Volume Eleven, Number Six............October 1987

Wise Choices in Peoria

Here's something else for parents to worry about: the Peoria County regional superintendent of schools thinks there is no longer any need to learn arithmetic. Let kids use hand-held calculators, says Gerald Brookhart.

"Do you think kids twenty years from now are going to have to know the times tables?" he asked. "I don't think so. They'll have a hand calculator that's as big as a credit card."

..."The real illiterates of the future," say Brookhart, "will be those who can't make wise choices from a series of complex choices, not somebody who can't read or write."

Peoria Journal Star, August 8,1987

HERE we go again. Every month or so, some reader sends us a newspaper clipping in which a school superintendent says something asinine. How long can this go on? Where will it all end? And when, oh when, will some school superintendent say something that is not only asinine but also new? And refreshing?

The printed circuits of the school superintendent network are slower than those of the pocket calculator. This Brookhart guy, for instance, is about fifteen years late in inventing his wheel. No matter. He'll get some mileage out of it. It serves first as a sop to the sillier parents, when they ask how it happens that their children have spent nine years in schools and still don't know whether seven times six is a two-digit number.

"Hey, hey," says the all-knowing school superintendent, "don't you lay persons realize that only X years from now nobody will be put to the trouble of multiplying at all?" And who's to doubt the word of a "professional"?

And when X years roll around, sure enough, nobody is put to that trouble, because the schools still aren't asking the children to learn the times table.

But the momentous calculator prophecy serves an even deeper purpose. It lays the groundwork for that day in which arithmetic teachers will disappear from the land--partly as a result of the educationistic prejudice against all courses in which right answers can actually be found, partly because education majors are exactly the kind of people who are delighted not to learn silly stuff like the times table, and partly because people whose minds are amenable to the disciplines of mathematics just don't much care to hang around with the people you find in the schools. In that day, school superintendents can say, "No sweat. For the money we used to spend on math teachers we can hand out calculators and hire whole slews of Wise Choice Facilitators and have enough left over to give my wife and children jobs."

And, indeed, when "somebody who can't read or write" has to make one of those "wise choices," where will he turn but to a Wise Choice Facilitator, a professional fresh from an education academy, a government employee, a loyal union member, and, of course, a non-multiplier. The WCF will pass on to the poor sap whatever he needs to know to make a WC.

Brookhart, naturally, puts us in mind of Socrates, and the strange thing he said to Callicles, who thought himself a superior sort of person, and thus entitled to more wealth and power than he had yet acquired. "It is your neglect of geometry," said Socrates, "that leads you to want a greater share than other men." The Brookharts of this world, having never thought about it, assume that things like geometry and the multiplication table are taught in schools only out of tradition, and they are easily seduced into believing that such arts are useless to those who aren't going to make some money from them.

But in fact the mathematical arts are the best studies in which to learn certain truths that are essential to the making of wise choices. It is in mathematics that we most readily see that the permanent relationship between principle and necessity is not subject to appeal, that every particular is a local manifestation of some universal, that there is a demonstrable difference between what we believe and what we know, and that experience can never do the work of logic. It is in mathematical studies that a child (provided that there be a true teacher, and not a Brookhart) can have his first inkling of Justice and Truth, and of the immense and momentous difference between the laws and Lawfulness.

In all mathematical studies, furthermore, there lies the answer (although that is not exactly the right word) to the most potent pseudo-question with which the values vampires like to show how liberal they are. "Ah, yes, of course, we must teach values, but we must decide whose values to teach."

Bunk. Values do not vary from tribe to tribe. We do not properly say that dishonesty is "a value" among thieves and congressmen, but "not a value" among elderly Quaker ladies. We do not say that treachery is OK if you live among traitors, or that cowardice is a value that you might like to espouse as an alternative life style. We might all do well to expel the word "values" for a while and look, not just for another word, which would surely be subject to the same degeneration, but for some other way in which to think.

