Volume Twelve, Number One............February 1988

The Lessons We Learn

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. J. S. Mill

WE can imagine no better words with which to begin the twelfth volume of THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN. Had we known of them twelve years ago, we would have wasted less time on trivia, and might by now be farther along the path that we only gradually have learned to walk. Little by little we have come to see that the only important reason for the scrutiny of language is that it, and it alone, can discover thought and consider it thoughtfully. We see, too, that without such discovery and consideration, no one can ever answer the question to which we want to give all of our attention, to wit, what understanding should we have of that condition which might be called "education."

That "should" is essential. It is foolish to ask, What is education? Education has no existence of its own. It is an idea made by human beings, who must live, whether they know it or not, the life demanded and relentlessly enforced by their ideas

What Mill says is surely "true," in the sense which means that it is so; it is a fact, a bit of information. We would quibble only with that pronoun, that "we" in his conclusion: "These are the lessons we learn..." We don't. Some of us might, presumably, learn those lessons, and Mill very probably did, but it makes no sense at all to ascribe that learning to mankind, or to society, or to any collective nonentity which has not any of the equipment needed for learning--neither mind nor will, nor any conscious center of its being at all. His pronoun, of course, does not intend to assert any such thing, but is nothing more than "a manner of speaking," and perhaps, as well, a politesse, for it would have ill become him to say, however truthfully, that those are the lessons that some very few of us have learned from the ancient dialecticians.

Nevertheless, manners of speaking have a way of insinuating themselves into the mind and becoming manners of thinking. It is not hard to find people who do believe that "we" are more intelligent and logical than our ancestors, that we have started life at a higher point on some scale that measures the development of uniquely human powers, which include both the making of transistors and the making of sense. The slightly more subtle of such folk imagine that we do, nevertheless, owe some debt of gratitude to our forbears, for they were "we" in their time, and thus were able better to endow us than they themselves had been endowed.

If you want to test this notion of intellectual evolution, read again, very slowly, the passage from Mill, and then look around you. Pay close attention. Read. Listen. And, if you are very brave, pay close attention to yourself.

Mill's enumeration provides help in the defining of "education," in deciding not what education is but what it should be. If it made sense to say that education is something, it would need no definition; description would suffice. What we call education can indeed be described, however, and Mill's list is a useful test, not for the facts of our education, which are, however numerous, publicly verifiable, but for its meaning, which is less clear.

Does our education include among its meanings the conviction that it is necessary to question all things? Is there some school in this land where that is included in a "mission statement"? Is there an educationist, or a politician, who will put that in writing? What will become of our famous "respect for the beliefs of others" if we learn continually--and "negatively"--to question our own most precious beliefs?

Is there somewhere a school of education, or a school of any sort, where students and teachers agree that they will use no word whose meaning is not completely and perfectly clarified? Is there some lecturer in some class who will utter no untested proposition as though it were truth, who will put forth no sentiment or belief, however laudable or popular, as though it were the informed conclusion of an expert? Is there some guidance counselor, or some curriculum facilitator, or some outcomes assessment specialist, who will let no fallacy, or incoherence, or confusion of thought step by unnoticed?

We have spent all these years in considering the language of such people, and of their numerous cousins. We do know, because we have done lots of asking around among the kin-folks, and because we studied the catalogs and the self-praising handouts of many an education academy, that the educationists have no love for the ancient dialecticians. But their practice and their prose are such as to make us suspect that it is not ignorance of the ancient dialecticians that informs their minds at all. They are so universally and consistently irrational that we are led to suspect that they do know the lessons that Plato taught us, and that they hate them, and hope to destroy them. It may be that they are not unenlightened, but that they prefer the darkness.

