Volume Thirteen, Number One............February 1989

Go Sell the Spartans

SOMEWHERE among those clippings that we must have lost in the last month, there was a story about an educationist in California who was reciting the currently popular pledge of allegiance to Values. He said, more or less, that he saw nothing wrong with letting students know about Horatio at the bridge, and that the poem would show them a good example of someone who saw how important it was to defend democratic values.

Now, to get Horatio mixed up with Horatius is no big deal. But to ascribe to Horatius a devotion to democratic values is a big mistake. He himself, if we remember correctly, asked, How can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods? While George Bush, ditched in the cold Pacific, may in fact have been revering the separation of church and state, Horatius was surely not taking up the defense of an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances when he asked who would stand at his right hand.

In another time, schoolchildren beyond counting knew about Horatius. They admired him. They were stirred by his deed, in which they saw, whether they could name it or not, something both important and good. And they saw the same in Leonidas, and in Roland, and in Davy Crockett too.

What they saw, and loved, was not some political conviction, not party membership, but courage--courage keeping the bridge with the constant companions of courage, strength and self-discipline. They did not see "values," or the "defense of values." They saw virtue. They knew it was good.

That Californian educationist tells us all we really need to know about the future of all this values business in the schools. He is afraid to say the name of virtue. He has to demote courage into "the defense of democratic values." It is as though courage by itself were not enough, and that it stands in need of official certification. After all, although we may, grudgingly, have to concede that some Bad Guys seemed to show courage in the defense of values other than democratic, we can hardly call them virtuous, or take the chance that schoolchildren might admire them.

After much hassling about the fake question of "whose values to teach," our educationists have decided to play it safe yet again and stick to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which neither praise the courageous nor despise the cowardly. Those documents do not, as they should not, address themselves to the virtue of the individual. They elaborate the limitations of government, which has not what it takes to be either cowardly or brave, and they leave the individual free to be either. They set forth not the lineaments of virtue and vice, of which only the will of a person is capable, but of legitimacy and illegitimacy, the cloudy and ephemeral analogues of "good" and "bad" in politics.

It is exactly out of cowardice that the school people have retreated into the shelter of this perfectly splendid but utterly inappropriate body of lore. They are afraid of religionists. They are afraid of immigrants, who seem, to them, to have come to this land in order to preserve the very customs and conventions from which they barely escaped with their lives. They are afraid of minorities, now beyond counting, whom they seem to suspect of harboring weird "alternative values," an admiration of sloth, perhaps, or a reverence for deceit. So they are playing it safe with the sturdy shield of official certification.

The religionists, any brave teacher would disregard utterly. We are deluded, and ignorant of history, if we accept the proposition that religious belief is the root of our search for the moral life. And we are viciously deluded if we think it, as the religionists would prefer, the only root of the moral life, so that we can then throw hand grenades into each other's baby carriages in good conscience.

And, in the search for the moral life, there are no immigrants. There are no minorities. They are all human people. They have various customs and conventions, even as every family does, and they have different "values," no doubt, some thinking time or money better spent in this way or that, but they do not have different virtues. No culture inculcates the admiration of treachery, or contempt for fidelity. White, black, and brown children, and all shades in between, will recognize and admire virtue when they see it, not only in members of other cultures, but even in bunny rabbits in story books. In this regard, the only true minority is the company--is it really growing?--of the depraved. To them there is no speaking.

Most school children are probably not depraved. That takes time. And they are not cowards. They can accept the fact that Horatius' courage is a goodness in itself, and that it does not require the license of official ideology. They really deserve brave teachers, but the educationists are not in any position to provide them with brave teachers. ("People with courage and character," said Hesse, "always seem sinister to the rest.")

