The Dawn of Posthistory
Except for American history, which was thought useful as preparation for citizenship, the place of history shrank in the schools. Even in the elementary schools, where earlier generations had studied biography and mythology as basic historical materials, the emphasis shifted to study of the neighborhood, the community, and preliterate peoples...
THOSE are a few words from an essay called "The Precarious State of History," which can be found in American Educator, Spring 85. The author is Diane Ravitch, an active and influential member of a sort of new breed of educationists, whom we have come to think of, although they won't like it a bit, as the New Right. They are discovering that the Old Ideas might indeed be best for the New Education and its goals of participatory democracy and industrial efficiency through mere literacy. Since some of them are readers of THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN, we find them not too bad a bunch.
They do, however, share with the common herd the oft-recited belief that no one ever actually did anything to bring the schools to their present state, but that, well, you know, problems arose, and needs sort of changed, and one thing led to another, and, somehow or other, things happened.
Even in the passage excerpted above, which enumerates some of the consequences of the report, in 1916, of an NEA Committee on Social Studies, Ravitch is careful to add that the report was not, of course, responsible, for its consequences, having "merely reflected the ideas, values, and attitudes of the emerging education profession," a delicate distinction indeed, and one by which people paid for working in their minds are excused for having instead parrotted the cant of popular opinion. But educationists do love to cop a plea, and their training is such that they imagine folly a lesser charge than vice.
Still, we give Ravitch high marks for having mentioned that singular obsession of educationists, the preliterate society. In an earlier time, all children had at least a glimpse of those ancient civilizations that made us what we are and bequeathed to us great and powerful ideas. In these days, they have all watched the Bushmen of the Kalahari making camp as close as possible to a dead giraffe, just as they did when Sophocles was at work on Antigone. Where once even little tykes had some sense of the relation of great events to one another, nowadays as to whether the War of Independence came before or after the Protestant Reformation, college students can only guess; but they do know that, even as we sit here, certain right-minded Polynesians are expressing themselves creatively and enhancing their self-esteem by having their buttocks tattooed.
The mental condition of preliterate people is not hard to imagine. All of their knowing and understanding, and probably even their feeling, must have been induced by collective influence. The wellsprings of their inner life are at once omnipresent and inaccessible, as impalpable as water is to the fishes. Whatever they suppose that they know, even should it change from generation to generation, they have to accept as, simply, that which is known. It can not occur to them that there are such things as propositions to be tested, and even if such a strange thought were to arise in some mind, it would not know how to take the next step, or where to look for instruction. In a preliterate society, there is no publicly available example of the history of an idea, its growth and change, and thus no hint of its future possibilities. The life of the mind is everywhere bounded by the concrete details of experience and suggestion.
It is not enough to say that the wall surrounding the mind in a preliterate society is seamless and impenetrable, for that wall is also utterly invisible. In a literate society, however, the wall of experience and suggestion is broken in many places; there is no stone in it at which some mind has not chiseled. And, as the preliterate mind to which we are all born comes slowly into literacy, it sees first that there is a wall, and later, that it can be knocked down.
Now it is a simple fact that there is no child so dull who can not see that the society in which Sophocles wrote Antigone is better than the one in which the hunters are as inexorably driven as the game they hunt. Thus, if the educationists were to permit some study of history, however simplified, along with their films and slides of desperate people leading meager, narrow lives, they would not so easily engender in children the belief to which they themselves subscribe, or pretend to subscribe. It is nonsense to assert, as they do, that one life is as good as another, one society as good as another, one opinion as good as another, and one idea of the good as good as another. And it is more than nonsense, it is villainy, to celebrate before children the very life from which it is the goal of a true education to release them.
But the "education" of the educationists is well and truly displayed by the Bushmen of the Kalahari. It is made entirely of life skills, hands-on experience, show and tell, learning by doing, environmental awareness, adjustment to the needs of society, no end of problem solving, and of relating to self and others. The Bushmen do not study history; they have none. They need no books; they have learning materials. They do not study to magnify and perfect their powers of language, for the language with which they grow up is sufficient to their needs, a true case of "basic minimum competence." They do not imagine the possibility of independent learning and thinking, for all they need to know, they know. They are content. They all have jobs.
Many of us, of course, are just like them, but alas, not all of us. What is it that bars us from their contentedness and effectiveness, that prevents us from living in the amiable harmony of a people who all think the same thing, who all agree as to the nature of the good life? What but literacy?
It is literacy that brings the poison of discontent into our minds, suggesting that governors and counselors, and even the teachers and facilitators, might be wrong. It is literacy that astonishes us daily, and disturbs our repose, by putting questions we had never thought to ask. By literacy, we hear the voices of our brothers and sisters long dead, who say, to our amazement, what we have never heard, or dreamed to hear.
