The Wundter of It All

THE TRUE grandfather of modern educationism is neither Horace Mann, who has a bit more to answer for than we usually imagine, nor John Dewey, who in fact has less to answer for than you would conclude from the deeds of people who haven’t read him. Mann had very good intentions, and if he was unable to predict the future of state supported education in an age of ballooning statism, he was hardly alone. Dewey’s thought was so complicated and diverse, and often so muddily expressed, that it is not (much) to his discredit that facile faddists have seized slogans from his books and elaborated them into strange pedagogical practices.

The illuminating spirit, or evil genius, of modern educationism was Wilhelm Max Wundt, a Hegelian psychologist who established the world’s first laboratory for psychological experimentation at the University of Leipzig, where he worked and taught from 1875 to 1920. He dreamed of transforming psychology, a notably “soft” science dealing in vague generalizations and abstract pronouncements, into a “hard” science, like physics. About human behavior, he hoped to make exact and publicly verifiable statements of empirical fact, from which he could go on to do what scientists must do, formulate hypotheses and make predictions subject to the test of observation and experiment.

Those are hardly evil designs, and they are, of course, as Hegel might have warned Wundt had he had the chance, clearly an expression of the Zeitgeist of the late nineteenth century. They are not evil any more than science itself is evil, but their “scientific” intentions take on a strange flavor when we consider that Zeitgeist. That was the age in which Zola embarked on a mighty series of novels, an enterprise that he fancied a genuinely scientific experiment. That’s the point of his now-forgotten book on the novel as a kind of science, Le Roman Experimental: True, we cannot raise whole generations in miniature worlds in the laboratory and chart their deeds and destinies, but we can, if we are sufficiently knowledgeable and disciplined, do pretty much the same thing in a book. Zola, thus, was never without his notebook, in which he jotted, probably to the consternation of all who knew him, his “observations” of (presumably) unguarded human behavior.

That was also the age of Marx and Freud, and the growing suspicion, the worm that late Victorian intellectuals were bound and determined to eat even if it didn’t kill them, that Darwin had shown us only one of the mighty determinisms that governed human behavior and destiny. Who can blame Wundt, therefore, if he imagined that one who knew enough could measure, predict, and even elicit all those things that we call feelings, sentiments, emotions, attitudes, and ideas, to say nothing of mere deeds. But while we are considerately not blaming him, let us call on his own “science” in a rough and ready way, without precise measurements, alas, and be a little suspicious of his motives.

People who make their livings in “soft” sciences and the arts are not entirely at ease in the company of chemists and physicists and other “hard” scientists. In such company, the psychologists and sociologists and the professors of English feel like touch-football enthusiasts who have wandered by mistake into the locker room of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Only true philosophers, not professors of philosophy, are entirely immune to that nasty suspicion that rises in the heart of the “humanist” when he hears about recombinant DNA or quarks. (Well, that’s not quite true. The untempered clod is also immune, a fact whose importance will appear later.) This is a modern condition, and quite unlike that of older times, in which the fledgling “hard” scientists were held in contempt by those who did their work entirely in the mind without the help of apparatus, proper only to artisans. It seems only fair; it’s the alchemist’s revenge.

Wundt, with his laboratory and machines, was certainly trying to better himself and win for his discipline a new kind of legitimacy. It was just for that reason that he attracted so many students, many of them Americans who came home to found schools of educational psychology and psychological testing and to impress upon our whole system of schooling the indelible mark of clinical practice. One of them was a certain James Cattell, who, while playing with some of Wundt’s apparatus, made a remarkable and portentous discovery. Here, in brief, is the story, as told by Lance J. Klass in The Leipzig Connection (The Delphian Press, 1978), a useful little book on the influence of Wundt in the history of American educationism:

One series of experiments Cattell performed while at Leipzig examined the manner in which a person sees the words he is reading. By testing adults who knew how to read, Cattell “discovered” that individuals can recognize words without having to sound out the letters. From this, he reasoned that words are not read by compounding the letters, but are perceived as “total word pictures.” He determined that little is gained by teaching the child his sounds and letters as the first step to being able to read. Since individuals could recognize words very rapidly, the way to teach children how to read was to show them words, and tell them what the words were. The result was the dropping of the phonic or alphabetic method of teaching reading, and its replacement by the sight-reading method in use throughout America.