The educationists are not really depraved. Not yet. But they are in danger of depravity; they have learned to reinterpret their cowardice not merely as an enforced concession to their status as public servants, politically hostage to the multitude, but as an ideologically correct "fairness." They will say, for instance, that they cannot just ignore the religionists, or even let one of the teachers ignore the religionists; they are, after all, in the service of the whole public, the nation. Compromise. Conciliation. And they are what they call "realistic" in the face of fearful odds, and not about to fight to hold some little bridge. They need the money. "Those in back cry, Forward; and those in front cry, Back!"

Too bad. It is actually quite easy to show children goodness and lead them into thinking about it. Movies do it all the time, far better than the schools. It can be done in any subject matter, but it probably is easiest in such studies as literature and history. All it takes is a brave, and free, teacher. We imagine a history lesson for little children:

A brave teacher would have to say something like this: Well, I would not like to live in a place like Sparta, and I think its form of government not conducive to the fullest and best possible development of every citizen, but I cannot deny that Leonidas shines, and all his men. There is some mystery here. For that stern and ferocious city, good and brave men chose to die. See what is written on the stone: Go, stranger. Go tell the Spartans, that here, obedient to her laws, we chose to die. What a strange thing virtue is, and what a wondrous thing a person is. And what a strange thing war is, too, most hideous of all human enterprises. A mad monster, in whose service, however, a man need not go mad.

A cowardly teacher will lie, and peddle some bull about the defense of all our swell rights to something or other.

Crying for the Moon

"We made a commitment to go to the moon. Can't we make a commitment that no person will drop out of school and that all people will be able to read?"

THAT inanity comes forth from the mouth, and probably, alas, from the mind, of one Lauro Cavazos. Cavazos is just now the federal government's tame educationist, a replacement part newly stuck into the socket left empty by the departure of William Bennett, who will now take care of the drug war.

Bennett was not popular with the educationists. Cavazos is popular with the educationists. Unlike Bennett, Cavazos is full of Right Sentiments. The sentiment pronounced above is so right that it wins the following approval of Fred Hechinger, who keeps on explaining all about education for the New York Times:

"Perhaps the shift from Mr. Bennett's often shrill rhetoric to Mr. Cavazos's compassionate appeal for the poor is the first sign of a turn to the kinder, gentler nation."

Among educationists, "shrill rhetoric" means anything that is not mush from a wimp. And they love especially any mush that can somehow or other be construed as a compassionate appeal for the poor. As far as we know, they have not yet been tested as to where they stand on some imaginable appeal to the poor, which might actually have some effect on such social mysteries as widespread illiteracy and escape from school, but that day will never come until educationists like Cavazos start to show some signs of education, and thus develop the habit of listening to themselves and trying to speak sense instead of sentiment.

We have not looked it up, but we are pretty damned sure that this Cavazos fellow had no part whatsoever in the complicated enterprise of sending some men to hit golf balls around on the moon. Nor do we believe that Lauro Cavazos ever put his hand on his heart or his Bible or whatever and "made the commitment" to go to the moon. And the same goes for his pals.

Students in school have a name for that kind of talk, but our stylesheet does not permit us to use it. We are, however, permitted to point out that it is as arrogant and presumptuous as it is fatuous. Who the hell is he to say "we," when he, just like our associate circulation manager, had no more part in "going to the moon" than he had in getting through the winter at Valley Forge or crossing the Rubicon? What is it with these ridiculous education people, that they claim professional powers of deep understanding of the Big Issues, to say nothing of compassion, but they can't even keep track of the antecedents of their pronouns?

They are also notoriously bad with analogies. Does that Cavazos truly imagine that universal literacy along with the universal preventive detention of children are to be brought about in the same way that people can make the machinery for a trip to the moon? That is not a "mistake." It is a profound misunderstanding. And it may well be the profound misunderstanding which brings all sentimental do-goodism ultimately to exacerbate the supposed "problems" that it seeks to solve.

