Volume Thirteen, Number Two............March 1989

The Great Divide

A subcommittee of the National Commission on Education briefly considered this subject of moral education. The members mused about the possibility of employing the Tao of C. S. Lewis (in The Abolition of Man) as a starting point for this discussion. The Tao is a list of convictions held by all of the major religions and religious philosophies. It includes respect for ancestors or elders, honesty in one's dealings with others, principles of mercy and justice, and other great ethical insights. The committee did not continue to meet because of the press of time and preoccupation with academic aspects of schooling.

THOSE are the words of Annette Kirk, which we found in The University Bookman, Volume 28, Number 4. (A good sheet, by the way.) Kirk was one of the members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. It was that commission that sent out the famous "Nation at Risk" report, which held that no imaginable enemy of the nation could have done us more damage than what had been done to us by our own schools.

We were not astonished. We had already been saying that for years, and without charging the taxpayers a cent. We were also not astonished, but only a little bit saddened, that there was no rioting in the streets, and that not one dean of teacher-training was burned in effigy. After all, it makes just as much sense to ride the curriculum coordinators out of town on a rail as to trash a Datsun in Detroit, or to dump tea into the harbor, for that matter, but some things count more than others.

Since "Nation at Risk," of course, everything has gone downhill. And the most recent discovery of damage done by the enemy within is what Kirk has in mind in her after-the-fact reflections on the Commission's work. She is, in effect, answering a currently popular question: Well, how come you excellence people didn't do something about all this moral rot and decay, and see to it that the schools teach some neat values, for a change? And Kirk's answer is, not unreasonably, Look, we couldn't do everything, and we did have to deal with the academic stuff.

Although the academic stuff turns out not to have been dealt with any better than the values stuff, we can hardly blame Kirk, or the Commission, for that. But, considering the interesting clue they found (but ignored) in that business of the Tao, we are inclined to blame them for having missed perhaps the only federally sponsored opportunity of this age to contemplate the assumption implicit in Kirk's exculpation--the assumption that the intellectual life is one thing, and the moral life another.

Most people do believe that; but they don't know that. Nobody knows that. It is professable and professed, of course, notably by the "professionals" of mind and the "professionals" of soul, for the two tribes long ago made a mutual security pact, each agreeing to leave the other free to recruit whatever believers it could. There have been truce violations, to be sure, but only over the question of who is ruling in what province. Never does one tribe assert its right to do the work of the other. Only in very select company will one tribe debunk the work of the other. And the rest of us are left to believe that if we want knowledge, there is only one tribe to consult, and, if goodness, only the other. It is a handy arrangement.

In this context, C. S. Lewis, on whose book the members mused, is an interesting case. While he speaks always out of some doctrinal orthodoxy, he argues always out of reason, where there is no such thing as orthodoxy. He seems to follow Aquinas in holding that reason is sufficient for the understanding of everything, and that revelation is provided only because no one lives long enough (or reasonably enough) to get that job done on his own. In The Abolition of Man he tackles a pertinent dilemma, which, like all of the nastiest dilemmas, seems utterly to have escaped the notice of those who most need to wrestle with it.

When we establish a New Order and bring in a New Way, we intend to make something that is better. But should we have to give an account of that betterness, and not merely assert it, but show it, we always end up justifying the New Way by discovering its license of legitimacy in the Old Way.

We may, for instance, decide that the children should be forced to perform charitable acts in order to earn credit toward financial aid in college, and thus establish a New Morality in which the worth of the deed is unrelated to the will of the doer, but we will justify it with the strength of the Old Morality, out of which we know what we mean by a charitable act, and know, also, that it is good, and that its goodness, unlike the goodness of the forced charitable act, stands in no need of justification beyond itself.

And that is what Lewis means by the Tao, and not, as Kirk says, a "list of religious convictions." When we go to give an account of the goodness of this or that act, or plan, or sentiment, or anything of which a human is capable, we always end up in the same place, in some not very large body of lore, which seems, furthermore, from the evidence of folklores and mythologies, to have been known to all people at all times. Religions need the Tao, of course. Without it they would have nothing but their fantasies. The Tao needs no religions.

