Chapter 17: Sentimental Education

We Americans are wondrously religious, or at least apocalyptic. We believe that the meaning of things is to be seen not in the way things are but in the way they will be someday. When the urgings of evidence suggest that we are in trouble, we are untroubled, because we are still, and always, on our way. We hate stupidity and ignorance, of course, but we know that they’re only temporary. Although stupidity and ignorance are not rare and although they don’t seem to be diminishing, we do not characterize America as a nation of stupid and ignorant people. It’s the same with things like crime and poverty and racial hatred. Well, yes, we have those things, and, yes, they do seem to be growing, but that doesn’t mean that America is a nation of criminals and paupers and bigots. There are such people, but they are aberrations. In time we’ll change all that. Education–that’s the answer to it all.

Education will wipe out stupidity and ignorance. Informed and intelligent people will know better than to stick up gas stations for a lousy thirty bucks. They will have the skills to make good honest livings, mostly as chairmen of the boards of General Motors or IBM. As we learn more about each other, black, white, brown, whatever, we’ll find new respect for each other and new values in the mingling of our variously rich cultures, and the black and the brown faces will be seen not only in the halls of Congress and the faculties of our venerable universities and colleges but even on hockey teams. Now that’s the real America, look, right over there, you have to squint a little, see, there just above that fruited plain?

The history of mankind hasn’t yet provided any examples of a decrease in stupidity and ignorance and their presumably attendant evils, but we have hope. After all, history hasn’t provided anything like us, either, until pretty recently. The American experiment is unique, especially the American experiment in education. It is that which accounts for our amazing progress and the effectiveness of our technology. We educate (well, we’re going to educate, just you wait and see) all the people, not just the upper classes, not just the specialists, not any fraction of any kind, but everybody. History doesn’t scare us. We are the Americans.

But even for the Americans the swift eradication of stupidity and ignorance is a large undertaking. Let’s not think about all of that just now. Let’s imagine something smaller and try to foresee its consequences. Let’s simply ask what it would take to provide all the third graders in America with teachers who are correct and precise in their spelling and punctuation. After all, that’s not an unreasonable expectation. Spelling and punctuation can be learned, and teachers, of all people, can be expected to have learned them. So what must we do?

First, let’s be reasonable. Anyone who writes English makes an occasional little mistake in spelling. We won’t insist on absolute accuracy at all times, but somewhere between absolute accuracy at all times and four appearances of “artical” in a short public letter we must draw a line. It seems reasonable to draw that line somewhat closer to accuracy than to “artical.” Are our teachers the hope of the nation? Well, of course. Are they the leaders of our youth into the paths of knowledge and the exercise of the mind? You know it. At those little academic skills like spelling and punctuation should they be as good as the average American? NO, better. Better than three quarters of us all? At the least. Better than nine out of ten? That seems reasonable. Pick any number you like.

The simplest and most drastic way to achieve that result would be to give all third-grade teachers a test and send away into the Peace Corps in Afghanistan any who can’t spell and punctuate. Could we do this? Certainly not. Someone will show that the test is culturally biased against those in whose background there can be shown a distinct distaste for spelling, which is, after all, nothing more than a genteel skill prized mostly among idle ladies of the privileged classes, like painting on velvet. The testing of teachers is not encouraged by teachers’ organizations. It is their view, anyway, that a teacher’s competence is demonstrated by the granting of a certificate.

That moves us back a square. Perhaps we can arrange that those who grant those certificates will withhold them from incipient third-grade teachers until they have passed the spelling and punctuation test. If you happen to be an idle lady of the privileged classes and tired of painting on velvet, you can find a new and exciting hobby by writing to certifying agencies and state boards of education and legislators and urging some such thing. Eventually, you’ll be able to fill whole scrapbooks with entertaining replies and perhaps even strike a deal with some publisher of humorous paperbacks. You’ll be told that the certifiers certify whomsoever the teacher-training academies put forth as certifiable. You may even be told that, whatever evidence you may have to the contrary, third-grade teachers certainly do know how to spell and punctuate, since those teacher-training academies have the highest standards and would never put forth as a candidate for certification anyone lacking such basic skills. The love between the certifiers and the teacher-training academies is warm and undying. The certifiers in no way construe their task as “checking up” on the productions of the teacher trainers.

