THE UNDERGROUND
GRAMMARIAN

Volume Eleven, Number Eight............December 1987

The Uptight Straightshooters

A woman, a paranoid schizophrenic ate all her meals in restaurants because she was convinced someone was poisoning her food at home. Her 12-year-old daughter developed the same fears and likewise ate in restaurants. Her 10-year-old daughter would eat at home if her father was there, but otherwise went along with her mother. But the woman's 7-year-old son always ate at home. When a psychiatrist asked the boy why, he said with a shrug, "Well, I'm not dead yet."

New York Times, October 13,1987

SO begins an intriguing article on yet another of those astounding psycho-sociological discoveries of what every thoughtful and attentive person has known since the appearance of mind in our species. Our psycho-sociologists have just noticed that some people, no matter how poor, or sad, or abused, or oppressed in childhood, will nevertheless, just as Faulkner hoped, not only survive, but prevail.

The official findings now agree, as we have often observed, that not every child ends up saying "ain't" because of the evil influence of the Nashville Songwriters Association; and that, do what they may, the school people will never turn all of their young victims into clods.

Now, of course, it is "official," for the studies of experts have shown it, and the New York Times has found it fit to print. There really are Horatio Algers. Here are some of the signs by which you can know them:

At birth, they are "alert and attentive." This probably means that they can be prevented by mothers who do drugs.

By the age of 1, they are "securely attached" to their mothers, whatever that might mean, even if the mothers are still doing drugs. Now that is an especially interesting fact, for it points not outward, but inward; it tells us more about the child than about the world.

At 2, they are "independent and compliant"--an intriguing combination--and able to tolerate frustration and disorder without getting angry. It is almost as though they were taking advice from Socrates, and living in that moderation without which, he often said, no one, rich or poor, young or old, could hope to be happy.

By 3˝, they fill the other half of the prescription of Socrates: They become cheerful. And also--another intriguing combination--"flexible and persistent." At this age, too, they begin the practice of "seeking help from adults." And finding it, too. They seem to know just where to look for the right adults. And here may be an important clue about schools and schooling. Perhaps the most important attribute of the teacher should be that "rightness," and maybe we are wrong about teachers. Perhaps it doesn't matter that they can't write, or that they're ill-taught in their subjects?

(Here, we suspect, is the open frontier of understanding both in the school business and the parent business. All of these children eventually single out one adult, who becomes a special friend and confidant. That one person is apparently not a sufficient condition, but surely a necessary condition. Now here's what we'd like to know. What is the trick of being that person?)

And so it goes with these happy few on into their teens. Insulation from emotional turmoil. Healthy skepticism. Plans instead of impulses. Responsibility both sought and met, even in a dismal home.

We're happy to hear about them, of course, but they are a little scary. We have spent years and years now muddling towards an intelligent definition of "education." We know that is has nothing to with schooling, but rather with life; we know that it is neither a skill nor a subject, but rather a "way." But we have also been pretty sure that a true education does not simply come with the territory, the human endowment that we all have, but we have been even surer that the propensity for it does come with the territory, indeed, that a true education is everybody's natural destiny. Now here come these kids. What do they seem to know? Must it not be called a "way"? Surely it has nothing to do with whether or not they can read or write or name the capitals or the prepositions that take the dative. Is it not remarkably like that way of life that has been perennially urged, not only by Socrates and Jesus but all of the wise, whatever that might mean?

Now, to be sure, we don't know the important things about the idea of success according to these psycho-sociologists. Do these kids "succeed," as psycho-sociologists might well understand the word, through greed and acquisitiveness? Are their "good" lives also examined lives, or are they coasting on luck?

However, while we do not know the answers to such questions, the psycho-sociologists have given us, all inadvertently, a clue as to some probable answers. The psycho-sociologists, you see, are not entirely delighted with their own findings. And indeed, why should they be? They have, in effect, discovered the existence of some people who may not need psycho-sociologists, or any of their cousins, the guidance counselors, therapists, and attitude police.

