Foundations of Education 101
Tyrants never perish from tyranny, but always from folly--when their fantasies have built a palace for which the earth has no foundation.
THOSE are the words of Walter Savage Landor, and we certainly hope that they are true prophecy. But we have some troubling doubts.
Landor probably had in mind the standard and customary tyrant whose follies and fantasies are so dramatic and grandiose that even slumbering Earth will stir herself at last to bring them down. But what about our up-to-date, state-of-the-art tyrants, Prufrockish promoters of coercion, whose name is Legion, cautious, politic, glad to be of use, and just a bit obtuse, just obtuse enough not to understand that tyranny can also be bland and banal, projecting not palaces but polices and programs? Will Earth bother herself for the likes of them, or will she leave it to her obedient children to yank the foundations of education from under the manipulators and adjusters who run our schools?
In one of America's Northamptons--the state is not named in the account we have--there is a certain Edwin Coyle, district school superintendent. He has asked the school board to approve what he calls, either out of irrationality or out of duplicity, a term of "volunteer community service as a graduation requirement." He justifies his request in these words:
"The proposal makes sense. For 13 years, the schools provide an educational opportunity and we really don't ask too much of the students. We are asking for thirty hours a year. Young people do not have the opportunity to interact with the needy, the elderly. This will provide a good service opportunity."
Lucky kids these days. Opportunity knocking all around. And no shortage of government agents to see to it that they answer every knock--or else.
Compassion. That's what it's all about. Very compassionate guy, that Coyle. Deep, throbbing compassion for the needy, the elderly. He would dearly love to be out there interacting with such folk. They really need that. But he's a busy government agent -- busy implementing guidelines, busy finalizing service opportunity enhancements to required voluntary interaction opportunities within educational opportunity parameters.
But fear not! The needy and elderly will not go uninteracted with! As long as there is an A who can require B to serve C, compassion will never fail in this great land of ours.
As to how well served the needy and elderly will be by interaction with teenagers interacting under duress for the sake of a lousy diploma attesting to nothing more than thirteen years of a compulsory "educational opportunity" graciously doled out by the Coyles who "really don't ask too much of the students," who can say? In fact, who gives a damn? The important thing is to get those kids out there interacting, thus serving two great purposes: persuading the needy and the elderly (and anybody else who will swallow it) that they are wards of the state, and suggesting to the students that the conscience of the individual is best informed by the policies of government.
There be three things, yea four, for which Earth is troubled, for which she tosses in her sleep: the officious governor who requires of the governed what he does not require of himself; the prideful benefactor who grandly dispenses what is not his own; the convinced improver of the world who easily detects the deficiency of virtue in almost everybody else; and in the incurious teacher who ignorantly sows in his students seeds that he wouldn't like to see sprouting in his own garden. All are tyrants.
And they all hang out in the school business, not infrequently cohabiting in the same body.
We are happy to report that at least for now Coyle's plan for more involuntary servitude than schools already require has been thwarted by an unusual school board. No member, to be sure, asked the obvious question: So you "really don't ask too much of the students," eh? But one board member did suspect that it might actually be unconstitutional to require children to pay for their "educations" with social work, which does make us wonder where public employee unions stand on the use of free, forced labor doing the interacting that their members get paid for. And another board member sanely suggested that students might be encouraged to volunteer for voluntary services, and that those who undertook to encourage them might do so by setting good examples. Whether Coyle has taken up unpaid interacting with the needy and elderly, we don't wonder at all.
One of Coyle's further "arguments" consisted entirely of the single, and astonishing, assertion that "eighty percent of the students do not get the experience of doing for others." Now that is superintending.
How do you suppose he knows that? Is he sure that it is eighty percent, and not seventy-seven?
The answers would probably surprise you, for Coyle is surely citing a "study" of some sort, most likely one of those educationistic questionnaires. What he "knows" is how many students say that they take library books to shut-ins or solicit money for new midget football uniforms. His automatic assumption that private acts of private persons are not to be accorded the same worth as officially supervised social programs is what makes his assertion unconsciously arrogant and presumptuous. The board should have fired him on the spot, if not for his arrogance and presumption, which we might want to overlook in one who is unconscious of the meaning of his own words, then surely for that very unconsciousness. A school superintendent should at least be in a condition that permits us to presume him responsible for his own deeds.
But they did not fire him. Now you can see why we are troubled; mighty Earth will not bother herself to shake down the dinky little palace of Edwin Coyle. We'll have to do it ourselves. We'll think of it as a socially acceptable little "experience of doing for others."