So we move back one more square and call on the dean of the local teacher-training academy. He greets us warmly and offers us seats and instant coffee with Popsicle-stick stirrers. He (well, perhaps he’s a he/she) is always glad to contribute to an increased awareness on the part of the public of issues and concerns centered around the question of current practices in the field of education. He will assure us of the commitment “on the part of I and my colleagues” to excellence and professionalism, including the mastery of skills/methods relevant to desirable outcomes. He will assure us that trained observers have, in the case of each candidate for certification, observed and made judgments upon several dimensions of behaviors and that interaction analysis, as studies have shown, confirms that student teachers can be seen to have demonstrated practical/theoretical sensitization to certain desirable teaching actions and procedures, and that he is perfectly satisfied that instruments already administered tend to corroborate these findings. We feel that we would like to administer unto him some instrument, but we restrain ourselves and persist in asking about spelling and punctuation. He reminds us of the affective and noncognitive parameters and points out that basic language arts competencies are in the charge of another department. But surely, we ask, the teacher-teachers will notice from time to time that some would-be teacher can’t spell or punctuate. Now we learn that teacher-teachers are interested in things like their students’ positive self-images and their ability to identify with members of other cultures and their effectiveness in maintaining an even temperature in the classroom at all times. Furthermore, we learn that much of the teaching of teachers is accomplished by breaking up into small groups and discussing issues/concerns relative to preassessment without much attention to mechanical details like spelling and punctuation.

There’s no help for it. We go back another square to the people who are in charge of spelling and punctuation, only to learn that they don’t see it that way. Not many of those who teach the freshman composition course are still mired in the outworn age of print, or, as they put it, the print media. Most of their students are into communications media or even multimedia communications. There are some courses in creative writing but creative writing does not concern itself much with spelling and punctuation. Furthermore, even should some would-be third-grade teacher find herself in a writing course, and even should she prove unable to spell or punctuate, the final judgment of her language arts competency would be made not on the basis of merely mechanical considerations but rather as a result of the earnestness of her endeavor and the originality of her ideas. Besides, this is a college, and if students come to us from high schools where they are not taught spelling and punctuation, there’s nothing we can do about it. If we limited our enrollments to those who can spell and punctuate, we wouldn’t be able to pay for the electricity to run our multimedia machines and we’d be hauled into court for discriminating against whole legions of minorities, including would-be third-grade teachers whose consciousnesses have been raised to that point where they just know that we are trying to exclude them from a respectable and not-too-demanding profession on nothing more than the flimsy pretext that they are unable to punctuate or spell, overlooking entirely the fact that they just love children.

So we go backward square by square. The principal of the high school refers us to the principal of the junior high school who refers us to the principal of the elementary school. Here, at the bitter end, we hear the worst news of all. Here we are told: Yes, it’s true. We do have some trouble teaching spelling and punctuation. But what can we do? Why, the third-grade teachers themselves have some trouble with those things. And there we are, staring into an infinite regression. We cannot raise up unto ourselves a generation of third-grade teachers who can spell and punctuate until we first provide ourselves with a generation of third-grade teachers who can spell and punctuate. The problem isn’t here and it isn’t there; it’s everywhere. If we want to do only so simple a thing as ensure that all third-grade teachers will be expert in spelling and punctuation, we will have to change everything that happens at every step of the process by which we now provide ourselves with third-grade teachers. Lacking such unimaginably large changes, we must simply reconcile ourselves to third-grade teachers whose spelling and punctuation are just a little bit shabby.

If we could make those changes, however, we would find that we had also dealt with the executive secretary, and the provost, and the entire bureaucracy of the Department of Transportation, and even the president of the University of Arizona. They all come from the same litter. They are all examples of an education that does not foster precision and correctness. It’s not that that education is unable to foster precision and correctness, for in some cases and in some degree it does do that. It can be done, most easily, through study and practice in the arts of language and number. We know how to do it. We have chosen not to do it and, having so chosen, have by now brought ourselves to that extremity from which we cannot turn back without turning everything over.

