Chapter 7: The Columbus Gap

American public education is a remarkable enterprise; it succeeds best where it fails. Imagine an industry that consistently fails to do what it sets out to do, a factory where this year’s product is invariably sleazier than last year’s but, nevertheless, better than next year’s. Imagine a corporation whose executives are always spending vast sums of money on studies designed to discover just what it is they are supposed to do and then vaster sums for further studies on just how to do it. Imagine a plant devoted to the manufacture of factory seconds to be sold at a loss. Imagine a producer of vacuum cleaners that rarely work hiring whole platoons of engineers who will, in time, report that it is, in fact, true that the vacuum cleaners rarely work, and who will, for a larger fee, be glad to find out why, if that’s possible. If you discover some such outfit, don’t invest in it. Unfortunately, we are all required to invest in public education.

Public education is also an enterprise that regularly blames its clients for its failures. Education cannot, after all, be expected to deal with barbarous and sometimes even homicidal students who hate schools and everything in them, except, perhaps, for smaller kids with loose lunch money. If the students are dull and hostile, we mustn’t blame the schools. We must blame the parents for their neglect and their bad examples. If the parents are ignorant and depraved, then we must blame “society.” And so forth–but not too far. Those who lament thus seem not inclined to ask how “society” got to be that way, if it is that way, and whether or not public education may have made it so.

The theme of the educators’ exculpation, in its most common terms, goes something like this: We educators are being blamed for the corporate failures of a whole society. Our world is in disarray, convulsed by crime, poverty, ignorance, hatred, and institutionalized materialism and greed. The public expects us to cure all these ills, but that’s just impossible. We are being given a bum rap. Besides, we’re not getting enough money to do the job.

Well, it is a terrible thing to be held accountable for the sins of the world, and even worse that such a fate should be visited on such a noble and self-sacrificing bunch. We’d all feel much better surely, if we could only pin all the pains and disorders of the human condition on some institution better suited to take the rap–General Motors, perhaps, or the Mafia. Come to think of it, however, General Motors never claimed that it could cure those pains and disorders; even the Mafia was not so bold. Public education has made such claims.

Our educators have said that they would teach love and the brotherhood of mankind as well as the importance of brushing after meals. They have promised to teach social consciousness and environmental awareness, creativity, ethnic pride, tolerance, sensitivity to interpersonal/intercultural relationships, and the skills of self-expression, provided, of course, that such skills didn’t involve irrelevant details like spelling and the agreement of subjects and verbs. They have said that they will straighten everybody out about sex and venereal disease and the related complications of family life, and about how to operate voting machines and balance checkbooks. They have invited Avon ladies to rap with third graders about their career objectives. They have undertaken to engender in naturally self-centered and anarchic children a profound respect for the folkways of migrant workers and the peculiarities of octogenarians. All of this, and much more, they promise us.

General Motors did not presume to promise us those things. Even the Mafia, perhaps the only enterprise in the country that could actually achieve such results in its own peculiar fashion, refrained from making such offers. Unlike public education, General Motors and the Mafia are modest, medium-sized enterprises fully aware of their limitations. Furthermore, each of them, in its own way, does have to do some palpable work for its money, but public education is guaranteed a handsome income whether it works or not. In fact, the less it works, the larger the income it can demand. What kind of nation would this be, after all, if we refused to invest more and more money in the pursuit of such noble and splendid goals?

Very few Americans will recall asking the educators to pursue such goals. It was the educators who decided not only that such an enterprise was mandated by the people but that it belonged properly in the public schools. They are experts, right? Who are we to say what they should or shouldn’t–or could or couldn’t–do? Who are we to go against the will of the people? Anyway, all of those things are just wonderful. It is possible, though, that we wouldn’t now be blaming educators for not doing them if they hadn’t assured us that they could and would do them. We hold no grudge against the crackpot next door who is working on a perpetual-motion machine unless he has told us that he could make one and separated us from lots of our money to buy custom-made magnets and extra-large rubber bands.

Most of us will recall that somewhere in our history, maybe it was back in Jefferson’s time, we did ask the schools to teach everybody to read and write and cipher. Somehow, as hard as it may be to teach those things, it does seem a more modest undertaking than teaching love and tolerance and the brotherhood of all mankind. We may have expressed a few other desires–that the children should learn something of history, their own history especially, and of the literature and art that have not solved the ills of the human condition at all, but have made them clear and concrete and all too human. We did hope that the children would learn something of science and its methodology, by which we can understand and work at least some of the things in the world. We did ask a few other little things, most of them matters of fact and knowledge, silly things sometimes, like the names of the states and their capitals, and the length of the Nile and the Amazon, and the author of Gray’s “Elegy.”

