The Mixed Nuts Formula
Walter Savage Landor
WITH this issue, we come to the end of our twelfth year of publication. If this were an enterprise dedicated to the reform of what is called "education" in America, we would be glum. But it is not, and we are delighted. And expectant.
If we could do anything about our system of schooling, we would undertake its destruction rather than its reform. We know already, and have regularly chronicled, the lunatic fandangos of reform in the schools, and we know also that their reforms will always be more of the same, for all that they do arises, and must arise, from the ideas and principles embedded in the heart of the enterprise. And those ideas and principles are silly, just plain silly. But not cute, for they do generate a strange and modern form of tyranny, a tyranny whose ruler is a spooky nonentity who can neither take nor give thought, being nothing less than the averaged, collective will of a big pack of silly people.
The current disorders in American education, which are even worse than they were twelve years ago, should be seen not as Bad Things, but as Good Things. Those grinding, screeching noises that you hear promise the fall of the fantastic palace of twentieth century educationism. Its timbers were never sound, its corners never true. Earth, whose every part is sound, has no place for it. Be patient.
Some of you will remember the sort of piece we did often in years gone by--a scrutiny of some portion of that sentimental nonsense that passes for the teaching of teachers to teach. It was shooting fish in a barrel, of course, but it did explain why it is that school teachers often seem the least intellectual class of folk in America. Since then, there has been "reform" after "reform" in the teacher academies. We have some results to report.
In North Carolina, they give tests to incipient school teachers, one on what they call "general knowledge," which prudently omits all questions of specific knowledge, like the axioms of geometry and the prepositions that take the dative, and the other on "communication skills," whatever those might be. The tests, which are less than rigorous, are cooked up, by consensus and compromise, at the Educational Testing Service. The questions seem intended for little children.
If your mixed nuts consist of peanuts and cashews in a ratio of four to seven, how many pounds of cashews do you have if you if you have 28 pounds of peanuts? Which appeared most recently: humans, the atmosphere, the seas, the fossils, or the reptiles?
Not surprisingly, there are, even in the schools, people who think that these tests might be made a little more demanding, or, at least that slightly higher scores might be required of those who are deemed to "pass." In fact, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors would like to see the passing level set way, way up--at the thirty-fifth percentile!
Wow. Now, we promise you this. You are one of our readers, yes? Good. Whatever you do in this life, whatever you think of your own "education," if you will go and take that "test" for incipient school teachers, you will end up well above the ninetieth percentile, which means, with a higher score than at least nine tenths of all who take the test. On a bad day, and with both hands tied behind your back.
And now you know what to think when we tell you that the "passing" grade currently in force in North Carolina is the second percentile. That's right. If you want to be a mentor of young minds in North Carolina, you have to do better than two percent of the other people who take the test.
Now here's a test you may fail. How do you react to that trinket of news. Are you appalled? Wrong. Are you steaming with righteous indignation? Wrong again. Are you rolling on the floor, choking with laughter? Right!
That's funny. That is a story about a bunch of very silly people doing very silly things, and taking themselves very seriously the while. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the sillies will do irremediable harm to a bunch of innocent children. The harm, if it can be done, has already been done by all those silly parents who were taught by the last lot of silly teachers. And children are not all that innocent; lots of them are well aware of the pretty obvious fact that most of their teachers are ignoramuses or fools, or both. Those who aren't may well become teachers, and it won't matter.
Here's another question from that formidable teacher test:
Which of the following words, used to describe another culture or country, would be most likely to be used by an ethnocentric speaker? Religious, agricultural, uncivilized, assertive, or developing.
That's one of those trick questions, an ideological litmus test disguised as a vocabulary question. The "right" answer is really a rite answer, a ritual. When you take the test, you may well have to leave this one unanswered; it requires information you don't have. Given an "ethnocentric speaker," you still have to know what he's talking about in order to say which word he is "more likely" to use. How assertive got into that list is a mystery--probably a desperate shot at one more word so that there could be five choices, but the rite answer, of course, is "uncivilized." School teachers are expected to believe, without ever having pondered and tested the ideas of civitas and civility, that everybody everywhere is always civilized, and that only a bigot would say otherwise; but if you have even the faintest suspicion that Locke was right in saying that we should use no word that we have not thoroughly thought out and agreed upon, you might want a few years of study and pondering before answering that question.
And you might, in your pondering, consider some hypothetical country or culture in which the mixed nuts of educationism have decided that the nurture of the minds of the young should be given into the care only of those who have managed to score above the second percentile in a remarkably simple test, and ask yourself whether it would be shamefully ethnocentric of you to call that country or culture uncivilized. How about "assertive"?
Fear not. North Carolina will not go to the thirty-fifth percentile. It would not be silly enough. Whatever they do will be funnier than that. All we have to do is keep laughing. For the health of the tree of liberty, the humiliation of tyrants is just as good as their blood.
The Chelsea Proviso
(This passage is intimidating, long, and dull, but read it anyway. Aloud.)
