Volume Eleven, Number Four............May 1987

The Spin of Plato in His Grave

IT is no secret that philosophy, as a way of life rather than a subject to be taken in school, began and ended with Plato. Some few in every age, like Epictetus sitting on the curbstone, and Hoffer toting bales on the docks, have practiced philosophy as Socrates did, but the academicians know better. Philosophy is not just a subject to them, but a very hard subject indeed, and full of spiffy terms.

We had a letter from a reader, who sent us thanks for "slowing the spin of Plato in his grave," and we knew exactly what he meant. He, after all, was doing no less. In Plato, we see and hear people sitting around and talking. And, while their way of talking is not the same as that in which we reminisce and gossip, it was not all that special either. It was ordinary human talk called to order from time to time, and frequently sent off on long but essential detours so that a term might be thoughtfully defined and a proposition tested. And it is, therefore, especially for those who imagine that efficiency is the same as effectiveness, long and slow. And so it was that Aquinas argued the need for divine revelation, while holding also that all Truth could be discovered by reason alone. No one lives long enough to finish the job, however, so God gives us hints. Socrates was not entirely in disagreement with that.

The talking of philosophy was also different in its matter, but not in any way foreign to ordinary human experience. We can distinguish it nicely by stealing an idea from C. S. Lewis. It is talking in which people pay attention to what they are doing, and not to what may happen. Therefore, contrary to popular opinion, it is not "speculative." Unlike the bull-session, it is talking in which the talkers will agree, even if they have to be driven to agree, by the logic that is so often called "mere," that such mental acts as guessing, and wishing, and believing are not useful in a search for understanding. Speculation is for economists and sociologists, for religionists and reformers, for psychiatrists and politicians, and, strange as it may seem, for scientists.

After all, it is anything but speculative to say that he who wants to hire a horse-trainer should judge a candidate for the job not by what he says of himself but by the behavior of the horses he has trained, any more than it is by guessing that we know that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. Nor is it speculation, but simply a clarifying of meaning, to say that a stingy man thinks the liberal man profligate, and the profligate man thinks him stingy. It is out of the dawning of knowledge, not out of speculation, that a man may come to wonder whether he should want what he wants. And it is out of just such ordinary knowables that the talking of philosophy in Plato is built. We can all do it.

And we all do do it, if only for a moment, if only now and then.

The practice of philosophy in Plato takes it for granted that there is no understanding of greater mysteries for those who will not pass through the lesser, a notion no more arcane than our own well-founded suspicion that the way to get to Carnegie Hall is by practicing. If we have generally abandoned philosophy as a guide to ordinary living, it is not only because of the proprietary claims of academics, but also because it seems to us that philosophy has failed. Just look! All these centuries of philosophy, and Earth is not yet fair, nor all men wise and good! But the "philosopher," as Plato understood the word, knows that if Earth is ever to be fair, he had better straighten up his yard; and that all men will never be wise and good until he is wise and good. He knows, therefore, which part of the Great Work of Making the Whole World a Better Place is For him to do. And that is enough to make a philosopher. Well, maybe there is one more little thing, perhaps the least of the lesser mysteries, but one that fewer and fewer pass through these days. He has to be able to make sense in language.

Courtesy Month in Baltimore

"Schools simply can not be neutral any longer on these issues," said Larry Swift, executive director of the Washington State School Directors' Association. "Without civility, democracy becomes a ‘mockocracy'... Democracy founded on freedom simply won't work without a body of moral principles."

The larger question, Swift said, is "Who's (sic) values are we to teach?" He believes that there "is a body of values where there is near unanimous support, whether one embraces creationism, atheism, or any other -ism."

"Compassion is a value of Christianity, but to teach compassion is not necessarily to teach Christianity," Swift said.