Those few things that we do seem to have asked of public education are remarkably possible to teach. It is faddish nonsense to say that we don’t know how, for instance, to teach reading and writing to the ignorant and must spend lots of money on studies and experiments before we can begin. All children are ignorant. All children who have ever learned to read and write have begun that task in ignorance. We know how to teach reading and writing–it’s been done successfully millions and millions of times. It does require exactitude and discipline, and somewhat more of those things in the teacher than in the learners. It requires drill and recitation and memorization and practice, but these things can be made to happen. In one way, it is easy to teach reading and writing and arithmetic because it’s possible to achieve concrete and measurable results through regular and practicable methods. In that respect, it is very difficult to teach the brotherhood of all mankind because we don’t know exactly what that is or how we would measure it. In another way, however, it’s much harder to teach reading and writing and arithmetic because we do have to know those things if we are to teach them, and we do have to be continuously rigorous and exact. To teach the brotherhood of mankind seems to be mostly the presentation of attractive but untestable assertions and the reiteration of pious slogans and generalizations. If you’d like to be a teacher, but you don’t want to work too hard, by all means set up as a teacher of the brotherhood of mankind rather than as a teacher of reading and writing and arithmetic. Such a career has the further advantage that no one knows how to decide whether you have actually taught anyone anything, whereas teachers of reading and writing and arithmetic are always being embarrassed when their students are shown not to have learned those things.

It takes a very simple fellow not to be a little suspicious when he notices that all this teaching of “values” and “attitudes” seems to be at once much easier and more profitable than teaching things like the chief exports of New Zealand or the trade routes of the ancient Greeks, to say nothing of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Even an idiot will grow suspicious should he behold all of the implications of the values-teaching business. The profits are indeed enormous. You can’t just go and teach values. You have to study how to teach values. You need money, and time, and questionnaires, and duplicating machines to duplicate the questionnaires, and keypunch operators to tabulate the replies to the questionnaires, and computer time to collate the data punched by the keypunch operators, and probably a new Mr. Coffee machine so that everybody can take a break once in a while. You need to figure out how to teach both the values themselves and the art of values-teaching to those who are eager to become values teachers. You need to devise the strategies by which values teachers can be sold to the schools in the disguises of social studies teachers and language arts teachers.

Here is how values-teaching works in the classroom. This is what they call a “values clarification strategy”–later on we’ll have a sensitivity module. This values clarification strategy is suggested for use with students of all ages, and, as you’ll see, it is equally relevant to the subject matter of any course taught in any school in America, which is to say, not at all.

The teacher writes two words–one at either end of the blackboard. “Cadillac” and “Volkswagen” are recommended; the first probably ought to go on the right end of the blackboard, thus suggesting, even in a home economics course, something useful about the eternal verities of politics and money. Having written “Cadillac” and “Volkswagen” in the neat block capitals that are actually taught in education courses, the teacher asks the student which of those brands they “identify with” and to get up and move to the corresponding side of the room. After some puzzled looks and shrugs, and one smart aleck in the back of the room drawing circles around his temple, and lots of milling and shuffling, the students end up standing in bunches on either side of the room, wondering what the hell can happen next. It’s worse than they imagine, for the teacher now instructs them to choose partners of their own persuasion and to hold a serious discussion of the values that have sent them into the one camp or the other. The serious discussion is to last for two minutes. Then they all go back to their places and watch for the next pair of words.

Now you can imagine how they feel. It’s like finding yourself at a party where a bubble-brained hostess wants everybody to play Truth or Consequences or else! Of course, even in the worst of our schools, there are no students as stupid as the teacher who would do such a thing, so they probably manage to find something less inane to talk about for those two minutes, giving thanks the while that at least it beats the Congress of Vienna or the square of the hypotenuse. Furthermore, if they shuffle back to their seats as slowly as possible, the bell might ring before they have to choose between a rose and a daisy or between an electric typewriter and a quill pen. Unlike the teacher, they know that anyone who “identifies” with an electric typewriter is crazy, just about as crazy as anyone who “identifies” with a quill pen.

