Volume Eleven, Number Three............April 1987

Pilgrims Progressive

There was some books... One was Pilgrim's Progress, about a man that left his family, it didn't say why. The statements was interesting, but tough.

To be good is noble; but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble.

Mark Twain

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds; in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.


IN a government high school in New York, a student found a purse that held about a thousand dollars in cash. She turned it in to the lost and found. That, frankly, does not surprise us. It is a deed that is properly, and very instructively, to be called "natural." Had she kept both her counsel and the money, that, of course, would be called only natural. The distinction apparently intended by that term is intriguing.

Somebody--who and why we do not know--went around asking a strange question, and found not one adult in the whole school who was willing to go out on a limb and say that such a deed ought to be called "virtuous." And one of the student's teachers said, "If I come from a position of what is right and wrong, then I am not their counselor." And that is a deed, and an inward condition as well, that simply can not be called "natural." It bespeaks some little twist, something out of order, some wrongness, but, of course, a wrongness that is deemed "only natural."

We read that story in a pullout section in the Christian Science Monitor. It was devoted to the latest educationistic Great Lurch Forward, nothing less than Morals Education from the people who gave us the Lifeboat Game. There, too, we found the words of a "leading child psychologist at Harvard University," probably doing his leading in the Education School, although not so specified, probably out of a natural sense of kindness in Robert Marquand, who wrote the cover story. "Far from knowing whether or not it can be taught," says the leading child psychologist, "I have no idea what ‘virtue' really is."

By such counselors who have no counsel to give, and by such leading child psychologists who know not where to lead, the school children are led into a land where Horatio, now a negotiator who abhors violence, stands no longer at the bridge. Honest Abe has more sense than to trudge by night through the snow for the sake of a lousy book, and little George puts the silver dollar in his pocket and throws the hatchet across the river. In next year's texts, Ivan Boesky will maximize his potential.

And then there are the Pilgrims. We do not hold that religionists have any special license to pronounce on the nature of the good, but conclude rather that they have traditionally put themselves forth as "knowers" who speak out of something other than knowledge, thus usurping the proper work of the mind and handing it over to the sentiments. Nevertheless, it can not be denied that religionists, like many other sorts of people from shoemakers to kings, have frequently been able also to do the work of the mind and thus to seek goodness. But even to mention religionists in the government schools is to run the risk of offending some other kinds of religionists, and thus it is that while the Pilgrims probably do have to be mentioned in the history text, they must be defined as "people who take long trips."

It will be a long trip indeed to the land of Morals Education for the folk who have taught the last few generations of Americans to esteem themselves and diligently to neglect all the evidence by which they might be led to see themselves as less than estimable. Far will they travel from that glad land where the ability to discriminate between better and worse is called bigotry, and where self discipline is a mark of the aberrant over-achiever. But not to worry. Have they not already knocked off Thinking Education, which at one time seemed so little to be hoped for from the people whose "thought questions" usually begin with "How would you feel if..."?

Nevertheless, there grows among us these days some fuzzy notion that "the schools" ought to be "teaching values." Nice ones. As to what "the schools" can do about the teachers who think it amateurish to "come from a position of right and wrong," and theoretical educationists whose sensibilities are too highly developed to permit of coarse distinctions, there are as yet no suggestions. Well, don't worry about it. There will surely be a commission. And a report.

The whole mess led us to brooding. And we wondered--What about the students in that high school? Are there any who would admit that their classmate had done the right thing, even the "good" thing, however unprofitable? Does that leading child psychologist suddenly find some distinction between virtue and vice when his colleague down the hall gets himself promoted by slandering the competition, or when his mechanic polishes up his old carburetor and bills him for a new one?

And, as we brooded, we had news from California about Miss Silver. You've probably not heard of Miss Silver, a "teacher" of "applied economics" in Van Nuys. We heard of her in the magazine Los Angeles, in a remarkable piece called "Ben Stein's High School Diary." Stein, a reporter, went to the high school for the sake of an article, and spent a whole year there. His work combines skillful eyewitness reporting with thoughtful and kind understanding. Read it if you can.

