Volume Fourteen, Number Two............March 1990

The Ordeal by Fire

"The curriculum in the public school system seems to me to be anti-family," she says. "It invades the privacy of the family in the primary years particularly, and in later years it encourages children to challenge the authority of their parents."

By all accounts Mr. Harris's early life was a nightmare of physical and psychological terror at the hands of his parents. He was born three months premature to an alcoholic mother who delivered him after being repeatedly kicked by his father. For years he suffered severe beatings at the hands of his father, who also threatened to shoot him and sometimes choked him until he convulsed, witnesses said.

THE "Mr. Harris" named above is Robert Alton Harris, who is just now enjoying a stay of his execution in San Quentin. He was convicted of a notably callous double murder, but his defenders are now reminding the courts of his dismal childhood, citing, and we believe them, incapacities such as "organic brain disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of being severely abused as a child."

It is an interesting case, but not in the least unusual. Harris's real name is Legion. While our courts will surely have some trouble finding its justice, we suspect the ordinary citizen will not need the wisdom of Solomon to send both the father and the son to the gas chamber, and perhaps, after some further investigation, the mother as well. The courts can't know, because they are not people, but people do know, that all our picky arguments about deterrence and rehabilitation are just not to the point. If there is to be civilization, there is, there must be, what e e cummings called, in absolutely perfect and irreplaceable language, "some shit up with which we will not put."

The first epigraph quotes a certain Lavinia Greenwood, who seems to live a normal, decent, conscientious life in the Province of British Columbia. She spoke to the Social Concerns Unit of the local Anglican diocese. She said much more, of course, but life is short; we stop there for now.

And here is Michael Laurence, who is one of Harris's attorneys: "Robert Harris wasn't born evil; he wasn't born a monster. If anyone had intervened when he was a child, I don't think he would be on death row today."

And here, not even the wisdom of Solomon would be enough; we need also the omniscience of the Sybil. There are uncertainties in Laurence's sad observation. What, exactly and completely, is the effect of that "organic brain disorder"? What, exactly and completely, is monstrosity in human beings? Is it, perhaps, something like the effect of that fetal alcohol syndrome? Would that mean that, born one or not, that he now is a monster who should be kept alive in his monstrousness? And would the intervention of just anyone have kept Harris off death row, or would it need someone special? Who would that be, and in what way special?

And what would Lavinia Greenwood have to say to Robert Harris, or to that imagined intervener who did not intervene? Had Harris been encouraged to "challenge the authority of his parents," would two boys have been spared a terrifying and fatal encounter with someone who, exactly like the compliant and dutiful child that so delights certain parents, went forth into the world with all the very values, attitudes and beliefs by which his parents lived? Or would she be willing to concede, in certain cases at least, in cases unlike hers, that the best thing a school could do for its pupils would be to inculcate rebellion?

Here is the question at the heart of this consideration: What can we say of this "authority of the family," to which both Lavinia Greenwood and Harris's miserable father are presumed to be entitled? Where does that authority find its legitimacy and its license? Is there any rational connection between the production of offspring, of which just about anyone is capable, and the rule of another's life, of which it may well be that no one is capable? Does the authority of the family obey, in turn, some higher authority, lest it fall into foolishness or vice? And what is that, and whence does it derive its legitimacy?

Of course, we all know what people mean when they invoke the authority of the family. They mean that they want their children to believe what their parents believe, and they mean also that they have a right to want that, and even a right to achieve that.

But there's more to it than that, and to point out that Harris did believe what his parents believed would not bring authoritarians to think again about what they want. They also believe that what they believe is true, and that it ought not to be questioned, or, as they call it, "challenged." Whenever you hear laments about the undermining of family authority, you can be pretty sure that some religious sectarianism is at stake.

All religions, of course, endow parents--right thinking parents, that is--not only with the authority, but with the obligation to keep their offspring in the fold into which they were born. It is the domestic version of missionary zeal. In a larger context, however, that same zeal accords not only the authority but also the obligation industriously to set about the pious work of undermining the authority of other parents, in Tahiti or Timbuktu, perhaps, or any parents anywhere who hold wrong beliefs. If, through some quirk of destiny, Lavinia Greenwood had been able to bring little Bobby Harris to despise and utterly to reject the example set for him by his parents, her co-religionists would surely not accuse her of intruding where she has no business. She complains that the school people ask "a lot of questions about what home and family are like--who washes up, how parents behave, and so on." And so they do; they are infernal busybodies, forever prying and preaching. But what would she have done had she, piously and properly, undertaken the task of bringing little Bobby out of what she must call darkness and danger? How else could she have discovered his plight? How could she preach until she had pried?

