AS A SCHOOLBOY, I always presumed that my teachers were experts in the subjects that they taught. My physics teacher must, of course, be a physicist, and my history teacher a historian. I knew that my music teacher was a musician, for I had actually heard him play, and, during a dismal year in military school, I could see with my own eyes that the Professor of Military Science and Tactics was a bird colonel.
Even when I became a schoolteacher myself, quite by accident, I imagined that I had been chosen for the work because of my knowledge of the subject I was to teach. It turned out not to be exactly so, for I was soon asked to teach something else, of which my knowledge was scanty. No matter, I was told. I could bone up over the summer. Eventually, I was asked to teach something about which I knew nothing, nothing at all. Still no matter. I seemed to be a fairly effective teacher and at least smart enough to stay a lesson or two ahead of the students. That’s just what I did. No one saw anything wrong with that, and the students never caught me. It was nevertheless depressing, for it led me to suspect that my physics teacher perhaps hadn’t been a physicist after all.
What then, exactly, was he? What was it that made a teacher a teacher, if it wasn’t, as it obviously wasn’t, an expert knowledge of some subject matter? How could it be that I was able to teach, to the complete satisfaction of my colleagues and supervisors, and with no visible detriment to my students, a subject of which I knew practically nothing at first, and of which, after a year of teaching it, I knew just about what anyone could know of it after one year of study? Was there something wrong with that? Was there something wrong with me that I suspected that there was something wrong with that?
It took me many years to find answers to those questions, and, when I did, it wasn’t because I was looking for them. It was because I finally settled in what was called a State Teachers College. (Like Pikes Peak, it had no apostrophe.) As it happens, it is no longer a State Teachers College. The legislature later enacted a long and complicated law which had, as far as I can tell, the sole effect of removing from that title the word “Teachers.” The college has not changed much, except that where it was once unashamedly a teachers’ college, it is now ashamedly a teachers’ college. There I was, and I couldn’t help looking around.
At the end of my first semester, I walked into a classroom where I was to give a final examination. (We don’t do much of that anymore, since it may just be a violation of someone’s rights.) On the blackboard was the final examination that had just been given to some other class. Very neatly written it was, too. The last question–I’ll never forget it–was worth fifty-two percent of the grade: “Draw all the letters of the alphabet, both upper and lower case.” Draw.
There is some truth in the “ivory tower” notion of academic life. I had spent my whole life in one school or another, and I was, of course, faintly aware that I was only faintly aware of what was going on out in the world. When I looked at that blackboard and imagined all those students dutifully “drawing” the alphabet in their blue-books, I realized that I didn’t even know what was going on down at the other end of the hall. Nevertheless, it still didn’t occur to me that this astonishing examination had something to do with those questions that I had long since stopped asking myself.
It turned out, of course, that what I had seen was a final examination in one of those “education” courses, about which, at that time, I knew nothing. Well, that’s not quite true: I did know one thing, because earlier that semester I had looked into a classroom where something amazing was happening. There, in front of the class, stood an unusually attractive young lady, a student, tricked out in a fetching bunny outfit–not the kind you’re probably imagining, just a pair of paper ears pinned into her hair and a stunning puff of absorbent cotton somehow or other tacked on behind and clothes, too, of course, but I can’t recall any details. She was reading aloud, with expression, and even with an occasional hop, from a large book spread out flat at about hip level, glancing down at it remarkably infrequently. Large type. She was doing a practice lesson. I awarded her instantly an A plus.
So I knew two things about the making of a teacher. Both seemed engaging rather than repellent. After all, who can be against legible writing on the blackboard? To be sure, I myself wouldn’t have assigned it a value of more than half the grade on a final examination; perhaps, had it been in my charge to foster, I would simply have required it as a tool of the trade without bestowing upon it any special credit at all. And it did occur to me that what the students drew in their examination books might not be an accurate measure of their skill in drawing the same things on a blackboard, an unusually intractable medium, but the motive seemed good. And as for pretty girls in cunning outfits, what could be more cheering? It seemed to me that those teacher-trainers must be amiable and playful folk with well-developed aesthetic sensibilities and a penchant for drama, in bold contrast to the rest of us who taught what you call “subjects,” dour and narrow people reciting lectures and devising “thought” questions. And who knows? Could it be that I would now actually remember the political consequences of Henry’s sad pilgrimage to Canossa if only my history professor had put on sackcloth and lectured on his knees?
