Volume Seven, Number Eight............December 1983

Reading Maketh Nitwits in New York

"We have to get away in some ways from basic skills. We tried to respond to society's demands for basics. In doing that, particularly in reading, we emphasized the mechanics of reading. Recent studies show that our students know how to read better, but that their ability to think and comprehend is wanting."

Anthony J. Alvarado

We have been following, from Times to Times, the path of the mind as walked by one Anthony J. Alvarado, chancellor of the public school system in New York City. He is point man, perhaps, for the Long Reconnaissance into the dim forest of knowledge and thought. If the children of New York are ever to make it through the woods, they are going to need a pathfinder who knows how to read the map of thought and knowledge. Alvarado doesn't.

He is, in fact, an addict of argument by adjective and a gushing fountain of astonishing non sequiturs. Here is an example of his thinking, taken from an interview in the Times:

Q. Why not teach only English to students until they master the language, rather than teach other subjects in their native tongue?

A. Isn't that ridiculous? If you are a brilliant student and you are dominant in a foreign language and you want to learn calculus, should you not learn calculus?

Q. Must youngsters are not brilliant in calculus.

A. Yes, but people forget the goal of education; it is skill-oriented & people-oriented.

We filed that interview away a few months ago, hoping that Alvarado would just go away. But apparently he didn't. He popped up again in the Times, whining about a plan cooked up by the state board of regents. The plan, whose details are irrelevant, and also irrelevant to this story, is meant to stem New York's share of the rising tide of mediocrity.

Alvarado does not like it, but it is hard to say exactly why, because Alvarado can't seem to say anything exactly. He explained something to the board of regents thus: "We've got to increase standards, but you can't just throw them out and, in the good old John Wayne fashion, say those that can do, and those that can't won't."

Maybe it means something. Maybe it means that those silly regents actually believed that they could throw out their standards and increase them at the same rime, and Alvarado is giving them a vocabulary lesson. Or maybe Alvarado is a bit uncertain as to the precise meaning of "but." Those conjunctions can be tricky.

What John Wayne has to do with all that we don't know. We've not seen all of his pictures, we admit, but it just doesn't seem likely that it was he who said that the people who can do something can do it, and the people who can't do something can't do it. Too philosophical for Wayne. More likely Charlton Heston.

But Alvarado wasn't through. He wound up with the crusher, the final argument, and in a form that you will immediately recognize.

"When someone is homeless," said Alvarado to the cold, unfeeling board of regents, "how can you say, ‘Take another English course.' It's ludicrous."

Of course. Absolutely ludicrous. It has just never occurred to us before that nothing could be less appropriate for the ignorant poor than "another English course."

Now you take your typical homeless kid, living (sort of) in a squalid and crowded (but remarkably expensive) hotel, with an unemployable and illiterate mother who is not "dominant" in any human language. Here is a kid who has rarely heard a complete sentence, has never had a story read to him, has never had a book, and surely has no need for one, has never discussed anything with anyone, because all his pointless little life requires (and provides) is the ability to stand around in the streets exchanging simple signs and slogans with others of his kind. What earthly use could one more English course be to a miserable wretch like that? What he needs is a good course in welding. Or gym.

And it's a good thing he has that Alvarado fellow to protect him from the arrogant elitists, with their la-di-dah, and ludicrous, notions about the examined life, which is the last thing he needs. With a life like that, who the hell wants to examine it?

And furthermore, English courses are sometimes clogged up with a lot of reading, almost all of it unfamiliar, and not even written at an appropriate grade level.

So what's going to happen to our homeless kid if those tricky regents should succeed in forcing him to take yet another English course?

He's going to come up against a whole bunch of reading, that's what. And he won't be able to read that kind of stuff, now will he? After all, he is homeless, you know.

And then what's going to happen? The first thing you know, someone is going to be assaulting poor Homeless Kid with those baleful "mechanics of reading," mentioned, and unmasked at last, in the epigraph above, by a man who should know, a real chancellor, Anthony J. Alvarado, himself.

And so, poor H. K., already a hapless victim of fortune, will be put to the study that has already eroded in countless others their precious "ability to think and comprehend." And his mind will be overthrown!

You see how cunning those regents are? On the one hand, by making him take yet another English course, they want to deprive H. K. of his right to live the life of yet another ignorant prole. One the other hand, by making him take yet another English course, they want to destroy his life with mechanics and condemn him to the life of yet another ignorant prole.

Deep. Very deep. Only a mind like Alvarado's could see through such subtle machinations. Thank goodness all those homeless kids have Alvarado one thousand percent on their side.

