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
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
"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.
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
"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
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
"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.
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.