Kafka's Advice for 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.
Really Swell News from Mrs. Hirsch's
It should energize people to learn that
only a few hundred pages of information stand between the literate and
the illiterate, between dependence and autonomy.
WE predicted, in September
of 1985, that one E. D. Hirsch would emit a book. It seemed the politest
apt word. He has now done it. What you see above is from that book, and
the "few hundred pages of information" to which he refers will
surely be emitted in the near future by some pack of educationists. Somehow,
as dearly as we would love to put away dependence and learn autonomy,
we are not entirely energized by the suggestion that some bits of information
will set us free.
We first mentioned Hirsch in a piece called
"Trivial Pursuits." He was, in those days, going around suggesting,
much to the comfort of Albert Shanker, that the real problem in literacy
was not that children were unable to discover and consider meaning in
their reading, but that they just hadn't heard of enough stuff. He proposed
what he called cultural literacy, to be achieved by giving the
kiddies more stuff to hear of, so that they would not go catatonic at
the mention of Congreve or a paradigm, thus dooming themselves to perpetual
illiteracy and dependence.
Just now, to be sure, Hirsch's list of stuff
doesn't happen to include either Congreve or paradigm, but not to worry.
That can be added to the next version. And so can something else, and
something else. It could go on forever, with grant after grant, and emission
after emission. Neat.
Here is a bit from The Great Code,
by Northrop Frye:
There are two forms of half-reading that
indicate how two processes are always involved. If we are reading a
technical treatise on a subject we know little about, we can see that
the sentences make grammatical sense, but we do not have enough external
referents to complete the operation. ...If, on the other hand, our reading
is lazy and inattentive, we recognize the individual words, but are
not making the organized effort... to unify them syntactically. One
point that is significant here is that this centripetal organizing effort
of the mind is primary. Mere unfamiliarity with the referents, which
can be overcome by further study, is secondary. Failure to grasp centrifugal
meaning is incomplete reading; failure to grasp centripetal meaning
is incompetent reading.
Anyone who has paid close attention to reading,
and given effort in the search for meaning, can testify to the truth of
Frye's observation, but Frye also contributes an idea that we might not
all think of for ourselves. It is his assertion that the primary act of
reading is the organizing work of the mind, and that the collection of
referents, or stuff to hear of, is secondary. Clerk-work, we would say.
Often essential, no doubt, and not always swiftly accomplished, but still
a kind of clerk-work.
The list of stuff to hear about is, of course,
infinite; but the number of things you have to have heard about to make
sense of some piece of reading is usually surprising small. Indeed, in
the most important reading of all, such things, as an essay of Bacon or
a choral recitation from Antigone, require no special knowledge
at all. If you put off reading Antigone until you have committed
to memory your "few hundred pages of information," you will
not only waste a good part of your life, but you will also find your fund
of information utterly beside the point. If you do not understand, it
will not be because you need yet more information, but because you need
more of the primary power, the organizing power of the mind.
Frye makes another subtle point in his use
of "centripetal" and "centrifugal." The frenzies of
our Hirsches are without understanding, but never without meaning, and
the meaning is almost always related to some social agenda, some plan
for the improvement of all those other people. There are supremely
important differences between the gathering of information and the nurture
of the organizing power of the mind. The first leads outward and away
from the self, perhaps for all of a lifetime. It is, its obvious importance
notwithstanding, a disintegration and a diffusion. The second integrates
and concentrates, and leads within. If it is to grow at all, the mind
must turn away from the chaotic world of information and look to itself,
govern itself, choose and arrange. It must mind itself.
The first is clearly public and social.
It lies on the ground like pebbles and shells, or, if you like the implication,
(we do), like fallen leaves in Vallombrosa. (Not on Hirsch's list. Next
time, maybe.) The second is private and individual. It is not to be sought
out, but must be made by the one who would have it. Countless thousands
scurry to bring us information; it is cheap, and can be had for nothing
more than the asking. Understanding is like living and dying; no one else
can do it for you. It costs a lot.
