Volume Fourteen, Number Three............April 1990

Timor Mortis in Academe

When Silber says back to basics, he means basics: We should begin by teaching children something that, in earlier times, reality taught them through the deaths of siblings and elders: "They are going to die." Sound education depends on this contact with reality. GEORGE WILL

He alone is wise, who has pondered the end of all things,
which is also the beginning of all things.


JOHN SILBER is known to many in the school game as Long John Silber, which tells us more about the reading skills of school people than it does about Silber, who is as unlike that one-legged piratical dissembler as a man can be. Whatever else he may be, John Silber is neither a hypocrite nor a con-artist. He speaks plain. He is neither politic nor cautious, and not even the slightest bit obtuse. And he is, as you see, able to astound and not fearful of giving offense. It follows, therefore, that he will fail to win nomination as Democratic candidate for the governorship of Massachusetts, which he now seeks, and will have to remain president of Boston University. Too bad.

It has long been the intent of the educationists to make of government schooling a "preparation for life." We have often argued the case for education as preparation against life, a strong defense against the random and the irrational, a rudder against the swirling currents of desires and passions. And Silber is in good company--the very best, in fact--when he holds, as we are sure he does, that the best education is a preparation for death. It follows, therefore, that he will fail to win large numbers of adherents among the school people, who fear death more than dishonor and asbestos more than asininity, and who share, and ardently promulgate, the currently popular belief that there is nothing more important than to live as long as possible, and that the "goodness" of the good life can he measured in birthdays. Too bad.

The school people, of course, did have a brief fling with what they called Death Education. Some of you may remember it. It had something to do with field trips to nursing home where the kiddies could relate to those about to die, although probably not right then and there. (A really good Facilitator of Field Experience, however, would have been able to arrange that, wouldn't you think?) The whole business was, in general, a warm-up exercise by which the children, in theory, might be strengthened against the impending death of relatives and instructed as to proper behavior at funerals. It had nothing whatsoever to do with what Silber has in mind. It was just trivial.

Death is not trivial. It is mysterious and solemn. Mystery and solemnity, like wonder and awe, reverence and joy, and even respect and honor, are things not provided by curricular guidelines, and it is their absence that makes of schooling the empty experience that it usually is. On the other hand, their presence would make of schooling strong stuff as full of pain as of pleasure. If you want truly to educate a child, you could do no better than to take Silber's words and go from there. But you had better he brave. Such an education is not for cowards.

The divinities of Olympus, unlike the deities of later cults, never pronounced themselves lovers of humanity. They had their favorites, of course, but in general they seem to have looked on us as pests and miscreants. When Zeus finally made Demeter return to her proper work of bringing forth nourishment, it was not to feed us, but only to provide us with what was needed to make the sacrifices, and to send up nourishing smoke to the gods.

And when we look at the lives of those divinities, we can easily divine the cause of their dislike, which might better be called resentment. The immortals led very dull and empty lives. They ate and drank, they cared for their little patches, they slept around, they carried on vendettas, they stirred up wars among humans, and they thought up elegantly literary punishments for mortals who displeased them. When they had done all those things, they did them again. And again. Forever. Thus it is that, although we think to tell "stories" of the immortals, they do not truly live stories, as we can. Theirs is a life that only a thoughtless clod would want to live. It has no shape, no theme; it has no promise of growth or change, either for better or for worse. If the gods despise us, it is out of envy. We can do the one thing they can not do. We can tell, and live, our own stories, beginning, middle, and end. Our lives have frames. Within those frames, we can construct forms. A human life can mean something. It can also mean nothing. The gods are what they are, they can live forever, but they can not become.

Education can be usefully thought of as the art of becoming, which is also the art of story-telling in the heart. What they say now, we don't know, but the Anglicans used to pray for protection against "battle, murder, and sudden death" for the simple and good reason that such misfortunes can ruin a good story, and will surely prevent some tale told by an idiot from ever turning into a good story. This is the question that life puts to every child, and that any sane education should put as well: Who will tell your tale?

The tale of the idiot is not truly told by the idiot. It is told by the world, by accident, by nature and nurture, the usurpers out there, and by passion and desire, the usurpers within. When pushed from the left, the idiot veers right; from the right, left. The idiot lives as everyone must live, in obedience to some principles. In the idiot's case, though, these principles are invisible and involuntary, and unaccountably enforced, as though by the gods. The idiot is right, but not justified, as he thinks, when he claims to be a helpless victim of circumstances, more to he pitied than censured. That very claim is a fetter, which, in other circumstances, he might have stricken off. Those "other circumstances" are the whole of true education.

