Volume Fourteen, Number Four............Autumn 1990

The Larger Order

I attended the Principals' Institute the morning Louise Cowan was lecturing on "Prometheus Bound" by Aeschylus. Prometheus, I was reminded, stole fire and gave it to human beings to bring them enlightenment. This violated Zeus' plan for the world. So he had Prometheus tied to a rock where birds of prey could attack him and all manner of evil befall him short of death. It seemed impossibly cruel punishment for a god as gifted and generous as Prometheus.

But Cowan defended Zeus as the protector of the larger order, the one who "envisions the whole of the thing." Prometheus, she observed, was guilty of too much pride.

"Prometheus," Cowan instructed, bringing home her point, "is about the tragic implications of knowledge, the danger in education. Teachers pull children from their familial safe harbor and thrust them into civilization. Prometheus, the teacher, can go too far and suffer persecution as a result."

Lee Cullum, in the Dallas Times Herald

THIS must be given to the credit of the educationists of our time: unlike politicians and preachers, who always parrot a party line, unlike the athletes and other entertainers who can speak only of themselves, these educationists can actually and often astound us. It is very refreshing, entertaining and instructive as well, and we give them thanks. To be sure, as Emerson said of such folk, we "know not where to begin to set them right," but that doesn't matter. We are not appointed to be their teachers.

Louise Cowan, however, is appointed to be their teacher. It seems to be a pretty good job, too. One hundred and thirty-two school principals of Dallas were given a thousand bucks each to pay their expenses at a two-week seminar on World Classics and Effective Leadership, which was, and we quote, "masterminded by Donald and Louise Cowan," who, with a little help from their friends, made up no less than "seven Ph.D.s from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture" in an "effort (that) seeks to strengthen public education where it counts: in the head offices of the schools." That comes to $18,851 per Ph.D., but quality education is worth it.

In any case, it is not at all a bad idea to have some educationists read some good books. Nevertheless, Louise Cowan seems to have felt some need to excuse the enterprise by an appeal to pragmatism. "It seems so impractical," she says "to couch leadership in the classics," but, calling on "the larger context," she explains all. "By analogy, literature can be applied to life." Wow.

What it means to couch something in the classics, we can't figure out. "Cushion" might have been a better word. One principal, for instance, obviously feeling no pain at all, came away from his studies having learned from the wily Odysseus that there are "different leadership styles for different situations." He somehow discovered that the cagey devisor of stratagems "started with an aggressive leadership style, but he learned to survey the situation before rushing into it." In other words, he "learned" what he already "knew," for just such bland and empty generalizations take up whole units of instruction in the schools of school administration.* A better teacher of course, might have asked such a student to speculate as to the appropriateness of the laid-back leadership of Odysseus while his men were cutting up the cattle, or as to whether his impious failure to bury Elpenor comes from aggressiveness or from situation-surveying, but no one did, we guess.

The leadership of Louise Cowan seems to be of the situation-surveying sort. After all, what have we got here? A bunch of school principals. So what do they want to hear? Well, of course. They want to hear about themselves, the protectors of that larger order who can "envision the whole thing," which is a snazzier way of seeing the big picture. In every school in the world, the administrators see themselves as the doers of some grander and nobler work than the teachers can ever understand. It's something they need to keep going, for they have all failed as teachers, and more and more of them, these days, have never even tried to be teachers.

Something bad will always happen if you try to teach for the students rather than for the books. There is all the difference in the world between reading a book because it is supposed to be good for you, and reading a book because it is good. If you "teach" history, for instance, with the intention of bringing about this or that political belief in the students, you will either have to lie or arrange that your "history" be written not by historians but by flacks, which is to say that you will have to invent "social studies." Since it is hard to find the flack who can do a convincing job of writing Prometheus Bound, the one out of which you can bring school superintendents to "identify with Zeus," you'll just have to do your own lying. Sad necessity, to be sure, but quality education has many sorts of costs.

The lie promulgated by Louise Cowan, of course, may come not from intentional mendacity but from credulousness, from seeing only what her beliefs make her want to see. Credulousness always makes you blind. When she casts Prometheus as the brilliant but intemperate young teacher and Zeus as the wise principal and "protector of the larger order," it may well be out of simple illiteracy, a blindness to what is said.

A full day would have been well spent at that Principals' institute in brooding on what Prometheus says just after the departure of Ocean: "After all, who apportioned the privileges among these latter-day Gods? Who but I?" (II 625-7)

This is no vain boast. Prometheus was before Zeus was. He was one of the Titans, the children of the Mother and Sky, and, if you want some sort of metaphor, either the Marx or the Jefferson of the revolution by which Zeus and his junta came to power. Or, if you want some sort of truth, the ordering intelligence that must exist before there can be administration of any sort.

