Clouds on the Horizon
LITTLE CLOUDS, to be sure. Not larger than an educationist's hand. Airy, fluffy nothings, and yet...and yet... It is of just such stuff that the dreams of educationists are made, and also the future of educationism's Cloud Cuckoo Land in America, which is also the future of souls beyond counting.
The Torrence Unified School District of Los Angeles requires, as the state of CA requires, that its students write essays every spring so that someone or other may scrutinize their skills. This year, someone or other has decided to scrutinize a little more than their skills in English. The essays were bundled up and handed over to some people who are identified as "psychologists." The said psychologists have examined the essays for signs of anti-social tendencies and traces of a more-than-normal knowledge about drugs.
Cute. Very cute. First you tell them all about clean needles and freebasing, and then you nail the little suckers because they know just a little too much about clean needles and freebasing. And, as always in the schools, one palm greases another; lots of kids found themselves sent off for little chats with their local guidance counselors, who are always in need of pretexts for their existence.
But the "anti-social tendencies" business is even more interesting. Those school people surely have a list of same tucked away in some file cabinet. Is it, we wonder, as long as their list of "learning disabilities," which, the last we heard, was up above three hundred? Since some of our readers are working undercover as moles in the schools, we may yet be able to tell you about the California School Psychologists' Great List of Anti-social Tendencies in California, but in the meantime we can make a few guesses, and so can you:
Reading a book while your classmates are solving the problem of abortion for the gay and lesbian homeless. Saying "Yes" when the visiting policeman pretending to be a drug dealer pretends to offer you a free sample of what you are supposed to pretend to be crack. Asking your English teacher how come the essay that you were asked to write as a test of your skill in composition ended up in the hands of the attitude police? OK. You can take it from there.
(You might also, just for fun, make a little list of pro-social tendencies, like unceasing vigilance, for instance, in the sniffing out of anti-social tendencies.)
For this one, we need a little epigraph. We're sorry about the typography, but, as you will see, so it must be:
Ready for a test? As quickly as you can, count the number of F's in that sentence. Keep your answer to yourself. It is of no consequence to anybody but Michael Grady, a porseffor of ecudation at St. Louis University, who lectured to some forty-five people at the University of Montana--probably others of his ilk--on "Brain Research and its Implications for Education."
If you counted six F's, that's because there are six F's. But it is also because you are not the sort to attend some educationist's lecture on brain research. Of the people who did that, most ended up counting three F's. "People," Grady explained, "are not used to seeing sentences written entirely with uppercase letters and it can trick people's minds." And, furthermore, "most people don't count the F's that occur in the word ‘of.'"
That in itself is weird enough, but, from that supposed fact, Grady thinks to have demonstrated "how logical thinking can lead to wrong answers."
OK. Let's try to get this straight. Three F's is the wrong answer. Most people get the wrong answer because they overlook "of" when printed "OF." That demonstrates that logical thinking can lead to wrong answers, and therefore it is merely logical to overlook "of" when printed "OF." Yeah.
But wait. Now that we have that all figured out, Grady draws, from the same wifty exercise, the triumphant conclusion that "the brain doesn't always work in a logical way. Sometimes it works in a very illogical way." Oh.
So, if the brain works in a very illogical way when confronted by uppercase letters, then the wrong answer, three F's, demonstrates that illogical thinking can lead to wrong answers. Wow. It's a wonder we ever get anything right.
All of this, naturally, convinces Grady that we are just being too logical in the schools. "A teacher explaining the causes of the Civil War," says Grady, "would most likely give the causes in some sort of order, such as No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. In reality things don't happen in nice and neat order." Some students, he adds, would "understand the causes better if they are presented in a more ‘imaginative' way."
There's a lovely, long essay planted in those silly remarks, but you'll have to write it yourself. Just follow these simple instructions: Consider why Grady slips from explaining the causes into giving the causes, as though they were the same thing, and then back into understanding the causes, as though that could result either from the giving or the explaining. Come up with three ways in which some one might give--or explain--some causes in anything other than "some sort of order." Ask yourself what a man must mean by imagination when he thinks it not imaginative to put into some sort of order in the mind the things that don't happen in nice and neat order in the world. And end up by wondering how all this can be seen as a way of suggesting that doing and being are quite enough, thank you, and that reflection is impractical and elitist.