And I began to watch the teacher-trainers in idle moments, in my idle moments, that is, not theirs. They were rarely idle. They were busy rumbling down the hall pushing metal carts laden with projectors and loudspeakers, which they actually knew how to hook up and operate. I could hear them in the next classroom shoving the desks into sociable circles so that, as in King Arthur’s court, no one would be disadvantaged by having to sit below the salt, or breaking up into small groups, so that understanding could be reached by democratic consensus rather than imposed by authority. Sometimes whole classes could be heard singing–a delightful change of atmosphere in precincts otherwise darkened by realism and naturalism and the intellectual despair of eminent Victorians.
All in all, I thought the teacher-trainers harmless and childlike, optimistic and ingenuous. I knew, to be sure, that many of them held what they called doctorates in things like comparative storage systems for badminton supplies and for cafeteria management, but so what? They weren’t pretending to teach anything that called for traditional training in scholarship, were they? Doctorates in education, I remembered from my days in graduate school, are much easier to get than any other kind, but what did that matter? A doctorate, after all was just a union card, a ticket of admission to a remarkably good life, and why shouldn’t those decent and well-meaning people have doctorates just like everybody else? As to whether what they did had any value in the training of teachers, I just didn’t know. I wasn’t curious enough to pay thoughtful attention, and they didn’t seem to be hurting anyone. Live and let live.
So I did. Once the novelty of their techniques wore off, and long before it dawned on me that those techniques were better called “antics,” I just stopped thinking about them. The teacher-trainers were not in my mind at all when I started to publish The Underground Grammarian in 1976. The Bicentennial Year was in my mind, and Tom Paine and even William Lloyd Garrison, and, most of all, the ghastly, fractured, ignorant English that is routinely written and spread around by college administrators, the people charged with the making and executing of policy in the cause of higher education in America. I presumed that those administrators would be the natural prey of a journal devoted to the display of ignorance in unlikely places. It never even struck me then that most administrators were once the teacher-trainers who were not in my mind.
And I will beg your indulgence, reader, in suggesting that when you look at the world and wonder what’s going on, the teacher-trainers are not in your mind. Nuclear weapons and taxes are in your mind, along with politicians and other criminals. Pollution and racial discord are in your mind. Prices double and pleasures dwindle, violence and ignorance multiply and expectations diminish, and all the season’s new television shows are aimed at demented children, and master sergeants have to puzzle out in comic-book style manuals how to pull the triggers on their Titan missiles, and sometimes, in a moment of pure panic, you wonder whether you shouldn’t have voted for Goldwater after all. And when you wave a finger this way and that, trying to point it at someone, anyone, the teacher-trainers are not in your mind.
Sometimes, to be sure, you do suspect and even indict “the schools.” Ah, if only “the schools” would do this or that. But what? Everybody has a formula, sort of. Money, obviously, isn’t the answer. They have money beyond counting. Less money can hardly be the answer–just ask the National Education Association. So what are we to do? Public schools? Private schools? Vouchers? Integration? Remediation? Consolidation? Back to basics? Forward to relevancy in bold innovative thrusts?
Then again, you may not even ask these questions, for to do so is to see a connection that not many Americans have thought to make. Millions of us have nothing at all to do with the schools. We have no children in the schools, and we don’t know what they’re doing, and we don’t much care, except about the taxes we pay to support the enterprise. We can easily think of many things that must be far more important than education, a notably dreary topic in any case. Surely politics is more important than education. So is economics. Technology. National defense. Even art! And the six o’clock news in any city in the land makes it perfectly clear that the most important things that happened in your part of the world today were murders, rapes, and a fire of unknown origin in an abandoned warehouse. And as for the schools, most of us just hope that they’ll teach the children to read and write and cipher someday soon and just not bother us. We have all those important things to worry about and we really can’t be bothered with wondering about whether the schools should experiment with a groundbreaking return to the self-contained classroom.
