Volume Eight, Number One............February 1984

Sorrowful Words of Dole

"You start telling the Congress that they should act objectively and reasonably without considering the politics, it's probably not going to happen."

WE had a letter recently from a man who was eager to read THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN. It was his hope that we would explain, once and for all, the rules for the placing of other punctuation in the neighborhood of quotation marks.

And we have also been sternly admonished by the Masked Avenger, an intransigent fundamentalist who keeps reminding us of participles and gerunds, and the good old days when our articles seemed to have something to do with our title.

We do admire persnickitiness and intransigence, and we have a little sympathy for both readers, but not much. What, after all, is the import ant virtue to be learned from strict attention to even the tiniest details of syntax, spelling, and punctuation? It is not the ability to notice and attend to those details; that is nothing more than an essential skill, and the fruit of nothing more than training. The use of that skill, however, can provide the substance of education, for, of all skills, it is the most likely to engender the habit of critical and thoughtful attention.

It is not so that they may become perfect in the mechanics of language that we teach children the mechanics of language, but so that they may live in the habit of paying attention to language, the one and only repository of meaning and thought.

It is good to worry about where to put punctuation with reference to quotation marks. It is even better to settle the matter once and for all, and to stop worrying about it. Look it up in some handbook. If you like what you find, use it. If you can find better logic (or even better typography) with some other rules, do it. Paddle your own canoe.

But skillful paddling is merely necessary. It is not sufficient. It is only a dilettante who would make himself perfect in paddling and go nowhere.

Consider, for instance, the words of the epigraph above, a statement from the mouth of a certain Robert Dole, an elected functionary of our government. He was commenting on a report from some appointed government functionaries, who discovered that government could save hundreds of billions here and there through the practice of mere intelligence.

What, then, should we say of the words of Dole? Shall we, because we truly don't even know which party the man serves, say nothing, as best becomes the ignorant? Shall we confine ourselves to what we are supposed to know, commenting cleverly for a while on the obscurity of his antecedent and the uncouthness of his run-on sentence?

Should we not rather remember that those are the words of a government agent who is not going to disqualify himself, as he should, from voting on questions related to public policy on education?

He asserts a principle that we have been trained to accept without any thought at all. And what can it mean to give "no thought at all"? It means a failure of the power of language-- a kind of deafness to what is said, and a kind of dumbness out of which no thing can be said about what is said.

Dole tells us that in his line of work loyalty to factional beliefs and interests must come before responsibility and objectivity. We are not surprised to hear that, of course. What does surprise us (a little) is that millions of Americans can hear that without anger and disgust, saying, if they say anything, Well, that's politics.

In fact, however, that is not politics. It is politicking, a very different field of study. Politics is the study of the art of governing well, by which is meant not successfully, or effectively, but virtuously. Vicious government is frequently successful and effective. Can virtuous government do as well? Can there be a virtuous government? A studied inquiry into such questions is the business of politics. The sleazy scramble after office and influence is another sort of business. The inquiry requires a mind attentive to language and skilled in its use, for it is an inquiry into meaning. The scramble works best where there is a scarcity of such minds, and thus an ignorance of politics. It is not out of knowledge but out of that mental indolence that flatters itself as "realistic" that we can believe that responsibility and objectivity are just too much to expect of elected functionaries of government.

Having heard from Dole, we can now distinguish four classes of Americans from whom we can't expect responsible or objective behavior: infants, imbeciles, mafiosi, and elected functionaries of government. While all four classes are also alike in that they are capable of successful and effective behavior, according to their various appetites, the first three have one admirable virtue utterly absent in the fourth. Infants, imbeciles, and mafiosi are content to mind their own damn business, and don't even want to vote on education policies.

And we wonder what Dole wants American education to be, what effect he imagines that it should have. Does he want the children to grow up to be just like him and all of his successful and effective colleagues? Does he want them to be ‘educated' enough so that they will know better than to deal with each other objectively and responsibly whenever they might lose some advantage thereby? Does he want them to know how to handle other punctuation with reference to quotation marks?

To the last question, we're sure he would say Yes, supposing that it is somehow different from the others. It is not. It is the same question.

Punctuating correctly is objective and responsible behavior. It requires judgments of worth and obedience to principle. It is virtuous, a result of both the power and the propensity to distinguish between the better and the worse. It is not much, perhaps, but it is on the right road. If enough people will walk it all the way, we'll be free of Doles. That's why politicians are so interested in education.

Nothing to Fear but Fear

By the way, attendance this year for Parent Teacher Conferences were the best ever. ... If you have any suggestions about the conferences please get in contact with me. Especially if you did not attend and there is something that might make it easier for you to do so.

