The Saltine Solution
OUR School Doings Reporter, a young lady of unusually delicate sensibilities, does most of her research in a nearby state mental institution. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.
She recently brought in a detailed report of the Doings in an eleventh grade class in "social studies," which we can not print. Our readers have delicate sensibilities of their own.
But we can not let it pass without comment. In fact, it reveals so much about the life of the mind in America in general, and the molestation of the minds of children in particular, that we are devoting this issue to a consideration of the Children Question, which is much more important than the School Question.
Let us go, then, to a neighborhood state mental institution, where some children, required by law to present themselves for daily socialization in that place, are serving a brief term of involuntary servitude as a captive audience for another child. They are all engaged in a "social study," hearing what the educationists call an "oral report." (We'd rather not touch that line. Do it yourself.) The oral reporter is a girl child, reciting some notions and opinions that she claims as her own, although they are indistinguishable from the widely held and much publicized notions and opinions of millions of others.
Her oral report is not a report but a homily. (School people think such distinctions trivial.) Nor was it entirely oral, for some helpful adults had provided the child with a short movie to show her classmates. And more than somewhat grisly it was, for the girl child's chosen topic was the vexed question of just and appropriate public policy on abortion.
You didn't imagine, did you, that a government high school social studies class would waste time on trivia like the unification of Germany or Madison's idea of federalism? That stuff is not important. The important thing is to encourage children to express themselves, to make public display of their feelings and beliefs.
The girl child of our tale was more than willing to make public display of her feelings and beliefs. She was eager. She was keen to win converts, and seems to have supposed, as any child would, that the sincerity of her display, along with a little help from some indubitably gruesome footage, would have that effect.
It did not. Irony undid her.
She was quite right, of course, to suppose that children might be persuaded into certain feelings and beliefs through some supposedly sincere display of the same, especially when accompanied by some dramatic and supposedly relevant evidence. That is exactly how children do come to have the feelings and beliefs that they suppose their own, But in this case, the young persuader's performance was marred by a fatal error that even high school children could detect. She referred repeatedly to the grave consequences of injections of what she called "saltine solution."
Cute. An innocent and childish error, no doubt. Hardly worth taking seriously. And surely not in any way a discredit to the young and sincere persuader. We do not, after all, pronounce worthless the prayer of the little child who says "Harold be thy name." Nor should we.
And no more should we ask that child to expound doctrine. Should he have any theological opinions at all, they will be worthless recitations of what he has heard, which is quite bad enough, and of what he supposes that he has heard, which is worse. What weight then, shall we accord the notions of the saltine solution girl? Is her case different? Shall we overlook a trivial mistake and permit her to expound doctrine?
Is her mistake trivial? Does she know what a saltine is? Has she ever asked herself how such an ominous substance can be derived from such an amiable little cracker? Has she ever asked anyone, especially one of those who told her about saltine solution? Is that what they called it, or did she stumble into that remarkably unlikely error all by herself? Does she not listen to her own words, and consider their meanings? If she gives her own discourse so little attention, why should her listeners give it more? Should they have to guess which of her statements are made out of certain knowledge and clear understanding, and which out of unapprehended ignorance and automatic recitation?
And shall we hold that little girl to account for the moral and intellectual derelictions suggested by such questions? Absolutely not.
Although she was put forth as one who understood the solemn mysteries of our life and of our death, she did not truly speak. Others used her voice. Others took advantage of a child's natural credulousness, and a child's desperate need to secure the approval of those into whose care it happens to have fallen.
"No child under the age of fifteen," wrote Schopenhauer, "should receive instruction in subjects that may possibly be the vehicle of serious error, such as philosophy or religion, for wrong notions imbibed early can seldom be rooted out, and of all the intellectual faculties, judgment is the last to mature."
Plato said as much, but he suggested a much greater age. It is a doctrine that we hate. Almost every one of us is a partisan of some faction, armed with the belief that "wrong notions" are the specialty of the other faction. Knowing that children are indeed susceptible to emotional persuasion, and not protected by the habit and power of rational inquiry, we hasten to take advantage of their helplessness in our right cause before our opponents can commit that atrocity in their wrong cause.
That the saltine solution reporter took one side rather than the other in the Great Abortion Struggle, tells us which side got to her first. Some other child will recite other feelings and beliefs about the solemn mysteries of life and death. Maybe she, too, will talk about the saltine solution. Maybe not. It doesn't matter.
In either case, one more assignment will be done, one more hollow class filled, one more mother satisfied, and, as in this case, no one will even ask about that solution.