In fact, the destiny of this land, of any land, is exactly and inevitably determined by the nature and abilities of the children now in school. The future simply has no other resources. And, an even more dismaying fact, because it tells of us, not them, this land as it is today is the exact and inevitable result of the nature and abilities of the schoolchildren that we were. And the things that you think important, everything from the politics to the rapes and murders and fires, are what they are and have for us the meanings that they have precisely because of what we were.
Public education, because it is so nearly universal and because, notwithstanding minor variations, it is a monolithic and self-sustaining institution, has more power to create our national character than anything else in America. While it does not bring us oil shortages or volcanic eruptions, it does determine what we will think and do about such things. It determines what we will feel and how we will do the work of the mind. This should not be surprising. You, and you alone, could do as much if you could somehow manage to influence almost every American child day after day for about twelve years, although, as an individual controlling consciousness, you would probably do a better job in many respects. There is, of course, no individual controlling consciousness in the institution of education–no villain need be–but the institution, like any institution, has a kind of mind and will of its own. It changes, if at all, only very slowly, and, since you don’t find it as important as politics or fire, it changes only at the will of those relatively few people who actually do find it important, because they live by it. Nor is it their will–and why should it be ?–to make any change that is not in their self-interest. “They,” of course are a loosely confederated host of administrators, bureaucrats, consultants, professors, researchers, and Heaven only knows how many other titled functionaries. They are a very diverse group, but they have, with astonishingly rare exceptions, one thing in common. They have all been through the process that we call teacher-training, and most of them have done some of that themselves. They are the people who are not in your mind when you wonder what the hell is happening to us.
And they would never have gotten back into my mind had I not undertaken, for what I now think frivolous reasons, what turned out to be a serious and infuriating study of the use of language, a study that had to lead to a consideration of the meaning of the use of language. That study is, of course, the business of The Underground Grammarian, which has been accurately enough described as a journal of radical, academic terrorism. It is radical because it seeks in language the root of the thoughtlessness that more and more seems to characterize our culture. It is academic both because the tenor of the study to which it subjects the work of its victims is scholastic and because it finds the most egregious examples of mindless and mendacious babble neither in the corporation nor in the Congress but in the schools. It is terrorist because it exploits the fear that many academics feel when they know that their words might appear in print before the eyes of the public, mere civilians who are not members of the education club.
Here is the brief statement of editorial policies that appeared in the first issue of The Underground Grammarian:
The Underground Grammarian is an unauthorized journal devoted to the protection of the Mother Tongue at Glassboro State College. Our language can be written and even spoken correctly, even beautifully. We do not demand beauty, but bad English cannot be excused or tolerated in a college. The Underground Grammarian will expose and ridicule examples of jargon, faulty syntax, redundancy, needless neologism, and any other kind of outrage against English.
Clear language engenders clear thought, and clear thought is the most important benefit of education. We are neither peddlers nor politicians that we should prosper by that use of language which carries the least meaning. We cannot honorably accept the wages, confidence, or licensure of the citizens who employ us as we darken counsel by words without understanding.
My first motives were just about what you would expect from an English teacher: a supposed reverence for that “Mother Tongue,” the noble and ancient language of Shakespeare and Milton and all the others; the notion that the judicious choice of a semicolon was a nice display of what Veblen called “the instinct of workmanship,” a good thing; and especially that sense of smug satisfaction that comes from knowing exactly why to use the word “nice” when making a nice display. There was also the natural, and perfectly justifiable, contempt that any front-line teacher feels for administrators. So many of them seem to be born aluminum-siding salesmen who took a wrong turn somewhere along the line. Nor is that contempt mitigated by the fact that many of them (but by no means all) were once front-line teachers themselves. On the contrary, that reveals what they really think of teaching: a humble and tedious calling useful only as a necessary step to a better life and better pay. There is furthermore, in almost every teacher, a small, dark current of fascism, and the work of administration not only permits but actually encourages it.
