Volume Twelve, Number Five............September 1988

The Panamanian Panda Paradigm

Americans do not understand the world at a time when we face a critical need to understand foreign consumers, markets, customs, strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, our economic future depends on geographic literacy....

Without a thorough grasp of geography, we see the world from our own narrow perspective. ... The world is too competitive and dangerous to be a vague blur of memorized names and places. Without geography, we're nowhere.

WHEN a dairy farmer happens to notice that not one geographer in ten can tell a Holstein from a Guernsey, he may shrug a little shrug, or, if he has acquired the nasty habit of reading op-ed pieces in the New York Times, he may even snort a little snort; but he does not break out into pious lamentations about the decline of the west and the end of civilization as we know it. He does not take pen in hand to announce to his fellow Americans that there are cows in Japan too, and that we can hardly expect to compete with the Japanese while mired in dairy illiteracy. He does not wring his hands aloud, gloomily reminding us that we can not hope to understand the peoples and cultures of the world unless we are correctly informed as to their cows. He does not darkly hint that not only prosperity but peace itself will have no chance if our schools continue the deplorable practice of neglecting cow study, which neglect he resoundingly demonstrates by pointing to the indisputable fact that not one school in ten thousand or so offers any cow courses whatsoever. In short, he keeps his own counsel and minds his own business. He is a splendid chap, and we like him a lot.

With geographers, it is otherwise. In fact, with most of those whose callings have become subjects in school, it is very otherwise. They seem truly to believe that, if they "teach" it, it is universally essential. The exceptions are the ones who impart such skills as accounting and advertising, who seem not at all perturbed that the public in general is unschooled in the tricks they are paid to reveal. Tax preparers do not moan and groan that no ordinary citizen can possibly fill out his simplified return, and plumbers seem never to call for universal plumbing literacy.

But the academic types are withering away in a buyers' market, and must always be proclaiming that what they can impart is even more important than accounting and advertising, to say nothing of plumbing, and, indeed, that it is "the key" to success in everything else, including accounting and advertising, maybe even plumbing, and also to world peace and the brotherhood of all mankind.

The epigraph above is taken from an op-ed piece in the NY Times. It is a lament at once melancholy and condescending by one Gilbert M. Grosvenor, who is the president of the National Geographic Society. It is full of other similar stuff, including the assertion that it was out of an ignorance of geography, rather than greed, that those banks made big loans to little countries with no resources. Those naive bankers just didn't know that bananas don't grow in sand, and, even worse, it never occurred to them to go out and find a geographer to tell them that.

Grosvenor kicks off his piece by passing on the results of some poll in which some people located "Contras in Norway, nuclear weapons in Switzerland, pandas in Panama, the summer Olympics in Iraq, [and] the United States in Botswana." These he calls "extreme examples of geographic illiteracy [that] popped out of the mouths of American adults." The polltakers accosted "10,800 adults in nine countries," an average of 1200 adults per country, which made it, you should be happy to know, "the largest of its kind." Wow.

We suspect that it may also have been the only of its kind. We suspect, too, that it was commissioned and paid for by people who are neither plumbers nor accountants, and certainly not dairy farmers. And not at all do we wonder who made up the "questions" put by the poll. And we know good and damn well that if the poll had come out the "wrong" way, i.e., without ammunition for Grosvenor, we would never have heard of it.

For some reason or other, Grosvenor does not tell us exactly how many respondents put the pandas in Panama.

Maybe he wants to protect us from the shock of a dreadful revelation, or maybe something else. It's too bad. Our own reasoning, which is the only thing left for those who can not afford a poll, suggests that the world would be a vastly better place if about twenty-five percent of the adults of nine nations had put the Pandas in Panama.

