Volume Eight, Number Seven............November 1984

The Disappearance of Everybody

Enclosed is my personal resume for your review and consideration for a position which may be available at the present time or in the forseeable future.

Throughout my successful management career, I have always strived to excel and to utilize initiative and resourcefulness to improve efficiency and quality control.

I have always been cited for superior interpersonal skills and my ability to interface at all management levels.

I ask only the opportunity to interview with your very fine organization and further present my diverse professional and personal attributes.

WHAT you see above is a perfect realization of a lofty aspiration, one of the Great Goals of the great American school industry, the elusive, yet obviously possible, Letter of Application for a Job. Who says our schools can't teach writing?

And, though you may have guessed otherwise, thinking it just a sample from a communicationist manual of swell suggestions, that letter was actually "written," in a certain sense of the word, by a living "person," in a certain sense of the word.

The letter is ‘written' in the sense of the word that we have in mind when we notice "Pepsi-Cola" written with smoke in the sky. In that same sense, we also say that a policeman writes parking tickets, and that the man who sells newspapers also writes numbers. These examples, however, seem to impel a further distinction, for the three latter examples have a virtue not to be found in the first. It is much to the credit of skywriters, cops, and numbers runners, that they do not pretend, in writing, that they speak for themselves. Their written works, therefore, show a refreshing absence of intent to deceive. In the case of the Letter of Application for a Job, the determination of intent is somewhat more vexed.

If we are to judge of intention, we have to find an intender. Wind and rain can not intend. Neither OPEC nor the World Council of Churches can intend. Only a person can intend, and the person who may be lurking in the robotic machinery of that letter is difficult to make out.

He is there, however. If you look very carefully, you'll just be able to make him out, wild-eyed, a little desperate, peeking out from behind "strived," which is almost certainly the only thing in the whole letter of which a wife might conceivably say, "That's my Bill." While not truly a redeeming virtue, and surely not a special and unexpected beauty, like the mark of the potter's thumb, that discordant little gaucherie is at least a glimmer of life, human life, the tiny spark given off only by a person.

It is, however, a spark that the writer, had he known enough to see it, would have stamped out immediately. It appeared in the first place, of course, out of the same automatic reflex that replaces "use" with "utilize" and "get along" with "interface." Such substitutions of the approximate for the exact are thought classy not only in educationism, but also in educationism's lustiest hybrid offspring, businessism. Had our "writer" known just a little bit more, he would have done, strangely enough, just a little bit worse. "Striven" would not really improve his work. It would pile pomposity on preposterousness, and, far more important, although not to the writer, it would wipe out the mark of the human person. We would then hear in his letter nothing but that unsettling, alien voice that more and more officiously addresses us.

From the halls of government and schooling, from the media of every sort and stripe, from our very clocks and automobiles, we hear (and obey) the one and only Great Voice of our time, the voice of no one in particular speaking to anyone in general. It is speech without mind and unamenable to discourse, talk in which we are not truly addressed, but only "accessed."

And so it must be, apparently, in anything much larger than a village ruled by a wise and virtuous chief whose word is truly his word. We do have to listen to the voice of no one in particular, for it is that voice that also tells us to stop at certain corners and to close cover before striking, but we do not have to love it. The people who taught "writing" to the poor fellow cited above, and whose teaching has shaped and fenced the life of the mind in almost everyone who lives in this land, who made of "education" a disorderly concoction of childishly transparent adjustment and pitiably ineffective training--long ago they learned to love the voice of no one in particular. They revere and imitate that voice, and speak in it, to themselves, to their students, to all of us.

That is why nothing can be done about what is done in schools. There is no doer there, no responsible person who might, impelled by a fit of rational inquiry, actually choose to do something else. All that the schoolers believe, or feel, or even appreciate, is at the behest of no one in particular. Who tells them that believing and feeling, and even appreciating, are worthier than mere knowledge, which is nothing but the least of the merely cognitive skills? No one in particular. Who tests such propositions, and can show the reason of them to any rational mind? No one in particular.