It is not out of religious belief, or out of "respect for the law" either, that you know what judgment to make of a judge whose verdict is bought, or, for that matter, buyable. In fact, religious belief is what it is, and the law is what it is, out of respect for the Tao. And this is just as clear to schoolchildren as to jurists. But why? Just how do we know that? Does our "knowledge" itself stand in need of an accounting? Where, behind that knowledge, as it were, could we go to justify it, as we can go behind the New Way and justify it by the Old? Or, should we want to debunk it, and bring in a new order in which no one sees anything wrong with a bought verdict, where will we find the root of that old knowledge, that we may cut it off, and cure the people of their delusions about bought verdicts? The apparent impossibility of answering such questions is what brings Lewis to say of the Tao that it is because it is, and that there is no place beyond it to go to. And it is an asserted answer to such questions that gives religions what power they have.

The school people are, and who can blame them, afraid of the religions, since an assertion, where no evidence can be shown, has no answer but a contrary assertion. But they are so afraid of the religions that they grant them more credence than they deserve. When the religionists claim to be proprietors of the Tao, the school people bow down. They say, Oh, well, in that case we will come up with another Way, our own relevant product. And we see what that has brought us. And then they say, like the members of the Excellence Commission, Oh, well, we were really supposed to stick to the academic stuff anyway.

Now what, we wonder, are those remarkable "academics" that they have nothing to do with the Tao? Is there some "subject" that we can study and find in it no implications about rightness and wrongness, about equality and inequality, about harmony, balance, or consequence? Is there some scholarly enterprise utterly divorced from industriousness, discipline, and honesty? Do none of those academics tell stories of people, and how they do?

Well, that may be the case. Maybe the schoolers have finally perfected the absolutely relevant curriculum, the one that would also be the only possible absolutely meaningless curriculum.


The Other Bird

There are two birds in the tree of life.
One eats. The other watches.

HOW much study does it take to bring us into wisdom? How many books do we have to read, and which ones? Are some courses of study essential? Some degrees? Is there something, some thought, some masterpiece, some one critical fact, without which no one can understand what everyone should understand? Are there--horrors!--many such?

Consider poor Doktor Faust. He had studied--and mastered--Music and Art, the Sciences, natural and otherwise, Medicine, Philosophy, History, Philology, yes, and even (ugh!) Theology. (The "ugh" is his, not ours.) He had read all the books, passed all the courses, earned all the diplomas.

And, through his great labors he had come to realize that he knew nothing, nothing at all. He was neither joking nor posing, and he certainly wasn't being humble. He meant it, and, we think, he was right. Being informed is obviously not the same as knowing, and it is only through a looseness of language that we "know" the capital of Arizona or the number of feet to the yard. If we are strict about our words, we soon come to see that only things we seem secure in "knowing" are strangely remote and cold, like undeniable propositions about the equal and opposite angles created by intersecting lines. They're right, of course, but neither consoling no edifying. They do not satisfy our natural desire to know.

And that's why we torment ourselves with wondering how many books it will take, and which ones.

Stop worrying about it. We will tell you, here and now, how to attain all the knowledge, and wisdom, that is possible to ordinary mortals. Here it is: Take one book. Read in it every day of your life. When you are not reading it, consider it. Praise it. Damn it. Dispute it. Damn your praise, and praise your damning. Dispute your disputations. Weigh the consequences of believing what your book believes. Consider the consequences of not believing what your book believes. In the light of what your book says, look at your life and your deeds. In the light of your life and deeds, look at what your book says. Meditate in the still watches of the night...

Wait! No. Don't do that. Instead, take one paragraph, and do all those things every day of your life. Meditate on it in the...

No. Wait! That's too much, too. It's more than a mortal can bear. Take a line, a single line. It'll do.

And if you can't come up with the right line of the right paragraph of the right book just now, use the one we've given you above: "There are two birds in the tree of life. One eats. The other watches."

