Volume Eight, Number Four............May 1984

Hours of Pain-free Sleep

If the kids can't have a little fun along with their work, they have nothing to look forward to, to make them want to come to school.

Colwell argued that physicians and psychiatrists had turned to humor to treat patients, If humor can help in treating disease, why not to teach children?

THE theorizers and teachers who inform the life of the mind as seen in the government schools must harbor some very queer notions about those who choose to lead that life.

They "appreciate" certain poets and writers, for they imagine that "art" is just a form of "self-expression," which requires neither long study nor hard labor nor special talent nor perfected skill. But how do you go about "appreciating" Newton, or Montaigne, or Thucydides, or even that weird professor of medieval drama into whose class you stumbled because it was the only available humanities elective in your free period just before lunch? So what is it with those guys? What are they, some kind of masochists?

American educationism is actually a religious cult deriving its theory and practice from numerous small articles of belief. Here are two of them:

¶ Study, learning, and practice, except in certain extra-curricular activities, are difficult and unpleasant.

¶ Children are sick, and the proper business of schooling is their cure.

These doctrines are propagated by recitation and role-modeling in the teacher-training academies, but, truly, without much need. Of the first, most teacher-trainees are already convinced, for it corresponds exactly to their own experience as students. Of the second, they are delighted to be convinced, for it lends the glamour of healership to a calling into which they were forced by their SAT scores.

Like all cultish superstitions, these two engender the practices that seem to prove them true, and thus providers of justification for the practices by which they are themselves justified It's a neat trick, which, like other brands of ideological "argument," proves conclusively whatever it assumes as true.

The citations above are taken from cases in point in the first, we have the subtle pedagogical theorizing of Raye Ann Heath, a first-grade teacher in Paducah. In one of those silly "feature" stories by which newspapers promote nonsense in the schools, The Paducah Sun reported the celebration of Michael Jackson Day in Heath's class.

It was exactly what you imagine, complete with T-shirts and solitary gloves, and even---this is school, you know--"an overhead projector drawing of Michael Jackson filled [?] with arithmetic problems." The children, Heath explained, had been "bogged down with work" and needed "a little fun," which she inconsistently sought to justify as avoidance therapy by saying, "Maybe this will get it out of their systems." As to why that effect should he expected to flow from an official (and tax-supported) endorsement of mindless entertainment as a goal for whose sake some work might be worth doing, Raye Ann Heath offers no theorizing.

Which brings us to Rodney Dangerfield, or, more precisely, to a certain Clyde Colwell. Colwell is a porseffor of something at Kansas State University's teacher academy, and an assiduous imitator of Rodney Dangerfield. He worked for months on this really neat take-off, but stage-fright has thus far prevented him from offering it to a waiting world. But no matter. The world's loss is educationism's gain, for Colwell has put behind him his disappointment at not being able to imitate somebody else's version of mindless entertainment and has gone on to devise his own version. Clyde Colwell has actually discovered that humor---that's right, humor--can be used right in the classroom!

RevoLUtionary! And indeed, "Colwell and...his disciples" have, as The Arizona Republic tells us, "revolutionized teaching by stripping classes of the dry and the unimaginative and substituting humor."

In an "English language exercise," for instance, Colwell gets a million laughs by calling a thermos bottle a "thirst-aid kit." Boffo, no? And in a math class he rolls them in the aisles by stripping from addition and subtraction problems those dry and unimaginative trains and water-buckets that we remember from the bad old days before the invention of humor, and substituting vampires. Socko.

Among educationists, who couldn't find the humor in Plato or Newman even if funding were offered, that sort of thing is thought funny. Adults and little children will recognize it as imbecilic condescension, and pathetic.

But it is even worse than that, for Colwell also does a little vampire take off by sucking rich blood from a help less victim and digesting it into quite another substance. He cites, as though it supported his notions, Anatomy of an Illness, a good and serious book by Norman Cousins. Colwell seems not to have read the book itself, quoting only from a Reader's Digest rehash a sentence in which Cousins speaks of the "anæsthetic effect" of a good bout of laughter, which might provide "at least two hours of pain-free sleep." It may not seem much but a "thirst-aid kit" might not have done as well.

No thoughtful reader of that book could find Cousins a man who would recommend anæsthesia as a teaching device, or who sees the life of learning as a painful illness that requires the occasional respite of pain-free sleep. Those are Colwell's views.