In entering into this agreement, the parties recognize that both the success of the project and their ability to achieve the objectives of this agreement depend on factors external to and beyond the capacity of the University and the School Committee and require the support, cooperation, and active involvement of the people of the City of Chelsea, the public employees and officials of the City--both within and outside the Chelsea school system, the elected leadership of the City and all branches of government of the City--and the support of public and private agencies and branches of government beyond Chelsea, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Federal Government, as well as business and industry. The parties recognize as well the special role that parents will play in achieving the success of the project and will actively seek their involvement and cooperation throughout. In addition to the cooperation of these diverse groups, financial and other support from the Commonwealth and Federal Government will be necessary to carry out the proposed project. In the absence of such support, the project cannot succeed in revitalizing the quality of education in the Chelsea schools.
BAD, of course, very bad. Nevertheless, if you happen to have any children trapped in the Industrial Ideological Complex of American Public Schooling, you ought to read it again. And once more. The pain will be good for you.
It is a passage from a contract between the operators of the schools in Chelsea MA, and some other operators at Boston University, especially Long John Silber, himself, the crusty and not entirely unlikable president of BU, who is always in some sort of trouble that does him credit. Those are some lawyer's words, of course, not Long John's, but his inevitable subscription to them leads us to suspect that he is undertaking, as Edith Wharton said of Henry James, to chew a good deal more than he can bite off.
Silber has put it to the demoralized school operators of Chelsea that they should hand over all that work to BU, which will promise, in return, to shape up the schools, raise the scores, lower the dropout and impregnation rates, and all the rest of that stuff. So far, the best result of Silber's offer is that it has driven Al Shanker frantic with worry about the fate of teachers who might some day find themselves both accountable and de-unionized. And it was Shanker who nosed out the prose quoted above, using it to suggest that there are hopeless tangles of string attached to Silber's promises. Shanker, of course, has often used those tangles as excuses for the failure of the bold, innovative thrusts that he likes, but he hates to think that someone else might get off the hook with the same dodge.
We would like to say--so that we could seem polite and judicious--that it will be interesting to watch the unfolding of events in Chelsea, and that we will keep you informed. But it won't, and we won't. It will be, and the parties to that quibbling contract obviously know it, the same damn mess all over again. We expect never to say anything more about it, except, maybe, "Ha!" someday. Forget it.
Think, instead, of this: Imagine that you have, tomorrow, one of those nasty flashes of self-knowledge, and notice that you are a spiteful and devious conniver who blames his own failings on the ill will of others, and who then devotes the greater part of his energies to the taking of revenge. Very bad news, as self-knowledge often is. Imagine further, however, that you decide to do something about yourself, that you actually say, I must change. Such things do happen.
Now what do you do? Of what, exactly, is it that you stand in need, and where is it to be found? What will you do if it turns out that the betterment you seek can be provided only by others, and that the others work in a vast government betterment industry, and that that industry can promise good results only if it can be sure of the support, cooperation, and active involvement of just about every human being and every inhuman agency in the whole land, and that, lacking support, cooperation, and active involvement, to say nothing of the money that goes along with all that, no promises can be made, and that you may very well have to spend the rest of your life as the contemptible swine you are today?
You have just discovered why a massive system of government schooling does not cause education, has never caused education, and never will.
We can define education in many ways, and we should; it is not a thing in the world, but the devising of our minds, whose attributes we may choose, and whose consequences and effects will vary according to the wisdom of our choices. If we choose to say that an education is whatever helps us to compete with the Japanese, then we will have one sort of world. If we choose to call education those powers which bring self-knowledge and self-government, then we will have another sort of world. If, like the government schoolers, we choose not to pin ourselves down, and especially not to risk anybody's disapproval, but rather to hint that all things from freeform macramé bulletin boards to condom drill must be some sort of education, then we will have this world, the world in which we can't even be sure of having that sort of nonsense, never mind a little spelling and ciphering, without the support, cooperation, and active involvement of...
The important thing to notice about that colossal disclaimer in the Chelsea-Silber contract is that what it says is true. Even the paltry "education" of the schoolers is just not possible without all of that support, etc., etc. Now a civilized nation would take one look at that fact, and say, Well, if that is the case, we will have to wait a mighty long time, and bend arms beyond counting, and turn ourselves utterly into wheedlers and flatterers in order to make these silly damn schools work. Better to trash the whole mess and start over. Better, in fact, to do nothing at all than more of this.
But we are not a civilized nation; we are the land that the last century or so of schooling has made. Like unreconstructed Ptolemaic astronomers, we just have to go on adding new epiepicycles to the epicycles we have already added to the cycles. To you, that may seem a dismal prospect, but to the Ptolemaic astronomers it's paydirt.
Now suppose that someone were to tell you, in your miserable condition, that not all the king's horses and all the king's men can do a thing to help you, but that there is one, and only one, person who can? You wouldn't be at all surprised, would you? So we won't surprise you when we say, as we will say, that Long John Silber, all by himself, or you, or even Al Shanker, or anyone at all, can bring one person into that sort of education which is the cultivation of self-knowledge and self-government. And maybe, with a little bit of luck, a few others.