An Answer for Everything
In Totowa, students in first through eighth grades are required to take philosophy. "They're made to understand from the beginning that nothing they say is right or wrong," says Pat Knapp, a teacher at Memorial Middle School. "It creates a freedom of expression among the children."
"It teaches you to argue and how to defend your point," says Mike Rubino, 12, a student at Memorial Middle School. "I go home a lot of times and tell my parents what we've learned here. My father kids around now and says, ‘Hey, you've got an answer for everything.'"
And when they themselves have confuted many, and been confuted by many, they quickly fall into a violent distrust of all that they formerly held true.
WHEN someone says, "Here is what I think," what follows is almost never what he thinks. It is usually what he hopes, what he imagines, what he guesses, or, most usual of all, what he believes, or supposes that he believes.
The neglected but essential first act of thinking is to distinguish mental acts and conditions from one another. Panic and madness are not other ways of thinking. Such conditions preclude thinking, and the same must be said of other conditions that only seem less disruptive than panic and madness--fear and desire, for instance, and even that sacred old cow in whose name we permit ourselves uncountable vices and follies, "sincere conviction."
No one ever sees himself as led by evil intentions, unless, of course, he has fallen into the vexatious habit of questioning his own convictions, and all the more relentlessly to that degree in which they commend themselves as ‘sincere.' Our educationists, out of a sincere conviction that it is neither humanistic nor democratic to tamper with their own sincere convictions, have escaped that troublesome habit. They can thus persist, with all serenity of Twain's Christian holding four aces, in promulgating ‘education' as sincere conviction. The "educated" person, as understood in the government schools, is what is called in Orwell's 1984, "rightthinkful." Thus it is that those schools have so little fervor for science and mathematics, which do not easily lend themselves to the inculcation of "bellyfeel," as Orwell called the contented credulousness of the sincerely convinced.
It is, after all, the chosen business of government to govern, which is surely the easier as the governed are credulous and easy to convince, sincerely, now of this, now of that. And just now, the government educationists have discovered that the teaching of "thinking" can actually be used to reinforce their efforts in the affective domain of sincere convictions, provided only that the meaning of the word "thinking" be appropriately misconstrued.
Consider poor Pat Knapp, teacher and thinker, who is clearly not at all astonished by her own assertion that the budding little thinkers in her care are "made to understand from the beginning that nothing they say is right or wrong." One really could make a good course in thinking out of a semester of disciplined inquiry into that statement, but that is not what is going to happen in Pat Knapp's "philosophy" course in Memorial Middle School.
What will happen?
Rapping and relating will happen. Pet notions, vague suppositions, uninformed opinions, and many notably familiar sincere convictions will be granted the rank of "thought," for Pat Knapp's bizarre demurrer actually has a meaning even more preposterous than the obvious one. In schoolthink, "neither right nor wrong" is the code phrase for "not wrong." As to whether the children should also hold as neither right nor wrong the assertion that what they say can be neither right nor wrong, Pat Knapp will not need to bother her head. Sincere conviction, along with a little reminder from the teacher's schoolthink manual, assures her that she is "not wrong."
In any case, the question has already been expelled from "philosophy" class in that pre-emptive strike by which the students were "made to understand from the beginning" what thoughtful inquiry would find absurd in the end. As to how that remarkably convenient "understanding" was awakened in the children, whether by argument or through some appeal to the natural credulousness of children, we are in no doubt whatsoever.
Sincere convictions, however various and contradictory, all grow from the root of unreason and blossom best in a climate of credulousness. That is exactly why there can be such things as various and contradictory convictions. Just down the hall from Pat Knapp's no-fault philosophy encounter group, there is a classroom where there are no contradictory or various convictions about the square of the hypotenuse, and others nearby, where there are no convictions whatsoever, but only knowledge or ignorance, as to the valence of sulphur or the prepositions that take the dative. Down in the woodshop, the well-cut pieces fit sweetly together; the ill-cut don't. Out on the ball-field, the sun beams equally on hits, runs, and errors, and the team with the higher score wins. All around Memorial Middle School, children can behold truth, can see that what is so, is so, that act and consequence are irrevocably married, that principle persists, neither seeking approval nor fearing reprimand, that all learning is the individual mind's gradual and endless re-enactment of the creation of Order out of Chaos.
But not in thinking class, of course. Thinking is much more important than remembering endings or sticking silly pieces of wood together. In thinking, anything goes. It's real neat.
