Volume Twelve, Number Seven............November 1988

Watching the Moon

Sadler dramatically proved his point last year when he took a camera crew into the closely cropped Harvard Yard during June commencement--right up to the beaming students in caps and gowns, newly ushered into the ranks of the certainly educated. He asked them why the earth is hotter in summer. Only one in twenty got it right.

WE seem to have conjured this fellow up. Just last month we mentioned, a bit sheepishly, with reluctant admiration, Aristotle's suggestion that the student of astronomy be careful not to look at the stars. Now we have met Phil Sadler, who is identified for us only as someone who "is working on a project at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics," and now we would like to apologize for having been sheepish. Aristotle was just plain right.

Sadler's darling project, funded, of course, by the National Science Foundation, is called STAR, for thus it is that scientists derive an acronym from "science teaching through its astronomical roots," which, for the rest of us, would seem to provide STTIAR. But no matter. Cute is what counts. What STAR proposes, and intends to institute as widely as possible, is a "year-long, full-blown course focusing on three areas: the nature of light (how light helps determine distance size and temperature (of stars, we guess)); the laws of nature (physics); and space and time (seasons, motion, scale, distance)."

It will be, of course, a "hands on approach" to the heavenly bodies. It will have the kiddies, for instance, keeping a journal of the time and place of the setting of the sun for three months. They will build little telescopes with plastic lenses and paper towel tubes, they will make nifty little celestial spheres, and, most wonderful of all, they will get many a chance to put aside books and to spend time in the ancient, mysterious pastime of poets and seers--watching the moon.

"For the first time in their lives," says a teacher who is piloting STAR, "a lot of my kids went out and actually watched the moon. It's hard to believe, but a lot of them hadn't done that."

Rubbish. It's not at all hard to believe. It's a weird and unusual child indeed who has truly watched the moon, and probably a poet or seer in the making. "Watching" the moon is like watching the grass grow. It is not at all the same as seeing the moon, or even as looking at the moon. Nor is charting the place of its rising the equivalent of "watching the moon," for it requires only looking at it at a certain time and making a mark, as countless of our ancestors did long ago, and then, at best, coming up with a diagram that can easily be looked up by anyone who needs it.

As to how many graduates of Harvard will need such a diagram, we can not say; it will be few. Sadler's discovery that few of the graduates knew about the tilt of Earth's axis does not trouble us a bit. What does trouble us, more than a bit, is that neither Sadler nor the graduates show any sign of having the ability to make and recognize sense.

We happen to know the right answer to Sadler's question, which, it is most instructive to notice, does not depend on some information about the tilt of Earth's axis, but only from having lived a little. It goes like this:

"Uh, listen, felleh, I don't want to be rude, but I think you may be a little bit confused. It isn't really the earth that gets hotter in what we call summer. It's only a part of the earth, and when one part gets hotter, another part, for some reason or other, seems to get colder, like in Australia, you know, or down in South America somewhere where those really expensive raspberries come from. So maybe you ought to back off and get your head straight, and talk to someone who knows that astronomy stuff, before you go around making a pest and an ass of yourself on commencement day."

If you had to choose, which would you rather be--someone who has never heard of the tilt of Earth's axis, but who can make and recognize sense, or someone who can give the very value in degrees of Earth's tilt, but who doesn't know that he is tilted??

Fortunately, no one has to make that choice. But maybe, just maybe, it would be wise to make that choice anyway, and to decide which of those conditions might better be done without, and why.

Watson was astonished and dismayed to discover that Holmes was ignorant of the fact that Earth revolved around the sun. His "Egad!" was as loud as Sadler's, or Hirsch's, or any of the pious and self-serving lamentations of sectarian academics who want the taxpayers to spend more money on their pet interests, and who are always discovering new and exciting "illiteracies" to be cured by what they peddle.

Holmes was not at all abashed. He patiently explained to Watson, who was more susceptible to reason than our packs of projectors, that whether Earth went around the sun, or the sun around Earth, it would make "not a pennysworth of difference" to him and to his work. That is true. It is not merely "accurate" or "correct"; it is true.

Besides that weakness out of which they failed to consider the question, there is, to be sure, a certain deficit in those Harvard graduates, but it is not the one that Sadler thinks to have found. It is probably--this seems an epidemic condition nowadays--a distaste for reading what is not assigned, combined with the popular belief that there is no point in knowing anything that will not make a pennysworth of difference to their jobs. (They do not, like Holmes, know how to make any distinction between a person's job and a person's work.) They probably suppose that they have learned what they needed to learn, and have--rather prudently, in fact, according to their lights--refrained from wasting time and energy on what they didn't need to learn. Thus it is that they have not picked up along the way those countless tidbits of information that most of us carry about all through life, and that do, although rarely, shed a spark of light into the work (not the job) of reflection.

(Do you know about the tilt of Earth's axis? If not, how has your ignorance prevented you from doing the proper work of a person, from trying to understand? If you do--and most of our readers probably do, since they are of a certain kind of mind, and old enough to have been through what used to be called "General Science" in the ninth grade--what good has it done you? What goodness, that is to ask, has it brought you to?)

