The Machine Stops
Pulling the Plug in Peoria
THERE is no scarcity in this world of people who discover, when left to their own resources, that they haven't. The man who lives by saying to himself what the world has told him has nothing to say when the world is still, and the servant of routine, dismissed from that service, in which any servant will serve as well as another, has nothing to do.
So it is that we must provide for the old what we provide for the little children--government custodial centers, sanctimoniously supervised temples of trivial pursuit. On the eastern shore of life, we can all sit down and relate to self and others by enhancing self-esteem awareness while making, out of varnished buns and bits of uncooked pasta, collages of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. When we come to the western shore, having done our civic duty by serving the greater good of the greater number and competing with the Japanese, when the helpers fail and the comforts flee--the rules by which we once knew what to do and when, the callings and titles by which we thought to name ourselves--once again we will all sit down and relate to self and others by enhancing self-esteem awareness while making, out of varnished buns and bits of uncooked pasta, collages of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Despite its tidy symmetry, the prospect does not please. It is, in fact, vile.
These morose meditations arose in response to some very disgusting news from Peoria, the shocking story of a truly innocent man, abandoned and betrayed by the master whom he had faithfully served for all his life.
It happened so: A blind high school girl in Peoria has been told that she can not be graduated without taking a course in "driver education." That's the rule. Her only alternative would be a course in "safety," which isn't offered at her school.
This is not exactly a case to try the wisdom of Solon, and a less faithful public servant than school principal David Barwell would just let the girl graduate. If some higher-up should over-rule---fine. Let him make an ass of himself. In the first eleven years of her schooling, many of her teachers, and perhaps even a few of her guidance counsellors, probably noticed that the girl was blind. It seems a bit late to be imposing preposterous conditions, unless, of course, the girl went blind deliberately in order to circumvent... No. That would probably be hard to prove. The hell with it. Let'er go.
But Barwell--which is just what he would have been named had Congreve made this comedy--Barwell is the compleat servant. Assiduously has he listened to his master's voice. He knows the words and sings the tune. That's how you get to be a principal. He knows the guidelines and finds no fault in them. His decision, as it must be, is not truly his. He just transmits it. The girl must take the course.
It's hardly an unusual case. Equivalent absurdities sprout daily in every bureaucracy in the world, and if Barwell had stuck to the guidelines and kept his mouth shut, we would never have heard of him. He would have been left in the hazy peace of the obedient routiner, that perfect "adjustment to life" which schoolers seek, the peace which precludeth all understanding.
But the goddess of understanding is a contrary lass. Often, she leaves her ardentest worshippers to mutter idiotic guidelines of their own in an empty temple. Out in the streets, she tosses her saucy locks at some total stranger and whispers in his wondering ear--Hey listen, Jack, don't be a jerk. Then off she flits, leaving the poor chap to make do with exactly what he doesn't have. His own devices.
Something like that must have happened to David Barwell. Something must have bugged him, some sour discontent. Well, yes, the matter "could be perceived as being" preposterous, he may have said, in the cant of his calling, but it can't truly be preposterous. It's in the guidelines! It is the collective wisdom of trained professionals, and far more likely to be right than the mere thinking of a mere person.
And so, at one of life's crossroads, where some might have found freedom in realizing that the thinking of a person can be rational, and collective compromise can not, Barwell saw that there was only one thing a good principal could do. In this collision between common sense and guidelines, he must take a stand of his own! He must boldly stand forth, live, and in person, stoutly to defend and confirm, in his very own words, the preposterous. And here are his very own words:
She will be a passenger and a pedestrian, and who knows, there might be some dire emergency in her future life where she might have to drive.
We would like to comment, but we can't. We just can't.
Socrates said that philosophy was preparation for death, by which he did not mean "Death Education." Nor did he mean what we now mean by "philosophy." For us, it is either a "subject" offered, but rarely accepted, in school, or a supremely difficult intellectual exercise of no particular use. For Socrates it was just a thoughtful way of life, a way open to any conscious human being. It could also be called, accurately and simply, Education, but not in any currently popular sense of that word. Its aims were modest: self-knowledge and self-government by principles readily to be discovered in rational thoughtfulness.
Socrates also thought, as we do not, that the seed of the good life did not have to be planted, but only nurtured; it was in us, every one, by nature. He would not, as we do, turn in despair from the "thinking" of David Barwell.
Ah, my dear David, he would say, dire indeed would that emergency be, and I must suspect that the unfortunate young lady's driving would make it direr still. Nevertheless, you have truly described our predicament and wisely commended that prudence by which we would be best served. We are indeed pedestrians and passengers, walking where habit and custom have laid the paths, and driven, we know not where, in stern Necessity's growling machine. How well it behooves us all to learn to drive for ourselves, and, to that end, to cure in ourselves whatever blindness that might indeed be cured. How else shall we conduct ourselves in the land where the paths do not run, and wisely turn the wheel, should Necessity, who is as comforting as stern, rest from steering? Dire indeed will that emergency be, nor will we save the day by driving blind. So let us now take thought. . .
