Volume Ten, Number Eight............December 1986

A Surfeit of Dearth

Cocaine is for horses, and not for men.
They say it'll kill ya but they don't say when

SUCH an outcry. Such lamentations and wringing of hands. Such searchings of heart, and mighty outpourings, whole rivers of specimens of urine. Fired with virtue, the land that stamped out poverty and hunger and crime and bigotry, to say nothing of illiteracy and flabby bellies, will now stamp out the nihilism and self-indulgence that its schools have been deliberately fostering for just over seventy years. And to this Great Cause it calls forth the massed forces of those schools.

"The University of Maryland," says its Chancellor, John B. Slaughter, "has had a dearth of unhappy events over the past several months. Today represents a major change in our fortunes." By "unhappy events" he must mean the death of a basketball player who killed himself with cocaine. By a "major change" he means the appointment of a new basketball coach. And by "dearth" he must mean that he is learning to talk fancy.

How interesting it is to notice that a "major change" at a large public university should be expected from the appointment of a new phys. ed. instructor, who will, presumably, supervise the children at their play in such a way that they will not kill themselves with cocaine. Will that new gym teacher, we wonder, go so far as to agree that his charges ought to be expected to pass some of their courses now and then, or is such a change just a bit too major? Would it be detrimental to those unspecified but all too easily identified "fortunes" that the new man is supposed, after all, to improve, not to destroy? And does it occur to that Slaughter chap that there may be some connection between the lives of his paid performers and the deaths that they don't seem to mind risking just for fun?

The life of the hired college athlete is the perfect and ideal embodiment of the Great Theme at the heart of the American public school. The athlete has achieved every goal that the public schools promise. He has his high school diploma, his career skills, his escape from the deprivation and neglect visited upon him by a hitherto uncaring society, his ability to relate to self and others and to function effectively in the arena, or maybe the sphere, of collective enterprise, and his self-esteem is forever insured, for his name is to be found on a plaque in the lobby of his old high school.

And he has escaped the one thing about schooling that he and his pals, and his teachers too, found galling and irrelevant--reading and writing, and the study of mere subjects. He is filled to the brim with emptiness, and there is no worthless thing that he lacks.

With its endless cant about meeting the needs of the individual, its easy tolerance that pronounces every way of life, and even every book, just as worthy as any other, its cowardly practice of "teaching" through cajolery and entertainment, its ready embrace of the trendy and demotic, its lavish provision of gratification as the supposed nourishment of a supposed self-esteem, its shrugging contempt of antiquated virtues such as restraint and self-denial, for which it hastens to provide pampering alternatives, schooling provides any who will take it with the opportunity not only to live a life entirely without principle, but to congratulate and admire themselves as liberated and cool while living a life entirely without principle. It is astonishing not that so many Americans, but that so few, for there must be some abstainers, will give themselves any pleasure they can afford, and many others that they can not afford, but that will surely be paid for sooner or later by all the rest of us.

And now it is our Great Plan to take up yet more of the little time that children spend in school to tell them all about the terrible dangers of cocaine. With programs. And slides. And sweet urgings to say No, from the teachers who have always told them to express themselves.

It is possible that somewhere in this great nation there is a ninth-grader who knows less about drugs than Nancy Reagan. And there might even be some use in informing him. That should take about twenty minutes. Half an hour if he is a slow reader. It should cost the taxpayers about ten cents, the price of a little pamphlet. There isn't really much that he needs to know.

If in the unlikely case that he has missed hearing the news elsewhere, he will quickly discover that even a big, strong athlete can be killed at once by one jolt of crack. Nancy Reagan says it'll kill ya, but it is very interesting that she don't say when, and that, in fact, she can't.

Children, of any age, are not all that worried about instant death, which is, in any case, far more likely in an automobile than at a coke party. That the danger of death is the most forceful "argument" that we can imagine against the use of cocaine is also the most forceful demonstration of our absence of principle.

Contrary to a belief that is popular in both senses of the word, the life without principle is not a happy one. It is darkened by the tyranny of appetite, and unlightened by the glow of self-knowledge. It is a life of sad somnambulism. But human beings can not forever bear sleep-walking. They will try at last, in spasms, to awaken themselves, even if they have to induce nightmares. The risk of death, remote as it is, is one of the charms of cocaine. And of reckless driving, and of sticking up gas stations.

Refraining from cocaine is not what we need to learn. What we need to learn is the art of refraining. No one will learn that in our schools.

The Rabbit-Moving HOTS

Teachers are creative while helping their students learn to think: They wear wizard's hats when students are learning to do graphics, and clown's noses for writing humourous stories.

IN Fall River, Massachusetts, fifth-grade teacher Deborah Charette has gotten the HOTS. But she doesn't keep them under her hat, or even in her clown nose. She gladly passes them out to her kiddies. Here's how she does it:

Fifth-grader Kelly McCauley was stumped by a lesson on moving electronic markers called "rabbits" through a maze on her computer screen.