Consider: There you are, standing around in the shopping mall, minding your own business and hurting no one. Up to you, clipboard in hand, comes one of those smooth kids, working his way through tax preparer school by taking the occasional poll. He is not even a prying busybody in his own right, but only the hired tool of a prying busybody, and neither the lackey nor the master has your welfare in mind, but somebody else's. And he puts to you the following question, which must surely have looked like this:

The natural habitat of the Panda is in:

a) Samoa

b) Panama

c) Australia

d) China

e) Greenland

Now stop and think. He who asks this question--is he a seeker after truth, panting to know the whereabouts of the panda? He who pays this asker--is he looking for your help?

There is, of course, a more or less correct answer, but a thoughtful person can no more bring himself to check off a more or less correct answer than Baron Rothschild can put ice in his wine. Is there, perhaps, a just answer, the answer that, not the question, but the questioner deserves? Of course. In fact, there are four just answers. Thus it follows that in a world of thoughtful people, each of them would have chosen one of those four, which is also to say that about a quarter of them would have chosen Panama. Simple logic.

Alas. If only it had been so.

There are, in fact, people who have no idea where pandas come from, and who don't care, and who, when told by some geographer, will find the information of no special interest. There are even people who would rather not be told--yet again--where the summer Olympics are to be found, and if there are any who truly don't know, all we can do is envy them.

But in all such matters, we are not truly talking about knowledge--and certainly not about "understanding the world," which Grosvenor considers dependent on putting the pandas in the right place--but about information. Nothing more.

All shortages of information are now called "illiteracies." In every case, from the now aging "computer illiteracy" to the arriviste "AIDS illiteracy," these are not in any sense illiteracy, but simply ignorance, ignorance of this or that, the condition in which every one of us, however expert in some other this or that, will spend his entire life. (If plumbers were to lose their minds, they would call all the rest of us plumbing illiterates, and legislatures would give them grants, and they would establish Programs with Guidelines at Centers, and every toilet in the land would be clogged. Is it, perhaps, time for some people to get the hell out of Academe? If the arts and sciences are really so profitable and practical, which seems to be the only defense their professors can come up with, why don't those professors just go out and practice their callings, so that they may serve society almost as well as those who can unclog toilets? But enough.)

Now consider this: You are going to imagine three lists. One is a complete list of all of the information you have ever been given, starting with the capitals of the states, and so forth. Be careful. Information is fickle. It is not knowledge. Astronomers can neither discover nor deduce the names of the stars. It is only credulity that makes Grosvenor suppose that there are no atom bombs in Switzerland. And where will the pandas be two or three wars from now, when the contras in Tibet have pushed some borders about?

The second is a list (who could make it?) of the information that you haven't been given. All of it.

The third list contains all of the information that you have discovered for yourself, and that would not have been around for others to hear unless you had discovered it.

Now behold in dismay one little list, one infinite list, and one infinitesimal list. If you suspect, as we do, that there are some contras in Norway, and that those current and temporary Nicaraguans are merely a particular shadow thrown by the blaze of a permanent principle, be consoled to notice that List Two of Gilbert M. Grosvenor is just as infinite as yours.

While not all geographers, we hope, would hold that the meaning and worth of geography are to be found in the information that some of Grosvenor's pollees seem not to have had, Grosvenor himself shows us that you can "see the world from your own narrow perspective" just as easily with a "thorough grasp of geography" as without it.

How, then, should you live? Should you devote your life to moving entries from list two to list one? When you have totted up enough geographical entries, will you thereupon "understand the world," and learn to compete with the Japanese? When you have found out the place of the panda, will that be enough? What about the platypus, the peccary, and the pangolin? How long a list will it take to put the mind in tune, and the reason in frame, to find, in other words, the only condition in which it is possible to understand anything?

Euthyphro Lives!

Of Plato's works, the larger and more valuable portion have all one common end, which comprehends and shines through the particular purpose of each several dialogue; and this is to establish the sources, to evolve the principles, and exemplify the art of METHOD. This is the clue, without which it would be difficult to exculpate the noblest productions of the divine philosopher from the charge of being tortuous and labyrinthine in their progress, and unsatisfactory in their ostensible results. The latter indeed appear not seldom to have been drawn for the purpose of starting a new problem, rather than that of solving the one proposed as the subject of the previous discussion.

