Volume Ten, Number Two............March 1986

The Real Thing

An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water. --John Gardner

WITH that useful, and unhappily admonitory, observation from one of our more competent philosophers, we observe a minor but interesting anniversary. The issue for March of 1977 also began with that epigraph. We discussed "cut-rate professors, whose degrees have been earned by clerical labors rather than sustained, written scholarship."

At that time, we were thinking only of the fact that the competence expected of a plumber seems to have no counterpart in the work of the professor. Now, having had all these years in which to think about it, we are sorry to have left it at that. Professors are far from alone in the snug shelter of "professionalism," where no charlatan will use the word "charlatan," and where "peers" are usually co-conspirators. As hard as it is to imagine charlatanism in plumbing, it is even harder to imagine that charlatanism in plumbing might long succeed, and that there might arise among us throngs of false plumbers, claiming respect, and gaining wealth and influence, not by the evidence of their valves and pipes, but by their "professional" (and sincere) assertions as to their valves and pipes. In Congress, as in Academe, it is otherwise.

And so, too, in almost all of those callings dignified as the "professions." Should two plumbers, giving testimony in court, disagree as to leaking, one of them would properly be judged either a perjurer or a poor excuse for a plumber. But there seems to be no such thing as a poor excuse for a psychiatrist. Should two psychiatrists disagree, both will retain the rank of "expert." Like the indelible stain of priesthood, such supposed conditions as psychiatristship are held inalienable. Of a bad plumber, other plumbers might accurately--and publicly--say that he is no plumber at all. If there is such a thing as a bad psychiatrist, or a bad professor, however, we are not likely to hear about it.

We are content with this state of affairs, however, because we suppose that the work of the mind, unlike the work of the hand, is hard to test, and that the former is also far more difficult than the later, and deserving of latitude. We can test the work of the plumber by turning the faucet. But how can we test the notions of the psychiatrist, or the educationist, who claims also to be expert in a vast body of "knowledge" of which we are ignorant?

We are brought to these vexing considerations by Coca-Cola. Someone sent us an excerpt from a book called Marketing Warfare, yet another book on the doing of business. Here is a portion of the excerpt we have:

The return of the real thing spells the death of New Coke. We predict that New Coke will be gone in short order.

Perception is stronger than reality. In spite of the fact that tests showed that New Coke tastes better than old coke, customers believe otherwise. After all, original Coke is the real thing. How can anything taste better than the real thing?

Perception affects taste in the same way that it affects all human judgment. The battle takes place in the mind. There are no facts in a human mind. There are only perceptions. The perception is the reality.

Fascinating. What sort of "test" do you suppose that was, by which the testers persuaded the tasters to perceive the real perceptions?

The "we" who predict are two men whose names we do not know, the co-authors of MW. Our informant is a faithful reader who has the good sense of all of our faithful readers, and who would not bother with trivia like the names of chaps in whose minds the battle is going that badly. He does tell us, as he should, that they put on helmets and fatigue jackets and trundled a half-track down Fifth Avenue to a book-signing party at Dalton's.

Do not be misled by their breezy tone. Do not dismiss them as trendy opportunists hoping to cash in on the new cult of the Corporate Gurus. They probably are that, but that is not all they are. They are philosophers. They are lousy philosophers, and not all that good as prophets either, but they are indeed philosophers. They do not, as Socrates advised, "refrain a while from setting up as judges of the highest matters." They presume to inform us as to the locus of "facts," and solemnly proclaim that perception affects taste, thus providing us with the opportunity to meditate on the intriguing suggestion that to taste is not to perceive, but something else, that it may be affected by perception, also to be understood as "reality." They are thinkers, and even, in the most popular sense of the word, "professional" thinkers. They expect to be paid, and will be paid, not for the penning of letters, but for the work of their minds.

