THE UNDERGROUND
GRAMMARIAN

Volume Fourteen, Number Five............Winter 1990

The Roman System

You and I, all of us, Curia and hierarchy alike, are the nearly perfect products of our Roman system. We never fought it. We marched with it every step of the way. We cauterized our emotions, hardened our hearts, made ourselves eunuchs for the love of God . . . and somewhere along the way, very early I think, we lost the simple art of loving. We bind heavy and insupportable burdens on men's backs and we ourselves lift no finger to ease them! So, the people turn away; not to strange gods, as we think; not to orgies and self-indulgence . . . but in search of simplicities which we, the custodians, censors, and governors, have obscured from them. If an honest, open, brave man sat in the chair of Peter and thought first, last and always of the people, there might be a chance. There just might be. Morris West, Lazarus

WE have not read the novel from which that passage is taken, but, thanks to one Kit Reed, an astute reviewer for the Inquirer of Philadelphia, we may not have to. He has quoted the passage above, in which a very senior cleric speaks to a sick pope, and we suspect that he has shown us the very heart of the book, which is also the heart of other things.

We look now at Aeneas. He was a great hero of the Trojan war, and did quite well thereafter too, even though he fought on the losing side. We watch him making his escape, wading through the surf out to where his ships and men are waiting. He carries his crippled old father piggyback, and leads his young son by the hand. An exemplary father. His wife did not make it out of the burning city, where the victorious Greeks are gathering up booty and women and setting fire to whatever they can't use.

Aeneas's father, Anchises, once, in his youth, got to spend a whole night with the saucy and sexy goddess, Aphrodite. (It was her idea--he was just lucky.) But he made a big mistake the next morning when the dawn was breaking. He got a good look at the goddess, and, as punishment for that blasphemous glimpse, his legs were blasted; he never walked again. But he was never heard to complain.

The little boy is named Ascanius. Well, that's one of his names. He has another name, and a very interesting one. Most of what we have heard about Aeneas was told to us long ago by the Roman poet Virgil. Virgil was seriously patriotic. Piously patriotic, in fact. For him, the massive, sprawling Roman Empire was the greatest and noblest creation of the mind of man. It was the ultimate work of the fine art of civilization. And so it is that Virgil chooses to call the little boy Julus. He intends to make some connection between Aeneas's son Ascanius and the mighty Julius Caesar. It was Caesar who did what most men love to see done. He put lots of smaller things together into one big and complicated thing.

Aeneas, of course, isn't the bringer of civilization. There was civilization long before there was a Rome. But he is, or at least he can conveniently stand for, the bringer of the latest, and perhaps the last possible, refinement of civilization--the utterly inaccessible and unaddressable inhuman monster of the Roman System; the all-encompassing bureaucracy of laws and rules and guidelines and channels and standard operating procedures. Where this monster dwells, there are no persons, only its agents. But where it rules, and perhaps only where it rules, there can be pax of the romana kind, but that is the best it can do.

Now Virgil's poem begins with a famous first line. Lots of people who know no other Latin at all know this line: Arma virumque cano: I sing of arms and the man. Old time poets, even when they were writing very slowly and carefully, liked to fancy themselves as bards, strumming away on their lyres and singing along. And of what did they sing, who sang the Iliad and the Odyssey and other such beyond counting? They all seem to have sung of the very same things. Arms and a man. They were not ashamed. But it is an admission that tells us something that we really do know but seldom think about: that if "civilization" is to exist at all, and if a great bureaucracy is to arise and to prevail, then some strong person has to bring it about by force.

Aeneas will go aboard and sail off into adventure after adventure. Anchises will die on the trip, but Aeneas will visit his shade in the Underworld, where he will be given his license, as it were, assured that he is the chosen creator of the Great System that Rome will become. In all of his trials and travels, he will be helped by Aphrodite, his doting mother. And, thanks to her, he will establish once and for all not simply the Great System of the Empire of Rome, amazing as that is, but the Great System of Men and Their Ways.

He is, after all, a Real Man. He is strong and combative. He loves winning. He has bigger and better things to do than to hang around with Dido. She is only a queen, only a woman. He has a great destiny to fulfill. He has to become the progenitor of customs inspectors and license bureau clerks. He must father forth not only Big Government, with its concentric circles beyond counting of flunkies and subflunkies with titles, but also Big Religion, with its popes and its pardoners, with its decretals and bulls, with its endless labyrinths of discipline and doctrine, and its power. And, at only one tiny remove, he must engender also Big Business, Big Bread and Circuses, and, most to the point for us, Big School. And, taken all together, those things add up to something more than mere civilization: Big Civilization, maybe, or certainly modern civilization as we have come to know and love it. And we do love it. We really do.