We'll let Lyman Wynne explain just what it is that fills this silver lining with cloud. He's a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester, and he should know:

"From a distance, these kids look good, but up close, in their intimate relations, you find they are disagreeable and judgmental. They put down their siblings who are not doing as well, but they them selves are constricted and overcontrolled. Their normality is based on being uptight straightshooters."

Yeah. Judgmental. A terrible thing. Just imagine going through life always deciding that some things are better, and some things worse. You just can't relate well to others with a bad attitude like that. What would this world be like if we all went around neurotically distinguishing between the worthy and the unworthy, and even withholding esteem and respect from people who want esteem and respect, just because we can't find in them anything estimable or respectable?

Uptight straightshooters, eh? Pretty bad. A psychiatrist, no doubt, would prefer the laid back crooked shooter. Is there, do you suppose, some middle ground between the straightshooter and the crooked shooter? What would we call him? A sometimes straight and sometimes crooked shooter? Of what do you suppose this psychiatrist would approve? What point on what scale will he show us, at which self-control turns into over-control? Can there be such a thing as too much control, too much self-discipline and self-government? Who would assert that there is, the rational adult or the infantile dreamer?

And disagreeable. That's the worst.

Remember Socrates, and his way of understanding, for instance, what we mean by a brave man. He is the one who, from the point of view of the coward, looks like a rash man, but, from the point of view of the rash man, looks like a coward. And the liberal man is the one thought profligate by the miser, and miserly by the spendthrift.

So we are inclined to suspect that the "disagreeable" child must have, way out to his right, some intransigent grouch who disapproves of everything, and, to his left, some limp wimp of a psychiatrist who is like with it, man, and who, in the best democratic tradition, disapproves of nothing, except, of course, for those disagreeable and uptight straightshooters.

More Friends Like These

This is a world that pays computer programmers more than essayists. Plumbers make more than journalists. High school dropouts run major corporations. Teachers borrow money from their mechanic brothers-in-law.

Only when educators realize the primary purpose of schools is not social conditioning but preparation for economic survival in a difficult world, will education reflect the realities and needs of the job market.

THE mail brought us, on the same day, two scraps of newspaper, each bearing what we think of as the worst possible news--the half-bakery of those who say what is almost the right thing, for the utterly wrong reasons.

One of them was a letter to the editor in the New York Times. It came from a certain Alfred Posamentier. Posamentier is a professor of mathematics education at City College in New York. In certain current events, he found a way to prove that his work is important.

The NYT had said that some little aeroplane had come "within 200 feet" of the presidential helicopter. Not so, said Posamentier, reasoning thus: "Your diagram caption says the plane passed 200-300 feet to the left of the helicopter, making the minimum horizontal distance 200 feet. With the vertical distance of 150 feet that you show, a right triangle may be formed, whose hypotenuse length is the actual distance the plane was from the helicopter. To apply the Pythagorean theorem (a2+b2=c2), the one thing most people remember from high school mathematics, this distance is 250 feet--more than ‘within 200 feet.'"

So there you have it. Geometry as a trivial pursuit. And why not? After all, lots of folk take barrels of fun from their mastery of grammar, by whose power they can write snarky letters about the weatherman who says "between you and I."

Posamentier finds portent in his findings; for he concludes, with a wonderful solemnity: "This is offered as the sort of thing mathematics teachers (and even parents) ought to point out to students who question the value of mathematics." There. That'll take care of all those Yahoo complaints about teaching geometry to little children who, once school is behind them, will never geomet again.

We wonder what Patrick Cox would want to say about Posamentier's profound understanding of the purpose and meaning of education. Cox , who is a "political/economic analyst and writer," is responsible for the passage cited above. We found it on a sent-in op-ed page from USA Today. The whole page was devoted to the Great Writing Question: an editorial, four guest columnists, four "quotelines" from "experts," and seven micro-interviews with persons-in-the-street.

Everybody said exactly what you expect, although Mary Futrell, one of the union people, did point out that a school teacher who takes in 150 student papers a week is not going to do much more than put a few x's on "mechanics." Except for Cox, everybody was all in favor of writing. Everybody thought it a Good Thing, of which the children could not have too much.

