The Age of Outformation
IT is true that Jefferson
saw some connection between the freedom of the press and the informed
consent of the governed by which, and only by which, this land was to
be governed. But nowadays "informed" does not mean what Jefferson
meant by it, nor, for that matter does "the press," which was
given more, in his days, to reasoned consideration than it is now.
In the current use of the word "information,"
there is no hint of the process of forming, of putting into harmonious
and coherent order, not only in the light of some set of facts, but equally
by the establishment of an ordering principle. By the gossip that passes
for information in the press, and in our schools, always seduced by fads
and a mania for "current events," only an unusual mind is likely
to be informed. "Cluttered" will better describe the mind that
is full of bits of news of this and that, a junkyard in which everything
lies where it fell, where nothing is chosen out to be set where it belongs,
and where every useless piece of trash decays and is forgotten under the
new heaps of trash. There, the fate even of the occasional treasure is
Take Harriet Tubman, for instance. A recent
survey conducted by the Department of Ecudation revealed that an expectably
large number of high school students had no clear idea even of the approximate
date of the Civil War, but that a majority of the same students had heard
of Harriet Tubman. Far from a bad thing, but that "heard of"
is less than entirely encouraging. Whether those students understood some
relationship between the war and the lady, by which they might also understand
some principle, the survey, as no one will be surprised to hear, did not
bother to inquire. In another age--ours, we confess--we had not heard of
Harriet Tubman. We had rather heard of the invention by Sir Humphry Davy
of the miner's safety lamp, and of the importance of substances called
"naval stores." We had tests in which those, and countless other
bits of unrelated "information," were the "correct"
Where is Sir Humphry now? Where will Harriet
Tubman be in fifty years?
Many supposed facts might be better thought
of as phenomena, or ephemera. Facts, yes, but only by courtesy, as we
might, if there is enough room on the program, list all the spear-carriers
among the dramatis personæ.
Yes, there was last night yet another fire
of suspicious origin in some abandoned warehouse, and yet another politician
accused of devious dealings. Yes, certain selected portions of our "heritage"
are just now thought, by certain selectors, to be more important than
certain others. And yes, a certain kind of music, or of dress, or of religion,
or of literature, or of thought, is just now considered important by those
who think themselves the ones who can best determine what is important.
But it is not by themselves, not just because they are, that such
things inform a mind. They become meaningful elements of a larger
structure only to a mind that is already formed. Some of those
facts--will it not be many?--an informed mind will sooner or later stow
in the attic, not because they are irrelevant, for the informed mind can
always find relevance, but because they are redundant. After all, how
many arsonists or crooked politicians do we need in order to contemplate
the vanity of human wishes?
For the health and vigor of the mind's life,
there is no indispensable fact. What, you have never heard of Shakespeare,
or of the Treaty of Paris? You can not locate the Persian Gulf on a map,
or the return key on a computer? You remember neither the Alamo, nor the
Maine, nor Pearl Harbor? It matters not at all. Of all of that, Aristotle
and Epictetus were uninformed, but only in particular; in principle, they
knew it all. And so will many in coming ages, when all such things will
at last have disappeared even from footnotes in obscure monographs.
It isn't truly information that we now peddle
so industriously, and for the sake of which our schoolers now want to
make lists. It is outformation. It leads the mind away from itself. It
provides the illusion that the real reality is all out there, and
that it comes in an infinite number of flying quanta, infinitesimally
tiny packages, but, some of them at least, oh so necessary to "know"--just
now. The mind might be at them forever, never to turn and come home, and
the eye too busy counting photons ever to look for the light.
And so to Hirsch. His defenders--of whom
none are more than mild--have made the points that a), he is at least doing
something; b), that it would do no harm for the children to learn
something about something; and c), that he is at least not an educationist
but an English professor.
As to the last, pfui! We have some experience
of English professors. They all have little lists, and Hirsch's
is just a bit longer than most.
As to the first, a reader has already provided
an answer. He's doing something? Sure, he's doing something. Tyrants are
always busy. A bit rough, but it is also true that the educationists are
always doing something, always cooking up a grant, always looking for
an angle, always making excuses, and always thrusting innovatively. You
would be always busy too if people were nagging you to get done that which
you promised to get done without any clear idea as how to do it.