I did say, to be sure, that “clear language engenders clear thought, and clear thought is the most important benefit of education,” but that was little more than a recitation. That’s what we’re expected to say in this business, and we keep saying it and nodding, saying it and nodding. And, like most of the things that people are expected to say, it’s true in a way, and false in a way, and not well thought out. There is an important principle to be drawn here: Many of our supposed “ideas” are in fact recitations, recitations not of what we think or understand but of what we simply believe that we believe. Thinking is done in language, and understanding, a result of thinking, is expressed in language, but, when we simply adopt and recite what has been expressed, we have committed neither thinking nor understanding. When the first issue of The Underground Grammarian appeared, I had neither thought about nor understood that lofty proposition about clear language and. clear thought. But the words were there on the page, and they demanded attention.
All that talk about the ability to write letters of application for jobs is bunk; here is the real value of teaching everybody, everybody, to write clear, coherent, and more or less conventional prose: The words we write demand far more attention than those we speak. The habit of writing exposes us to that demand, and skill in writing makes us able to pay logical and thoughtful attention. Having done that, we can come to understand what before we could only recite. We may find it bunk or wisdom, but, while we had better reject the bunk, we can accept the wisdom as truly our own rather than some random suggestion of popular belief. If we have neither the habit nor the skill of writing, however, we have to guess which is the bunk and which the wisdom, and we will almost invariably guess according to something we feel, not according to something to which we have given thoughtful attention.
I had not, in fact, given thoughtful attention to “clear thought” and “clear language” and the ways in which they might relate to each other, but I had at least taken hold of one end of what turned out to be a long and tangled string. An examination, if only of comma faults and dangling participles, had begun. Examination has a life of its own. You simply cannot think about commas and the place of modifiers without finding that you are thinking about thinking. It is impossible to examine language at any level without examining the work of a mind. I knew that Wittgenstein had said that all philosophy was the examination of language, but I assumed, because I wasn’t paying thoughtful attention, that he was referring to the obvious fact that philosophy was about ideas, and that ideas could be read only in language. I don’t think that anymore. I’m convinced that he was talking about language as language, with its commas and modifiers, and especially about writing, a special case of language, permanently accessible.
Consider, for example, the following sentence, which was quoted without comment in a much later issue:
During the 1980-81 school year, the project will provide teachers and administrators with education and support designed to optimize the behaviors and conditions in the school which support student learning to the extent that at least two thirds of the teachers receiving training and support in Expectations will report, on a specifically designed survey, changes in at least two school related operational characteristics that have been identified as critical elements of the network of expectations that support learning.
What we learn from studying that sentence has very little to do with the digest of rules in the back of the composition handbook. It has to do with the nature of a mind and the way it does its work. That is revealing enough, but it’s only the beginning. The mind we see at work in that sentence is not the mind of an isolated eccentric. That writer is a member, and probably in all too good standing, of a community of minds and the inheritor of a massive tradition. It represents what is obviously acceptable to a society of like-minded peers and superiors and subordinates. It speaks, one might say, for the mind of a vast bureaucracy, and, furthermore, since no mind works that way naturally, it must have learned that trick.
When we study that sentence, therefore, we study the intellectual climate of the society in which such work of the mind is not only acceptable but desirable, and we study the traditions and practices that must have formed both the society and the individual mind. That example is in no way extraordinary or even unusual; it is, in fact, typical. (You will know that, of course, if you have any acquaintance with the business of the schools, and, if you haven’t, you’ll soon see for yourself.) So we can ask: What is the intellectual climate of that society? What traditions and practices have formed that climate? Having answers to those questions, we can ask: Why is a society so endowed and so constituted given the task of teaching minds to work well, and how likely is it to succeed in that work?
