Chapter 11: Spirits from the Vasty Deep

Bad writing is like any other form of crime; most of it is unimaginative and tiresomely predictable. The professor of education seeking a grant and the neighborhood lout looking for a score simply go and do as their predecessors have done. The one litanizes about carefully unspecified developments in philosophy, psychology, and communications theory, and the other sticks up the candy store. The analogy is not perfect, of course, for the average lout seldom nets more than thirty-five dollars per stickup, and he even runs some little risk of getting caught. Nevertheless, the writing and the stickup are equally routine and boring. It’s not often that we find ourselves admiring these criminals, therefore. Once in a while, however, some unusually creative caper pleases us with its novelty or its audacity. So, too, with the works of the grant-seekers, perhaps because creative force is so much less common in grant-seekers than in other culprits. We turn now to just such an enterprise. If it were only a little bit less illiterate, it would seem to have been written by someone who had read deeply in Luther and even Nietzsche and had decided to sin boldly and to hell with Sklavenmoral. We find here none of that meager, mealymouthed obsequiousness that piously assures us that teaching and learning have now been shown–really–to have something to do with one another. That’s the tepid prayer of a half-baked scholastic. What follows is the work of a veritable academic dervish:

Project WEY–Washington Environmental Yard (1972) is a manifestation of the intercommunal, process-oriented, interage, interdisciplinary type of change vehicle toward an environmental ethic from the school-village level to a pan-perspective. The urban focus of the project as the medium has been inestimably vital since it is generally speaking the message. Situated near the central downtown area of the city of Berkeley and a mere block from civic center, Washington Elementary School courts the thousands of daily onlookers/passersby (20,000 autos!) traveling on a busy boulevard with easy access to the physical transformation and social interactions (at a distance to close-up)–a virtual open space laboratory. It has served evocatively as a catalyst for values confrontation, even through a soft mode of visual/physical data exchange system. Since 1971, the dramatic changes have represented a process tool for the development of environmental/educational value encounters on-site/off-site, indoors/outdoors and numerous other bipolar entities and dyads. The clients represent a mirror of the macro-world just as the children and parents of the school reflect more than thirty different ethnic groups–as one of numerous dimensions of diversity.

It is difficult to comment on this writing, and dangerous as well, since too much attention to this sort of thing may well overthrow the mind. The earlier passage is at least decipherable, but this is a form of contemporary glossolalia and not to be grasped by the reason alone. It requires the gift of faith as well.

We do see, at least, what it’s all about. It’s about a change vehicle, of course, a change vehicle toward an ethic. We know also that the focus has been vital, inestimably vital, in fact, so we need not expect that there will be any attempt to estimate the degree of the focus’s vitality. That’s good. We don’t know for sure, of course, but we can reasonably guess, since the school courts all those onlookers/passersby in their 20,000 autos when they ought to be paying attention to their driving, that the busy boulevard is probably strewn with tangled wreckage and the dead and bleeding bodies of motorists. The carnage, apparently, serves as a virtual open-space laboratory of social interactions resulting in physical transformations. What could be clearer?

We know that some “it” or other–the school? the project?–has itself served, and evocatively at that, as a catalyst for values confrontation, “even” through a soft mode, which makes it clear that it is unusual for something to serve evocatively as a catalyst through a soft mode, but that this something has nevertheless managed to do so and thus deserves generous funding. We see that changes have somehow represented a tool, a tool for the development of all sorts of doubled-up things, including certain unspecified but surely numerous and important “bipolar entities and dyads.” (Here we must be careful not to commit some sacrilege; bipolar entities might be some kind of powerful spirits, and those dyads might be something like those dynamite chicks that lurk in trees.) And, just as changes have represented a tool, the clients have represented a mirror. There. That gives us a process-oriented pan-perspective.

