Volume Nine, Number Five............September 1985

Straws in an Ill Wind

THIS issue is devoted entirely to one theme, but then, come to think of it, so is every issue. It is Literacy, by which we mean some thing very different from what is meant in the streets and in the schools, which are nothing more than training grounds for the streets.

The climate of the mind in which we all must live is not dictated by a hard reality to which we must bend, as flight through the air is dictated by the laws of Nature. Literacy is not, like gravity, just what it is. It is what we decide that it should be. If we decide that literacy is something trivial and shabby, then the mind's work in us will rise, at best, to the trivial and shabby.

But that is at best. We have done the worst. We have decided that literacy is one end of an elementary mental event that we call communication, something to do with filling out forms and figuring out the instructions for the filling out of forms, and to that level of shabbiness and triviality, somehow or other, we have not been able to rise.

Is there some hope that if we make of literacy something far higher and finer, we will at least rise to the reading of instructions and the filling out of forms? If we understand literacy not only as the ability to recognize the sentence that is preposterous, but the power by which the mind is kept in tune and the reason in frame, will eleven percent of Americans someday be able to notice circular argument and non sequitur, and thus destroy politics as we know it? If we understand literacy as the grasp of metaphor and analogy, an alertness to what is implicit in the explicit, will it bring an end to the Great Fundamentalisms of Educationism and Religiosity?

Yes. But that won't happen so long as we believe that schoolers know what literacy should be. To dispel that belief, we'll just tell you what they say.

A Sharing Time on the Rug

"Common sense suggests some connecting links between reading and writing," says Charles Chew, chief of the Bureau of English and Reading Education in the New York State Department of Education. "Yet, for at least the last thirty years, reading and writing have not been connected."

SELF-ESTEEM, as any educationist will tell you, is the highest goal of schooling. And that explains educationism's loyal devotion to what is surely the greatest support of self-esteem. Sheer ignorance. There is no stronger armor for fools.

The quotation is from a report in the New York Times on one more of educationism's already uncountable inventions of the wheel. Now, from the people who told us that children who spend more time in study will actually learn more, and that those who memorize will remember more, we have the stunning announcement that reading and writing have "connecting links."

The article is by Fred Hechinger, in whom we do occasionally suspect a bit of irony. He has a way of quoting, with a perfectly straight face, the silly words of people with silly titles, as would serve them bloody right. But we wish that he would ask some questions.

Well, Mr. Chew, if all that is nothing but "common sense," who, exactly, are the people to whom you must be referring in that oblique passive, when you say that "reading and writing have not been connected"? That can only mean that somebody refrained from connecting them, in spite of what must have been common sense for the last thirty years, too. Oh, by the way, just how long have you been the "chief" of this Bureau of English and Reading Education? And were you, for a while, before your enchiefment, one of the Indians in this tribe?

But the New York Times just doesn't work that way. It may have something to do with what isn't fit to print.

Whether fortunately or not, we have never been able to decide, but it is true that every time the educationists invent the wheel, they proceed at once to invent the broken axle. Now, having noticed that reading and writing have some "connecting links," they have also discovered--oh joy!--that such details as grammar and spelling do not require all that painstaking attention that teachers have been giving them.

One teacher in Maine, breaking ground with the new educationist manual on the startling connection between reading and writing, which is called, of course, Breaking Ground, has made of her classroom "a combination of literary analysis and gossip." Another, teaching second-graders in Calgary, Alberta, lets the kiddies "get their ideas across in ‘invented' spelling." "Had I stressed spelling and mechanics," she says, as one of the contributors to Breaking Ground, "I wouldn't have observed the same high quality of ideas."

Well, who are we to say? It may in fact be true that, from where the educationist sits, the ideas of second-graders are worth a thousand "kats."

A first-grade teacher in Pennsylvania describes her ground-breaking thus:

When the children began writing, I moved among them, listening to their pieces, and responded with encouraging comments. We concluded each day's writing with a sharing time on the rug, in which two or three children presented their work to the entire group and received responses.

How sweet. And how expectable. No matter what wheel they rediscover, the schoolers will never let it roll, but only spin. Whenever they sniff the least hint that the mind's life is inner and private, it's right back to the old rug. Whenever they are reminded, however faintly, that thoughtful understanding is and can be only the work of a person, they arrange the desks in a circle and launch a rap-session, lest anyone suppose that he can work his own mind by himself, and discover, without the consent of "society," what he thinks.

We are not deceived into the belief that little children have incisive and illuminating ideas. But we are no more deceived into the belief that children who have been trained to assume that the understanding of ideas requires no more than the corporate deliberation of the utterly uninformed will grow up to think for themselves.

There is, not only in the schools, but in the teacher academies as well, an unremitting, if all unwitting, conspiracy against solitude. In solitude only can the worth of reading and writing be discovered. So it is that reading and writing, to say nothing of their recently discovered connections, have been not simply neglected, but, to be more precise, distorted by schoolers.

