Chapter 15: Devices and Desires

Individual failures will eventually disappear into the morass of the barely educated and barely employable, but corporate failures seem immortal. It is only the failures of the past that the ignorant are condemned to repeat; the successes they are condemned to forget. We are not the first to speak nonsense and to teach it.

When Gulliver went among the Projectors of Lagado, he met some remarkable chaps who were silly linguists but astute prophets. They were looking for a way to escape the constraints of language, and they undertook to do away with words entirely. Since words were, they thought, only names for things, they reasoned that we’d all be better off if we went right to the heart of reality and dealt in the things themselves rather than in the words. They proposed that we might simply carry about with us whatever things might be needful for the conduct of our business. Gulliver had the chance to watch some of them in conversation, setting down their great bundles, pulling forth objects, and holding them up for each other’s scrutiny. It’s entertaining to imagine them, showing each other egg cups and wrenches and bobby pins and worn-out shoes.

Unfortunately, their noble plan was undone by a coalition of “Women in Conjunction with the Vulgar and the Illiterate,” who will be nattering in all seasons, and who are always “irreconcilable Enemies to Science.” What a pity. Where are those savants now that we need them? Just imagine the benefits that would flow from such a system. Think of the Gross National Product. Think of the factories churning out things, enough things so that every citizen could have a large enough vocabulary to get him through a whole life. Every little child playing on the sidewalks would need at least a large backpack full of stuff. Businessmen would wheel large pushcarts into posh restaurants, and wheeling and dealing would no longer be a metaphor. Scholars would attend conferences in Peoria trailing behind them U-Haul vans full of objects. Yankee ingenuity would quickly provide miniatures of everything imaginable, so that before long you’d be able to discuss the foreign policy of the Carter administration out of one pocket and still have room in another to chat about the weather and complain about inflation. Blissful silence would fall upon the land as people everywhere displayed to each other forks and carburetors and delicate underthings and adorable little models of the Supreme Court Building. Television talk shows would become fascinating exercises in inventiveness, and people would probably buy tickets to watch the chairman of the Federal Reserve trying to explain the rise in the prime rate.

Well, we, of course, are not as silly as the Projectors of Lagado. We are devising far more practical ways to escape the constraints of language. Our substitutes for the logical demands of discursive prose are more subtle, and we have even overcome the traditional enmity of the “Women in Conjunction with the Vulgar and the Illiterate.” The women have been convinced that the mastery of discursive prose must wait upon the invention of some new pronouns; the vulgar have been convinced that precision in language is subservience to elitist oppression; and we are now working on ways to convince the illiterate that they’re actually better off just watching television.

A contempt of book-learning is not new in America. From some point of view it’s even desirable. Those who rule a society and direct its course and devise its laws and control its wealth do so out of certain skills. Our Madisons and Hamiltons and Jeffersons were book-learners. Out of the power of words, they formed a nation to suit their needs, and out of that same power, they governed it. Out of the inescapable implications of their words, they imagined and projected a nation of educated citizens, book-learners, unto whose informed discretion the ultimate authority was to be given. Or so they said. So we say. They may have meant it; we don’t.

For those who have the power of language, it is a comfort to know that so many others don’t. While we keep the powers and privileges that go with skill in language, we are happy to leave the ignorant in what they proudly call the school of hard knocks, sweeping our floors and bruising their knuckles with wrenches. By all means, let them despise book-learning. What do we need with competitors? Book-learning can only lead the multitudes into the ways of knowledge and logical thought, which will make them discontented laborers, undependable voters, and finicky consumers.

Those who can profit from a general anti-intellectualism are the intellectuals, and those who reap the benefits of widespread illiteracy are the literate. The Projectors of Lagado might have succeeded magnificently if they had thought of that. Unfortunately, they took themselves seriously. It’s a silly quack who swallows his own snake oil. We are making the same mistake in our academies of projectors. It’s one thing to encourage in the ignorant the notion that book-learning is silly and that they don’t want any part of it; it’s quite another when the book-learners themselves fall for that story.