That larger order which Zeus protects was not brought about by him, but by Prometheus. This is one of the most intriguing suggestions of all mythologies. They always tell tales of some third or fourth generation divinity who imagines that he is the creator, the ruler, the principal of principals. Zeus is the Greek counterpart of Marduk among the Babylonians, the Hindu Indra, and the Hebrew Jahweh. These "rulers of heaven" all have similar attributes. They are all given to legislation and codification, the devising of the mandatory and the forbidden. They all engender bureaucracies. And, most to the point right here, they all claim an absolute monopoly on the services--how could even the principals of Dallas have missed this?--of the two characters who play with Prometheus the very first scene of the drama. Their names are Power and Violence. They are the Police and the Army. Here, after all, is one truthful way of defining government: Government is whatever agency can both claim and exercise a total monopoly of power and violence.

We wonder this: Is there today in Dallas a school principal who paid attention to the reading and who meditates thus? All these rules and standards, all these guidelines, all these procedures and preordained processes by which I must principal this school, are they not all minute particles sifted down upon me out of the great, towering cloud of The Laws, gathered up always over all that I do or can do? Where lies their true justification; who gave them their license? Are they all rationalizations after the fact by that very power that makes them, or is there in them, behind them, perhaps even in spite of them, some prior power, some permanent rightness by which judgment itself is to be judged? Or might it even be that Zeus and Prometheus are both in the right, and both in the wrong at the same time and that there is, there must be if the world is to mean anything at all, some ultimate reconciliation, some unimaginable oneness hidden behind this seemingly absolute twoness? What does Prometheus hint at when he says of Zeus, "He'll come to me, as a friend, I'll love my friend again"? And why does he tell Io, another famous (and supposed) victim of the ways of God, "He's bringing you back to your senses, stroking you with a hand you no longer fear"? There is some puzzle here that will not go away, some seed of a strange discontent with the way things are in the world. And, in the grip of this discontent, which looks as though it will last for a very long time, what shall I do, how shall I live, how shall I teach the teachers and the children?

(If you discover such a one, sell all that you have and move to that district in which your children can go to a good school. And don't forget to send us your change of address, so that we may follow you there.)

It has to be because she has not meditated thus that Louise Cowan, in a startling new meaning of the word, can talk about the "tragic implications of knowledge, the danger in education." It is perhaps inconvenient for some that children should be changed by education, but to call it tragic is just silly. And it is equally silly to speak of the "familial safe harbor," but schoolteachers do like that sort of thing. It makes them feel like brave scouts, leading the oppressed kiddies forth into the real world, the larger order, from which their families have stubbornly and wrongheadedly sought to shelter them. They even like to imagine, as Louise Cowan surely does, probably without even knowing it, that it is nothing less than "civilization" into which they release the little savages from that safe harbor. Oh yes, they suffer for it, but that's what a teacher is for, noble martyrdom. Even when they call Zeus the one who can see the big picture, they like to think of themselves as Prometheans, but Prometheans who are not, as Louise Cowan says of Prometheus, "guilty of pride." They're too humble for that, and besides, they just love children.

It is not at all a bad idea to think of the work of Prometheus as education, but in doing that one should think of what Prometheus in fact did. He did not bring the children out of the familial safe harbor. He brought the children, and the families, and the tribes, and the nations, and, indeed, the whole of humanity, out of beastness, that condition which we can only suppose must have been ours at some strange, ancient time when we were. . . well... not yet "us."

And even that is not quite right, because lacking the imagined work of Prometheus there are no such ideas as those of children, family, tribe, or nation. We can say that the zebras live in herds and the wolves in packs, but the zebras and the wolves don't know that. They don't care, either. In short, it was not art, or contrivance, or language, or anything else unique to humanity that Prometheus invented for us--it was us that he invented. And the "danger" in education is not a social or political inconvenience, not that we will come to disagree with our families or churches and get our teachers into the trouble that they say they are glad to suffer, but that we will come to know ourselves for what we are, and that knowing it will make us sad. That danger is real, so real that it almost justifies the lie in which we say that education is responsible social behavior and competing with the Japanese. But not quite, because lacking education in the Promethean sense, we lack humanity, we fail to be what we should be.

There is something in the educationistic mind, some deep failure of understanding, that corrupts and disables even the most elementary and accessible method by which even the smallest children can be led toward a true education, the inner liberation which Prometheus described thus: "I made them masters of their own thought." We often imagine that intelligence, like the power of our telescopes or the efficacy of our drugs, increases by evolution from generation to generation. We can easily believe that the dullest clod among us is nevertheless much smarter than the smartest of our ancient and primitive ancestors. This is pure bunk, but it makes us feel good. In the myth of Prometheus, but certainly not in that alone, we can see a), that our not-so-ancient ancestors in Greece were not thus deluded, and b), that the Greeks were not only aware that the power of ordering intelligence must come even before there can be such things as human institutions, but that its arrival is a tantalizing puzzle, a mystery. The story of Prometheus, in local versions beyond counting, is old. Very old. It is tempting to think it must be exactly as old as humanity itself for in that same moment in which there is intelligence, the mind's power to consider its own working, the seed of the tale of Prometheus is planted and growing. And the mechanism by which the mind considers its own working is a very simple one and available to all human beings in all times and places, even to teachers. It is story-telling, the putting into order of the seemingly accidental.

That most elementary and accessible method by which even the smallest child can led toward a true education, and by anyone at all, is the telling of stories. Just the telling. No commentary. The comment comes later, inwardly, again and again, and the comment on the comment. It takes a long time, but it can start in infancy.