The consequences of Cattell’s “discovery” have surely been enormous, for they include not only the stupefaction of almost the whole of American culture but even the birth and colossal growth of a lucrative industry devoted first to assuring that children won’t be able to read and then to selling an endless succession of “remedies” for that inability; but Wundt in fact brought us much worse. He brought us the very atmosphere in which such silliness can thrive. Out of the internal exigencies of his “science,” he was led to consider “education” a human phenomenon similar to other human psychic conditions, a conditioned response to stimuli. “Teaching” had to be seen as the application of stimuli that will elicit whatever response we choose to call “learning.” Contrariwise, anyone who has learned something, to read or cipher, for instance, must obviously have done so as a result of being exposed not simply to the substance of his learning, the reading or ciphering, but to some stimulus that probably, but by no means certainly, was visited upon him somewhere in the vicinity of reading and ciphering.

The widespread acceptance of the teaching of reading as inspired by Cattell was possible only where there was already a predisposition to concentrate not on the substance of what can be learned but on some attribute that can be detected in the supposed learner. Exactly that predisposition was provided by Wundt’s view of teaching and learning as psychological stimuli and responses, an arrangement presumed to have its own validity without reference to what was taught and learned. This view was gladly received in the United States, where, as we will see, a growing educationistic establishment made up mostly of people with little or no academic expertise was looking for attractive alternatives to the constricting demands of “subjects.”

Thus it is that our educationists prefer not to treat the multiplication table as something that just has to be learned. They rather think of multiplying as a desirable “student outcome,” a “behavioral modification” of one who does not know how to multiply. This would be only a harmless playing with words if it weren’t for the fact that not all students learn to multiply with equal ease. If we simply think of the multiplication table as a set of numbers that must be learned by brute force, we can demand more force of those who fail to learn. If we think of the ability to multiply as a “behavioral objective,” an appropriate response to stimuli, then the student who doesn’t learn to multiply must drive us to seek other stimuli and perhaps, in stubborn cases, to decide that learning the multiplication table has only limited value for the student outcome of multiplication. From such a view, other follies may flow.

The folly at hand, the word-recognition teaching of reading, is the result of just such tormented thinking. It is perfectly true that people who can read do not stop to sound out letters. That, therefore, is an attribute of readers. So, to the mortally wundted, the path to reading requires the not sounding out of letters as a student outcome, and student behavior must be modified accordingly. Thus, the rare and pesky student who has learned the sounds of some letters must be discouraged, which stimulus will elicit a response characteristic of those who do in fact know how to read. Simple, no?

Leaving aside the incidental, if momentous, destruction of a whole nation’s ability to read, we have still two far more important and ominous legacies from Wundt. We can afford to leave the reading problem aside because it is only a practice, a practice that can change, and, in fact, does show signs of changing. But the major principles that generated and maintained that practice show no signs of changing, and those principles generate and maintain numerous other unnatural practices and will yet bring us more. They can be put thus:

  1. Mental and emotional conditions and events are natural phenomena subject to natural law and fully subsumable in a rigidly scientific system.
  2. Teaching and learning are mental and emotional conditions and events.

In another context, of course, there would be no need to make of the second a “principle” equal in weight to the first, but here it seems useful. These principles are ominous legacies not because they are false. For all I know, and for all anyone knows, they may be true. But that wouldn’t make them ominous either, although it certainly would lead me to drop this project, and all others, here and now. What makes them ominous is that they are utterly, for humanity in its present state at least, beyond our powers to test. They require what we seem unable to achieve, the total understanding of human beings by human beings. We lack that. And, for all the promises of our Freuds, Marxes, and Wundts, we seem no closer to it then ever before. We may assume what suits us, of course, about the nature of humanity, and when we act on our assumptions, consequences will flow accordingly. American educationists have assumed the truth of Wundt’s principles, in spite of the fact that few of them have ever heard of Wundt, and the consequences are what we see.