The school people just don't like to encourage
private and individual enterprise. They do all they can to prevent solitude,
the only condition in which the mind can develop powers. So it is that
their readings (what child would want to read that tripe?) are either
devised, or sanitized, to keep the mind looking away from itself, and
occupied always with scraps of information unharmonized by principles.
Hirsch's oxymoronic term, "cultural literacy," tells us more
than he intended. Yes, that is what they want. Not literacy, but cultural
literacy. It is to literacy what minimum competence is to competence,
or what military music is to music. What else do you need if you have
nothing to read but handouts of cultural literature?
We have repeated Kafka's advice for reading
for two reasons. For one thing, it provides an interesting test of a zany
notion like "cultural literacy." Imagine that you are teaching
a class of children who are trying to understand what Kafka means. They
are saying, let us pretend, "Huh? Wha?" And you, a with-it teacher,
will send them to the latest list of stuff to hear of. There, of course,
they will look for fist, skull, ice-axe, and suicide.
And, yes, for ill fortune, and for happy. And behold! Autonomy!
But we reprint Kafka also because his words
have taken on new meaning. While such "books" as Hirsch's do
not make us happy, neither do they come upon us like ill fortune, for
they are not that important, and not like a fist on the skull, either.
More like a boil on the butt. And they will pass. But it is important
to notice that such a book will indeed make some people happy, and lots
of them. Some of them will be desperate parents, who will be led to believe
that now those school people know what to do, but most of them will be
the people in whose establishment Hirsch makes his living.
Kafka is right. Such books as make us happy
we can write for ourselves.
I know not what course others may take,
but as for me,
give me Democracy or give me death!
THE American Educator
is the official organ (what a great word) of the American Federation of
Teachers, a labor union. We don't know why they send it to us, but they
do. Indeed, the Fifth Amendment would clearly excuse them from sending
it to anyone, but, fortunately for the rest of us, they seem oblivious
to its self-incriminatory content.
The issue for Summer, 1987, like all the
other issues, in fact, is an exercise in self-praise. It is largely devoted
to the latest bandwagon, the Great Moral Re-awakening Through Values Education.
The schoolteachers of the AFT, known to themselves as "educators,"
have happily concluded that "democracy," whatever they mean
by that, is "the noblest political effort in history," and thus
the root and type of all the virtue that anyone needs, but not including,
apparently, some virtue that might be called "nobility." Barred,
no doubt, by the Constitution's ban on titles.
The battle-cry of the government schoolteachers
will be "Education for Democracy." It can be read in several
ways: Education in favor of Democracy; Education for the sake
of Democracy, or for the continued welfare and persistence of
Democracy. It can even mean, and to these people probably does, Education
as some internal adjustment of the sentiments in favor of whatever can
be called Democracy. But there is one way in which it can not be
read: Education for a person who would like to make up his own
mind about Democracy, or vegetarianism, or voodoo, or any other set of
Like most sheets whose readers can't keep
their minds in order from one paragraph to the next, American Educator
festoons its pages with inset excerpts in big, bold type. You can learn
a lot about both the sheet and the readers, nothing else, by considering
the excerpts that someone has deemed suitable. In "Education for
Democracy: A Statement of Principles," the first Helpful Hint for
Slow Readers is:
"A majority of high school seniors
could not identify Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin."
Wow. Neither could Socrates, come to think
of it, but then he wasn't all that hot for democracy anyway.
So what do Churchill and Stalin have to
do with Education for Democracy? Easy. One was a good guy, and the other,
the one to whom Pablo Neruda wrote two odes, was a bad guy. And one did
his business in a place called a democracy, while the other did his business
in a place called a republic. See? Now that will astonish and edify all
those Me Generation kiddies and send them right out into the streets to
interview the homeless. That's virtue.