In speaking of that “society” in such general terms, I have to advise civilians that I do not mean “the teachers,” or at least not simply the teachers. Most people think that teachers are the agents of public education and that all those guidance counselors and curriculum facilitators and others are merely support services. This is not so. Of all the agents of our system of public education, the teachers are by far the least influential, and what they actually accomplish or don’t accomplish in their classrooms has very little to do with the worth of “education” in the large sense. This is not to say that teachers are uninfluenced by the intellectual climate of the system as a whole, far from it, but only that they are the lowliest foot-sloggers in a vast army. Some of them will rise from the ranks and will be no longer teachers. They will become the people whose minds work like the mind of that writer just cited. Indeed, if their minds work that way, they are all the more likely to rise. But as long as they remain teachers they are, and they’re so treated as, mere employees, who may or may not be seeking admittance to the seats of power.
Incipient schoolteachers–I have known hundreds of them–are generally decent young people of average intelligence. Some are stupid, of course, and some rarer few are brilliant. Almost all of them seem a bit more than ordinarily ethical, and I can’t believe that any one of them ever decided to be a teacher for the sake of doing harm. Furthermore, the task of teaching a mind to work well is not a particularly difficult one. Teachers do not have to be brilliant, although they probably shouldn’t be stupid. In short, almost all of those who seek to be teachers are quite capable of being good teachers, but something happens to them on the way to the classroom. They fall into bad company. Here is an example of what they must face:
Pontiffs and Peasants
Unlike socialism, the realm of educationism was never meant to be a classless society. Just now it’s an emasculated feudalism whose few surviving pugnantes have decided to settle down with the unholy but happy Saracens, leaving the miserable laborantes to fend for themselves under the silly governance of the puffed-up orantes. The go-getter, self-promoting grant-grabbers have all wangled themselves cushy consultancies and juicy jobs in government. The wretched tillers of the soil are hoeing hard rows in the public schools and risking life and limb in the cause of minimum competence. The jargon-besotted clergy are bestowing upon each other rich benefices of experiential continua and peddling cheap remediational indulgences, fighting to keep their teacher-training academies growing in an age of closing schools and dwindling faith in bold innovative thrusts in non-cognitive curriculum design facilitation. Fat flocks, fat shepherds. Things do look bad, but let us not despair. The Black Death has been reported in Arizona, and it may yet spread.
It’s not always easy to tell the pontiffs from the peasants. The sumptuary laws no longer apply. In the time of love-beads, both classes wear love-beads; in the time of Levi’s, Levi’s. Our best clue–always the best clue when we want to assess the work of the mind–is the language used by each class, Lumpensprache by the peasants and Pfaffesprache, a classier lingo indeed, by the pontiffs.
Here’s a typical passage of the latter as it appeared, unfortunately without attribution, in an otherwise splendid column by Howard Hurwitz, a syndicated writer on education:
These instructional approaches are perhaps best conceived on a systems model, where instructional variables (input factors) are mediated by factors of students’ existing cognitive structure (organizational properties of the learner’s immediately relevant concepts in the particular subject field); and by personal predispositions and tolerance toward the requirements of inference, abstraction, and impulse control, all prerequisite to achievement in the discovery or the hypothetical learning mode.
So. It may mean that what a student learns depends on what he already knows and on whether or not he gives a damn. For a pontiff of educationism, that’s already a novel and arresting idea, but if he said it in plain English he wouldn’t be allowed to teach any courses in it. Indeed, if he could say it in plain English he would probably have enough sense not to say it, thus disclosing to the world that years of study have brought him at last to a firm grasp on the obvious.
Even when intoning the obvious, however, a pontiff keeps his head down. Did you notice that “perhaps”? He doesn’t actually commit himself to the proposition that approaches are best conceived as a model where variables are mediated by factors; he is willing only to opine that approaches are “perhaps” best conceived as a model where variables are mediated by factors. If that were humility rather than self-defense, it would suit him well, for he seems to think that “conceived” means “understood” and that “mediated” means “mitigated” and that “factors” and “variables” can mean anything at all. He’s not so good with semicolons either.
