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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
Post Office Box 203
Glassboro, New Jersey 08028
Published eight times a year, September
to May, except January.
Yearly subscription: Persons in USA & Canada, $10US;
Persons elsewhere, $14; Institutions, $25.
Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;
nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.