But Socrates is dead, and all the Barwells must be left to their own devices.
Run, Babbit, Run!
Businessism in Academe
CYBERNETIC SYSTEMS 196A is for students who will find themselves face-to-face with the complexity of todays business, management, and social human activity systems - the real world. APPLIED SYSTEMS PERSPECTIVE will give you the added edge In order to see from both a globel and the specific part perspective with the leverage to create, implement, and regulate change in real world problems.
WHAT you see above is absolutely sic. The sage who stands ready to guide young minds into a "globel and specific part perspective" is called Scott Taylor, and also called a member of the "faculty" at San Jose State University. In addition to that grand perspective, he also promises "marketable systems tools and methodologies to help bring order out of chaos." In the real world, of course, in the social human activity systems other than spelling and syntax.
Academe, in these times, looks like a once placid and independent principality, now subjugated and colonized not by one greater power but by many lesser. It is as though Cæsar had sat quietly at home, preferring peace, and ceding the cities' precincts, one by one, to each of the Gallic tribes, and saying, when nothing remained but his garden, Rome still stands! And here in Academe, which also still stands, there is no acknowledged principle by which we can conclude that the study of history is more likely to be conducive to education than the learning of hairdressing.
Thus it is that we suffer, and truly deserve, Scott Taylor and others of his tribe beyond counting. Since anything that human beings can come to do is now designated the fruit of some sort of "education," Academe can harbor, as it does, everything from Professors of Getting and Spending to Professors of Fun and Games. And every single one of them, whatever his tribe, pronounces himself a legitimate mentor of other minds by virtue of a claim so astonishing, so impudent, so preposterous, so childish, and so baffling, that the thoughtless never dream of doubting it, and the thoughtful, seeing the edge of the appalling abyss of ignorance, fall silent, and tiptoe care fully away, knowing not where, and wondering why, to begin.
And where would you begin? What would you say to a man who either can't or won't think himself out of an absurdity like that "globel and specific part perspective," but who also claims mastery of The Real World?
That is the claim they all make, and against which we know not what to say. Down the hall from Plato, and just around the corner from Toynbee and Dante, you'll find a young man, a very young man, who knows the real world of systems tools and leverage. When vexed beyond all bearing by the extravagant fantasies of Gśthe and Shakespeare, in whom there is no bottom line, nor any profit either, students at San Jose State may readily refresh themselves (and marketably, too) by seeking wisdom from one who knows how to create, implement, and regulate change in the real world of social human activity systems. Ah, if only Creon had taken that course.
By "the real world," the businessists of Academe mean something or other about money, its use and acquisition, and the knacks and contrivances out of which money may be made. Who would deny that their "world" is real? The hula hoop was real, whatever that might mean, just as real as the Southsea Bubble. But even the tense in which we are naturally inclined to compose such a statement suggests some qualification of the "reality" that we ascribe to certain kinds of things.
We detect an obvious but not easily explicable wrongness in saying that the hula hoop is real, and a wrongness not related to the triviality of the hula hoop, for it does not vanish when we say that the Southsea Bubble is real. That wrongness does vanish, if we can say, being lucky enough still to have one, that this hula hoop is real. Exactly the same variations can be played, just now, with Nehru jackets and pet rocks, and, in the future, near or far, with the silicon chip and the MBA, if you just happen to have any of those still lying about. Such things, as our language notices for us even when we don't, do not truly commend themselves to us as The Real, but only as what we happen to be noticing just here and now.
But all such things are also manifestations of something that is obviously not limited to here and now, It is not a "professor" of merchandizing who will marvelously enlighten some murky corner of our minds through consideration of the extraordinary success of the hula hoop; Aristophanes is the fellow for that job. Or Shaw. Or Moliere. Or Plautus. Or Dickens. Or Gogol. Or. . . At this point, you can append your own list.
And what list, we wonder, would Scott Taylor append?
Business is not new. Only its techniques and details are new, continually new, which is to say that they are always in the act of disappearing. Our eyes, trapped in the here and now, can not behold the certain withdrawal of the silicon chip and the MBA into that "real" world where the hula hoop now resides. If the ‘study' of business is in fact the accumulation of details and the acquisition of techniques, it is not an education but an apprenticeship, which would far better be conducted by those who do business. Such an enterprise, furthermore, can make no just claim on the public. There is no more justice in forcing taxpayers to provide accountants for those businesses that need accountants than in forcing them to provide rubber cement for those that need rubber cement.
And that is exactly the kind of proposition that would be always under scrutiny if the "study" of business were truly pertinent to education. The least and indivisible appearance of business, the molecule of the matter, is a transaction between one person and another. That engagement of persons is universal and essential; convertible debentures and diversification are particular and accidental. A transaction between one person and another is also the molecule of polities. Of society. Of war, and peace. Of all institutions that exist because persons exist.
