WE HEAR about these kooks all the time. They were singing the same little jingle when we started this enterprise, thirteen long years ago, they are singing it now in the Great Age of Reform, and they will be singing it so long as a system of government schools shall last.
The lyrics never change. Too much mind stuff! Too much intellect. Too little feeling. Too little touching. Nothing in school for the cute little right hemisphere. Too much rote learning, and too little relating. Too little creativity, and... Well, you've heard it all.
For a while, these preachers called themselves "holistic." Then one of them misspelled the word, but the rest of them sort of liked it that way. So now they have become "wholistic."
The wholisticist of whom we have the most recent news is a certain Jack Canfield, who is the director of a den of wholisticists in Massachusetts. He went to talk at an exceptional children conference. (Those people just love to hear from such as wholisticists.) He said, "We somehow blind ourselves to the most important part of education," which has to do with love and acceptance "of the part of you that overeats, and doesn't get out of bed when the alarm goes off," and which will bring you "to accept the parts of other people who do these things." As to whether he overeats and sleeps through the alarm, Canfield says nothing, so we don't know whether he is pleading for some special consideration or just showing what a great and tolerant guy he is. All we can do is hope that somebody breaks into his car and steals all his Tiny Tim tapes and his autographed eight by ten photo of Leo Buscaglia. Where is all that crime in the streets when we need it?
Well, as old as it may be, it's an interesting complaint--the schools are doing too much for the intellect and not nearly enough for the gut. So our world must be full of intellectuals, unfeeling, cold and inhuman, rigorously rational, and, of course, superbly well informed, able not only to name that ocean over there, but even to distinguish Horatius from Horatio and never to refer slightingly to the hoi polloi, but always careful to refer slightingly to hoi polloi, who must, come to think of it, and given all of that inordinate attention to the intellect, be uncommonly thin on the ground.
Well, maybe, but just the other day a member of our adjunct staff was chatting with a secretary at a nearby state mental institution. He noticed a typewritten list pinned to the bulletin board nearby. It was a Personal Bill of Rights. Who could resist reading such a thing? After all, we live in a time when more and more rights are being discovered and expounded every day, and, perhaps, just as the Founders intended. Surely the unnamed rights referred to in the Sixth Amendment are numberless, and it is probably much to our credit that ours is the first age of the Republic in which citizens have learned not only to Take the Fifth but also to Take the Sixth.
Now our chap is, like any good citizen, passionately interested in knowing his rights. He already knows his Rights, his Civil Rights, his Human Rights, and even three or four of his Legal Rights, but he had never even heard of his Personal Rights. So you can imagine how eagerly he put his nose to the bulletin board. And there he read--well, not all ten--but only the first two of his Personal Rights.
The first was the right to hold and express his own opinions. Wow. That's some great right. It may even be two rights, one to hold, and another to express. But he wondered--perhaps he's been working for us too long--exactly what would it mean to say that a person has the right to hold an opinion? If that's what "right" means, then we might also say that a person has the right to forget his own phone number or to prefer cold cereals to hot. That's the sort of proposition that is neither true nor false, but just meaningless. No government, no tyrant, not even the IRS, can forbid the forgetting of phone numbers or command the preference for hot cereal. Ditto for the holding of opinions. The idea of a right has nothing to do with such things. Why you obstinately persist in preferring the wrong kind of cereal we have no idea, so we also have no idea as to how to put you right. But we do know that the only thing that can prevent you from holding a nonsensical opinion is the intellectual power to discover that your opinion is nonsense.
Now here arises a nifty question for these times: If we were to teach children how to discover whether their opinions made sense, would we be accused of depriving them of their Personal Right to hold any opinion whatsoever, however stupid it might be?
(We have no answer, but we will let you brood on these words from Wholisticist Canfield: "There isn't a right or a wrong way to be in this world." No, we don't know exactly what he means either, but we smell something.)
Mulling all that over, the poor chap came to the Second Personal Right: the right to have yourself, and your opinions, always treated with respect.
We once had a president who made it big by saying things like that, telling us that he wanted an America in which everyone would be treated exactly as he wanted to be treated. The public applauded--and voted, too, which comes to the same thing--and, Mencken being dead, there was no one left to say out loud that some of our most celebrated presidents were rich in all those qualities that the morons will most admire.
It's lucky for the High Justices that the Personal Bill of Rights remains, so far, no more than personal. We can easily imagine that case in which A, as permitted by the First Right, tells B exactly what he thinks of B's work habits, or his haircut, or his treatment of his children, thus violating and outraging B's right to be treated with respect, that is, just as B wants to be treated. Some hassle. We would dearly love to watch such a case unfolding, but we would bitterly hate to live in a land where it could.