We are in some danger. It is with us as it is with a man who has chosen to play at once upon the ukulele and the harmonica while standing on one foot on the tip of a Coke bottle and twirling on the other foot two Hula-Hoops and spinning a platter on the end of a long stick balanced on his nose. His act may be ill-advised, but this is not the time to discuss it with him. What we do is incalculably more complicated and difficult than any juggling act, and, lacking hope of swift and total destruction, there’s obviously no end to it. We can never stop and take a bow. Well, we could stop, but we wouldn’t be in any condition to bow, and it is doubtful that anyone would applaud.

Collectively, we own and operate an enterprise complicated far beyond the power of any single mind to grasp in its entirety. We manufacture, by millions and billions, complicated and cunning devices beyond the dreams even of our grandparents. We operate massive, interlocking systems and actually keep track of billions, perhaps trillions, of bits of information. The successes of our systems are staggering. The banks do keep track of our accounts. We punch some buttons and find ourselves talking to a librarian in Athens if we please. Great contraptions of metal, bigger than some garden-style apartment houses, do get into the air and fly to Copenhagen, and the innumerable pages of the Sunday New York Times are covered with print every week as long as there isn’t a strike. That’s not all. When it says that a story is continued on page 43, it usually is.

Nevertheless, there are signs of trouble. Somebody keeps losing enriched plutonium and even gold bullion. The latter will probably make its way harmlessly to a numbered account in Switzerland, but the former may well make its way to the IRA or the PLO. In some cars somebody has been putting the wrong engine, and other cars are cunningly designed to explode on impact. If your car doesn’t explode, maybe your tires will. Deadly substances seep from the earth under the swing sets in the backyards of innocent home owners. A keypunch operator punches the wrong key and sends you 436 subscriptions to Poultry Gazette, and another keypunch operator deposits an extra $30,000 in your checking account, which seems grand until the IRS starts asking you to account for it. You discover that it is no longer humanly possible to change an erroneous bill from the gas company. A Christmas card from your great-aunt arrives three and a half years late, and the freight car bringing your new trash compactor has disappeared somewhere on a siding in Nebraska. It looks as though things are beginning to fall apart.

Those are only the things that we know about. We do not know what critical matter has gone awry in the State Department or what mistaken conclusions based on false logic and insufficient information have been formed in the Pentagon. We do not know that our surgeon has been shown the wrong lab reports, lab reports in any case misleading because the lab technician has added instead of subtracted, and we do not know that the nurse has given us somebody else’s name tag. All of our systems seem to be outgrowing our abilities to deal with them.

It may be that we have not done well to build such colossal complexities into our culture. It may be that the Jiukiukwe do live “better” than we in some way, in simple peace, but they also live miserably, and it’s far too late to opt for the simple life. If we drop the Hula-Hoops, the platter will crash down on our heads and we’ll break the ukulele and choke on the harmonica, to say nothing of what will happen when we land on the Coke bottle. We must keep the damned thing going, and that requires intelligent thought and the habit of precision.

I once visited a large military base where recruits were trained by the thousands. Most of it was unenlightening, except for the parachute-packing school, which was amazing. Young men, very young men, were busy learning to fold and tuck and arrange acres of cloth and miles of cord. A taciturn and unentertainable master sergeant was showing me around. He hadn’t smiled when I asked him to show me the ropes, and he didn’t smile when I asked him how on earth they tested the work of the parachute packers to find out whether or not they had passed the course. Simple, he said. The student would pack a few parachutes and the instructor would choose one at random, the one that the student would use when he jumped out of an airplane right after lunch. It was easy to tell who had passed and who had failed.

Parachute-packing isn’t all that hard. Although it does require the habit of precision, as well as some small manual dexterity, it calls for little intelligent thought, and fairly stupid recruits learn it without much difficulty. However stupid they may be, they are surely what an educationist would call “highly motivated.” Now if a couple of callow noncoms can teach a pimply dropout to pack a parachute as though his life depended on it, why is it that sixteen years of schooling cannot teach a third-grade teacher to spell?