Without that sort of education, all the rest is nothing more than a convenience that will serve just as well for annihilating the Japanese as for competing with them. Technical skills and social adjustment bring no betterment in those who know no "better."
They wouldn't do it gladly, but even educationists would have to concede that there can be no justification for any kind of schooling whatsoever unless it is intended to bring about some betterment in those who suffer it. So this is the essential question, the very heart of the enterprise that we call education: Is there anything that I can do to lead this person, not into some better life, but into that condition out of which he may make a better life? It is the question that any sane and decent parent must ask daily. Indeed, since we are all to each other the only help we have, it is the question every sane and decent person must ask daily.
So what shall we say of one who says: Well, sure I'm the one for the job, but, of course, I can't be expected to bring it off without perfect and unstinting cooperation from all the king's horses and all the king's men, and from you, too. And lots of money.
Well, naturally, we will conclude that he is a real professional of education.
Bokes For to Rede
A Reader's Delight
THE English word "read" really is an English word, and a very old one. Its older meaning is what makes memorable the name of an otherwise undistinguished king of old England, one Ethelred the Unready, hero and patron saint of schoolboys going to tests. Ethelred was so called because he was disinclined to read, which is to say, to take counsel, to consider, to ponder. He came, of course, to a bad end.
In old England, being able to read had nothing to do with what we call "literacy," which might be better understood as the trivial thing we can't always manage to teach in school--the ability to make out the letters. It is a shame that we have lost this distinction, for it would help us both in schools and in the world to notice that many who can make out the letters can not read, and that there must be some who can read but cannot make out the letters.
We often wish that Socrates had learned English. Then he might have had a better opinion of reading, and in that unsettling passage about Thoth's invention of writing he might have had more to think about. When he speaks of the majestic silence of books, which neither can nor will answer our questions or even defend themselves, he is thinking of course of "books" as he knew them, which were indeed but one voice in an enquiry that really required two.
Socrates probably didn't think of the poems of Homer as "books," in our sense of the word, and, except for them he probably knew nothing at all that would lead him to admiration and assent when one might say, "There is no frigate like a book." On the contrary, he would probably put most of our favorite books in a class with the inspired, but dangerous, melodies of the poets, who are to be greeted warmly and banqueted just outside the city gates, and then sent on their ways, garlanded, but gone. Is there not in Socrates, and in those old Greeks in general, a strange distrust of delight?
We would like to hear what Noel Perrin has to say about all that. Noel Perrin is ready. A Reader's Delight is surely the most delightful book of the year. It is a book of many (but not enough) little essays on books. It could have been called Books I Have Known and Loved, a title under which we all have lists, of course. But Perrin's list is longer and better. And readier.
Each essay is a little treasure in itself, and also, for most readers, a map of buried treasure. You want to read a good book, a book you've never read before, or even heard of? Perrin will point you to it. Is there some wonder hidden in your past but now truly out of mind? Perrin has probably read it, and loved it. Do you think, to this day, that such and such was probably one of the best of its time, and that no one seems to have noticed it? Perrin did. Is there some quirky, darling love of your own, so far from the high road, and so out of fashion in these times, that you never mention it, never reveal how deeply once you loved such stuff? You have a friend who will show you why you were right all along, and send you on a search for a good bookseller.
(Our associate circulation manager, in his crassest twenties, discovered socialist realism, and was thus led to abandon a complete, painfully assembled set of the works of James Branch Cabell--the Silver Stallion Edition. Now, brought to his senses by Perrin, he wanders the crypts and passage-ways of THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN megacomplex, crying out most pitifully after his lost books. It's a sad case. Should these books have come into your possession--such things happen--please return them straightway.)
We have, as regular readers know, our own definition of "reading." We think it useful and beneficial to make some important distinction between what happens in the person who receives what is drawn on the door of the public toilet and takes meaning from it, and what happens in the person who looks up from the page and ponders. It is the reading that sends us to take counsel, and that makes us, in the best old sense of the word, ready.
It is also the reading that might be called permanent, or at least lifelong. It is the reading that we do again and again, in the still watches of the night and in the bustle of the day, and all in the absence of the book. It is reading analogous to nourishment. We are, in part, what we eat, but we are also what we read. What we read can just as surely make us shallow and stupid as what we eat can make us flabby and short of wind. And, as we can die for the lack of this or that mere mineral, so too what can die in a worse way for the lack of this or that nourishment of another kind.
(Along these lines, it would be possible, and entertaining, to make a case for the indictment of our school folk as killers of children, who are certainly in a condition that might be called malnutrition verging on starvation, but we must leave that to you.)
When you read Noel Perrin, you will see that he is a man in excellent health, quicker and stronger than Arnold Schwarzeneger. And readier. He must be eating what the big boys eat.
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Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;