It is by education, not schooling, that a human creature becomes this person. The one, existence, is given. The other, essence, must be made. It must be made out of the consideration of the self, the knowledge of the self, the judgment of the self, and the shaping of the self. Such acts are all works of the mind, and are better or worse performed to that degree in which the mind has knowledge and control of its own works and laws. Since the mind seems to seek, by its own nature, some grasp of itself, the propensity for education can not he easily disabled, and education itself, in at least some degree, can be prevented only with great difficulty.

But we have found out the trick of doing it. We call it "education."

The applicant quoted above shows us what we mean by the "product of the schools." A product, he is. A plug in search of a socket. A dutiful citizen, utilizing initiative, interfacing at levels, competing with the Japanese.

He is the Final Solution to the discomforts of the schoolers: anyone in general who is no one in particular.

Compassion in California

An act relating to self-esteem, and making an appropriation therefrom.

SECTION 1. The Legislature finds the following:

A. Most individual behavior is motivated by self-perception and self-image. Increased self-esteem tends to make people become more achievement-oriented, confident, creative, productive, and successful, which in turn translates into a society which is healthier, safer, more productive, and less costly.

B. Low self-esteem can have a wide-ranging influence on individual conduct, the costs of which in both human and societal terms are manifested in a number of ways, many of which convert into significant expenditures of state moneys. These human costs and costs to government can be reduced by raising the sell-esteem level of our citizenry.

THE EDUCATIONISTS who make our schools what they are, are delighted to remind us, when the heat is on, that schools are Reflections of Society as a Whole. If Society is disorderly and debauched, how can schools be otherwise? When they want more respect and money, they put them selves forth as the shapers of Society as a Whole. In both assertions, they are correct, and if their minds were capable of considering both facts at the same time, they might someday learn to distinguish between what is correct and what is right.

The passage quoted above comes from California State Assembly Bill 3691, which has been passed in that house and now awaits the judgment of the senate. It will probably be come law. There are few politicians who want to be recorded as enemies of self-esteem, and even fewer who require of the sponsor of such a bill a thorough and reasoned explication of the exact nature of self-esteem, so that it might be distinguished from certain remarkably similar but less attractive sentiments, vainglory, arrogance, self-indulgence, impudence, egotism, vanity, for instance, to say nothing of the colossal brass out of which a pack of pols will undertake to reprogram the inner life of what it is condescendingly pleased to call "our citizenry."

Bill 3691 offers no explication of self-esteem. It calls for the establishment of a Commission to Study the Causal Relationship Between Self-Esteem, Personal Responsibility, and Social Problems, hut an explication of self-esteem will be of no interest to the trendy change-agents who will sit on that commission. They will all be educationists or something-ists, self-esteeming practitioners of popular non-disciplines. Such people have no time for mere rationality; their work is in the real world.

For the purposes of Bill 3691, and of its sponsor. one John Vasconcellos, self-esteem is sufficiently understood as that sentiment which is insufficiently harbored by the unfortunate victims of Society as a Whole who are forced to bring upon themselves, and upon Society as a Whole, all of the following woes:

(1) Increased aggressiveness and violent behavior...

(2) Low academic achievement levels, preventing individuals from competing for jobs...

(3) Discrimination, including racial, sexual, age, & other prejudices, which many people use to compensate for their own feelings of low self-worth...

(4) Dramatically increased rate of teenage pregnancies clue to a lack of purpose...

(5) Hierarchical or authoritarian economic & political organizations...

(6) Increasing drug and alcohol abuse due to a person not feeling good about, or valuing, his or her natural state.