That point is important. Although inflated with fake erudition, Pfaffesprache always reveals, inadvertently, its roots in the vulgar, but usually honest, Lumpensprache. Thus we find in that passage the defensive errors of the ignorant, who always use too many modifiers and achieve thereby either redundancy or incoherence. There is no need to specify that a student’s “disposition” is “personal” or to elaborate “subject” into “the particular subject field.” We are not enlightened by hearing that a property is organizational or that the relevant is immediately relevant. “The hypothetical learning mode” tells us only that this pontiff is hazy about the meanings of “mode” and “hypothetical” and short on “learning.”
The pontiff, of course, preaches what he practices in some teacher-training academy. Nevertheless, in spite of his baleful influence, many of his students do not adopt his ignorant babble. They cling faithfully to their own ignorant babble.
They become schoolteachers and compose “thought” questions for study guides: “What did the sculpture told the archologists?” They admonish parents: “Scott is dropping in his studies he acts as if don’t care. Scott want pass in his assignment it all, he had a poem to learn and he fell to do it.” When asked to demonstrate their own literacy, they go out on strike, demanding on the placards “quality educacion” and “descent wages.”
Maybe you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but the pontiffs can fool all of the peasants forever. That accounts for the fact that the society of educationism is made up of two apparently dissimilar classes. Deep down where it really counts, they’re equally less than minimally competent.
We can understand why the educationists defend so truculently that bizarre article of their faith which pronounces superior intelligence and academic accomplishment traits not suitable to schoolteachers. Well, they may have a good point there. There’s more than enough violence in the schools already. If we were to send a bunch of bright and able students to study with the hypothetical learning mode pontiff, they’d ride him out of town on a rail and hurry back to burn down the whole damn teacher-training academy.
It seems, at first, a puzzling fact that those who have spent as much as one half of their time in college studying under professors who fancy that they conceive their instructional approaches on systems models mediated by factors can then go out into the world unable to compose complete sentences or even to spell “education.” However, not until quite recently, and then only in response to external demands, have the teacher-trainers thought it their responsibility to see to it that newly graduated teachers could in fact write complete sentences and spell correctly. (We will see later some entertaining examples of what they do in response to those demands.) Those things were the business of the English department people, and if they failed to teach them, well, too bad, the fledgling teachers would just have to do without them.
Furthermore, the students in teacher-training academies are not in fact expected to adopt or even to examine the language of that “mediated by factors” passage. That is the language of the education textbooks, not the language of the classroom, although in education courses whole classes are not infrequently devoted to the reading of some text, as mealtime in monasteries is devoted to Scripture. Should a student ask, for instance, the meaning of the passage cited, he would probably be told something very much like the suggested translation. Should he ask, however, why such an obvious generalization had to be couched in such strange language, I don’t know what answer he would get, but I would bet that he will soon want to reconsider his choice of a calling. Should he take the last step and ask why anyone would think such a banal truism worthy of serious study, then he probably won’t have to reconsider his choice of a calling. His adviser will do that for him.
The passage is only a ritual recitation which is not supposed to be subjected to thoughtful scrutiny. It is a formulized pastiche of acceptable jargon terms and stock phrases. While it has, for the inattentive, a formidable sound, it is the kind of writing that is surprisingly easy to compose for anyone who is familiar with all of its traditional devices. (The craft of making such prose, strangely enough, is similar to what we can find to this day in the extemporaneous epic recitations of mendicant storytellers in the marketplaces of the Near East. They remember and stitch together thousands of recurring epithets, stock descriptions of the hero, his horse, his armor, standardized metaphors and narrative devices. Educationistic prose, however, is usually less stirring than the recitations of clever beggars.) And who, in any case, would want to scrutinize such a passage? Who? A more than ordinarily inquisitive (and perhaps skeptical) student, that’s who. One who might indeed be able to compose a complete sentence and even spell “education.”
Even in teacher-training academics, there are such students. They usually learn to keep their mouths shut, but those who don’t can be a nuisance. They are not only disconcerting in class, but they are likely to give the place a bad name by complaining in public that their education courses seem silly. (Most schoolteachers–go and ask some–will shrug off their education courses as a kind of necessary evil, a “waste of time.” Those courses, however, are a “waste of time” only for the students enrolled in them; for the institution of teacher-training they are immensely profitable.) That is why the pontiffs feel most comfortable when they can in fact preach to peasants, which is one of the reasons (there are others) for that “bizarre article of faith.”