But Cox was willing to come right out with it: Listen up. It's a jungle out there! Survival, survival in a difficult world! Hardly anyone needs to write, and those who do it for what they seem willing to call a "living" are people like those stumblebum journalists who never learned how to use a pipe-wrench.

He also points out that those "supposedly low test scores" simply mean that a bunch of "immigrant children" are still trying to learn English. And of them, he reminds us, and who would know better than a political/economic analyst, that "evidence shows that this nominally sub-literate group will eventually earn more per capita than the native born." And he also points out, as every one of us should, to someone, every day, that the latest writing brouhaha comes in the wake of yet another expensive (to us) and lucrative (to somebody else) national report that tells us exactly what we have been told by all the earlier national reports, and that it will have only one certain result: It will engender yet other reports, and grants, and fees, and lots of publicity in aid of those who live by reports, and grants, and fees.

Well, we sort of like Cox. His crass and trashy commercialism is at least not a pretense. We would like him better if he would go further and clear his mind of the misconception that "preparation for economic survival" is something other than social conditioning, and we do wish he would tell us whether a political/economic analyst makes more than a plumber--after all, we can do that too--but the times are hard, and we need all the friends we can find.

And we can not help but wonder about some of the other folk who came out in pious support of more writing for children, especially those civilians and Mary Futrell. How much writing do you suppose those people do?

There ought to be in our language some appropriately derogatory word for that person who loftily complains that others ought to learn some excellence or worth that he himself neither has nor seeks. "Hypocrite" is not enough. "Prig" comes closer, but it has almost gone out of English. So we do not know what to call them, these schoolteachers and educationists who call for more and better writing by students, and whose writing we have so often and gleefully examined. We know not how, sufficiently to defame the Posamentiers, who urge more study of mathematics by children, that is to say, more patronage for people in his business, and seriously put forth as an example of the worth of that study the power to find a mistake in a newspaper.

This is the important question: What is the worth of writing? In all of those people who bewail the inability of the young to write, whatever they mean by that, what does their writing do, in and for their lives? What do those sanctimonious schoolteachers write, and to what end? Who are they to say that other people should learn to write?

Considering the obvious fact that those who write anything at all after leaving school are only slightly more numerous than those who geomet after leaving school, and the only slightly less obvious fact that such things as shopping lists and phone messages are no more to be thought of as pieces of writing than the letters inscribed on faucets or lavatory doors, and leaving aside the very few who get paid for writing something or other and who probably would not do it if it weren't for the pay, there is practically nobody in the land who can be said to take any good from writing, to become better through it.

Here at THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN megacomplex, the only thing we need less than another essayist is a political/economic analyst; a plumber, or better yet an electrician, we could use. And if the worth and point of writing are nothing more than the trivial skills that all of these pious lamenters have in mind, it could very likely have the effect of turning a good plumber or electrician into a thoughtless clod. A man who can't write or read may, at least may, sit around with a friend or two and consider whether it is better to suffer an injustice or do one; but a man who has been led to believe that writing is a profitable skill like soldering, or a means of communication like the cry of the daw, or a vehicle for information that is bettered delivered in pictures anyway, or a social grace like eating with a fork, will probably have no inclination at all to make and test propositions, or to watch his (or anybody else's) language for false analogies, inapt metaphors, and failures of logic, for he will never have done any of those things. Epictetus, who couldn't read or write, is far more to be prized than Eichmann, who could.

If "learning to write" is understood as the acquisition of a certain skill useful to anyone, like balancing a checkbook, or a tool of trade for which someone might pay, it will, and should, disappear like butter-churning and type-setting. So let it. If it is understood as the practice of the mind in knowing and ordering itself, then the schools will never teach it in any case, and those who discover some need for it will do it. And the only important effect of writing teaching in the schools will be--as it has been--to prevent as many as possible from noticing that this difficult and unprofitable enterprise may be more valuable than all those skills for which the world pays money.