And it also takes a strange sort of mind to figure out how to teach the mechanics of reading in such a way as to inhibit the ability to think and comprehend. Alvarado surely knows.

The Education
"William Thorburn"

WE have been reading, with due revulsion, a pamphlet called What's Wrong with Teacher Training A Case Study, by "William Thorburn." You will find below a page of excerpts from same. If you want to read the whole thing, you can have it for three dollars from LEARN, Inc., 5910 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 118, Washington, DC 20016.

It will not, however, do a damn bit of good. It is devoted to what its targets dismiss out of hand--except when they like it--as "anecdotal evidence." What the eye has seen and the ear heard means nothing to them.

What's Wrong is a memoir by a man who decided, in spite of a couple of graduate degrees in an academic discipline, to become a schoolteacher. He found that he would have to take a batch of education courses. So he did. This sad tale is an account of what it was like to sit, for millions of hours, through the mindless maunderings of ignorant vulgarians. It is, like literature, a meditation on the universal in the guise of the particular, which might also be said of anecdotal evidence.

"William Thorburn" is not the author's real name, a fact that we regret. We regret even more that the teacher academy he attended is not identified except as "a state teachers college in New Jersey." We can imagine no good reason for such concealments. He who fears the consequences of saying what is so would serve himself best by not saying it, as thousands of schoolteachers know; and who thinks it a duty to expose iniquity can hardly be said to have done it by asserting that someone, somewhere, has done some evil.

Just now, therefore, this pamphlet is not much more than gossip, and in printing excerpts from it we hope to make of it something more. Many of our readers have also attended state teachers colleges in New Jersey. Next month, we should be able to name the place and the persons described.

The reticence of "Thorburn" is all the more regrettable because his memoir has appeared just when it might have done some good. New Jersey's commissioner of schools has floated a plan to grant teaching certificates to college graduates with liberal arts degrees untainted by education courses. There is a sight chance that it could improve the quality of teachers, since many who might have become good teachers were besotted in the teacher schools, but the profit would hardly be worth the pain of fighting the unions and the educationist lobby. We have a better idea, and an idea to which the educationists can not afford to object: Let New Jersey offer, to anyone with a respectable liberal arts degree in an academic discipline, free tuition, and even some hardship pay disguised as a stipend, in the graduate program of any of the state's teacher academies.

The benefits would be uncountable. Unemployed college graduates would be kept off the streets and provided with marketable skills; porseffors of education, whose clients are rapidly disappearing would be kept in work, for a while; and the rest of us would find out whether anything done in the teacher schools actually needs doing.

One of the biggest problems of the state teachers colleges, not only in New Jersey, is the quality of the students who attend them. They are, to put it as gently as possible, for they do deserve a little pity, not sophisticated. They have had little truly academic experience, and their intellectual skills are undeveloped. They are notably eager not to displease their teachers, for a steady job in teaching is their best hope. They think of education as the gathering of data, in which category they include, and dutifully recite, in class and on their short-answer "examinations," the pet notions of their instructors. They are easy marks. The habit of skeptical inquiry, which is surely one of the clearest signs of an educated mind, is not common among them.

People somewhat better educated would expect, and perhaps even elicit, a kind of teaching not usually found in teacher schools. To good teaching there is no greater incentive than students who can recognize bad teaching, and nothing can be fitter for pushers of pap than a class of grown-ups who don't swallow that stuff.

In return for their stipends, the new breed of teacher-trainees might give us, at the end of their training, public reports, with names, names regularly printed on the state's payroll checks Every June would bring Thorburn reports without quotation marks. In just a few years, the weight of testimony would either clean up the state teachers colleges or discredit them utterly. Either would he a fine result, and a blessing for generations to come.

Although the "Thorburn" memoir will not bring us that blessing, it is, at least, the work of a man who has been to real school, done real scholarship, and studied with teachers who were expert in real disciplines. And he does recognize pap when he sees it.

The Excerpts:

"Unlike most of the other instructors, ... this one refrained from waxing autobiographical as a substitute for unprepared lectures. Many tended to consume the bulk of a session with detailed descriptions of youthful adventures, divorce proceedings, surgical operations, stress (deriving mainly, some students thought, from fear that their jobs would be abolished), and hobbies."

"A more typical instructor of reading... did not seem to want to hold classes for more than half of each scheduled session.... A good portion of class time was devoted to promoting his own consulting firm, which specialized, oddly enough, not in reading, but in stress control."

"Other sessions were devoted to rambling, ill-prepared discussions having almost nothing to do with her syllabus. She justified these digressions with the claim that the text was so thorough that there was little she could add."