And the work of these minds has a familiar smell. This is hardly the first time that we have come across minds that can say, at the beginning of one paragraph, that perception is stronger than reality, and conclude, at the end of the next, that there are only perceptions, and that the perception is reality. Who says such a thing can not be dignified as "mistaken." As to the unintelligible, there is neither verification nor refutation. And this is the strong defense of all professional charlatans: the deep belief of the ordinary person that what can not be proven wrong might perhaps be right, and that the opinions of the "experts" deserve, at least, respect. This belief is inculcated in school, where the work of the mind is also based on the premise that "there are no facts in the mind," whatever that might mean.

Consider these words from one Ken Lexier, an assistant school superintendent in Pittsfield, Maine:

The question we have to respond to from taxpayers is, "What's in it for me?" We should view taxpayers as consumers. Consumers are willing to pay more for what they perceive is a better product, so we should begin selling the schools as a quality product. We could die holding our breath waiting for the American public to stand up and cheer public education.

Lexier, too, believes that perception is reality, and that there are no facts in a human mind, but only perceptions. It sounds, because Businessism is just now such a popular cult, as if he had been influenced by some near cousins of the authors of Marketing Warfare, but it is in fact the other way around. The Lexiers have been preaching the superior reality of the Affective Domain for a long, long time. It was they, not the hucksters of pop, but the hucksters of PopEd, who first concocted that strange sort of "test," by which we might be convinced that the swill was really delicious, and that it was only our perceptions of it that made us imagine that we preferred the Real Thing.

In spite of the weight of the evidence, however, there actually is a difference between the Coca-Cola business and the school business. The Coca-Cola people still have the formula for the Real Thing. It is, we might say, "a fact in the human mind," and even a sort of "reality." But the school people have nothing to brew but their perceptions.

The Great Washed

Hand washing is the single most important technique for preventing the spread of disease and should be done frequently. Guidelines are attached which emphasize the proper protocol for hand washing. It is imperative that each principal provide his staff and students the opportunity to comply with the protocol for hand washing. Therefore, each principal or his designee is directed to inspect their respective washrooms to ensure that all sinks are operating efficiently and each rest room has appropriate soap and towel dispensers.

MENCKEN understood vulgarity, and not as a class distinction, but as a mental distinction. "Hygiene," he said, "is the corruption of medicine by morality." And school, we are led by his example to say, is the corruption of education by morality.

And Emerson, who was not all that dirty, noticed that "people who wash much have a high mind about it, and talk down to those who wash little."

As to Robert Price's customary degree of cleanliness, we can make no guess. But we do know that he is the superintendent of the schools of Anne Arundel County in Maryland, and the author and promulgator of the proper protocol cited above. Thus, knowing much about many other members of his tribe, we can make a guess about the height of his mind and of his customary degree of morality. He is a caring man, a sharing man, a man who thinks of others. He loves children.

If it weren't for the fact that all the school people are caring, sharing, child-lovers, who have nobly forgone all the lucrative and prestigious callings open to people of their intellectual powers, our schools would be changed beyond imagining. They would become dreary academies devoted to dull, unmitigated studies in the pursuit of mere disciplines. There would be no enhancement of self-esteem, no free play of the creative imagination for the solution of global problems in seventh grade rap-sessions, and, probably, not a clean hand to be found.

School is the place where the Uncaring and Unsharing learn better, where the Great Unwashed get taken to the cleaners, the Great Washed, who know how to devise all the proper protocols, and even how to get paid for that work.

We wish we had the space to reprint all of "Proper Handwashing Procedure," the instruction page that came with Price's prolegomenon, in which "hand washing" is consistently written as two words. No matter. The important thing is the washing, and the instructions do point out that it is necessary to "wet hands with running water," and then to "combine soap and water to wash hands." Exactly how and where to "combine soap and water" is, alas, not specified, and we can not tell whether to "apply liquid, powder, or dispensable machine type soaps" to the running water, which is "necessary to carry away dirt and debris," or to the still, or stagnant water left on the hands, which may, like "bar soap... in soap dishes," encourage the growth of "bacteria."