In fact, the trip to the moon is not a wonder or a marvel. Since no law of nature forbade it, and information and technology are cumulative, it was inevitable. Inescapable. It is no greater an accomplishment for "us" than another stunt was for them who bridged the Hellespont. The truly wondrous achievement would be not the devising of some elaborate machinery with which to do something never done before, but the decision not to use it. Of this, since thoughtfulness and understanding are not cumulative, we are incapable.

Of the supposed "commitment" of any individual technician who worked on the moon business, no other of us can speak, or should. It is, in any case, not relevant. It is perfectly possible, even likely, that some greedy and self-serving electrical engineer, with no other motive than personal gain, did excellent and essential work. Nor did he, or any of his colleagues, need to win the approval and consent of their materials or systems. Or of the moon. They needed only that steel be steel; gravity, gravity; and logic, logic.

Cavazos' fruitcake fantasy in which "no person will drop out of school" is about exactly that--no person. But the will out of which to stay in school--or to drop out of it, for that matter--is to be found only in a person. Does this Cavazos imagine that the wills of countless children can somehow be sent to some moon because steel is steel? Or does he perhaps know that the two enterprises are utterly unalike, and imagine only that some Right Sentiment in the educationists will magically bring about an alteration of the will in countless children? No, to both, we suspect. What he does know, however, is that if he says those silly words, people like Fred Hechinger will pronounce him virtuous.

Compassion is a marvelously comfortable virtue. You can have as much of it as you like without ever being inconvenienced just so long as you are careful to have compassion for so many people that you can't possibly find the time to deal with any mere individual among them. Compassion for your neighbor who has lost his job, and whose children and dogs play with your children and dogs, can put you in an awkward spot from time to time. Compassion for an elderly father who has gone dotty and cranky can cost you half your life. But the Big Compassion, compassion for the vast multitudes of the poor, or the hungry who live in some distant land, will cost you nothing but an occasional five-spot by mail to some compassion jobber, and will furthermore provide you with a bumper sticker that will identify you to the world as virtuous. Your neighbor cannot afford to pass out bumper stickers, and your compassion for him might well be wasted.

Hechinger finds further proof of the Compassion of Cavazos in the fact that Cavazos has promised to "be consistent in seeking funding" for Chapter One, which seems to be some sort of federal program. How splendidly different this is, says Hechinger, from "the conservative incantation that ‘you can't solve problems by throwing money at them'." Apparently there is some equivalent liberal incantation that you can solve problems by throwing money at them.

Bad cess to both those packs of superstitious incanters. In fact, you can solve any problem. That's what "problem" means. A problem is one end of a tangled string. The other end exists. You have to figure out how to pull.

Going to the moon is a problem. It requires logical analysis based on certain facts and permanent principles, all of which can be known, even if they aren't when you begin. Every element of it is "dependable," in the sense that arithmetical operations are dependable, so that three from seven is always four. It calls for ordering and harmonizing, for scrupulous attention to the tiniest details of every little thing, and for a vision of the whole of which all the details are essential parts. It is a big problem, but it is just a problem. It can be solved.

But the "dropout problem" is not a problem. It is something else. There is not one piece of string; there are millions. No generalizations can be assumed; no dependable operations exist. It has no axioms, no list of the attributes and behaviors of materials. Not all the time and money in the world will "solve" it, because solving is not the action relevant to it. There is no other end of the string to reach. To "believe" in the other end is just that, a belief, a pious dream. Religiousness. Right Sentiment. Bunk.

On the other hand, to go out into the streets and find some kid who won't go to school and who is royally screwing up his whole life, and, in the place of his miserable parents who have already screwed up beyond remedy, to do something for him, so that he might be willing to go through all of the silly rituals of schooling and still come out better, and in some hope of happiness--that you can do.

Cavazos can't. He's too busy solving the dropout problem.

Shrill Rhetoric from the Wimp

WE had a letter from a good and faithful reader. It was both interesting and disturbing. She said that while she enjoyed reading THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN, she also observed that its essays were "mostly negative in tone." In other words, we guess, interesting and disturbing.