Science is not done with charts and cardboard tubes. Science is done by reflection, by thinking about what has been done with charts and cardboard tubes. Astronomy is not done by looking, but by considering, and not by being informed about the tilt of Earth.

When little children make themselves a "picture journal" of the time and place of the setting of the sun for three months, what will come of it? For a few moments every day, their parents will know what they are doing. The teachers will claim that their students have come to "understand" astronomy through "hands-on experiment," and can now answer a few more questions on the trivial pursuit quizzes of cultural literacy. (Sadler does, in fact, call that sort of exercise an "experiment.") And all the grantgrubbers of Academe will pronounce themselves armed with evidence toward the institution of the next round of courses intended to cure yet another hitherto undreamed of "illiteracy."

And then consider what it would mean, and without regard to what is supposed to happen, should there be some little child who decides, all alone, to keep a log of the time and place of the setting of the sun, and to draw from it a real journal, with some writing in it, a record of the thoughtful reflection provoked by the results of observation. Now you can see the difference between the doing of science and something else.

And here is something else--a few words from Mark Petricone, another pilot of STAR: "I'm addressing things I've never addressed before: I'm making kids think about the way things work. It's not a bunch of facts that make them feel like hotshots--like how many moons Saturn has or how far it is to the sun. It's the underlying stuff."

Very strange. Petricone say it's not a bunch of facts, and Sadler goes around playing Gotcha! with a bunch of facts. And exactly what has Petricone been addressing up to now, that he has never before addressed the underlying stuff? Has he been wasting time with cardboard tubes and picture journals? And how does that cunning fellow make his students think about the way things work without ever falling into the trap of telling them how things work, thus precluding their thinking?

Toward the end of his life, Einstein wrote: "The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking." Right. It reminds us that if there is to be science, the thinking must be there first. It follows then that when we have mastered everyday thinking, so that we will carefully ask why, not Earth, but one of its hemispheres, gets hotter in what we call the summer, then, perhaps, we may go on to refine that carefulness into what might actually be called science. But, alas, not everybody can do that.

The Paradise of Bosses

Raspberry-Resnick, II

As for the importance of school-taught generalized learning, Resnick doubts that most of us can be truly successful on the job without developing situation-specific forms of competence. For instance, "extensive training in electronics and trouble-shooting theories provides very little knowledge and fewer skills directly applicable to performing electronic trouble-shooting," she says.

"Growing evidence of this kind points to the possibility that very little can be transported directly from school to out-of-school use. Both the structure of the knowledge and the social conditions of its use may be more fundamentally mismatched than we previously thought."

THAT'S Raspberry again, being hypnotized by Resnick. He is feeling warm and relaxed all over. His eyelids are drooping. He is getting sleepy...very sleepy. He sleeps. He dreams.

He dreams of the Good Life, the Happy Land of fat, contented bosses, unto whom the State will provide, in never-ending succession, worker after worker, trained from kindergarten up in all those convenient little skills and notions that bosses need and love. He sees the benevolent government schools brimming with happy little pre-workers by the millions, learning not only all the tricky ins and outs of wiring and soldering, but also the even trickier tricks of going along and getting along. He sees, at last, the long-awaited end of selfishness, and disruptive individual enterprise, and the triumph of corporate thinking. He beholds with deep satisfaction the dissolution of "the presumed importance of generalized learning," and the new dawn of the situation-specific in a brave new world where the troubleshooters shoot every trouble, quick on the draw and all untroubled by troubleshooting theories. In his sleep he smiles. A happy man. Let us not wake him.

As best we can tell from Raspberry's commentary--and from another by Shanker, who may actually be Raspberry under another name, or vice versa--this Lauren Resnick is just a bit on the mealy-mouthed pussy-footing side of the Great Competing With The Japanese Educational Debate. What she wants to say is pretty clear, but she seems not to have the... uh, let's try "brass"--not to have the brass to say it.

Here are her principal assertions, as put by Raspberry: 1) school learning is inconsistent with what is required on the job, and 2) that this fact has "profound implications" for "educational reform." It takes no great mind to come up with 3) let's make the schools into training camps for the production of useful servitors of the great cause of commerce and industry. Simple.

Now Lauren Resnick is some sort of an educationist, one of those people who are better described as holding a position than as having a job. We know many such, and all of us know many such, for of many such is the great American bureaucracy of "service" constructed. And, for some strange reason, it is always from position-holding servicers like the Lauren Resnicks that we hear the cry for a skillful and cooperative work-force that will allow us to compete with the Japanese. Our electrician does not give a damn about competing with the Japanese; and our plumber once did compete with the Japanese, and rather successfully, too, but that was almost half a century ago, and now he has enough of his own work to do not to care what the Japanese do. All in the face of the terrible pressure of the decline of America into a second-class power, these men, and other men and women beyond counting, have found peace. They just do their jobs.

Well, we are compassionate. Even about Resnicks and Raspberrys, we do worry. They seem so unhappy; they whine a lot. Their nails, we fear, may be bitten to the quick, as they contemplate the dreary future of American commerce and industry, and dread the day when they may have to buy a Datsun. So we'd like to do something for all such folk, and we can. We can give them some good advice.