It is possible to imagine–in fact, you don’t have to imagine, for Marx makes a good example–some meticulously logical and disciplined thinker who, having made assumptions something like Wundt’s, could derive from them an iron system, complete and internally consistent. Such might have been the nature of American education today had Wundtian psychology been adopted by expert and learned thinkers. But it was in fact adopted by the educationists, who already saw themselves as the appointed democratic supplanters of learned and expert thinkers, remnants of an elitist authoritarianism. When the principles of Wundt are taken up by people actually hostile to academic learning and traditional intellectualism, strange consequences will flow. Thus it is that educationistic thought and language have a disconcerting hermaphroditic quality, for the educationist is committed on the one hand to the proposition that human qualities are quantifiable and predictable (through the work of the intellect, presumably, for how else can we quantify and predict?), and on the other hand to the proposition that the practice of the intellect is of less significance and “value” than the possession of certain human qualities.

Here is an excerpt from The Underground Grammarian that shows how the automatic if unknowing adherence to Wundt’s principles, in combination with the disorder of the intellect enforced by anti-intellectualism, causes things to happen in the schools and teacher academies:


The Most Unkindest Cutting Edge of All

In March of 1979, we printed some gabble by a then-unidentified doctoral candidate at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. It was about “a short extrapolation to the prediction of transpersonal innovations from self-actualization traits.” Ten months later, the writer was identified as Robert D. Waterman. The man who fingered him was a colleague, James Dyke, who wanted not the handsome reward we had offered, but rather to rebuke us for our treatment of Waterman.

Having pointed out, as though it made a difference, that Waterman’s degree was not in guidance but in Educational Management/ Development, Dyke said further:

I hold little faith in your critical abilities with respect to Bob Waterman until such time that you can demonstrate that you can handle the cutting edge of the exploration of ideas without bleeding.

And he even sent along an actual piece of the cutting edge, Waterman’s complete abstract and a thin slice from Chapter II of the dissertation, “Value and Philosophical Characteristics of Transpersonal Teachers.”

We admit that we have no “critical abilities with respect to Bob Waterman,” but Dyke may have meant something other than what he wrote. The critical abilities that we do seek are those that enable us to write exactly what we mean. They would also find “until such time that” a silly inflation of “until,” and an example of the thoughtlessness so common in freshman compositions.

Well, no matter. Dyke doesn’t claim to be the cutting edge. So let’s take up his challenge and try to handle the edge itself. We’ll start with the very edge of the edge, Waterman’s first paragraph. Mind your fingers:

Though an increasing interest on the part of the educational community is being shown in transpersonal teaching, the literature reflects a lack of empirically based studies concerning the teacher characteristics associated with its adoption. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to attempt to identify characteristics (values, attitudes, and teaching philosophy) pertinent to transpersonally oriented non-public school teachers and to compare and contrast those characteristics to those of public school oriented teachers.

We expected some incisiveness out there on the cutting edge, but the first paragraph is clouded by uncertainty and imprecision:

♣ Like other educationists, Waterman evades clear declarations and active verbs, as though he were afraid to take any chances even on a bland generalization like the assertion that somebody is showing interest in something. He retreats into an awkward and periphrastic jumble, saying that increasing interest “on the part” of somebody is “being” shown in transpersonal teaching. (Let’s get to that later.)

♣ The timidity of educationistic prose is not simply a stylistic twitch. It expresses an uncertain mind and the fear of challenge. That “literature” named by Waterman either lacks something or it doesn’t, but he will say only that it “reflects” a lack. Likewise, he assigns himself not exactly the task of “identifying” but only of “attempting” to identify something or other–just in case.

♣ In what way, we wonder, is a characteristic “pertinent to” some teachers different from a characteristic “of” some teachers? What can we suppose about the mind that prefers the former to the latter?

♣ Are those “public school oriented teachers” actually teachers in public schools, or could they be teachers anywhere who just happen to be obsessed with thinking about the public schools? Could they even be teachers who face in the direction of public schools?

Enough. The cutting edge in New Mexico is indeed blunted and ragged, and probably septic as well, and it was thoughtful of Dyke to warn us of the horrible wound it might inflict. Let’s get out the long tongs.

Educationists feel secure, or as secure as they can feel, when they can prattle about the unmeasurable. If you natter about attitudes and values, no one can prove you a fool by pointing to some facts. However, while the retreat from the measurable provides comfort for the educationist, it makes it hard for him to claim, as he would so dearly love to, that “education” actually is a body of knowledge and that his Faculty Club card should not be stamped: “Valid only when accompanied by an adult.” What a dilemma.

Many doctoral candidates in education just head for the nearest exit. They bestow upon us “conclusive findings” as to the efficacy of yellow traffic lines on the cafeteria floor and the number of junior high school girls in the suburbs of Duluth who elected badminton rather than archery.