And there are lots of people in the schools who share those views, but they aren't the children, or, more accurately, they aren't the children who are just starting out in school. They love learning, and enjoy it as health. They are, in fact, very much like those queer ducks whom their teachers just can't understand--wonderers, whose delight is in understanding. Then they see that they are being amused and cajoled, however ineptly, as though to be coaxed, and that their teachers just can't wait till Friday, or for Michael Jackson Day, whichever comes next.

So the educationists are right after all. The children are sick. The heavy air of school, tainted with substances far more toxic than asbestos, has made them sick.

And Colwell is right after all. What those children need is a rowdy bout of uproarious laughter. And when that day comes in which the children can thoughtfully consider and understand the works of Colwell, and laugh their heads off, in that day they will be well.

The Seat of Sympathy

A Colossal Pain in the Bowel

. . . the most serious objection raised by those who wrote in opposition to the idea is that government-mandated service is an infringement upon individual freedom--that . . . mandatory service is servitude. In response, I would note that while there obviously have been problems related to the mandated military draft, the requirement of mandatory education . . . is widespread in contemporary societies.

David S. Saxon

If anything ail a man, so that be does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even,--for that is the seat of sympathy,--he forthwith sets about reforming the world.

Henry David Thoreau

THE whole history of our versatile and diligent species reveals not a single example of an outrage committed or an abomination practiced by a person who had taken upon himself the stupendous task of making the world a worse place. Sincere and dedicated Do-badders may well be, for all we know, as cunning as the serpent, but they are surely as harmless as the dove. With sincere and dedicated Do-gooders, it often seems just the other way around. Abomination and outrage are their specialties, in fact, but in a really swell cause.

The David S. Saxon quoted above is an unmitigated Do-gooder, whose words we found in The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 25, 1984, exactly the right year, in an essay titled "It's Time for a New Look at an Old Idea: Mandatory Universal Service," in which the word ‘universal' turns out to mean: "absolutely everybody in an age group other than Saxon's."

So mightily stirred up in Saxon are the writhing bowels of compassion, that he wants some of the

rest of us to force some others of the rest of us to interact with all in desperate plights, and to gather rubbish in the streets. Those "others" are young people who would be "provided access to higher education...on the basis of enlightened quid pro quo" for that degree to which they can get their own bowels into an uproar over "conservation projects, community activities, and health care activities, among others."

Although Saxon's job as "chairman of the corporation" at MIT obviously leaves him more free time than he ought to have, we don't suspect that he would be willing even to administer his mighty project for the moral improvement of other people. But he would surely be glad to provide wisdom and counsel. Perhaps he would let his light so shine before men that they might--well, not exactly see his good works, since he is not in the age group in which the gathering up of somebody else's rubbish is virtuous--but they might at least get some idea of what he imagines that he means by that "enlightened" quid pro quo.

In one respect, Saxon is right. The idea of a mandatory universal service that the individual owes by nature to the state is indeed an old idea. It is so old, in fact, that anyone who wants truly to test its merits can readily find thousands of years of both record and speculation as to its roots and fruits. Like any idea, it is always worth a new look, but a look requires looking. He is no looker, but only a dangerous trifler, who climbs up on the podium of expediency and blats out his belief that an idea which the framers of our Constitution found abhorrent might really be a great idea anyway.

The Emperor Xerxes, like his father before him, had that same old idea fixed firmly in his mind. In his time, too, it was old. He expected an easy victory over the outnumbered and disunited Greeks, who were unruly, and served no master. When Demaratus explained that the Greeks were volunteers who had chosen to serve an even sterner master than Xerxes himself, and that their master was The Law, he made distinctions too subtle for the Emperor of all the East, whose mind was clouded by an old idea. And what Darius had failed to learn at Marathon, Xerxes failed to learn at the Hot Gates, and failed once more to learn at Salamis, watching his vessels burn and go down. He never did learn the difference between the laws and The Law, by virtue of which the Preamble precedes the Constitution.

And what has Saxon learned? Has he discovered some hitherto unnoticed meanings in the story of Xerxes, of the Bourbons, of Hitler? By what line of reasoning, and out of what evidence, has he refuted Jefferson and so many others? In his meditations on this stern old idea, how has he evaded the fanged horror that any prudent thinker would expect to meet in that dark wood--the simultaneous justification of "mandatory universal service" and slavery? Does he see no peril there? Does he think it enough to say, as though answering the charge that he has proposed "servitude," that there is "mandatory education" in the world? Does he imagine that he is talking to babies,* who will accept that "answer" as reasoning, or is that just the way they reason at MIT?