Step 4 says, "Wash hands, using a circular motion and friction." Go ahead. Give it a try. Use a circular motion. Of something. Just for the hell of it, don't use any friction, and see what happens. That will show you how important it is to have among us men like Robert Price. Without our educators to give us the secret of using friction, we would stand around forever, waving our dripping hands all in vain, and forgetting to "include [in circular motion] front and back surfaces of hands, between fingers and knuckles," and perhaps even letting bacteria grow on "the entire hand area."

Yes. The entire hand area. Where but in our schools could we hope to find such finesse, such exquisite accuracy? Who but a school superintendent would show such a lively awareness to unfelt needs, and so gently engender a more perfect cleanliness in those of his subordinates who might very well be washing, even as you read these words, only a portion of the hand area? We only regret that he did not remind everybody to be sure to wash both hands.

In all of this, there is a lesson for us taxpayers. Sure, it must have taken a long time, and thus money, for Robert Price, Ph.D., to polish up the proper protocol for hand-washing and finalize the guidelines for proper hand-washing procedure. And it did take lots of time, and paper, and thus money, to send out all the copies. And it will take lots of time, and dutiful vigilance, and thus money, on the part of each principal, or his designee, to see to it that all the washrooms are operating efficiently, and to be certain that even the gym teachers use friction, and then "wipe surfaces surrounding sink [or the entire sink area] with clean paper towel and discard towels immediately," lest "damp surfaces promote the growth of bacteria," and the big in-service workshops for all the staff will take up lots of time, and thus money, but it will be worth every cent and minute. We can not afford to cut corners on Quality Education.

The Garbage Pail Letter

(Our Man in Manhattan Reports Something at Last)

The righteous one has no sense of humor.

Bertold Brecht

Dear Boss,

School may not be exactly full of joy, but it isn't entirely joyless either, you know. Memorable and wonderful things do happen there.

When I was in the eighth grade, we had a terrific principal. He had the habit of taking off one shoe and running like hell from his office all the way down the hall to the boys' room. To us, it sounded like a man walking, and we all presumed, the first time, at least, that we still had time to flush our butts.

You can imagine our surprise--and chagrin--when the door flew open and there he was, a shoe in one hand, and a clipboard in the other. The man had style, and we liked him.

And then there was the day when Miss McCready, always prim and proper, always reminding us to "fly our true colors," flew a little true color of her own in the form of an absolutely fascinating, lacey pink strap hanging down below the jacket of her neat tweed suit. I remember nothing of the dictée she was giving us at the time, but I surely remember that strap. And her. She was a great lady, and I hope against hope that she still flies her true colors today.

We did laugh at our teachers sometimes for things like that, but I do not remember that we "laughed them to scorn." Far from it. We liked them all the better, not only for being subject to the same perils of person that we all faced every day, but for knowing how to bear them. In fact, if I were a school principal, I would walk the halls of my school once every term or so with my fly unzipped, pretending not to notice the giggles. When some kid finally got the nerve to mention it, I'd just smile and casually zip it up and thank him very kindly, and go right on walking the halls. I do suspect, and revere his memory therefore, that that is what old Willie One-Shoe, thus caught, would have done. And peace be to his soul.

Ah, them was the days, Joxer. I don't think they have people like that in the schools anymore. At least not if Jack Zuckerman and Rob Peterson are typical of the new breed. Jack and Rob are principals, respectively, of P. S. 6 in Manhattan and the Brunswick School in Greenwich, CT. I read in the paper that they are both pretty upset about the Garbage Pail Kids. You know, all those yechy picture cards of disgusting and truly tasteless characters, like Virus Iris, and Greaser Greg, and Leaky Lindsey, whose leakage is better left unspecified, and even Slain Wayne, more full of holes than the proverbial cheese. But still alive and kicking. Go, man, go!

(I wanted to enclose some examples, but I've been to three candy stores and one tobacconist, and they were all sold out. Guy at the cigar store says they're always sold out.)

The kids love them. There's nothing a kid likes better than a good grossing out from time to time. But Jack and Rob are making some very long faces indeed. Rob says that they "make fun of the way people look and act." Rob even says that they give the children "license to make fun of a child." Italics mine. (Maybe he's speaking metaphorically, but the Garbage Pail Kids do occasionally come with permits to eat between meals. Wish I had one.)