For those who want to do serious research way out there on the cutting edge, however, a trickier dodge is needed, and the education academy is quick to supply it. Most D.Ed. programs require of their candidates no competence in foreign languages, which makes them attractive and accessible to those whose verbal abilities are meager. It assures that those abilities will remain meager, too, lest the teacher academies hatch out some thankless bird capable of seeing, and telling the world, that the teacher-training professors just can’t make sense. The teacher-trainers, therefore, make virtue of necessity by claiming that an educationistic scholar doesn’t need verbal skill anyway, but a one-semester course in statistics instead. And that’s why their “research” bristles with commensurate model analyses and stepwise regression strategies.

Now we can look at Waterman’s “transpersonal teaching.” In the pages that we have, there is no definition, but we know that

the personal characteristics related to transpersonal teaching are: (I) a view of man as essentially and inherently good at his core, (2) that the locus of power and authority in one’s life is within the individual, and (3) that when dealing with life situations it is most effective to apply one’s values to a solution with flexibility, and free of preconceptions or prejudice.

We already know how Waterman writes, so we’re not surprised by redundancy or jargon, or even that disconcerting violation of parallelism. What does surprise us is that the work of the mind way out there on the cutting edge of the exploration of ideas sounds so much like a mimeographed prospectus for a nondenominational Sunday-school class to be taught by some amiable but slightly addled addict of popular self-help paperbacks and magazine articles about the cutting edge of the exploration of ideas in Marin County.

Waterman’s values, quasi-theological and pseudo-philosophical, can become objects of “research” only to educationists. First they circulate questionnaires, either homemade or, as in Waterman’s case, prefabricated by other educationists. Then they tabulate the “answers,” which are usually spaces filled in or numbers checked by captives eager to finish a stupid questionnaire. The answers reveal, of course, only what the answerers have chosen to say, which may or may not reveal what they feel or believe. In fact, it probably does not, especially in this “research.” Even nontranspersonal teachers know enough not to give straight answers to prying busybodies.

Most of us can see a difference between a study of angels and a study of testimony about angels. Waterman sees that the R² of Self-Regard is .0123, and, of Inner-Directed, a hefty .4544. Existentiality’s R² is a modest .0460. Yeah. And next year he’s going to whip off Weltschmerz and Ennui, and we’ll know exactly how we feel about the cutting edge of the exploration of ideas in New Mexico.

In the meantime, though, we are going to cook up a little “empirically based study” of our own. We’re just dying to find out some nifty data about the R² of Hubris.


It would surely be an injustice to Wundt, who was meticulously intelligent, by all accounts, to think that he would be a party to the granting of a doctorate, even in Educational Management/Development, for such cloudy work. Nevertheless, he asked for it. The presumed method of Waterman’s “empirically based study” promises to quantify mental and emotional conditions and events in publicly verifiable measurements. Those strange numbers, left unexplained in the original article, are typical of the measurements. They are determined statistically by counting up and manipulating the answers to the questionnaires. Such is the educationist’s equivalent of the scientific method, and even Wundt would reject it.

There is no counting the doctorates in education that have been awarded to those who have done nothing more than tabulate the answers to questionnaires. That such degrees are so common, however, is not only because the work is easy, bad enough, but also because the supposed objects of study often cannot be known directly. When they can, in fact, they are obviously trivial. When all the badminton and archery coaches have sent in their completed questionnaires, then you know something about the junior high school girls in the suburbs of Duluth. Or, to be more exact, you know what the badminton and archery coaches say about those girls. Nevertheless, the nature of the knowledge is such that it is publicly verifiable through direct observation. But it is of very limited use and will not bring great renown to its discoverer.

On the other hand, the nature of knowledge about the “values, attitudes, and teaching philosophy” of “transpersonal teachers” does not recommend such knowledge as verifiable through observation. We do not “see” such things; we can only make inferences about them. We do not even know what “transpersonal” might mean, for its form, analogous to “transcontinental,” suggests nothing rational. Nor can we figure it out by imagining its antonym, i.e., what would we mean if we said that some teacher was “nontranspersonal.” When we are told the “personal characteristics related to transpersonal teaching,” we learn only that teachers who seem to have these certain beliefs rather than others are being called “transpersonal,” but the term distinguishes them only from the nontranspersonal teachers, who, presumably, do not have those beliefs. And a surly pack of misanthropes and defeatists they must be.