The word "civilization" means something like "citified," gathered together in one place, usually one protected place, and observing, whether you like it or not, one set of rules. On balance, most of us like it a lot. It will prevent us, once in a while, from doing unto others what we would really like to do, but it also prevents others from doing unto us what they would like to do. It's a pretty fair deal, and so fair indeed that we can not imagine life without it as anything except ugly and brief, as Hobbes did in a line that is now so famous that we assume its truth without asking for evidence, which is lucky for Hobbes, since there isn't any. Just like Hobbes, we always presume that those few specimens of miserable savages who can still be found must be well-preserved examples of what we all once were. It never occurs to us that those people are just as old as we, and that what we see in them now could for all we know be the result not of some failure to learn civilization but of millennia of degeneration, by which we might also explain our own present condition. And we do believe those After the Holocaust movies in which hairy motorcyclists become barons and kings. Mostly, therefore, we are very glad that civilization came to be, and that modern soft and liberal civilization came along to discover the absence of God and thus to take away the power of those nasty kings who claimed their licenses from God. We are not at all ungrateful to the arms and the strong men who brought civilization upon us.

Most thoughtful people could probably imagine the coming of civilization for themselves and not be too far wrong. There is, however, an interesting old Babylonian myth that tells the story.

Did the Babylonians believe this story? That is, did they suppose that its events "really happened," and that they are what you would have seen had you been there? I don't know. I suspect that some did, and I doubt that it did them any harm. But I'm pretty sure that many of them, and probably even the priests who wrote them down for us, didn't actually believe them as fundamentalists would believe. There is believing and there is believing. It is one thing to believe that these and these events really took place, and quite another to believe that if they didn't take place, well, maybe they should have--it would explain a lot.

Lots of myths and stories are like that. To see some point in Macbeth, and to take some thought because of it, we are not at all required to believe that there really was a Macbeth and that he really did exactly these things. The story is not an account of the fact. It is, or is trying to be, an account of the truth. It is for us to judge about truth, and whatever judgment you make about the truth in Macbeth is your business. You can change it later. Good. That's also your business, and you have all that it takes to do that business--an always growing human mind, and the always growing experience of living in the world and thinking about it.

Now, with the same tools, make some judgment of the truth of an old, old story:

In the beginning, the Mother of us all was alone. She created a mate for herself and set about the business of having a family. She gave birth to a litter of gods and goddesses, and they in turn did likewise, until at last they became a great swarm. Unlike our Mother, who, having populated Heaven, was content simply with being, these divinities decided that they preferred doing.

So they started doing things. They held fancy-dress parties and drank. They married, and slept around, too. They quarreled, and, not content with quarreling over personal things, they created yet other things to quarrel over. In some versions, they created us and the Earth on which we live, and at once fell to quarreling over who should be in charge of what and why. At last, things got so bad that our Mother, far, far away and little concerned with the doings of the busy, busy gods and goddesses, noticed that there was lots of noise. The harmony of the eternal was being disturbed.

She consulted with her mate, and he, a quiet, thoughtful chap, agreed that she was right. Those noisy and unruly godlets would have to go. The whole idea had been a mistake. But they had by now developed so much power of their own that it might be not so easy to send them back into the oblivion from which they had come. So our Mother created a monster, a fabulous beast powerful enough to do away with the whole disorderly rabble.

Word of this spread quickly among the divinities. Whole banqueting tables fell silent. Picnics were called off .The gods and goddesses were terrified, for they knew that their Mother, of whom they hardly ever thought, was very powerful, and that her tame monster probably could destroy them all. In their despair, they turned to the one member of their numerous company who seemed, maybe, just powerful enough to save them. His name was Marduk, and he was big and strong. Furthermore, he was heavily armed. He carried, always, even at parties and in other godly activities, numerous weapons, and he knew how to use them. The divinities went to see him and asked him to take the field all alone against the Mother's avenging beast.

He thought about it for a while. Well, he said, I think I could lick that serpent, of course, but I'm not so sure that it would be worth my while. After all, look at the way we live. Is that really worth saving? We are, you must confess, exactly the disorderly rabble that our Mother thinks us. So how about this? Let's make a deal right here and now. I will go forth and slay the beast, but only if you will all swear to me, in the holiest of holy vows, that when I come back we will get ourselves in order. And that means that there has to be one boss and only one boss--me. When the threat is past, you will all obey me, and I will be in charge of everything. Some of my powers, of course, I will hand out here and there among you, but everything that you do will be finally subject to my approval. I'm going to make some rules, and you are going to follow them. Anyone who disobeys will soon discover that he might have been more gently dealt with by that serpent. And this arrangement will last forever and ever. Amen. There's my deal. So how about it?

No one has to tell you how the story comes out. You know. Why do you know? Because Marduk's deal is a description of the way we live in this life. Sure, Marduk is here and there replaced, as in our case, by the laws and the constitution, as he was even in the Athens of Socrates. But even the laws and the constitution can survive only if there is some power standing behind them, a power that can and will defend them by force. Marduk, having been only one of numerous gods, becomes God. At the same time he invents civilization. He begins the Roman System, and every institution under whose shadow we all live. And it all depends on power.