In the preliterate mind, no voice speaks but the voice of here and now, and in the prehistorical mind, all of life is the here and now, and in the schools, "literacy" is a job skill for the reception of communication, and history is current events and relating to the needs of self and society, just for now.
It is a neatly turned sentence but not a true one, which says that those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it. That is the doom of those who misunderstand history. We do not misunderstand history; to do that you have to know some history. We have entered the age of Posthistory, and of Postliteracy. The schools are working just fine.
How many times have we done this same, boring little story? How many times will we have to do it again?
Here it is: Below you see an essay written for one of those damn minimum competence tests, this time from Maryland. As usual, the test is graded "holistically" by local talent coached by a crew of ex-educationists who have set themselves up in a nifty little business for which no one on the face of the Earth would have any need if it weren't for the damage done by educationists who know that some day they can set themselves up in a nifty little business and reap where they have sown.
The little piece you see below is sent out to people, parents who complain, for example, who wonder what a child must do to receive a perfect score, four points out of a possible four. That's right, a perfect score. What you see is considered perfect. Tops.
On the top of the next column--we hate giving this stuff all this space!-- you will see an imperfect essay, a failing essay, in fact. Some of its strange quality is doubtless due to the fact that the girl who wrote it is a refugee whose native language is Korean.
So there's a big hassle going on in Maryland. Lots of kids deemed talented writers by their teachers--and parents--flunked the test. Nobody knows why, and some flunky in the state's education apparatus slings the usual. "For the lay reader, for persons who have not received the training," he says, "it becomes difficult to make the scoring distinctions." Yeah. The lay reader.
Another state functionary points out that the test must be a great test. After all, why else would the state's language arts supervisors have passed a resolution saying the test is worthwhile?
We don't want to quarrel about which is the better essay. We want to ask a few questions of readers who send in stuff like this.
So what else did you expect? Do you imagine that government educrats and language arts supervisors and minimum competence consultants are a bunch of thoughtful intellectuals? Do you think that they have read lots of books, and can tell at once the prose style of Shaw from that of Sterne? Do you suppose that they are people of good taste?
Have we not shown you, again and again, how they write? What makes you think that they can read any more than they can write? Can you even call them literate, in any important sense?
In the Castle of the Mind, where will you find such people? Standing close by the King, giving wise counsel? Poring over books in the library, seeking out knowledge and forming understanding? Hell, no. You will find them sweeping out the stables and scrubbing pots in the scullery, but not doing a very good job of either.
They are not the first class minds of our culture. Not the second, or even the fifth. They are the Lumpenproletariat of Academe, which is itself not the Castle of the Mind, but a tacky counterfeit. They are lucky beneficiaries of what is probably the biggest government jobs program for the handicapped in history. And, withal, exactly as we deserve for the cowardice and servility out of which we suffer them, they are arrogant and officious, brushing aside their stupidities as misperceptions of "the lay person."
They will not go away. They will not be "reformed." They are quite content with what they do, and those for whom they work are simply jumped-up members of the same confraternity. No one of them has ever been dismissed for mere stupidity. If you want to do some thing about them, go ahead, but you will have to think of it for yourself. We can think of nothing legal to suggest.
The Hand the Rocks the Helm
Writing about sailing, I had always used the word "helmsman" to describe the person who steers a boat. Finally seeing the light with my ninth book, I decided it was time to admit women can steer too, and changed the traditional, exclusive word to "helmsperson, or "steerer." Every alteration, I felt, was doubling the size of my potential readership.
WE never miss the comics page of the Sunday New York Times, and it was there that we came across the Great Moral Awakening of one John Rousmaniere, from whose letter to the editor the passage above is taken. What a great moment in his inner life it must have been when it suddenly dawned on him, not only that women actually can steer, but even that his oblique admission of that hitherto unsuspected power, cleverly encoded in "helmsperson," would increase sales of his ninth book on sailing.
We can hear the excited phone calls now: Hello, Madge, it's Flo. Listen, you've just got to rush right out and buy this great new book, Yet Another Book on Sailing, by John Rousmaniere! You won't believe this, but he actually says, well, not right out, but just as good as, that women can steer. Steer boats! I'm not kidding. Yes, women! I'd lend you my copy, but I think that every women should have her own, don't you? I mean, after all, it's time we took a stand!
But it is only en passant that Rousmaniere make his astonishing discovery. He steers his course toward the undoing of an earlier letter writer who complained that he found ugliness and awkwardness in enlightened words like "helmsperson." Ha! To that feeble whimper, Rousmaniere exclaims, in what must have been a sprightly riposte that somehow got garbled by a sub-editor, "Yet given a choice between the risk of a little phonetic barbarism and the fact of a language that in a few simple nouns and pronouns minimizes (if not oppresses) about half our fellow human beings, who can choose?"
