THE UNDERGROUND
GRAMMARIAN

Volume Nine, Number Six............October 1985

Yet Another Losing Season

In the fight between you and the world, back the world.--Kafka

ONE of our most respected readers has sent in his annual letter of condolence. He says that we seem still to suppose that we can win, but that he knows we can't. He also knows, however, and this is most important, that it doesn't matter.

But we are not out to win. We can't imagine what that would mean. What is there to be won? If there is an enemy, it is nothing but Folly, mindlessness, the allure of the unexamined life. Who overcomes Folly wins all that can be won, and on the only field where that adversary can be brought to battle--in the mind. Who can say to himself, Now, right here, in these very words, I can understand the difference between sense and nonsense, has all that can be had in the fight with Folly.

Many of our most faithful readers do lament from time to time that we have no solutions to offer. That is true. But solutions go with problems, and not merely in a manner of speaking, but in a fixed and logical relationship, and the vast ideological establishment that calls itself Education is not a "problem." It is a fact. It is a human reality, like war or vice. If we can consider it under the name of "educationism," it is only because that is our choice of one particular rather than another, but that particular is only one manifestation of a great universal, which is folly, or, as we often call it, Unreason. It is not a person, but an it that lives in persons, and can not change or be changed without a change in persons.

We are not reformers, who usually seem to us persons who suppose that all would be well if only they could change other persons. We have enough trouble keeping our own minds in order, without trying to change those who seem to have no interest in doing the same for themselves. If we see, in them, the clues by which to order our minds, have they not already served us, as though we had conquered and subjugated them? What further should we require of them?

We think the poet right: Fit work for fools is the betterment of fools. The only fool we can make better is the fool who lives in us, the fool who shoots off his mouth without thinking, who stubbornly recites precepts and slogans, and who supposes that Earth would be fair and all men wise and good, if only we could "do something" about all those fools.

We think Aquinas right, too. In his famous refutation of Siger of Brabant, he provided an indispensable rule of thought, pointing out that he had refuted his opponent not by citing "documents of faith," not simply by asserting B instead of A, but by his opponent's own reasoning and out of his opponent's own premises. If the "reform" of his opponent was his intention, he had an advantage we will never have. The opponent was himself capable of Reason, and given to it, and inwardly able to know it, and honor it, when he saw it.

We can, and do, engage the educationists on their grounds, as Aquinas prescribed. With the words of their own mouths, with their own premises and propositions, we reason, discovering what is there to discover--Absurdity. We have done it again and again. They are not interested. It is not in their set of cultural attitudes, as they would call such imposed limitations of the mind, to work by such processes as validation and refutation. And thus we always find ourselves standing alone on their own grounds. They are not there, where, by the feigned expertise of their language, they pretend to be. They will not "put up," as one officer of the National Education Association has put it, with demands for "docile rationality." And in their absence, to tell the truth, we are not interested. They are not our work.

It is not in their habits of mind, and perhaps not even in their powers of mind, to know that a premise dictates consequences absolutely, and that propositions can indeed, and should, be tested by logical discourse rather than the demands of convenience or the cries of the heart's desire. They are not troubled by contradiction, for Truth is to them just a matter of feeling, or utility, or even of the predilections of social class, and knowledge, which is permanent, they do not distinguish from information, which changes ever. To their grounds, which are simply the grounds of all human thought, the grounds of considered statement and discourse, and of "quietly asking and answering in turn," as Theatatus put it, we can go, but to their dwelling place, the misty Affective Domain, we can not go. We should not go. We will not go. In that land, there are no rules of thought. It is a bad place.

Aquinas would have understood, for it was he who warned us that of all opponents the only one invincible is Ignorance. Argument and analysis will not prevail against our educationists, who have yet to arrive at Education.

Many of our readers do wish that they, if not we, could indeed do something about the crippling mental disorders brought on young children by schooling. They have good reason to wish that; they fear, quite naturally and appropriately, for their own children. Or, sadly deeming the first generation already lost, for their children's children. We do not, because we have no hope for the change of a fact of life, counsel them to despair. We urge them rather to mind their grammar. There is no point in asking the question: What is to be done? That is a buck-passing passive, which implies the possibility of a deed without a doer. The correct question is: What can I do? So ask it.