Never mind. Educationists love to sound technical, and they have a penchant for giving important-sounding names to things that need no names at all. In that fashion, for instance, they do not call a very small class a very small class or helping one student helping one student. They decide that such things are properly named “micro-teaching.” It may seem to you that it doesn’t make any difference, but it turns out to make a big difference indeed. You cannot write dissertations and articles, you cannot teach courses in teacher academies, you cannot get grants of public money, you cannot hire out as a consultant, you cannot set up a project and assemble a staff, if all you’re going to do is talk about very small classes and the fact that a teacher will often help one student. You can do all of those things, and more, if you are an expert in micro-teaching. Thus Waterman, by giving a classy name to people who would otherwise be nothing more than reasonably kind, confident, and resourceful teachers, provides himself with a topic worthy of serious study.

Well, nice people are nice, no doubt. But how do we know that, and how can we decide which are the nicer nice people and by precisely how much they are nicer? This is the kind of concern that modern educationism has inherited from Wundt’s by now much-debased principles. And answers are sought not by recourse to evidence but by the gathering of testimony, testimony invariably and inevitably tainted by subjectivity. It would be bad enough that such methods nullify the value of educationistic “research.” What is far worse is that such research becomes the pattern for the study of “education” generally. Students of teacher-training are continuously exposed to such presumed methods of inquiry. Since they spend so much of their time in education courses, they can have little training in rigidly scientific disciplines, even if they intend to teach them, and they are easily bamboozled into thinking that this kind of exercise is science. Their bewilderment has to be compounded by the fact that this putative science is about things which, for other purposes than dissertations, educationists will claim as human “values” to be inculcated as separate from “mere” intellectual attainments. Those are things like Waterman’s Self-Regard, Existentiality, and Inner-Directed (which desperately needs a substantive).

The educationistic mind is deeply divided against itself. It wants to follow Wundt and believe that teaching and learning are objectively measurable phenomena and that those who study teaching and learning are therefore scientists and worthy of chairs in colleges and universities. At the same time it wants to contend that the profoundly important results of an education, especially the education of a teacher, are attitudes, values, and “philosophies” that transcend cognition. Waterman, an educationist, asks this kind of question: How do public and private school teachers compare with each other in their Existentiality? He who asks after the degree of your Existentiality may just as well ask for a numerical value for your hunger, and will, in either case, simply have to accept what you tell him. Such “research” wouldn’t even make an interesting parlor game.

But what else can Waterman, or any orthodox educationist, do? He is not likely to ask, for instance: How do public and private school teachers of mathematics compare with each other in their knowledge of mathematics? That question could be answered in publicly verifiable measurements. But it is not an answer that a prudent educationist would want, and it would probably not win you a doctorate in any graduate school of education in America. Your committee will throw you out for several reasons: Since the teaching of anything is the design and application of appropriate stimuli, the teacher’s knowledge of mathematics, although there ought to be some, is not what makes him a teacher. We do not teach mathematics just so that students can do mathematics, but for a higher purpose, for the inculcation, perhaps, of an appreciation of Logic and Rationality; so you would be better to seek findings about Logic/Rationality Appreciation, which is exactly as easy to measure as Existentiality. Your research is, in any case, likely to give a false impression, since many private school teachers, to the detriment of their professionalism, are not legitimately certified and have probably taken more courses in mathematics than in education, which makes their possibly superior knowledge of mathematics a matter of no consequence.

In other words: Measurable things are not important; unmeasurable things are paramount. Let us therefore measure only the unmeasurable. Of course, Wundt never dreamed of measuring the unmeasurable. He claimed rather that the psychological conditions and events of humanity were not unmeasurable at all, and that the task of psychological science was to discover how to measure them. He did not suggest that we go around asking people how they felt, however, for reasons that are perfectly obvious to anyone with any rudimentary understanding of science. But he did hold, for equally obvious reasons, that the study of human psychology required the direct observation of human beings. That tenet of Wundtianism, hardly startling, has been happily accepted by educationists, for if there is one thing they have always at hand it is a large collection of captive human beings.