Our poor chap gave it up at that, and walked away not even curious about his eight other Personal Rights. He was afraid, we suspect, that he might be offered the right to control his own body, which he has already brought into most lamentable condition precisely because of his failure to control it in the past. He didn't want to mull that over.
Indeed, those Personal Rights must sound so familiar to you that you could probably come up with eight more of the same quality for yourselves. Here is one thing we could say of all such entries: Gee, that's nice. And sweet, and so, uh, so tolerant. And, uh, so, aha, Yes! so decent and humane.
And here is another thing we could say of them: Only a boob could accept this and let it pass without questioning.
And yet one more thing: If a school devotes any of its time to Canfield's program of "drawing out the essential self" and diddling with "intuition, emotions and body," that time will be stolen from the development of reflection and understanding through language, and that school will be in the business of making boobs. But that, of course, is the very business of a government school--the perpetual provision to the state of a generous supply of useful idiots who just don't notice nonsense, and who do imagine that they should be treated exactly as they want to be treated, and who can walk about all of their lives untroubled by the utterly contradictory notions by which they live. Such folk make exactly the voters that politicians want, exactly the pigeons that television evangelists want, and exactly the citizens that any government on the face of the earth wants. And they are testimony not to a failure of the schools, but to their success.
We are not yet ready to hold that the detection of nonsense is the one and only whole and wholesome heart of true education, but we can surely say that there is something not only foolish but even vicious in one who would say that there can be education without that power. And when we hear herds of educationists mooing out their fears that the schools will somehow hurt children by paying too much attention to the intellect, the only dependable detector of nonsense, vicious seems so weak and wrong. The next time we look at them, we're going to try "evil." Stick around.
Matthew Lesko is the author of numerous books on how to use government information for profit, and something of a professional defender of bureaucracy. He thought he had a surefire winner last summer when he offered $5,000 for the best "verifiable story about how a government bureaucrat helped you." After all, he says, we've got 15 million bureaucrats. He plugged the contest on Pat Sajak's TV show, Larry King's radio show, C-Span, and numerous local talk shows. He has so far received one entry: A woman in the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance nominated her boss. Lesko just can't understand it.
Charles Oliver, Reason, February, 1990
The government I live under has been my enemy all of my active life. When it has not been engaged in silencing me, it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.
SPEAKING of Mencken, hardly anyone speaks of Mencken. He has been forgotten, but he hasn't been gone. Now there is a new book about Mencken that may bring him back to where he should be--in the hearts and minds of all of us.
The book, we are told, will try to tame the hairy beast a bit by suggesting that Mencken, like lots of other scoundrels who were disgracefully lacking in precognitive powers, was just a tad too appreciative of the doings of Hitler. Some there will be, of course, who will be grateful for that, so that they can simply discount Mencken and, with moral fervor on the high ground, urge the same upon others, but many there will be who will read some Mencken for the first time. Of those, some will actually weigh and consider his words, and the Republic, for a while, will stand stronger. But there is one great branch of the Republic in which Mencken will never be read and considered, and that is, of course, in that place where government has charged itself with the high and noble calling of adjusting the consent of the governed before they can develop those powers by which they might do that for themselves.
Imagine this: You are an eighth grade schoolteacher. You "teach" social graces and civility, under whatever name is in fashion. It used to be call Civics, or Social Studies, or even Guidance. Sometimes even Current Events was used to name such a process, for nothing is too silly for the schools. Well, whatever. There you are, teaching it.
There is in your class one of those banes of the teacher's life, an intelligent smartass. He doesn't dislike you; in fact he feels a little bit sorry for you. But that doesn't dissuade him from the occasional challenge.
He comes to class today with scraps of paper, given to him, doubtless, by an enemy of the people. And in that wonderful freewheeling open round table of rapping and relating that your class has become, he presents to you and all the epigraphs above, asking, Well, teach, what are we to make of such as this?
Now if you are in fact a teacher, as well as a position-holder in a government job, you will (secretly, of course, but reverently) send up a prayer of thanks. Some angel of light, perhaps, or maybe the goddess Athene herself, has looked upon you and yours in love and mercy today. If you are the usual hack, you can recite a few slogans about the greatest good for the greatest number and the nattering nabobs of negativism and everybody's right--government job-holders not excluded--to be treated as he wants to be treated. But let us be kind and assume that you are a teacher and not an educationist.