So, you want to compete with the Japanese? Hey, that's OK, it's a free country. Just go out and do it! Get out of that office and get a little air. After all, what kind of life is that, sitting around scribbling lamentations, talking on the phone, going to conferences about how to compete with the Japanese, reading each other's stuff, scrounging up a grant or an invitation to some hearing now and then. Come on! That's no life for a competer like you. Get out and get work! Build a house or two. Dig some coal. Polish up a few ball bearings, or bolt a good old American fender onto a good old American Chevy. Fix something that was broken. Cut some lawns, or shovel some snow, grow some vegetables, but best of all, make something. Anything. Any physical object that some human being would be willing to pay for. For what you're doing now, you know, no individual human person on the face of the earth would pay a nickel; only institutions buy that sort of thing. So go out and earn a little honest money, and make the sort of stuff that used to be called "goods." You'll feel better, a bit of that good old self-esteem, you know. And you know what else? You'll really be doing it, the thing your heart desires. You'll really be competing with those pesky Japanese. And we'll be real proud of you. Even in the pages of THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN you will be named with honor and praise, as people who said what they meant and meant what they said, and who took their own advice and minded their own business. There is no greater tribute.

Remember also the wise words of C. Wright Mills, a thinker not unacquainted with work and working:

"When white-collar people get jobs, they sell not only their time and energy, but their personalities as well. They sell by the week, or month, their smiles and their kindly gestures, and they must practice that prompt repression of resentment and aggression."

Now ask yourself this: Can it be that there are some children out there in the schools who may someday decide, as they grow in the power of reflection, that they do not want to compete with the Japanese? That they want only to live a sane and quiet life, finding--and minding--their own business, doing whatever useful and productive work to which their skills and temperaments seem suited? Are there some who, when they come to discover some truths, will prefer not to sell their personalities, but to retain them as private property to be nurtured in thoughtful stewardship? Will some learn that what seems a sad necessity is not a necessity at all, but only a conventional device of competitiveness, and thus discover that they do not have to sell their smiles and kindly gestures?

But the Position Holders of Servicing will not listen. They have it made in the Paradise of Bosses. They are full of plans for other people, and hot in the pursuit of the meaning and purpose of somebody else's life. When they "reform" what they call "education," they lick some boss's boot by prescribing for the young what they would not want for themselves, or for their own children--exactly that training that will bring a life of limited choices, and exactly that indoctrination that will stunt the growth of the power of reflection.

"School learning," writes Resnick, "lays stress on individual cognition, while learning in virtually every context (?) tends [famous weasel-word] to be a cooperative enterprise." Uh huh.


I tell you. sir, the only safeguard of order
and discipline in the modem world
is a standardized worker
with interchangeable parts.

That would solve
the entire problem of management.

GIRADOUX, La folle de Chaillot

Brief Notes

The Happy Few who are old enough to have been around in the great days of the American comic strip will have recognized, with a pang of loss, the illustration that appears on page 2 of this issue. Some may even have seen, all in a flash of sweet remembrance, the entire episode, in which the rascal Ignatz Mouse gives Krazy Kat a hands-on lesson in astronomy, only to be hauled off to jail by Offissa Pup, one of America's first true critics of educationism.

We print it, well, as an act of piracy, of course, but also in loving memory of George Herriman, the Faulkner of Coconino County. Sleep well, sweet Kat.

We greet, however belatedly, another godchild: the Individualist Journal, which is entirely the work of one of our readers, George Steele, of Seattle. Although we have just seen our first example, it is already well into volume two, which is a good sign. The first year is hard to survive.

We do believe that this land should be littered with individualist journals, ongoing excursions into understanding conducted by single minds and displayed in public for the consideration of other single minds. Let them sink or swim, but let them be. We suspect that George Steele would send you a sample copy, if you were to write to him at Post Office Box 33486, Seattle, Washington 98133. Try it.

We know many skills and tricks that will help people who want to publish their own individualist journals. Our consulting service, which is prohibitively expensive even for the wealthiest non-personal entities, is absolutely free to all of our persons. Please do not hesitate to ask us for a little help.


The Underground Grammarian Tractarian Society now has eleven titles in print. Of these, four are Great Booklets, our tiny compendia of good, if sometimes painful, little readings from all sorts of minds, passages or paragraphs that provoke what we call real reading, the irresistible need to look up from the page and wonder. We are now trying to put together a Fifth Great Booklet, and we need your help.

Keep on reading. Read everything and anything. Whenever you find that you simply must stop and think, or even stop and fume, you have probably found exactly what we are looking for. Copy it and send it in.

The Underground

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 more.

Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre;
nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

Typos and comments:

For a printer friendly version of the entire volume, go to ShareText.Com

Copyright © 2000 by Mark Alexander. All Rights Reserved. SOURCETEXT, SHARETEXT,
and others are trademarked 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 by
Mark Alexander, P. O. Box 5286, Auburn, CA 95604.

SourceText.Com and ShareText.Com are divisions of
Breeze Productions, P.O. Box 5286, Auburn, CA 95604.