Volume Nine, Number One............February 1985

Comes the Revolution?

Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.

THOSE are the words of John Alexander Smith, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford. When he spoke them, in 1914, to the equivalent of an entering freshman class, he neither outraged nor astonished his hearers. It was little more than common wisdom in those clays.

But a terrible wind out of the East was soon to blow away like smoke most of Professor Smith's youthful hearers, and from that day to this, we do suspect, no entering class, on either side of the water, has been told that simple secret. If there be professors, or presidents, or Secretaries of Education, who know that secret still, they speak of it quietly, only among close friends. To students, and to the world, they speak of appreciation and awareness, of marketable skills and problem-solving, of self-expression and self-esteem, of effective communication, of meeting the needs of an increasingly pluralistic society, and, of course, of competing with those highly "educated'" Japanese.

Now is the season when excellence reports, mission statements, and proposals for improvement lie scattered on the land as thick as fallen leaves in Vallombrosa. Many, we have read. Countless others, we will never see. We are not curious. We know them already, we know them all. Details, like apples, never fall far from the tree; they are always the fruit of principles. And such are the principles of our thoroughly institutionalized educationism, that its principals will not speak, may not speak, and, usually, can not speak the simple truth.

Imagine now that there exists an educated superintendent of schools, and that the disaffected parents of his district have demanded that he devise and institute a bold, innovative master-plan for the achievement of excellence through quality education, whatever they imagine that they suppose they mean by those trendy slogans, more or less. Now, in testy protest met and assembled, they are given answer in what will prove to be the last official act of the only educated "educator" in America.

Good people, he says, how happy I am to have not only your permission but even your command to do not what is customary or expedient or politic, but only what is right. For I must suppose that "excellence" can come only from the right, and never from the wrong.

We are all agreed, it seems, that the schooling of our children is less than excellent, which is also to say, since the "schooling" flourishes quite lustily indeed, always spending and always getting, that the schooling of our children seems rarely to provide what we would like to think of as the education of our children. Can it be that our schooling falls short because its fundamental ideas and principles are right, but not sufficiently funded? Or can it be that those deepest theories and beliefs are wrong? Unless I can answer those questions, how can I even begin the work that you have so rightly required of me?

Much will depend, therefore--can we not say that all will depend?--on the powers of my mind. I will have to reconsider every premise of schooling, and test for logic and coherence the theories that have made our practice. My conclusions will be worthless if they are declarations of what I suppose in contrast to what some others suppose, leaving you to suppose that one supposition may be the better. I must report to you, as our geometry books say, quod est demonstrandum, what can be shown, not guessed or supposed, but shown. To the powers of my mind, therefore, I must bring the aid of strict self-government, for I must dam up in myself the babbling springs of supposing. I must put aside my habitual obedience to tradition and convention. My dearest notions and untestable beliefs I must detect and rigorously exclude from my considerations. My very intentions must be censored. I can not do this work as a time-serving bureaucrat who is justifying the existence of his job by filling up some pages, or as a public official who needs the approval of the public, or as an habitual innovator patching the leaks in last year's innovation, or as a lobbyist convinced that our salvation lies in the hands of his faction, or as a reformer who promises paradise when everyone else is as wise and virtuous as he. Of all of those, there are legions; their works are innumerable. But for that work you have asked of me, there is no one appointed in the entire organizational table of American educationism. It is a work to be done only by a person whose only cause is to find the truth, and whose only reward is to find the truth.

Nevertheless, I will do it. And all of you, of course, so ardent in pursuit of excellence, will thoroughly check my work, bringing to your study all the powers and disciplines that I will bring to mine. Your high resolve assures, and warns, me that you do not intend, yet again, to accept on faith the word of one who claims to he an "expert" in the work of the mind, the work that any mind, given, perhaps, some preparation and practice, can readily do for itself.

To put it bluntly, and most unsuperintendently, it will be my work to discover whether the theorists of our educationism are talking rot, and it will be your work to discover whether I am talking rot. If we are to have excellence, nothing less will do.

There is, however, something more that would do even better. It is, after all, for the good of the children that we undertake this work. It we don't know how to detect rot, we will not do them any good. The ability which enables us to do good must itself be good, and should it lead us to understand "excellence," shall we not find it excellent? How better, then, could we serve our children than by giving them that ability? Thus, as our long labor goes on, as I am detecting rot in what the theorists say, and as you are detecting rot in what I say, our children could be quickly learning to detect rot in what we all say, and in what their teachers and awareness facilitators say, in what the books and newspapers say, what the politicians and preachers say, what the laws and customs say. Starting so young, they might even learn to do the one thing most needed for decent and thoughtful life: to detect the rot in what they themselves may say.