Such seems to be the nature of us all, that had we world enough and time without the certainty of death, we would see no reason to get ourselves together and tell our tales like sane and responsible authors, mindful of harmony and balance, of the permanent marriage of deed and consequence, of justice and injustice, and of that great and insoluble puzzle of freedom and necessity. It is only because Death will surely close the book that we scribble in it at all.

Well, we will try to be as blunt as Silber. This is the question put to every child: Just how long do you suppose you have to tell a sensible and serious tale? Have you perhaps been conned by your teachers into believing that if only you will watch your cholesterol and discover which brand of bran to eat you might, you just might, live forever? This is not a rehearsal, you know; even right here and now in the third grade, this is your life, your one and only real life. And it is passing, disappearing forever right before your innocent little eyes. So what do you plan to do about it, and when will you get at it?

Not long ago--you all remember--some little children playing in the schoolyard were shot to death by an idiot, an idiot like any other idiot, except in particularly hideous detail, living by principles engendered in him by desires and passions, a helpless victim, no doubt, of nature and nurture. Thereafter, the survivors of the firestorm were assailed by crews of counselors, "professionals" of something or other. We wonder--oh how we do wonder--exactly what counsel those professional counselors gave.

We won't denigrate them; we are sure they did the best they could, offering something beyond better luck in heaven, on the one hand, and life is a bitch on the other. But we suspect that no counselor advised the children to give some thought to the shaping of their lives, lest death take them when they have him least in mind. We might all be surprised at how seriously children, even little ones, would take that.

Death is not a "problem" to be "solved". That is what makes it so fascinating, and makes it also a central consideration in all of our literature. Every hero from Gilgamesh to Batman fights with death, and with death's other forms--dissolution and nothingness, meaninglessness and darkness. Every thinker thinks of the end, and wonders about the beginning. And all the same is true of every single child, still fresh from the cradle endlessly rocking. Just ask one.

And that is as it should be, for the contemplation of death, which will never solve the problem of death, is the natural source of all of our attempts to put into our lives some meaning some theme, even some plot. All seriousness taunts death.

To prepare for a life of productive work, as much comfort as possible, and the ability to compete with the Japanese for the sake of the gross national product, may indeed be a useful and important undertaking, but it is not serious. And from where death watches, it is just silly. As to that, the children obviously agree with death. It does them credit.

But the school people are so afraid of considering death that they won't even let Jack kill the giant, and never will they do anything serious in school. There ought to be a law: On every teacher's desk, a skull. On every blackboard, an inscription, "Maybe Tomorrow." Let students and teachers behold and consider how they should live this day.

And the NEA would go to court to have the examined life declared unconstitutional.


The Uses of Audacity

I participated in this game. I taught high school Algebra II, a required course. In my class was a chubby loudmouth brunette named Debbie, who had the audacity to ask what she could use all this for. Because this was an excellent question, I shut her up with some sarcastic remark that got the class to laugh at her. Otherwise I'd have had to say that almost all of them would be better served by a course in critical thinking, so they could learn how to learn without schools. The school was not about to offer this course. I quit after one semester.

SOMETIMES we simply cannot decide which might better be driven into the sea with stings and nettles--the silly people who operate the schools, or the silly snobs who think themselves far better than the silly people who run the schools.

What you see above is from an op-ed piece in the Orange County Register and the author is a certain John Dentinger, identified only as "a writer in Los Angeles." What he says here, he says only in passing, and to lend support to his thesis, to wit, that school is a form of child labor profitable only to the proprietors, and that most of the young would do better in real jobs. That is an argument worth making, but Dentinger makes it without noticing his own reference to learning without the schools, as though schooling and education were the same. And he threw away, out of pure and simple self-indulgence, an opportunity to subvert schooling with a jolt of education, pure and undefiled.

We have read and heard the words of countless promoters of "critical thinking." We have never found one who could make, or who had even thought of making, any clear and useful distinction between that "critical thinking," so nifty to pronounce and so elegantly technical to propose, and just plain ordinary thinking. Nor do we expect such a distinction to come forth in time, since it is preposterous by definition.

There is, of course, a clear and useful distinction to be made between thinking and the vast multitudes of other acts that can be committed invisibly in the mind, such as fantasizing and self-esteeming, for instance, but this is a distinction of which neither the school people nor their lofty betters seem capable. Well, perhaps they haven't yet decided whether to make such a distinction through critical thinking or through mere thinking and, in any case, they would probably not want to make it at all, for it would blow away like fog and smoke all their darling devices.

So take a long look at Dentinger's class and the chubby loudmouth brunette, who is asking not for information, which anyone can look up, nor for indoctrination, which comes with the territory in school, not for stroking and buttering-up, the snake-oil of our age, but for an answer, dammit, or, at least for what Debbie would call an answer.