What shall we say of a man who claims understanding of some human institution, but who holds, as businessists routinely do, that there is no practical use but only "acculturation" in the study of history, literature, and philosophy, the disciplined considerations of all that is universal and essential in the institution he claims to understand? And, out of what bizarre idea of "the real" would we imagine that the hula hoop--or the convertible debenture--or even money--is "real" in some way that can not he equaled by thoughtful account and consideration of persons and deeds, the molecule of the only meaning we can see?
So, while there are many reasons to kick these carpetbagging businessists out of school, we'll say only that they don't understand business, and they're not in touch with The Real World.
The Goodness of Good English
The Society for the Advancement of Good English is scolding... Richardson Vicks, Inc. ... runner-up in SAGE's 1984 Dunce Cap of the Year race for its ... slogan: "Nobody knows wood as good." The top dishonoree: The Nashville Songwriters Association ... for its "persistent display of low standards of literacy in song titles and lyrics."
SAGE's Award of Merit for 1984 went to Richard Mitchell, publisher of The Underground Grammarian.
USA Today, Dec. 28, 1984
WHAT a problem. We are pleased and honored not only to be cited for special merit but even to be known to the Society for the Advancement of Good English. Our subscribers put us in mind of McNamara's Band--the finest in the land, without a doubt, but just as surely, very few in number.
But we are a bit troubled that we are put on the top rung of a ladder whose bottom rung is occupied by the Nashville Songwriters Association. It is not that we shrink from any association, even to our credit, with such folk; it is rather that we find no logic in that association. It is as though the apple were to be praised for being a wholesome and nourishing food, and the screwdriver condemned as a particularly noxious one.
Hearing that charge, even the most fervid partisan of food might be led to consider certain rarely noticed demerits of the apple--its handle, for example, is poorly fastened--and we are led to wonder what "goodness" it is in us that might be deemed the very opposite of some "badness" in the work of the Nashville songwriters.
We must reason without evidence. The only Nashvillish song we've ever heard of--and it may not exist--is "I Got Tears in My Ears from Lyin' on My Pillow and Cryin' over You." But we know the style, the persistent display cited by SAGE, for it is neither new nor peculiar to Nashville. It will not be impertinent, therefore, to ask this: Would some badness have been driven out and replaced by goodness if only Gershwin had written, "Bess, You Are My Woman Now," and "It Isn't Necessarily So"?
We do believe that "country and western" lyrics are full of gaucheries, vulgarisms, double negatives, failures of agreement, split infinitives, and all other possible outrages against standard English. But why is that so? Is there in such texts some intention to deceive, some pretense to substance where there is none? Do those Nashville songwriters demand respect and influence as persons of special knowledge and understanding, only to reveal, in their compositions, that they are ignorant and irrational? Have they claimed superior moral and social sensibilities, by which virtues they have become fit mentors of others, only to display, in their words, sentiments and beliefs quite contrary to those they profess? Would we be able to discover and demonstrate in the Nashville lyricists what we do discover and demonstrate so regularly in "professionals" who do not confine themselves to double negatives: mendacity, charlatanism, pomposity, evasiveness, manipulativeness, and, not rarely, an irrationality so pronounced that it is hardly to be told from madness?
If the Nashville songwriters make their ways in the world by providing pleasure to any who will buy it, and without consideration of any principle by which to discover whether or not they should provide that pleasure to any who will buy it, they are merely whores, and not to be distinguished in principle, but only in detail, from any others of that numerous company. But their whoring is not in their English. Should there arise among us a large group of people who would liberally enrich those songwriters whose lyrics were fashioned of the most impeccably grammatical English, we can be sure that many fine stylists would also appear among us, and that Fowler and the Harbrace Handbook would be selling well, even in Nashville. And, in the time of that unlikely fad, there would be no more justice or logic in honoring the High Style Songwriters for the "goodness" of their English than there is now in condemning the Nashville songwriters for the "badness" of theirs. In either party, those who crank it out are whores, and the level of their English doesn't matter. In either party, those who seek to disclose, within the severe constraints of their craft, some small glimmering of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, so that those who come seeking only pleasure are surprised by joy and made better, those precious few are artists. And the level of their English doesn't matter. As to which are which, judgment can be made not by association, but only case by case, and slowly.
In studying the texts that provide our substance, we give very little attention to what is wrong, and much to what is false. We are neither injured nor insulted by him who says that he ain't got no dog. It is not likely, even if he happens to be lying, that his "wrongness" is the clue by which we can discover his lying.
We would feel much better about all this if only that award had come from a Society for the Advancement of Correct English. We do prefer that sort, for it almost always provides the best hope of uttering clear truth, but also, as grammar enthusiasts would do well to remember, the best hope of contriving a cunning lie.
There is no goodness or badness in English. Goodness and badness are in the deeds of persons. The proper study of mankind is man, and English is an interesting thing he does--well or ill.
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Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;