Children would love this story. They already know about Marduk, but they, always looking over their shoulders for that invincible dragon, can not see in the usurper an arrogant bully who seizes the chance to tyrannize over a pack of scoundrels weaker than he. They must see him rather as the super-hero, the defender of the weak. They have to believe that the weak are right and the strong unjust. But alas, it is only the strongest of the strong who can save them, so that they also must believe in the rightness of strength itself. This is why it is vain to imagine that little boys can be brought to hate war and to put aside toy Uzis and ray guns. Comfortable middle-class Americans and their subsidized future-bright children in college can suppose themselves virtuous enemies of war by bumper-sticker, but Kurdish tribesmen and black South Africans know that their hope is in the strength to do violence and get away with it.

To whom was the tale of Marduk told when it was very young, if it ever was? The answer is probably, Everybody. It is unlikely that ordinary citizens of Babylon checked out the tablets and brought them home to read. It is unlikely, in fact, that more than a small handful of specialists ever read it at all. It was surely told, as stories are told to this day in that part of the world, by tale-tellers in the streets. And they surely did what any good teller of tales will do--they made it better every time. More details, more dialogue, more gestures and tones of voice. No doubt, the teller who came up with a particularly gruesome description of the serpent held on to it, just as he would hold on, once he had perfected it, to the style of delivery and tone of voice by which Marduk is able to keep the others from stumbling on their best chance to alter the deal by pointing out that even without their concessions he would do better to fight the serpent, which was going to destroy him as well.

How could they have missed it? Were they stupid? Were they too frightened to think straight? Is Marduk taking advantage of them either because he is cunning, or because he really is better and braver than any of them and actually worthy to rule them? What interesting questions! What an interesting concept that is: Worthy to rule over others. Can we imagine some other set of the mind, something other than the Roman System, in which we would think it both preposterous and wicked that any person should rule over another?

Somewhere or other, Thoreau speculates as to the future of democracy. He sees in the history of humanity, a continuous progress out of tyranny and into freedom, each step taking us a little farther along the road. He sees, too, that the land in which he lives represents the best hope of freedom that the species has achieved so far. But he wonders why we should suppose that the progress stops here, and tries to imagine the greater freedom that may be nothing more than our natural destiny. It is a sweet dream. It may also be a pipe dream. Thoreau would not be delighted could he measure the freedom of an American today against his own. The Roman System is the most subtle of governments; it always looks benign.

Thoreau was surely thinking in terms familiar to us all. The present is better than the past. We know more. We are more decent and humane. We are moral. In our past, there are savages, brutal and stupid; and tyranny and oppression beyond anything we can know. The caveman and his club. The alpha brute of the Primal Horde. The Old Man whose spear is not to be touched. The Emperors of the East. And so forth. By logic, then, we are required to suppose that our species had its beginning in the most absolute tyranny possible, supported by brute force.

Myths and legends like the story of Marduk are found everywhere. They all make the same point: Unless we are governed by power, we will behave badly. If we want "civilization," that condition which permits us to grow in decency and humaneness, we must make the bargain with Marduk. In other words, "the price we pay for freedom," which we ordinarily think of as a trifling inconvenience, something like Congress, perhaps, is in fact the surrender of freedom to force. And the story of Marduk reminds us that that's the way it has to be, unless we want to run the risk of "reverting" to that dreadful "state of nature," in which we will find ourselves dominated by a force that is far more visible than the force of the Roman System. The choice seems to be this: We can be dominated and comfortable in what we call civilization and call that "freedom," or we can be dominated and uncomfortable in the state of nature. And this is why we have always been taught that comfort is the greatest of life's blessings, and suffering the worst curse.

All the Marduk stories are told by Marduks. They all justify Marduk's ways to man. We are inclined to nod when we hear them, even if we nod sadly. But there is another class of old stories that we are inclined to dismiss as obvious wish fulfillments and fairy tales. They are the stories of the Golden Age which once was, and which step by step fell into silver, into brass, and finally into the mud and muck in which we now squirm. Marduks, who also run the schools, don't like such stories. Marduk after all, has no interest in restoring the universal peace and harmony which the unruly gods broke.

We have a faithful reader in Texas, a lady who was well known to us for her fruitcakes, but who will now be even better known for her acumen. After reading "Depending on Johnny," she sent us a copy of The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler, published by Harper & Row. We think you ought to read it.

Ashley Montagu says that is "the most important book since Darwin's Origin of Species." Well, time will tell, but, in truth, we hope that he's right. Much good would come of such a success. The book is here and there a little shrill, and often a lot more "politically correct" than it has to be, but what it says in the main is worth serious consideration.

It arrived just a day or so after a letter in which another reader of "Depending on Johnny" had said that it had provided a useful idea about "the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy," and that worried us. We intended no such thing, but meant rather to speak not of the replacement of one -archy by another, but of the first coming of -archy into human life and culture. But this reader's way of understanding suggests one of the problems that modern feminism will soon have to settle. There will be no better ways of living brought either to men or to women by the replacement of one system of rank and rule with another. What Riane Eisler wants to imagine is a social order not based at all on the principle of domination. She does not think this a pipe dream, and even suspects that there was just such a social order in existence before the coming of the god-kings and the priests who gave us, and celebrated in writing, the order that we now think of as "natural."

