Volume Twelve, Number Six............October 1988

One Little Reason

YEARS ago, in a passage we'd love to quote but can not find, one of our people wrote about walking down the hall of some junior high school. You pass the room where the seventh-graders are rapping on about abortion, and another where the kiddies are chewing blubber in order to relate appropriately to the Eskimo experience. Beyond the fire door, at the first turning of the stair, you find a child sitting all alone, reading a book. And then the Thought Question: Identify the deviant, and suggest the appropriate treatment.

This has been one of our perennial themes: an institutionalized hatred--and probably fear--of solitude. That hatred is the root, or maybe the blossom, of what Bernanos called a worldwide conspiracy against the inner life, not truly meaning that conscious conspirators met and plotted--he was a kindly man--but that only on some such ground might we understand what was happening to us all.

We are less kindly, and inclined to imagine that the swine are really doing it all. But no. There is always new evidence that no villain need be, and that passions do spin the plot.

Just now, there is social struggle in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico. Of the several bones of the battle, one is the fact that there are few jobs of any sort to be found near Tierra Amarilla, a not uncommon disorder. One of the parties to the dispute, a former teacher who would like to open a ski resort in the face of opposition, makes a strange and interesting argument in his cause. Although the schooling of the children is not otherwise at issue, he points out that there is, after all, "little reason to educate the children if there are no jobs for them to fill." Unfortunately, however, he does not tell us what that one "little reason" might be.

It's a puzzle. Now, if he had said, as he probably believes, that there is no reason to educate children who will find no jobs, we would have been content. Given the almost universal suppositions of our time about "education," such an assertion would be purely logical. If education is for the getting of jobs, then those who will never get jobs have no need of it. Those children who will spend their lives in unemployment, that is, many children of the rich and many more children of the poor, might best be excused from whatever it is that we call education.

Here, of course, we are not educationists. The educationists, while utterly committed to the first great goal of jobworthiness, will have no trouble at all thinking of other reasons for education, although they will not be too ready to call them "little." Is intercultural consciousness-raising to be called "little"? Are environmental and megadeath awarenesses trifles? And what about condoms?

No, no. The educationists will not give us the one little reason, but instead hosts of mighty ones. Surely, the former teacher of Tierra Amarilla will have heard of all those, and just as surely, in a calmer moment, he will admit that, well, yes, all such things are important too, and perhaps especially important to the jobless, who, since they have the time, might just as well spend it worrying about the rest of the world and the possibility that something or other might be poisonous.

Almost everyone we know has a job. The only exceptions are those who are either too young or too old. It is our experience--test it with yours--that almost everyone we know is far better at doing his job than in doing anything else in life. We know an excellent electrician who is an impatient and dangerous driver, a fine accountant who can't turn down another drink, a good mechanic who is a colossal failure as a parent, a builder of sturdy bridges who is a brutal and selfish husband, an enterprising and successful seller of insurance who is convinced that it is not his job but the government's job to see to the health of his parents, and a mankind-loving fund-raiser for the cause of peace and love who can not manage even to be polite to those members of mankind who just happen to be nearby. They all make good livings, but they don't live good lives.

Indeed, there are surely millions and millions of us who could truthfully say--but won't--that there is absolutely nothing in our lives at which we are better than at our jobs. And, more often than not, that will also be to say that our jobs are the only things in our lives that we can do well at all. In all other things, we are, at best, bumbling amateurs.

And there is a good reason for this. Just about any of the jobs our world has to offer, with exceptions far fewer than we would ordinarily suppose, is easy to perform for those who have gotten used to it. Just like car-waxing, neurosurgery gets easier after a bit. And, notwithstanding all the moaning and groaning of those who can be sure that they will be heard to moan and groan, most people do most jobs pretty well. You may know one plumber that you like better than another, but you simply can not find a plumber who just doesn't know how to plumb, any more than you can find a mechanic who can't do anything at all for a car, or an accountant who can't account. With the obvious exception of those who don't truly have jobs, but only "positions," like school superintendents and members of congress, just about everybody knows how to do his job. (Yes, even schoolteachers, although many of them prefer to do something other than the job while on the job, but in that they are far from unique.)

