Volume Thirteen, Number Six............October 1988

Dies Irae in Academe

IN the school year that has just now begun, this nation will spend more than three hundred and fifty billion dollars on what it calls "education," by which it means, of course, schooling. That comes to $5,200 for each elementary school pupil, and almost $15,000 for each high school student. Per pupil, that is far more than is spent in any of the many nations that do a much better job of schooling, that is, training people for useful and relatively harmless lives. It is also enough to build seven hundred stealth bombers. As to the meaning of that fact, however, we are uncertain. We just don't know enough about the stealth bomber. It, too, for all we know, may be worse than useless.

These things we do know about our schools. If we are mistaken in any detail, whosoever can, may triumphantly rebuke us at the end of the school year. But that will not happen. This school year will bring us more illiterates than last year. More dropouts than last year. More unemployables than last year. More drug users than last year. More little girls with babies than last year. More little girls with drug addictions and babies than last year. More indigents than last year. More cynical opportunists, convinced that the life of the intellect is bunk. More deluded young athletes, skilled in nothing but their bodies. More apprentice hoodlums who can see in order and discipline nothing more than slavery. And all of that, of course, will serve to justify more strident demands for the expenditure of more money than last year in order to provide even more of all these things next year. As to whether seven hundred stealth bombers would do more or less harm than this, we have no way of knowing or finding out.

To dream of the reform of schooling is childish folly. We stand now, as we always stand, at the highest point, so far, of a continuously growing trash heap of "reform," now more than seventy years high. In every one of those years, the educationists of America have said, "Well, sure, there have been some mistakes, but now, ah now, we really know what to do." (These people never say that someone has committed mistakes, but only that there may have been some.) In the coming year we will hear the same. Often. It is not just a mistake; it is madness. It is as though a man in whose brain a malignant tumor were growing should seek out every possible way in which it might somehow be converted into a better tumor, a more efficient tumor, a tumor of which to be proud.

American schooling is not sick; it is healthy. It waxes fatter and stronger every year. It gobbles more every year, and grows prodigiously. Millions and millions of people--indeed, all of the people associated with it, with the exception only of those who are forced into it by law--take enormous profit and comfort from it. It will, of course, perish, but only after long seasons of writhing and twitching, and by then it may well have killed its host.

Reforms in schooling are always responses to particulars, and, thereafter, responses to those responses, and so on forever. In the thirteen years that we have spent in watching, there has not been one change in principle, not one glimmer of hope that someone in that tangled mess might come to reconsider the ideas that make it what it is.

With the best of intentions, which they may even have, the reformers of schooling will stumble forever from details to details--into the open classroom and out of it, from board control to management control to parent control to teacher control, from student-centered education to outcomes-based education, from this set of basal readers to that, through all the revisions of the revisions of the standardized tests, and down that endless corridor of all those newer and newer maths. It is a hellish prospect for all but those who make their livings by it, and who would be put out of work should they ever succeed. That fact alone is enough to suggest the worthlessness of reform. Any machine, Thoreau noted, has its friction, and might run better with a little oil, but when friction comes to have its own machine, we should smash the thing.

Although there are millions of little reasons for the disaster of American government schooling, there is only one Big Reason. School is a government agency with a political and ideological agenda. All that it does is meant to have its effect in what those educationists call the Affective Domain, which is to say, in the belly, in the gut of sentiment, feeling, and belief. Even when they do happen to teach a little arithmetic, they can think of no better reason for doing that than competing with the Japanese--in which they show that they can't--or enhancing a little self-esteem here and there. They prefer "teaching" things like sex education or drug education, interminable programs of persuasion, cajolery, and Let's Pretend role playing, in which twelve long years of repetitive preachment can be drawn out of a body of knowable fact that might even fill an eight-page pamphlet if there were a few pictures. To tell what is known is not enough; they are attitude police, they are the Sunday-school teachers of the civic church. But they fail. Children can see that they are reciting some party line, and they grow cynical, concluding at last that if much of what the teachers preach is cant, then maybe it's all cant.

That is why school in America has no spirit, no energy. School is not at the center of anything; to all other institutions it is peripheral, an adjunct, a way station, a tool. It hums with no dynamo of its own, but rattles like a jury-rigged appurtenance. It is the home and dwelling place of nothing in particular, but an utterly unselective crash-pad for vagrant notions. It shines with no light of its own, dazzles with no glory, astounds with no wonder, surprises with no joy, sobers with no reverence, awes with no solemnity. It does not prize the intellect. It has no heart, no theme, no greatness.