You have surely heard of “child-centered” education, that process that will educate the “whole child.” It sounds so decent. What could be better than centering on the child, the whole child, no less? But what, exactly, do half-baked neo-Wundtians mean when they speak of “child-centered” education? Here is an article that provides some evidence toward an answer to that question:


The Nonredundant Interactive Relationship of Perceived
Teacher Directiveness and Student Personological
Variables to Grades and Satisfaction

Recent research has shown that a number of student variables–authoritarianism, dogmatism, intelligence, conceptual level, convergent-divergent ability, locus of control, anxiety, compulsivity, need for achievement, achievement orientation, independence-dependence, and extraversion-introversion–may moderate the relationship between teacher directiveness and grades and satisfaction. There is a fair degree of moderate intercorrelation among these student variables and such intercorrelation suggests that some of the found interactive relationships may be overlapping or redundant. The purpose of the present research is to develop multivariate mathematical models of the interactive relationships using stepwise regression strategies. Such models should facilitate a more parsimonious interpretation of the interactive relationships which are . . .

We were going to show you all of that mess and even give you the name and address of the chappie who made it, but we can’t. Before our typesetter was able to finish, a member of our staff borrowed the original (and only) copy and took it to Texas. There, while fumbling for his entry permit at the Immigration Control Office, he lost the evidence. Maybe it’s just as well. There’s no telling what those Rangers might have done had they caught him with a smoking dissertation abstract. They don’t cotton much to that kind of stuff down there.

We can tell you, at least, that the original came from Calgary, Alberta, and we have to hope, if justice is ever to be done, that the Mounties don’t want any of this stuff in their country either. They shouldn’t have much trouble getting their man–and his sidekick–in this case. The author and his dissertation adviser were so proud of themselves that they had their photographs printed right on the page with the evidence. Perfectly decent and respectable young fellows they seemed, too. Who would have thought it?

Since personology must be too subtle a science for the likes of us, we cannot explain how “personological” variables might be different from differences in persons. We would guess, though, that “student” variables are young variables studying to become teacher variables. And we’re a little disappointed by that list of student variables, a measly twelve items. In the better teacher academies, you’d never get a doctorate for such a skimpy, or “parsimonious,” elaboration of the obvious commingled with the incomprehensible.

The most instructive thing about the passage is that its pretentiousness is eloquently, although inadvertently, undone by its timidity. Notice that all those nifty variables may “moderate the relationship.” Educationists won’t take chances, even on the obvious and simple. After all, how can we be sure, without multivariate mathematical models of the interactive relationships, that different people feel different about different things?

Of course, should this research achieve its goal, we might have to change our opinions. A “parsimonious interpretation” of a “fair” degree of “moderate” intercorrelation is not to be sneezed at. Before such an awesome discovery, we’d just have to back off, treading cautiously in our best stepwise regression strategies.


Let’s try to imagine some possible facts and events that might incite such an undertaking, that is, the development of multivariate mathematical models of interactive relationships. First, be careful to remember something that might easily blow away in the storm of jargon–all of this has something to do with children in school. So we can imagine: There are some children in school. They are, in some ways, different from each other, that is, they have (could that be the right word?) different student variables. They get grades in school, probably some good, some bad, some indifferent. They are, or are not, as the case may be, “satisfied,” either by school, or by their grades, or by both, in various degrees. They “perceive,” or not, maybe, something called “teacher-directiveness.” How can these things be seen as functions of one another?

Before we can begin this research, we have to be clear about some things that might confuse mere laymen. Notice first that whether a teacher actually is “directive” or not is not at issue; all that matters is whether a student “perceives” a teacher as “directive.” This is child-centered research. Although grades do go into the hopper, it’s not because we are interested in what a student has learned or how that can be measured, but because we want to know about the student’s “satisfaction,” which depends only in part on his grade, which must be factored in with his own perception of directiveness and his own student variables. This is still child-centered research.

Bearing in mind those warnings, we can now proceed with our research. If we are successful, we can expect to be able to answer questions like this:

Who will be more satisfied with a B plus, a moderately intelligent student with better than average convergent-divergent ability but little if any locus of control, or a very bright, dogmatic student who shows normal achievement orientation but no compulsivity to speak of and does not, unlike the first student, perceive the teacher as directive?