In fact, of course, Socrates knew all about
Churchill and Stalin. He was ignorant only in matters of no importance
whatever--their names and dates, and their party tags. And those are the
very things that the schoolers have in mind when they want high school
students to "identify" those two politicians, in a multiple
choice test, no doubt. To bring students to an understanding of
such perennial and universal appearances as Churchills and Stalins is
in neither the power nor the plan of the schoolers.
Consider another of their bold-face captions
for the reading-impaired:
"The kind of critical thinking we wish
to encourage must rest on a solid base of factual knowledge."
Yeah. The same solid base of factual knowledge
that schoolers have always provided in mealy-mouthed textbooks concocted
by peddlers to please politicians, and chosen through conciliation and
compromise by committees. There is a charming irony in that pledge of
allegiance to factual knowledge in the mouths of people who have built
an empire on the "findings" derived from educationistic "scholarship,"
which is done through the circulation of questionnaires in which hearsay
evidence (as to their feelings, more often than not) is gathered from
It would be interesting to discover whether
the AFT schoolers would accept a slight modification of one of their "principles."
Would they be willing to consider a critical thinking that rests on a
solid base of all pertinent factual knowledge? Wouldn't anything
less than that be better described as a porous base of factual knowledge?
We suspect that they would not consent.
In the first place, they would say, of course, that there is no hope of
ever having all pertinent knowledge about anything. And to that, we would
say, Right! So stop pretending that there is any great lesson to be learned
by identifying Churchill and Stalin. They would say that, in the
absence of all pertinent factual knowledge, that they would just have
to select the "right" factual knowledge. To that, we would say,
Yeah. And we would be left with what they do in fact propose without defining:
A real solid base of the right factual knowledge selected by people
who, just like all the rest of us, don't know all the pertinent factual
knowledge, but who, unlike all the rest of, have a real solid agenda for
the improvement of lots of other people.
And the improvement they have in mind is
not one that will make those other people better in themselves, but one
that will make them better for some purpose outside of themselves. It
is Education for Democracy, which is simply the newest name of
Life-adjustment. The great Purpose of this bold, innovative thrust is
not only that that the government shall persist, which is probably not
an unmitigated evil, but that the desire to be governed shall persist
in the children who ought to be learning self-government. That is not
surprising, for the thrusters are almost all agents of the government,
and obviously content to be governed by an anthology of collective beliefs.
It is a popular notion--and for some a convenient
notion--that the root of virtue is to be dug up out there, and that
the search for virtue, which is the only truly important business of life,
is to be conducted in the world rather than in the self. This makes it
possible, under any form of government, to imagine that we have
fed the hungry and clothed the naked when we have merely handed over some
cash to some agency, and that we are lovers of peace when we cry out in
the streets against that one special kind of war that we can't afford
to wage. It also makes it possible to imagine, under any form of government,
that ours can provide better virtues than those provided by others.
What else can we mean when we speak of "democratic
virtues"? Is this to suggest that some goodness was unavailable to
people under the Bourbons, or that Marcus Aurelius could not seek out
the meaning and worth of justice? If Stalin lied and murdered, was it
because he was a communist? If Churchill did indeed refrain from such
deeds (which, in the absence of all the pertinent factual knowledge, no
one can say) was it because of democratic virtues? Or was it--oh horrors!--because
of what he might have chosen to call, much to the dismay of the entire
apparatus of government schooling, "aristocratic virtues"?
Education is one thing, not many things.
It is not the content of the mind, but a Way of the mind. If the "democratic
education" is different from the "socialist education,"
it is because neither is Education.
We have one more slight change to suggest
to the schoolteachers of America, and a patriotic one at that. Anyone
who reads around in the documents of the Founders can see that they rarely
used the word "democracy." A word they used very often, however,
was "liberty." It is, for some strange reason, a word that we
do not often hear either from politicians or social activists, or even
from all those schoolteachers who claim to find this nation "the
noblest political effort in history." Would they agree, do you suppose,
if only out of respect to the noblest political effort in history, to
name their latest bold, innovative thrust, Education for Liberty?