Sometimes parents ask where are you sending my (son/daughter) to college? Or they may ask "what kind of scholarship will you get my (son/daughter)?" The answer to those questions is the same and very brief. I DON'T.

I have often thought that if only it would be possible for someone to share their experience with others it might help those other people to avoid experiences that might cause problems. As examples--someone that had an unwanted pregnancy, or arrested for drunk driving, or recovering from drug abuse.

From the mind of
Glenn E. Fear, Counsellor

PRUDENT PARENTS are always taking pains to prevent their (sons/daughters) from falling into low company. But, alas, always in vain. Even the (sons/daughters) who escape the baleful influences of the bowling alley and the pool hall will still have to go to school.

And there they will have to hang out with whole herds of the people who make up and perpetuate one of the least intellectual of all of our national institutions.

Schools smell. Go visit one. They smell of many things--stale food and cleaning compounds, acrid fluids that seep from cranky old ditto machines, gymnasiums and locker rooms, subtly different, blended in the aroma of disconsolation of the spirit, dogged, vain endeavor, tiredness, boredom. But never a whiff of the joy of scholarship, the academic counterpart of the odor of sanctity.

The people who work there do not seem happy. They have many complaints. Low pay, no respect, lousy administrators, disorderly students, meddlesome parents. They are like the old ditto machines, whining and grinding, repeating and repeating, and oozing acrid fluids.

Their real interests, those things in which they might take joy, are seldom related to their work, which they nevertheless persist in calling a "profession." If they do talk about what they teach, but do not profess it is usually because of some requirement of the job, an application for a mini-grant, lesson-plans, the threat of a standardized test.

Their "disciplines" are nothing but titles. They are not disciples, merely workers, and if their work is not called menial, it is only because it seldom requires heavy lifting. They are decent folk, surely, but they are just as surely, alas, low company.

How can this be? What brought sour despair into lives that ought to have been rich in the joy that the love of learning brings?

Fear. Fear has brought them low, and made them, who were to have been lights in darkness, low company.

Fear has been their counsellor. In their ears, Fear whispers that the life of the mind is a paltry thing, neither loved nor needed in the real world. Fear bids them leave off, lest they be held saps in the real world of snazzy problem-solvers, vain, elitist ruminations on the good, the true, and the beautiful. School is not the House of Intellect. It is the House of Fear.

Glenn E. Fear.

Read again the words of Glenn E. Fear, who is a school "counsellor" in Tipton, Iowa. Read them aloud, and listen. Try to imagine the man. It's not hard. Every piece of writing is a self-portrait of the mind of the writer.

Don't judge him. There is neither point nor profit in that. Think only of the mind that utters, its store of learning, its training in the powers of thought and language, its practice in the ways and work of intellect, its ruminations on the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Then ask yourself a few questions: In that sad world of school, who is secure against sadness? Who is right in his element, his natural habitat, a safe haven made by, and for, others just like him? Who will rise in that world, leaving behind forever the ill-tempered teachers, and the scruffy students, and the smells, except, perhaps, for appearing at a commencement now and then, there to be introduced as an "educator"?

If you know the answers to those questions, you know all that anyone needs to know about public schools.

A Sense of Ease

Computer literacy doesn't require speaking a computer language, nor does it require programming skills, nor does it even require extensive knowledge of already-written programs. All it requires is a sense of ease around computers, and the knowledge that personal computers are powerful tools, and not menacing characters from science fiction.


The advanced [ETS] placement course in computer science includes such topics as recursion, operations on stacks, lists, and trees, and the heap sort. These are complicated, machine-independent abstractions that are not learned while sitting at a terminal. They are learned by hearing competent lectures, studying a textbook, and by sitting alone gleaning insights from drawing diagrams and walking through prospective codes. ... Replying to the question, What is the best single indicator of an applicant's programming ability, one of today's most respected computer scientists, Edsger W. Dijkstra, wrote: " absolute mastery of his native tongue."


HERE'S what we wish: We wish that we were running a very expensive private school for little children, and that that McWilliams wanted us to take his six-year-old daughter and provide her with a good dose of literacy, the antiquated kind, "book literacy," they probably call it nowadays.

First we'd take his certified check for our standard, large, unrefundable deposit, and then we'd tell him about our real neat, absolutely painless, and invariably effective Book Literacy Education Program.

The yoke of book literacy is easy, we would tell him, and its burden is light. Quite contrary to the foolish notions of self-appointed reformers, book literacy does not require reading and writing in book language. Nor does it require any noticeable knowledge of already-written books. All it requires, as you would surely be the first to understand, McWilliams, is a sense of ease around books!