It is hard to imagine, for instance, a more useful work than the Theatatus for those who are going to presume to teach others, and who would do well to discover and develop some orderly and rational understandings of the strange human powers that we call learning and knowing, but incipient teachers do not study it. Why not? Is it only because incipient school-teachers are often little inclined to intellectual deliberation of any sort, and probably just as ready as their instructors to turn away from any difficulty at all? We think there is more than that. We think that even so little a thing as that one work of Plato would, in even a dull mind, have the effect of making ridiculous and overturning all of the pet notions and articles of faith that have made our schooling what it is, a phantasmagoria of sentiment and belief in the comfort of the boundless Affective Domain, and that the schoolers, or some of them, at least, know this. They need unreason, and love it. They need the support and approval of a populace that can not examine their words in the light of the lessons we might learn from the ancient dialecticians, and a happy fate has put them in a position to assure that most Americans will not stop to consider what a word or a proposition might mean, and will never notice such things as fallacy, or incoherence, or confusion of thought, and will always, always retreat from any difficulty of understanding into slogans and catchwords and the thirty-second "debates" of politicians.

The lessons of the ancient dialecticians are surely stern commandments, the intellectual equivalent of "Be ye perfect." Who can heed them, perfectly and always? But what can we say of an "education" in which they have no part, in which they are not even proposed, or, as is usually the case, not even heard of, either by the students or their teachers, and where their revival would cause intolerable disruption?

In fact, of course, there is one thing we can say of such a perverted sort of education: It is the very sort we have.

Taking Five Baby Steps

The items found in this test were selected by taking every 50th item from the list (which yield [sic] 95 items) and the selecting at random five additional items found to be 25 items removed from an item previously used.

Please select from the five presented the one item that has the closest relationship with the test item. In many instances it will pay the examinee to estimate, or "play a hunch." Remember cultural literate information is rarely detailed or precise.

HIDDEN in the word intelligence is the idea of gathering, of selecting and arranging, of looking, it might be said, not just for things, but for some principle by which to choose these things rather than some others. It seems one of the intentions of the educationists to keep that idea hidden, lest anyone notice that their idea of intelligence isn't even close to the real thing.

The thing you see above, for instance, is an educationistic exercise in fake intelligence. The passage comes from the instructions provided with an "instrument," which was handed out to a bunch of schoolteachers in St. Louis. It was called a Cultural Literacy Instrument by him who handed it out, one William H. Ahlbrand, who is acting as the dean of the School of Education at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, IL.

Appended to the instructions for the taking of the instrument--Take two instruments and call me in the morning--is something called "Test of Cultural Literacy." (Italics ours) Like cultural literate information, cultural literate nomenclature is "rarely detailed or precise." The test is full of great stuff. This sort of thing:

A. Government official
B. Sargent [sic] at arms
C. Intercom system
D. Propaganda agent
E. Prodigy

For that one, any "answer" except C is unforgivably insipid, although it does have the demerit of being detailed and precise. And here's an especially intriguing one:

ALEINATION (also sic)
A. Estrangement
B. A foreign visitor
C. A term of affection
D. A measurement of land
E. A military

"Tests" of this sort tell us much more about the maker than about the taker. No one with any sense of language at all could possibly be persuaded, even if he had never heard of "aleination," into choosing either B, C, or D. In our language, terms for such things are little likely to end with "-ation," and it is obvious that the testmaker never thought of that, or even of the possibility that some taker might actually think about the question before playing a hunch. Nor did he give, apparently, the smallest damn for the fact, which might be well worth thinking about, that estrangement, the desired answer, is not a kind of alienation, not even in the same genus. But, of course, neurotic scrupulosity about such distinctions is not included in the idea of cultural literacy, however interesting they may find it, who seek nothing but mere literacy.

Well, we weren't going to blame Hirsch for the stupidity of the questions. He didn't concoct them. But we got thinking about it, and decided, what the hell, let's do blame Hirsch. It was he who gave this stupid game to the educationists, and he deserves whatever discredit they might earn him.