Take a few moments wondering what it means “to identify” with a Cadillac. Only one thing is clear: the man who identifies with a Cadillac probably does not imagine that he is a Cadillac. Everything else is vague. It could be any or several of these: he wants a Cadillac; he admires a Cadillac; he deserves a Cadillac; he needs a Cadillac . . . add some more for yourself. The list will probably be very long and very boring. Without such a list of possibilities, however, the little game of values clarification would be impossible. The students and the teacher can play it only because they don’t know what they mean by “identifying with” something. Nor is it the point of the game to define that term. The game is simply a self-indulgent wallowing in ignorance with only one clear result: It takes up some time that might have been spent in studying something concrete and useful but admittedly more difficult.

Grammar, for instance. Notice that such a futile exercise is made possible, and even made futile, because a transitive verb, “identify,” has been twisted into an intransitive form. It is not a “rule” of English grammar that some verbs must have objects. It is simply the fact that some verbs evoke relationships that don’t make any sense without an object. When someone asks you “How do we see?” you understand him well enough to answer, although the answer may be either a neurological disquisition or “through a glass, darkly.” When he asks you “How do we view?” you need more information if you are to answer him, because the idea evoked by the word “view” is not complete in itself. This, like so many things that we think of as arbitrary rules, is actually a clue to how the mind works in English. The “identify with” values clarification game assures that, for a while at least, no mind will work.

Things like that really do happen in our schools. Although it may not seem so at first, it is just that sort of thing that causes the corruption of language that, in its turn, causes just that sort of thing. In fact, it is only the preachers and practitioners of such nonsense who take it seriously. Imagine for the moment that the students could be persuaded to take it seriously. There you are–remember, this is suitable for all ages–standing on your side of the room. You do choose a partner, let’s say, and you settle down to the serious business of discussing, for two minutes, the tremendous values and heartfelt convictions that have led you to identify with “Cadillac.” What do you say? What can you say? No matter how seriously you take it, can you do much more than recite a slogan or two, put forth some well-known generalization, enunciate some vague impression or casual opinion? And your partner, obviously not in need of conviction, can do only the same. So there you stand, muttering desultorily about resale value and roominess and pointing out that a careful driver can save gasoline by not accelerating too fast. Great. Should you find yourself in such a predicament, of course, you won’t take it seriously. Like any right-thinking human being, you will pick the best-looking partner you can reach and spend those two minutes arranging something for later. Now that might clarify some values. Vaporizing about Cadillacs can only air some prejudices, and not even strong ones at that.

Consider now what happens to language in an exercise like that. Are quill pens and electric typewriters values? To prize one, must we despise the other? Should we be doing any of this stuff at all in a school, where we are supposed to learn some arithmetic and the intelligent use of language? If a student is to take any learning at all from such an exercise, leaving aside the revelation that his teacher is a nitwit, it is that what we say doesn’t much matter. Idle rapping is called the clarification of values. Any old thing at all, anything a teacher can name, becomes a value. Unreal polarities are suggested by the pairings of such “values,” and students are given to understand that through discourse they have discovered that “value” in them that has led them to one pole or the other. This little game will hardly suggest to any student that a “clarification of values” must, if it is to take place at all, proceed through discursive statements and logical analysis. It leaves the impression that vague opinions and the suggestions of environment are “clarifications.” Students usually do learn something in class, but it’s seldom what the teacher had in mind. In this class, the students will learn to be content with empty talk and to accept random reflection as though it were knowledge.

This “values clarification” business is very popular in the schools, and an educationist named Simon has written, with a couple of pals, a nifty handbook chock-full of “values clarification strategies.” The examples mentioned are not, as you probably thought, silly exaggerations–they’re from the book. A wily teacher could spend a whole year playing those fun games in class and still have enough examples left over for summer session. They are all designed not only to stay as far as possible from hypotenuses but to reduce the power of language in the players. They achieve that result by offering the students experiences rather than study and feelings rather than knowledge. The experiences and feelings, however, exist as words only. It is hard to imagine the student suggestible and feebleminded enough to think that he does, in fact, feel more empathy for Arabs after eating a sheep’s eye.

Eating a sheep’s eye, of course, is not a values clarification strategy. It is what Simon would call a “sensitivity module,” and here is a more likely example:

In teaching elementary children about the early world explorers, one teacher had her children go out and actually “discover” new parts of the city. One instruction was to “find a new and faster route to the ball field.” The gap between the world of Columbus and their own world in the city was narrowed.

