The Many Mad Masters
When the fierce tensions of the passions and desires relax, then is the word of Sophocles approved, and we are rid of many mad masters. But indeed, in the respect of these complaints and in the matter of our relations with kinsmen and friends there is just one cause, Socrates--not old age, but the character of the man. For if men are temperate and cheerful even old age is only moderately burdensome. But if the reverse, old age, Socrates, and youth, are hard for such dispositions. Republic, I:329d
BEFORE you go on to the next paragraph, please turn the page and read, with suitable expression, "Walking in Another's Shoes."
Walking in Another's Shoes
by Marge Hoge (age unknown)
As the Home Ec I students walked into the classroom, they found some items on the table not normally used for class: plastic wrap, masking tape, a bowl of pebbles, and cotton balls. They were instructed to tape the plastic over their eyes, put the tape over their fingers, the pebbles in their shoes, and the cotton balls in their ears.
All of this activity was not done just to make them uncomfortable, but to show a point: what it's like to be old. As people age, their senses tend to become less acute. Their hearing starts failing, their eyesight is worse, and they may get arthritis or other crippling diseases in their muscles. Their sense of taste and smell may also decline.
During the class period, the students were asked to do small tasks, such as writing their name, cutting things out and tasting some pudding. When they were done, they each wrote a reaction paper about their experiences. Students commented that they didn't realize that being old was so different and how they would hate to have everything taste that way. They also realized how long it would take them to do things if they were older.
Students learned what the elderly people today are going through. This activity helped them to understand the elderly, instead of laughing at them.
Learning how the aged feel is an important part of the home economics curriculum. With the number of elderly in our society rising every day, it's becoming more important for us to understand them. An activity such as this one gives students one more small look at what it would be like to be old.
We will refrain, although with great difficulty, from instructing Marge Hoge as to what she should do with her plastic wrap and tape and pebbles and cotton balls. We will not inquire as to the flavor of the pudding, or the remarkable conclusion drawn by the children that someday "everything will taste that way," as though cooked up by Marge Hoge, we presume.
Nor will we speculate as to the probable age of Marge Hoge. (Mental age, that is.) And as to what exercises our aged readers might undertake to find out "what it feels like" to be a Marge Hoge, beset by crippling diseases in their minds, and why they would do such a silly thing, we are at a loss. But as to why there are Marge Hoges in the schools, and as to the Great Purpose that they serve (and all unwittingly, for witting is not their habit), we have no doubts whatever.
School is for babies. Babies are sent there to be confirmed in infancy by the babies who work there. School is about appetites, feelings, and sentiments. All that is in a human being which is set in opposition to thoughtful self-control is celebrated and perpetuated in school, especially, of course, in those supposed "studies," of which home economics is a perfect example, which have no specific content, no intellectual foundation, no discipline.
What a strange "curriculum" it must be, that Marge Hoge can identify "an important part" of it as the preposterous goal of "learning" how some utterly unspecified and indubitably diverse people "feel." But there would be no point in asking Marge Hoge, for instance, which old people walk as though they had marbles in their shoes, and which don't. Or, for that matter, which young people walk as though they had marbles in their shoes, and why, or which schoolteachers ought to have in their shoes the marbles that they have lost. No such concrete considerations of mere fact are wanted here. What is wanted, and, in the weaker-minded students, probably achieved, is a horror of leaving babyhood, the pleasures of appetites indulged, feelings cuddled, and sensations adored.
Infancy is that state in which, at any age, we serve gladly the many mad masters into whose service we are all born. Maturity--does anyone reach it, even with the help of kindly age?--is the state in which we serve them but grudgingly, and less and less, and at the last, not at all. And of the mad masters, it is the maddest, and also the strongest of them all who is best served by the silly, and primarily time-wasting, exercises of the Marge Hoges of government educationism. Fear.
We read recently one of those school district poopsheets in which some superintendent identified the truly "great and important educational issues" of our time. No, they were not the struggle of the individual mind to inform and govern itself in a time of waxing factionalism, or even the problem of awakening in multitudes the habits of thought once supposed possible only to the few. Nor were they even the trivial non-issues, like preparing workers for the growing needs of the information society, or to compete with the Japanese. They were: the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction and the possibility of sexual abuse. To these "subjects," the children must be "exposed," said the superintendent, as early and as continuously as possible.
(Let us at least hope that it is not to Marge Hoge that the exposing will be left. We dread to imagine what the students will find next on her table. But let us also remember that it probably is Marge Hoge to whom the exposing will be left. Home economics, no?)
Well, why not? The children are already afraid of nuclear war (and power), chemical pollution, acid rain, cancer, AIDS, terrorism outside of the schools, growing old (now that they know all about it), the unlikelihood of ever being able to write a letter of application for a job, and even of the dire consequences of being unable to compete. About all of those "subjects," we can assume that they know and understand every bit as much as they can know and understand, having learned it from Marge Hoges all over the land, about the terrible taste of pudding in the old-folks' home. About the mad masters that cause such things as drug addiction and sexual abuse, they will know as much as they know about growing old. Nothing.