What decent and thoughtful parents you are to want such a blessing for your children, and what a contemptible churl I would be to withhold my aid and abettance. All we have to do is to repudiate utterly and dutifully disobey countless thousands of laws, regulations, and guidelines now laid upon us by municipal, county, state, and federal governments, and all of their innumerable agencies. All we have to do is reject every cent of their money, to which the rot is tied, and to withhold from them every cent of ours, which we will dedicate to an enterprise that is much, much smaller and far, far greater than anything the behavior modifiers have dreamed. In short, all we need do is to secede.

I must now reveal a secret that I kept too long. The work you ask of me, I have already done. I have been at it for years. Chapter and verse, I have studied and analyzed the sayings of the persuaders and manipulators who have made our schooling what it is. I have seen their mindless dependence on the undefined and the undefinable, their superstitious recitations of unexamined beliefs and unexaminable slogans, and, probably most important, the way of the mind that is in them and that they foster in others, that convenient "logic" in which the unverifiable and the unfalsifiable, like a couple of one-legged drunks, grasp and clutch each other here and there, and manage at last to lurch around a bit.

Now I can tell you, and, if you will read, I can show you: those people are talking rot. How shall talkers of rot teach our children to recognize rot? Why would they want to?

But we want to, don't we? And we can. It is much, much easier than the clarification of personal values in the affective domain, or the enhancement of transpersonal awareness through intercultural appreciation. So let us begin. First thing tomorrow?

Poor fellow. Tomorrow his office will be empty, and a search committee will be formed to find someone who appreciates the importance of relating to others and writing letters of application for jobs. The parents, after all, were themselves schooled by the same schoolers. They believe the rot, for they were never shown how--and how easily--it can be detected. In all the "excellence" outcry, there is only the demand that the schoolers do "better" those things that they say they want to do.

In the entire apparat of educationism, there seems to be no one who will, or can, detect the rot and show it.

There will be no revolution. Too risky. "Educator" is a damn fine job. We do have to be practical, you know.

The King of America

He who hath a trade, hath an estate

Benjamin Franklin

The Associated Press

SHAMOKIN, Pa. -- A plaque etched with a lesser-known Benjamin Franklin quotation was removed from a wall at a vocational school here at the order of the state civil rights coordinator, who said the slogan's use of "he" was sexist. The official, Glenn Dean Davis, was inspecting the Northumberland County Vocational-Technical School during the summer when he noticed the plaque, which reads, "He who hath a trade, hath an estate," said school director James Buggy.

Davis contended the use of "he" discriminated against women and the school removed it, Buggy said.

If concepts are not clear, words do not fit. If words do not fit, the day's work cannot be accomplished, morals and art do not flourish. If morals and art do not flourish, punishments are not just. If punishments are not just, the people do not know where to put hand or foot.

Confucius, Analects, XIII, 3

WHEN Ben Franklin came forth from Independence Hall, an old tale tells, he was met on the steps by an old woman who asked, "What are we to have, Mr. Franklin, a republic or a king?" "A republic," he replied, "if you can keep it." It was an answer perfectly typical of his most characteristic frame of mind, good cheer salted with skepticism.

He would not be astonished, therefore, to learn that the Americans had not, after all, been able to keep their republic, and had chosen instead to put their lives, liberties, and even their pursuits, into the keeping of a very nice king. Nevertheless, we would not like to have to explain to Mr. Franklin how that came to happen. He might ask embarrassing questions. But, armed as we now are with exemplary tidings from Shamokin, we would be happy indeed to elucidate for the elderly gent his doubtless unwitting, and surely ex post facto, but nevertheless egregious, transgression against the wise and kindly laws of our sovereign.

No man at any time hath seen the King of America, which is to say, of course, lest compassion cease among us, that no man, or woman, or child of either sex, born or unborn, hath at any time seen the King of America, or the Queen of America, as we would surely call him if he were the Queen of America, lest some little girl chance upon these words and suppose herself debarred, or even deemed debarred, from high and comfortable office in the land of opportunity, and suffer thus the admittedly unknowable but surely dreadful consequences of not feeling about herself exactly as she ought to feel if we are to remain a great nation with liberty and justice for all, and even, someday, be just like the Japanese, only more so.

You see, Ben, it can be done. It's partly a matter of prose style. With a little more thought and diligence, informed, to be sure, by an enhanced social awareness, you too could have written well, rather than just blurting out, in such childish little words, what is, after all, nothing more significant than one man's personal opinion, and a man, furthermore, who is known actually to have called fools "fools," and knaves "knaves." That's discrimination. The trick is in the language, Ben, which is why it doesn't matter at all that no one has ever seen him. He is the King of our language, and thus the King of our minds. We know him quite as well as we need to, and entirely by hearsay. Whatever he may say, we will hear.