But it is because of the second that we
have spent all this time getting to Hirsch. We have ourselves often whimpered
about the astonishing ignorance of the young, and those social studies
teachers of Minnesota who suspected that Mussolini might be something
to eat. But the Hirsch business has had, for us at least, this great worth:
it has led us to wonder whether we should have whimpered, and out of what
motive, exactly, we did whimper. Was it out of the sort of arrogance,
not rare in English professors, that says: Well, humph, you can hardly
think yourself an educated person if you have never heard of... And then
follows a list of the things he happens to have heard of. Sir Humphry
included. If so, Hirsch has instructed us.
We don't learn about things in order to
read; we read in order to learn about things, and to make a form in the
mind. We can understand little about those things that we have only heard
about, but if the mind has taken form, we may well be able to understand
a lot about--and because of--a surprisingly small number of things,
provided that we have done more than just hear about them.
The Witching Our
Pronominal and Participial Considerations
Acting Adjunct Sociogrammatologist
SOME person whose name
I do not know has sternly admonished me, saying, "Recognize that
it is up to you and me to protect our young and needy. The politicians
and the experts will not do it unless informed citizen action demands
For some reason, incurable habit, no doubt,
I am inclined to put aside for the moment the pressing social urgency
that lies behind that admonition until I have given some thought to its
pronouns. I think I know the identity of the "you," who can
be none other than myself, but who is hidden in that "me"? Is
it, I wonder, a man or a woman?
The difference is important. After all,
if a man stopped me in the street saying, "It is up to you and me
to protect our young," I would take one understanding from his words,
but if it were a woman, I would take a very different understanding. The
difference is again a matter of pronouns. In the first case, I would take
one understanding of the "our" in "our young," but
in the second, quite another.
And to the lady of the second case, I would
surely exclaim: By God, madame, you speak the truth! I must admit that
till this very moment I was quite unaware of the existence of our young,
and likewise of their neediness, and for that I heartily repent. But now
that I know of them, and know too, as you seem to suggest, that they stand
in need of protection, let us go forth at once and protect them and supply
whatever it is that they need. Surely, that is a duty laid on us not only
by Nature and Custom, but also by our mutual consent--which may well have
been given--to the very bringing of our young into this world, where, as
you so rightly divine, there is but little in the way of protection to
be expected from politicians and experts, who are, in any case, the last
people to whom I would willingly surrender the protection of our young.
Let us, therefore, not wait upon that uncertain day when "informed
citizen action" will do, maybe, what you and I ought to be doing
in this very minute! Let us rather go at once to our young, wherever they
may be, and protect them!
But to the gentleman of the first case,
I would reply otherwise, saying: Your sentiment, sir, is surely well-intended,
and does you, I suppose, some credit, but I fear that you have made some
mistake. Your young and mine are unlikely to be the same young. I will
admit, nay, affirm, that in the case of your absence and my presence,
I would indeed think myself bound to undertake, should it be necessary,
the protection of your young, or any other young, for that too seems a
duty rightly laid on us all by Nature and Custom, but I confess that I
find your stern admonition at the very least premature, and perhaps even
a bit presumptuous. Do you mean to imply that should the occasion arise
when your young need protection and when I alone am nearby, that, except
for your admonition, I would probably not protect them?
All this spluttering has been brought on,
of course, by yet another request for money in a supremely worthy cause,
of which we currently suffer no lack. This one has to do with neglected,
deprived, underprivileged, and trapped in poverty children. (Keep your
eye on those participles.)
My admonisher is surely sincere, and, although
history does not suggest that it is out of a lack of sincerity that tyrants
and other monsters are made, I do believe that he believes that the result
of his admonition, somewhere down that long, long road of consequence,
will be of some good to some child. And that may be so. In other words,
I do not suppose him a man who designs to deceive. Why is it, then, that
he talks like a liar?