Spelling isn’t all that hard, either. If the United States Army or AT&T, for that matter, were to decide that its people had to spell correctly, then they would find ways to teach spelling, and the people would learn. Industries, especially, are doing something very much like that already. They find more and more that whatever skills they had hoped to find in college graduates must, in fact, be taught after graduation. Where great expertise is required in certain technical callings, industries often have not only to teach all their people but also to obliterate the ineptitudes and misinformation they got in college. Fewer and fewer courses of study actually prepare people for careers. When they are at their best, they prepare people to prepare for careers.

It could be worse. Many of our college graduates are at least prepared to prepare for a career and thus able to learn on the job how to do the job correctly and effectively. Would-be journalists and accountants and engineers learn that there is a life after college, because after four years of more or less social promotion they find themselves on a sterner testing ground. Now they must learn accuracy and correctness or look for another way of life, perhaps as salesmen of shoes. Exxon will not for long keep paying the would-be geologist solely because he loves oil and tries very hard. The incipient teacher, however, will be retained–permanently–if he “really cares” about children and tries very hard. When the brand-new physician is handed his license to practice, the testing of his competence begins. When the brand-new teacher is given his certificate, the testing of his intellectual competence is over. From now on he will be tested only in other matters: his ability to get along with assistant principals and guidance counselors, his dress and deportment, and the tranquillity of his classroom. Unless he is visibly and outrageously ignorant and illiterate, no one will ever again assess the work of his mind. Or, more precisely, no one within that system will assess the work of his mind. That’s not considered professional and would set a very dangerous example.

From the center of our civilization–our system of education, the largest single enterprise we have–the fog of thoughtlessness and imprecision spreads in all directions. People who cannot get their thoughts straight through the control of language live baffled and frustrated lives. They must accept stock answers to their most vexing questions; they are easily persuaded by flawed logic; they cannot solve their problems because they cannot express them accurately. Worst of all, they cannot even discern their plight, for to do so requires a kind of “discerning” of a world not present to immediate experience, a world that “exists” only in the discourse that they have not mastered.

Pity that chair, a lady beset by what must be a demanding and unhappy task. The EEOC, after all, is mostly a massive complaint department, and the complaints brought to it, trivial as some might seem, are of tremendous importance to certain human beings and worthy of respect and intelligent attention. What a job it must be. It requires not only a well-formulated understanding of humanity but a thorough knowledge of many laws, rules, regulations, and the continuous application of logical thought informed by fact. When we looked at the language of the chair, we were driven to conclude that one of two things must be true. Her distortions of English could be seen either as “mistakes,” in which case her education seemed inadequate to her task, or as unconscious revelations of an unspoken feeling about her work and the people for whom she works. It must be, in fact, that both of these things are true.

To do that work, even for a master of the technology of thought, would be difficult and discouraging. How easy it must be, but still how unpardonable, to blame the pains and frustrations of the work on those exasperating citizens who will be complaining and mistreating each other in all seasons. When we combine the chair’s obviously indifferent education with the inescapable anguish of her work, we cannot be surprised that her language betrays her and evokes a world that is not, a world that suits her far better than the world we count on her to understand and manipulate. She is come into deep waters where she cannot stand. Yet that work must be done.

While we require in tens of millions the habit of precision, in other millions we require as well the further and even more important ability that flows from the careful use of language–the power of thought in discourse. How many chairs of how many commissions are there who lack that power because of sloppy language? How many precise thinkers do we need? Where will we get them? Is there some number below which we cannot fall if chaos is to be postponed yet another year? Are we approaching that number? What can we say of our campaign to wipe out stupidity and ignorance when we see that so many who are paid for the work of their minds wander in darkness and fog?

To dispel ignorance, of course, is only the second aim of education; the first aim is to overcome stupidity. Stupidity is the natural condition of mankind, and if we just left ourselves alone most of us would be stupid. It’s like teeth. Without dentistry, most of us would have crumbling and crooked teeth, and those few naturally endowed with tough enamel and a good bite would become an envied elite, happily savaging steaks and chops while the rest of us sit around gumming stews and porridge.

The ordinary stupidity of mankind can be cured or at least severely mitigated. It isn’t even especially difficult to do. Intelligence is, after all, not so much an innate propensity as an invention, a device designed and elaborated mostly for technological purposes. Intelligence can be understood as a learned system for distinguishing between things that seem similar and discovering the similarities in things that seem different. Stupidity is the lack of such a system. We can teach intelligence to the stupid just as easily as we can straighten crooked teeth, but we do have to do it. It doesn’t just happen. To make the stupid intelligent requires little more than skill and practice in language.