Little children, you see, are afraid of books. Yes, afraid. They see them as rnenacing characters from the walls of doctors' waiting rooms and quiet, dreary libraries, where fun is not allowed. Our program teaches children that books are powerful tools, good for building walls and castles, and for keeping drawings from blowing away, and even for standing on to reach the good stuff that grown-ups like to keep to themselves. Why we actually let our young scholars play with books, open them, close them, even turn some of the pages, and all by themselves. That's the real education, you know, learning by doing. You just leave your precious little tyke with us, and in no time at all--say ten, twelve years max--she will be the most book-literate kid on the block, chock full of a sense of ease. And all of that for a measly fifteen thou a year!

And may the future bring you a million RETURNS without GOSUB, buster.

We are, as you see, ready to consider "computer literacy." We suspected, mostly because the educationistic faddists were so enthusiastic about it, that it was all bunk.

Now, having done some homework, we can reach a better informed opinion: It is all bunk.

To begin with, it is not "literacy" in any reasonable sense of the word. "Literacy" has become nothing but a pretentious title for an "awareness" conjoined with any modicum of acquaintance. If you know that slide-rules exist, you have achieved slide-rule awareness, which is already quite enough to earn you a splendid grade in a mathematics education course. If you can actually use a slide-rule, or even if you have just slid one a bit, you have slide-rule literacy.

(That's just for now of course. The school people have obviously not yet received the pedagogical doctrine of Peter McWilliams, who is a "syndicated computer columnist," just the kind of expert they take from. When they hear the word, they will discover that slide-rule literacy calls for nothing more formidable than a sense of ease around slide-rules.)

And then there's all that bunk about computer "languages," which are languages in just the same way that the "language of the flowers" is language--not at all. They are codes, ingenious and elaborate codes, which is what they must be if they are to work. Computer languages provide the possibility of an exact and precisely limited correspondence not only between what is said and what is meant, but also between what is meant and what is so in the strictly defined system about which, and only about which, statements can be made.

For computing, that's good, and it works. But those same attributes are characteristic of the very least of the powers of language, communication, a power also wielded by wolves and crows. If wolves and crows do not devise computers and computer "languages," it is because they have none of the higher powers of language, especially metaphor and discourse. It is in those powers that we grow when we study language, and to pretend that the study of computer language is the study of language is primarily a convenience for those who pretend that they teach the powers of language.

And then there's another thing--that bunk about "fear of computers." It is, of course, possible that there are certain people who do fear computers, even as there are probably people who fear shredded wheat or party hats. They are loonies. Computers are no more likely than rulers, or even sextants, to provoke fear in people who are not loonies. What we see at work here is a longstanding educationistic con job that has been eagerly adopted by peddlers as well as politicians, who also make their livings by preying on emotions.

It is the pose of the big-hearted giver, who so charitably understands your shortcomings, and so selflessly seeks only your good. He kindly tells you that there is a little something wrong with you, maybe just a little learning disability, or an unraised consciousness, or this irrational fear of computers, that you can't seem to overcome all by yourself. But don't worry. Your deficiency is "perfectly natural" in one who has not yet had the inestimable benefit of his ministrations, which he will be only too happy to provide.

And there is yet one more thing--the pernicious notion that learning to work a computer has something to do with education. One of its versions suggests that no one can be educated without learning about computers, which confuses training with education and information with knowledge, as is the custom in the schools. An alternative version pronounces, as is also the custom in the schools, that now we know what to do. Now we can teach those students who have stubbornly refused to be taught by "traditional" methods, i.e., the last few paroxysms of innovative thrusts.

The other quotation is from a letter to the NYT by Susan M. Merritt and Allen H. Stix, members of the computer science department at Pace University. When they say "science," they seem to mean science, which is neither a pleasant feeling nor a vocational skill, but a discipline in the mind. It is to be learned just as they say, which is just as any mental discipline is to be learned, by hearing competent lectures, studying books, and sitting alone.

Those things are not allowed in the schools. Competent lectures are elitist and authoritarian, books are just not experiential, and sitting alone is aberrant behavior. The schools will have to teach computer science in their way. Spending somebody else's money brings a great sense of ease.

Solemn News

Beginning with the first issue of Volume Eight, February, 1984, we must raise the price of the yearly subscription to $15.00. We will also have to send as many mailings as possible by third class mail. So, if you do decide to renew, be sure that your address label is correct and current.

We expect that this increase will keep us at work for the next seven years. After that, we'll all be too old to care, probably.

N. B. Retired schoolteachers are still to pay half-price, although we do wonder why they read this stuff at all. You'd think they would prefer to blot it all out.

The Underground

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

Eight issues a year. Yearly subscription: Persons in USA & Canada, $15US;
Persons elsewhere, $20; Non-personal entities of any sort, $25, or even more.

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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