The older the stories, the better. This is not simply because they are old, but because their age has inoculated them against tendentiousness, against the corruption of partisan political or social designing. Or, in the case of the old stories which did have their own political or social designs, as Prometheus Bound in fact did, time will have defanged them, leaving us free to consider their permanent themes rather than their programs. The wording of the Athenian law which condemned collusion in the establishment of tyranny is not a burning issue among us, nor, for that matter, was it more than a passing allusion in the play, but it is there. Now, it doesn't matter. It does not loom up to overwhelm the permanent theme of the work, which is also to say that it does not bring about bad story-telling.

But even the old and good story can be defanged in another way by treating it, especially to an audience of poor readers, as though it were a social or political device. So it is, for instance, that the Antigone has recently been rediscovered as a feminist tract, long lying in wait for its hour to come.

And now comes Louise Cowan, blithely undoing the healing work of time, to emasculate Prometheus Bound into a bureaucratic eunuch blathering banalities about leadership style. "Zeus, the principal, must hold everything in his compass and see justice and be the guardian of truth." Yes, she did say that. It is an exact and direct quotation. Ah, to be a guardian of truth.

Children, unlike the principals of Dallas, have no trouble in seeing that a story with an agenda is a bad one. Oh, I see, even a little child can say, This story is supposed to keep me from using drugs, and that one means to persuade me to worry a whole lot about some people that I've never even met. And here's another one that wants to stop me from littering. Yech. And the "yech" is not necessarily a rejection of the thesis, but simply a natural recognition of a feeble attempt at trickery, which has the further fault of ruining what could have been a good story.

A good story is a good story because it is true, not because it is factual. Two tremendous errors are possible. The first is to dismiss the story of Prometheus because there never were any gods, and no one ever did what Prometheus is said to have done. This is the same as saying that neither Rodion Raskolnikov nor Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm ever existed. It just doesn't matter. The second error is even worse; it is to insist that Prometheus did exist, and that that is why we must believe the story. It is interesting to speculate on what would happen to the faith of the standard street Christian should Jesus, somehow, be proved never to have existed. We can't imagine. But it is certain that no one who ponders the truth in the Jesus story would suddenly suppose that that truth had disappeared or been proven false. The truth in such stories is shown by all human experience. The Prometheus story, when it becomes a story, must of course be said to have happened, but in truth, it is always happening, and must always have happened where there was humanity. Everything in it we reënact, both externally as a society and internally as individuals. We are Prometheus, and Zeus, and Power and Violence too, not only by turns, but often at once, twisting ourselves into the sad and suffering creatures that we all see everywhere. And if there is that in the story that this one or that one has not yet done, just wait a bit. And this is the power of all good stories: they all tell the truth about all of us. And this is why it is best to tell the old, old stories over and over again: it takes time, sometimes a very long time, and serious attention to experience, to see that the old, old stories are true.

There is nothing elitist about Prometheus Bound, nothing that needs excusing for its "impracticality," as Louise Cowan has found desirable, lest a reporter describe her institute as irrelevant ivory towerism. But, if you mistakenly think that children will be lost in Æschylus--they won't--the same powers can be found in countless other good stories. We are all Hansel and Gretel lost in the dark wood, and we are all their parents, fearful that we will not be able to nourish--in either sense of that word--our children. We are all afraid of the dark wood, but we must go through it. And we all must go from here and leave our children behind to find their own lives, which dwell not back there with us--nature's birds have wisely eaten the path of crumbs--but ahead, in the perilous and unknown. Brave and intelligent children, steadfast and honorable, will make the journey; others will end up transformed into mere matter. That is another way of understanding the nature and purpose of education; it is equipment for the journey that ends in the rule of your own kingdom. The training and indoctrination of ordinary schooling equip you only to live comfortably under the rule of someone or something else.

There is a strange, intriguing epilogue to the story of Prometheus. Contemplating it gives you that interesting suspicion that arises from the contemplation of any good story, the suspicion that you are on to something, but what is it? Anyone in the school business would do well to study and ponder both the hinted ultimate reconciliation of Zeus and Prometheus and the role taken in that story by the closest thing to be found in Greek mythology to a patron saint of teachers, Cheiron the centaur.**

Many of the brightest and best were sent off in infancy, to be reared and taught by Cheiron. Asclapius, Herakles, and Achilles were probably the best known. Ordinarily we would expect to know from the careers of students what a certain teacher taught them, but Cheiron's graduates have so many diverse accomplishments that we can assign him no place in any imaginable curriculum, which ought to remind us that the very idea of "curriculum" is a social or political contrivance, not truly related to education, and a convenient (for some) fiction. Cheiron, apparently, taught his students either everything, or whatever it is that forms a firm foundation for anything at all. He started them young. Achilles was still an infant when Cheiron took him down to the shore to wave goodbye as Jason and his crew set off in the Argo for Cholchis at the uttermost end of the Black Sea, on which journey, by the way, they spotted Zeus's vulture on its daily voyage to lunch on the liver of Prometheus. Was that a "lesson"? What did it teach? Is there something here that we don't understand? Exactly how and when does education, as opposed to all the other stuff, start? Can it be that all these "early childhood education" boosters are right in principle, and wrong only in particular, intending to provide rudimentary instruction and socialization but omitting edification and exaltation?