Here is what Miss Silver says of her work as a teacher:

I want to be real in class and be a good human being. I try to make an example of myself. Plus, I like to have a good time. I want to set an example of being a good human being.

And here is a typical diary entry from one of Miss Silver's classes, an honors class in applied economics:

Miss Silver then goes on to discuss the 1982 campaign between George Deukmejian and Tom Bradley for governor. "Why did the polls say that Bradley would beat Duke, and then why did Duke win?" she asks. The students all look at her expectantly. "Because," she answers to herself, "the voters didn't want to seem to be racists when they were polled, but they really were racists, so they voted as racists at the election."

"I don't buy that," says Kevin, a lively student who sells plastic ties. "I think that maybe Bradley was beaten because the black voter turnout was so low."

"That's a good point," says Miss Silver. "Now, do any of you know why the absentee vote is usually so heavily Republican?" Again, the students look blank. "Because rich Republicans are the kind of people who go on long vacations and plan ahead enough to get absentee ballots," she says blithely, and no one contradicts her.

For the day's final note, there is the briefest of discussions on what distinguished the Federalists from the anti-Federalists. Chris, an excellent history student, starts to give a detailed answer in terms of states' rights and slavery and trade, but Miss Silver cuts him off. "Okay, all you advanced-placement history students, stop showing off. All we need to know is that some of them liked the Constitution and some didn't."

If you did want to understand why some people did not like the Constitution, who would you want for your teacher, Miss Silver or Chris? How about Kevin?

The content of Miss Silver's political notions is not to the point. If she were another teacher with another automatic faith she would say exactly the same things by filling in the blanks with different details. What is to the point is that she has political notions, and that she recites them--"blithely." They are, like all notions, unexamined ideas about value, about what is the better and what is the worse. So Miss Silver already is, not indeed a teacher, but certainly a preacher of morality, at least of a morality. Like preachers in general, she is not in the business of putting forth propositions that would be interesting (but tough) to test, but only of making assertions.

Another day, "the class goes into a long discussion of United States foreign policy,

...which Miss Silver thinks is selfish and hypocritical, but "nations almost always do just what they feel they have to do anyway," she says. "Nations rarely act out of altruism, even if they pretend to."

Randy adds, "Almost no one ever acts out of altruism, but then why should they? Where does it get you?"

"You're right," says Miss Silver. "People expect altruism, and hope for it, but it rarely occurs in a pure form."

"Robots are going to be the only ones to survive," says one boy. "They don't expect anything in return."

Suddenly we can see where some true and non-factional sort of "moral teaching" might begin. And suddenly, too, we see the real Miss Silver, wistful and puzzled, dismayed by the darkness and looking for some light, and, exactly like her poor students, finding no light, and so deciding that there is no light.

And we like her, and even have some small hope for her. She does not mind at all "coming from a position of right and wrong." Indeed, she wants to do that, to be a good person rather than another sort, and to present a good example.

But at the same time, she believes that she does see the light. After all, she knows exactly who is a racist, and who isn't. She knows that Republicans who plan ahead are slyly seizing advantage over Democrats who don't. Those are moral positions, and Miss Silver stands rooted in them. How did that happen, and, most important of all, how did Miss Silver come to think such beliefs knowledge, and to pass them on as such to children?

What she needs and doesn't have is exactly what her students need and don't have--a teacher. Had one been around that day, consider what he might have said of that idle talk:

Wait. Let us stop and think a while about what we have been saying. Is it really of any use to believe that meaningful deeds can be done where there is no person to do them, and to mean them? How can a nation be altruistic, or selfish, for that matter? Is that not exactly the sort of condition reserved to human beings--to us, who sit here and lament the woeful shortage of what we long to see and that we alone can provide?

And how interesting it is that we say that we expect and hope for that very inward condition that we also pronounce exceedingly rare, and to be depended upon only in robots. Is the hope of goodness only a foolish dream? If so, what point can there be in Miss Silver's condemnations of badness? If rich Republicans are to be condemned for serving their own interests through taking thought for the morrow, are poor Democrats to be praised for failing to do the same out of improvidence?