We do not intend, of course, anything even close to an exoneration of the manipulative and dogmatic agenda of the school people. We do intend, alas, to suggest that it is different only in particulars and not in principle from the manipulative and dogmatic agendas of the religionists, the new-agers, the conservatives, the liberals, the atheists, or of any other sect of true believers, probably even the vegetarians. They are all the same, except for the particular content of their beliefs. Some break the big end, some the little. But all of them have one colossal belief in common; they all believe that they believe is true, and that other believers are mistaken.

And this--what a sad thing to say--is what the Harris family and the Greenwood family have in common. While the Greenwoods can surely express and elaborate their beliefs, people like the Harrises can only live by theirs. But they do, they do. Nor, in either case, are they easily to be dissuaded. Such is faith.

The Hubble Space Telescope is now in orbit. Some day, it may work. Of it, Timothy Ferris, writing for the New York Times, says this:

"It is a machine for subjecting our conceptions of the wider universe to an ordeal by fire, for hostaging theories to the verdict of fresh and better observations. The willingness to expose cherished ideas to such tests, indeed the insistence that we do so at every opportunity, is what distinguishes science from theology or philosophy."

Well, there is a grain of truth in all that. Scientists besotted with ideology are not utterly unknown. For theologians, who can draw valid conclusions from premises that can be neither falsified nor verified, there can be no Hubble Telescope, no imaginable refinement of observation. And philosophy, except in the sense in which every Miss America contestant will claim to have one, seems to have been invented for the very purpose of trying ideas by fire. But it is surely true that some scientists have sometimes gone looking to find themselves wrong.

And theirs is a very different case from that of scientists who merely turn out to have been wrong. In their case, the fire has burned its way into their labs, as it will, given enough time, burn its way into every lab. Although science will probably have to stop some day, for the passing of its last practitioner, it will never be finished.

It is the scientist who sets the fire and then steps into it to whom honor and glory are due. Such a one says, in effect, In something, perhaps in something small, perhaps in something momentous, I may well be wrong. I suppose that I am right, of course, but so too does anyone who is wrong. In fact, you can not possibly be wrong without supposing that you are right. If I am wrong then, I can at least do my best to discover my error, putting aside for now my suppositions as to my rightness.

Who could fail to admire such a plan, and to applaud its execution?

Who? We'll tell you who. Lavinia Greenwood, for example. And all who can suppose that there is something evil about a challenge to the authority of the family, whatever that means. It does not take a scientist to suppose that he may be wrong. It does not take a learned jurist to consider what sort of "right" any one person might have to order and govern not only the ordinary social behavior but even the inner life of belief and conviction in another person, and whether the having of that right implies some corresponding responsibility, and what that responsibility might be. It does not take a philosopher to ask by whose authority it is that he now deems himself an authority legitimately constituted to raise up others by his rule. It takes no more than a single human person to say, I could be wrong.

But to some people all such considerations are impossible. They imagine they know the truth. With them there is no talking, no quietly asking and answering in turn, no giving of an account. They take testimony for evidence, and will not be moved. They can detect no difference between skepticism, which doubts, and cynicism, which denies.

Skepticism is a virtue. As bravery is the temperate middle ground between cowardice and rashness, skepticism is the sanity that lies between gullibility and nihilism. There can be no education where there is no skepticism, and children reared in authoritarian belief clubs must discover skepticism or move out to one of the extremes, believing either anything at all, or nothing at all.

So there's your choice. If you insist that your child grow up in your faith, whether religious or political, you will either succeed or fail. If you succeed, you will have produced yet another gullible clod, who will be very useful not only to true believers but also to an even more numerous company, to hypocrites and charlatans who want either some votes or some donations, or both. If you fail, you will have rebellion in the family and little joy of your life. If you ever do learn to question and doubt, it will be in the bitterness of your last days, when the tardy awakening of your mind will bring not wonder but fear, not comfort but pain, and the only virtue that never keeps company with peace--remorse. And your children will be polite, but they will not rise up to call you blessed.