How long must this go on? How many times must we ask, What can we do about the schools? Let us rather ask, Is there some way in which we could do without these schools? After all, if we were to close the whole operation down today, we would have more than three hundred and fifty billion dollars to play with. Not bad for seed money.

Just now there is noise in the press about the fact that American businesses can not find enough young people who are able to do any useful work. They can not even find enough young people who are at least sufficiently skilled in the most elementary powers of mind so that they might be worth training for some useful work. Thousands of jobs are unfilled. Corporations find sometimes that one in seven applicants, and sometimes only one in ten, can be expected to do the relatively routine and undemanding work that underlies all corporate and industrial enterprise, the daily round of clerking and recording and counting. They can hardly find people who can write a little note or even talk intelligibly on the telephone.

The shortage is so great, especially in those jobs that seem more and more to be taken by young members of various minorities, that one Brad M. Butler, a retired chairman of Johnson & Johnson, foresees "the growth of a third world within our own country." He fears, not unreasonably, that "some time in the twenty-first century this nation will cease to be a peaceful, prosperous democracy." David Kearns, chairman of the Xerox Corporation, sees "the makings of a national disaster," and other corporate chieftains of all sorts agree.

Most of them, of course, probably see nothing much more than corporate inconvenience, and the ever-present problem of competing with those pesky Japanese. But some of them, like Butler and Kearns, do seem to have higher, darker, visions. It is as though they see, and we think they do, that working for a living has a meaning above and beyond its practical consequences. It is a Way, a way of living, and it is good in itself. Should we go on raising up unto ourselves whole generations of people who can not live in that way, then we will not only destroy this land, but it will deserve destruction. Such a land would be a torment to itself and a deadly peril to all its neighbors.

And a strange new thought has been suggested to us. We don't exactly like it, but it presses us. Academe is rubble now, and no spirit lives in it; Church has become a motley collection of wifty interest groups; the one King is broken into bureaucratic bits; Art whimpers for funding; and the Soldier sits at desks and pushes buttons. What humming dynamo would Adams hear in the shabby exposition hall of all our institutions? Can it be that very thing that we intellectuals are so proud to despise, the crass and trashy world of business?

So we have some advice for people like Butler and Kearns, who may well be more numerous in that world than we have supposed. Here it is: Stop wading near the shore holding on to a plank; jump into the deep. Don't imagine that you can "help" the school people to give you what you need. Who sups with the devil must bring a long spoon, and yours isn't long enough. Do it all yourself. You have the dough, and, it begins to appear, the spirit.

You, Kearns, begin. Butler is retired. Speak thus to everybody at Xerox: Starting in September of 1990, the Xerox Corporation will provide all of its employees with a new fringe benefit--free schooling from grades 1 to 12 for all of the children of its employees, and day care and kindergarten too. Xerox schools will hire, and pay handsomely, the best damn teachers there are, and fire them, too, if they turn out not to be. They will, first and foremost, teach the children, all the children, to read and to write and to cipher. There is no mystery as to how to do that, but it will require both teachers and children to work hard, just as you do in your work at Xerox. The schools will teach languages and sciences and all sorts of technical skills. The children will study history by reading historians, and literature by reading good books. We will preach them no pap about values, but let them rather behold the whole range of what their fellow human beings have found valuable, and help them to consider why.

The boards of Xerox schools will be made up of Xerox people, and they will have the management of the schools. As to curriculum, however, they will, at most, advise and request. If the teachers can not decide what is worthy to be taught, and how, we will find better. We will, in any case, be offering them so much money that we will have hundreds of choices for every position.

Every student who completes the course of study will have a job at Xerox along with the diploma. In return for that guarantee, every parent must participate fully and actively in the business of schooling, and share, as parents should, the responsibility for the education of their children. Dropouts will be permanent. Decent and civilized behavior will be taken for granted. Homework will be done. The library will be quiet, and the bathrooms will be clean. No one will use drugs. Since we are deducting nothing from your salary to support the school, we will not be depriving you of anything that is rightly yours should your child be expelled.

These schools will be good. They will prepare our people for decent, thoughtful lives and productive work. Many details still remain to be worked out, but nothing in this is beyond the power of the human mind. Stay tuned.

One such school would start a revolution, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Only a Hero would dare it. So now we will see if we must accept the world of business as the repository of vital energy and courage in a dark age.

Nothing More To Say

Fathering is also one of the things I do without seeming to accomplish anything. My daughter--she's only 12 to my 63, so that might explain a few things--is not turning out at all as I had hoped. I listen to classical music, she listens to noise; I read, she doesn't. In the living room are shelves of books, but not once has she, out of simple curiosity, taken one down and flipped through it, much less perused it. I believe in the mind, she believes in makeup and hair spray. And let me suggest that there might be an alternative way to pass the time of day, and she looks at me with that mixture of surprise and surliness that might have invented the first philosopher. Accomplish anything? I seem powerless to accomplish anything. Why is this when I seem capable of reasoning? Why is this, when I try to keep my mind in tune?