Sweet are the uses of audacity. She may indeed be asking to provoke, and as a challenge, and without even suspecting that she truly does want an answer, or even that there is one, but all of that can be said of every true and important question. The important question is the one that no one can answer, as we can answer questions about the principal exports of Brazil and the capitals of the states. The important question calls not for that sort of answer, but for thoughtful consideration. It calls for that thinking of which Debbie's teacher seems to have detected no trace in, of all things, the study of algebra! It is very interesting that a man who is taking the taxpayers' money for teaching algebra seems not to have considered a question more important than Debbie's--Why on earth would anybody teach this stuff to a whole bunch of children who will never again algebrate once they leave this place?

Here we can see the difference between the answering of a question and thoughtful consideration of a question. There surely is an answer, and an especially appropriate one in the case of a teacher who hasn't done any serious thinking about his work: Those who teach it can get some money from the taxpayers. While he would have provided only an accidental occasion of education in doing it, he would have won our praise for candor and good citizenship by the truth: "You have to take this course, Debbie, since it is required by law; and I am teaching it in order to get paid for putting you through your term of enforced labor for the state. So shut up and mind your QED's." In his case, so far as we can tell, that is not only the truth, rare enough, but also the whole truth, rarer than rubies. And we would praise him for it, although, to be sure, we would not pay him to teach our daughters. We would prefer that he remained a writer in Los Angeles. But that truth, we suspect, Debbie knew already. Her question means: I know what's going on here, but I can't understand why such an unaccountable system should exist at all. Can you tell me, Mr. Teacher?

It's a fine question, and a fair one. It is also a question that Debbie would probably not have had to ask at all had her teacher asked it first of himself and considered it. Had he done that, he would have been teaching in a way that would have led Debbie our of darkness and into light.

A specter is haunting the schools. The dead hand of problem-solving rules them. They can find no other justification for the study of algebra than the hope that some of the students will be able to solve problems in algebra. Sometimes they do go a little further and claim that such studies as algebra are pushups for the mind, exercises for the strengthening of something or other. But even this slightly better idea they trivialize by supposing no other possible power of the mind than the same old problem-solving. Well, of course, Debbie, we know that you will never again in your life have to solve problems in algebra, but you will have to be an "educated" consumer who can figure out unit prices in the supermarket, won't you, to say nothing of balancing your checkbook?

Such an argument is, of course, too puny, even for the school people, to preserve algebra as the "required course" that Dentinger would like to see ousted by critical thinking, as though Debbie would find that much easier than the thinking required by algebra. It is also, typically, an argument from particulars rather than principles, and any Debbie of our time could demolish it by whipping out her calculator. Here we can see the great mystery at the heart of the school mess. What is it with these people, that they scramble like demented trash-pickers after every newly noticed particular and never see the principles of which every particular is no more than an instance? AIDS comes along, and they need new programs, with funding. Cholesterol comes along, an old grandmother dying in a nursing home comes along, oat bran comes along, cocaine comes along, abortion, toxic waste, the fractional latchkey family... Particulars are always infinite. And they all need programs, and funding. But in principle, such things are never new; they are all local appearances of the permanent and universal.

Algebra is a world of principle, and a dramatic revelation of the power of principle. In fact, algebra, and even algebra alone, could provide a true and sufficient education out of which to understand the worth of living by principle in a life beset by a never-ending succession of nasty particulars, and at the same time provident of joy and goodness and thoughtfulness.

Listen, Debbie, and be comforted. There is nothing wrong with your impatience and chagrin. Your very objection proves that you can see, if only from a great distance, an important truth. Algebra is a strange study indeed. It doesn't even exist, in the sense most ordinary to that word. There is no algebra our there; you will not find it under a rock or washed up on the beach. Never will a little child bring it to you, asking what it is. Algebra isn't even as "real" as a poem or a song, which can be picked up in the world even though the world could never make it.

Algebra has its dwelling place only in a mind. We can not even say, as we can of our power of language, that algebra exists in the mind. It can live only in a mind that creates it anew for itself. That's why I can't really teach you algebra, and why I am, as you seem to have figured out, a bit of a fraud. But I can no more create something in your mind than I can take off a few of your chubby pounds by watching my calories. I can show you some tricks, but you must do the teaching. And, no matter what they tell you in the slippery world of pliable convictions and values, you will have it in your mind that you can know something--truly know it, and not just believe it, or be informed of it--and maybe, since that is so, you can truly know something else. It's interesting to wonder what such a something else might be.

I think you should learn algebra, because I wish you well, as a teacher, even a bit of a fraud teacher, should, and not because I want you to solve algebra problems. You will find that algebra shows you some truths. The first great truth is that there can be something real, and complete, and harmonious, and even, in some strange way, absolutely perfect right in your own mind, and made by you alone. You will see that you have a wonderful freedom not mentioned in the Bill of Rights, the freedom to decide what your mind will contain and how it will work You don't have to copy the rest of the world.