The Unbook Unreview

An Irregular Feature of the
Underground Grammarian

MODERN SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT. Robert E. Wilson. Written in lively and dramatic style. Reflects penetrating insights into experiences of modern-day school superintendent how he deals with responsibilities to those he works with/for. 232 pp. $3

ADMINISTRATION AND THE TEACHER. William A. Yeager. Faces squarely the problems and complexities of administering teaching personnel. Covers selection, appointment, and adjustment of teachers, inservice, improvement, evaluations, social status, ethics, much more. With tables, index. 577pp. $3

HOLISTIC EDUCATION: Teaching of Science in the Affective Domain. I. Sonnier. Teacher's guide for scholarly projects from middle through grade school. Serves teacher with rationale and encouragement to direct student-centered classroom. 126pp. $3

WHAT to call our little list, we can not decide. Books We Can Wait to Read, maybe, or even Books We Wish We Had the Guts to Read. Whatever, it will surely contain the three gems above.

Just think of it. Five hundred and seventy-seven pages of adjustment of teachers et al. We can't even imagine the enormity of a lousy two-hundred and thirty-two pages of "the school superintendent how he deals," although it may well be that the study of just such a book is one of our responsibilities to those we work with/for.

(We obviously can not know whether the language of the blurbs comes from the language of the books, but that "with/for" is certainly typical of the "lively and dramatic style" of standard American educationese. But of course, it may also be a splendid display of irony by a truly gifted blurbist, or perhaps a triumph of nose-thumbing--What, you don't like sentences that end with prepositions? Eat this, creep!)

If we had to read one of those books, we would, of course, choose the one hundred and twenty-six-pager, which probably shows that brevity is not only the soul of wit, but that it may also be the sole virtue of something else.

We found those books listed in one of those remainder catalogs, (Why Pay Full Price?), in a special section called "Scholar's Corner." They brought to mind a terrible and frightening vision. Is there, really, a world where people read such books? Are there people who sit around seriously to discuss "the problems and complexities of administering teaching personnel"? (And, concretely and exactly, what do you do when you administer personnel, or--even more bewildering--when you adjust teachers? Can that actually be done?) Are there people who want, who truly want, to know what somebody or other imagines that he has to say about such matters? Is there anybody anywhere on the face of Earth who has actually read and pondered five-hundred and seventy-seven pages of Administration and the Teacher? If there is such a person, would you want him to have anything whatsoever to do, however indirectly, with one of your children? And, most perplexing of all, is there a world in which somebody can not only refer to "scholarly scientific projects" in the affective domain, but also find people to take him seriously?

But, alas, there are such things. And if it seems to you that the study of science in the affective domain of feelings, sentiments, and attitudes is an idea whose time had better not come, that is because you have not been paying attention. What else, after all, is the field trip to the zoo, or the film strip about those cuddly marsupials of Australia? What is the point of the ant-farm on the shuttle, but to make some kiddies, and countless watchers of television news, feel real good about themselves, and about us, and about some "great adventure of the mind" in which not one mind in a million has any real part at all. Why else does the NEA endorse television shows about the Endangered Species of the Month, or, as the case may be with the fruit-fly and the killer bee, the Dangerous Species of the Month?

Although we were at first surprised that even an educationist might propose such an absurdity as the study of science in the good old affective domain, it was because we just weren't thinking. With few exceptions, these people "teach" everything in that sunny land. Their geography is really "geography," the inculcation in children of "right feelings" about people who live far away, for instance, and their "history" is ditto with the substitution of time for space. In like fashion, almost all of their "subjects" need quotation marks. Some of them--think a minute about "social ‘studies'"--need inner quotation marks.

Here is a test by which you can know whether something being "taught" to your children is a subject or a "subject," and even discover in these latter days of bold, innovative thrusts, whether a subject has suddenly become a "subject."

Imagine a book whose title is: Holistic Education: Teaching (you name it) in the Affective Domain. For now, try French, and you'll see at once why the study of foreign languages is something the school people would rather not hear about. Just for the hell of it, try auto mechanics, or woodworking. And remember, when there actually is such a book, that's the day to head for the hills.

Don't be too skeptical. Remember, they're not like us. Those people can do anything, anything they like. Liking, after all, is big in the affective domain.

And go back and take another look at the descriptions of the other two books. Where there is no knowledge, there is nothing to do but adjust personnel and write 232 pages of penetrating insights.

The Underground
Grammarian

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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