Numerous recent archeological discoveries in Crete and in Old Europe have given her the idea and some substantiation for it. She might also have looked, and perhaps will look yet, to the very mythology which the god-kings and priests invented for their own ends. Like others who came after them, notably the apologists of the Roman System who only reluctantly admitted the Virgin Mary into their systems and failed utterly in their attempts to keep her in her place, i.e., less than divine, the apologists of the god-king were unable to omit the universal peace and harmony of the Mother before there ever was a Marduk. And indeed, everywhere in the great body of lore called myth there are interesting shadows of the Mother cast on the self-assigned glory of the god-kings and their priests.

We hope to hear more from, and because of, Riane Eisler. We like feminism around here. But we think it is falling into dangerous inconsistencies. We would like to see feminists considering this sort of thing: When a mother gives her daughter to the schools, she sends her right into the heart of the Roman System. There she will take her proper, official place in a system of rank and rule. She will be in "a grade," and will move "upward." Her marks will be "high" or "low" or in the "middle." Her teacher will stand before her, as the sergeant stands before his platoon, and she will sit in her place in the ranks. Her teacher is also in the ranks, outranked by coördinators, who are outranked by vice-principals, who are outranked by . . . and so on and on, even unto Skyfather himself. There is no guarantee, of course that the little child will learn such things as spelling and arithmetic, but one thing she will inevitably and permanently learn for certain: We live by rank and rule, and domination is necessary and righteous. And if that mother sends that child to day-care, her learning of that lesson will come all the sooner.

Nor is there any remedy for this in the token feminism now being preached in the schools. The Marduks long ago mastered the political arts of placation and coöption; they use them always to good effect in the device we call "education" just as they use them in the device we call "election." What teaching always takes place in the schools is not in the content of the courses, but in the power of the metaphors of that life, the unmentioned reminders of How It Is.

It seems to us that a true and complete feminism would seek not the adjustment of a government school system but its total destruction. Any human system is a Roman System; lacking the principle of domination, no system can be. On the other hand, if feminism is simply a movement designed to replace patriarchy with matriarchy and put women in the corner offices, which would probably be a teeny bit better than what we have, then its proper course would be the reform of the schools. We wonder which it is?

Is it merely sentimental claptrap to suppose that women are closer to that "simple art of loving" than men? Somehow, we do not think so. Nor does it seem right to suppose that the Roman System, or any other, can really have "lost" the art of loving as our fictional witness testifies. You can not lose what you do not have; by constitution and definition, a system can not love. It takes a person to do that.

It will help us not at all if some woman wields the sword of Aeneas. What we need to do is to go back and get his wife out of the burning city where he managed to leave her.

 

The Mysterious West

A fascinating chapter titled "Working Together" (in Working for the Japanese) offers a sympathetic portrait of the Japanese--homesick in a strange land, subjected to occasional nasty ethnic slights, and under intense pressure to get the $550 million plant up and running. They were mystified by the Americans' lack of fealty to the company. Why did Americans refuse to wear their Mazda caps? And why could they not see the wisdom of remaining a half-hour after their work shift to clean workstations?

Mary Walton, in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.

Thomas Szasz

THE Mysterious West. Just what is it with these people? Why won't they drive at fifty-five? Why won't they go down to the polls and vote for somebody? Why won't they color inside of the lines? Why won't they eat their oat bran? And why, oh why, won't they wear their nifty little Mazda caps?

So we imagine the Japanese managers of American Mazda, strangers in a strange land, knowing that they are resented not only as colonizers, but as successful colonizers, and of another color at that. We see them brooding on the bottom line, and finding themselves, supposed to be leaders, at the bottom of some incomprehensibly constituted heap. There they stand, quiet little men in a solemn little group, wearing their Mazda caps, watching in bewilderment the rough and burly American workers cracking wise and guffawing in their baseball caps and Bart Simpson T-shirts.

Alas, they will never figure it out. They will never understand Bart Simpson. East is east and west is west. They have never read, and would recoil in confusion and despair should they try it, that astonishing and inadvertently revealing pop-psych best seller of a few years ago, I'm OK, You're OK. We can't remember the date, and we can't remember the author's name either, but not to worry, we're sure he's OK.

You may remember the book. It was a bracing pep-talk of the kind that Americans do love. Hey, let's love ourselves just the way we are! Let's talk to each other as though we were all OK. And, what the hell, we really are OK, whatever we may be. Sure, some folk like one thing, and some another. So what's wrong with that? Live and let live. Whatever turns you on. Everyone's bag is his bag, and what's not to like in a bag?

Our cultural baggage includes many such books. One of the earliest rose upon us in 1928, the gift of a French cleric. It was he who bestowed upon us the still famous mantra: Every day in every way I'm getting better and better. How interesting it is that that self-inflating formula has by now come to seem remarkably modest. Unlike I'm OK, it actually assumes not only the possibility of improvement, but also some need for it. Even the famous "power of positive thinking," also provided by a preacher, implied that its adherents might actually stand in need of some positive thinking. Well, when we were children, we spake as children; now that we have become grownups, of course, we speak as grownups. We proudly assert that we are OK.