The writer of this interesting passage, just one paragraph of a grant proposal, is paid by taxpayers to teach would-be teachers how to go out into the world and make comfortable livings being paid by taxpayers as teachers of something that is called Environmental Education. Environmental Education, along with its numerous cousins, deserves some attention, not because it is interesting or important in itself, but because it is, or perhaps it represents, a triumph of language over intelligence. All the cousins do the same. They are things like Health Education, Consumer Education, Intercultural Education, Sex Education, Career Education–the tribe is too numerous to list in full. Besides, new progeny are spawned every semester.

These educations are the Snopeses of education itself. They are aggressive and determined and trashy enough not to be subject to the scrupulous restraints of the genteel tradition. The meek, betweeded professors of philosophy must surely succumb some day to something that will probably be called Values Education. Intercultural Education, for instance, has already seized the high ground once held, but diffidently, by the anthropologists, and it will be a vigorous and profitable industry when anthropology has become a quaint, antiquarian specialty like Sanskrit. Consumer Education starts with what used to be a single lesson in seventh-grade arithmetic–how to write a check, remember?–picks up a little substance from the budgeting lesson in home economics, and goes on to displace economics itself along with a good hunk of sociology and biology-preparing nutritious meals, you know. (In fact, home economics and sociology had it coming; they were Snopeses in their time.) Flem Snopes started out by boosting himself a piece of a little diner on the outskirts of town and ended up owning the bank and most of the real estate. His numerous relations followed him in geometrical proportions. We can expect that each of these educations will draw others in its train and birth hosts of new educations.

This metastasis of educations is only in part a social phenomenon; it is also a linguistic phenomenon. The power of language is so great that it can call things into existence simply through naming them. At this moment, for instance, there is no such thing as enharmonic interpersonal dynamism, but all it needs to become the subject of a profitable self-betterment book or even a whole new subject of study in the colleges is an energetic go-getter who can write it up. There will be converts and workshops. There will be scholarly papers and appearances on talk shows. Dissensions and heresies will arise, and the neo-enharmonic interpersonal dynamists will contend with the revisionist enharmonic intercultural dynamists. Money will be made, and swarms of the addlepated will most unexpectedly make livings. Some of them will buy whole wardrobes of polyester double-knit leisure suits and become professors of Enharmonic (now we can give it capitals) Interpersonal Dynamism Education. Although we will pay the cost in dollars, the empire will be built of words.

Obviously, if Enharmonic Interpersonal Dynamism (EID, okay?) is to get off the drawing board, one of the first things it will need is a grant. If we can show how EID can provide an inestimably vital change vehicle toward the reciprocal relationships of teaching and learning suggested by the latest findings in philosophy, psychology, and communications theory, we can easily convince some saps in the federal government to fork over the funds. It’s a little more complicated than sticking up the candy store, of course, but the potential profit is larger, inestimably larger, in fact. Furthermore, if you get caught sticking up the candy store, many rough people will treat you rudely. If you invent EID and make it famous, you’ll be offered tenure at the teacher’s college of your choice.

Such things actually happen. Consider the example of something called Career Education. The Jiukiukwe have no word for Career Education, nor could they, for their language does not permit the modification of one noun by another. (It is no accident that some of our greatest follies flow from the fact that we can string nouns together with abandon.) Of course, the Jiukiukwe have only the one career, banging trees with stones; even fish-finding is so rare that they think of it more as an avocation. They would be baffled, naturally, by the term Career Education. We are baffled, too, but we have to pretend not to be lest we be taken for elitist reactionaries. How then, we must figure out, do we come to have, and at considerable expense, something called Career Education, which is not, as the innocent might think, a training in the necessary skills of this or that career?