He says, for instance, that one of his officers, a certain Glen Dean Davis, is a civil rights coordinator. We hear. And we obey, but not, as you might imagine, out of servility, oh no, but out of our enhanced perceptions of social responsibility. We are not a people who would leave our civil rights to languish uncoordinated. Nor would we ask, as you seem about to ask, What trade hath he, who is a "civil rights coordinator"? What is done when his "work" is done, what made or mended, what worth increased or usefulness enlarged? Could he set up shop for himself, making prudent provision for all of his progeny not only of substance, but of its means, the life of decent industry and seemly self-reliance that any free man would prefer to bounden service, and that any good father would want to bequeath to his sons? Should he hang out his shingle above his own door, would his custom be great, clients aplenty in pressing need of civil rights coordination, or can he do his "work" only at the bidding and pleasure of your King, whose pleasure, in another season, may change, leaving his faithful servant to live by a "trade" that is of no use at all to anyone but the King?

No more do we wonder, What are these "civil" rights? How are they to be distinguished from other kinds of rights? Can there be kinds of rights at all? Whose right to what is this man coordinating, whatever that might mean, when he removes some words from public view? Are there some words that your King would not have his subjects read, that he sends his servants far and wide to sniff them out? If there were other servants of your King, all tradeless men who could not live except the King employ them, and set to seek out witches, would witches not multiply marvelously among you?

Such questions, Ben, we know better than to ask. They have nothing to with the real necessities of real life in a real democracy. They are nothing but language questions. Just talk. And what would come of weighing them? More talk. That's all. We are a nation of doers, Ben. We are not going to sit around and leave undone the vital work of the coordination of our civil rights just because we don't happen to know what that means. We do have to be practical, you know. It is far better to set people free than to ponder, in unproductive idleness, the meaning of freedom, which can end in nothing more profitable than a collection of words. Besides, you can be very sure that, insofar as we need to know them, the meanings of such technical terms as "civil rights coordination" and "freedom" have already been dealt with in countless official documents prepared by official servants of our King, and in the official language of our King, which, you might take note, scrupulously avoids the error of any form of discrimination. Would you not, to know the work of the mason, have gone to the mason? Who better, then, to tell us the work of civil rights coordination than those who do it? Who better to tell us about freedom than those who are paid to provide it?

Reflect for a moment, Ben, on Confucius, who was, as you must by now understand, an unmitigated discriminator. And a sexist. A disciple once put to him this question: What would be the first thing you would if you were suddenly handed the reigns of government? To that, the wily heathen replied that he would first settle down to a good long bout of the "clarification of concepts." The disciple, expecting something practical, was astonished, but we are not. We know all too well the ways of these elitists.

Consider, now, the inevitable consequences of that seemingly innocent proposal, and consider, too, how readily we would all be taken in by that cunning absolutist if we fell into the habit of considering seriously questions like those you are eager to ask. If we did that, our concepts might become clear. If our concepts were clear, our words would fit, and we would give a civil rights coordinator quite another name. His function, too, and the "civil rights" themselves, we would come to designate in terms other than official. Such looseness of speech must inevitably make thousands of the servants of the King, and their incessant labors in our behalf, seem little short of ludicrous, thus undermining our faith in Democracy.

And there's even worse. If our words were to fit, the day's work would get done. When the carpenter has built the house, the house is built; when Civil Rights Coordinator Glen Dean Davis has prudently hidden from the eyes of the exquisitely sensitive your unfeeling slur, no house is built. All of the work is still to be done. Making the world a better place for the greater good of the greater number may not be what you so quaintly call "a trade," but if you can get paid for doing it, it makes one hell of a good job.

And if such jobs were not done for us by servants of our King, Ben, we would be left to ourselves to consider what is right and just, and should we want to live according to our considerations, we would actually have to choose to do so. And should we form the habit of such choosing, of distinguishing the better from the worse, following the better, fleeing the worse, which is just another way of discrimination, there would soon break forth among us a calamitous plague of morals and art. Morals and art are just what we can expect from people who imagine that they can choose between the better and the worse, bestowing esteem only on the estimable, and denying tolerance to the intolerable. If such people abounded among us, could we remain the land of opportunity? How could the sellers sell, the convincers convince, the promoters promote? Are they not sellers, convincers, promoters, all of those tradeless detectors of better and worse in other people? Why should they suffer the cruel and unusual punishment of justice, ridicule, disregard, and unmitigated joblessness? Such would surely be their lot in a land where it is supposed that people can read your words for themselves, and consider for themselves, one by one, whether they are offended, and also supposed that whosoever is offended can find remedy both sufficient and salutary in saying, and thus in learning: Keep your advice, Mr. Franklin. I will figure out for myself, thank you, how best to live in this world, to what work I will put my hand, and on what path to put my foot. I will even decide for myself, Sir, where to put my thumb, which is, just now, as I wish you could see, firmly pressed to the tip of my nose.

And that, Ben, is exactly the sort of anti-social behavior that would afflict us as the result of the clarification of our concepts and the consequent loss of all of our coordinators. Long live the King, Ben, long live the King!

The Underground

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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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