Cheiron was eventually wounded, quite accidentally, by a poisoned arrow. Herakles, his student, fired it, and with good reason, at someone else. But it shot right through the intended victim and hit Cheiron in the left ankle, or foot, or leg, depending on which version we read. (Around here, we hold with ankle, because it was with another arrow from the same quiver that Paris was able to murder Achilles.)

The poison was blood from the left side of the body of the Gorgon, and, to a mortal, certain to cause hideous pain and, eventually, death. But Cheiron was not mortal, and was doomed, therefore, to live forever in agony. Many a schoolteacher will know what that means, and will know, too, that it is always the result of an accident, or, perhaps, of a long series of little accidents. The interesting question is this: Is there some rightness in this? Is this perhaps the fit and natural destiny of Teacher--to be surpassed, or in some other way injured, but also, in time, put out of misery, by Student? And what would that mean?

(And what would we understand, if anything, if we were to read "Teacher" and "Student" above as "teacherness" and "studentness," supposing qualities that, like the masks of the drama, might be part of any human person? Would we then be able to test the proposition through the evidence of experience?)

As we can tell from a few lines in Prometheus Bound, and from the few fragments of Prometheus Unbound that exist, Zeus, unlike the all-wise principals guarding the truth in Dallas, will eventually see that he was wrong, and look for some way to rehabilitate Prometheus, and at the same time reestablish his own reputation for justice. (Robert Graves, with whom it is perilous to quarrel, supposes that all this is not truly a myth, but a fable invented by Æschylus. He may be right, but it may also be that every myth was once a fable invented by some poet. What else is a poet for?)

It's not all that simple, however. The "omnipotent" Zeus can not change the principles, the rules of the game. He too is bound by Law. He can release Prometheus only if someone already immortal will set the balance straight by giving up his immortality. Herakles, of course, very sorry for what he has done, knows the right candidate. So the deal is made, and Cheiron goes down to black death. Prometheus returns among the Immortals, and the universe, set spinning awry by wrongness, returns to the harmony and stability that is natural to it. This is always the end of tragedy, which is, really, the happier form of drama, setting the world back on her tracks.

If Æschylus did invent this ending, he did it because he was able to see truth. This is, after all, also the ending of the other great myths. The ascension of Œdipus in Colonus and the forgiving of Orestes are other reminders of a natural yearning for reunion and reconciliation, and they lift and comfort the heart even as they frighten it.

Education, if it ever arises, grows out of those things that have been long stored up in the heart. Some things rot in the heart, and others blossom. Leadership guidelines are one thing, and the gift of fire is another.


Depending on Johnny

After a short interval he came back and told us to go in. When we went inside we found Socrates just released from his chains, and Xanthippe--you know her!--sitting by him with the little boy on her knee. As soon as Xanthippe saw us she broke out into the sort of remark that you would expect from a woman; Oh, Socrates, this is the last time that you and your friends will be able to talk together!

Socrates looked at Crito. Crito, he said, someone had better take her home.

Then his mother and his brothers came and stood outside and sent one in to summon him. The crowd was seated around him, and they said to him: See, your mother and your brothers are outside looking for you. He answered and said to them: Who is my mother and who are my brothers? And looking about at those who were sitting in a circle around him, he said: Here is my mother, here are my brothers; whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

JESUS and Socrates are the biggest of big guns, but it is not simply for that reason that I have started our with a blast from each. It is rather because both of them have been mentioned in letters from readers as supporters of the idea that the family is, and ought to be, not only primary but perhaps even sovereign in the education of the young. Try as you will, you have little hope of interpreting the words of Socrates in such a way as to make of them a justification of home-schooling. When you put them together with the words of the personified "laws and Constitution of Athens" in the Crito you get instead, much to my discomfort and probably to yours, a justification of the very system of government education that so many of us find indefensible: "Have you any complaint against the laws which deal with children's upbringing and education, such as you had yourself? Are you not grateful to those of us laws which were instituted for this end, for requiting your father to give you a cultural and physical education?" To this, Socrates assents at once.

The words of Jesus are, of course, much interpreted. They are in fact interpreted to death by the common churchly reading which takes them to mean not at all a rejection of conventional family bonds but merely a sweet and charitable enlargement of them, oh so typical of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Now it may be, of course, that Jesus never said such a thing, but it also may be that he did. And if he did, he may have meant just exactly what he said. It is certainly worth thinking about, especially for those who imagine that to profess Christianity is all it takes to be licensed as a fit guide of one's own children.

In both scenes we see something shocking. In part, they suggest that apple pie and mom are trivial considerations. Even worse in these days, they are likely to outrage feminists and anti-feminists at the same time, not simply because of that bit about just what you would expect from a woman, but because of the easy dismissal of the role of a mother. Neither of our sages looks good in these little stories, and that we are able to see that more clearly now than we might have fifty years ago, is much to the credit of the feminist party.