Unlike the Jiukiukwe, we have many careers, and there are still some American schoolchildren who think that they would like to grow up and make an honest living in one of them. It used to be that a mere education in reading and writing and ciphering was thought a good beginning for just about any career. As certain careers became matters of greater and greater technical skills, it began to appear that the would-be nuclear physicist or neurosurgeon might do well to start some of his training as early as possible. This is obviously not an inane idea, but it also isn’t the idea behind Career Education. The practitioners of Career Education can hardly have such a concern in mind when they arrange for third graders to visit the bagel factory and study the work of the head bagel-baker. What they have in mind is the presumed necessity of revealing to the children that there is such a person as a bagel-baker so that peace and harmony and tolerance will break out among us. That’s not all. Maybe some of those darling kiddies would like to become bagel-bakers themselves. And why not? It’s an honorable trade. So here are some clever tests (instruments) designed to discover bagel-baking aptitudes even in third graders. There are brigades of people who make, and score, and interpret such tests, and other brigades who then sit down and take counsel with the third graders about their chosen careers as bagel-bakers. And that’s not all. How can a third grader choose a career without profound self-knowledge and some insight into the value system inherent in the various careers? We need to offer courses that teach these things to third graders, and yet other courses to teach the teaching of these things to yet larger children who can then find career satisfaction and fulfillment as teachers of Career Education. This sort of thing, as most of you will remember, used to be taken care of by an occasional captioned picture in the reading book: “The policeman is your friend. He helps you cross the street and takes you home if you are lost.” That’s about as much as any third grader needs to know about a career in law enforcement.

So what would you do if you had to fill a handful of pages on the subject of Career Education? What else is there to do? You simply must string a whole lot of words together. All of that stuff–and more, much more, whole books full–is a perfectly inevitable consequence of the simple existence of the term Career Education. You might play the same game for yourself by inventing your own education. Somebody has probably already taken Media Education and Commuter Education, but you might try things like Recreation Education and Religion Education. It’s important that both words be nouns. Notice that Religion Education is different from Religious Education, for instance. Religious Education might actually have some subject matter; Religion Education, however, would be aimed not at teaching this or that about a religion but at alerting students to the fact that this or that religion does exist and suggesting how they might want to feel about that. In like fashion, Investment Education, a likely candidate, would not undertake to teach people how to invest. It would reveal that there is such a thing as investing and that it makes America strong.

The process obviously has no limits, because our language has no limits. Anything we can talk about, we can talk about. Consequently, we can expect that by this time next year there will be at least three schools in which the study of history has been replaced by highly relevant rap sessions called History Education. Courses in History Education will not bother students with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles or the details of the growth of American Federalism. They will provide the students with a personal appreciation of the fact that there is such a thing as history and that we are all a part of it–isn’t that wonderful?–and that even the least of us is, therefore, relevant. Literature Education and Mathematics Education are still in the planning, or preproposal, stages, but their day will come. And just wait till you see Foreign Language Education, which will raise students’ consciousnesses about the many marvelous languages spoken all around the world by all sorts of people whose very interesting value systems we really ought to appreciate as much as we can. After all, there’s no real or relevant need to learn the language of the Jiukiukwe. Let’s learn to appreciate what the nature of that language tells us about those simple but warm and wonderful people whose treatment of their senior citizens ought to be a lesson to us all.

All of the “educations” are strings of words, of course, not things in the world. Once we have the strings of words, however, we can go about and do things in the world so that some part of it may come to look like the thing we have described in the words. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, there’s everything right with that. That’s how ideas and the institutions they generate come to be in the first place. It is in strings of words that we make ideas. The words, however, can say anything that the language permits, which, in our case, is quite a lot, so a string of words can just as easily express inanities as ideas. When inanities are expressed, we can discover them just by paying attention to the words.

Here are the words in which our mystical prophet of Environmental Education expresses the aims of his chosen career:

A topian educational system of values and its existing isomorphic, formulated goals and means can be traumatically challenged by EE (Environmental Education) and its evolving, diverse-goal system as EE functions as a catalytical non-discipline to prepare and facilitate people to move through a meta-transition into the phase of non-stationary culture . . .