It is a line from an old book, a very old book. Older than the Bible, older than Homer. In those days, there was no one who "knew" the capitals of the states or the place of sulfur in the periodic table, no one who had heard Bach or read Milton. The information they lacked was immeasurable. But so, too, is ours, and in that we are no better than they. And, in fact, if we have never thought about those two birds, we are far worse off than they. With that one bit of "knowledge," they could easily have been happier, and kinder, and in every way better, than we.

And that is also to say, more "educated," set free, than we, who have generally lost sight of that other bird, and who spend our lives in the scramble of eating, of feeding our faces and our fears and our passions and our egos, of hustling to sell to each other what no one needs and bestowing all too gratis on each other what no one wants, and hastening home at the end of the day to hear word of the latest fire of suspicious origin in an abandoned warehouse, and every fascinating and absolutely essential detail of the tawdry misbehavior of the sports stars, and ditto of the tedious amours of politicians and other entertainers, so that we may sleep informed, to rise another day and hand out more of what nobody wants. And to all of that, we add the grinding fear that some greedy, materialistic, and self-serving industrialist will give us cancer with his noxious waste so that we won't live as long as we want to, enjoying the rich fruits of this life.

I, too, thought you had in mind Revolution, a purging of the Public Schools of those seemingly better fitted to sell used cars, and a putting in their stead real pedants, classicists and Jesuit priests. I, too, thought of you as a modern Tom Paine, trying to whip us readers off our couches.

But I realize now that your words are spoken, like those of Socrates, for no one but me, your pupil. I don't know how many copies of the UG you mail, but the only one that matters is the one I receive. I have no idea how many copies of The Voyage Out are in existence, or how many have seen the Ghost Sonata, or have heard Alicia deLarrocha play. What matters is not the company I keep, or how secure I felt being part of a group. What matters is how my "interaction" with all of the above creates me. As you have said time and time again, education is what happens silently, and often undetectably, in the privacy of one's soul when one comes in contact with an educated person. I am left with the desire to emulate the person I admire. But to do that I must tune my own engine. No one can do it for me because the engine is invisible to all eyes by my inward one.

But my present intention is not to tell you what you've told me, or, for that matter, to pat you condescendingly on the back for holding the pass--while the multitudes mill around wondering if all the evidence is in--but to predict that if you do take off on the road to reform, I will not follow. You have taught me well.

The eating bird does one thing. All the time. It stops only once. Still, we like it better than the watching bird. The watching bird does nothing at all. That's un-American. We hate it. Our schools hate it, and devote themselves exclusively to feeding the eating birds in their children, and encouraging them to get all they can.

Pick up some skills. Get jobs. Make money. Get up and get going, commute, and compete. Put on some culture, so that you can hold your own in discussions which assume the knowledge of the capitals of the states and the winners of Academy Awards. Learn to compute, and to communicate. Yes, above all, communicate! It keeps your mind out there--away from yourself; it keeps you relating to others. It protects you from the dread danger of finding yourself, some day, alone, all alone, with nothing but your own resources. Keep the channels open. Look ahead. Look out. Be civic. Think of the future. Think about what is far away and yet to come--the tribulations of Bangladesh, the end of the ozone layer, and the threat of foreign competition. Think of Outer Space, but never, never, of Inner Space. There may be strange creatures there.

The eating bird is the activist in us all. He is very interested in current events, and the weather report. He supposes that something important will happen, or fail to happen, if he doesn't happen to know what has happened. He doesn't even know that the watching bird is watching. An entire education, and perhaps even a whole curriculum, could be designed with the intent of bringing people into that condition in which they come to notice the watching bird, and learn to watch with it. And that is why we have printed the unusual letter that you might have read on the previous page. If not, please read it now.

It is, of course, a letter from one of your colleagues, a reader. It gratified us, to be sure, but it instructed and amazed us as well. It told us something that we didn't know.

As it happens, we are acquainted with the very person whom our reader calls his teacher. As a real person who walks about and does things in the world, he is no fit teacher at all. He is querulous and disorderly. He does often what no teacher should do ever: he disapproves. He contends, and complains. And, worst of all, he judges. Socrates did none of those things, and he would have advised, like others of the wise, to leave judgment to those who know, among whom he did not count himself. No, our reader's teacher is a fraud, and not Socrates. No one is Socrates. Socrates wasn't Socrates.