There are other symbol systems in which to practice intelligence. Mathematics and physics and perhaps even music seem to be systems for the uttering of propositions and the exploration of likeness and difference, but they are obviously less accessible to most of us than the language we all learn to speak. It may be that the propensities for learning those symbol systems simply aren’t to be found in most of us any more than tough enamel, but the propensities for language are universal, and only in special and pathological conditions do human beings fail to learn a language.

However, while language is the most readily available device for the work of intelligence, just to know a language is not enough any more than being able to wiggle your fingers is enough to make you a pianist. For most of us, the rudimentary skills of language we all have even before we go to school are to intelligent discourse what “Chopsticks” is to music. The aim of education is to make those rudimentary skills into the medium of thought.

The possession of language, like the fact of birth, makes us human beings. Neither the language nor the birth is by itself enough to make us civilized human beings. Civilization develops in us, one by one, in a process that often seems analogous to the growth of civilization in mankind at large. We begin as brutes, cute brutes maybe, but brutes. We become barbarians. Eventually, sometimes, we become civilized members of a complicated technological culture. Civilization, whether individual or collective, grows as ideas are constructed in coherent discourse. As things stand with us just now, we are ready to count it a success should we be able to convert some number of brutes into barbarians.


This kind of book traditionally concludes with an earnest little sermon made up of helpful hints. I have none to offer. I can offer only the reasons that seem to preclude helpful hints.

1. There is literacy and there is literacy. The ability to do some reading and to do some writing is a kind of literacy, to be sure, but it is the kind of literacy that might have been attained three thousand years ago before the invention of discursive prose and the birth of formal reasoning. Meager as that literacy may be, it is the kind of literacy that we haven’t been able to achieve, since it is the very goal of such social disorders as the Plain English Fad and the Minimum Competence Mania. The elaborate and technological civilization that we must operate calls for much more than that. It requires millions of people able to construct and follow discursive thought. It demands widespread competence in little things as well as great, habits of precision, to be learned only through a mastery of the symbol system of language. For many reasons, it has become more and more difficult to teach that greater literacy, and we have chosen to settle for the lesser. We’re not doing too well at that. Every year, as our civilization grows more complex, that lesser literacy becomes less and less adequate, and greater and greater multitudes of people are left behind in a fog of ineffectiveness. As those multitudes grow, it becomes more and more difficult to teach even that lesser literacy, which must, accordingly, grow always less. And the time must come, therefore, when very few of us will have the skills with which to construct and follow discursive thought. We will rule the land, but it will not be a restful occupation or a long-lasting one.

2. All of that might be avoided only through a massive change in our system of public education, perhaps only through its annihilation and total reconstruction. Education as now constituted will never do more than the least it can do. The reason for that is easy to see. Of all of the elaborate corporate institutions in our civilization, education is the only one in which there is no important incentive to success. Educators do not even have to bother their heads about getting reelected. The prosperity of the schools does not depend on successful schooling. Indeed, in the current hysteria over the obvious failures of the schools, we have chosen to send good money after bad and enrich our schools in direct proportion to their failures. This further makes it seem likely that should the schools actually succeed, all they could expect would be the withdrawal of the enrichment that comes with failure. That must be what is meant by a “disincentive.”

For the individuals in public education, there are incentives to success, but they have almost nothing to do with the teaching of students. The successful members of the system are those who can escape the tedious demands of the classroom. From that escape, talented and effective teachers are generally debarred, partly because they are little likely to seek it and partly because of a reasonable institutional bias against removing a good teacher from the classroom. As a result, and in spite of the sentimental folklore of the trade, there are in fact no significant rewards available to the good teacher. Nor are there any significant punishments for the bad teacher. Indeed, it is the bad teacher who is the more inclined and encouraged to escape the classroom and thus achieve what is recognized as a success in public education, an administrative position. The making of policy, therefore, is ultimately given over to the least competent individuals in the system.