Someone, Santayana perhaps, has said that the best any philosopher can hope for is to row his own boat, taking, maybe, a few friends along for the ride. That is also the best any teacher can do, the best any parent can do, the best any one of us can do for any other.

You say you are not a philosopher? Piffle. And fie, too. When you bow down to schooling, you present your hind end to education, for the two stand over against each other. It is schooling that pretends to know what a philosopher is, and education that makes one out of any person who pays thoughtful attention to the meaning of deeds and the worth of doing, quietly asking and answering in turn. It is schooling that invents and licenses "experts" in guessing, who find a little truth only when they happen to lift it from poets. It is schooling that devises "disciplines" for the interminable searching out of the obvious, and makes "subjects" out of sentiments.

There is a persistent contagion in the orderly discourse that arises from the practice of thoughtful attention. A single case of it can, in time, infect the world. How better can we then endow, or compliment, each other, than by talking sense together? If some child of yours is taken in by the schoolers, it is perhaps because he hears no other voice. So watch your mind and your mouth, and wash them of precepts and slogans, and study good sense in his company.

Trivial Pursuits

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an important new theory which explains that millions of American students and adults are illiterate not so much because they can't sound out or recognize words (although some can't) but because they don't have the background information they need to understand what they're reading.

ALTHOUGH modern educationism imagines itself the result of "research" and what "the studies have shown," it can itself be shown as the result of what Plato understood as the least and lowest form of all the mind's attempts at understanding the world--Guessing, the only sort of "science" possible to dreamers, children, and madmen.

What you see above is a comment from one Albert Shanker, a teachers' union leader, in which yet another half-baked educationistic guess is dignified as "theory," a distinction that is itself the result of guessing that there is no need to distinguish between a theory and a guess.

Educationists do, however, find it useful to distinguish between guesses that they like and guesses that they don't like. Nowadays, they like especially any guess that will permit them to cook up something easy and call it the Secret of Literacy. The "theory" in question has been put forth by a certain E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a Porseffor of Eglinsh at the University of Virginia, where Jefferson no longer has any influence. Hirsch's convenient notion of literacy permits Shanker to lament the sad but hypothetical case of "a perfectly literate Englishman [who] may not be able to understand . . . the sports page in an American newspaper . . . because he doesn't know enough about baseball, football or basketball."

Hirsch recommends what he calls "Cultural Literacy," which will easily be achieved by telling children the names of various things and people. He provides sample menus--"Water and Mountains," "Patriotic Songs," and, most entertaining, a tiny alphabetical list (up to H) of "Pre-1965 People." For perfectly literate Englishmen, of course, "Baseball, Football, and Basketball" can be added. Even porseffors of Eglinsh might be brought into some modest version of literacy by conning long lists of the terms used in waste disposal and poultry management.

We would admit that a perfectly literate Englishman might well be left utterly uninformed not only by an American sports page but even by a Hittite inscription or an operator's manual for a cyclotron. We would not say, since careful thought demands careful talk, that he does not "understand" those things. That is true, of course, as it is true that an Englishman who is not moving is also not running; but those who would teach runners, unless they have degrees in Phys. Ed., of course, do not spend much time in trying to convince us of their "theory" that running requires movement.

To one who can not receive what is plainly on the surface, literacy is still many steps away, and so too is understanding. To one who can receive what is on the surface, literacy is one step closer, but only one step.

One of the "findings" of Hirsch is, however, absolutely correct, since it is also absolutely obvious. He seems to have noticed that the land is swarming with children who seem never to have heard of anything, although he makes no mention, as far as we know, of the equally obvious fact that some of those children are remarkably long in the tooth. (That's for the Englishman, lest he fail to understand.) Our countless children of all ages know the mighty deeds of neither Alexander Haig nor Alexander the Great. As to David and Goliath, the Princess and the Pea, the name of that ocean over there, and even the first stanza of America the Beautiful, they are uninformed. Everybody knows all that.