There is, however, no path of logic in Saxon's piece, no analysis, no refutation, no demonstration, none of the things that even the freshmen at MIT ought to know enough to provide in the course of argument. Saxon excuses himself from such tiresome restraints on self-expression by adopting a pose of impartiality. Answering criticism of one of his earlier "looks" at this old idea, he now says: I was only calling for a comprehensive study.' To that demurrer, he provides unintended contradiction by pre-empting that "study" and going blithely on to enumerate all the pressing social problems that would be solved by a national scheme of mandatory universal (for some of the people some of the time) service,

If we remove from Saxon's essay his remarkably uninformed call for a "comprehensive study" that has been going on since Plato and that a conscientious scholar would review lest he call for new look out of ignorance of the old look, if we ignore his facile praise of a scheme that he pretends only to want to have "studied," if we skip over (what chagrin) the weasel words like "enlightened quid pro quo" in his managerial suggestions, we are left with almost nothing. It is, however, a very important almost nothing. It is Saxon's one little stab at logic, his false analogy about "education."

It was surely an interesting process in Saxon's mind that brought him to say, in effect: Well, since we already have "mandatory education," we could also justify certain other kinds of compulsory "service" to the nation. While we wouldn't go so far as to accuse Saxon of pondering the meaning of his own words, we will contend that he was jerking his knee in the educationistically approved fashion, obediently reciting what may be the biggest of all Big Lies, and the most pernicious.

There is simply no such thing, either in this nation or any other, or in any place on the whole face of Earth, as "mandatory education." But there is no lack of thoughtless people who imagine that there is such a thing, or of knaves who find it remarkably convenient that thoughtless people by the millions do imagine such a thing.

Any thoughtful understanding of "education" will show it, regardless of particulars, an attribute or a quality that can not exist except in the inner life of a person, and that can no more be "mandated" than love, or honor, or truthfulness, or wisdom. But to know that much, there isn't even any need to form a thoughtful understanding of education. The same is shown by the silly understanding that informs the practice of the government schools.

Is their basic and minimum competence mandated? Are conventional spelling and accurate arithmetic commanded by law? Are those students in danger of prosecution, who have not appropriately related to others, or who have appreciated less than sufficiently the plight of the elderly or the Cultural Heritage of the Month? Do district attorneys seek indictment of the ignorant and illiterate, who stubbornly remain, contrary not only to the laws but also to our highest educational aspirations, unable to compete with the Japanese?

What, then, is mandated? Only one thing: the physical presence of certain persons in certain places at certain times. And, as the results of their presence, what effects might sometimes be achieved, and what effects will always be achieved?

Some children will form some part of the foundation upon which an education may someday be built. That is inevitable. It will happen where there is schooling or where there is none, and, often, in spite of schooling.

But, while the benefits that may fall to any given child are matters of luck and circumstance and hardly to be guaranteed, the mandated presence of that child is a guarantee of survival and prosperity to a colossal agency of government and all who live because it lives, including all who live by the countless industries and services that that agency requires.

That is an interesting arrangement. A truly impartial observer from another planet might amaze us with his judgment of it as a supposed necessity in a "free" society. How would he be wrong to describe it as a system that exists because of its power to enforce the presence of children, and that guarantees some advantage to all who are associated with it, except the children. He might even report to the creatures back home: These Earthers do many such paradoxical things, and always out of what they suppose the best of motives, especially that one that they can no more examine than resist--the passion to bring about the moral improvement of somebody else.

There is no doubt that the repeal of forced attendance laws would cause years of disorder, but so too did the American Revolution. And what Saxon has in mind is more than the King dared. Furthermore, should the many Saxons of our time simply speak the truth instead of talking about mandatory education, they drag us by logic into the consequences of our folly. An argument that justifies forced service will do the same for forced labor.

Of course, the children in the government schools are not really "forced labor." All they have to do is sit there, in nothing more than forced presence, serving the needs of the nation. They are too young to do any truly useful forced labor. Later on, when they are bigger, we can send them into our filthy cities to pick up the trash scattered in the streets by others. Maybe those others will stand around and watch.

