Volume Ten, Number Seven............November 1986

The Flightless Birds of Academe

In our concept, liberal learning will simulate the collaborative environment of the workplace and will emphasize the active engagement of students and faculty in working groups (rather than encouraging individuals towards isolation and the passive absorption of ideas and facts.)

NOW AND THEN, we like to visit the nearby State Mental Institution where this little journal had its start. In those days, there was no great difference between the work of the mind as done by the keepers and the same as done by the inmates. The inmates, however, have improved.

The "writing" above is not the work of an inmate. Nor was it truly written at all; it was "produced," as they put it, by a little clutch of keepers, out grubbing for a grant.

Grant-grubbing is an enterprise in which the obsequious solicit the collusion of the officious in the extraction of wealth from the industrious. The grant-grubbers, while not ashamed, do seem to suspect that they ought to be ashamed, for they almost never sign one name to their supplications, but go forth to beg in little mobs. And no single person says: "I want this chunk of somebody else's money." The buck-passing passive is implied throughout: "This money is wanted." Whose words those are, we never know. And what mind conceived and phrased the ideas supposedly illuminated above, no one can say. And lucky it is for that mind.

The dodos, of course, were galled that other birds could fly and sing. They held that birds should keep both feet firmly planted in the guano, and gurgle and squawk with the flock. While the feathered dodos are extinct, as some Great Plan has wisely decreed, their bare-skinned relatives are, for yet a little while, still among us. True to type, they continue to hate the eagle and the lark. They hate also, and fear, solitude. The singers and fliers are most truly themselves in solitude, for they are not empty. But the dodos, who know what to do only by following the flock, take solitude for loneliness, and they are afraid.

The strange little passage above puts forth a fancy about "liberal" education. It calls us to imagine, say, the study of philosophy conducted according to the principles of the workshop, or the assembly-line, or the many-cubicled mill of corporate conglomeration. Here, side by side, in a manner of speaking, a work-force will produce a... Well, a something. A "liberal learning."

A teacher of philosophy, perhaps, will democratically join forces with a teacher of accounting and a teacher of family nutrition. Together with eager students, actively, and in working groups, they will ward off the demons of isolation and of the passive absorption of ideas and facts. They will process the product from hand to hand, that a bolt may be inserted by one and tightened down by another, a wire soldered here, and a label glued down there.

And when the work is finished--Thank God It's Friday!--they will leave the miserable contraption on the shelf and find some noisy place where Stroh's is spoken, and where they are still safe from solitude, but not--most certainly not--safe from "passive absorption." Indeed, with very rare exceptions in the case of very few people, "the collaborative environment of the workplace" is the very Palace of Passive Absorption, where "active engagement" is nothing more than the outward and visible act to which the inner self need give nothing more than hand or voice, and where the mind, while it need not be engaged, can neither be entirely free.

Consider Berkeley reading Locke, and thinking. Consider Hume reading Berkeley, and thinking. Consider Kant reading Hume, and thinking. Consider yourself reading the passage quoted above, and thinking. And consider the dodo who, with no experience at all of the immense life that the mind is, would call such acts passive absorption, and condemn as isolation the inward intensity which is the only state in which they can be performed. Out of that consideration alone you can discover all you really need to know about the flightless birds of Academe, the dodos who run our schools.

Nevertheless, since everybody loves a little bird-lore, consider further. What inward mental labor was done by the he-bird, or she-bird, who "wrote" that bit? Did it seek, or even suspect, some possible distinction between conditions of mind that might accurately be called passive, and acts of mind that can not occur without the participation of the will and the expense of effort? Did it ask, in what sense, exactly, can even the "workplace" be understood as collaborative? What is it but a romantic fantasy, to imagine that the bolt-tightener at one end of the line and the label-licker at the other are "collaborating" in a cause, when either can easily do his work without knowing even of the existence of the other? When the bolt-tightener has tightened his bolt, and the label-licker has licked his label, where have they done their work, and where does it bear its fruit? Is it, as "learning" must be, an inner growth of the mind? Might its results be the same for any bolt-tightener and any label-licker, or will they be, in one case, the result that is right for the singer, and, in the other, what is right for the flier?

It takes very little examination of that passage to see that no thoughtful labor has gone into its composition. What has gone into its composition is recitation, a trotting-out of slogans and trendy terms, designed to win the hearts--the minds don't count--of the grant-granters. The bird who pecked it out is saying, Look how with-it we are! We do, we do understand that business is where it's at. And look how democratic and socially responsible we are! None of that isolation stuff here, and none of that selfish individual absorption either. Just you give us the dough and watch us compete with those Japs!

And next year it will occur to one of our dodos that playing the violin is not only very difficult, but also elitist, requiring both selfish inward absorption and anti-social isolation. How much more socially useful it would be, and how much easier, if the immense labor of playing the violin could "simulate the collaborative environment of the workplace," and be handed over to a crew of co-workers!

As learning, "liberal learning" is no different from playing the violin, or, for that matter, throwing a big ball through a hoop. Who does not do it, all alone, does not do it; and who does it, does it, all alone. There is no "collaborative" learning. Others may show, or testify, or even proclaim, but anything that we come to understand, we understand alone. To be told what others understand is not our learning.