"The next session was devoted to the problem of student tensions. In the present competitive nature of schooling, said the instructor, students could not avoid tension. Cheating was one excellent way to relieve tension. Knowing that one can cheat and not be punished for it will make students less anxious and more willing to keep coming to school and tolerating the otherwise intolerable, authoritarian nature of education."

"The defects of the education professors at this New Jersey college are not the sort that might be corrected by even the most idealistic and determined administrators. It is in their broad cultural formation, not just in their work habits, that these faculty members are grossly deficient for the mission of creating and sustaining an environment where learning is taken seriously."

"The culture of the typical state teachers college... is not hospitable to the values of intellectual inquiry... To the limited extent that inquiry and discussion are tolerated in education courses, they take the form not of dialogue but of bull sessions.... Students in these courses unavoidably acquire many of the habits and values of their professors and take them into their own classrooms in the public schools, Thus it is no wonder that there is widespread boredom among today's high school students. Ignorant teachers are bored teachers, and that boredom will unfailingly be conveyed to their students."

Notes on Forgotten Wisdom

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward is an old and neglected book. Many of its ideas we can now see as simply silly, and its bland paradise must seem even less bearable than believable, bur it does contain several unorthodox and surprisingly modern ideas about education. ¶ In Bellamy's utopia, three rights are assumed: The right of every person to the highest possible education, so that he can enjoy a full, thoughtful life; the right of every person to live in educated and decent company; and, most unusual of all, the right of children not yet born to have as parents thoughtful and educated people. All it would take to annihilate our system of public education, and to rebuild it in the right way, would be to add those rights to our Constitution. ¶ There is, alter all, an obvious truth in Alvarado's presumption that the "homeless children" will be students who "can't do." While they are sometimes children of the unfortunate, they are more often children of the improvident, parents who themselves can't do, and who have been, in their time, also denied all true education, and set to the meager practice of trivial trades. However innocent and injured, they are still people who have blighted the lives of their own children simply by giving them life. ¶ It is not a calamity to be born to poor parents, as countless examples can show. The calamity is to suffer parents, whether rich or poor, who are self-indulgent, intemperate, unreflective--parents who are, in the highest sense of the word, no matter how informed or skillful, not educated, ¶ When we say that the children of such parents, especially of those who happen to be poor, neither need nor can hope to acquire the powers of a true education, we assure a greater calamity, not only for them but for their children, and for the children of their children. We spoil all the future, for which our children are the only hope. ¶ When the Alvarado's of schooling would excuse the "homeless children" from humane studies, they doom them to remain, by design, what they first became by chance. Out of ignorance, no doubt, their parents made them "homeless." Out of curriculum, school will keep them that way.

(In future issues, we will give more attention to some of Bellamy's ideas.)

Amazing Blurb Contest!

...along with Other Notes from Central Control

THIS issue marks the end of Volume Seven. We are astonished, but then we are just as astonished that any issue actually appears. This issue is late because we bought one of those computers that are meant to help people do things faster. It probably will, next month. But we can, for now, tell you that if there is anything wrong with your mailing label, we'd like to know. We'll fix it. All by ourselves.


IN August or maybe September, of 1984, Little, Brown, Inc., plans to publish if that sort of provocation is still permitted, an anthology of pieces from the first seven years of The Underground Grammarian. It is to be named "The Leaning Tower of Babble and Other Outrages." It will have a book-jacket, and blurbs, of course. But we have agreed with Little, Brown that the jacket blurbs should all come from our subscribers and regular readers. Some of you have been with us a long, long time, and probably understand this enterprise better than we do. It is, after all, quite as much as we can do to keep it going, never mind understanding it. ¶You are all warmly invited, therefore, to enter the amazing blurb contest. Just send us your blurbs, of whatever 1ength seems good to you, and the sooner the better. Publishers take a long time to do things. It's probably their computers. ¶ Prizes for blurbs used on the jacket will be signed copies of the book and lifetime subscriptions. That means, of course, our lifetime, not yours.


Will the lady who wrote us about kicking furniture please report in?


We haven't room for a Christmas poem, and it's too late anyway, so we wish you all a happy new year.


The Underground

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.

Typos and comments:

For a printer friendly version of the entire volume, go to ShareText.Com

Copyright © 2000 by Mark Alexander. All Rights Reserved. SOURCETEXT, SHARETEXT,
and others are trademarked 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 by
Mark Alexander, P. O. Box 5286, Auburn, CA 95604.

SourceText.Com and ShareText.Com are divisions of
Breeze Productions, P.O. Box 5286, Auburn, CA 95604.