And there are many reasons for all that. It is not an unrelated fact, for instance, that every day of the year forty American teen-aged girls who have never heard of anything can nevertheless manage to give birth to thier children, helped along in that endeavor, no doubt, by years of sex education and exercises in the enhancement of self-esteem. The children of those mothers, who make only one tiny entry in a list of children whose parents have never heard of anything, and don't much want to either, may well be under-nourished in more ways than one. That is no exoneration of the schools, however, for it is the schools that made the mothers. And the mothers of the mothers, too.

It is a long time, now, that schooling has been devoted most energetically to the non-academic, the persuasive and manipulative ceremonies of the arousal of feelings and attitudes. It is a simple fact, and one upon which a decent sort of education depends, that the knowledge of facts has the power to change feelings and attitudes, and even the dearest beliefs. Facts do not take sides. If they are to be used in the persuasion and manipulation of feelings, they must be chosen very carefully indeed, and even then there is always the danger that one safe little fact may suggest, if only to one dangerous, alert little mind, some small possibility of another fact that is not so safe.

For those who would inculcate feelings and beliefs, therefore, the safest policy is first, to do whatever is needful to preclude alertness of mind, and then to make as little use of facts as possible, taking care to call them, even the tame ones, "mere" facts. And so they are called by educationists, who "recognize the point of view," as Bloom's Taxonomy phrases it, "that truth and knowledge are only relative and that there are no hard and fast truths which exist for all times and all places."

(Whether to "recognize" a point of view is also, in their minds and language, to espouse it, we have to guess, but other evidence suggests that they mean the latter. In subduing alertness of mind, they start with themselves.)

Now, poor Hirsch is going to emit ("write", of course, is not the apt word) a whole book of hard and fast truths that don't exist, including a list of the names of some Pre-1965 people. We can hardly wait to scrutinize it. ("Read," of course, is not the apt word.) It will "list thousands of words and concepts," Shanker reveals. Just what we need.

And sure to be a hit, too. The school people will buy it because it will leave them free to relate to self and others by saving them the trouble, small as it is, of teaching history, geography, science, literature, foreign languages, and mathematics. (Hirsch will probably list Euclid and Newton along with Tolstoi, Cardinal Richelieu, Evel Knievel, and all of the Marxes from Harpo to Karl). And trivial pursuitists of all sorts will want to keep it right next to the Guiness Book of Records.

All of this is standard practice among the schoolers. First, they guess. Then, out of their guessing, in this case, their old guess that the learning of facts is a sterile exercise in the "mere," they do serious harm to countless children. In time, but far too late for those children, they notice, when outsiders make some noise, that serious harm has been done. (They always put it in the passive.) So they guess again, and take, as they always do, profit from their guessing. A bold, innovative thrust is expensive, but, golly, we do have to pay if we want "quality education." This time.

The next guess is already on the drawing board. "Future lists," Shanker asserts, "will undoubtedly be less male, Anglo-Saxon, and white." He says that not, as mere logic would suggest, out of clairvoyance, but rather out of intention. No matter what the facts, no matter who it is who does what among the ranks of the Post-1985 people, the schoolers will make what lists they please, for whatever purpose they guess to be useful.

And that is why they can never teach reading. The do not care for the worth in the book. They care only for what they want to happen in the reader. Thus it is that Shanker can say, ". . . there's a legitimate need to provide reading materials [not books, of course] to enhance the image of groups." Thus there will be a "legitimate need" for the right kind of list, to replace once and for all the academic disciplines out of which children might hear of something.

But, "until we can change the literate culture," Hirsch admits that his lists will seem biased, having to depend on what is merely so. The italics are ours.

The Epistle to the Civilians

From the emphasis you put on castigating the educationists, I suspect your readership is primarily teachers. I am a civilian. My preference is for the pieces that encourage, explain and demonstrate (usually by horrible examples of its lack) clear thinking. Your piece on the father whose literal reading of the Bible led to the death of his small child was very moving and, in my opinion, a far more telling indictment of the failure of education than recounting grammatical errors.