Here are the words of one of our contemporary projectors. His very title is subtle projection; he is called Learning Resources Center Director. A Learning Resources Center is what we used to call a library, but a library sounds like a dull and solemn place ruled over by scowling spinsters. A Learning Resources Center sounds like a bright and cheery place, shiny with Naugahyde and Formica, where you can get something or other serviced by a smiling attendant. Librarians, furthermore, make us think of books, but Learning Resources Centrists can provide us with filmstrips and 8-track recordings and show us how to work the machines. This particular centrist has concluded that too much fuss is being made about reading and writing and adduces, to support his conclusion, the fact that some films are beautiful and that cassette recorders are very useful for learning foreign languages while driving cars. He says:

More and more colleges and universities in America are admitting students who do not read well, yet most of these same students have a high degree of visual literacy. They have gained knowledge and understanding through years of exposure to television, films and other image-oriented media. Is the knowledge of these students inferior in quality to the knowledge of their peers who are avid readers?

It would be some comfort to believe that this centrist knew what he was doing. If that were so, we could conclude that he has bought up lots of stock in the electronics industry and that his interesting assertions about gaining knowledge and understanding were designed to increase the sales of video recorders and those cunning devices that permit us to play billiards and blackjack on the screen. Such entertainments must surely provide knowledge and understanding about angles of incidence and reflection and about addition, at least up to twenty-one. Furthermore, if we could be convinced of his astuteness, we could ourselves call our brokers and place a few orders. Unfortunately, however, his language shows us that he has swallowed his own snake oil and that he is not one of the deceivers, whom we would gladly join, but one of the deceived, whom we would like to fleece.

If you cannot be the master of your language, you must be its slave. If you cannot examine your thoughts, you have no choice but to think them, however silly they may be. Had this centrist stopped to examine his language he would have found himself examining his thoughts, and he would have found that they are nonsense. Having bought his own scam, however, he is precluded from such an examination. We are not.

Look first at his reference to “image-oriented media,” a modern and trendy term. We know, of course, what “oriented” means, even when it appears in the Illustrated Guide to the Learning Resources Center as “orientated.” If you’re oriented, you know which way is east. That much, however, would be of little help to a Bulgarian trying to learn English. He’ll be told someday that some people are “print-oriented.” Now that does not mean that those people know which way to go to find some print; it means rather that they find print somehow more informative than other things and that they’re likely to pay more attention to it than they do even to color pictures of pretty girls with big teeth. While our poor Bulgarian is still trying to decide whether to believe that, he’ll hear about something that’s “consumer-oriented.” He now has to face the hard fact that his understanding of “oriented,” even coupled with his understanding of “print-oriented,” won’t help him with “consumer-oriented.” To be “consumer-oriented” does not mean knowing which way to go to find the nearest consumer. It does not mean being more attuned to consumers than to other forms of humanity, misers, for instance. “Consumer-oriented,” in fact, can’t even be used to describe persons. It goes with whole bureaucracies, maybe, or campaigns, or those little feature items on the women’s page in the Sunday paper that are intended to be for the benefit of consumers.

Once our Bulgarian has learned about “consumer-oriented,” he can go on to tackle something like “success-oriented,” which does not mean knowing which way success lies, and does not mean more likely to be informed by success than by anything else, and does not mean providing aid and comfort to success, but does mean being impelled in the direction of success. By analogy with “success-oriented,” you can say that bombs and bullets are enemy-oriented. But maybe not. “Enemy-oriented” might also mean “designed to serve the needs of the enemy.” So be careful.

(This is the final test for jargon: How far can it be pushed? When that provost told us that his process was made up of components, elements, and factors, we might have been taken in. If we push his jargon far enough and put it into something concrete, like a bologna, for instance, we see that he would have to say that components, elements, and factors were actually the same as slices.)

Having been through all that, can we now understand what he means by the “image-oriented media”? Let’s try it with television, which is, by the centrist’s admission, one of those media. Does he mean to say that television is pointed in the direction of images and knows how to find them? Does he mean that television seems most comfortable when looking at images? Does he mean that television is an enterprise devoted to the welfare of images? Does he mean that television is motivated by images? Obviously, all of these possibilities are nonsensical. He can only mean that television shows images. That we all knew.