Think thus. Everything these children have ever heard or will hear in school about what government is for and how it works has been concocted in committee through compromise and conciliation. They have never heard, and will probably never hear, One Voice, the voice of One Mind thinking. They hear only the real Big Brother of our time, the bland and gutless unperson of Society as a Whole. And they know that. Never forget that they know that, and never expect them to want to hear what you have to say, for they have already included you among the gutless who will always say what is expected. That is why they are so hypnotized by the crazy and extravagant. Their ugly music, which isn't really shocking but only tormented and grotesque, has at least the promise of providing what is lacking in almost every part of their lives--the noteworthy unexpected. In school, everything is just what they expect, and worth no notice.
The longing for the unexpected is only in small part a frivolous thirst for novelty. It comes from that dream, which by nature they dream, that somewhere in the great, gray expanse of the wall along which they wander, with all the rest of us every day, somewhere there may be one little crack. You, the teacher, you know that there are lots of cracks in the wall, and even some holes just big enough to climb through into a better land. And a Mencken, any Mencken at all, is a gate, a wide open gate.
But don't say that. Until they can find that out for themselves, no exhortation will avail. And don't argue Mencken's case for him. That's not your job. Consider the popular party-line complaint: The children are not up on issues and current events. They don't pay enough attention to Tom Brokaw, and they are uninformed as to the fate of Ceausescu and the failure of sanctions in South Africa. They do not give the tiniest damn about the deficit. If you will remember why this is so, you will give some thought to joining them.
The experts and commentators who tell us how to understand all such things are absolutely predictable. They will have either a firm grasp on the obvious or a slogan-song to sing. Often, the two are the same. Why would anyone in his right mind want to watch the televised in-depth discussion of the crisis in Latin America, or anything else, in which the standard-issue liberal and the standard-issue conservative get paid for wasting thirty minutes of our lives by interrupting each other with standard-issue assertions? If the children prefer ghastly videos and purple hair to yet another talk-show gathering of militant lesbian nuns or another lament about the ozone layer, can that really be because they fail to understand something that we do understand, or for some other reason?
So admit it. You already know what the militant lesbian nuns and the ozone experts will say, just as clearly as you already know what Henry Kissinger and Jesse Jackson will say. About anything. If you still think it your civic duty to "keep informed" as to the notions of all such folk, that's your problem. Don't visit it on your students. Bring them to consider not what Mencken says, but the fact that he says it, and that there doesn't seem to be anyone else around who will say things like that. If they would like to consider and test what he says, and out of more evidence than what is given on the first scrap of paper, that's good, but they will have to go out into the world and look around for that evidence. With that, you can help them.
They will not have to go very far out into the world, however. They sit right now in the precincts of the largest of all the government bureaucracies. Never forget that, from their point of view, you are just another bureaucrat, and some of them may well grow up not only to agree with Mencken on the silencing and the robbing, but to add also the more serious charge of stultifying. If you are not one of those bureaucrats, if you are, like most of the best teachers, a true subversive surviving only because of the Byzantine disorder of the system, you will have to prove that to your students. They won't take your word for it; you will have to show them. You don't have to argue Mencken's case either way, but if you dismiss him as a self-indulgent and anti-social grouch, who never did relate well to others, you will show them one thing; if you take his words as a troubling provocation to thoughtfulness, some of the students will begin to suspect that maybe you are not really one of "them" after all.
Be sure of this. Even the worst reader in your class can "read" the difference between Mencken and the emasculated twerp who speaks from the pages of the government-issue text book out of which you are supposed to teach them. Of those two "authors," one is a crack in the wall, the other is the wall. That, any student can "read." One of them is bowing low to a master, the other is standing up. Can you possibly have a student who can't tell which is which? No way.
There is an even more important difference. One of them is everywhere in the lives of your students. His words are in all the books, in all the bulletins and memos, even on the billboards and the public "service" plugs on television. His monotonous voice oozes from all the principals and guidance counselors and curriculum coordinators, from the loudspeakers on the wall, from parents, preachers, politicians, and pundits, and, yes, dammit, even from you. We all do it. It's the easy way.
But Mencken's voice is missing. If it should break forth in your classroom today, it will be by accident, an unexpected and unexpectable blow of fortune, for good or ill. That fact alone presents the possibility that this Mencken, of whom your students have never heard, might be simply right in what he says, and that his government, which does own and operate your school, has indeed silenced him. If that is so, then his charge of robbery might be interesting to consider. But let the students figure that out for themselves.