Here's a true story. A teacher was talking to his class. He happened, for reasons that seemed good at the time, to refer to an "influential culture," to wit, that of ancient Greece in the Golden Age of Athens. The students were young, mostly in their twenties, so he thought it best to explain that, by an influential culture he meant one whose ideas seem not only to have lasted but to have brought about certain qualities in our culture. He remarked, God knows why, that in the time of Athens there was, and not very far away, yet another influential culture, which also, like that of the Greeks, passed on to us its ideas, especially its ideas about right and wrong, justice and injustice, the worthy and the worthless. He was thinking, pretty obviously, of the culture of the ancient Jews, whose status as an influential culture is both obvious and indisputable, and within whose traditions some of his students actually lived. He wondered aloud, what a blunder, whether some student might be able to name it.

Silence. Averted eyes. The poor fellow pushed on. Surely, somebody... Then the students began to do exactly what they had been, for all their lives, trained to do, whenever there was a "question" to be "answered." They began to guess.

They guessed Islam, which is currently much heard of, and therefore securely set into everyone's cultural literacy. After all, a millenium and a half or so is just too detailed and precise for the culturally literate to fuss about. They guessed Rome, because they had heard of it and suspected that it was old. They guessed Egypt, but had to retreat when no one could come up with a single idea that our culture had inherited from Egypt except for reincarnation, which is not really one of the notions on which constitutional democracy--the day's actual topic--was founded. The same inadequacy ruled out the Chinese and the Aztecs.

Suddenly the poor bozo realized what was happening. Aha, he said, Get out your pencils. We're going to have a pop quiz. He went to the blackboard and wrote:

Besides the Greeks, another bunch of ancient people who came up with ideas that we still play with were the...

A) Babylonians
B) Hittites
C) Jews
D) Phoenicians
E) Vikings

Everybody got it right. Everybody. And everybody would have gotten it right the first time, if only he had thought to ask the question that way the first time.

Thus they have been taught. Unless they are given some choices, they know not where to turn. Any thoughtful mind, when faced with a question like that one, goes through a process, looks for a path. Hmm. Let's see. There were Romans in those days, and Egyptians too, to say nothing of countless peoples I've never heard of. But, since I've never heard of them, they probably aren't the heavy influential cultures this guy has in mind. So what were the Romans up to in the fifth century BC? Wasn't Rome a big deal in Christian Times? Sure. Nero and the lions, and there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus. They just seem too late. And the Egyptians were certainly weird and interesting, I guess, but I'm damned if I can think of anything particularly Egyptian in the way the world wags now. OK, so who else was around? The Christians themselves would be good candidates, if it weren't for the fact that BC means BC. Too bad. But wait, that whole Christian business is sort of tied up with... Aha! And there it is. No big deal.

That line of thinking doesn't really take a whole lot of information. Most of what is needed could come just as easily from television or movies as from books. And, in fact, it needn't be especially detailed or precise. It is all cheap information, easy to come by and calling for no understanding at all. But from it, as from any information, understanding can be discovered and sense can be made.

But in that class that day, no one set about the work of trying to make sense. Everyone was trying to remember, if it was there to be remembered at all, some little item of information, some random and unassociated little fact floating all disconnected in the vast empty spaces where all possible facts can be, if you are lucky, found and trotted out. And the task was all the harder, impossible in fact, because no concrete possibilities, no A to D, had been put forth for hunch-playing.

Sense does have to be made. It does not float around like information, and when we hear some sense that someone else has made, we have ourselves done nothing more than gather another piece of information. "Now that is what so and so thinks" is the best that can be said of the sense that someone else has made. We can not even truthfully say "I agree" unless and until we have walked the same path, found the same connections, and made the same sense. Lacking that, "I agree" means nothing more than "I accept." In our schools, "I remember" is the "correct" answer to questions like those found on the Cultural Literacy Instrument. "I accept" is the correct answer to essay questions.

Remembering is the toddling of the mind. It is the barest beginning of walking, as walking is the barest beginning of finding the right way to go to the right place for the right reason. Very little remembering is needed for serious thought, but it is done at the far end of the very same road where the toddler takes his first steps. And accepting is the paralysis of the mind, the point at which the toddler supposes that the road comes to an end.