And why, if there is no good to be found, is this discussion so fascinating, and at once so saddening? Why do we all find these questions interesting, but tough? Why do we sigh a bit at the thought that only robots can do their work without expecting anything in return? Is that a reasonable thought at all? Is the utter and inevitable indifference of robots the same as what we mean by "altruism"? Is that what we expect and hope for? And, as to that question, and to all our questions, is Miss Silver going to say, "All we need to know is that..."? And if she does, what will that astonishing All turn out to be?

Miss Silver stands every day, like every teacher in the world, on the brink, not of teaching, but of learning about what she means by goodness. If she doesn't, and thus doesn't lead her students into the same, it is not because of what is in her head, but because of what is not in her head. Her head is brimming full of all sorts of stuff that was put there, as it is in all our heads, by the suggestions of environment and company.

Miss Silver is a bit disorderly and undisciplined, and given to putting aside the work of the day whenever she feels like it. Her knowledge of her "subject," admittedly a vague one, shows remarkable gaps.

However, and a big however it is, Miss Silver is probably very much like countless other teachers both in the schools of the government and the religious schools. She will not, like her oh so sophisticated colleague in New York, pronounce her lofty independence of mere questions of better and worse. She will not claim that she doesn't know what virtue is, but will rather lament the rarity of whatever it is that she supposes virtue. So, unlike the fashionable relativist poseur, she is sometimes bewildered, which is at least a beginning.

And if she has not gone past the beginning, it is because, as in her counterpart in the religious schools, her supposings about virtue are not the fruit of her mind's work, but its seed. In her school, she is Sister Silver, reciting precepts and dogma, and telling the better from the worse as though from a table of guidelines.

So the Great Government School Moral Reawakening can take only one path. It will be the noble, and relatively untroublesome, enterprise of telling other people to be good. It will not--for this is obviously beyond the powers, and even beyond the ken, of Miss Silver & Co.--bother itself with necessarily lengthy considerations of why to be good, and just what it means to be good. Goodness Education will be to Goodness what Sex education is to sex, not even a relative, but a tiresome in-law at best.

Plain English Strikes Again

The Oregon Adult and Family Services Division is looking for another word for "pregnant," one that an eighth-grade level reader might understand. The search is just one result of a new law that goes into effect later this year. It requires that brochures and forms from the Adult and Family Services--the welfare office--be written in plain English. The thesaurus already has been getting a workout.

The Oregonian, January 30, 1987

FOR this piece, we had to get out the eleven-foot pole. It isn't easy, you know, to sit around brooding on the fact that eighth-graders in Oregon can not be expected to know the meaning of "pregnant."

Eighth-graders are usually about thirteen or fourteen years old, give or take a year or two. Would you like to have a nickel for every eighth-grader in Oregon who knows what "pregnant" means, even if you had to give back a dollar for every one who doesn't? How colossal a jerk would you have to be to imagine that a thesaurus will provide a simpler word? If you did unearth an eighth-grader who didn't know the meaning of "pregnant," which would you deem the better: coming up with an "easier" word, or explaining the meaning of the one he doesn't understand?

Your answers to such questions, of course, would simply make sense. But the agents of government do not want answers that make sense. They want answers that make jobs, and that justify the perpetual growth of the ranks of government agents. So it is that state after state has enacted these silly "plain English" laws, so that a job that might be done quickly and well by one good mind, as the box on the next page demonstrates, will be done ill and continually by no mind at all, but by committee.

Oregon's plain English legislation is not aimed, of course, at children who are actually in the eighth grade. It is aimed at children who left the eighth grade, if they ever saw it at all, long ago. And the law requires not exactly "eighth-grade English" in government welfare regulations, but an even lesser variety. "The goal... is to use a sixth-grader's vocabulary in sentences that an eighth-grader can understand." Tall order. Whole oodles of educationist reading experts will make bundles out of widespread poverty and ignorance, reaping where they have sown.