Sometimes we wish that the record had not been so well kept, or that all traces of Socrates outside of Plato had disappeared forever in the destruction of the library in Alexandria. Thus we might be able to think of Socrates as what the Socrates we know actually is: an emblem, a construction of the imagination, a "hero" in the truest sense of that word, a principle made visible in the form of a particular. No living, acting human being could have been the Socrates we see in Plato, in whom, for all that banqueting, there is no eating bird. In the Socrates who walked the streets of Athens, there was indeed an eating bird, an activist. No one can live otherwise.

It is interesting to notice that our reader does think about living otherwise, that he reaches a condition that must be called, in our schools, in our businesses, in the halls of government, and in our churches as well, where Martha has driven out Mary, anti-social and selfish. He will pay some price for that, but there is nothing to be done about it. The eating birds sees only the other eating birds, and always supposes that there must be something "wrong" about those in whom the watching bird is awake.

What speaks, and always speaks, in the Socrates of the Dialogues, is the watching bird. And what speaks in the letter from our reader is the watching bird. We are not his Socrates; he is his Socrates. He is not our pupil; he is his pupil. That "educated person" who affects him is no one but himself.

All of which is to say, all disconcertingly, that while no one is Socrates, everyone is Socrates.

There must, of course, be some of us who are simply unable to watch. Infants, probably, but only for a while--and the mad, perhaps for always. But the complete lack of the ability to watch simply must be accounted an acquired deficit, not a trait of character or a genetic inheritance, but an injury, a loss of something that ought to have been there in the territory we call "human." That such a loss is possible at all is frightening enough; much more frightening is the possibility that it may be brought about in those who are neither infants nor lunatics.

Can the watching bird die, while the eating bird goes on eating? What would kill it? Is it born sleeping, and waiting to be awakened? What will awaken it? What prince must kiss that sleeping beauty? Is he lollygagging in some tavern? Eating? What if he's just not up to the job?

Hmm. Now that we have come up with those questions, we've decided to fight for Reform after all. And just who is that chap following us, we wonder.

And furthermore...

OUT in Pullman, Washington, they have a, well, a sort of a school, apparently, where they...teach stuff. It's called Washington State University, and it sounds like a real neat place.

They have something they call the Hotel and Restaurant Management Program. And why not? We certainly wouldn't want the hotels and restaurants left unmanaged, which they surely would be if the educationists of Washington hadn't persuaded the legislators of Washington to extract some money from the taxpayers of Washington to provide for the needs of the hotel and restaurant owners of Washington, who can hardly be expected, all by themselves and at their own expense, to train the people who are going to manage their hotels and restaurants, now can they?

Now, perhaps troubled in his conscience for having profited by all that enforced largesse of the taxpayers, a certain Taco Bell has put up one quarter of a million bucks so the Hotel and Restaurant Program people can go out and hire someone for its brand new Distinguished Professorship of Fast Food Service.

It's not going to be easy. All the distinguished scholars of fast food, those who make the original and significant contributions to knowledge in that subject, are surely well-situated, and will hardly be tempted away by the interest on a measly quarter of a million.

Even at eight percent, that comes to about forty thousand bucks a year, and any distinguished fast food scholar could do a lot better than that just by opening a franchise.

Nil, however, desperandum. To get Mr. Bell's money, the legislators of Washington generously put up another quarter of a million of the taxpayers' money as a matching grant. Now that's a little more like it.

Our associate circulation manager sometimes actually makes, and eats, his own lunch. Today, he set a timer. The whole operation, the making, the eating, and the simultaneous reading of the editorial page of the Sunday paper, took three minutes and eleven seconds. He's going to write it up and send in his vita.

Yes, this issue is late. And that's not all. The next two issues, April and May, will be correspondingly late. But we think we can fix all that. Suppose we stop using the names of the months, and stick to numbers? We'd be interested to hear what you think--unless you happen to be a librarian.

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.

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