Summer Notes from Central Control

Try not to be alarmed by the computerish supplement that comes with this issue. THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN will never be printed that way. We will use the computer only for addenda of various kinds. Our typesetter is getting older, but he isn't getting better, and we often want to say more than the dodderer can handle between one issue and the next.

The Amazing Blurb Contest is over at last. The winning entries will appear on the jacket of The Leaning Tower of Babel, and Other Affronts, which will itself appear in the middle of August. As soon as the Little, Browners send us the final list, we will write to the winners and ask permission to publish their names in the next issue.

We are proud of them, and of you all. We often fancy, and publicly contend, that our readers are a saving remnant of the kind of people Jefferson had in mind when he spoke of that "informed discretion" upon which our freedom must depend. We wish, of course, that there were more of you, but it doesn't really matter. You are enough.

Most of you are, however, too patient and polite. Our publishing schedule is, to be sure, uncertain, usually because of that typesetter, but the day must surely come when you should have the latest issue. Should the delay seem inordinate, even for us, should you succumb to every American's recurrent suspicion that postal workers have decided that it is just too much trouble to deliver all of the mail, or should you fear that our computer has obliterated you, write us at once, requiring justice. Our computer just doesn't make any mistakes, but neither will it correct any of ours. Of course, if you have moved without giving us your new address, we will perhaps allude to that fact, but we will still make up any back issues you have missed.

While looking hack through the issue for April, 1984, please be so good as to read "Abraham" for "Lot" throughout. Thank you. What a blunder.

We remind all readers, and especially all new subscribers, that we always give not only permission but also approbation to any readers who want to xerox their copies and pass them around. You needn't even ask.

And we urge all readers to keep sending us the evidence on which our essays are always based. We never name our sources.

And we now say goodbye until September, which comes, this year, in August. Why not?


We have had some of our best letters ever in response to "The Atheist Child," which appeared in the April 1984 issue. They are important enough to drive us, a few months earlier than we had intended, to send out the first of a series (a long one, we hope) of occasional supplements "generated" (the only possible word) on our computer. (Or perhaps via our computer.)

Several readers made a similar point, which is worth quoting in at least two versions:

. . . an "atheist child" is not a prodigy; he simply has not been subjected to the training and pressure of sectarian cultists, of whatever denomination, with medieval, primitive, childish mythology.

I don't think you adhered to your usual persnicketiness regarding exact meanings. I submit for your criticism the assertion that an atheist is not something; rather he is not something.

The distinction is a fine one, and worth a lot of thoughtful attention from anyone who wants to keep the mind in tune and the reason in frame. Nor is it simply a matter of the definition of a word. It calls for some clear understanding of the nature of the mental acts and conditions to which we want to point with that word. What, then, can we say of the mental acts and conditions of the "atheist," child or not? Are they intrinsically different, or different only in content, from the mental acts and conditions of the "theist" or the "progressivist," or, for that matter, of the "patriot," child or not?

The question reminds us of a phrase from the now obsolete Book of Common Prayer, an incomparable well of good English, what ever else it may be. There, some mental condition called "faith" is said to have something to do with "the substance of things unseen." In that phrase, the word "unseen" obviously does not mean, or does not mean only, inaccessible to the sight of the eye. "See" must be there intended as it is when we say, "I see what you mean," or, "When at last they saw the truth, they decided not to die for that cause after all."

So the theist, and by his own definition, we suppose, deems himself one who "sees" not only at one remove from the work of the eye, which is properly said of him who "sees" that the angles of a triangle must add up to one hundred and eighty degrees, but at two removes, at least. For he "sees" what cannot be shown either to the sight of the eye or to the "sight" by which we see what is so about triangles. If it could be, political and religious discord would be just about as common as bloody war over the nature of triangles.

So our question must be this: Where the theist claims to see something, does the atheist (a) see nothing? (b) see something else? (c) make no claim as to what he sees? or, (d) refrain from looking in that direction at all?

Both of the writers quoted above seem to suggest something very much like (d). "All children," says the second of them, "start off as atheists. How could it be otherwise?" He asserts, and accurately, that our essay assumed either (a) or (b), and treated "atheism" as though it were the content of some supposed "seeing." Thus it was that we questioned whether a child might have mastered such "thorny" content, for a reasoned demonstration of the existence of that "nothing" would be every bit as tough a job as for any "something." And indeed, as most letter--writers held, if there simply is no content there, then there is nothing to master, and the mental condition of atheism, which requires no special mental act, is perfectly possible even in a child who has performed no mental acts at all.