3. Public education is dreary. It is dreary because it is boring. It is boring because it requires of its captives only a small portion of their attention, leaving the better part of their energies unfocused. That is why the first concern of parents, teachers, and administrators is for what they call “discipline.” The schools have become dangerous places, but that is partly their own doing. They respond to the problem of “discipline” by calling for the restraint and punishment of the unruly; restraint and punishment however, will provide not discipline but, at the best, a temporary and sullen obedience. Ruly behavior expresses a ruly mind, and the discipline of word and thought provides the discipline of deed. From those incarcerated in enforced idleness, discipline cannot be expected. A rigorous course of study in mathematics or Latin will engender more discipline than a thousand guards, but the system is able to provide only the latter.

4. The supposed American commitment to universal public education is, in fact, nothing more than a congregational recitation of unexamined slogans. We do not know what we mean by an education, because we have not examined the language in which we describe it. We have not examined that language because we are not in the habit of examining language. We are not in that habit because we have been corporately educated in a system in which the critical examination of language and the skills required for that examination are less and less taught. They are less and less taught because they are less and less to be found among those who teach and those who direct the course of education. They are less and less to be found because people who do have the skills of critical thought and clear language are not likely to waste them by going to work in an institution founded on the recitation of unexamined slogans.

It takes some kind of a fool to spend his life in the maximization of potential through the application of sets and subsets of actions aimed at the translation, transformation, and organization of matter into meaning for individuals and groups. Only the thoughtless can pompously tell themselves about things like behavior modification and catalytical non-disciplines and preassessment instruments. No one skilled in language and thought could keep his sanity in that world of empty jargon, where he would find himself set to the task of pretending to clarify fictitious values and enhancing the self-esteem of the utterly unskilled by preaching that a positive self-image is more important than a clear sentence. In short, the land of public education provides a happy home only for those in whom the skills of language and thought are but poorly developed. When linguistically skilled persons do wander into that world, they must soon either leave it or withdraw into the privacy of their own classrooms and learn to ignore everything else. They are strangers in a strange land where the natives speak no rational tongue at all.

The absence of a rational language is necessary to the peace of that system. Its lingua franca of unreason provides pretended answers to the questions we might ask about incentive. Just why do you want to succeed in teaching the young? we ask. They answer: Because we are professionals committed to excellence and quality education. What is “quality education”? Here are the answers of a widely read educationist. It is an education in which

. . . students are taught to appreciate . . . cultures other than their own and to perceive themselves in a positive light. In addition, they are encouraged to express their feelings openly and honestly, to develop and maintain good interpersonal relationships and to question basic ideas.

These empty slogans were put forth in defense of the schools against the charge of failing to teach elementary skills of reading and writing. In what language then will those students “question basic ideas”? How will they know them when they see them? Will they ever question the basic ideas implicit in “appreciating” cultures and perceiving themselves in “positive lights”? These are not, it is important to note, the words of an eccentric educationist swimming against the tide. They express the orthodox creed. The robe of education in our time is a scanty garment; most of it is lunatic fringe.


A line runs from the meditations of the heart to the words of the mouth. The meditations are not clear to us until the mouth utters its words. If what the mouth utters is unclear or foolish or mendacious, it must be that the meditations are the same. But the line runs both ways. The words of the mouth will become the meditations of the heart, and the habit of loose talk loosens the fastenings of our understanding.

Sometimes we all know that. When a functionary of our government tells us that his previous statements have suddenly become “inoperative,” we see that what has been committed is not a euphemism but an immorality. While pretending to admit to the truth, the word evokes a world that never was, a world in which sentences that were once “true” now become, through some random twitch of history, not exactly “false” but at least ineffective, like an engine that used to start but doesn’t anymore now that the weather has turned cold. We may snicker and even sneer at the man who tells us that his words have now become “inoperative,” but he still has a victory. He has put that tiny worm into our ears. It will eat its way into our brains and dull some power of language, so that when his successors later talk to us about “enhanced radiation devices” we may sneer and snicker less. When enough of those worms have made their homes in our skulls–how long do you suppose that will take?–the day will come when we merely nod.

And from nodding we will go to dozing, and from dozing, to sleep.

Critical Bibliography