There was a time when a twelve-year-old schoolboy with only the first rudiments of true education would have laughed himself into a spasm of retching over the preposterous illogic of that list and of the argument out of which it is derived. Now, however, we are unable to laugh, for it is out of such thinking, and by such thinkers, that Law is made in our land, a land founded, and the only land ever so founded, on rational principles, and out of the knowledge--not the belief, not the feeling, not the wish, but the clear knowledge--that man is capable of Reason.

Now, in Jefferson's mantle, many sizes too big, a Vasconcellos comes before his learned colleagues to warn them that a spectre is haunting California. Low self-esteem is causing all the drinking and drugging that low self-esteem causes. The learned colleagues nod sagely. The Vasconcellos recites the litany of woes that could sometimes befall some people under some circumstances as a result of low self-esteem. The learned colleagues decide to bestow three quarters of a million of somebody else's dollars on certain members of the self-esteem business who have already asserted, without rational explication, exactly what the Vasconcellos asserts, without rational explication.

We have been wrong. We have held that School is an agency and creature of Government. Not so. As the water, drop by drop, wears away the hardest stone, so, Vasconcellos by Vasconcellos, School infiltrates and informs whatever we call Government. The master comes at last to serve his slave.

It is interesting, but not of the first importance, that the Great Crusade for Enhanced Self-esteem has been a darling obsession of educationists for many decades. More important is the fact that when Government becomes an agency of School, it must justify all its acts by reference to emotion, not reason, and by a scrupulous neglect of all the laws of thought.

Although you would never guess it from the practice of the teacher academies, or the California legislature, propositions can be tested. Bill 3691 depends upon a proposition in this form: There is a certain condition, A, that causes bad results, B. It takes no great powers of formal logic to test that proposition. What it does take, however, is a kind of curiosity now deemed anti-social, and rigorously discouraged by School and Government. It is the curiosity out of which one asks: Should I believe what I do believe? Can I find out?

Armed with that curiosity, a Vasconcellos, entirely within himself, and without even sending out a questionnaire, could have conducted a very interesting investigation:

I do, I do believe that insufficient self-esteem brings many and various bad consequences, that A causes B. In believing that, do I have to believe some other things as well?

Do I believe, for instance, that A is the only cause of B, that it is low self-esteem alone to which we owe all the miseries and disorders of the human condition? Seems unlikely, and both experience and introspection, combined with a little information, urge, at least, consideration of some other possible causes. Pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth do come to mind, but they're hardly fit matters for legislation, and surely not susceptible to scientific identification and measurement, like lack of self-esteem. (I forget exactly who told me that. One of the low self-esteem experts. He had the figures.) Still, it would be interesting to know: Out of a hundred inconvenient teenage pregnancies, are some caused by lust rather than low self-esteem? Could we ever know which? Could it be that low self-esteem causes a propensity for habitual self-indulgence? Could it be the other way around? Or both? Or neither? How much confidence is due to the expert who comes right out with glib answers to such questions? What do his figures mean?

And now that I've come to think of "the other way around," should I not consider the possibility that at least some B is caused by too much self-esteem? History provides a long list of destructive monsters brimming over with self-esteem. And then there are the jerks. Every jerk I know has more self-esteem than Socrates, who, come to think of it, seemed to find more worth in self-doubt. And all the nuts and cranks, the faddists and believers, every one of them right, right, right! Especially vegetarians.

And then there's the street punk, cocky swaggerer, sticker-up of candy stores, provider of pregnancies, scorner of all trades. Do I really believe all those guidance counsellors? Does he really need more self-esteem? And if he suffers from poor self-image, isn't that rather to be applauded than deplored? Does it not suggest at least a glimmer of self-knowledge, perhaps his only virtue, and also, perhaps, a virtue that might grow by nourishment?

Can self-knowledge be nourished by self-esteem? Is there some proper marriage of the two, some natural union? Have I not often had nasty attacks of self-knowledge, and seen myself among the jerks, put there, furthermore, by a nasty attack of unexamined self-esteem? Is it not when self-esteem leads and self-knowledge lags behind that I am in the greatest danger of doing or saying what will be foolish or hurtful? But when self-esteem is decently governed by self-knowledge, am I not the less likely to play the fool or the knave?