In some ways, being unable to write is like being unable to lie. Evidence betrays the thousands, but ineptitude unmasks the millions. Having caught our centrist in the inanity of ‘‘image-oriented media,” we have reason to seek out the inanity in “visual literacy” and in that supposed knowledge and understanding that come from long exposure to those “image-oriented media.”

Visual literacy. That must be something that comes from looking at images. But wait. The whole universe is an “image-oriented medium.” The earth and the sea and the sky and all things everywhere show us images. Alexander the Great saw images all his life; what need had he, then, of Aristotle? Was Ethelred the Unready visually literate through long years of exposure to the world? Or can this visual literacy arise only in those who watch films and television? Must an image be framed in some way before it can produce knowledge and understanding? Are we to believe that a college freshman has “gained” as much knowledge and understanding from watching “Mod Squad” as Galileo from watching the moon? Does the growth of visual literacy require alternating current?

One picture is not worth a thousand words. A picture isn’t worth any words at all. One picture, one glimpse of the moon, even one episode of “Mod Squad,” may cause a thousand words in some beholder. Or many thousand. Or, in some other beholder, none at all. If knowledge and understanding are to come from watching “Mod Squad” or the moon, they must come in the form of language, the only vehicle we have for knowledge and understanding. Those unfortunate students “who do not read well” may look forever at the moon and have nothing to say, for they have not the power of language, which is why they do not read well. They may have taken something or other from their years of film- and television-watching, but it isn’t likely to be knowledge and understanding. Furthermore, whatever knowledge and understanding they found that way came not from the images they saw but from some words they might have heard. How many of them, do you suppose, were sufficiently “image-oriented” to watch fifteen years of television with the sound turned off?

Let us hope, charitably, that this Learning Resources Center Director never has to fly to a conference in Denver on an airplane designed by a bunch of engineers who “do not read well” but who have, nevertheless, “a high degree of visual literacy.” His best hope would be that “visual literacy” is the ability to see and identify the letters of the alphabet. That, at least, would be some comfort, for it would suggest that the designers of his airplane might have managed to identify slot A and tab A correctly. That way, a bunch of mechanics, also poor readers but visually literate, might just possibly have been able to slip the latter into the former correctly so that the machine will fly for a while.

The centrist asks: “Are colleges and universities routinely to flunk out students who do not learn well from verbally-oriented instruction?” (There’s another “oriented,” attached this time not to a noun but to an adverb. You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself. ) And those who can’t swim–must they routinely drown when they wander into deep water? And the blind–must they be routinely deprived of driver’s licenses?

Of course, the centrist’s question isn’t quite that simple. The answer depends on just what it is the colleges and universities intend to teach. If they are teaching knowledge and understanding, then it looks bad for those “who do not learn well from verbally-oriented instruction.” If they are teaching something else, something which must be utterly inexpressible in language, we have to wonder how they know whether any of the students have learned it. The centrist must want his question answered with the assurance that colleges and universities will routinely graduate “students who do not learn well from verbally-oriented instruction,” and that, of course, is exactly what they do. Many of these students become teachers, who will provide a never-failing supply of “students who do not learn well from verbally-oriented instruction,” so that the centrists of the future will always have a good cause to plead.

The Projectors of Lagado would be delighted with “visual literacy.” They didn’t have such a nifty name for it, but it’s just what they had in mind. After all, when the pretty lady next to you at a dinner party holds up for your consideration a slightly worn head gasket, you do have to be image-oriented enough to see what the damned thing is. You do have to have gained lots of knowledge and understanding in order to respond appropriately by showing her a ticket stub and a bent paper clip. Now that’s communication.