In a pig's eye. Democracy is for a state;
liberty is only for a person. The schoolers like to Think Big.
Nor would it be of any use. The schoolers
can give only whatever it is they have--a tidy smattering of nothing but
the right factual knowledge.
Education for Democracy
IF you have tears, prepare
to shed them now. And if you have any notions that schools are intended
for the good of persons rather than institutions, shed those as well.
And if you laugh with scorn at the letter reproduced below, go and spend
a year attending classes at the local high school. Take the tests.
Don't bother trying to identify D. L. All
the initials are phony. Besides, you already know his name. Legion.
He seems a nice kid, an energetic eager
beaver. He may well have some of the artistic talent he claims, and he
may even, someday, sweep to executive level. He will make a living, pay
some taxes, buy some products, vote for the candidate of his choice, raise
some children, send them to school, where they can learn all that he has
learned, so that in time they too will make a living, pay some taxes,
buy some products, vote for the candidates of their choice, raise some
children... and so on, forever and ever, or at least as long as democracy,
with the help of D. L. and his progeny, shall endure.
Many succeed very well in this life with
no more than D. L.'s powers of language and thought. Once he finds the
right spot, he will almost surely, like almost everyone else in this land,
never have to think out another sentence, whether of his own or of anyone
else's. He will in no way be disabled from exercising his "rights
and duties as a citizen," which are really no more than paying taxes
and voting for somebody or other.
So ask yourself: For which has this decent
and innocent kid been prepared--for democracy or for liberty?
Hello / / / / / / / / / / /
CONGRADULATIONS / / / / / / / / /
My name is D--- L--------. Iam a Senoir
at F____ Sr High. Your place of business has been selected to recieve
one of my letters, thus explaining the congradulations at the top of this
expensive smelling letter. Iam writeing you because Icame across your
business with interest-ASTRONOMICAL INTEREST. I currently work 12-4 weekdays
on the early release program at school. but Istill want a weekend job
that doesn't have to pay anything. YOU DON'T HAVE TO PAY ME.
All you have to do is let me work at your
place of business during the weekend. Why do I want this??? We'll, I want
a Art-z, design, creative surronding. I will hopefully be attending the
College of Associated Arts in P------ next year. So if you want to pay
me you can but, a free weekend worker is writeing you who will do sweeping
to executive level work.
AS you know, we gave
up hand-set type more than two years ago. We did that not to cut costs,
which it surely doesn't, but because our cheap type-setter was getting
old. At first, the best we could think of our computer typesetting was
that it was at least typesetting, sort of. But we did miss, and so did
many readers, the look of the page as it once was.
Now, however, we think we are close to the
old look. This is partly because we have discovered that some of the techniques
of hand-set type can indeed be reproduced on the computer by those who
are willing to work very slowly. But it is due even more to our good fortune
in discovering two geniuses of the new technology, in whom tradition and
individual talent are lawfully wedded.
They are the makers of almost all of the
type and ornaments that we use. Their work--the face you are reading, for
example--has on it the touch of the human hand, for it is all done by eye,
not as is the case with the typefaces now being made by the computer people,
by algorithm. You can see what we mean by looking at the formula-generated
face with which we began. See? Frigid.
As more and more of our readers reveal themselves
as makers of small, private publications, and send along examples of their
work, we begin to suspect that there might yet be some good to come of
the "desk-top publishing" fad. We urge all such to write to
our type designers. (We think of them as "ours." They could
Poor Richard's Typecase
RD 1 Box 71
Chester, New York 10918
The Electric Typographer
2216 Cliff Drive
Santa Barbara, California 93109
We commend also to your attention a journal
published by one of our readers: Spell/Binder, 1527 Gilmore St.,
Mountain View, CA 94040. Very good on complications of grammar and syntax.
Should be encouraged.
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
Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;
nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.