And for extra credit, consider: Can it be that it needs no Lenin to engender the "useful idiot," but that all causes call him forth quite naturally, as weather calls forth the bugs from the swamp?
(But we may have this all wrong. We found it on a torn out half sheet from a little newspaper in Montana. On the other side of the page there was a piece about a psychic healer who tunes in to the negative energy in damaged body parts. "I have this laser projection off my finger," she says. Maybe we were meant to write about her. Well, no matter. It comes to pretty much the same thing.)
Last, and surely least, we bring you news of Madeline Hunter, whom we would love to mix with Michael Grady. Both educationists, both laboring in the same vineyard. And to both a penny, of course, but not for their thoughts.
Madeline Hunter goes, apparently, here and there holding seminars and workshops on how to use a blackboard, which she calls a chalkboard. The fact that she is paid for this work, although only by institutions that have money to spend that they didn't have to earn, is in itself intriguing. Here are bunches of schoolteachers, and college professors, who go, sometimes by administrative mandate, to be told how to write stuff on the blackboard. With chalk.
Madeline--for some strange reason we can't bring ourselves to call her by her surname--Madeline is of the old school of educationism. She specializes in the firm grasp on the obvious and the teaching of what any but the dullest half-wit will learn for himself in his first day on any job.
(This practice is deathless. It is still a large part of all course work in teacher training academies.)
To presumed grown-ups who are presumably teaching in a presumed school, she passes out sheets of paper on which four or five lines of 36 point type proclaim such things as: Say it--then write it. Erase before introducing new concept. Position = Relationship.
Aha! Let's hear from Grady on that! Madeline puts it thus, for the benefit of the mentally impaired who attend her things: If you have Cats somewhere on the board, then you had better put Persian and Siamese somewhere nearby.
This is our only hope: that the Gradys and Madelines will meet and mate, and lecture henceforth only to each other in institutions where there are no innocent third parties. Unlike government schooling, that would be worth its cost.
Merely Decent in the Cold
One must think like a hero
THE epigraph above is also an epigraph to John le Carré's latest book, The Russia House. They are the words of May Barton, about whom, surely to our harm, we know nothing. She is probably someone we should read.
We do read everything that le Carré writes. Had we any influence, we would use it on the Nobel Prize people. His books are always about the theme that lies beneath all of our thinking, the principle that informs the sorry particulars of the life of the mind of which we so often write, to wit, the desperate lot of the individual shivering in the cold mist of foggy abstractions--the Party, the Church, the School, the State, and, foggiest and coldest of all, the monster called Society as a Whole.
In general, reviewers have not been delighted with The Russia House. For one thing, George Smiley is gone, and thus, of course, Alec Guinness is gone. And Karla is gone, resting comfortably, no doubt, under the name of Saunders out in the country. The Americans, with two small exceptions, look very bad indeed, which, to some reviewers, brings forth the dubious but comforting opinion that le Carré just can't get Americans right. To us, they looked just right. Furthermore, there is indeed very little of what is called "action" of the sort expected in what is called "the spy thriller." No sudden death. No dagger. Most of what happens, happens in the inner life, in the minds of persons. And it is exactly that--the inner life--that we have been taught to deem just about as interesting to watch as growing grass or drying paint. To the ordinary trainee produced by our informing institutions, anything at all, football, lotteries, Vanna White, clean needles, tricky congressmen, cholesterol, ozone, Donald Trump, whooping cranes, fires of suspicious origin in deserted buildings, quintuplets in Omaha, rape and robbery, or battle, murder, and sudden death--anything is found worthier to be considered than what is going on in his mind.
And that is why we must read more of May Barton. She knows the secret. She knows that what goodness we can hope to do must come not out of training, not out of disposition, not out of the fear of law or censure, not out of respect for authority or creeds, not out of cultural heritage or social membership, but out of our thinking.