No student of the violin will ever imagine that he can play it except by and of himself, or that he can do it because his "collaborators" say they can. With "liberal learning," it seems to be otherwise. Any inmate of a state mental institution can master it with nothing more than a little help from his friends, and, of course, a big fat helping of somebody else's money.

The Overhead Socratic Projector

As bad actors cannot sing alone, but only in a large company, so some men cannot walk alone. Man, if you are worth anything, you must walk alone, and talk to yourself, and not hide in the chorus. Learn to beat mockery, look about you, examine yourself, that you may get to know who you are.

A saying of Epictetus

YES, we have used that epigraph before, but it was many years ago. We should use it more often. We should print it on millions of leaflets and drop them from aeroplanes onto every campus in the land. Those words should be chiseled into the massive blocks of granite that should be blocking every door into the unhallowed precincts of every teacher academy in America.

We can not count the many times when we have heard schoolteachers say of their students, and always with a smug simper, that "They weren't cut out with cookie-cutters, you know." It is thus that they justify their inability to teach anybody anything, which they can hardly be expected to do until they have measured the utterly specific learning modalities and cognitive styles of each and every unique individual whole child. It'll be a while.

We have some interesting news, which is far from new, about this tribe of individualism-lovers. There is a man in Canada named Wolfgang Franke. Why he chose to read 1,200 letters of application from teacher academy graduates looking for jobs, we have no idea. He didn't have anything to do with giving them jobs. But he did it anyway. We have his report on this appalling experience.

Many of the 1,200 said almost the same thing. We must say "almost" because the applicants had apparently reached no consensus on the spelling of "fulfill" (But, to be fair, neither has anyone else, except in deciding that the first l must be single.) Here, spelling aside, is what they said:

If appointed to a teaching position at your school, I will do my utmost to fulfill my responsibilities to the best of my ability.*

Franke managed to discover that they had all copied that silly fluff (more or less) from a handout given to them by their Porseffors of Ecudation, those despisers of rote learning, you know.

The "original" parts of the applications were just what you suppose--recitations of code words and phrases in Pedaguese, sometimes entertainingly spelled, and pious pledges of professionalism. But enclosed with the applications were recommendations--or so they were meant--from Porseffors of Ecudation who had watched the applicants "perform." ("Perform" is not good, but it was the best word we could come up with.) A bouquet of their expert, professional comments, every one of them absolutely sic, is printed below for your delectation and dismay.

We think you can make the best use of them by experiencing a real experience of rote learning. Memorize a few of them, and find some way to insert a few phrases into an otherwise polite conversation. Imagine the renewed interest with which your friends will behold you when you say that you want to experience relevant experience of failure, and to get very abreast with things through a positive approach to stimulating an awareness for the sake of enhancing your own image, and that you are also planning to buy yourself an overhead Socratic projector.

But do not imagine, when friends recoil from you as from an unexpected idiot, that you now know how those educationists feel. You do not. They feel just fine. They sing together in happy chorus. Their approaches are positive. Any one of the comments below could have been written by any educationist on the face of the Earth, and approved by ditto. They will never have to walk alone. However, if you make copies of this piece and send them around, they may just have to learn to bear mockery.

"Danny experienced a real teaching experience. I feel his failures as well as his success made him have a relevant experience. His strongest asset is certainly his ability to use his relevant experience."

"Her enthusiasm was so good, even the students noticed it. She really had innovative relevance."

"He has the tendancy to mispel on the board. But he benefitted from the experience."

"She was readily accepted by the students, even though they didn't understand her. With the help of the overhead projector she used the Socratic method."

"I found her very abreast with things. The lesson direction improved greatly when I told her so. I would emphasis good understanding between she and the students. A credit to the profession."

"Terry is very uptight most of the time. This shows when he stammers. He will be a fine teacher."

"The emphasis is a positive approach to stimulate an awareness of the value of communication skills in enhancing one's own image."

Hypatia Strikes Back

THOMAS AQUINAS is little read by religionists in these days. That is a pity, for, while his religious credentials are impeccable, his ideas would foment some valuable religious questioning and considering where just now there is none.

Various points of view might find in Aquinas various virtues, but for us, his greatest is literacy. He knew how to read, and he knew the difference between reading and the receiving of communication. Inevitably, therefore, he also knew how to write, and the difference between writing and the transmission of communication. And thus it is that he is little read, for reflection and pondering, the proper result of reading, are utterly inappropriate to the reception of communication.

It is out of his power of literacy that he reaches one of his most important understandings, which modern religionists of every ilk, including those who think themselves political rather than religious, will find unbearable. It is one thing, Aquinas held, to say that a belief is "based on Scripture," and another to say that the meaning of Scripture is clear.

If you must divide the world into Two Kinds of People, the most useful division could be made between the people who presume that the meaning of words and deeds is completely and perfectly knowable, and those who suspect that it is not. While it seems certain that either temperament might be found, from time to time, in any individual mind, nevertheless, such a division does permit a useful definition of believers and unbelievers of all kinds. It allows us, for instance, to tuck some Christians and some Communists into the same bed, and to seat certain Jews and certain Moslems side by side.