It must be in that other way that Socrates was thinking when he ascribed the ambition and greed of Callicles to a neglect of geometry. Any man who has not done his geometry may not ever have seen the beauty of the just and proportionate relationship of the parts to the whole, and, thus, might well end up seeking not that estate in this life that is right for him, but that after which his appetite cries.

A child who has never explored the inexorable infinity of the times table may never see the difference between those things that are in his power to change and those that are in no one's power to change. And a Brookhart who thinks that things unequal to the same thing are equal to the same thing is not the man whose help to ask when you need to make a wise choice.

Wise choices do not require us to choose between "values," between honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, sense and nonsense. No one asks: Which shall I do, justice or injustice? They require us rather to understand whether and why this deed is honest or dishonest, courageous or cowardly, these words sense or nonsense, this thought just or unjust. They require a clear, and truly literate, statement of principle, and a truly logical analysis of particulars, an accurate knowledge of the "given," and a lively respect for all those laws against which there is no hope of appeal. And if the study of the mathematical arts does not in fact bring forth the habits and powers that would one day help anyone who is truly in search of a wise choice, and not just trying to justify what he has already decided to do, that is a reflection not on those arts but upon the teachers of those arts. Of them, as well as of all the Brookharts who govern them, there is really no point in saying of them that they are just not very good at what they do, at mathematics, or providing others with the best possible conditions in which to teach mathematics. The more important point, in fact, the only truly important point, is that they are obviously doing what they do with something other than the love of wisdom in mind. Without that, a teacher is of no worth at all.

If that seems to you a preposterously unrealistic expectation in a government school functionary, you're right. So which would we do better without: the love of wisdom, or herds of government school functionaries? Get out your calculator and make a wise choice.

The Amherst Bestiary

"It's true," I answered, "that... Euripides is not so successful with the gods as with humankind.... But you will allow, I think, his skill in the second. He was the first to show men and women as they really are."

"Say, rather, that he was the first to say they can be satisfied with what they are, and need try to be no better. I know,' says his Medea, what wickedness I am about to do, but passion is stronger than good counsel.' I am helpless,' says Phaedra, before she deceives a just king into killing his innocent son. Men are seldom helpless against their own evil wishes, and in their souls they know it. But common men love flattery not less than tyrants, if anyone will sell it them. If they are told that the struggle for the good is all illusion, that no one need be ashamed to drop his shield and run, that the coward is the natural man, the hero a fable, many will be grateful. But will the city, or mankind, be better?"

from The Mask of Apollo, by Mary Renault

IN a wild-life preserve on Sanibel Island there are many birds. Most of the visitors love birds. There are also many alligators, who make their livings by eating the birds. The bird-lovers are urged to be tolerant of the alligators, who are said to be doing nothing more than what comes naturally, to wit, "harvesting the weak, the sick, and the less alert."

Well, so it must be. And, indeed, by contrast with what we do to the weak, the sick, and the less alert, it seems a positively decent and socially useful enterprise. If it weren't conducted by reptiles, we would be tempted to call it "humane."

With human beings it is otherwise. Not for us, the harvesting of the weak, the sick, and the less alert. We have mastered the greater arts of milking and shearing the weak, the sick, and the less alert, of planting in their fertile (for a while) soil the seeds of crop after crop, and even of raising up unto ourselves for future use never-ending successions of the weak, and the sick, and the less alert.

Would you like to make a bundle? Don't send money to those reptiles who offer sure-fire short-cuts to big houses, fancy cars, and numbered Swiss accounts. We will tell you for free. Look around you for the weak, and the sick, and the less alert. Think of something, anything, that they would love to have exactly because they are weak, and sick, and less alert.

Look for the burdened and weary, the baffled and worried. Look for the people who just don't know where to begin to make sense of this mysterious life, and who fear death and sickness. Look for the lonely millions who suspect that they have somehow been passed over by happiness and fortune, which have, all unaccountably, been lavishly bestowed on the less deserving. Look for the people who simply have no resources of their own, who can not work unless some work is assigned them, who can not play without a recreation program, who can not laugh in the absence of a comedian, who can not sing without a radio or paint without the numbers. Look, in short, for the miserable multitudes who make up the rolls of the television preachers and who buy the lottery tickets of government. They will pay you for anything that makes them feel better, for they have no powers by which to distinguish pleasure from happiness, or hope from fantasy.