The tragedy of not having a job is far more than a financial problem. For most in that condition, leaving aside those who will devote themselves to learning the job of crime, to have no job is to be competent at nothing, nothing at all. Not a happy condition.

If you retire after a successful career and live into your seventies, you will have put in about forty years of joblessness. Add it up. Pre-job years, and post-job years. Weekends and holidays. Vacations. The other sixteen hours or so of every day spent "on the job."

And if you are at all like the rest of us, you will have to tack on a few years' of wool-gathering and lollygagging, to say nothing of "relating" and other such hanky-panky. And all the rest of your time, maybe more than half, will have been spent in mere life, at which you never been very good, which you have never undertaken to learn in the way that you learned your job, which you have never taken as seriously as you took your job, and which is, just now, as you gaze idly through the picture-window of the nursing-home arts and crafts room at the bleak sleet of late November, all that you have. Mere life. Not a happy condition.

Should you be spared that condition, it will be for one little reason. You should be so lucky, of course, but the former teacher of Tierra Amarilla will probably not. The only education there can be--all that other stuff is just training, or information, or indoctrination--the education of the inner life, has somehow or other just slipped his mind. All unconscious, he has joined the worldwide conspiracy of the unconscious.

Gone in a Minute

"Kids who are young like we had seem not to like that stuff, yet it was gone in a minute," Snyder said. "I watched to see if they were throwing food away and they weren't. Whether they liked it or not, they finished it. And that's a way of learning."

The Globe-Times, Bethlehem, Pa.,
August 3, 1988

THAT DOES IT! This is it. We promise. Never again, never, never, never again, will we do a piece about the weird connection between the school people and the pushing of edible substances into the faces of their students. Frankly, the topic is disgusting, and if it weren't for our devout commitment to journalistic integrity and the public's inalienable right to know everything that is seamy and trivial, we would never have done it in the first place.

The first place, as best we can remember, was about ten years ago. We had a piece about a porseffor of ecudation at Glassboro State College, the nearby state mental institution, with which, by the way, this sheet has absolutely no business in common. The fellow was teaching a graduate course in ecudation which foisted upon its helpless and hapless students not only mouths-on experience in the development of cultural awareness through the gobbling of the foods of many lands, but feet-on experience as well, in the festive gyrations of ditto, but performed, alas, without benefit of the culturally specific, and truly necessary, intoxicants of those many lands.

(That's the curiously selective and tepid tolerance of those school people. Yeah, they'll gag down the blubber and the sheep's eye to prove that all cultures are really nifty and just as good as any others, but it obviously seems to them otherwise when it comes to lending out their wives and cutting off the hands of thieves. They'll smear on the war-paint, all right, but they'd rather not mention its purpose. And the bigots will simply not go home and barbecue their dogs. Enough already. This topic, as you can see, brings on hysteria.)

Well, we're sorry. At the time, we thought it was funny. But we thought also--what a big mistake!--that it would be, in effect, "gone in a minute," that it was just another of those countless passing fads that grind and gurgle their ways through the twisted guts of American schooling, and that it would soon be flushed away, along with the suvlaki and enchiladas. But we did not know then the true, and exceeding strange nature of the educationistic alimentary tract, which turns out to have, all contrary to nature, at one end a gaping and capacious maw, lacking taste buds, and, at the other, no means of egress at all, leaving the entire system always in a condition for which the only accurate description is a brief phrase, three little words, which our style sheet, alas, does not permit. But any reader who has spent some time in the low company of crass anti-intellectuals who persist in calling things by their names will be able to supply it.