If you don't like either of those alternatives, then try to come up with another. And when that proves impossible, try to imagine some sort of family life in which there is nothing to challenge, for the simple reason that the parents are themselves always challenging their own beliefs, always wondering, always testing. The children of that sort of family would even be able to challenge the challenges fostered by the schools, for they would have learned that the authority that comes from reason seems to have a natural and legitimate license, unlike the "authorities" of school or of family, both of which have to be claimed and fought over by those who want them. An unseemly and disquieting business, not unlike the self-seeking scramble for the "authority" of public office, which inspires--even in young people, and perhaps especially in young people--not reverence but contempt, and thus cynicism.

Here is some ancient lore from Lao Tzu, who had obviously the secret of true prophecy, which is nothing more arcane than the ability to distinguish between particulars and principles: "The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. Next comes the ruler they love and praise; next comes the one they fear and obey; next comes the one with whom they take liberties." And, of the first and best, it is also said: "Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done, the people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally.'"

The school people make an excellent example of the Fourth Ruler, which is what makes Ferris Beuler's Day Off at once a delightful romp and a real lesson in morality, unlike preachments. Like all Fourth Rulers, the schoolers seem actually to have dedicated themselves to uttering all their words lightly, espousing now this cause, now that, and sponsoring the value of the month and cultural relativism at the same time.

The parents who worry about the authority of the family end up, if they succeed, as Third Rulers, who will, as they should, lose their authority just as soon as the children are able to find jobs and compete with the Japanese. There are some clever politicians among us who have it in common with rock stars and other sorts of celebrities that they become, for a while, the Second Rulers. Oh how we love them, but when they are gone, how little they turn out to have made us better than we were.

If the First Ruler is a shadowy presence, it is because he is sitting quietly in a private place, passing through the fire of questioning and doubt, asking himself whether he should believe what he believes, considering the difference between what can be known and what can only be supposed, and wondering how best to bring his subjects into that condition which he has found, that is, into the fire. He knows that is will hurt them, but he knows too that it will cleanse them. And he never lets them know that he broods on it night and day.


Dust on Teachers' Shelves

But polls also show that most teachers object to the concept of morality education on philosophical or practical grounds; many fear that such programs will stir up controversy in classrooms where diverse student bodies already cause plenty of headaches. Even districts that have printed values curricula and issued teaching materials at great expense find that such items often gather dust on teachers' shelves. (Our italics)

SOMETIMES, let's be fair about it, the schoolteachers show lots of good sense. And, even more to admired than rubies in these days of hemorrhoid commercials and worse, an uncommonly delicate restraint. It takes, well, nothing less than old-fashioned gentility to cover up printed values curricula and teaching materials with nothing more foul than dust. They may not want to teach the distinguishing of the better from the worse, but they can do it.

The passage above is from the Wall Street Journal. It is more moaning and groaning about the whole values teaching business, dedicated mostly to the apparent reluctance of teachers, on whom Bennett is depending in his drug war, to get involved in the hassle. It's hard to blame them. It may even be that the morality mess has driven them in the direction of the right conclusion, to wit, that the moral behavior of one person may be none of another person's business, and, even more important and interesting, that the moral behavior of the citizens is none of a government worker's goddamned business. We do suspect that if those curricula and teaching materials were designed to teach the children what is legal and what is not legal, the teachers would use them. And that would be exactly appropriate work for an agent of the government that makes and enforces the law. So we begin this brief consideration of a tangled and repulsive topic by letting the schoolteachers off the hook.

It's the people who make those values curricula and teaching materials who deserve the hook. They are the great expense at which such stuff is made. They are also astoundingly arrogant folk who imagine that they can answer questions that have been asked and mulled over for the whole history of humanity, and astonishingly ignorant folk who suppose that the questions answered long ago still need to be answered. Arrogant and ignorant people in the service of a government are not only a great expense, but also one of the four things that the earth can not bear--a servant when he rideth.

Cultural trivia question: Name the other three. Dare of the Month: Name the other three in public. Doubledare of the Month: Name the other three in a public school and stir up controversy where diverse student bodies already cause plenty of headaches. It's an interesting thought, and maybe a clue.