But they will know fear.
The only clear lesson that any child could take from Marge Hoge is that the life of the old is not worth living. If we reversed her exercise, and provided Mortimer Adler with the tools by which to know how it feels to be Marge Hoge, would he think that life worth living? And if we could convince him that, if he manages to escape AIDS and nuclear devastation, along with sexual abuse, he will inevitably turn into a Marge Hoge, he will know fear. That "temperate and cheerful" disposition, whose lack makes any age burdensome, will depart from him, and he will be once again a child.
Keeping Them Simple
THERE is always more poetry in the world than any sane person could want, and among us there is probably more abominable poetry than at any earlier time in the whole history of our species.
We have discovered the source of all that bad poetry. Just as surely as the Black Death was spread abroad by rats and fleas, the current pestilence of abominable poetry has been caused by schoolteachers.
It is not sufficient to say that schoolteachers encourage or permit poetry in children, either of which would be understood, in a sane land, as a corruption of the young. In fact, they actually require it, and of little children who, if left unmolested, would never by nature produce such revolting messes.
Somehow or other, probably from listening to the effusions of their teachers in the education academy, they have taken the fancy that poetry is easy, and also cute. Poetry is as easy, and cute, as architecture or thoracic surgery. The teachers who make little children write poetry should be required to live in high rise apartment houses built by creative tykes who have proven themselves in the sandbox, and get their mitral valves stitched up by five-year-olds expressing themselves with their nurse sets.
The mushy blither that you see above is the work of little Inez Bull. She is a high achiever. She is already, bless your heart, the president of her club. And her club is called the New York University Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa. Her poem is part of the President's Message in the April 1986 newsletter of same.
Here is more of that message:
Spring, the season between winter and summer reckoned astronomically as extending from the March equinox to the June solstice... it can be a hidden or ultimate source... the beginning or first appearance of something, a crocus, a daffodil, the violet in her hood... a time or state of growth and development... something that produces action or motion, a water's rushing journey to somewhere...the art of leaping forward... a frog's awakening... the season reckoned astronomically comprising the months of March, April, and May... a force, perhaps the tall wind... Yes, a force to educate which may apply to more pretentious processes of teaching and instruction designed to ensure full development of the capacities of a more intelligent person--a season to train which may suggest methodical thorough instruction and guidance with a specific end in mind until rapid and successful execution of duties and tasks is assured.
Phi Delta Kappa is what educationists call their "honor society." The name was chosen so that it might conveniently be mumbled in such a way as to be mistaken for the name of the other outfit. What merits admission to Phi Delta Kappa, we neither know nor care to know. We are more interested in what might preclude admission, if anything.
The inability to pay attention to what you are saying is obviously no impediment to admission. Clearly, no one is to be debarred for such startlingly inappropriate gaucheries as that "reckoned astronomically as extending," or even for obstinately repeating them. The mind of the Phi Delta Kappan need know no reason to abstain from tired clichés, lest thought be drowned out by that very rote recitation that educationists claim to disdain, but never fail to provide. And no one, obviously, will fail of election to lofty office just because she happens to be ignorant of the difference between "pretentious" and "portentous." In short, to join this august assembly of the mentors of youth, no one need worry about his inability to make sense.
And that is why schoolteachers push poetry on little children. To them, poetry is bits of borrowed babble broken into short lines. Anybody can do it. It helps the children to feel good about themselves, and the teacher's treacly praise of their babble convinces them, and perhaps for life, that you don't have to make sense to do good work. Just be sincere, a condition which, all unaccountably, schoolteachers claim to be able to measure. And, of course, cute, like little Inez, with the violet in the daffodil's hood, or even transcendental, like little Inez, with what may, or may not, be the hidden, or ultimate, source of a something that produces action, or motion, as of a journey to somewhere.
Consider what must be the necessary skills of poetry, and whether their acquisition is likely to be any easier than learning the skills of architecture or, for an even more useful example, the skills of musical composition. They are nothing less than the skills of thought and language. It is only after study and long apprenticeship that they become what is correctly called a second nature, a new knowing of what is right, appropriate, and beautiful, and which is not, except in Mozarts, provided by the first nature into which we are all born.
We like especially that last bit of the poem, where little Inez--or is it the frog?--says "I will keep you simple." Right. That's what school is all about.
The poetry-pushing schoolteachers never bother their sweet little heads with brooding about the deep sea of thoughtful reflection out of which poets, when they are lucky, draw the right word, the perfect metaphor, the just, illuminating analogy, or the great realm of poetry itself, in which they dwell and rest and wander. Poetry is not only the fruit of pondering and meditation, but the concentrated and purified elixir of that fruit. There can be no Mozarts in poetry, any more than there can be child prodigies in history or philosophy, to say nothing of architecture and thoracic surgery. And a writer, of anything, who has written more than he has read and pondered is as much to be prized as a bridge-builder who has built more bridges than he has measured and studied.