Mencken is not sweet. He is rude. He is intolerant. He calls fools, fools, and knaves, knaves. And worse. He calls the greedy, greedy, and the shiftless, shiftless. He cares not a damn for the pleas of those who would excuse themselves as victims of Society as a Whole, whether poor or rich, weak or powerful. He respects no office, no dogma, no reputation. We have only a few like him, but all of their voices are absent from your "social studies."
There actually are such things as legitimate social studies. They address such questions as these: How do we live together? How should we live together? Is it possible at all that we might live together in decency and justice?
So when your students study these social studies, where is Voltaire? Is he to be left to the French department and restricted to the two or three students in fourth-year French who can make out a little of what he says? Where is Sophocles, who will never show up in any of your departments, unless some trendy revisionist decides that one of his plays, at least, was really about the liberation of women? Where are Mill and Marx? Where, for that matter, are Milton and Madison? Where is...? Where is...? The list is very long. They are all the prophets who live alone in the hills that surround us, of whom we say we are proud, but to whom we do not listen.
The question before you and your students is a very old one indeed: How, then, shall we live? Great minds beyond counting have pondered it. No great mind, in fact, has ignored it. It is not just a question; it is The Question.
Education is an assault. It is a fierce beast broken into the fold. All the other stuff, the stuff they dream of doing in the schools, is really a domestication, a taming, a housebreaking. Education is a breaker of forms and habits. It is the very opposite of what schools intend and require the students to expect, nothing more than a confirmation, a consolidation of what he is already, but more so, and more securely so, a life with all his notions, attributes, and desires intact, and more money. Everything reinforced, and nothing overturned or destroyed. We speak much of growth and development, but never a word of renewal. Some still speak of "building character," but never of clearing the land for the building.
And a Mencken in school is a fire in the rubbish heap. So are they all, all the missing voices. Incendiaries. Pyromaniacs. They love the flame, and the roaring crash of rotten timbers. And they would watch smiling the going up in smoke of pet notions and beliefs, and the shriveling into ash of that long and remarkably convenient list of politically sanctioned attitudes and awarenesses planted in your students from infancy by a mindless but effective league of lazy parents, thoughtless teachers, political hustlers, and fifteen million bustling bureaucrats.
SOON, very soon now, Central Control will mount an expedition into the basement. There, or, more accurately, here and there, she will paw through many old and unlabeled cardboard cartons in search of back issues. If she finds those numbers that have been requested by readers, she'll send them; if she doesn't, she'll try again a little later. It's our form of lottery. Be hopeful.
THIS issue brings to and end our thirteenth year of publication. We would like to count up our achievements, but all we can point to without fear of contradiction is a big mess of boxes. Nil, nevertheless, desperandum. We go on.
ON page 4, you will have noticed an epigraph from Reason. Reason is a magazine published by the Reason Foundation in Santa Monica, CA. Its editor was, for a long time, Robert Poole, who is also one of its founders. He is known to us as a fine and thoughtful gent. He has now become the publisher, and has passed on the editor's job to Virginia Postrel. If there were a son in this family, we would like him to marry Virginia Postrel, but there isn't, and she is probably married anyway. So much for that. But we can still read her.
Reason calls itself a libertarian journal. We don't know exactly what that means, and we do have some misgivings about libertarianism, the first of which is our reluctance to approve anything that ends in -ism. Furthermore, while the editorial policy of Reason is one thing, its ads are another. More than enough of them give the impression that libertarians are inordinately interested in their liberty to squirrel away precious metals and detect radar.
Nevertheless, we do like the sheet. It is in fact about liberty, which is, in our way of thinking, the fruit of education. And we are now particularly delighted by the thinking of Virginia Postrel.
She writes in every issue on, well, on civility. She comments on how we live, and what it seems to mean. Her mind is in tune, and her reason is in frame. She writes in the issue now before us (Feb, 1990) on the meaning of decadence in an age "when the law determines vice and virtue, [and] when everybody competes to determine the law." She makes sense and provokes reflection.
There are, of course, many other good things in Reason. One of them is a regular feature page called "Brickbats." The epigraph on page 4 is one of this month's brickbats, and typical. They are to laugh, of course, but also to cry, and curse, and sometimes despair.
Since Reason once in a while reprints a piece from this sheet--one more fact in its favor--we are freeloaders, but the regular subscribers pay twenty-four dollars a year. The address for subscriptions is Box 3742, Escondido, CA 92025. Some of you might like it. And many of you will probably discover that it can help you to squirrel away something more precious than metal, and to detect something more dangerous than radar.
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Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;