And that's not all. When we spot some sorry little loser of a kid who can't make it even in our super-simplified schools, we decide that what he really needs is a good con job that will convince him that he is OK. And there it is! Now he'll learn his short division and his relating to self and others, and go forth to compete with the Japanese.

Let's add this. It's from a piece by David R Boldt, who is the editor of the editorial page for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has read the results of some research done at the University of Michigan on the burning question of the day, the differences between American and Asian schooling He has noted that "on the math test only one of the 20 Chicago fifth-grade classes had an average score as high as the lowest score of the classes in Japan." He has also noted (with "Isn't that sweet") that while Asian teachers prize most in their students the attribute they call "clarity," American teachers treasure most their "sensitivity." He goes on:

"The researchers then surveyed the attitudes of the children and the children's parents, and here's where things start to get truly scary. The American kids and their parents all think that the American kids are doing just swell. In a typical finding, 75 percent of the Chicago first graders, when asked how they would do in mathematics said that they expected to be among the best students. Only 37 percent of the Japanese students were as optimistic.

"American mothers were similarly slap-happy. Only 7 percent thought their children's academic potential average or below average, and they were successfully communicating this feeling of false complacency to their children. Almost nine out of ten American fifth-graders thought their parents and teachers were happy, or very happy, with their math performance. Asian parents were much less easily pleased.

"All indications are that American fathers are just as pernicious an influence. In one set of questions the fathers were asked what score they thought their child would achieve on a test, and what score they would be satisfied with. The American fathers were satisfied with a score lower than they thought their children would get; the Asian fathers would only have been satisfied with a score higher than what they thought their children would achieve."

We do like his language. And his brass. It takes some moxie nowadays to call American mothers slap-happy and American fathers pernicious. This would be a good time to talk some more about the Great American Family Values, which are supposed to be so much better than those of the schools, but we haven't the heart.

Unfortunately, Boldt hasn't the space in which to characterize American teachers, although he does reveal the conclusion of the study that while "Asian teachers spend much more time teaching subject matter, American classrooms were way out in front in only one category: ‘vague discussion.'" It figures; how else could a teacher detect all that sensitivity? Well, let's leave the teachers, for now, as merely silly.

Here's where Boldt ends up: "When the American researchers ‘initiated a discussion of children's tension patterns' such as hyperactivity, hair-twisting, lip-biting, and headaches, ‘we found that we were describing types of behavior that were unfamiliar' to their Asian colleagues."

Well, that's enough. We can now provide an accurate description of American government schooling: It is a vast, highly bureaucratized, and astonishingly expensive government agency designed to bring about stupidity and neurosis in as many children as possible. And, unlike so many other state bureaucracies, it works.

The mail today brought us a slick little brochure called New Teachers Speak Out. It gives the results of a questionnaire answered by 1,002 incipient teachers. "If you had to choose," asked one question, "which one aspect of teaching do you think is most important to helping students learn?" One percent of respondents were "Not Sure." Six percent opted for "Order in the Classroom." Eleven percent, clearly cranks, chose "Teaching Basic Skills (Reading writing and Arithmetic)." The remaining eighty-three percent came our for--you will have guessed it by now--"Instilling Self-esteem and Personal Growth and Development." And that will surely call for hours and hours of "vague discussion."

The Thomas Szasz quoted above, is, as far as we can tell, one of the few sane psychiatrists in America. And, like other sane people, he listens to the ancient lore and to the poets to see if they make any sense, which they often do. That he is not the first to say what he says is not at all to his discredit, but, on the contrary, testimony to his credit. He is thoughtful enough to listen and to ponder what was told us long ago, and again and again, and to refresh us and fortify us too by reminding us of what we know but prefer to neglect. What else is it in Creon, for example, but vanity and importance that makes him incapable of learning what his son is willing to consider? Dispatches from the interior always bring news of fresh disasters, disorders, routs, and the restlessness of the natives. Self-knowledge is almost never good news, and every time we get a little inkling of what we are really like, we desperately hope that no one else has had the same. Only the vain, or self-important, and maybe also the utter fools, which is to say, of all three categories, the truly "unconscious," are safe from the injury done to our beloved self-esteem when we actually learn something and know that we have learned it. At the very least, we can see that we were ignorant, and yet self-satisfied. More often, we discover that we were just wrong, and still self-satisfied. It is this, and only this, continuous incurrence of injury to self-esteem that deserves to be called "education," which is rightly so named only when it does what its name says it does, only when it leads us forth out of some condition and into another in which we can be freer than we were before. (Caesar, we think we remember, uses educare in speaking of the release of prisoners.)

Maybe we ought to compete with the Japanese after all. All we have to do is send them--at no charge--about eighty-three percent of our schoolteachers. In ten years or less, they'll be making imitation cupie dolls.

 

Twigs, Trees, and Roots

I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my Family pride is inconceivable. I can't help it. I was born sneering.

from The Mikado

To forget one's ancestors is to be a book without a source, a tree without a root.