WE have suggested to one of our readers that he let his high school students read the Euthyphro. He is, of course, a good and thoughtful teacher--why else would he be one of our readers?--and he seems to have some good students in a good school--the principal is actually interested in making sense--but it may nevertheless have been a big mistake.

It may have been the Euthyphro that Coleridge had especially in mind when he wrote the words above. In spite of its brevity, it is maddeningly labyrinthine, and in spite of its humor--it is surely one of the funniest of the Dialogues--its "ostensible results" are not just "unsatisfactory," but exasperating.

Socrates is on his way into the courthouse to answer some strange charges that have been brought against him. On the steps, he meets Euthyphro, who is just coming out. Euthyphro, it turns out, has been to court to bring some charges. He has charged his own father with homicide, in the death of a recaptured runaway slave who was left tied up in a ditch while those who had captured him, under the direction of Euthyphro's father, finished their day's work. In the heat of the sun, perhaps, or in some other way, the captive died, and Euthyphro can find no alternative but to hold his father accountable.

Socrates either is, or pretends to be, a little bit shocked. My gracious, he says, do you think that you have done the right thing, the pious thing, by charging your own father?

Oh yes, says Euthyphro, I figured it all out very carefully.

You know, then, Socrates asks, how to distinguish the pious from the impious? I wish you would explain it to me, for that is exactly the question with which I am having some trouble.

Well, Socrates, Euthyphro tells him, this is your lucky day, for in this matter I am expert, and I will be very glad to take time to show you how to tell what is right from what is wrong. Where would you like me to begin?

What follows, you can easily imagine. Poor Euthyphro. You can't help but feel sorry for him. Socrates, bland but bemused, or feigning bemusement, keeps asking, But, Euthyphro, didn't you, just a few minutes ago, hold quite the opposite of what you are now saying? And, of course, he did.

Euthyphro's expertise falls to pieces before our eyes, but he doesn't see it that way. To him, it is as though the supposedly wise Socrates has turned out to be a bit of a dunce, and a stubborn one at that. Picky, picky. After all, if you're going to stop and fuss about the meaning of every little word, how can you ever learn anything? He seems to be so interested in tiny details--or is that just a gimmick?--that he just can't make out the big picture.

At the end of it all, no one has, in a certain sense of the word, "learned" anything. Socrates has not learned how to distinguish a pious act from an impious one; Euthyphro has not learned that he can't make sense. No problem has been solved, no new facts imparted, and no one has been empowered so that he may now go forth and do what he had not been able to do before. In the phrase made famous by a later philosopher, no "cash value" comes out of this bewildering little chat.

But, in another sense, there is much to be learned: that where there is no method, there can only be madness, a persistent and unconscious failure of the mind to make and recognize sense.

Now, the school people are hot to teach thinking, and values. Why? To accomplish, of course, exactly those things that the Euthyphro does not accomplish. They want to do something to people and to the world; they want to make something happen. They want to come to some conclusions, to say, There, that's done! Now we can... Fill in the rest for yourself. They want cash value, and the solution of problems.

And they want all of this, along with more respect, as soon as possible.

In schools, the "good" of a study of the Euthyphro would be measured by means of this question: What can you now do out there in the world that you couldn't do before? The answer is certain to be unsatisfactory. You can not, apparently, show a fool his folly and bring him into some better condition. You can not decide whether or not a deed is virtuous; you can not, that is to say, now pronounce the "values" that you have come to hold. You certainly can not make a living out of what you may have learned, or hope, if you learn to behave like Socrates, to win friends and influence people, thus maximizing your potential bottom line.

We have come to think of the Dialogues as "lessons," and easily forget that they are literature. Fiction. Little Plato was not lurking behind one of the pillars of the court when Socrates met Euthyphro, if he ever did. Those two are "characters," and, like all characters in fiction, chosen and designed to be particular and temporary cases of the universal and permanent. And it is as a case that the Euthyphro, and the man named Euthyphro, might best be studied in school, and by children.