Well, as somebody said, it is not the stuff that goes into the mouth, but the stuff that comes out that counts. So we come at last to the words of one David Snyder quoted above. Snyder is a position-holder at Lehigh University, which is probably near Bethlehem, Pa. He is a "program director," and the program that he directs takes in (in every sense of the phrase, and probably for a fee) a batch of "gifted and talented" children, a category into which entry is of course accorded on democratic principles, lest programs and directors starve.

Snyder directed his program into West African fruit salad, Minehaha cake with raisin and walnut frosting, and English trifle with strawberries and cream, along with other treats "from"--the word must be read metaphorically; the stuff really came from gifted and talented mothers' kitchens at home--Greece, Poland, Hungary, South Africa, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Russia, and the Philippines.

The consequent discoveries were a bit less than monumental. "The kinds of food that can be raised and grown in a specific climate will inextricably affect [sic] the cuisine of any region." Wow. "Students discussed all aspects (all?) of cultures and explored the possibilities for global communities." Yeah.

Reporters are easily suckered by the antics of schoolers. This one ends her piece with this bizarre conclusion:

"The food buffet was just one way of learning the intricacies of culture. Judging by the expressions on the faces of the children, and the swift consumption of the food--these were lessons well learned."

What so you suppose we would discover if we could track down that reporter--or, better yet, Snyder--and ask for enumeration and elucidation of the antecedents of the pronoun "these"?

It was Aristotle, we think, who said, somewhere, that the study of astronomy is the noblest study of all, but that the student of astronomy should be very careful not to look at the stars. It seems silly, but it is a reminder that the meaning of our experience (always gone in a minute) is often elusive, and that what we understand is not the direct result of what we observe, but the result of our thoughtful consideration of what we have observed. And it is not quite so silly as its modern, educationistic counterpart: Go out and look at the stars all night and rap about their intricacies which so inextricably affect the look of the sky. And keep smiling, to show that the lesson is well learned.

Patting the Cheese

School learning lays stress on individual cognition, while learning in virtually every context tends to be a cooperative enterprise.

School learning stresses "pure thought," while the outside world makes heavy use of tool-aided learning.

School learning emphasizes the manipulation of abstract symbols, while nonschool reasoning is heavily involved with objects and events.

School learning tends to be generalized, while the learning required for on-the-job competency tends to be situation-specific.

THOSE are apparently quotations, by columnist William Raspberry, of the "insights" of one Lauren Resnick. Who and what she is, we don't know, but she revealed her insights in an article in last December's issue of Educational Researcher, which is probably not on your coffee table.

Raspberry is hot on Resnick. He says that she, like all the great poets and prose stylists, "tells us what we already ‘know' but could never quite find the words to express." He must mean the really expressive words, like "nonschool" and "tool-aided," we guess, because it is hard to imagine anyone who could not find that collection of words, and, alas, even harder to imagine one who, having found them, would straightway strike them out.

"Resnick isn't sure what to make of her conclusions," Raspberry reports, "except that the present educational reforms, geared toward enhancing traditional school learning, may be missing the boat. It may be that school learning itself needs to be reconsidered--and restructured."

We, on the other hand, are sure what to make of her conclusions. Simple. She's been watching too much television. Even the commercials. She has this notion that doing a job is something like the morning meeting in LA Law, or the dinner-table discussions of blow-dried Yuppies who hope, this time, to come up with the right telephone system. She has a sweet vision of working for a living, where eager beavers are brainstorming, and wise elders gently leading the promising young into nonschool reasoning.

In fact, if you will stop ten people on the street and ask them about their jobs, you will find nine people who can do their jobs in their sleep, and who wish that that could somehow be arranged. They sort, they fix, they find, they put away, they copy, they push, they recite, they carry, they listen, they tell, they stamp, they gather, they throw away, and at quitting time they quit. For almost anybody in America, or anywhere else, that's what it means to work for a living.