By “elementary children” he means, probably, children in elementary school, unless, perhaps, he thinks that “elementary” means something like “simple-minded.” It would take a simple-minded child, indeed, to get sucked in to a silly project like this. And what makes the project silly is also what brought it to pass in the first place–bad language.

People who can use language accurately can make useful analogies and learn to understand things. They can also tell–through language, for there is no other way–just how far an analogy can be pushed before it becomes useless. That “sensitivity module” is drawn from a silly analogy, which suggests that what Columbus did is comparable to finding a better way to get to the ball field. To make such an analogy requires both ignorance and misunderstanding of history. That’s not “discovery,” and even Simon feels uncertain enough about it to put those quotation marks around the word. In fact, the search for some hitherto unimagined route to the ball field is so absurd on the face of it that the students who undertook it must surely have spent their time in the nearest snack bar. A teacher silly enough to give such an assignment has to be humored, of course, so the students must have spent a few minutes concocting a good story, maybe something about monsters and the edge of the known world.

Notice that this exercise is called a “sensitivity module.” Such is the power of language that nonsensical time wasters like this become significant educational processes when given the right name, and money is spent to design them. In what sense this can be called a “module,” there is no understanding. If this is a “module,” then lunch might just as well be called a “module.” In fact, lunch is a “module” in many schools. just as in Dallas, buses are “motorized attendance modules.” A module, therefore, is anything you please. There’s no profit in worrying about the module, however; it’s the “sensitivity” part that’s important.

Schools are in favor of sensitivity and opposed, naturally, to insensitivity. In the traditional curriculum there are still some outdated things that cause insensitivity. Historical dates cause insensitivity. The square of the hypotenuse instills callousness. Untempered grammar and spelling produce ruthless elitism. The multiplication table can engender inhumanity, and precise diction has been known to result in fascism. Since we have not yet managed to persuade the public that such studies should be discontinued utterly, the best we can do is mitigate them, wherever possible, with expeditions into the mists of what is called noncognitive learning. If we make children learn mere facts about the difficulties of navigation in the fifteenth century, they may well grow up to be cutthroats and boors, totally lacking in sensitivity. Far better it is to send them wandering the streets of the city and pretending to search for terra incognita. That way, you see, they’ll get the “feel” of exploration. Well, let’s say that they can at least pretend to get the feel. When they get back, they won’t know any dehumanizing things about the nasty economic implications of exploration in the Renaissance or those silly and irrelevant political struggles of fifteenth-century Europe, but they will have “narrowed the gap” between themselves and Columbus.

And what can that mean–to narrow the gap between us and Columbus? Those things that separate us from Columbus–can they be taken all together and understood as a “gap”? If so, in what way, exactly, is the gap “narrowed” when we find a quicker way to get to the ball field? When we eat blubber, do we narrow the gap between us and the Eskimos? When we walk around blindfolded for an hour, do we narrow the gap between us and the blind? They do things like this in school–not just in the public schools but even and especially in the schools that produce the teachers for the public schools. All such “gaps” are very large and complex, and to understand them and to have knowledge about them will require that we first make many statements of fact. To “feel” like an Eskimo and to know what being an Eskimo involves are utterly different things. The former is probably impossible for non-Eskimos. The latter can be achieved by anyone who will attend to statements of fact. Ten thousand sensitivity modules will not teach us how it is with men who sail into the utterly unknown; to read their words just may give us an inkling.

People who worry about teaching sensitivity have little use for exactitude in statements of fact. The vagueness of narrowing gaps and identifying with Volkswagens seems to them somehow “humanistic,” and precise statements of fact and matters of knowledge seem the opposite of “humanistic,” whatever that might be. This attitude can survive and flourish only where language is diffuse and imprecise. The accurate statement of empirical propositions would destroy it.

It is possible, of course, to clarify values. Whether that is the proper business of the schools is another matter, but it surely can be done. It can be done, however, only through language, only through a chain of logical discourse. Logical discourse requires exactitude. If we do want to teach morality or at least the thoughtful examination of our deeds and their apparent meanings, we can do this only through teaching exactitude. It is no accident that thought, word, and deed keep company together in prayer books. To clarify our values must mean to make fine distinctions. To make fine distinctions means to see how different things are similar and how similar things are different. This calls for many finely tuned words and subtle grammatical devices and the ability to put them all together with precision. The finer the distinctions we can make in words and, therefore, in our thoughts, the finer the judgments we can make about the nature of our deeds. Contrariwise, careless and blunted words conceal the nature of our deeds.