"I've pressed the buttons, but they don't work. What should I do," she asked her teacher, Deborah Charette. "What do you think you need to do?" Charette answered. McCauly called up the instructions again on the screen and discovered how to move the rabbit in four directions through the maze on her screen.

To you, it may seem hardly worthwhile to send out the news that a schoolchild went back to read the instructions again, but that is because you do not understand the HOTS, which are exactly what Charette so cunningly implanted in little Kelly. Those HOTS are nothing less than Higher Order Thinking Skills.

Higher than what other "order" of thinking skills, we do not know. But Stanley Pogrow does. Pogrow is, of course, an educationist in the teacher mill of the University of Arizona. He defines "higher order thinking" as an ability, not as an act. That's a bit strange to be sure, but he gets even stranger. It is the ability to design, for instance, "better strategies for solving problems." It is also the ability, so terribly important for fifth-graders, to "develop new ideas." And it is all done, of course, with arcade games involving rabbits, funny hats, and false noses. As to the lower orders of thinking skills, Pogrow saith naught. Too elementary for him, no doubt.

All of this was put forth for us, in the otherwise respectable Globe of Boston, as "a new way to teach thinking skills." Exactly how ignorant you have to be to imagine that you have discovered a new way to teach thinking skills, we can not say, but we are confident that anyone who expects fifth-graders to startle and refurbish the world with their new ideas is at least that ignorant.

But we know what that Pogrow means by "new ideas." He does not mean, for instance, anything like the dawning in some healthy and working mind of the idea that Law is both a truer and a sterner master than the king, which Demaratus tried to explain to Xerxes, without success. He means that a little girl who hasn't yet thought of reading the instructions finally guesses that she should. By the standards of the educationists, to be sure, that is a big event. Their own most prodigious labors of "thinking" lead them, slowly, from some misty inkling of the obvious into nothing less than a firm grasp on the obvious, out of which they proudly announce that children who spend more time in study seem to learn more. But it is a very meager and debilitating idea of "thinking" that would detect not only thinking but even a "higher order" of it in that last desperate guess, not unknown to any of us, that maybe we had better go back and read the instructions. Especially with computers.

The school people are mesmerized by a line from Dewey. Although few of them have read it, some of them once did, and it had on them the effect that certain passages of this or that scripture have on true believers in any cult. Dewey once defined thinking as mental problem-solving activity. He did not, then and there, stop to define "problem." If you do not find yourself entirely satisfied with his definition, you are obviously not an educator. Non-educators are all too likely to vex themselves about such things as the idea that Law is a truer and sterner ruler than a king. Can he who reaches that conclusion be said to have solved a problem? On the day when you give yourself to considering whether you should want what you want, or whether to believe what you do believe, are you doing what little Kelly did when it occurred to her to go back and read the instructions? If you can see no important difference between the one "mental activity" and the other, would you call it a sufficient diagnosis of your plight to decide that you have a "problem"?

Thoughtful reflection is more likely to cause problems than to solve them, as revolutions and social upheavals beyond counting will show. The discovery of an understanding that brings order into the inner life of the mind, whose main business is the search for order, will often bring disorder into the outer world of society, whose main business is the search for stability. There is no solution to any problem in the unsettling thought that there is, and always has been, some deep and elemental mismatch between what is good for the mind of the individual and what is good for the continuance of the social order as it is. But there may be some hope of understanding a problem in that thought.

American schooling is almost entirely just another one of government's many functions, and what the school people do not want, what no government agency can afford to want, is a citizenry given to the dangerous habit of trying to understand. What any government agency does want, however, is a citizenry that can solve problems, get things done, and keep the system going, earning money and paying taxes, making better gadgets and selling lip-gloss to each other, giving thanks to a government that lets them sell lip-gloss to each other, and competing with the Japanese.

To equate thinking with problem-solving, therefore, is exactly one of those "better strategies for solving problems" that Pogrow cites as an example of Higher Order Thinking. And the problem that it is designed to solve is strictly political, and not in any sense educational.

Thus it is that we are especially intrigued by one of the results of the great HOTS Program in the schools of Fall River. Such gimmicks as the HOTS strategy are funded under something called Chapter I, which is intended to provide whatever the educationists suppose appropriate to "economically disadvantaged" children. It is one of those arrangements that encourages educationists to cook up notions at somebody else's expense. Accordingly, however, the educationists are expected to report whole hosts of "findings," which requirement is in itself further inducement to cooking things up. At the very end of the Globe's report, we found an interesting finding:

Social progress, measured by increases in the number of friends gained by Chapter I students in the thinking program, rose by 40 percent, according to a review by the Committee of the National Diffusion Network.

Now how would you suppose that they found such an interesting finding? And why do you suppose that anyone would want such a finding, which seems remarkably irrelevant to the learning of Higher Order Thinking Skills?