He knows damn well that he and I--or even
she and I, should that be the case--can not accurately point to any small
human beings on Earth and name them "our children." The children
he has in mind, however, are real children, and for every last one of
them there are two people on Earth who can indeed call them "our
children." Now here is what I wonder: Of those people, the
parents of "our children," how many has my admonisher admonished?
Of how many has he asked contributions to this worthy cause?
In certain breeds of do-gooder, there is
a prissy fastidiousness that ill becomes the adherents of a Great and
Worthy Cause. I would find an unsettling but exhilarating refreshment
in a solicitation for contributions toward the Great and Worthy Cause
of Horsewhipping Politicians (or Experts) Through the Streets, and I would
shell out at once should anyone undertake to act on Mencken's plan for
the improvement of education, to wit, the burning down of the colleges
and the hanging of all the professors. But a man who claims that he wants
to right a great wrong, while pretending through his pronouns that there
are no wrong-doers, is a pitiable wimp, and not the kind of reformer on
whom a contributor can depend. And when that wimp goes further, and suggests
through those pronouns that it will be because of my neglect of duty should
this great wrong persist among us, then he is a contemptible hypocrite
as well. It is indeed true that I never raised a finger in defense of
the infants slaughtered by Herod's soldiery, but while this fact may properly
arouse certain feelings in me, remorse is not one of them.
Which brings me to the participle. Neglected,
for instance. It could use a name. The Disjunctive Participle might do,
since it always serves to cut away from some verb the subject that ought
to go with it, but I will rather name it the Exculpatory Participle, for
it always takes someone off the hook on which he richly deserves to hang
This participle is much loved by the more
devious and cowardly of our do-gooders. It permits them piously to deplore
this dreadful Society as a Hole in which some wives and children are daily
beaten into insensibility, without requiring them to say anything that
might diminish the self-esteem or violate the civil rights of the beaters.
I have often wondered about this strange inconsistency, but I do believe
that this contemplation of the Exculpatory Participle has led me at last
to understand it.
Something like this must be the case: In
a building overlooking DuPont Circle, there is a fund-raising outfit that
gathers in money for the care and feeding of wives and children who have
been once too often beaten into insensibility. Not a bad idea at all,
in fact a good one, and some portion of the money probably does go to
do just that.
Just down the hall, however, there is another
fund-raising outfit, owned and operated by kissing cousins of the beaten
wives and children's fund, and devoted to the gathering of money for the
shaping up and the legal defense of the beaters of wives and children,
which is also, I must admit, not entirely a bad idea. Now I ask you, Does
the right hand bite the left?
And should either one of these noble efforts
actually do what it says it wants to do, and stamp out utterly the great
evil that it so valiantly fights, would it not put both itself and its
counterpart down the hall utterly out of business, thus throwing countless
of America's most sincere people right out of jobs, and bringing to an
end the whole enterprise of fund-raising and social betterment as we know
For the prevention of such hideous consequences,
the Exculpatory Participle is sovereign.
Now neglect does not drift in the air like
soot particles. It originates in some person. And, since neglect is not
simply the absence of care and attention but rather the absence of care
and attention in who should give care and pay attention, I have
some trouble in measuring the degree of my own culpability in the case
of "our young." For the health and happiness of some sad sick
child in the streets of San Francisco, am I more, or less, responsible
than Frank Perdue, for instance, or Mother Theresa, or Dan Rather? In
those or any other cases, how is the "shouldness" to be weighed?
Reformers prefer (sometimes) not to consider
shouldness; they want to avoid not only a High Moral Tone but even a Low
One. But this puts them in a nasty bind. If you can't argue from "shouldness,"
then you can't say what everyone knows to be true, i.e., that the Prime
Neglecters of children are their parents, in whom there is more should-ness
than in me, or in Frank Perdue, or in Dan Rather. But Reformers suspect,
and in this they are uncharacteristically correct, that you might as well
preach to the sharks as talk to the parents. Neither will listen till
their bellies are full, and when their bellies are full, all they can
do is snooze at the bottom of the sea.
Some dyspeptic old-time philologist concluded
that mankind developed language only when its affairs had come to that
sad state in which any fool could see how useful it would be to tell lies.