Here you see a little picture. It is familiar, very familiar. Cut it out and put it in your wallet, or in a locket, as your gender may suggest. Get into your time machine and travel into the distant past of our kind. Go among the painters of the caves. Visit the tamers of horses on the wide steppes. Travel with the herders of the reindeer and the caribou. Seek our the gatherers of nuts and berries in the rain forests and on the high veldt. Don't be afraid of them. They will recognize you, in spite of your outlandish speech and look, as one of them, except in detail. You will show this little picture wherever you go, and all who see it will say, "Oh, yes, we have such a picture too. It is..." And then they will fill in the blanks. Than this picture of a mother and her child, there is no more widespread and universal icon.

Now take another such journey, but this time carry with a used Christmas card, on it a crèche, with mother and child, and the gentle beasts, and, a little bit back and off to one side, patient Joseph. Once again the mother and child will be recognized everywhere. And often the beasts as well. "Yes, yes," they will say, "the animals are also hers." Often they will ask, however, "But who is that up there with the mother?" And you will have to explain.

Uh, well, you will have to say, That's sort of the father, not exactly the father, of course, but the one who is, how shall I say, sort of playing the role of the father, but, of course only that part of the role that comes after the fact of the fathering, you know. Or something like that. You know what I mean, don't you? But they won't.††

We are all so savvy that we all know about fathers and fathering. At the same time we are all so naive that we suppose that we know who our fathers are. But we don't. All we have as to the identity of our fathers is testimony, and testimony of a not disinterested parry. The whole business of fathers and fathering is not self-evident; it has to be discovered. That, rather than the taming of fire or the coming of writing, may have been the most momentous discovery in the whole history of our species, the discovery that the women didn't bring forth babies all by themselves, but that some man was needed. It may also have been the most direful day in our history, the beginning of war, of property, of government, of bureaucracy, and other plagues and spites beyond counting.

As to all that, of course, your guess is as good as mine, which is, like all guesses, no good at all. But as to something else, we need not guess. It could only have been after that discovery that the idea of "family" came into our lives. Before that, there could only have been something like "the people," which is, in fact, what many so-called primitive tribes frequently call themselves, and the people could have consisted only of the men and the women and the children of the women. The children were theirs and everybody knew it, for they had seen them all born, this one to her, and that one to her. For all we know, marriage may indeed have been instituted by God, but it sure looks like something that was instituted by men, by those men who had just discovered that without them there would be no babies, and who, with their newfound power, levered themselves into positions of authority and ownership.

Our troubles in education are not only not new, they are very, very old. Here is Joseph Campbell describing the beginning of those troubles:

For it is now perfectly clear that before the violent entry of the late Bronze and early Iron Age nomadic Aryan cattle-herders from the north and Semitic sheep-and-goat-herders from the south into the old cult sites of the ancient world, there had prevailed in that world an essentially organic, vegetal, non-heroic view of the nature and necessities of life that was completely repugnant to those lion hearts for whom not the patient toil of earth but the battle spear and its plunder were the source of both wealth and joy. In the older mother myths and rites the light and darker aspects of the mixed thing that is life had been honored equally and together, whereas in the later, male-oriented, patriarchal myths, all that is good and noble was attributed to the new, heroic master gods, leaving to the native nature powers the character only of darkness--to which, also, a negative moral judgment now was added. For, as a great body of evidence shows, the social as well as mythic orders of the two contrasting ways of life were opposed. Where the goddess had been venerated as the giver and supporter of life as well as consumer of the dead, women as her representatives had been accorded a paramount position in society as well as in cult. Such an order of female-dominated custom is termed the order of Mother Right. And opposed to such, without quarter, is the order of Patriarchy, with an ardor of righteous eloquence and a fury of fire and sword.‡‡

Whatever views we may have of the "nature and necessities of life" must lend their flavor to all of our institutions. Now it seems to me that all of our schooling is founded on some very trivial ideas of the nature and necessities of life. I think of it all in these terms:

I imagine a young mother with a brand new baby, a new person in the world. Since I have recently reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, all in the line of duty, I think of Mary, the young mother of Francie Nolan. If you have forgotten her, this would be a good time to mark your place and do your own rereading. Read especially those few pages in which Mary asks her mother how she, being young and ignorant, can hope to bring up a child to be thoughtful and good, wise and kind. She is frightened. It seems to her a tremendous undertaking--as in fact it is. And who is she to dare it such a mighty thing? Where will she turn for help? She knows, although she does not say this aloud, that "she cannot depend on Johnny." Johnny is her husband, also young and ignorant, but charming. Sometimes he has work, and sometimes he doesn't. But the center of gravity in his life is not here beside the cradle; it is our there, out in the man's idea of the world, in the man's idea of the nature and necessities of life. The camaraderie of men, the competitions and displays, his local and personal analogues of "the battle spear and its plunder." He loves her, yes, and the child too, but, like Byron's young and charming hero, his love is "of his life a thing apart." In the long run, he will fail her and her child.

She is not even sure what it is that she wants for her child, but I am certain that she would recoil in astonishment and dismay should you say to her: Look, don't worry about it. Hand her over to me, once she is housebroken, of course. I am a professional. I understand these things. I will see to it that little Francie can be made into an effective and productive member of society eminently capable of balancing a checkbook, writing a decent letter of application, avoiding dread venereal diseases, and competing with the Japanese.