Algebra tells sad truths too. Where there is no balance, there is no truth. What is equal is equal, and between the equal and the unequal there is no conference table, no convenient compromise. In this terrible law there is a hinting question for all of life. Are there other things like that?

Algebra will show you the inexorable, the endless and permanent chain of consequence, the dark thread of necessity that brought you to a wrong answer because of a tiny little mistake back in the second line. I know how unfair that seems, and how scary that what seems unfair is nevertheless justice. Is life like that too, as all of nature seems to be? How then shall we live? What are the laws of the algebra of our living, and where do they exist, where created? Who can show us how to learn them?

No prudent teacher would ever say such things to Debbie, of course; she is probably not ready to listen. It takes some serious living to see the truth hidden in algebra. But if he doesn't know such things, and teach as though he knew them, he does well to leave at the end of the semester and go to Los Angeles.


Brief Notes

EVERY three and a half years--which must have something to do with sunspots or the Van Allen Belt--we get a little spate of letters about i.e. vs. e.g. It is perfectly correct that, as every writer points out, our little message about subscription costs uses i.e. where it ought to use e.g. Here's why: When we first made that distinction between persons and not persons, we really meant only libraries, so we should not have said "of any sort". Libraries are difficult. They nag for things we don't have, e.g., invoices, and identification numbers, and whole years of back issues. They make us crazy. You will notice that we have cut the knot and come out right.

WE have had a plea or two for "more on language." What can we say? For many years we did piece after piece on the language of fools and liars, but--and to us this was very important--we confined our attention to fools and liars who took money from the taxpayers for the work of their mind, and who demonstrated in their language that they had no minds to speak of. It was shooting fish in a barrel, of course, but the fish were of the piranha persuasion, so we never felt guilty of poor sportsmanship. Furthermore, we never hurt a single one of them; "no creature smarts so little as a fool," and no one in educationism has ever been fired for mendacity or inanity.

Little by little, we stopped doing such pieces. Once a principle has been discovered, what is the point of citing yet another particular? One set of buck-passing passives from the pen of a person who would rather not commit himself to the obvious lest he be held accountable for his own words is, except in its particulars, no different from another set. If we can learn something from the one, how many more do we need? Once we came to see that the splitting of the infinitive was a matter, like the celibacy of the clergy, not of doctrine but of discipline, we never bothered with another split infinitive. What for?

We know that many of the scrutinies of language were fun, but we're not sure that it was good, clean fun. It had in it more the spirit of cleverness than the hope of betterment. And little by little we wandered into other--but not unrelated--considerations. We have to walk the path that is newly opened by each issue. By now, we have wandered far indeed. For almost seven years now we have been saying, to any who asked, that, while we are not sure what this sheet is about, we are sure that it will not find much favor with people who call themselves "language buffs."

YES, we are fooling around with another typeface. Old timers may recognize this one as Frederic Goudy's Italian Old Style, which we used occasionally in the days of hand-set type. This is a recreation in electrons, the work of Judy Sutcliffe and Richard Beatty, our indispensable artists. Those of you who print by computer should know of them. We'll tell you all for the asking. Just write.

The Great Picnic

THE PICNIC will take place on Saturday, August 4. Here is the map. We are counting on you to find your own way either to Philadelphia or Wilmington. At the gate to the park, a charming young lady will ask you for $4.00, which pays for one car and its driver; each passenger costs another fifty cents. Dogs are not charged, but they do have to be equipped with leashes. An excellent idea.

To reach the "approximate picnic site," climb the stone wall to the north of the parking lot and head off downhill. There are some tables and some benches near a grove of trees down there, but not many. If you hate grass stains, bring along some blankets or other things to sit on. Bring along also children and other relatives, friends and colleagues, and anyone else who suits you.

The staff of TUG will be there by about 9:00 AM, messing about. If you get lost, you can call the park office at 302-571-3545. If you just know that you are going to get lost, or if you have anything else to ask about, you can call TUG at 609-589-6477.

The area shown by the map probably has America's highest concentration per square mile of wonderful and beautiful places to visit. If you come to the picnic because you just happen to be touristing about anyway, you would do well to plan to spend some time in this map. Longwood Gardens alone has kept our staff continuously refreshed and invigorated for more than twenty-six years. Go there.

The Underground

R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
Post Office Box 203
Glassboro, New Jersey 08028

Four issues a year. Subscription: Persons in USA or Canada, $15US;
Persons elsewhere, $20. No more libraries! Other non-personal entities, $25.

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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