A Chinese proverb

HERE is a strange, sad story: In Indianapolis, there is a schoolteacher named Pat Browne. She is a black woman who has become that city's leading Afrocentrist. An Afrocentrist is one who holds a), that the contributions of black people to the culture of today have been, whether by design or oversight, neglected or even suppressed, and b), that this fact is a primary cause of the apparent inability of so many black children to take much good from their schooling.

With the former, we would never quarrel, although we would like to add many more classes and categories to that list of the neglected or suppressed, or simply forgotten. But as to the latter, there are questions to be asked, wonders to be wondered.

We can never know how Pat Browne feels about racial ugliness, but we can make some reasonable guesses. She is angry and desperate. How long must this go on? Will these children never be saved? Is there no way, no way at all, to bring them into what she must see as a better life--a life like hers, a life of trying to think and to know, a life of good work and decency, and the relative security and comfort that such a life so often brings? Who can condemn her feelings?

Very few of us, however, can do our best work as servants of our feelings. Indeed, the white men who wrote history as the history of white men were doing exactly that. If there is a self-satisfying lie in the fact that our historians have usually omitted mention of black people in America before that time in which they began to arrive here as slaves, it is no less a self-satisfying lie to hint that the talented draughtsman who drew up Alexander Graham Bell's schematics, and who happened to be black, was the real inventor of the telephone.

And, apparently, that is the sort of thing that Pat Browne is inclined to assert in her teaching, along with such interesting, perfectly possible, but unsupportable notions that black Africans were the first to invent writing and to sail to the New World. All of that has brought her some stern disapproval from Pats of the academic world. She has attracted the attention of formidable opponents. No less an authority than Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. says, "I don't think history is a form of therapy that should be used to improve self-esteem. I think history tries to be a serious study of facts."

He says it to Pat Browne, of course, but he probably knows very well that he would do perhaps even better to say it to numerous historians who wrote history as a form of therapy to improve self-esteem, whether their own or that of patron or public. That form of the art is not unknown, and Schlesinger must have it in mind when says, although without the appropriate italics, and mysteriously ascribing to history itself that which can only be ascribed to persons, that history tries to be a serious study of facts.

Still, in an imaginable quarrel between Pat Browne and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., we would not like to take either side. It seems to us that they are both right, and that what they need is not to settle their quarrel but to abandon it and to embrace each other. And it seems to us that they speak thus:

SCHLESINGER: The past is what it is, and we can never change it. If it is good to know about, then let us find and tell what we can know to be the truth about it.

BROWNE: Just so, but the past is also infinite. If we are to reveal it to children for some supposed good that the revelation will do them, we will simply have to leave some of it out, as we have always done. Let us, according to the needs of the children, as best we can judge them, decide what might best be left out, or set aside for another time.

Now, if only Browne will agree to stick to the facts as best they can be known, and if Schlesinger will agree that only some portion of history less than all of it is the best that we can show to the children, then peace would break out between them, provided only that the facts can be known and that it is possible to determine exactly which of them are the best to show, and to which children. Hmm. Well, maybe peace will not break out between them.

In one way, of course, we are delighted to see a permanent state of war between the gingham dog and the calico cat, for we still dream that they may yet eat each other utterly up. In this battle, we can see the winners who write the history and the losers who want to rewrite the history, and bad cess to both of them. But there is no hope. Should the Brownes overcome the Schlesingers for a time, then they will become the Schlesingers, the winners who write history, and then some others will become the Brownes who want to rewrite it. When the Athenians and Spartans had beaten the Persians, they had to inquire by war as to which should become the Persians. The oppressed always claim to want nothing but freedom, but when they win we discover that what they really wanted was revenge, and the power to oppress where once they were oppressed.

We make a serious mistake if we imagine that there is any institution in society in which this war is not being fought. We often suppose that the dismal failure of American schooling is the result of, well, of some accident, or of some large concatenation of accidents. You know the argument: They meant well; they all meant well. But something went wrong, and then something else. Muddle and confusion. And then experiment and groping, wrong paths and blind alleys, all well meant. Ever-changing needs, and newly discovered difficulties. And by now, a Byzantine bureaucracy to the nth power, utterly beyond the power of any merely human agency to cure.

Almost all of that is true. Only one thing is a lie. They did not mean well. They meant ill, and they achieved it. As agents and servants of government, they meant to lay hands upon the consent of the governed as early in life as possible. For all who came before them, all the young credulous and helpless, they had an agenda. They had adjustments to make, modifications of this or that behavior, clarifications of the values in vogue. They had appreciations to inspire, and aberrations beyond counting to ferret out and eradicate for the greater good of the greater number. The ultimate goal of their devisings was not in the person, but in the program, the plan. The health of the state. It was truly war. Of course there will be casualties, perhaps many, but the cause is worthy. Some few must die for the many. And indeed, just now, many die, and, as Pat Browne knows, an inordinate number of them are black. It is as though we were replaying Viet Nam in the city streets.