Euthyphro is, after all, the Great Enemy of Children, the fixed and impenetrable mind, which unquestioningly supposes that it knows. He lives in parents and teachers without number, and in the great belief clubs of our time, from the Fundamentalist Right to the Sentimentalist Left. But he has grown since the time of Socrates. Now he is expert on learning disabilities, mental health, right attitude, social and political responsibility, right relating to self and others, and countless forms of consciousness and awareness.

In every time and place, Euthyphro beholds the children. He has plans for them. An agenda. A system. A curriculum, and an edifice. All the ribbons and badges of the sanctioned and official. He hires himself, he elects himself, he reads himself, he believes himself.

In his designs, he has never failed. He always makes enough Euthyphros for the future. But neither does he succeed entirely; his schemes and devices are not truly METHOD, they are madness, which Nature abhors more than the vacuum. Since he can not see his own inner contradictions, he builds in response to particular circumstance, and not in obedience to principle. Thus his beams always need shoring up, and the plaster is always cracking. This wing or that falls into ruin and is abandoned for a new one, with a nifty new name. He can, of course, and probably will, go on patching and painting so long as our kind shall last, but he will never be able to fool everybody. There will always be some to notice--picky, picky--that his corners are not square, and that his pieces do not fit. Should those few fail, then we would discover that the one thing worse than a school system that works badly is one that works well.

So what we hope is that our reader will play the Euthyphro for laughs. He should act out the parts, and broadly, so that the students will see that Euthyphro is just another jerk who takes himself seriously. School children are not unacquainted with such. They will be able to name some, too, unless their teacher can stop them. Let him be content that to scorn folly is to distinguish between the better and the worse--an early symptom of the love of wisdom.

Education, which was at first made universal in order that all might be able to read and write, has been found capable of serving quite other purposes. By instilling nonsense, it unifies populations and generates collective enthusiasm. Bertrand Russell

The Seepage on the Back

We cannot pretend to answer this question without first taking a good hard look at the society in which our schools are floating, and then thinking of this society as a rather sadly polluted sea in which our schools, as ships, are navigating under severe difficulty, and finding it impossible to completely seal off all the seepage from entering the classrooms on the backs of pupils corrupted by their environment and their inability to divorce themselves from envelopment in unsavory behavior and total indifference to academic achievement, which when considered thoroughly from all viewpoints leads to the conclusion that our schools are doing a commendable job of staying afloat as capably as they do in water not conducive to commendable sailing; in fact... [and lots more such]

WE don't have room for the whole thing, but you can find it in The New Yorker, June 20, page 85, under the caption: Sentences, And Metaphors, We Hated To Come To The End Of.

One of our perennial themes arises from what we see as an absolute and essential difference between education and those other conditions which are generally put forth as education: training, socialization, and indoctrination. Of those three, which are the chief business of schooling, the first neither requires nor implies any education at all; the second, however worthwhile and necessary, impedes it; and the third is designed to preclude it.

Education is entirely an inner condition in a person, and, unlike training, it is not really "about" the world outside of the person. It must include--how could it not?--the ability and the propensity to distinguish sense from nonsense, and even more important, to distinguish sense from nonsense not only in others, but in the self. Indeed, if education is "about" anything--and this is what makes it so unpopular in our schools--it is about the self. In our society, a visible concern for the self, even for the integrity and sanity of the self, is thought selfish.

Now ask yourself what you can say about the author of the passage above. Could he be an effective and successful chemist or physician, or even an investment banker? Certainly. Is there, in the working of his mind, anything that would keep him from making a living as an "educator"? Can you consider his words and say that he can not possibly be a judge or a congressman?

But you can say something about him, and that something is truly about him, and not just about his connections to the world out there. And you can tell something about his connections to the world from all the seepage on his back.

The Underground

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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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