The revisionists of Oregon's Adult and Family Services division have a nifty computer program that counts the numbers of letters, words, and syllables in a sentence and then determines (according to somebody) the "reading level a person would need to be able to read what was written." It works like this. The first is not made out of sixth-grade words in sentences that an eighth-grader can understand; the second is:

"Shelter will be provided as required to meet the immediate need. The costs are not limited to ADC standards, but will not exceed the minimum necessary to meet the emergency."

"Cash can be given to help with urgent shelter needs. The amount of assistance will be the smallest amount needed to meet the emergency."

You figure it out.

And in Kentucky--for God's sake be careful driving there--they hoked up a driver's manual written at the sixth-grade level. Still too hard. Now they are working on a new one at third-grade level. But it's not easy. It turns out that the State Police have some elitist notions. They say that a few real hard words, like "lawful" and "legal," for instance, can not be replaced with any one of what must be a host of equivalents in any good thesaurus. So now the state apparatchiki, three school teachers with five thousand dollars of the taxpayers's dough, are at work on a glossary that will "explain the more difficult terms" like legal and lawful. It will also be printed in "larger, easier-to-read type." And someday, we have no doubt, in Braille. After all, is this the kind of nation in which citizens can be deprived of their right to tear along the highways in steel machines just because of some little incapacity beyond their control?

There seems to be some great Law of Nature at work here. We can all remember the March of Progress to the ninth-grade level, and then to the eighth. Now we have reached the third. Suddenly, we understand why the educationists are calling for more of that "preschooling." It is not only so that more people will become wards of the state as soon as possible, but so that they will have some place to retreat to from the kindergarten level.

Plain English at Last

by John Sneil, Oregonian Reporter
without Thesaurus

Old brochures for emergency assistance, for example, told people who needed help that "if it appears the emergency might be met through another agency or community resource, the AES worker will contact the agency or resource, determine whether help is available, and set up a definite appointment for the applicant before sending him or her from the branch office."

The new form says "if the need can be met by another agency or community resource, AFS will contact the agency or resource."

Both sentences mean that if the agency can find help from somebody other than the state, it will.

Brief Notes

THIS journal was recently written about in Personal Publishing, a computer magazine, as an unusual example of what is nowadays called "desktop publishing." For an interview, the only one we could spare from his work was our Associate Circulation Manager, who seems to have said that the system of publishing that we use would be illegal in nine out of ten nations on Earth. Where he got his statistics, we don't know, but then we never do.

We would have put it somewhat otherwise, and pointed out that private publishing of any kind is indeed illegal in many places, and much circumscribed in many others. But the great inhibitor of private publishing in this country is simply cost. And the greatest virtue of our system of publishing is that it is relatively cheap, and especially suited to those who can work for themselves without pay, and who therefore do not need to worry about the advertisers, who are the real masters of the press that likes to call itself "free."

Freedom of the press, as Liebling put it, used to belong only to one who had a press; now it belongs, and also comes most easily, to one who has a Macintosh. That's all we have. We do not have the elegant LaserWriter that makes our final copy, but we know places where that can be done--cheap, too. We do pay a printer to make litho plates, and print, and cut and fold the copy that we send you, but, if we had to, we could print the whole edition on same sort of duplicating machine. And we use marvelous software, with which anyone can learn, and quickly, as much skill as Tom Paine or Ben Franklin ever reached. Which was enough.

Furthermore, we teach all this to others whenever we can. We think that "desktop publishing" is bunk, and, so far, nothing more than tricky typewriting in a venal cause, competing with the Japanese, perhaps, or some other such nonsense. Where is this age's William Lloyd Garrison?

Well, wherever he is, we hope he knows where we are. We can tell him all that he needs to know, even if he hasn't spent eight years setting type by hand, which is what we used to tell all would-be publishers. All he has to do is call us up here most any evening at (609) 589-6477. And if he wants to start out with the cub scout newsletter, that's just fine by us too.

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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