That sounds to us very much like (d), the condition of not looking, or even of never having looked, in "that direction." That is certainly a possible definition of atheism, but it seems, we must confess, of extraordinarily limited use. Far from helping us to understand certain acts and conditions of the mind, it doesn't even permit us to distinguish between human beings and crocodiles, or, for that matter, between a child and a cucumber.

Furthermore, and this was certainly true of the father of "the atheist child," those who call themselves atheists do not in fact speak of their own condition as though it were easily attainable by infants. They rather seem to suggest that there is some dignity in their position, and even merit. For all that they may call atheism a neutral (and natural) state of the unconditioned mind, they find it nevertheless a worthy state. They often call themselves, in a phrase that is more appropriate than it seems at first, "confirmed" atheists.

Considering all of that, along with the fact that many confirmed atheists are more than ordinarily intellectual, we must suggest to our correspondents that they have not given themselves enough thought. There can be neither dignity nor merit nor worth where there is neither will nor choice, and no condition into which a person just happens to fall, whether by reason of infancy or any other accident, can be accorded either blame or praise. Nor can a person be confirmed, in any sense of the word, without having become confirmed, or convinced without having passed through, however passively, whatever mental acts and conditions brought him to conviction.

We have to conclude that the atheism to which atheists them selves lay claim is not the neutral condition of the unindoctrinated mind, but one that must be attained and that can therefore be promulgated, put forth and explicated for other minds. And it has been our experience that those who suppose themselves atheists are only slightly less reluctant than those who suppose themselves true believers to promulgate in others that condition which they suppose "right," especially, and for obvious reasons, among their own children.

And what can it mean to say that an infant is born an atheist? How is that different from saying that an infant is born a socialist or a Republican? Such assertions are, of course, not false, for they permit no imaginable opposite assertions that would be true, but they are simply meaningless. They are, as scientists would put it, not falsifiable. In that, they are exactly like the assertion that angels are pink, or that God exists, or that God doesn't exist. They are subject to the test neither of demonstration nor discourse, and, thus, nothing but matters of belief.

Surely, atheists hold the ideas they hold not because they deem them false, but because they deem them true. Nor do they speak of their ideas as if they were not ideas at all, but simply the absence of certain false ideas. Nor does it make any sense to hold that he who happens to be free of some false idea is thereby endowed with some true idea; were that the case, the real color of angels would be known to anyone who has not succumbed to the false notion that they are pink.

And if the ideas that make up atheism could be seen to be true with the seeing of the eye, or with the seeing by which we can see what is true of triangles, there would be no quarrelling about them. So it must be that he who sees the truth of atheism, sees it at some greater remove, even as the commoner sort of believer sees some other "substance of things unseen."

Where there is disagreement, and where neither the seeing of the eye nor the seeing of Reason can dispel it, we have made ourselves a delusion: The belief, for such it is, that of two contradictory notions, one must be true and the other false. There is one seeing by which we can see that wood is less dense than water, and another by which we can see that the angles of the triangle add up to one hundred and eighty degrees, but there is no seeing by which we can see that angels are either pink or not pink. Seeing is not believing--it is knowing. Believing is not seeing--it is believing, no matter what the substance of things unseen. Wovon man nicht sprechen Kann, darüber muß man schweigen, especially in the presence of children.

If atheists, and theists, and all other -ists of every sort, were to take Wittgenstein's sound advice, and simply hold their tongues where no knowledge can be had, they would all find themselves, and decently leave the rest of us, and their children as well, in the seemly peace of condition (c). Where the substance of things unseeable is concerned, the life of dignity and worth is his alone who walks his own path and keeps his own counsel.


In our next computerized supplement, we will take up a knotty question raised by another correspondent. He wrote:

You came perilously close to an important, unsolved problem: How to prevent the telling of lies to children. Schopenhauer was right, [but) he didn't say how to do what should be done.

"Perilously close" is good, but still not close enough. We will try to do better next time.

The Underground

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

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Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre;
nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

* The Chronicle has since printed a couple of letters commenting on Saxon's manifesto. It seems that he was talking to babies. back

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