In reading and writing, in literacy, which is more than reading and writing added up together, they care only for what comes out of the reader or the writer, which is subject to collective assessment and adjustment, and not at all for what takes place in the reader or writer, which is the important goal of either enterprise, and can be, and often should be, hidden from the world.

Writers do not write for the sake of passing on information, although they may well do that, but for the sake of discovering some truth. Readers do not read for the sake of receiving some information, although they may, but for the sake of discovering some truth.

In this respect, the world of school is no different from the worlds of hotel management or waste disposal. All they want is some information; they neither write nor read. They just communicate. That sort of thing can be done on a rug.

Leaflets for the Masses

Sure I stole. Why not? Where I grew up you had to steal to eat. Then you had to steal to tip. Lots of guys stole fifteen percent, but I always stole twenty, which made me a big favorite among the waiters. On the way home from a heist, I'd steal some pajamas to sleep in. Or if it was a hot night, I'd steal underwear. It was a way of life. I had a bad upbringing, you might say. My dad was always on the run from the cops, and I never saw him out of disguise ‘til I was twenty-two. For years, I thought he was a short, bearded man with dark glasses and a limp; actually, he was tall and blond and resembled Lindbergh. He was a professional bank robber, but sixty-five was the mandatory retirement age, so he had to get out. Spent his last few years in mail fraud, but the postal rates went up and he lost everything.

HALF a century ago, in what we suppose education's palmy times, and among students at Cambridge University, whom we sup pose a vanished elite, I. A. Richards performed a simple test with devastating results. He asked the students to write brief commentaries on little readings, and discovered the principle upon which our understanding of literacy ought to be built: If reading is understood as a skill that goes beyond the ability to receive communication, then there is al most no one who can read. Richards' evidence and conclusions can be found in his Practical Criticism, a good read.

More recently, Alan Powers, who teaches English at Bristol Community College, in Fall River, repeated that experiment, to show, as we suspect that he suspected, that nothing had changed. The only important difference was that Powers' students brought to their "understandings" of the test passage (cited, in part, above) their own supply of preconceptions and social beliefs, through which they, just like undergraduates at Cambridge, could not see the text.

In schools, there is an easy way to test whether students can comprehend that passage. We can see it now:

1. Which did the narrator steal?

a) socks

b) underwear

c) dark glasses

d) waiters' tips

e) none of the above

After six or seven of those, there would be the "thought" questions: How would you feel if your father were forced into retirement even though perfectly able to successfully maximize his potential through his chosen profession?

The passage is, as many of you will have recognized, from "Confessions of a Burglar," by Woody Allen. It is also, as every single one of you will have recognized--we know our readers--funny. But Powers' students did not notice that. Far from it, they thought it sad, a sorrowful revelation of a society that forces innocent boys into crime. Here is a sampling of their understandings:

…a tough, somewhat smart person. I get the impression he was raised in New York. Back in the early fifties when people had to steal to get by.

I think the story is very sad. That a person would have to steal pajamas or underwear so they could have something to sleep in. I'm sure it's like this for many people... brought into this world with bad misfortune.

It's hard for me to believe that his father was a professional bank robber. I never knew that they had to retire at a certain age.

The person writing this seems to be a real weasel. What really convinces me that he's a punk is that he always steals petty little things. I mean if you're going to go down the crooked road at all either go all the way or not at all.

Enough. It would make a stone weep. Just think: Someone has said, and said with all the weight of officialdom and "professionalism," that these unhappy children can read. They are not tykes. They are college students. And someone with a license has measured their "comprehension" and found it fine. But they can not read at all. Not at all. What they can do is exactly what they have been taught to do-the pseudo-reading of the schools. They can eyeball the text with the intention of recognizing vocabulary and getting the gist of it. Beyond that, they can wander not into the piece, but out of it, into the soupy social notions of the affective domain, buttressed, as they must be, by collective ignorance of the sort that understands the early fifties as a time when people had to steal in order to get by.

There is simply no important, rational definition of "reading" by which those poor children can be said to have "read" that passage. None. But there is, of course, a definition that serves somebody else's purposes.

Which brings us to Jonathan Kozol.

We like his work, although we think him a bit too meek and gentle a critic. For instance, in Illiterate America, his latest book, he guesses that about forty percent of American adults are "incapable of reading." (We quote from Neil Postman's review in The Manchester Guardian.) Over-optimistic, but no matter. The important question is still, Of reading what are they incapable?

Kozol is concerned with far more important things than the filling Out of forms and the construing of instructions, although he does not overlook those little problems. Rather, while he does not put it exactly that way, he is more interested in the general inability to read and understand political platforms, in which context "understand" seems to be another word for "believe," provided, of course, that it is the true political platform, and not the other one. When he says, therefore, that millions are disenfranchised by illiteracy, he obviously doesn't mean that they can not vote, but only that they can not understand why to vote one way rather than the other. He does not dream our dream, which is that truly understanding people would refrain entirely from choosing between evils of supposedly different magnitude. Kozol does dream, however, of a "national" solution to the literacy problem, a government policy bigger and better than current government policy.

(Whatever else can be said of Kozol, he does make the one best possible suggestion as to what to do about illiteracy. Stop whining and teach someone to read. Do it now.)