That is not what she means. None of that, absolutely none is what she has in mind. To all such things she will surely grant worth, of course. Who wouldn't? But they are not first things; they are second things, and third, and even twentieth things, but they do not come first. And, in the life-to-be of this new person, she, the mother, stands first, stands right there and right now at the very gate into life, and no one else will ever be able to do what must be done now.

The scene is evocative. We see three women, maiden, matron and crone. They are carrying secrets down from generation to generation. The grandmother is also "ignorant," that is, incapable of competing with the Japanese, which is to say, from the male point of view, utterly mistaken about the nature and necessities of life. But the men are wrong. She knows. And here, in secret, she tells. And what she tells, by the way, is well worth reading and pondering for anyone who wants to know how to educate children, although it will be little welcome to those who imagine that they have some sort of "right" to bring their own children, their "property," presumably, into whatever set of beliefs they have adopted for themselves.

This is the continual cry of those who claim--and they are not mistaken--that there is something "anti-family" in the ethos of the government schools: "After all, whose children are they?" It is a fair question, but the burden of answer is to be laid just as heavily on the parents as on the schools. It is out of contrivance, not out of nature that we claim nothing less than possession of other human beings, and, at the same time, the "right" to form their innermost selves and thus the whole path of their lives according to our wishes. Such an enterprise, whether on the part of parents, schools or any other agent, is simply outrageous. Hideous.

Francie's grandmother advises nothing even close to it. If there is to be some "master" of the little girl's education, it is not this or that agent with this or that agenda, but nothing less than the whole of what might be thought of as the ancestral lore of our species, collected, mixed up, often obscure, often contradictory, and sometimes no doubt--but who knows when?--just plain wrong . Every sort of thing, from Santa Claus to The Merchant of Venice, from the tooth fairy to "the Bible that the Protestants read." This last, she whispers.

Mary protests. She herself is not able to understand such things. She happens not to believe in elves or Santa Claus, or even perhaps, in God. No matter. It's not for herself that she must do this. She is not to make a little copy of herself. It is for the child, so that she may lay up treasures against future need, so that, when belief departs, she may be strong without it, and so that she will have a great store of words, a library of what has been said, to remember and ponder.

There are two very interesting things about this prescription for an education, which is founded on the complete works of Shakespeare and that "protestant bible." Here is one of them: No one with a program of his own could fill it. If you decide to skip Romeo and Juliet because it is filthy, and The Merchant of Venice because it is anti-Semitic, or if you think that the butchering of Agag will encourage the use of violence and that God's answer to Job might be left for later, then what you are teaching is yourself. You are providing yourself with your own version of the plunder of the spear. Ha, I am in charge, you say. I am strong enough, and wise enough, to do it, so I'll do it. And fear not, you will have your reward when those whom you think to have educated will take up spears of their own as you have in fact advised them. They will, at the very least, remember you with distaste. Is it not usually so? From Sophocles to Freud, have they not all told us that that precious family, with its supposed values, is the breeding ground of our disorders and discontents? Was your childhood a joy and a treasure, or were you oppressed by somebody else's mind and power?

And here is the other interesting thing. The education here proposed is available to all human beings in all times and places. In the caves of the painters there were stories to tell, songs to sing, poems and legends and fables. It could not have been otherwise. Where there is art there is art. And where there is a mother there is someone to use it, to sing and recite and tell tales.

I have brooded on all this off and on for a long time now, and I have occasionally talked about it in the context of some of the courses that I teach. Some of my students suggested that I read a book called All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I asked what sort of thing was in it. They said, Oh, you know, put things back where they belong, and stuff like that. I see that I must indeed read that book. I expect it to help me to understand and describe some useful way of understanding the whole business of education, training, and schooling. I am thinking that there might be something that I want to call First Lore, the heart of true education. And it does, it must, include such things as the idea that it is good to put things where they belong. This seems ridiculously elementary, but it points to some great principles. It is a bow to order and harmony. And something like that is true of many apparently elementary things, the idea of taking turns, for instance, and the suspicion that whatever we do matters in some way. And, of the First Lore, this must be true: Our mothers are best situated to teach it, and the way of teaching it must be by model, not by precept, in the tales that they tell and in the tales which their very lives become as they tell them.

There must be also a Second Lore, and second in two senses. It comes later, and it is also of lesser importance. If you miss the First Lore, than you must miss whatever fullness is possible to humans. But if you miss the Second Lore of color-mixing you can still do well with the Second Lore of fish-catching. Or even, for that matter, with the Second Lore of competing with those pesky Japanese. And just as the First Lore seems natural to the relationship between mother and child, the Second seems natural to the men and the children. We seem to have mixed them up, and moved the first behind the second, or, worse yet, decided to dispense with the first because we can't all agree as to every detail of its content, and because we want what we can never in this life have--certainty. Like the man that St. Paul condemns--just as you would expect!--the First Lore is "uncertain in all its ways," full of ambiguities and contradictions and even mysteries, just like Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible.