On the other hand, can self-esteem be nourished by self-knowledge?

Does my own self-esteem quotient rise or fall when I notice that I have been a colossal jerk? Does it not do both? Bad as it is to be a jerk, it is surely good to know that I am being a jerk, for how else can I avoid being a jerk in the future?

Maybe I ought to be proposing an entirely different bill, one that would promote self-knowledge rather than self-esteem. Can that be done? I'll ask that guy who has all the figures, of course, but I do suspect that no one can provide self-knowledge for somebody else. When somebody tells me that I'm a jerk, it doesn't really help at all unless I also have some way of knowing whether or not he's right.

Hmm. There's an interesting idea. A way of knowing. Is there a way of knowing in which one person actually can instruct another? Wouldn't such instruction be more beneficial to all those poor down-and-outers--and to anyone else, for that matter--than instruction in self-esteem?

And now that I've said the words, it occurs to me that there is something more than just a little bit fishy about the thought of ‘instruction' in self-esteem. People do butter each other up, that's for sure, and even in the California legislature, but that's not exactly an exercise in instruction. It works all the better, in fact, and in this legislature it might even save you a bust in the nose, when the victim remains totally uninstructed.

So. That must be why those self esteem boosters wanted me to use all their funny language in my bill. It doesn't call for any instructing, and it doesn't say a single word about knowing. What it does say--and I'm about to have a nasty attack of self knowledge, I suspect--is that a pack of those same self-esteem boosters should be hired at the taxpayers' expense to cook up some "ways in which government and its institutions can be more conducive to the development & perpetuation of self-esteem."

Holy cow. Perpetual self-esteem all around. On the house. Sort of. What could I have had in mind? What on earth could an "institution of government" do to "develop and perpetuate" self-esteem? Can it be the business of government to set up a Department of Flattery? Rent a few billboards? Listen up, everybody. You're all OK! Maybe we could send out warm and caring social workers to convince the punks and pimps to like themselves better so that they could find fulfillment as junior assistant night managers at McDonald's. We might be able to provide big-time drug dealers with such potent perceptions of self-worth that they would give tip their Maseratis and Swiss bank accounts. We could get the governor to issue a proclamation: Everybody in California is hereby proclaimed indubitably (and perpetually) estimable!

Aha. Estimable. There is another word that can't be found anywhere in my bill, and that I never heard at all from the self-esteem mongers who sold me this silly notion. Before we get all fired up to esteem ourselves, shouldn't we have some clear idea of what is estimable and what is not? Is there a "way of knowing" that could provide such an idea?

Could that be the real problem in this whole mess? Could it be that lots of people are all screwed up and disorderly because they live without any idea at all as to what is estimable and what is not, and even without any idea at all that there could be such an idea? Hell, those poor losers that my bill is aimed at have probably never even heard the word. But you can be damn sure they've heard "esteem" a million times, and right in the very schools where the list of words suitable for use in textbooks does not include "estimable," so that no budding self-esteemer will suffer a decrease of self-esteem through stumbling on the fact that he doesn't understand the meaning of "estimable."

Damn! I've been suckered, royally suckered. By guidance counsellors! Maybe it's not too late. Maybe I can withdraw that stupid bill before any one else thinks about it. Maybe...

Enough. It's nothing but a melancholy fantasy. Vasconcellos thought no such thoughts. He is surely a busy man, busy making the world a better place. A busy man in such a worthy calling must get things done whether he understands them or not. Are the needs of the people to wait upon the requirements of Reason?

And somewhere there is a wood cutter who has so many trees to cut down that he can't be bothered with sharpening his ax. Eventually, his trees do fall, but his friends try to be out of range when that happens. If you live in California, this might be a good time to start looking around for way out of the woods.

The Underground

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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.

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