On the other hand, though, there's little Mike Rubino, who has an answer for everything. He must be one royal pain in the neck for Pat Knapp, with all his arguing and defending of points, which can hardly be conducive to other kids' "freedom of expression," to say nothing of their feelings of self-worth. What can be more deflating (and antidemocratic) than to have some wise guy catch you with a non sequitur on your chin, and your undefined terms hanging out?
So how did it happen that at least one student, even in the mad dance of freedom of expression where nothing is either right or wrong, came to have any idea at all of such things as non sequitur and undefined terms, of the fact that there is such an act as wrong thinking, which can be indisputably distinguished as such? Was Pat Knapp nodding when Mike Rubino learned "to argue and defend"? Did he notice, in that nifty packet of thinking learning materials, something that she did not notice, or found not to her liking, and so chose to reject, that she might continue in that sincere conviction out of which she enhances the self-esteem of credulous little children by making them understand that nothing they say is either right or wrong?
That is what we suspect. Even in the claptrap world of learning materials, there can hardly be a "thinking package" that does not allude to the demands of logic, the law of thought. Educationists do not like logic. They suppose it only a clever trick of skillful language, which they also dislike, and disapprove it as an impediment to sincere conviction, which it surely is. Pat Knapp probably does know that a non sequitur simply doesn't follow, but she probably also "knows," in the weird special "knowledge" that true believer claim, that a mere technicality like logic can not be granted the undemocratic and unhumanistic power to inhibit freedom of expression in children who are supposed to be learning to think.
Mike Rubino has, to be sure, escaped something, through what his teachers probably consider tricky language, but he is in danger of being enslaved by something no less destructive. It is not his tongue, but his mind, that has brought him to argue and defend; it is not his mind, but his school, that has brought him to believe that logic is a sharp stick, and thinking, a competitive sport, in which you can win points by popping your opponent's inflated notions. What else could we expect in any student attentive enough to notice that the teacher recites slogans while the very substance of the course she pretends to teach proves her either deceived or deceiving?
Thus cynics are made, who have an answer for everything. Thinkers have a question for everything.
The educationistic empire depends for its continuance on a belief that belief is a way of knowing, and feeling a fit guide. Because only their hands have been on the switches for several generations now, they have brought almost the entire nation to believe that education should be the inculcation of whatever beliefs and feelings seem socially desirable, which belief requires the support of another belief continuously promulgated in the schools: the belief that there are no fixed principles, that truth is relative, and that nothing is either right or wrong.
They will be delighted to "teach" thinking. They have obviously figured out how to produce either sheep who will believe that nothing is either right or wrong, or cynics who will conclude that nothing is either right or wrong.
The educationists will take either. They have an answer for everything.
Vocabulary Corner considers...
The Bachelor of Orts
and a Little Twitch of Alvarado Too
HAMPSHIRE College is some kind of school up in Amherst, Mass. Last January, it bestowed one of its bachelor's degrees upon a Dwork, a certain John Dwork, to be precise. What he is doing now we don't know, but he will someday be our first Secretary of a newly expanded Department of Education and Entertainment.
Dwork spent a good part of his career at Hampshire College in playing Frisbee. He ended up with a degree in "Flying Disc Entertainment and Education." He modestly claims only that he has "almost vindicated the whole new American lifestyle."
The whole new American lifestyle.
"Entertain" comes to us from entre and tenir. Who is entretenu is held between, suspended, floating perhaps, almost without motion, like a Frisbee well and truly thrown.
"Education" comes to us from other roots, but so what? From the great deep of infancy to the great deep of labor, children must go. Give them entertainment, rap-sessions, self-esteem, film-strips, field trips, Frisbees, fun, the whole new American lifestyle.
Involuntary twitches of the mouth are Nature's way of punishing those who will not make their minds hold still. They come in waves, like swine flu, and spread rapidly among those whose natural defenses against absurdity have been destroyed by careers in politics or degrees in education.
One of the nastiest twitches going around just now takes the form, but not the meaning, of "perception." The word is habitually mouthed in such a way as to suggest some failure in those who perceive rather than a deficiency in that which is perceived.
Here, for instance, is that Alvarado fellow in New York, offering what he probably considers an explanation for a shortage of teachers in the schools of certain neighborhoods:
"We just don't have enough teachers to go around, and the perception of those areas is such that a teacher says, ‘I would rather teach elsewhere.'"
The solution is thus to change the perception, which is much easier than civilizing ignorant and violent children, which is Alvarado's "profession."
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Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;