WE find ourselves in Hell again, sent this time by a reader's letter, some part of which is quoted above. We are in Limbo, which is, no matter what they say, still Hell. Here are the virtuous pagans, those who did the best they could by minding the Law as shown in Nature. They have no pain, but neither have they any hope of more than painlessness. They neither suffer nor rejoice.

Socrates is there, of course, along with Plato and Aristotle, and numerous other ancient luminaries of science and philosophy, but Dante, naturally, puts the poets first. He and Virgil are greeted by Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. We are told that the five great poets chat a bit, but, except for hearing that they have invited Dante to join their company, we are not told what they say. At least, though, they speak.

But the philosophers do not. Socrates looked forward to his death, supposing that, should there be more life after all, he would at last be freed of the delusions caused by the body and would be able to hold high converse with other souls likewise free of the flesh, and also far more wise than he. There, he hoped, he would be able to find out the truth hidden behind the world of matter.

Dante has it otherwise. Here, the great minds are silent. No one speaks. Even Socrates has nothing more to say. We behold them for a moment, as in a tableau vivant, and travel on. Just down the road we come to the "place where nothing shines at all."

We commend, and try to practice in these pages, the thoughtful life. And we "believe" in it, but we do have to say that with quotation marks. What we have in mind is not the believing that comes of guessing or hoping, but the believing that Plato spoke of when he put the scientists among the believers rather than among the knowers. It was, we believe (this time in the sense of guessing), Hobbes who pointed out that our "belief" in tomorrow's sunrise is just that, a belief, an inference about non-existent phenomena drawn from our experience of other phenomena. As beliefs go, it's good enough to bet on, but still a belief. And our belief as to the goodness of the thoughtful life is no better, and no worse, than our belief in tomorrow's sunrise. We have the evidence of experience. Who will take thought, as reasonably and as clearly as possible, as to the meaning of deeds, will be happier and better for it.

It is thoughtfulness that promotes the cultivation of the Greek ideal--moderation in all things. It is out of thoughtfulness, and not out of sentiment, for instance, that we can discover and prefer courage not as an endowment or just another laudable sentiment, but as the reasonable middle ground between cowardice and recklessness. It is by taking thought that we can be consistently generous, that is, neither profligate nor niggardly. And it is when we understand that kindness lies not at one end of a line whose other end is cruelty, but just midway between cruelty and indulgence, that we can be kind by reason rather than by emotion.

That is why the practice of thoughtfulness must be always at the heart of anything that calls itself "education." It is, of course, possible to be brave, and generous, and kind out of some "good feeling" or other, but feeling is a weak and undependable companion. All it takes to scare off one feeling is the arrival of another. Feelings are numberless, and, unlike thoughtful judgments, they can give no reasonable account of themselves, nor do they care to. They are the unbidden guests at the table, the raccoons in the garbage can, and the rising water in the cellar.

And that is why such exercises as the programs of attitude adjustment now fashionable in our schools must fail. If we exhort the children to feel bad about drugs, and to feel good about people of other races, we may inculcate those feelings. Today. At the same time, however, we will demonstrate our belief in both the malleability and the primacy of feelings. Another day, another feeling.

A life governed by thoughtfulness--or, to be truthful, a life that has its brief seasons governed by thoughtfulness--is not without excitement. It brings, once in a while, refreshing wonders, and, more than once in a while, calmness. It is an answer to the proverbial prayer, which asks for the power to know the difference between the things that are in our power to change and those that are not. And that in itself is one of its wonders; it often leads us to discover that we can answer some of our prayers for ourselves, and even that some other of our prayers might better be left, not only unanswered, but even unprayed. But it is a life not only moderate, but middling. If it is not the crackling of thorns, it is also not the heat of the sun. And so it is that the philosophers can neither suffer nor rejoice. Maybe children can see that.

The philosophers, as instructed both by Socrates and by their own deliberations, will open the gates, and go out to greet the poets. They will wine them and dine them, and deck their brows with laurel, and then, courteously, bid them farewell, and go home, carefully closing the gates behind them. But the children would like to dance and sing with the poets, and perhaps even to run off in that immoderate company, over the hills and far away, leaving the gates to swing with the wind behind them. The children don't even care if the poets aren't really very good poets. They care only that there be poetry, and that there be singing and dancing. And they take no thought for the morrow, what they shall eat and drink, and what they shall put on, the sillies. And what are we to do? Must we always lose, and lose so big--sixty-three to twelve?