She might also have said much the same thing the other way about: that a merely decent human being looks to the rest of the world like some sort of a hero. What would we say, after all, were some congressman to be exposed as nothing more than an honest man, living by principle and choosing his deeds not according to what some guidelines will permit but by thinking about worth? In him, would we not find a hero, however much his colleagues might find him a sap? Think what perfectly legal opportunities for self-inflation and enrichment he would have denied himself, to say nothing of all the re-election insurance he could so easily and so "ethically" have taken out. Think, too, how poorly he must live, out in the cold, on nothing but his salary.
But think even more about this: How could he have come to such a condition in the first place?
The narrative voice of The Russia House is well named Horatio B. dePalfrey. He draws his breath in sadness to tell this tale, and absents him from felicity for a long while indeed. He is a man who knows about goodness, and who recognizes it when he sees it. But he is a "devoted" man, a man who has given himself and his freedom away to an abstraction. A fascinating condition. He is at once treacherous and loyal, a loyal servant of the state, and a betrayer of the decent person that he knows how to be. That is the condition also, of course, of George Smiley, and it is one of John le Carré's best virtues that he shows us the hidden darkness in the hypnotic creeds and causes to which we give ourselves, and by virtue of which we discover the exquisite pleasure of deeming ourselves selfless servants of a Worthy Cause.
But the beam in dePalfrey's eye does not affect his seeing. Of one of his colleagues, he asks himself: "What had Clive studied,...if he ever had? Where? Who bore him? Sired him? Where did the Service find these dead suburban souls with all their values, or lack of them, perfectly in place?"
The questions are familiar. But they are, perhaps, a bit too English in their frankness. Whether out of politeness or cowardice, easily confused, we will not ask of a practiced and competent opportunist, who bore him? who sired him? It is a well (and wisely) kept secret among even our schoolteachers, that for many of their students there is no hope for a decent and thoughtful life simply because their parents have never shown them any such thing, and have indeed shown them, and have, if only in symbol, commended to them, lives operated entirely by the energies of appetite and untended by reflection.
And the first of those questions is so English that its meaning might easily escape the ordinary American reader. What had he studied? It is not exactly what we would ask. We are interested, mostly for reasons that we call practical, to know what someone has learned. And with that in mind, we will also ask, in what did he major? Those questions suddenly seem pointless when we are wondering why someone lives in a certain way, and does not seem capable of living otherwise. What we truly do need to know where we detect the unprincipled and unexamined life is just what dePalfrey asks. What did he study, which is also to ask, where did he get his practice in examination and reflection, and furnish his acquaintance with the countless particulars of human experience and the remarkably few principles that inform them?
Later on, and thinking yet again of poor Clive, dePalfrey muses thus: "Clive affected to consider this on its merits. But I knew...that Clive considered nothing on its merits. He considered who was in favour of something and who was against it. Then he considered who was the better ally."
This is not an uncommon way of behaving. Indeed, it is frequently among those skills both taught and learned in our schools. Under various names, you can even major in it. For the little children, it is called relating well to self and others, for the bigger children, management. For the biggest children, politics.
What is required in one who would consider something on its merits, asking only if it is better or worse, without regard to consequences? Two things at least--the thoughtfulness out of which to derive and consider some principled understanding of better and worse, and the heroism out of which to choose in the light of principle without regard for the consequences. It is not easy. Who does it too often will surely find himself out in the cold some day, companied only, and only perhaps, by one obscure and impoverished congressman.
And what it takes is study, not the acquisition of techniques and information, but study--reflection, integration, comparison, thinking and rethinking, testing, criticizing, doubting, wondering, and many hours of brooding in the still watches of the night.
Now it is perfectly possible, in fact it is almost inevitable, to do well in our schools and become employable without out ever having spent one moment in study. Most of the courses we offer are not suitable for study. No one needs to study such "subjects" as computer science or accounting; it is enough to learn them. And even such things as history or mathematics, which are suitable for study, are rarely taught as though they were; they can easily be reduced to empty exercises in the accumulation of skills and information, which has also the virtue of making them all the easier to "master"--which is to say, "pass."
