The second paragraph speaks of "understandings" to be reached out of what is called "conflicting or incomplete evidence," and on short notice. It asserts, furthermore, that it is by such "understandings" that "our country" must "function"; and the process that "helps form" those extraordinary "understandings," the commission has called "education."

There is a name for that act of the mind which results from brief scrutiny of incomplete or conflicting evidence, but it is not "understanding." It is "guessing." There is also a name for the condition of that mind which has only incomplete or conflicting evidence: it is "ignorance." There is even a name for that process by which a mind, driven to guessing by the fact of its ignorance, can be led to one guess rather than another, but it is surely not "education." It is "persuasion."

To say that our country functions by the collective guesswork of the ill-informed is only to acknowledge a sad truth. To resign ourselves to that sad truth--saying, Well, that's politics--is bad enough; but it is far worse to conclude that our country should so function, and that a government agency calling itself "education" should serve as an especially influential party to the process. And to assert that that is what Jefferson meant in his "famous dictum" must suggest either insolent mendacity or prodigious confusion.

In this case it's confusion, which begins, as always, with the recitation of unexamined words. Such confusion always begets progeny. The passage's implicit, and alarming, definition of understanding, for instance, depends on its careless use of "evidence." A thoughtful and attentive writer would have to reason thus:

Just a minute. This passage obviously refers to voting and to those things that bring people to vote one way or another. Is "evidence" the best word for "those things"? Is it any the fitter for being qualified as "conflicting or incomplete evidence," as though such lawyerish fastidiousness might legitimate as "evidence" that which is not exactly the evidence? And is it not the case that much of whatever is put forth toward "common understandings on complex issues" is not evidence at all, strictly speaking, but testimony? Is there not some useful distinction to be made between the state of mind enforced by evidence and that aroused by believing in the testimony of A and rejecting B's? Or shall we casually call both the same thing, including furthermore a third state of mind, the ignorance in which the mind is stranded by "conflicting or incomplete evidence"?

And reasoning thus, a thoughtful and attentive reader comes inevitably to the central confusion not only of that paragraph but of the entire report: the commission obviously has no clear and intelligible idea of what it means by "education."

Education is, no doubt, damnably difficult to define. Still, you would think that an outfit calling itself a National Commission on Excellence in Education really should have tried to do it. In their report, we can ferret out what they might mean by "education" only through their implicit, and perhaps inadvertent, characterizations of it. For instance, while many might hold that the ability to distinguish evidence from what is not evidence, and the tendency to reserve judgment where evidence is scant or ambiguous, are wholesome fruits of an education, the commission does not share that view. In fact, it calls education a "process" rather than an inner quality that can belong only to a person, and grants that process the power to annul individual discretion for the sake of collective compromise, no matter how scant or ambiguous the evidence.

Many say, of course, that that is the only way in which democracy can work. If that is true, it is very bad news indeed, for it implies that democracy will ultimately depend on the persuasion of sentiment and belief, in other words, the irrational. And to say that is to say that, if there is to be "education" in a democracy, it had better the right kind, or, as the commission puts it, "essential" not to the freedom of a mind but "to a free, democratic society," for whose sake the minds of those supposedly not "disenfranchised" by lack of "skill, literacy, and training" must nevertheless remain susceptible to collective persuasion. The wrong kind of education will afflict us with citizens who will not accept "common understandings" of "complex issues" generated, all unaccountably, by a truly amazing "process" called "education" out of the thin air of "conflicting or incomplete evidence." Such citizens might even decide, if that's the way "our country" must "function," that there is no significant worth in the commission's grandly proffered "chance to participate fully in our national life." A few such malcontents, "our country" can ignore, but, should they grow numerous, it would mean the end of what now passes for the "realistic" practice of politics among us.

The primary effect of the "education" implied by the commission will be the preservation of that practice, which depends absolutely on the collective belief that it is "democratic" to take action on the strength of collective belief. "A Nation at Risk" has no quarrel with, does not even stop to analyze or question, the deepest dogma of the educationists; that the primary beneficiary of "education" is to be "society." There is nothing in the cited passage that will make the social change-agent educationists the least bit uncomfortable. They agree with Jefferson too.

And now, having been driven to consider yet again that "famous dictum," we're not so sure that we agree with Jefferson. For the first time we notice something fishy about that quotation. Who, exactly, is to be included in that "we"? Who are those "we" who think the people not enlightened enough? Who are those powerful but enlightened "we" who apparently could, if they chose, take the people's control from them, but who might rather inform their discretion?

It seems especially important just now to ask such questions, because we are suffering a plague of education reports. Almost every on flows from the unstated theme: This is what we should do to them. (The exception is Adler's Paedeia Proposal, which has conveniently vanished.)

When A is empowered to judge of B's enlightenment, and also to inform B's discretion, abuses may follow. A reasonable C would ask: Who in hell is A to have such power, and who is to judge of his enlightenment, to say nothing of his self-interest? When it turns out that A is the one who is supposed to govern within limits set by B, all will be clear to C.

As for the judging of A's enlightenment, any attentive reader can do it. All those reports are the sayings of A. But we can never inform A's discretion, for A has no discretion, no mind, no will, nothing that properly belongs to a person. A is an illusion, a spooky nonentity who seems to exist only because we are naturally ready to believe that where there are sayings there must have been a sayer.

But there is no sayer of "A Nation at Risk," no person who will say: I say this. These are my words and my thoughts, here set forth to the best of my abilities and out of my utmost powers of knowledge and reason. He who can better instruct me should do so; he who can't should be instructed.

Should some member of the commission stand forth to make such assertions as to the cited passage, we'll gladly inquire into it again, either to instruct or be instructed. Neither is the least bit shameful.

But that won't happen. The passage is simply the predigested pap of groupthink, which is routinely regurgitated by commissions. What it says is nobody's personal responsibility. No one asks: So say you all? Do you, each and every one, understand and intend what is said here? And, just so that your fellow citizens might be assured of your seriousness of purpose and the solemnity of your enterprise, and so that you might seem unquestionable stewards of the trust with which you are endowed, would you be willing to lay a little something of your own on the table, some pledge of your certain commitment to the principles here set forth? Your lives, perhaps, or your fortunes? So how about a little sacred honor?

Our correspondent says, as though to commend them, that the commissioners do admit that their report is "an imperfect document." How gracious they are, and how modest. Well, here's what we call sort of an understanding, more or less, probably not more than just a little wrong here or there, or maybe somewhere else, but that's the way "our country" is supposed to "function" you know.

In other words, without even pretending to have done the job for us, they don't at all mind saying that they have done a job on us. What no good person does to another, "we" will not mind at all doing to "the people."

The Underground
Grammarian

R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
Post Office Box 203
Glassboro, New Jersey 08028

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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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