Which brings us to the work of a lady who has recently, although she doesn't know it, joined us as another unpaid staff member. All she does is send us copies of her own works, thoughtful and illuminating, too, in order to show us where we are wrong. Good stuff. We steal from it.

One of her recent pieces is a hilarious review of a school geography text, in which students are informed that "the oceans supply the earth with a steady source of water, which seems to be necessary to support life." But her most telling observations are of the fact that this text, like so many used in schools, seems rather a pretext, a "teaching" of something other than geography. After a brief description of South and Central America, for instance, the book suggests that the "geography teacher" ask the students what they would do to stamp out poverty in those sad regions of Earth. Since no one, not even a textbook maker, can imagine that some child will come up with exactly the right answer, the only purpose of such a non-academic diversion must be recruitment for the Children's Crusade against Cardinals and Colonels, and also banana companies.

Elsewhere in the text, the teacher, who is presumed as little interested in geography as the students, is told that "this would be a good time to discuss with the class how little of the world's area our country occupies but how much of the world's resources we consume." As to whether there is also a good time to discuss how much of the world's nutrition we grow in so little of the world's area, the text is silent.

Why they do such things, we can not fathom. Educationists are forever weeping, as publicly as possible, over every evil but one on the face of Earth. It is as though they wanted us all to believe that they could, of course, have been movers and shakers, since they know best how to move and shake, but that they humbly chose to serve, only to discover that the movers and shakers consider them nothing but servants. They seem to suppose that children are somehow improved by being brought to weep along with them.

But we do know how they manage to do such things. They themselves provide the shabby non-literacy that makes it possible to get away with that sort of "teaching." And from an induced sadness about poverty in South America, the path is short and straight to that sort of "reading" that looks not at meaning but at some imagined psychological or sociological force out of which a writer writes. To come away from Jane Austin with a raised consciousness as to the sorry plight of women is no less silly than to read Woody Allen as an unwitting witness to "bad misfortune."

Every member of our staff liked Reds. Perhaps we only imagine it, but it does seem that radical reformism has, in the past, often been lively and thoughtful, and productive, if of little else, of some awakened minds. Postman's review, for instance, refers to the fact that Common Sense, within a year of publication, had sold half a million copies, equivalent to twenty-four million in today's population. And early in this century, Little Blue Books (who remembers?) proved that "the workers" both could and would seek understanding from Emerson and Marcus Aurelius as readily as from Engels and Spencer.

In our time and place, the largest and most visible reform movement is government schooling itself, which seeks the reform of every institution except itself. It does not take its chances in the marketplace of the mind, standing on street corners and handing out leaflets for the masses. It shows flashcards, and promotes the notion that understanding is the result of "exposure" to the right flashcards, rather than the result of the sustained and orderly thoughtfulness that comes of literacy. Educationists simply don't need any readers.

Theirs is a reform movement that puts its hopes not in wider-spread and better understandings, not in seeking the consent of thinking adults, but in the inculcation, in children, of feelings, which seem to need no judging so long as they are "sincere," and which are very easily aroused in children of any age. To such a reform movement, the remarkable general literacy on which Paine could depend would be quick death. And that is why the schools will not teach true reading.

Nor could they. By now, the educationists have made a mass of themselves, and a mass that has never read anything but its own leaflets, written at the right grade-level, and printed large.

Brief Notes

Shame at Last

WE once did a little piece suggesting that schoolteachers, like anyone else, might be better at their work if, rather than esteeming themselves all the time and for everything, they would consider the possibility of being just a little bit ashamed of some of what they do. All the rest of us are, as is right. Caught a lot of flack. Nevertheless, one Mary Futrell, leader of the land's biggest teacher's union, has agreed at least to consider shame. Like this:

Many cannot read a classified ad or the warning on a bottle of medicine. In a great democracy, this educational underclass is nothing but a badge of shame.

Wow. A badge of shame. How true. But it's a funny thing. We have been looking all over for the badge of shame, which ought to be a pretty big one in a great democracy like this, but we can't seem to find anyone wearing it. Maybe it's something like the E. F. Hutton thing--oodles of malefaction, but not a single malefactor to be found.

THE summer months have brought in a surprising number of new subscribers. We can't figure it out. We more or less agree with Reynolds Price, who guesses that, leaving aside guides to real-estate investment, sex and diet how-to's, and the memoirs of whores of all sorts, there are about three thousand people in the land who read books. We thought we already had a good share of them on our mailing list, and we're surprised and delighted to find a few more.

Many of them, however, ask for lots of back issues. Some want a complete set. We don't have a complete set. But we do send whatever issues we still have to anyone who asks. There is no charge, but we would be happy if you send some stamps.

We urge new readers who want to see old pieces to notice the existence of The Leaning Tower of Babel, which is a collection of articles from roughly the first seven years of this sheet. It is published by Little, Brown, and, no matter what they tell you in the bookstore, it remains in print.

We plan also a reprinting of a few more recent pieces. We'll let you know.

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.

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