Among the educationists, education is not understood as an inward condition but as an extrinsic set of attributes. They see the process of "educating another"--should such a thing be possible at all--not as the opening of an ever-flowing spring of fresh water within, but as the labor of pouring bucket after bucket of something into a leaden cistern until it holds just enough for some useful purpose or other. (We steal the metaphor from Coleridge, a willing victim.) And so it is that, in this little battle of the great war, we are inclined to encourage and even to abet Pat Browne.

It is probably true that she tells some lies and makes some wild guesses about history. It is probably also true that she will pay to the work of Martin Luther King more attention than she will give to the reign of Idi Amin. But her lies will be far less subtle than the lies of establishment historians, whose "disagreements" so often reflect their ideologies, and her wild guesses wilder than theirs, and thus less likely to deceive for long.

And, for a little while, we must and do deceive our children. We tell them many things that are not true. We promise them that everything is going to be all right, and that we will always be there to care for them. When they discover that we have not told the truth, they will not call us liars. When the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus evaporate, they see that we were neither deceivers nor deceived, but rather comforters of those who must someday mourn. And if we tell them that the fathers of their fathers were wise and just kings long ago and far away, and live our own lives as though we were the children of wise and just kings, is it likely that they will come to despise wisdom and justice--and us, too--when they learn that the fathers of their fathers were really farmers and fishermen?

No doubt, this sort of thing can be done in the wrong way, as Pat Browne will soon discover. If she tells her students that the Pharaohs of Egypt were black Africans as they may very well have been, then she will also have to deal with the fact that they lived in a now unimaginable splendor made possible only the obedient credulousness of their subjects and by the labor of their slaves. In fact, much good would come to her and to her students should she tackle such a knotty fact. Humanity's story is full of ironies, and the more we know of them, the less likely we are to rush to judgement and to make, of entire groups and classes of people, exactly the kind of invidious generalization of which Pat Browne's students have long been victims. Of every nation and people it can be said that they found out wisdom and beauty and did great evil.

Pat Browne will have to he mindful too of another danger. It is the DAR Syndrome, the notion that we can be virtuous by virtue of somebody else's virtue. The courageous, whether at Concord Bridge or Marathon, can give us only their genes, not their courage. We did not win those battles, and we steal their honor who did when we give ourselves the credit and call ourselves heroes in the great cause of freedom. The profligate son of the just king will someday be called the king, but that will not make him just. The idea of a hereditary aristocracy is surely repugnant to Pat Browne, but the preaching of some supposed hereditary meritocracy is different only in detail, not in principle. And to the black boy hanging on the corner dealing dope, there will be no increment of virtue even should you convince him that a black man once invented the telephone and that another ruled in Egypt.

One evening, Thoreau was making his way toward the lectern. He overheard one member of the audience asking his neighbor, "What does he lecture for?" Thoreau tells us only that he was shaken. Too bad. We'd love to hear his answer.

It is a question that every teacher should ask every day: "What do I teach for?" It will have, for every teacher on Earth, a number of answers. Most of them are disgraceful, melancholy acknowledgements of necessity. Yes, I do need a job, and, to tell the truth, I probably couldn't do much of anything else. But, after all, I do serve society, don't I? I do tell these kids something about algebra, or pronouns, or something. And I do my share in the system; I give them grades, and that gets them credits and diplomas, which get them jobs, sometimes. Then more details, and more. And that's a life? It is for that that someone has chosen one calling rather than another? Shabby.

The question becomes no easier to answer when we put it in the context of "subject matter." What do I teach French for? So that my students will be able to chat with taxi-drivers in Paris? What do I reach geometry for? So that my students will be able to redraw the boundaries of their tomato beds after the flood? And, with Pat Browne in mind, What do I teach history for? So that my students will be able to name the Participants at the Congress of Vienna, whom they could easily look up, should life, by some cruel and utterly unimaginable twist, bring them into the need of such information?

It may be, of course, that there are some teachers so cloddish as never to have asked themselves what they were teaching for. And there may be more who can make only the shabby answers to the question. But, as hard as we are on schoolteachers, we do happen to know from the evidence of experience that there are very few who went into teaching so that they could do some harm. This can not be said of many other callings, lots of which have been invented for the doing of harm. Most teachers, if pressed, will agree, details aside, to answer thus: I am teaching so that these children may live in one way rather than in another, so that they may be trees with deep roots.

The study of history has many salutary effects. One of them is that it alerts us--in a strange combination of awe and terror--to the immense range of human possibilities. When we behold, side by side, Martin Luther King and Idi Amin, we learn once again that there seem to be no knowable limits to human possibilities; and if we want to put it that way, we can learn that there seem to be no limits to black human possibilities. The lesson will be the same, no matter which group we study, but it may well he true that black children will more readily study and learn it in the special context of race. So why not?

So we urge Pat Browne on. Unless she is planning nothing more than a warm black bath of self-esteem, an equivalent of the usual white bath of self-esteem, she may do good. She, and her students, may even discover that our histories are always the same.