It may be so. Even Plato seemed to suspect, in old age, and Socrates clearly hints, early on in The Republic, that the good life calls for dancing and singing and praising that one that he always called "the god." Nor did either of those worthies, now fallen silent, deny that the poets, and all the artists, had been visited, maybe even victimized in a way, by the light, by the sun, the real sun. The poets in Limbo speak, and speak of excellent things.

A man who had been studying philosophy with Epictetus came to the master one day with a gloomy face.

"Listen, Epictetus," he said, "I have to tell you that this philosophy stuff sounds very good when we talk about it, but, when the chips are down there on the bottom line, it doesn't work."

"Goodness gracious," said Epictetus, "that is very bad news indeed. What has brought you to say that?"

"Well, it's like this. I have to put up with this brother-in-law. He is an obnoxious and arrogant fellow who always thinks that he knows better, no matter what you tell him. He can't see any reason why he shouldn't have whatever he wants, which is exasperating enough in itself, but, even worse, he calls me a fool for suggesting that he ought to consider whether he should want what he wants. He has the trick of cleverness, which provides him with a sharp and ready smart-alec answer to everything that I tell him, and when I explain to him the fruits of our discussions here, he laughs and tells me to grow up and face facts and give some thought to buttering bread. I've tried everything that you have taught me, but he just won't improve. If philosophy can neither make people better than they are, nor butter bread, then the whole business is a waste of time. I'm quitting."

"We'll miss you," said Epictetus, "but, before you go, will help me to understand? Your brother-in-law has obviously not been made better by your urging upon him the deliberations that we call philosophy, but has he been made worse, do you think?"

"Worse? Him? Believe me, there's no way he could get worse!"

"Well, you must at least be grateful that you haven't done any harm in your failure to do good, but tell me, how about you? Have you been made better by all this hassling with him?"

"How could I be? After all, you can see for yourself that I'm mad as hell, and disappointed too. I really had some hope for that philosophy stuff. If anything, this mess has made me worse."

"Very interesting," said Epictetus. "The mind that was in you was able to do no good for your unhappy brother-in-law, but the mind that was in him easily made you unhappy, and worse. Maybe philosophy stops at the skin. Within that boundary, as you yourself can testify, it can engender marvelous changes for the good. But, obviously, there is some dangerous, other power that goes right through the skin of him who has it and easily does its harmful work in others. I do wonder what it is."

Brief Notes

HERE is a paragraph from "English As She's Not Taught," a piece by Jacques Barzun, first published in The Atlantic in December of 1953. Portentous?

"Writing is at the very least a knack, like drawing or being facile on the piano. Because everybody can speak and form letters, we mistakenly suppose that good, plain, simple writing is within everybody's power. Would we say this of good, straightforward, accurate drawing? Would we say it of melodic sense and correct, fluent harmonizing at the keyboard? Surely not. We say these are ‘gifts.' Well, so is writing, even the writing of a bread-and-butter note or a simple public notice; and this last suggests that something has happened within the last hundred years to change the relation of the written word to daily life."

From there he goes on to consider what might be done in our time, when more and more of even the most routine business of life is done through passages of writing. To us, however, it seems that much of the rest of the piece might have been written by a man who hadn't read that paragraph. Too cheerful.

Here at THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN we actually have an English teacher serving in a humble capacity on our staff. He can write pretty well when he is being paid to do it. How well he can write when he isn't being paid, we don't know, because he never writes anything when he isn't being paid. Crass chap, but he quotes Dr. Johnson in his defense, who pointed out that only a blockhead would write without pay.

Once in a while he actually teaches writing, for pay, but he readily admits that he has never taught anybody anything. (The students must be either blockheads, or, since they are writing under duress, slaves). Those who are good at the start of the course, are, at least, not worse at the end, but those who start out no damn good are ditto when the course is over. But the pay is not all that bad.

Here is a piece of writing that Barzun cites in his piece:

"The window have been cleaned Wed. 12:30 P. M. Your maid was their to veryfey the statement."

Barzun deems it "perfectly clear and accurate." So do we.

The window cleaner neither has nor needs the gift of writing, real writing. The same is true, we're pretty sure, for the accountant, the chemist, the pilot, the seller of cosmetics, and perhaps even the teacher. The callings in which it is needed are very few, and few, as well, are their practitioners.

So, naturally, we have thousands of people teaching greater thousands of people, and by duress, how to do what they can not learn and what they will not need. Silly, maybe, but the pay is good.

The Underground

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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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