That little bit of perspicacious wisdom is not going to be found in the values curricula and teaching materials, of course, but we do wonder--if it were, and if it were typical of those materials, would teachers decide to take them off the shelf? After all, what we have here is a little poem: "For three things the earth doth tremble, and for four which it can not bear..." The schools do make use of poetry. They even encourage children to write it. What does it mean to say, absurdly, it seems, that the earth trembles, and that it can not bear something? Nonsense. And yet, and yet. Are there some things that people can be, and are, and with which children are not unacquainted, that just seem so perverse and unnatural that no less a power than Earth herself might at least be dreamed of as fearing their very existence? Who are those people, and who are others like them. How do people get to be that way? How come they can't see for themselves how they look to the rest of us? Is there hope of cure? If you know one of them, is there anything you can do? And if there is, should you do it?

What a great discussion this would make for children, and for their teacher as well, provided only that the teacher is not a servant who rideth. The ordinary public school, to say nothing of the countless other agencies of social engineering to which all children are subjects, would provide students with examples beyond counting of exactly what is meant by a servant who rideth, a person who is supposed to serve but has gotten aboard a high horse and come to behave like one who was born to command and control.

And what is to be learned? Who knows? Maybe, for some, nothing, or, to be more accurate, nothing just now. For others, maybe a hint, a suggestion as to how not to live, one kind of person, at least, not to become. But the far more important question is this: What harm can come of such a deliberation? Will some be deceived or misled? Will some suppose themselves commanded or preached to by an unknown poet who has been dead for thousands of years and who has no intention at all of doing a number on a bunch of helpless children who need indoctrination? Will some ethnic or religious way of life be held up to ridicule? Will the guidance counselor and the assistant principal, who just happen to be servants on horseback, file a grievance and sue in the courts for an act of discrimination against the officious and overbearing?

None of that will happen. But here is something that will happen. The children, all the children, the rich and the poor, the quick and the slow, the black and the brown and the white, all of them will recognize that servant on horseback, and learn, not at all to their surprise but much to their edification, that he has been around for a long, long time, and that some ideas about right and wrong are permanent and universal, and that they, little children, already knew that. A great lesson.

But lessons like that will never be taught in the schools, because teachers, now back on the hook, have left something else on the shelves. With those "materials" that deserve it, they have rejected the good books, which don't.


Postscript on the Poem

The poem is from a good book, but it is one of those books that schools can not use. The school people imagine that its use would violate the separation of church and state and bring them into controversy. This book, of course, is claimed by at least three very large and powerful clubs of believers, Christians, Jews, and Moslems, of whom none will be displeased by the superstitious belief of the educationists that at least one of those crowds must own the idea that a snooty clerk is an abomination, and that to consider it would be to further the missionary effort of a religion.

That is a quaint notion, a modern version of belief in sympathetic magic. But it was certainly not a Christian or a Moslem who wrote that poem, and it may not even have been a Jew. Scholars allow the possibility of a Philistine, whose "church" is now out of business, and our own guess would be a Babylonian not unacquainted with bureaucrats. He, however, was not the first to notice the strange susceptibility of certain persons to degeneration of character as a result of promotion.

For some it seems impossible, but it is a good idea to give some thought to the difference between doctrine and wisdom. Out of a neurotic and finicky fastidiousness, the people who rig up such hokum as values curricula always end up not only throwing out all that we can find of wisdom in the books of thoughtfulness beyond counting, but also substituting for it tendentious and dogmatic teaching materials made up of doctrine--the new and trendy doctrine, of course, but still doctrine.

So, if you knew the other three things for which earth trembles, you would know that the poem can never show up in school. Here they are: A fool when he is filled with food; an odious woman when she is married; a handmaid that is heir to her mistress.

All of that comes from the thirtieth chapter of Proverbs, but even if it had come from John Dewey, who probably knew all that but would never admit it in public, the doctrine of our modern schoolchurch would not want the laity even to have heard of it. Such ideas can only be one more occasion of sin.


Brief Notes

Central Control announces that the First Annual Underground Grammarian Picnic will take place, rain or shine, on the first Saturday of August, 1990. All who attend should feel free to bring children, friends, students, and even dogs. Also, something to eat and drink. Details and maps will be sent out with the next two issues, both of which, we do hope, will appear long before the day of the picnic. The UG phone number is 609-589-6477.

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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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