Here is the decisive difference between Mary Nolan and our Early Educationists. She is ignorant, and she knows that she is ignorant. But the ignorant educationists imagine that they are wise, and out of their wisdom they have decided to depend on Johnny. The Big Johnny. The concocter of guidelines, the shaman of learning disabilities and cognitive styles, the perennial propounder of bold innovative thrusts in the affective domain. So Francie Nolan is left to reflect, some day, on the double nature and dangerous power of ambition and pride, while our children are persuaded, long before the evidence is in, to think themselves estimable, and encouraged to go forth and beat somebody at something.

Francie is the proverbial "rich child who sits in a poor mother's lap." She is showered with treasures, treasures which are in fact her rightful inheritance, stored up for her by thoughtful ancestors beyond counting, by legions of mothers, and by the best of fathers, the artists and the poets who listened to mothers. Johnny's orphans get to play the Lifeboat Game, and to read, if they can learn to read, The Cat in the Hat.

The best word for this Lost Generation for which there is much wringing of hands these days, is not "lost," but "dispossessed." They have been cheated of what is rightfully theirs, and by Big Johnny, who doesn't even want it for himself, who, thinking himself wiser, despises it, and gives them, instead of wealth, baubles and trinkets poisoned with sociological and political stratagems for the modification of attitudes and behavior. And so our children, even the most "successful" of our children, perhaps especially the most successful of our children, are likely to be poor indeed, very poor. And their children... Well, look on the bright side. Maybe few of us will live long enough to see the children of their children.

For all of this there is no remedy to be hoped for in "family values," which are almost always adopted from the teachings of some Johnny, and which, whatever their particular cultic beliefs, justify themselves with "the ardor of righteous eloquence and the fury of fire and sword." Even mothers in such families have been co-opted; "the light and darker aspects of the mixed thing that is life," they do not honor equally and together. They do not see life as a mixed thing, not at all. Like the fathers, they do not think that they are ignorant. They make no distinction between belief and knowledge. In this, except for the details of belief such families are exactly like the government schools, only smaller. The master gods of each claim monopolies on all that is good and noble, and hand down the tablets.

Here is a poet, Karl Shapiro: "To make a child in your own image is a capital crime, for your image is not worth repeating. The child knows this, and you know it. Consequently you hate each other." I think it is a very wise father indeed, but only a perfectly normal mother, who asks: "Is my image worth repeating? Could there be a better?"


The Shape of Things to Come

THIS seems to be true: We all say, well, next year things will loosen up a bit. There'll be more time for this and that. Why doesn't it ever work our that way? Why is every year fuller and busier than the last? How long can this go on?

Around here, even in the heat of summer, there is an autumnal air. We are certainly not drawing wagons into a circle, but we do seem to be gathering in. The end of our fourteenth year is coming, and with it, the inevitable promotion of the associate CM to full. With tenure. He already shows the signs of a man who is practicing surly retirement. Our Central Control is still holding on, but there must be some loosening of her grip invisible to us, for many of our readers still persist in moving without telling her.

We are making some changes. We do intend to keep publishing and perishing at the same time, but we have to make it a bit easier. Here is what we intend.

The first obvious change, which really makes possible all the desirable changes, is what you have in your hand. You have seen that this issue is twice the size of the usual issue. We will publish henceforth only four times a year, but each issue will contain sixteen pages. Here are the benefits for us:

One of the greatest difficulties of the preparation of copy has always been our severe restriction of space. It has always been necessary to be brief, so brief, in fact, that we have usually felt some incompleteness in everything. We want to spread out a bit, as you can already see. This allows us to be a little less elliptical, and to provide concrete elaboration where we would otherwise have had to let a generalization float. And, since we now have at most only seven years before the ACM becomes utterly useless, we want to be as thorough as possible. It may be, of course, that the extra space will bring us to blather and windiness, but our readers are such that they will soon enough call us to order should that happen. The extra pages also provide--although this may seem a trifle to some--more room for the occasional picture or small decoration. We do have the notion that typographical folderol is a good thing rather than a bad one. And it is sometimes, at least, evocative. We can't defend it, but there it is. Maybe it has something to do with beauty, and we do like--doesn't everybody?--a handsome page here and there in any issue.

In this format, we will perhaps be able to do, at least occasionally, something that we have often wanted to do--to quote from some of your letters and say something about what you say. We get, we do believe, some of the most thoughtful and provocative Letters to the Editor in the whole world of publishing. Alas, we answer them rarely, but for a strange reason. When we get a good letter, we fall to brooding on it. We put it aside, then take it up and read it again, and brood some more. Such a letter seems to require not an answer but an essay. And sometimes, although far from often enough, the letters do generate essays, and the essays appear in these pages. But we would like to be more direct than that.