Look for children, children of any age, all the people who are governed by their appetites. There is no known limit to the number of appetites a person can harbor. Nor is there, oh happy fact, any permanent damage done to appetite by gratification. On the contrary, it is by gratification that appetite grows best. Tell the children that whatever they want is good, and that the wanting is good, too. Tell them that it is only natural to want whatever they want, and only fair to have it, right now. Tell them that it would be even better to want more, to want what they have not yet dreamed of wanting.

Remind yourself continually that if you do not provide the weak and the sick and the less alert with consolation and gratification, somebody else will. That makes it OK. Furthermore--and this is the best part of all--be sure to remember that the weak and the sick and the less alert are really the needy, unfortunate victims of bad luck, or, even better, of the ineluctable and omnipresent force of "society as a whole." You are, therefore, truly their benefactor. You can put it about that you are fighting misery and deprivation and only by accident making a small profit.

And even if the risky life of the entrepreneur is not for you, if you'd rather not face the thought of taking a loss, if you want a paycheck every week no matter how well you fight misery and deprivation (and the baleful force of society as a whole), you might nevertheless give some thought to becoming, not a high-flying Encarnacao, but a somewhat lower form, and keeping your head and so forth safely down as a Frizzle, perhaps. The pay is only so-so, but it sure is steady, and the benefits and job security are great. No Frizzle has ever been fired for incompetence or silliness, or for his efforts to help junior high school students to deal positively with sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, no Frizzle has ever been so much as reprimanded for not telling an Encarnacao to get the hell out of his office and go peddle his wares in the streets.

As a Frizzle, you will be able to mount an even higher moral platform than as an Encarnacao. In the first place, you have no chance at all of making a profit, and obviously do what you do entirely out of altruism. In the second place, without the self-sacrificing industriousness of the Frizzles, there would be no high moral enterprises open to the Encarnacaos. After all, it is by no means certain that Nature, if left to nothing but her own devices, can be counted on to provide always and everywhere a sufficient number of the weak, and the sick, and the less alert. And that is exactly why we need Frizzles, and also exactly why the Encarnacaos should be delighted to fork over at least some small part of their accidental profits for the continued prosperity of the Weak, Sick, and Less Alert Farms.

But if you want to take the Highest Moral Ground of all, and can afford to do it with no pay at all, you would do best to become a Hansen. Then you would be selflessly serving the whole shebang, and making the policies by which the Frizzles keep the Encarnacaos supplied with the weak, the sick, and the less alert, and the Encarnacaos support the Frizzles and even, once in a while, announce that the Frizzles should really get more respect. And you would deal with the important questions, like where to put the machines.

Robert Encarnacao wants to fight AIDS and teen-age pregnancy and make a profit at it.

The 16-year-old entrepreneur is proposing that Amherst Regional High School and Junior High School install condom vending machines that he would operate.

"My purpose is to provide a public health service," said Encarnacao, a junior at the high school. "But with every venture there is the possibility of profit."

Encarnacao pitched his idea to Superintendent Donald Frizzle on Monday, explaining that the condom vending machines would encourage teen-agers who engage in sex to take precautions.

"He's selling the vending machine rights--he wants to have the franchise--and he feels this is a piece of our effort to help students deal positively with sexually transmitted diseases," said Frizzle.

* * *

School Committee chairwoman Joan Hansen said yesterday that it was too early to determine how the community is reacting.

"There are a lot of questions. Where do you put the machines? In the boys' and the girls' rooms? In the cafeteria? At the front door? This is a problem."

* * *

Encarnacao is president of Robert Sean Associates, which sells hundreds of items wholesale, he said, including toothpaste, cleaning and fitness products, housewares and jewelry.

The condom vending machines, which cost $595, could bring a profit of between $5 and $7.50 per week, he said, based on a price of 75 cents or $1 per condom, and the sale of 10 condoms.

