Volume Eleven, Number Five............September 1987

Uncontrollable Emissions

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 Little Boy:

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 beliefs.

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 self-interested witnesses.

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.

Brief Notes

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 be yours.)

Richard Beaty
Poor Richard's Typecase
RD 1 Box 71
Chester, New York 10918

Judith Sutcliffe
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.

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.

Typos and comments:

For a printer friendly version of the entire volume, go to ShareText.Com

Copyright © 2000 by Mark Alexander. All Rights Reserved. SOURCETEXT, SHARETEXT,
and others are trademarked 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 by
Mark Alexander, P. O. Box 5286, Auburn, CA 95604.

SourceText.Com and ShareText.Com are divisions of
Breeze Productions, P.O. Box 5286, Auburn, CA 95604.