Recently, for example, we have had some excellent letters on the piece called "The Ordeal by Fire." At least one of them was almost angry, but still, and this is what makes our readers so great, reasoned and sober. But all who wrote were at least a bit upset at what they construed, and rightly, as an attack on "family values." Insofar as those family values are generally understood, it was an attack. And we meant it. But it is not a simple matter, and we certainly did not mean to grant approval to the educationists and their attack on family values. We'll do our own attacking, thank you. It is one of the great guiding principles of this sheet that when you see two gangs of rabble quarreling either in the streets or in the polling booths, you see two packs of fools, ignorant armies clashing by night. We intend to join neither. Accordingly, we have assigned the ACM to write, in propria persona, a commentary on that attack and on those letters, You have probably already read it. You'll probably write more letters.

This is a sad dilemma. On anything worth thinking about, there is always more to say. And, on that, still more. Trying to understand is very different from trying to find out some fact, it just has no end. It is in order to keep that in mind that we have here the habit of rereading fairly regularly some book of Freud. Unlike the Freudians, Freud always knew that he hadn't yet gotten it quite right. Each book arises out of something that failed to satisfy him in the previous book. And his last book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, is, really, another first book. We love Freud for that, and our love has nothing to do either with rejecting his views or embracing them. As to that, he is probably, like all the rest of us, all wrong about everything. We can live with that.

In The Mansion, V. K. Ratliff says "The poor sons of bitches, they do the best they can." He's talking about Snopses, of course, but we take it personally. We'd like to see it done in crossstitch and hanging on the wall in the head office.

Four issues a year are much more likely to be sent out on time, and we are always depressed at being late. This way, there will be half as many envelopes to stuff and lick. Half as many labels to peel and stick. And, not to overlooked in these days, half as many envelopes to buy, and half as much postage to pay. We intend never to raise the price of THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN, and we won't, but we can't get the printer and the postal people to cooperate in this excellent scheme. So we will simply outwit them.

September and October renewal notices will go out with the Autumn issue, November and December with Winter, February and March with Spring, April and May with Summer. The issue that would have been May 1990, XIV:3, is, alas, forever lost. And that was the one with the answers!

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.


* Even in such a vapid understanding, however, there is the hint of opening into something deeper. Around here we also have a man who "teaches" those old books, whatever that might mean. He has, over the years, come up with the crackpot but provocative notion that in the Odyssey, and in the story of Eros and Psyche as well, there are hidden some clues as to what was learned by those who passed through the mysteries of Eleusis. All the extraordinary benefits conferred by that initiation we know from many sources, including Socrates and his friends, and they could easily and usefully be put forth as the proper goals of a true and universal education of the best sort, an education that could underlie the schooling and training of any time and place no matter what its particulars. But of the details, the "lessons," of the initiation we know nothing. The initiates really kept the secrets, as they were always instructed.
     Our friend suspects that Apuleius, like the author of the Odyssey, was telling tales out of school, albeit with the best of motives. At the heart of both stories we find a series of trials and passages. Both heroes triumph in rebirth-Odysseus washed ashore naked on the blessed isle where Arete (!) is queen, and Psyche in nothing less than apotheosis-the divine life of the soul. But they walk different paths, and it is instructive and mystifying at the same time to consider the differences. Why is it, for instance, that when Psyche gives up and falls asleep, the ants come to her aid, and when Odysseus gives up (his leadership?) and falls asleep, his men open the bag of Aeolus? We brood on it in the still watches of the night. That is the real stuff of education-whatever requires a lifetime of brooding, and reveals itself but slowly, slowly. back

† We are using the Scully and Herrington translation from Oxford University Press. If that was used in Dallas, then the seven Ph.D.s decided to skip the introductory essays so that the principals could relate to the whole thing without any interference from people who had already given the work some thought, and who might not be sufficiently attuned to the needs of the poor or the learning disabled. Thus they missed this from Herrington, an elitist, no doubt: "Perhaps the greatest reward of a reading of the Prometheus Bound in any century since the fall of Rome has been that the reader has been forced by it to construct for himself some response to the play's fearsome thesis on humanity, God, and government. So, where the ancient poem now abandons him, only one-third of the way through its course, an eternally modern poem begins: his own." back

‡ Zeus's "great plan for the world" was simply this: that humanity should eat its meat raw. It was Prometheus who offered Zeus a choice as to which of two hides full of pieces of a sacrificial offering he wanted. Zeus chose the one that contained only fat and thigh bones, which would be thereafter his only portions. Zeus was mad as hell, so he forbade man fire. Now that sounds a bit more like leadership style in a principal holding everything in his compass. back

** This tale has been retold, and much elaborated, by John Updike in a novel called The Centaur. The main character is a high school teacher of science, a particularly appropriate choice. He is doomed. What does that mean? It is not a great novel, but it does give you the suspicion that you may be on to something. All schoolteachers should read it and wonder about it. They should have near at hand, however, some good reference books. Lots of allusions. back

†† A naughty time-traveler would take the mother-and-child picture and show it to Jesus. His comments would be interesting to hear. The Jews very hot against all hints of female divinity, but so strong is that notion that the Christians have-not wisely, of course, but only inadvertently, and making a virtue of necessity-preserved the worship of the goddess. back

‡‡ This is from The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, pp. 21-22. Campbell is thinking about Jane Ellen Harrison's Prologomena to the Study of Greek Religion, which first appeared in 1902. She was one of the first to consider the immense consequences of the relatively modern notion that God is a he, rather than a she. back

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