The Atheist Child
and Other Child Prodigies
MONTHS AGO, we had a chatty letter from a regular reader, who was reporting on some horrific doings at the local high school. He reported on more of the same at a local private school. He dismissed the latter, however ruefully, by admitting that parents had the right to choose for their children whatever ‘education might seem good to them.
Lots of people say that; very few would deny it--in public. Since those few are the rare educationists who are willing to admit their belief that government should choose the "education" of children, we hate to seem to second even their unspoken denial of that supposed "right" of parents.
But we must. Logic and decency require it.
Consider first that true education must provide the habits and powers of unrestricted thoughtful inquiry--freedom of the mind, and also the habits and powers of self-knowledge and self-government, which is also freedom of the mind. An "education" that does not provide those things is just trash.
Consider now a not unfaithful rephrasing of the "right" of parents: X has the right to determine the degree of freedom, if any, that will be possible in the mind of Y.
That's some right. Which would you guess: that the Founding Fathers were going to spell that out in the Constitution but finally decided that we would naturally assume it, or that they would find it a vile abomination, the antithesis to everything for which they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor?
Of all that, we were put in mind by the atheist child, of whose rather astonishing existence we happened to read on the letters page of the New York Times. The atheist child's father was warning us all that any public display of non-atheism in the schools would be a violation of the "civil right" of the atheist child, who would become forthwith yet another of America's already uncountable "oppressed minorities." He reminded us, too, that we had a "bad record" with oppressed minorities, leaving us wondering what we might have done to achieve a good record with those oppressed minorities.
He also left us wondering how on Earth a little child ever became an atheist child in the first place. We are only mildly surprised when some little girl tears off the Paganini caprices, and not surprised at all when a pimply computnik in Cupertino gets into the mainframe at NASA, but an atheist child... Wow. In fact, if we hadn't learned better from the Times, we would have thought an atheist child no more probable than a deconstructionist duck, or a rutabaga whose ruminations had driven it, however imperceptibly, to the very brink of logical positivism.
We would dearly love to meet the atheist child. We would like to sit with him and hold high converse, to learn at last the final resolutions of knotty doubts and questions, every one of them having been turned, for countless generations, now this way and now that, and all to no avail--until just now, of course. We would like to learn, for education, the life of the mind, is our business, how one so young came to discover and master the thorny intellectual discipline out of which to formulate and adopt his stern Weltanschauung.
We would like also to be instructed in the logic by which his corollaries are derived. We only hope that we will be able to follow the elegant argument by which he demonstrates that public displays of non-atheistic practices constitute nothing less than the oppression of non-non-atheists. We could really use that argument; we are compelled to behold all around us, and especially in the schools, governmentally supported displays of the abominable practices of fools and charlatans. Now if we could only take them to court and prove them oppressors, this whole galling enterprise might turn out to he not utterly futile and empty after all.
We do hope that the atheist child's father, who must be a dilly himself, will invite us up for a seminar with his prodigious son.
But maybe he won't.
Well, no matter. We have other resources. We will go to the Mormon child, or the Roman Catholic child. We will seek out the elusive Muslim child, and readily discover the fundamentalist-creationist child. Near the ice-cream vendor's wagon at the first convenient demonstration, we will linger with the liberal child, and the conservative child, right after the three-legged race at the Rotary Club picnic, we will not fail to consult. The Republican child and the Democrat child will soon present themselves at our very door, bearing leaflets attesting to the conclusions of their deliberations on the high art of virtuous government, and the results of their investigations into fiscal policy and the real intentions of the Kremlin.
Of such child prodigies, there is no scarcity at all. And from every single one of them we will discover exactly what we could have discovered from the "atheist" child: that all their labels need quotation marks, that they are all unwitting conscripts in someone else's army, and that someone else has some special, and passionate, interest of so little intellectual merit that it must call children as witnesses.
Here is the fundamental reason for all the shabby dodges and spastic fads of American schools: We don't want education. If we object to the indoctrination practiced in the schools, it is not because we hate indoctrination, but because we want do it. We want to inculcate our notions and beliefs in our children, so that we can then point to those very children as living (and adorable) testimony not only to the power and validity of those very notions and beliefs, but to the justice of our demands for recognition in public policy, and legal protection against the "oppression,"--or even the affront--to which we might be subject because of the existence of other factionalists with other beliefs and notions. Wrong ones. It's a pity about their children, of course, but of ours, we have the right to make true believers, and to protect them from the corruption of uncertainty.