When a department head shows the new sales clerk how to work the cash register, we do not see an event that needs to be inflated into "learning by cooperative enterprise," but if we do so inflate it, we must do the same when a teacher shows a new student how to find a bathroom. Those who use calculators instead of doing sums in their heads--"pure thought," we guess--are not making "heavy use of tool-aided learning." They don't have to learn a damn thing; nor should they. All they have to do is punch the right buttons. And ditto for computers. As to mere reasoning, and that other "reasoning," called "heavily involved with objects and events," we do wonder what distinction the lady has in mind, for it seems to us that any reasonable conclusion as to objects and events must be reasonable, and the result of the "mere" reasoning.

Maybe she is confused about those "abstract symbols," and so unable to see that when the checker in the supermarket decides not to put the six-packs on top of the eggs, it is out of attention to the abstractions of heaviness and fragility. If it weren't so, the trainee's list of what not to put on top of what would be a long one. If "the learning of on-the-job competency" were "situation-specific," there would be endless lists to be memorized in just about every calling. As in school.

Nobody "reasons" about objects and events. It just can't be done. We can reason only with what we can say about objects and events. If we can say things about objects and events, it is because they have attributes, by virtue of which they are like other objects and events, and also unlike other objects or events. By virtue of their likenesses and differences, we can make and test analogies. By reference to those analogies we can draw conclusions and act appropriately. If all of that sounds like a mess of "abstract symbols" of the kind that do not meet the needs of the marketplace, go back and consider again the girl who decides, even in the absence of a situation-specific list, and without a bit of cooperative enterprise, that she had better not put the beer on top of the eggs. In her reasoning about objects and events, she has been through all the "abstract symbols" listed above.

To make her case, Resnick cites a certain nonschool Weight Watcher who was asked to use three quarters of two thirds of a cup of cottage cheese. "He used a measuring cup to find two thirds of a cup. Then he patted the cheese into an approximately round pancake, divided it into quarters, and used three of the quarters... Very probably, the individual never knew, or cared, or needed to know that he was about to eat half a cup of cottage cheese."

(That "very probably," by the way, is superbly typical of the meaning of the "science" in "social science," all of whose circles are "approximately round," and that blithe assumption of what somebody else "needs to know" is typical of the politics of the educationists. Now we know what she is.)

If Resnick is not just patting some of her own cheese into an approximately round circle, but really telling the truth, then there is a vicious maniac out there telling Weight Watchers to use three quarters of two thirds of a cup of cheese, and at least one moronic Weight Watcher who says, "Duh... oh kay." And what a remarkable stroke of luck she had in finding exactly the right vicious maniac, and not the other guy who tells people to use three quarters of two thirds of a cup of powdered sugar, or his cousin, the olive oil specialist.

For Raspberry, the cheese fantasy shows "the difference between pure symbol manipulation (school) and contextual reasoning (nonschool)." Pure bunk. What it shows us is the difference between the power to calculate (roughly) the volume of a soggy wad of cheese, and the ability to calculate (exactly) anything. And that is nothing less than the difference between a kind of enslavement and a kind of liberty. If there are jobs in the world that require only the former, and have no use at all for the latter, the reaming out of sewer pipes, for instance, or the selling of stocks and bonds, Raspberry would not want to be trapped in one of them, but he doesn't mind at all that millions of others should have to bear them. A reformer.

Actually, the schools are much more like the world of jobs than Resnick seems to know. There, too, the situation-specific, the "relevant" "meeting of needs," is cherished, and so too the cooperative enterprise of the rap session and the awareness ritual. And if, as Albert Shanker puts it in his own endorsement of the Insights of Lauren Resnick, school is the place where "asking others for help is called cheating," then that is the school that the followers of Shankers have made, in docile obedience to the competitive world of jobs, and not that possible school where the learning comes before the jobworthiness.

So what is the name of that boat that Raspberry fears we may be missing? Easy. Child Labor--the latest fad of the Makers of the World into a Better Place. School as workplace and holding tank for the little trainees who don't even have to be paid.

We love it. There is a tangy scent of Justice in the air when shabby thinking, patting the soggy cheese of the situation-specific, turns whining reformers into unwitting reactionaries.

The Underground

R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
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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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