...educators are at odds over whether school systems should incorporate values in existing curricula or establish a values curriculum. (Ah, what empires thus arise!) They wonder whether they should turn to the Bible or to the Bill of Rights for guidance. They agree on basic values such as honesty, integrity, and responsibility, but disagree over issues of sexuality, creationism, and even the definition of patriotism.

The (Baltimore) system began a program in 1983 based on values selected from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Each school holds a "value of the month" promotion through student-made posters and class discussions. "Courtesy is contagious, discourtesy is outrageous," was one student's poster during courtesy month.

Boston Globe, April 19, 1987

GET ready. We have an exciting year or two ahead of us. By October at the latest, we expect that readers of this sheet will be sending in examples of Goodness Guidelines and teachers' manuals for Values Inculcation Curricula. They will be very, very funny.

Contemplate this fact: Almost every schoolteacher in this land is a worker in a government agency, and sucking for sustenance at one of the hinder teats of the Great Sow of Public Policy. How do these people make their little ways in the world? They try to please. They compromise. They conciliate. They cut deals. They serve an interesting master, a master with no mind, no self, no soul. Policy. Whose policy? Well, society's policy, sort of, whoever that may be. You know. So how do they do it? They take a little here, give a little there. One back scratches the other. What they lose on the peanuts, they make up on the popcorn. That's why everything they do in their schools is so damned dull. They don't want to offend anybody. They do their business in little herds, committees and task-forces, so that no one person can be held responsible for anything, so that no one mind will have to make any judgments or decisions, so that the buck, should one come bounding in, will have no place to stop. And all the while, they whine and whimper that they don't get enough money for their highly professional labors, and that they don't even get no respect. But they do agree, oh indeedy they do, "on such basic values as honesty, integrity, and responsibility." And now they will undertake the great and noble task of teaching all of the children of America to walk in the path of righteousness. Wow.

Oh, sure, it'll be hard, But they're used to hard work. It's true. They do work hard, just as you would if you hadn't the foggiest idea of how to do the job that you had put yourself forth as able to do. It's not easy, you know. Just look at the magnitude of one of the tasks that these Civic Service Sages have nobly taken upon themselves. Here they are nodding wisely about honesty, integrity, and responsibility, and, hold on, here comes that ol' devil Sexuality. Golly. What now?

So what would you do, you mere layman, without the inestimable advantage of education academy training in egalitarian humanisticism to meet the ever-changing needs of a multi-cultural society in the modern world of today? You, you poor amateur, would probably say, Hold on a minute. If honesty, integrity, and responsibility are such great stuff, as we all agree, suppose we just go right ahead and agree that where sexual behavior is concerned, honesty, integrity, and responsibility are still great stuff?

Now that's dumb. If this weren't Courtesy Month, they would tell you where to head in with that kind of thinking. In the first place, they can agree on those three nifty "values" only because they are not going to be bothered with figuring out exactly what they mean by the words. In the second, and much bigger place, sexual matters are private, you know--which is why they recommend condoms to fourth-graders--and where screwing around is concerned we must think first of the inalienable rights of the individual in a pluralistic democracy. Now if you go around suggesting, for instance, that ignorant self-esteeming teenagers should be held responsible for the consequences of sexual self-expression, you are going to displease a lot of people.

And if you start getting down to mere particular cases, we may have to say that honesty, integrity, and responsibility ought to be concretely demonstrable attributes of the people who are going to teach others how to be honest, integral and responsible, and that will cause one hell of a ruckus in the teacher-testing business. So let's just leave that honesty, integrity, and responsibility stuff right where it belongs--on this neat new banner that we're going to wave where everybody can see it.

And then there's the Biggie, the Burning Question. Yeah, sure, we gotta have Values; but Whose? That is a question that only a jerk can ask. When a bunch of jerks come out in favor of honesty, we can be damned sure that next week they will wake up and start to say: Yeah, sure, we gotta push honesty, but Whose honesty? The Bible's honesty, or maybe the Constitution's honesty? Both neat honesties, for some people, of course, but let's face it, there's honesty and there's honesty, right? We've already got justice and justice, haven't we? There's social justice, and economic justice, so why not separate units on social honesty and economic honesty? And how about the Bushmen of the Kalahari? You never know when one of them might turn up. We might need a whole new curricular thrust, say, Honesties in Global Perspective, maybe. Could probably get a terrific grant for that one.