And all of schooling, furthermore, is justified as the path to national productivity through the happy agency of personal profit. In such a context, the idea of making judgment without regard for consequences is absurd; the "realistic" judgment must be made out of nothing but regard for consequences.
And now we can answer dePalfrey's last question: where does the Service find these dead souls? The Service produces them. If the thoughtful hero is rare, it is because the entire system that we call "education" is designed to produce exactly what we have, a nation of unprincipled cowards. It works.
No matter what the papers say, there is no Crisis of Ethics upon us. It is just Life as Usual, and one of its major subdivisions, Politics as Usual. Sometimes we hear about it; sometimes we don't. If our politicians want a list of what is ethical and what is not, it is because they seek not goodness, but safety. If they were thoughtful and brave, they would need no such list.
And now our schools will teach ethics. It's all the rage. They will provide the ethics lists to little kids, lest anyone have to think about anything. That is to say, the Service will raise up unto itself the dead souls that best serve the Service.
An Abolus for the Mindmen
YOU will find, in the box below, some entertaining examples. There are some sentences that are used for dictation in a test given to applicants for secretarial jobs. Just below them, you will find the results as transcribed by a young lady applying for such a job. Her mistakes are entertaining, no doubt, but less entertaining to her than to us.
We read about this young lady in one of Mike Royko's columns. Although he certainly doesn't think of himself as such, and although he only rarely deals with the topic, Royko is one of our ablest commentators on so-called education in America. Read him if you can.
The young lady did not get the job. It is no big deal. Lots of people don't get the jobs they want. It is only the pursuit of happiness that we are promised. But it is too bad, because she happens to be in hock to the feds for about $5500. That was how much of our money they loaned her so that she might go to school and learn how to be a secretary with a genie and a persoanity, but ended up, alas, carried off in an abolus.
Well, to be more precise, the feds did not actually loan her the money. They handed it over to the guys who run the school, one of those proprietary training schools. Of the president and the dean we know nothing. Dino and Cheech, perhaps. They took the money and spent it on something, and on something else they didn't spend it. It's for the lack of that something else that this girl is in hot water, but Dino and Cheech are OK.
Indeed, this may not be so great a misfortune as it seems. This one girl is in a spot of trouble, to be sure, but there are surely scores, maybe even hundreds of people involved in one way or another in this mess who are absolutely OK. The greatest good for the greatest number, no? The good old American way.
Just think of all those teachers all the way back to kindergarten, especially the ones who were far more devoted to adjusting the kiddies to the real world than to making them read irrelevant books where they might be led into self-disesteem by hard, elitist words like ambulance and canine. Think of all those advisors and guidance counsellors and pep-talkers and drug-police and bold innovative thrusters. And the principals and the superintendents and all their clerks and those neat professional consultants who came around to teach the teachers how to use the blackboards. Dino and Cheech played their part, of course, but to bring a girl to that extreme condition requires lots and lots of working together as a team.
And don't forget those feds. Try never to forget those feds. There are whole swarms of them who make livings by doing things that no one person would ever pay another person to do. Like taking a wad of our money and handing it over to Dino and Cheech and charging it to the lifetime account of a girl who may be able to get part-time work in a fastfood joint one day and pay it off on the never-never with her Mastercard. But the feds are quite OK. Probily no one can their lease cancel.
And then, too, it is only meet and right that one person should suffer for the people. E unam, pluribus, maybe?
So there must be something wrong with our reasoning, that it leads us to imagine some injustice in this matter. If you can set us straight, we will gladly be instructed. But if not, do you think this might be time to buy some horsewhips?
Summer Notes from Central Control
Central Control has a new puppy of an especially obstreperous breed and will be very busy all Summer long. By us, she sends word, however, as follows:
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Neither can his mind be thought
to be in tune, whose words do jarre;