A catalytical non-discipline. We can understand what a non-discipline is like just by considering the word “topian.” It might refer to those Pompeian wall decorations called “topia,” but then again it might not. Perhaps it’s supposed to be the opposite of “utopian,” but also maybe not. Perhaps a topian system is a system that actually is someplace, in a topos, and is thus characterized to distinguish it from the “evolving, diverse-goal system,” which is, presumably, not someplace. If you find yourself traumatically challenged by these choices, that’s good. Pick whichever you please. In a non-discipline it doesn’t matter. That’s why non-disciplines are so rewarding to teach–you can’t get anything wrong. Be grateful that you have been facilitated to move through a meta-transition into a phase.

It would be a polite euphemism to call the writer of that barbarous nonsense an illiterate. The word just doesn’t do the job. The writer, however, is a university professor supported by taxpayers. He has degrees in education, and has satisfied others of that clan that he is worthy to sit in their company. What did they ask of him? How did they decide that he was, indeed, worthy to profess? Was it his vast knowledge of his subject? Obviously not; his “subject” is a non-discipline. Was it his power to communicate the nonexistent knowledge of his non-discipline? Well, yes. In a way, yes, that is. It must have been his power to sound as though he might well be communicating some unknowledge in a non-discipline. They must have thought that he could, indeed, call spirits from the vasty deep. His prose, like the thinking it reveals, is full of cloudy suggestions of something beyond the range of mere cognition. He has been given power, if not over the entities and dyads, certainly over the ignorant and superstitious. Who else would sign up for courses in a catalytical non-discipline?

Both grant-prayer examples evoke images of a world that is not, of course, and in that way they are alike. In each case the image is the image of the mental world where the writer dwells, whether he knows it or not. The worlds are different, however, because this priesthood, like any other, has its conservative wing and its lunatic fringe, its Thomists and its Pentecostalists. The first writer (back in chapter 10) is orthodox and self-satisfied. He evokes a world in which pale abstractions move among the spheres in cycles and epicycles, or subsets of actions and processes. Translation, transformation, and organization, elemental, immaterial entities, merge and fuse into the transubstantiation of “meaning.” This is a world untouched by human hands. In the universe of “education,” no grubby brats bedevil harried teachers; no chalk dust clouds the air; no trays clatter to the floor in noisy cafeterias; no smelly socks litter the locker room. We find only fleshless principalities and powers, developments and relations, developments in philosophy, psychology, and communications theory, reciprocal relations and abilities to relate. This is a world where any minor German metaphysician of the nineteenth century would feel right at home, but where Walt Whitman would run lunatic.

Strangely, people who write and think like that insist that they are champions of what they have named “humanistic” education. They think, or they say that they think, that education ought to instill certain socially desirable attitudes and humanitarian values, and, accordingly, that a teacher must be “humanistic.” A teacher who is too knowledgeable in his subject is likely to become a “mere” expert, a slave of information, so the humanistic educationists take care to prevent that by arranging that would-be teachers spend as little time as possible in the study of any subject. This gives them more time to spend in humanistic studies where they can develop abilities to relate. But the language gives the game away. That grant-writer simply isn’t interested in anything human. Indeed, he isn’t even interested in anything concrete. He is interested in spirits.

The Environmental Educationist, on the other hand, is a visionary of apocalyptic enthusiasm. In his world a focus speaks a message and a manifestation of a vehicle toward an ethic materializes, or almost, out of the swirling fogs of off-site/on-site indoors/outdoors bipolar entities and dyads. He opens the seventy-seventh seal, and a catalytical non-discipline facilitates us to move through a meta-transition into a phase. In miraculous fashion, not to be understood by reason unaided by revelation, clients “represent” a mirror, and changes, a tool. It’s Walpurgisnacht in a soft mode of a visual/physical data exchange system. Where the first writer is a would-be theologian pretending to reason, the second is a shaman pretending to dance up demons. And he does, he does.

Our shamans may be false, but they have danced up real demons. As we have become more and more aware of what is happening in education and language–they go together–we have sought remedies. The shamans have promised us cures. The cures are all lethal.

Chapter 12: Darkling Plain English