SHE is absolutely right, the lady from whose letter those words are taken. The piece to which she refers is "Hunger in America." and it is exactly the sort of consideration of the meaning of illiteracy and diseducation that we most want to provide. The mere display of the grammatical errors of the self-styled educated is not any more interesting to us than to her, and we never intend it. It is only when they are clues to meaning and the mind's work that we find passives and participles worth any mention at all.

But she is wrong when she supposes that most of our readers are in the education business. Far from it. Some few there are, and many of them are careful to ask that their issues not be sent to the schools in which they work. If we do seem to castigate educationists, it is a strange sort of castigation, for, with a very few exceptions, they have no idea that they are being castigated. And their betterment is not our aim. For us, they are merely useful examples of the work of the mind done badly. That the work of the mind is done so badly by so many people who claim the title of "educator" is, of course, an interesting irony, but we think it more important that their mindlessness be revealed not as a ludicrous foible in the pompous, but as a poison that is spread wherever their influence is felt--which is everywhere.

In last month's issue, there was a case in point, which point was there set aside for the sake of another. The Chief of Literacy in New York had said that "for at least thirty years, reading and writing have not been connected." We can say one supremely important thing about his saying--It is a lie. Had he spoken for himself--"I have (or have not) connected reading and writing"--he could have told the truth.

His saying is not only a lie; it is an arrogant and presumptuous lie, airily dismissing as of no worth countless legitimate members of "we" who have indeed, for more than thirty years, not failed to connect reading and writing. It is as though all the rest of "we" were not licensed to connect or disconnect in such matters, and that only the word of his "we" counted, the very "we" that got it wrong. Such an exclusion would surely be his defense against the charge of lying. He would say, Oh, I didn't mean other people, I meant we who do know about these things. And that is cause to speculate as to the entertaining possibility the he and his literacy tribe were in fact the only disconnectors of reading and writing. Could be.

That leaves him in an intriguing position. He is either a liar, or a man who, having called himself an expert, and taken his pay accordingly, points out that he was not, after all, an expert then, but has now become one, at our expense. And it is now, therefore, that he deserves the confidence of those who have been paying him all these years, which is to say that in the past, he didn't. Was he a liar in the past, willfully embracing a wrong understanding of literacy, or was he simply a fool, ignorantly embracing a wrong understanding of literacy, and an understanding that, as he now says, is utterly contrary to "common sense"? Is there some third possibility? We can't think of it.

It is not because of his deceptive pronoun or his thoughtless passive that what he says is worth attention, but because those events are visible clues to what is invisible in the mind of the sayer. His "remediation," should he seek it, lies not in avoiding passives, but in understanding his own mind well enough that he notices passives, and considers whether, in this one or that one, he has chosen wisely, with an eye for accuracy and clarity. That is not a "question of style," or of "communication enhancement." It is a concern for Truth. Any one who has the colossal brass to call himself an "educator" had damn well better demonstrate, in his every saying, that his first concern, like his second and third, is for Truth. He who does not care to measure and judge every single word that comes out of his mouth may easily do surgery or design microchips, or show someone how to do surgery or design microchips, or make his way to the top of any bureaucracy, but he is not fit for the betterment of others.

Our kind of concern for language and its meaning has, as far as we can see, nothing in common with the mania of word-buffs or the frenzy of grammatical vigilantes who just can't stand to listen to television weathermen or to players of third base. Nor would we say that we just can't stand to listen to the unwitting mendacity of the schoolers. We can stand it. What such language tells us about third-basemen is of no importance. They do not put themselves forth as leaders of minds. What it tells us about schoolers is of tremendous importance, for it helps us to understand why things are as they are, and we hold it an axiom that to understand is better than not to understand.

That, truly, is our whole endeavor. We are just trying to understand, trying to tell plain sense from rubbish. So we go, of course, to where the rubbish is.

The Underground
Grammarian

R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
Post Office Box 203
Glassboro, New Jersey 08028

Published eight times a year, September to May, except January.
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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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