It is a tempting thought. No bee, I suspect, has ever come buzzing home
to send its pals off on a wild goose chase so that it could quietly sneak
back to where there really was some honey. In any species other
than ours, it is hard to imagine any profit in mendacity. But it just
won't wash. If our language is the medium in which we tell our lies, it
is also the medium in which we tell that we are lying.
We usually guess that it is by checking
the facts that we can know a lie from the truth, and in many cases, the
more trivial generally, this is so. But as to the truly serious lies,
lies so false that the liar himself is nothing more than an agent of falsehood,
we don't need the facts. All we need is a not impossible combination of
the power to read thoroughly and the will to read thoroughly. That may
be a Great Power, but it comes, at last, from surprisingly little things.
A verb is just a verb. Little children can
be taught to spot one. And a subject is just a subject. From seeing that,
it is no big jump to noticing that some verbs , in whatever form, look
a little lonely without a person standing by, like orphans who have mistakenly
wandered into the father-son picnic. And a thorough reader asks: Well,
who is this missing person, and why is he missing? Why has someone left
This works the other way around, too. The
power to write thoroughly is the power to stick to the truth. It takes
no great study of philosophy, just a little grammar. If the values teachers
would just require of their budding little writers that they attach a
person to every verb that names an act that only a person can commit,
and go looking for the antecedent to every pronoun they commit, it wouldn't
be long before those values teachers actually learned something.
To question all things; never to turn
away from any difficulty; to accept no doctrine either from ourselves
or from other people without a rigid scrutiny by negative criticism;
letting no fallacy, or incoherence, or confusion of thought, step by
unperceived; above all, to insist on having the meaning of a word clearly
understood before using it, and the meaning of a proposition before
assenting to it,--these are the lessons we learn from the ancient dialecticians.
WE have a footnote that
we will pass on to our sometime sociogrammatologist when we can. The person
whose admonition moved him, at last, to send us a piece may well have
been a certain Marion Wright Edelman. She is a lawyer who is president
of the Children's Defense Fund. We do not know, of course, that
it was she who penned the words found in an unsigned solicitation for
funds, but there is something about her language and thinking in general
that makes us suspicious.
We read of her in the Christian Science
Monitor. She was quoted as asking, of that little girl who was recently
rescued from a well in Texas, "Why should she have fallen in that
shaft anyway?" Then she answered her own question by saying that
the nation was just not spending enough on child-care.
Now, as it happens, we know how it came
about that that little girl fell into the well. Some damned fool neglected
to throw a piece of plywood over it. That's all it would have taken. And
it wasn't just any damned fool; it was a damned fool who had an immediately
visible and indisputable responsibility for the safety of that little
girl. And bad cess to him, or her, as the case may be.
Now here's what we wonder: If we spend enough
money to root out and instruct every damned fool in the land to cover
up all holes in the ground into which children might fall, shouldn't we
also spend enough more so that each damned fool in America has a smoke-detector
wherever children might burn? Well, of course. And then should we hire
enough government agents to visit each smoke-detector when it comes time
to change the batteries? Well, of course. Or should we, just maybe, see
if we can come up with some way of preventing as many children as possible
from growing up to be damned fools?
Around here, we happen to believe that might
be done, and thus we are ready to call ourselves just as surely defenders
of children as Marion Wright Edelman. A bit more surely, in fact,
since we are ready to name those from whom we'd like to defend the children.
Edelman closes her remarks on the responsibilities
of everyone with this extraordinary mind-boggler: "Until this society
takes responsibility for all of its children, we make a mockery of all
these pretensions about being an opportunistic society." Just brood
on that for a while in the still watches of the night.
And then brood on this: How long would it
take you, do you suppose, to explain to Ms Edelman exactly why her pronouncement,
surely meant as sincere, comes out to be so funny?
If we got up an Edelman Defense Fund, what
would we defend her from? Would it not be the same casual thoughtlessness
that makes children children, by nature, and that also, by something that
is not exactly the same as nature, makes damned fools damned fools? And
how much would we have to spend on that?
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.