All the zany notions that have corrupted education in the last few decades have some interesting things in common. They have all arisen as education’s responses to deficiencies caused by education, and they all promise profit and comfort; the profit to the education industry and the comfort to students and teachers who are given less and less hard work to do. To read a book about geology is tiresome, especially to the unverbally-oriented, or verbally-disoriented, or whatever they are. To watch a little film that shows some sleek cattle grazing within a few yards of the San Andreas Fault is relaxing and humanistic. Furthermore, how much can a geology book cost? Twelve, fifteen dollars at the most. Even a dinky little filmstrip projector costs about ten times as much, and a motion-picture projector, with stereo sound lest the lowing of the cows be dehumanized, costs several hundreds at least. A test on the geology book might present some annoying difficulties, especially for students who aren’t too good at reading or writing; but a test on the film would require only that the student admit to having noticed the cows. For a little extra credit, he might assert that the film was handsome and that he appreciated it. As for the teacher, he too is excused from boring reading, although he does have to learn to operate the projector. No problem, that. Schools of teacher training offer numerous courses in the operation of the machines that have transformed libraries into Learning Resources Centers.

We are told, of course, that film projectors and video recorders and tape machines and all such devices are meant not to replace the printed word but to serve as enlightening adjuncts to books. They certainly can do that. The Learning Resources Center Director, however, doesn’t seem to be saying any such thing. He is clearly saying not that students can watch television and film as illustrations to their studies, but that for some students television and films must be their study. That would be happy news for the industries that manufacture all those gimmicks.

Those industries will surely have their own motives for encouraging the cause of visual literacy, but we cannot ascribe such crass motives to the educators. Their motives are far less canny, and they arise from a pathetic populism dictated by a sad necessity. This is America, where every child can hope to grow up to be President, or at least a well-paid geologist, say. Imagine an only moderately stupid young man who actually watches “Nova” and thirsts to explore for oil in the service of Exxon. Should he be barred from a respectable trade and deprived of a comfortable income just because he can’t read or write or cipher very well? It seems un-American, somehow, that his opportunities should be limited by his abilities. Let’s at least give him a chance by showing him some pretty pictures of the walls of the Grand Canyon. We might even get in some actual oil and let him smell it and play with it, thus making him not only visually literate but olfactorily and tactilely literate as well. Then we’ll graduate him with a degree in geology and let Exxon handle the problem.

The narrow-eyed people at Exxon are, of course, unreconstructed elitists who expect that geologists can read and write and cipher, but that’s their problem. We are humanistic educators who want everybody to have a chance at everything, and we’re not going to be a party to the ruthless elitism of the international energy cartels. And as for the unlucky geology major, currently polishing hubcaps down at the car wash, well, maybe we can talk him into coming back and putting in a couple of years taking courses in education. Then we can get him a certificate as a general science teacher. He ought to be good at showing films and passing around oil. Kids love that kind of thing.

Imagine something even worse: Maybe, just maybe, that poor geology major wasn’t moderately stupid when he started school. After all, what makes him moderately stupid just now is that he is not at home in the systems by which we express and devise knowledge and meaning. He just can’t read and write very well. Is his stupidity innate, or was he given it by a shabby education? Did he fall into the hands of that third-grade teacher and all the others like her? Did his general science teacher pass around a can of oil? Were his teachers humanistically attuned to the wonders of visual literacy and all that knowledge and understanding to be gained from years of exposure to films and television?

The devices of our loony Projectors are designed to satisfy their own desires. They want to be nice to everybody. They want to be loved. They want to love their work, which is hard to do when the work is demanding and difficult. Having long taught out of these desires, they have raised up to themselves–and to us, worse luck-far more stupid students than Nature would have provided on her own. Now, not oblivious to the plight of these stupid millions, they still want to be nice and, especially, democratic. They want to provide a make-believe education for the unhappy multitudes for whom they have already provided the stupidity that fits them for nothing more than a make-believe education.

It is as though the right hand of Detroit should lose its cunning and could produce very few automobiles that would actually start, telling us, however, that we would be far better off sitting in our cars in the driveway and playing with the knobs.

And here we sit, pulling on the knobs and twiddling the dials, playing car. The knobs and dials are not connected to anything but it’s lots of fun. Nevertheless, this damned thing will never run, and if we want to go anywhere we’re going to have to connect these knobs and dials to the machinery. The machinery is there. The language is intact; we’re just not hooked up to it.

Chapter 16: Naming and Telling