Who indeed? Not we. (Or maybe yes we, depending on what that question might mean.) We do not care to be counted among the uncountable who have minimized (if not oppressed) all female human beings ever born in the whole history of our species by falsely accusing them of the inability to steer a boat. And here and now, in print for all to see, we'd like to take a stand and join in the Great Affirmation, perhaps even doubling our readership thereby, by saying, "Women can steer a boat!"
However, while we would like to do that, if only for the sake of doubling our readership, we won't. We can't. We are ruled, and choose to be ruled, by the motto that we quote not often enough, the words of Ben Johnson: Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre; nor his Reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous. That sentence is preposterous. It is neither true nor false; it is simply without meaning, which must also be said of "Men can steer a boat."
Of making sense, there is one way. Preposterousness knows no limits. Its every appearance must be sniffed out anew, and the ability to smell the preposterous is alone worthy of the name of literacy. Anything less is illiteracy, at best the reception of communication, the recognition of the words. Nevertheless, preposterousness is most likely to appear in certain contexts, and one of those is what is called, and probably being taught in some school at this very moment, Social Thinking.
How sweet its sound, how kind and humanistic. But Social Thinking is in fact, both in and out of schools, a great inculcator of irreversible illiteracy, for it depends largely, and in the schools entirely, we would guess, on the recitation of seemingly amiable propositions of the sort that could not be tested even if the educationists wanted to test them, which they don't.
Consider the Social Thinking of Rousmaniere. One day, he claims, he "sees the light," and finds it "time to admit," as though he had obstinately denied it in the past, that "women can steer too." Wow. It is the sort of statement that seems at first, and here is the great snare of Social Thinking, too obviously true to be worth saying, and certainly indisputable. But around here we think enough of women to suspect that some Madge might find it neither.
Oh really? she might say to Flo. Well, that's nice of him to say, but, to tell the truth, Flo, I can't steer a boat. I know. I tried it for a while, and we kept luffing. You should have heard the kids. I'm sure I could learn, but why bother? And in fact, I'm not the least bit offended when some purely hypothetical steerer of some equally hypothetical boat is called a "helmsman." As long as this fellow isn't talking about me, why should I care? But you know, I think that maybe I do care a little when he does talk about me and gets it wrong. After all, I am included in "women," and I think this guy has lots of brass to shoot off his mouth about what I can and what I can't do, which is, in any case, none of his damned business. So how about you, Flo? Can you steer a boat?
Language is not a person who can think and will and do, any more than "women" is a person who can think and will and do. It is preposterous to imply the presence of mind, will, and action in "women," or in "men," or in Eskimos or football players. It is just as preposterous to imply those powers in language. Pronouns do not minimize persons. Words do not oppress persons. Only persons can minimize or oppress, or praise or condemn, or lie or speak the truth. Such acts are possible only to individuals in whom there is, whether governed or not, the power to choose.
No sane person will find offense in the word "helmsman," whose equivalent was regularly used by plenty of Viking women who knew how to steer a boat. In the history of our species, no man before Rousmaniere has said "helmsman" in order to suggest that women can't steer boats. Nor did any woman imagine such absurdity.
If we can, and do, imagine such absurdity, it is because we are far more superstitious than our ancestors, which is to say that we are Social Thinkers. We imagine the possibility of agency in nonpersonal nonbeings, which is a step or two down from imagining agency in the spirits of the trees and rivers. Where a miscreant might once have had the good sense to blame his misbehavior on the Devil, a supposed person with a will and intentions, he now passes the buck to Society, a nothing, a word, in which neither will nor intention is possible We are deprived where there is no depriver, oppressed where there is no oppressor, and affronted where there is no one who gives a damn whether or not we can steer a boat.
No one who knows any history at all can deny that many women have been subject to men and treated like property or dependent children, or even domestic animals, for most of recorded history on most of the face of the Earth. Shall we now treat them like simpletons, to be cajoled with puny offerings of words like "helmsperson" and "herstory"? Are they imbeciles, that we can con them into buying our books, and anything else we want to sell them, by changing a word here and there? Are they so dim of mind that we must make allowance for the fact that the poor things do in deed suppose that the word "helmsman" is a slur devised by men in order to remind them of their inadequacies? Can we buy them off with a few he/she's?
In "helmsman" there is no contempt, for there is no contemnor. In "helmsperson" there is condescension, and a holier-than-thou condescender. If that is what "women" want, well, maybe the Patriarchs did know something after all.
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Neither can his mind be thought
to be in tune, whose words do jarre;