And out of the marvelously convenient question--Whose values?--mighty new empires will grow.

And then there'll be the tests. The school folk do love to show how accountable they are. They will need to develop, through compromise and conciliation of course, big batteries--they always call them "batteries"--of standardized assessment instruments to find out who's been persuaded of what. There'll be lots of true/false and multiple choice questions, so that the scores from Bayonne and from New Gretna can be meaningfully correlated with norms and standard deviations. There may even be a couple of heavy "thought" questions, beginning with: "How would you feel if..." They will be scored holistically.

It's all bunk. Children don't need Values Education. They need the valuable. They need good books and stories. Every good story, from Gilgamesh to "The Karate Kid," has celebrated such things as truthfulness, loyalty, bravery, compassion, generosity, steadfastness, and love. Great works don't teach us virtue, they show us virtue, and we rejoice to recognize it, and we find it fair--but, and a big but, only if we can read them, truly and thoughtfully read them.

We're sorry. We have to end by quoting ourselves:

"Literacy is not a handy knack. It is a moral condition. The ability to read attentively, reflectively, and judiciously is equally the ability to be attentive, reflective, and judicious. For the sake of just and sane living, literacy is not an optional adornment. It is a necessity. It is the necessity. It is not a variety or portion of education. It is education. It is the whole thing, the wholesome nourishment of the mind, by which it may grow strong enough to be the master of the will and not its slave, the judge of desire and not its procurer, the censor of sentiment and not its tool, and the inquisitor of belief, and not its flack. It is our only path to whatever wisdom we can have, which is our only path to whatever goodness we can know, which is our only path to whatever happiness we can enjoy."


*D*A*V*I*D *W.* *P*A*R*R*O*T*T*

Director of Life!

In the past, we have noticed that The Chronicle has exhibited a tendency to use the word "dorm" or "dormitory" when referring to on-campus living facilities... Please note, however, that the correct term is "residence halls."

Contrary to the contention of some, (to say) that a residence hall is, in reality, nothing more than a physical structure is to ignore the human element.... To refer to a residence hall as a "dorm" is to completely ignore the human component. Things such as an organized and active hall governance, participatory floor representation, comprehensive hall programming, differentiated living options, contemporary visitation policies, professional hall directors, highly trained supportive staff members, (and so forth on and on, in like jargon) are all tangible evidence of our evolution from archaic dormitory systems to the residence halls of today.

To professionals in the residence life area, the term dorm is one which we find derogatory in the same way as members of a minority find racial slurs to be derogatory...

The more progressive and conscientious members of the media use the term "residence hall" to denote on-campus students student housing facilities. It seems ironic that The Chronicle does not feel the need to conform to the same editorial practices and procedures currently utilized by the more established media in this and other areas around the country...

David W. Parrott
Director of Residence Life
Western Kentucky University

WHEN Molière's Tartuffe was first played in 1664, it met with, to say the least, some disapproval. Although Louis XIV was forced to ban its public presentation, it is one of the better things we say about him that he also sponsored private readings of this delicious satire, in which an earlier version of our wheedling and sanctimonious TV preachers gets what he deserves. It makes the heart rejoice.

Molière had a hard patch to get through, of course, but he made it.

Today, we suspect, he would not make it. This is not a good age for satire. It is the business of satire to castigate fools and villains, and there is no castigation more effective than ridicule. Fools and villains usually take themselves seriously. But our Tartuffes have even more clout than the Sun King's board of prelates. And even the humbler classes of fools and villains, the sort of which comedy has always been made, are beginning to discover that they can shelter themselves from the cold wind of laughter if only they can claim membership in the right club.