The how is easy. All educationistic "research" is done in the same way. Questions, not about what they know but about what they suppose they feel, are put to uninterested witnesses. The answers are tabulated and called "knowledge." Such an inquiry is not any order of thinking at all, but it is a hell of a fine problem-solving strategy.

As to why anybody would want such a finding--well, it probably has something to do with those wizard's hats and clown's noses, and several other kinds of masquerades as well.

Sometimes, It Doesn't Always Work

ONE of our part-time staffers was invited to have lunch with the Secretary of Education. So he went. There was talk of this and that, and even of the nature of "education." Our man, in strict accordance with our editorial policy, suggested that there ought to be some "pure" understanding of education, some chosen definition not dependent on time and place, not derived from current events and cases, but bearing reference only to human life and the human mind anywhere and everywhere. Everybody agreed, everybody being the Secretary and three of his people.

Our man went further, and suggested that, if we had to have such a thing as a Secretary of Education, he might best serve us all by being the proposer and champion of some such pure understanding, by walking point and drawing fire. Thus, at least, the supposed "great debate" going on these days might turn from the mechanics of schooling and the health of the economy to the considering of ideas. No disagreement there either.

But there was a strange reaction to our man's suggestion that an unchanging attribute of "education" was surely the ability, and the propensity, to make sense, and thus to detect nonsense. Again, no objection. Almost too obvious to mention. And it was quickly concluded that most of "us," mentioning no names, do make sense most of the time.

Our man, a paranoid who imagines that the expediencies of his own government are a greater threat to his security than Gadaffi and the KGB combined, did not want to get into the bad books of any high-ranking officials. He agreed, the wimp.

But life is always just. When he got back to the office, he had to read a long letter from one Frederick D. Goss, none other than the Executive Director of the Newsletter Association! Fred wanted to sell us some really neat ideas on making lots of money. Right at the bottom of page one (of six), there appeared this arresting proposition:

"Publishing newsletters is a risky business. The most successful publishers probably don't succeed more than 3/4 of the time."

All work stopped. We gathered to contemplate. The Associate Circulation Manager thought we might try to derive a syllogism, but the Typesetter suggested drawing a truth table. The Girl Who Makes the Coffee said that it would look good in cross-stitch. The Vice-President for Financial and Moral Affairs, still brooding about how to dump our holdings in IBM without providing the occasion of sin to some poor jerk who might buy them, offered a spreadsheet analysis to determine whether or not we could be said to succeed more or less, and to precisely what degree, than "3/4 of the time," probably, to be sure, and provided that we could determine exactly how much of "the time" we actually tried to succeed. Our Talmudic Scholar quoting some ancient sage, no doubt, said, "They say it can't be done, but sometimes it doesn't always work. Probably"

And, indeed, as though to approve the sage's words, Fred went to his next sentence: For others, frankly, the odds are greater.

The whole business has brought us to wonder. It seems so reasonable, and even so decent, to suppose that idiocy is just an aberration, and that most people do indeed make sense most of the time. But is it true? We have been watching our own mouths, and lots of others, with more than usual, and openly suspicious, attention.

We have discovered that we very rarely make sense. Almost never. It begins to seem that making sense is a skill not unlike the playing of the violin. It can, of course, be done, but no one simply falls into the habit of playing the violin. Even those who can do it, do it only by deliberate design. They don't just find themselves doing it without having intended to. It requires some special focusing, some stern singleness of purpose.

Most discourse is just chatter. It isn't even intended to "make sense," in which phrase the meaning of the word make is usually ignored. Mostly, we just gossip. We talk about details with no consideration at all for principles. Our talking is usually the exact opposite of literature, which is understood to be the illumination of the universal in the guise of the particular. We tell fragmentary stories, and we recite, for some social reason or other, not only what we have heard, but what we have often recited before. All in all, we natter.

When we do stumble across the need to relate detail to principle, we fall at once into false analogies, non-sequiturs, undefined terms, unexamined generalizations, untested, and often untestable, propositions, and total opacity to the differences between such mental acts as knowing, believing, and guessing.

Of course, that's just right here in our own office. Others probably do better. Maybe it's not that way at all down at the Department of Education.

Brief Notes

With this issue, we come to the end of Volume Ten. After a brief pause, we will go right on with Volume Eleven, starting with the February issue. Now it is time for a few messages to all readers:

Our beat-up old copy of Highet's Art of Teaching is out on loan, and working its way through the waiting list. But, we have ordered two more copies, which means, as several diligent readers found out, that it is still in print. Don't believe those bookstore clerks!

We remind one and all of a), our always granted permission to make and distribute copies of all our stuff, and b), our half-price subscriptions to retired teachers, whose presence among our readers indicates that they must have been good teachers, and the same discount, or even more, for any of our readers who happen to need it.

The Underground

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

Eight issues a year. Yearly subscription: Persons in USA & Canada, $15US;
Persons elsewhere, $20; Non-personal entities of any sort, $25, or even more.

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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