And then there's Tom, Tom Blair, that is, a principal up in Montrose, NY. I forgot to mention him. He calls the Garbage Pail Kids "in bad taste," and "inappropriate," although inappropriate to exactly what, he doesn't say. Maybe he means inappropriate to the customary good taste of bulletin board displays on child molestation and the pictures of rock stars in the music room.

Golly, these modern principals are sure a bunch of high-minded and pure-thinking aesthetes. I'll bet they keep both shoes on at all times. Narrow the way, and strait the lace that leads to the unsullied virtue of complete tolerance in all-too-unlikely combination with exquisite and uncompromising discrimination as to other peoples' taste.

There is some deep confusion in the minds of those principals. If Trollope gives us the picture of a contemptible but very amusing swine in Slope, is that a license that encourages us to make fun of "people"? Or of Slopes? I sure would like any child of mine to recognize a Slope when he sees one, and to protect himself, if necessary, in the only way that works against Slopes and similar pests--by making fun of them. In the search for self-betterment, I have tried and tried to restrict myself to making fun only of minerals and vegetables, but it's just no good. For making fun, people need people. The difference between a good kid and a rotten kid, as I see it, is that a rotten kid will make fun of what he doesn't like, and the good one will make fun of what he shouldn't like. OK by me.

The kids may be just a little more subtle and astute than their principals. I suspect that when they giggle and squeak in disgust at Greaser Greg, they have no doubt whatsoever that the object of their disgust is Greaser Greg, and not "people," or a "child." Unlike most grown-ups, children put little credence in witchcraft.

They do not believe that sticking pins in Smelly Kelly will cause punctures in one of their less fragrant classmates. They do not believe that their perfectly appropriate scorn for Disgustin' Justin will bring into disrepute and melancholy all riders of motorcycles. They don't even believe that Shylock causes anti-Semitism. It takes grown-ups like Jack and Rob and Tom to convince them of that sort of nonsense.

Of course, if the principals of their schools are all guys like Jack and Rob and Tom--that can't be true, can it?--they'll probably never hear of Shylock. Or Mr. Slope. Or of Dr. Pangloss, or Othello, or Becky Sharp, or Malvolio, or Viper Fagin. Or, or, or. It could be a long list. I don't think I'd want a child of mine to grow up without learning how to identify the wildlife in this forest, the fools, fops, clowns, charlatans, imposters, posers, hypocrites, cornercutters, sluggards, parasites, con-artists, climbers, flatterers, and just plain jerks of any kind. There are such folk.

Any kid who can spot those critters for what they are might also be able to notice it whenever he is in danger of turning into one them himself. It happens to the best of us. I know those school people are hot for what they call role-models, but I'll tell you this. I do not imagine that a child will look at Greaser Greg and decide that he wants to be just like that when he grows up. It's likely, in fact, that he will want to find some other destiny. On the other hand--and this gives me the willies--it may, just may, be possible that some especially docile and weak-minded kid will decide that, when he grows up, he wants to be just like Jack, or Rob, or Tom. That's scary. We have to save him.

First of all, get on the phone to the ACLU. There's a big move on among the Jacks and Robs and Toms to ban the Garbage Pail Kids. It won't work, of course, but the whole hassle will be a lot more fun if we get someone to make it look like a big civil rights deal.

Then, hire an artist, and crank up the old Webendorfer. We have to put out our own series of cards, maybe just a bit classier, but not too much.

We could start out with Holier Than Anybody Howard, the Prim Principal, and Glib Glen, The Guidance Counselor. Sanctimonious Sally, the Rap-Session Revivalist, is a sure hit. We could move up a notch with Obtuse Oswald, the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Taking a Firm Grasp on the Obvious. And how about Righteous Roland, the Discipline Dean, and Entirely Enlightened Eleanor, the Enhanced Awareness Facilitator?

I leave the rest to you, Boss. Let's give those kids a little real relevance. But stay away from Willie One-Shoe and Miss McCready, OK?

Yours in English,

Snarky Snavely, the Strident Stringer

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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