The ordinary civilian, who may very well remember with awe the apparent erudition of some teacher or other, is not generally aware of this strange doctrine, but there is little enthusiasm in the teacher-training business for outstanding intellectual accomplishment in would-be teachers. One claimed theory is that since a teacher must be able to “relate” to the students before any learning can happen, the teacher ought to be as much like the student as possible, very unlikely in the case of an especially intellectual teacher. The democratizing leaven of ignorance, therefore, may be in fact desirable in a teacher. It is also a supposition of educationistic folklore that intellectuals are likely to be more interested in the subjects they teach than in their students, which will make them cold and distant, perhaps even authoritarian. The latter, at least, is hard to quarrel with, for the pronouncements of one who can in fact speak with authority on some subject are by definition “authoritarian.” They are also, however, exactly the pronouncements any thoughtful person would want to hear if he sought knowledge. This doctrine would seem to suggest that if you feel the need of a diet it would be better to consult with a hairdresser than with a physician, for the hairdresser is much easier to relate to than the frosty physician, whose advice, furthermore, would surely be authoritarian.
The tangled evolution of this strange tenet, which is not at all the same as the contention that it doesn’t require more than ordinary intelligence to teach children the work of the mind, will be considered in later chapters. For now, though, we have to consider the problem that it causes for those who hold it. One part of that problem is invisible to the believers: How can we at once denigrate the authoritarianism of the intellectual while adopting in our own pronouncements the tone, if not the substance, of authoritative intellectualism? While that question does not trouble the teacher-trainers, who are simply unmindful of it, it must bother us, eventually. That part of the problem visible to them, probably because it is a matter of clear self-interest, is this: If intellectualism is undesirable, its opposite must be desirable; but the opposite of intellectualism, by whatever name, is hard to champion in a supposedly academic context. It would take a bold professor indeed to come out in favor of ignorance and stupidity and offer in their favor arguments based on knowledge and reason, arguments of the sort that are still expected in some of our colleges and universities. It requires only a presumptuous professor to plump for ignorance and stupidity on other grounds, and this is not unheard of, especially in enthusiasts of drugs and pop pseudo-religions. For the institution of teacher-training as a whole, however, something more publicly defensible is needed, and, since the defense can afford neither kookiness nor the appeal to knowledge and reason, it must rest upon what is likely to prove emotionally acceptable to the largest possible audience.
And there is such a defense. Over and against the overweening demands of scholarly intellectualism, the teacher-trainers have set the presumably unquestionable virtues of what they call “humanism.” They use this term in so many different contexts and to characterize so many different kinds of acts and ideologies that I will not attempt to discuss it fully here. It will just have to grow on you. It does not, as you might think, denote as usual a particular school of thought or slant of philosophical or religious speculation connected especially but not exclusively with the Renaissance, although many who use the term have heard of the Renaissance. This is something closer to “humaneness,” as that word is used by what used to be called the “Humane Society,” an organization that publicly deplored the cruel treatment of horses. One of the aims of “humanistic” educationism is to deplore the cruel treatment of children subjected to the overbearing demands of knowledge, scholarship, and logic by the traditional powers of authoritarian intellectualism.
We will return to that strange “humanism,” for it is one of the two fundamental principles that can be said to make up the underlying theory of education in America. The other is what might be called the iron law of behavior modification. Like Free Will and The Omniscience of God, educationistic humanism and behavior modification are ultimately irreconcilable, and their collisions are at the heart of our educational disorders. The theologians, at least, are not unaware of their stubborn little problem, but the educationists seem oblivious to the contradictions inherent in their two favorite principles. Nor could they abandon either, for in their “humanism” they can pose as philosophers and priests, and as modifiers of behavior they can claim to be scientists and healers. We can consider their claims by looking first at the roots of the presumed science of educationism.