 

The Great Picnic and More

CENTRAL CONTROL and the Associate Circulation Manager arrived betimes at the site of the First Great Picnic only to find that two men from Denver had gotten there ahead of them. We found them holding amiable converse under a tree, as God, no doubt, intended for all of us all of the time. Indeed, all the rest of the day was given to sitting under trees in amiable converse--a proper observation, we would say, of true religion, pure and undefiled. Of the forty to fifty or so who showed up, Ginger alone kept her own counsel and concentrated on eating, perhaps because she was the only dog present and knew something that the rest of us didn't, but the four people she brought us sat under the trees in amiable converse.

It turned out that the two men from Denver had never before met. And the next one to arrive, by motorcycle, was a young librarian who had traveled from Georgia. Then came a man from Mississippi, and next a couple and their children from Virginia. Another family soon arrived, stopping off on their way from North Dakota to the beaches of New Jersey. When the locals began to arrive toward the middle of the morning, they were hailed with special joy as though they, of us all, were most to be praised for surmounting great obstacles for the sake of the Great Picnic. (It is true that they lugged along more gear and stuff than those who had driven from father away.)

Fairly early in the day, there was some speculation as to whether there ought to be name tags. It didn't take long to reach unanimous agreement. No name tags. It just wasn't that kind of crowd. And in any case, there was nothing out of which to make name tags, since Central Control had rejected the idea long before the day.

There were interesting people there. No bores at all. In age, they ran from tiny little babies to elderly folk--one art professor brought along some of his students. Many seemed to be people in technical or complicated callings, but there was little talk of shop. There were enough physicians to make the picnic site a pretty good place in which to have a heart attack, but no one did. There wasn't even a bee-sting. One of the physicians was also a psychotherapist, and our kind of psychotherapist. He refuses to call himself a psychoanalyst because he holds "analysis" an inappropriate and ineffective method in which to deal with things human. He is in trouble with his colleagues because he assigns the reading of books to his patients. Many of us did what we could to get a little free advice from him. Next year we hope he sets up a booth: Psychiatric Help--˘5.

Among the picnickers was one Warren Hope. We had met him and his daughter years ago when we once offered aid to any readers who wanted to print and publish their own journals. In those days, we imagined, vainly that the desktop publishing fad would bring forth hosts of independent publishers who had ideas and nothing to sell; the Hopes, père-et-fille, were among the very few that we found. They brought along, but left in the car, a few copies of Drastic Measures, their elegant little journal of poetry. They print the poems of the struggling young, of course, but they also revive the works of lesser-known favorites who have pretty much disappeared from school anthologies, either for stubborn adherence to form and rhyme, or for lack of political correctness. Almost everyone had a candidate to suggest. It was that kind of picnic. Warren Hope will be glad to send you your own copy of Drastic Measures. Write him at 310 Cherry Lane, Havertown, PA 19083.

By about six o'clock, we were down to a precious few. The art professor and his students stayed on, probably waiting for the sunset. The rest of us said goodbyes in the parking lot, trying to remember whether we had forgotten anything, and arranging to do it all over again next year. Same place and same time--all day on the first Saturday of August 1991. We hope you can come.

SINCE then, we have discovered another small, independent publisher with ideas and nothing to sell. We know not how better to describe it than by quoting from the scribbled note that came with it, and in a hand better than Central Control's:

Wild Surmise is an irregularly published newsletter about speculative matters. We are always looking for willing readers. (It is sent out free.) (Oh, yes. We like to stay anonymous.) We propose to put you on our mailing list. If that is all right, take no action. If, after a glance at the accompanying sample, you prefer to be spared, please let us know.

"No apologies for spelling or grammar from us--we are free of charge, so we beg indulgence."

It was signed by one "Ed." The quotation marks are his. No indulgence was needed. We were too busy reading to notice spelling or grammar.

We dearly love to take no action, and we have taken none, and look forward to many more issues of Wild Surmise.

It is almost unbelievable. Where else can you find, side by side, instructions as to how to see the famous but elusive Green Flash at sunset, which even the art students surely missed, and an intriguing explanation of the surprising failure of the Maxwell Demon device? There was also a fascinating, but very challenging, piece on the attributes of knots, and a complete set of instructions that will allow those who have the fortitude to follow them the day of the week for any date of any year, or vice-versa. There is truly a good short story, and a provocative poem, and photographs too. All it lacks, in fact is the help of a Macintosh.

We urge you all to overwhelm that "Ed" and give it a look. It can be found at Box 217, Key Largo, FL 34649.

SHE who must be obeyed has decided to clean up at least one our many messes. She now offers all readers one last chance to ask for back issues, which are strewn here and there and always underfoot. We do not have all the back issues, but we do have many, and some of them are very old indeed. She will send you any that she has and you want. She will send as many as you like. Any that are left by about the end of January, she threatens to recycle. There is just no respect for the past around here.

As you do or should know, there is no charge for back issues. If you send postage, good, she'll use it. She is budgeting the whole project under Trash Removal Expenses. There is nothing at all that we can do to stop her.

The Underground
Grammarian

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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