I had read–and I believe it–that the Nazi bureaucracy generated thousands and thousands of pages of routine paperwork related to the business of killing Jews, but in all that paperwork the word “killing” appears nowhere. Those who think that a concern for precision in language is finicky and pedantic should ponder that for a while. The people who say to each other “Let’s kill the Jews” have indubitably clarified their values. Having done so, they may find them repellent and decide to seek others, but I wouldn’t count on it. The people who say that a sensitivity module will narrow the gap between us and Columbus have not clarified their values or anything else. If our values happen to be abhorrent, as they often are, we can know that only through stating them plainly. It’s not impossible that thousands of Germans could have done what they did only because they spoke carefully of “transportation” and “resettlement” and “solution” rather than of “killing.”

It is not only possible to clarify values but obviously desirable. It is also possible, and desirable, to balance budgets. To teach people how to balance budgets, it just isn’t enough to let them play with fat wads of Monopoly money. We have to teach them arithmetic. To teach them how to clarify values, we must teach them mastery of the system with which we express values and the only device we have for “knowing” them. That’s language.

The values of “values clarification” stand in need of some clarification. To see that requires enough skill in language to recognize the abuse of language. To do it requires even more. It would help, too, to remember the words of Hobbes: “For words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon with them; but they are the money of fools that value them … by authority.” “Clarification” is a word. When a teacher in his authority tells his students that they will now clarify their values by rapping about Cadillacs and Volkswagens, what are the poor kids to do? They have not been taught the skills of language, and they have no choice but to believe or to pretend that they believe. In either case, they must grow up believing that the clarification of values is a silly game played in dreary places by preposterous people to no useful end. They become a herd and live, perforce, the unexamined life.

There is more clarification of values in a single sentence of Bacon than in all the strategies of Simon. Consider the rest of that line: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” We have read that line so often, of course, that we seldom do more than nod at it. When we give it some thought, we can discover (and this time the “discovery” is real) the power of that mind and the power of language in the meticulous choice of the words “full,” “ready,” and “exact.” That’s exact language and the expression of an exact thought. The words tell us not only that a well-read man is “full” but that an ill-read man is “empty,” as empty as the student whose study of Columbus took him to the ball field. They tell us that the man who cannot “confer,” who is not fluent and practiced in his speech, is uncertain and inept, like the student just returned from the ball field and needing desperately to convince his teacher that his sensitivity has been heightened–really! They tell us that the man who cannot “write” is imprecise and unclear in his mind, like Simon, who tells us that the Columbus gap has been narrowed through a sensitivity module.

There is no need, of course, to ferret out the fact that the schools are in the business of teaching “values” at the expense of reading, writing, and ciphering. They boast of it publicly. Here are the words of a professor of educational psychology explaining to the public why they ought to accept with equanimity the fact that students do so poorly on tests of reading, writing, and ciphering. Those tests, you must understand,

do not attempt to quantify such crucial concerns as students’ self-perception; their attitude toward, and relationship with, people whose culture and social class differ from their own; their ethical behavior, values, personal philosophy and moral commitments; their creativity, emotional health and sense of ethnic identity–precisely the areas that schools have been emphasizing.

So. We have traded skill in language and number for ethical behavior, personal philosophy, moral commitment, creativity, and emotional health. Not at all a bad deal. But wait. What has become of those millions of young people deeply schooled in morality? These are the “areas” the schools have been “emphasizing” for decades now. How is it that Earth is not yet fair and all men glad and wise? How is it that creativity and emotional health lead to the beating of teachers and the destruction of file cabinets? What personal philosophy calls forth the smashing of toilet bowls with sledgehammers?

Children are much smarter than we think. They know when they are being deceived and defrauded. Unless they can utter what they know, however, they know it only in part and imperfectly. If we do not give them the language and thought in which they might genuinely clarify some values, they will do their clarifying with sledgehammers. None of the lofty goals named above can be approached without the skillful practice of language and thought, and to “emphasize” those “areas” in the absence of that practice is to promulgate thought control rather than the control of thought.

Chapter 8: The Pill