We can see now that Socrates was indeed guilty as charged. He did corrupt the youth. There isn't another way. If he hadn't, we would know and care about him just as much as the people of the Forty-fifth Century will know and care about your local superintendent of schools. While there are parents so enslaved by faction that they will molest the minds of children for its sake, while the state looms, which would dwindle into decent service without the nourishment of factionalism, any true teacher will have to corrupt the youth. It is their only hope of the examined life.
But be not afraid, dear father of the delicate atheist child. True teachers have been exceedingly rare, and we are always doing everything we can to prevent them. If your child ever does escape you, it will not be into the corruption of the examined life, but only into the unexaminable beliefs of some other faction, which would be not be so drastic a change as you might think. However different the details of their beliefs, factions all share the same deepest principle. They all depend upon, nourish, and applaud, that very condition which you, first of all, depended upon, nourished, and applauded in your currently atheist child. Credulousness.
A Special Place in Heaven
IF a child gets a paper back with circles around half the words, it won't take him long to figure out--the less I write, the fewer mistakes I make. I think children are writing better now than they ever did and it's because we've taken the pressure off spelling and grammar. They're finally experimenting, they're taking chances because they aren't getting papers back with every spelling error circled. Did we ask them for correct spelling or did we ask them for ideas? The ideas should come first, then we'll work on the spelling and grammar.
WHEN is "then? When will that day come, and who will rejoice in it, when the little children will have successfully completed their "experimenting" with "ideas," and find themselves ready, at long last, to be initiated into the greater mysteries of spelling and grammar?
And who is that "we," who will--someday, later--take on the sad and arduous task of putting the pressure back on spelling and grammar, those notorious inhibitors of ideas?
We can sure as hell tell you who won't have that unhappy responsibility. Vera Mykolajiw, the Canadian schoolteacher quoted above, will not be troubled at all by that tiresome obligation. She, having more valuable things to do, neat "idea" things, will gladly leave the less valuable stuff to "we," which is always to say, somebody else, later, maybe.
And who are those other "we," the "we" who are supposed to have asked for our children not dull spelling and grammar but the scintillating play of ideas? Who spoke for "we," and told Vera Mykolajiw what "we" want? Is she obediently doing what "we have asked, or has she decided, to remarkably convenient effect, that were "we" sufficiently enlightened "we" would of course want children who can't spell to experiment with ideas?
Here is a tremendous truth about schools, almost all schools, and especially government schools: There is no one there. When you take your child to school, no person can stand forth and say: I am the one. Mine is the mind that judges here, and here are its understandings. Judge them for yourself. Then take your child away or leave him with me.
There is not one person who will say: I alone am responsible for what I do, and for what I fail to do, I, and I alone, am to blame.
You won't even find a person who is willing to say: I am going to teach spelling and grammar. Instead, you will hear thousands of mouths telling you what "we" want and reciting in chorus the airy assurance of no one in particular that "we" will do some thing or other "then," no doubt.
What a child needs, what every one of us needs every day, is a teacher who says: I will do now what should be done now, and then what should be done then, and I know how to tell the one from the other.
Vera Mykolajiw "teaches" experimenting with ideas to eighth grade children who are obviously not very good at spelling and grammar. They have, like Immanuel Kant, devoted seven years to not studying spelling and grammar. Just a few years ago, the teachers of these benighted children were flattering themselves as awakeners of ideas in childish minds whose every "idea" was nothing but a more or less garbled version of what someone else had said, and passing off as "taking chances" the baffled, disorderly recitations of children no more capable of "experimenting," which is not another word for fumbling in the dark, than of spelling, which is another word for a discipline in the mind. And those teachers, too, in their time, must have said, The ideas should come first, then we'll work on the spelling and grammar
And who did they mean by "we"? Vera Mykolajiw ?
Well, she hasn't really let them down. She has in fact, done exactly the right thing, the school thing. She has pointed. . . somewhere. . . over there. . . where there is always plenty of "we." But not a single "I."
We discovered Vera Mykolajiw in The Record Sentinal, of Tottenham, Ontario. The reporter, doing a folks-around-town feature, asked her if she thought there might be a special place in heaven for dedicated teachers. She replied that she hoped there would be such a place for all teachers.
We can hear Lot now: If I can find ten, Lord, who did it themselves, will you spare the whole pack?--All right, ten will do.--Uh, well, suppose, of the ten, there lack but five?--Very well, for five I will not cast them out.--And if there is only one?--Enough already! Show me the one.--Well, you see, they don't operate quite that way. Would you settle for no one in particular?-- I think you'd better go and start to pack.
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Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;