But she said more than that, and we think she deserves some answers to all of this:

"Could you offer some positive, concrete suggestions for improving our educational system? It is very well to sit back and say that we must teach children ‘the cultivation of self-knowledge and self government,' but how? Surely they must also learn reading, writing and arithmetic. In the day to day classroom, with all of its distractions and subversions, how does a teacher impart the cultivation of self-knowledge? ... How does society teach people to be?"

Her letter's excellent questions, and her profound understanding that education is a matter not of what a person can do, but of what a person can be, have some ironic implications for us.

We too are uneasy about that negative tone. Surely, wisdom and complaint cannot dwell together any more than wisdom and charity can dwell apart. And we are not charitable. We do the best we can to prove the case when we call fools fools, but we do call them fools. In public--although to be sure, in a very small public.

To our knowledge, no educationist has ever lost a job, or even suffered mild disapproval from his colleagues or masters, for having been ridiculed in this sheet. We will, however, be first to say that that does not matter, that he who fires off the bullet will not escape guilt, however he may escape the laws, just because he happens to miss. Nor can we deny that, even in the certainty that we can do them no harm, that it is not for the good of our victims that we talk about them.

As it happens, however, our associate circulation manager did once write, on our behalf, a book that was, with only a few minor lapses, kind. Of those who had reviewed some of his earlier books, few wanted to touch this one. Those few, almost without exception, said that they liked him much better when he was snarky, and funny. The book was called The Gift of Fire, and--how strange--it tries to provide some answers to exactly the questions asked by the reader quoted above. And to many other, related questions and vexations.

It said, in brief: Look. There is no point in carping forever about the system. Let us consider what we might usefully and intelligently choose to mean by true education, and discover some way in which we might bring some measure of it about, in ourselves, and then, but only then, in others.

It is not a book on the reform of the schools, however. It holds education a purely inward condition that might or might not be engendered in schools, or anywhere else, and that might or might not be precluded by schools, or by anything else. It did not, however, make any suggestions as to how "society" might teach people to be. It argued rather that our belief that "society" can teach--or learn--will insure us forever against education. It provided no support at all for conservative ideas about education, or for liberal ideas about education. William Bennett and Albert Shanker, had they read it, would have equally disapproved it.

To us, of course, that seems an old story. We would rather live in a shell-hole in no man's land than enlist in either of the ignorant armies, but we may be fooling ourselves. Some good people that we know have said, with surprising frequency, that they tried to read Gift of Fire, but that it kept them awake at night, and that they had to give it up. Other have said, Yes, yes, that's the truth, and then never mentioned it again. Some few have been inordinate in their praise, but they could be cranks. And it may simply be that the book is just plain wrong, or silly, or no good. We really don't know, and it is certainly not for us to judge. It is, however, exactly what our correspondent is asking for, and we have to urge that she read it. She may, of course, disapprove what she finds, but beyond the answering we cannot go. In any case, since she is one of us, she will understand that an answer, or any sort of consideration, that is intended to win somebody's approval, is clearly far worse than no answer at all. We do what we can. She can have it.

We have, inevitably, been slipping ideas from Gift of Fire into these pieces. Perhaps we should do more of that. But Shaw once said, "If you do not say a thing in an irritating way, you may just as well not say it at all, because people will not trouble themselves about anything that does not trouble them." Nobody goes looking for light until he notices that it is getting dark.


Readers often write to say that they have tried to find a book of our ACM, but that it is either out of print or in a mysterious condition called "unavailable." What they have is a lazy bookseller. All of the ACM's books are in print, either from Little, Brown, or Simon and Schuster. And they are all available, too, to any bookseller who will trouble himself to order them.

Send off a note and have yourself added to the mailing list of The Common Reader, a recurrent catalog published by a good bookseller named Alex Goulder, who can be found at 175 Tompkins Avenue, Pleasantville, NY 10570. He has good books.

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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