That's what our unfortunate friend saw in his classroom: paralyzed toddlers. No one had given them permission to take their five baby steps, from A) to E), none of the above. They knew not how to go, or where to stop.

Ordinarily, it is easy. There! I've got it. Ralph Waldo Emerson? B) Author. Peasant? B) again. Agricultural worker. Little Jack Horner? Hmnn. C) Sat on a tuffet? No. Doesn't sound right Aha! There's A) Sat in a corner. Rhymes. Must be it. (Those are all, by the way, to be found on the Cultural Literacy Instrument.) And so on, all the way. A tiny, short path, and an end. An acceptance. No need to toddle further.

Think of it this way. Suppose that you have taught your children--well, "taught" seems singularly inappropriate in this context. Let's start again.

Suppose that you have, somehow or other, with flashcards perhaps, brought your children to "know" that Emerson was an author, that a peasant is an agricultural worker, and that Little Jack Horner sat in a corner. Will they therefore rise up some day and bless your name? Or is that not enough? Suppose that you do likewise as to alienation and the speaker of the house? Suppose you go even further and bring them to be acquainted with hundreds more such bits of information? Thousands. Tens of thousands! And what then? So what? Will you expect praise for doing what could just as well have been done by the flashcards themselves? And, in all that showing and telling, a task that is by nature infinite, what will you have found no time to do?

This is a problem of language. We do not know, some of us seem to choose not to know, what we mean by "teach." Is the telephone directory a teacher? Is any useful distinction made at all in saying that we can "teach" each other those things that anyone can look up for himself? Is he a "teacher," who informs you that a peasant is an agricultural worker, and not a bird? Is he a friend or something else, who asks you questions to which he already knows the answers? Is that "testing," or is that combat? Is it an education, or is it a training, in which success depends upon remembering and accepting?

The subtitle of Hirsch's book is seldom mentioned. "What Every American Should Know." (Our italics). What a puzzling qualification. Its worth lies probably in its power to fatten up the book. A book of What Every Person Should Know would be thinner, listing less and meaning more.

Brief Notes

WE hear surprisingly often from readers who have started, or are thinking of starting, their own cottage publications. They usually say that it is this sheet that has thus inspired them. We are not ashamed to hear that. The more publishing the better. What could be more conducive to "informed consent" than two newspapers in mortal combat in every American town? Three, of course.

Exactly how many competing newsletters are directed in this land to glassblowers, we are unsure, but they had all better look to their laurels, for there is now one more. We have just received Volume I, Number One of Lamp Shop Employment Report, the latest of our godchildren. We wish it calm seas and a prosperous voyage. If you are a glassblower, or would like to be one, you should write to the editor, Michael Olsen, at 341 South Clarkson, Denver, Colorado, 80209.

THREE Great Booklets are now in print. We intend more. Pay attention to your reading. Keep watching for especially illuminating, or provoking, or even distressing passages. Send them in. It is best, of course, that the passages be old and not in copyright, but, frankly, most of your reading should be from old books anyway, and, indeed, from books that you have already read once or more. The habitual reading of new books is a vice in the murky middle ground between sushi-sampling and adultery, often a sign either of insufficient employment or of idle curiosity, and not to be encouraged except in the very young--under 40.

We hope to have a Fourth Great Booklet ready by May, and we are even thinking of a Great Booklet devoted entirely to excerpts from one author. Boethius and Erasmus come immediately to mind, of course, but if you have any candidates of your own, we'd like to hear about them.

THE associate circulation manager has been instructed to add 278 new readers to the subscription list. We think he is getting some help from a certain physician in Atlanta, who seems to be handing out Leaflets for the Masses along with prescriptions. Why not? Mens sana, right? We have thought of advertising, but we just don't seem able to describe this sheet in a way that is both brief and accurate. If you can do that, we'd love to hear from you. Or, if you have a friend who would like to read this stuff, let us know, and we'll send off a few sample copies, and even a leaflet.

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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