And less to be prized is the "educational" expert who has gushed more about the "more pretentious processes of teaching" than she has obviously ever read or thought about it. But she's just right for the Phi Delta Kappans. She'll keep' em simple.
When we read junk like little Inez's President's Message, and especially in some "official organ" of a bunch of people calling themselves "educators," which is where it usually appears, we despair. What is it with these people, we wonder. Is there no one among them who objects to nonsense, who thinks the calling in which he labors demeaned by a public display of mindlessness? Are they all like that?
In this case, of course, there is one who is not. He sent us the goods. One such dissenter from collective cant is more to be prized than a hundred commissions on the reform of education. In the September issue, we'll look at the latest such commission and its dreams.
The Categorical Imperative Blues
WHAT a knotty dilemma. We were moved to virtue when we read an op-ed piece by this fellow who just wasn't going to take any more, and who had decided, right out in public, to sell off his IBM stock. South Africa, you know. His stern and splendid righteousness shamed us.
What a great idea, we thought. Let's send a message to bigots and bigwigs everywhere, making it perfectly clear that we are not like them. That'll teach ‘em. Let's also, as the scripture exhorts us, send out a press release and let our light so shine before persons that they will see our good works. Who knows. If we sell IBM, maybe everybody will sell IBM, and people of all colors will immediately learn to live in amity and concord in South Africa.
We put the whole thing to our Moral and Financial Advisor. He patiently explained--patient explaining is his forte--that the stock had increased in value over the years, and that we would have to decide whether to reinvest the profit in some impeccably moral corporation--Dow, for instance--or, since we were clearly too virtuous to spend it on ourselves, to hand the take, less taxes, right over to Bishop Tutu.
And were we willing, with all that tax, to encourage in iniquity a government well known for the manufacture and sale of dangerous weapons, and for the aid that it seems regularly to provide to other naughty governments?
Hard questions. But we took the high road, and went for the Bishop. And as for the tax money, we took comfort in hoping that ours might be spent not on warheads and riot-control equipment, but on Conflict Resolution Facilitators and four-color posters in which cute little children of different races present each other with flowers. Could happen.
Girded with righteousness, forth we urged him, to divest us of our complicity in the vile doings of other people. Somebody, after all, must Set A Good Example.
Fine, he said, but let's cool it for a while on that example-setting business. In fact, mum's the word, OK?
But what about the press release, and letting the whole world know that we, at least, are innocent and good?
Later, he said. It takes two to tango. If it's virtuous to sell IBM, it's vicious to buy it. You can be innocent and good after you've cut a good deal with a collaborator who's willing to be guilty and evil. Every seller has to shake the unseen hand of some buyer. If you Set A Good Example too soon, the Street will turn bearish on vice, and the virtuous will have a hard time unloading their complicity, even at a loss.
Thus it is, as you have surely noted, that we are not proclaiming, just yet, the great moral superiority that we must nevertheless be accorded for wanting to sell IBM. We just Kant, you might say. We're stuck with either hanging on to our own complicity, or encouraging complicity in others. A sorry business. So we'd love to hear from that moral guy as to how he managed to pull it off.
Summer Notes from Central Control
Because we have come to know what our typical subscribers are like, we are not surprised that some of them have made mild complaint about the fact that we stick stamps on the return envelopes sent out with the expiration notices. Why do this, they ask. It must cost a bundle. And should someone not renew a subscription, there is no return at all. Please don't do it anymore.
We will continue to do it, for several reasons. First, there are remarkably few who do not renew. Second, the stamps are different for every batch of notices, and serve as a code that helps us to get you back into the computer. Third, we enjoy picking out the stamps.
The postal service disintegrates apace, in part, no doubt, because outfits like the University of Georgia are laboring mightily to prepare athletes for postal clerkshipness as their only alternative to trash collectionism. We are more and more often informed that some of you, having been with us for years, live on streets, or in cities, or even at zip numbers, that do not exist. It's unsettling. When that happens, we will try to get an operator, find your number, and call you. So, if an issue seems unusually late, and especially if you haven't had one in months--that happens--call us. The 24-hour emergency number of THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN industrial megacomplex is (609) 589-6477. Actually, it's the candy store downstairs, but they'll take a message.
A special message to Canadian readers, which might also interest others: Bob and Carol Verdun have begun a national edition of their feisty and truly independent Elmira Independent. They are the only full-time journalists we know of, in any nation, who deal regularly and thoughtfully with education, and who know the difference between education and schooling. We hope some of you will consider subscribing. They can be found at 15 King Street, Elmira, Ontario, N0B 2T0. (Those are zeroes.)
We wish you all a moderately restful summer, and intend to return in August with the September issue. For summer reading, we recommend an old book, The Art of Teaching, by Gilbert Highet. Teachers, especially, will be astonished.
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Neither can his mind be thought
to be in tune, whose words do jarre;