The Boston Globe
Wednesday, July 15, 1987
By Steven Marantz
Globe Staff

Absit Omen in Leeds

SCHOLARS who are supposed to know such things tell us that in the Indo-European languages the word for "bear" is not really the name of the animal. It means only "the brown one," and it makes a convenient handle for those who don't want to touch the real thing. As pious Jews refuse to pronounce God's name, our forebears apparently preferred not to take any chances on calling by name, and thus perhaps conjuring up in the flesh, such an awesome power.

We, of course, are past superstition, but some such motive does seem to have driven a woman in Leeds into a more than ordinary prophylactic prudence. Well, why not? She is, after all, in charge of a school in that city, and custodian, therefore, of the psychic welfare of all sorts of children. In such a calling, there can be no such thing as being too solicitous of the self-esteem of the kiddies, now can there?

Accordingly, she has driven all the bears from her school, and replaced them with cute frogs, cuddly little creatures who wouldn't harm a... uh...well, cuddly creatures. OK? No more will those three horrible bears trouble the sleep of the children of Leeds.

Those children will read no more of the Three Bears, but rather of the Three Frogs. And as for Goldilocks, well, she's kinda scary, too, come to think of it. She's been replaced by Jackie. As the lady of Leeds puts it, is this any time of the world in which to "glorify a white little girl with blonde hair in a school which includes so many Asian and West Indian children"? (Yes, and we've heard quite enough about that Princess Di, too, thank you. Just imagine how bad those children must feel about that!)

That lady must be some astute reader. We've actually read that story, but, obviously, not well. We never noticed that it was racist propaganda, and that Goldilocks was being glorified. As a matter of fact, we were silly enough to get the impression that Goldilocks was a bit of brat, and that the bears seemed quite decent and forbearing, all things considered. But then, of course, we also admired Little Black Sambo, and have for years supposed that he had done a fine job getting butter from tigers, and that he deserved all the pancakes he could get.

We heard all about the lady of Leeds in a clipping from The Yorkshire Evening Press, which was sent in by one of our foreign correspondents. The writer of the piece did worry a little bit about those frogs, fearing that there might be some French children in that school, but pish tush, let's be realistic. How many could there be? However, his mild demurrer does give us a little more to think about.

The lady has also had the Baa-baa black sheep changed into Baa-baa white sheep. As to whether this emendation is intended to remove from the children's Weltanschauungs the invidious implication that black sheep may have no wool, or to lay to rest a gratuitous glorification of black sheep, we have a less than completely clear understanding. And we do have to wonder: How many children were offended by Baa-baa black sheep before the lady of Leeds washed them whiter than snow? And now that they are gone, and by official decree, how many children are going to wonder: What's so bad about black sheep, that we cannot even hear them named? Is there some fear that they might actually appear among us?

And then there's another thing, and we'd like to get a message to the lady of Leeds, which might save her a bit of trouble if the future brings what she seems to expect. There is only one motive to explain her actions: She is obviously preparing for her appearance before the Great Board of Review, where she will be asked, And what did you do for us in the Days of Transition?

How glad I am that you asked that question, she will reply. I am happy to say that I am that lady of Leeds who took Goldilocks out of my school.

And are you not also the one who felt that the Baa-baa black sheep were unlikely to have any wool, and that they should not even be mentioned? Did you not wash them white?

Our message is simple, and of the sort she can understand: Keep your fingers crossed, lady, and knock on wood.

Brief Notes

We have had a few letters--all of them, strangely, from the two Carolinas--suggesting that we might have been a bit too harsh with Hirsch. They were not intemperate. They said that, after all, the man was trying to do something, and how bad could it be to know a few things, even if you start out by learning a list, and even that we ourselves have passed on Churchill's advice to the uneducated to go and read a book of quotations. Fair comment.

So far, we have not changed our view, but we do have more to think about, and will reconsider Hirsch in the November issue. Since we are always at the last minute around here, you still have lots of time to pass on to us anything you want to say in this case.

The Underground

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

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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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