What all such factions have in common, and it is not a trivial detail but a tremendous principle, is the proclivity to make two stupendous claims: These very words are the Truth; and, I can understand them correctly.

Somewhere in the darkness of a tropical jungle, there is a prudent and industrious hunter who tries to walk in the way of goodness according to his beliefs; and, in the wastes of Queensland, there is surely an aged shaman who teaches as best he can the unity that binds his people in harmony with one another, and with the animals and the Earth; and hidden among the Hairy Ainu there is a wise old mother who can see that there are no Children of Light and no Children of Darkness, but only the Children. They may be the last three believers in the world who are content to mind their own business and to look first to their own virtue. In every part of the "civilized" world, in whose destiny we are helplessly involved, systems of codified beliefs have engendered deadly enemies to happiness far more dangerous than poison gases and nuclear weapons. Missiles and gases are tools. The true believers are far more likely than the questioning doubters to use them.

What can we say, for instance, of Basic Minimum Christianists among us who have recently embarked on a holy war against their very numerous "enemies," and wage it by piously gathering together to pray for the death of unbelievers? Fortunately, at least for now, they have taken in hand a capricious weapon. Will they find a better? Will he who believes himself justified in trying to throw the biggest bomb of all find some reason to refrain from throwing a smaller but more dependable one?

To the left of the Christianists who are as harmless as the serpent, we have those who are as subtle as the dove. These are the worried wimps, diligently deleting from all their texts anything that might vex the minds of imbeciles or give offense to fools. Not for them, the strait gate and the narrow way, but the broad interstate that leadeth to nutrition and comfort for all. As to the bringing of peace, they are fundamentalists, but as to the sword, they are clever literary critics. They are not of good cheer.

By "religion," thinking of its roots, we understand a way of the mind that seeks connections, a "tying back together" of all that seems scattered in the outer world, where no connection is ever truly broken; and, in the inner life, a mending of what is easily broken by those who live there. We deem it only pious, therefore, to see in the Lunatic Christianism of our time nothing less than the working out of a great plan of justice.

We remember Hypatia. She was both scholar and philosopher, and the curator of the great library of Alexandria. In 415 AD, she was ripped into pieces in the streets by Christians, who spent the rest of that day in burning down the library. God noticed, and said: "That's the way you want it? OK. From now on you can just live without your minds, and you won't be bothered with reading any words that you don't understand, or don't like. For lo, unto the seven-and-seventieth generation, when your kiddies will be filling blanks in workbooks and checking little boxes in "comprehension" tests cooked up by Caesar's lackeys, no one of you will be able to read and understand and inwardly consider my Word, or your own, or anyone else's. Amen."

Having turned religious, we turn fundamentalist: "Whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have."

And furthermore...

LAST MONTH, we printed a piece called "The Thing Which Is Not." It began with an epigraph that mentioned some "vigorous opposition by feminist groups." One of our readers wrote to tell us that she had begun reading that piece with trepidation. She feared we were about to display some folly in feminist groups, which we have sometimes done. But she discovered that we "recognize that feminists do have some valid points," and that we "recognize valid points no matter who the messenger."

We like her a lot, and not only for approving of us, but for going on to read and consider in spite of trepidation. We know--and you do, too--liberals who don't want to hear a word from George Will, and conservatives who refuse to consider a line of Lenin. We know self-styled atheists who can't bear the thought of reading Aquinas, and religionists who will not allow even The Voyage of H. M . S. Beagle in the house. And we know of educationists who have never read a word of Plato, since he never had the benefit of what their "studies have shown."

We often think that there is no need for anyone to subscribe to this sheet for more than a year. Only the details of its essays change. The theme is always the same. The mind will be governed. If it find no government within, it will embrace whatever government offers itself from without. The minds whose pitiable effusions we examine are the disorderly little colonies they are because they are governed by appetite, or tradition, or the random suggestions of the world, or socially acceptable sentiment, or, in the worst cases, factional belief that will not, can not, test itself. What we call "bad language"--the same thing as "bad sense"--is nothing but the involuntary ejaculation of a mind that has nothing to say for itself.

So our reader's letter also causes in us some vexation. We have carefully studied "The Thing Which is Not." We can find nothing in it to suggest that feminists have some valid points. And, if we were asked, Do feminists, or socialists, or vegetarians, have some valid points? we would have to answer with a question: Which feminists, or socialists, or vegetarians? In some cases, probably in many, even "a valid point" is an involuntary ejaculation. To deliver a message requires no understanding of it in the messenger.

It is one thing to be an -ist, and to subscribe accordingly to some proposition of the -ism. That is a mental condition best called "superstition." It is quite another thing to test a proposition and find it rational. That is an act best called "judgment." The -ist who starts doing the latter is in peril of becoming, soon or late, an ex-ist.

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.

* If you had taken our advice and subscribed to the National Edition of the Waterloo Independent, you could have read Franke's piece for yourself, and seen many more hideous examples than we have to show you. Good fun. back

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