We do, we must admit, indulge in a bout of derision now and then. It seems to us good to show that a jerk is a jerk. It makes the heart rejoice. But what are we to do with David W. Parrott, director of life?

Here's the problem. We have just heard about a college boy in California who got in a heap of trouble because of a comic strip he does for a student newspaper. It was about a rooster who got into school through affirmative action. He (the student, not the rooster) was enjoined against more of the same by the local Attitude Police, who also pointed out, in response to his feeble defense, that other campus publications could derogate people as long as their victims were only "Europeans," who are not an ethnic or cultural group.

It's a little scary. We would have liked, for instance, to say something funny about people who call themselves "professionals in the residence life area," but suppose that Parrott fellow turns out to be an Eskimo, or something else? After all, there is that business in his letter about "racial slurs." Is that a hint?

We would have liked to talk about the popular habit these days, especially in school people, of claiming the rank of "professional," a word that used to be related to the idea of "professing." It would have been fun to point out that Academe is clogged with people who were "professionals" in the residence life area until they got a chance to become "professionals" in the curriculum development area, and who are now trying to wangle themselves slots as "professionals" in the academic administration enhancement area. We would have liked to quote Thoreau, about those people who loudly protest the great importance of the work they do, but who would abandon it in a minute for just a little more money or a slightly fancier title.

We would even have liked to talk about the strange magic of words, and that condition of mind that must prevail in a man who thinks himself injured when someone uses a word, and the tenor of our times, in which a man is encouraged not only to think himself injured by a word, but to demand redress for his injury.

We would have liked to wonder aloud: Do kids still answer taunts with "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me?" Are we more superstitious than we used to be?

And we would--oh, the shame of it!--we would have liked to come right our with it and call David W. Parrott what he is--the guy in charge of the dorms.

But we had a staff meeting and decided that we do want to "conform to the same editorial practices and procedures utilized (no comment) by the more established media," so we have elected to say nothing about Parrott until we can get hold of his pedigree.

Summer Notes From Central Control

We recently sent out lots of orders for Leaflets for the Masses. They were arranged by contents in big stacks on the floor, of course. An animal came in and knocked some of them over. If your shipment contains more than you ordered, that is fine with us. Pass them around. But if something you wanted is missing, let us know. We'll send it right on. The animal will lick the stamps.

By the end of the summer, there will be one more Great Booklet, and perhaps also another collection of pieces that have appeared since the publication of The Leaning Tower of Babel. Please keep sending us candidates for inclusion in Great Booklets. They don't have to be short. Two or three pages can make a good read.

We know, from your requests for advice, that it is hard these days to find a bookseller who is willing to carry more than a whore's memoirs and guides to dieting and getting rich. There is a good bookseller who deals, and promptly, by mail. His catalog is also, in part, a thoughtful little journal. Ask for it from: A Common Reader, 175 Tompkins Avenue, Pleasantville, NY 10570.

Yes, our half-price subscription for retired school-teachers, and anyone else who needs it, is still in effect, and always will be. It is underwritten voluntarily by readers who send more money than they have to. Please take advantage of it for whatever reason. We need as many friends as we can find.

In August, the Fireside division of Simon and Schuster will publish a new book by our associate circulation manager. It is unlike his earlier works, two of which--The Graves of Academe, and The Leaning Tower of Babel--will be reissued in paperback by the same publisher at the same time.

Someone wrote in to ask, "Who is the one who writes those charming notes on scraps of yellow paper?" It is, of course, Central Control herself, whose handwriting some happy few are able to read. She reads some strange books, and just now she is trying to find, and borrow, some readers copy of Rural England (1902), by H. Rider Haggard, of all people. She is convinced that one of our readers will surely have it.

Advice from Kafka for summer reading:

"If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we should also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves; like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us."

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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