You can devise other such examples for yourself. The possibilities are probably infinite. None of them, however, will have any objective meaning, which would require a precise numerical evaluation of hosts of human traits, beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, and emotions. In fact, that kind of study must end exactly where it begins, in a vague generalization. You and I, if asked and forced to answer, could also have said that there may be a fair degree of moderate intercorrelation between a person’s characteristic traits and the way he feels about things. This is the kind of revelation that educationistic research provides.

It does that useless work, obviously more for profit than for fun, since it is impossible that even the dullest educationist can find the ecstasy of discovery in such an enterprise, precisely because it is child-centered. Here in the shadow of Wundt, education and the presumable content of an education are not the objects of the educationist’s concern. It is the children, the students, who are to be studied, for the education is something that is being done to them with certain modifications in mind. While the originally intended modification may be nothing more than changing children who can’t add into children who can, the process of modification itself is obviously more likely to produce a “scholarship” of the kind just cited than a mere counting of those who can add and those who can’t. That scholarship, you surely noticed, is not about what children may have learned and how, but about how they feel; and it isn’t even about how they feel about what they may have learned, but about how they feel about their grades and their teacher. If we could hope to learn anything from such research, it would be not about education but about children. But, following Wundt, that is exactly what we need to know, for “education” is the psychologically appropriate manipulation of learners. If that is so, the more we know about the manipulee the better.

That view of “education” is not entirely without merit. Some things can be taught to some people just that way, although the system works far more dependably with horses and dogs. But human beings are immensely different from one another even while they are very much alike, and even the most avidly child-centered educationists have not yet suggested an educational system in which every child, after a stupefying battery of psychological tests, is assigned a perfectly matched teacher, who has also had all those tests. Therefore, the teaching of anything has to be a compromise, a generalized set of stimuli aimed at producing the desired responses in most of the children. In some cases, therefore, it is bound to fail.

Several things can happen when education fails, none of them good. No. I will be more precise. None of them can be good as long as we think of education as the design of appropriate stimuli to produce certain behavior in an individual human being. If we do think that, then there are three things we can think of doing when some students fail to learn, since there are three factors in our equation–the stimulus, the student, the response.

We can change the stimulus. This is a big job, for it requires changing an already institutionalized compromise designed to elicit the right response from as many children as possible, a massive system. Nevertheless, it has been done. Every simplified revision of some already simplified text is just such a change, and so is the widespread use of films and even television programs in place of books. When such a change is made, of course, it is made in the supposed interests of those who have failed to respond appropriately. That accounts for the fact that methods of instruction are designed to accommodate not the most ordinary children, but those who learn most slowly.

We can also change the expected response. If some children do not seem to learn history, we can decide to teach them civic pride and responsibility instead. This is especially attractive if we have already decided that civic pride and responsibility might well be the proper student outcomes of the study of history anyway. This is a common device, of which I will have more to say in the next chapter.

We can even try to change the student. This is hardest of all, but educationists never give up. On this matter, too, there is much to say later, but for now we must look at what happens in the Wundtian system before or unless such a change can be made. What follows, along with some notably ghastly language, is a display of one of the educationist’s most cherished devices, the psychological manipulator’s last resort:


Nobody Here But Us Professionals


The works of Weischadle, associate professor of education at Montclair State College in New Jersey, can be studied at length in the New Jersey section of The New York Times for July 16, 1978. His piece is called, naturally, “Educating the Parents.”

Mass illiteracy he easily dismisses as a matter of “problem youngsters,” but those uppity parents who are beginning to complain about illiteracy–they need to be taught a lesson. They can vote! If we don’t straighten those malcontents out right away, they might end up listening to demagogues and voting against some of our favorite monies. Worse yet, and it’s with this fear that Weischadle begins his finger-wagging, some of them might win those malpractice suits that they’re discussing with their lawyers.

Weischadle protests that even if illiteracy were the fault of the schools, that wouldn’t mean that the schools were to blame. Here’s the delicate way he puts it:

Have the critics been fair to the schools? To the extent that schools are responsible for a youngster’s educational growth, the critics have dealt with the right party. However, it does not necessarily mean that professionals in the schools are inept. It does mean that educational leadership has failed to articulate the problem effectively and carry out the necessary programs.

It’s hard to know exactly what Weischadle means by that “articulate.” First we thought that the “professionals” had been unable to utter intelligible sounds, for that reading does reflect experience. However, in this kind of writing, no “professional” would ever waste a nifty word like “articulate” on such a simple thought. Next we guessed that the man might be saying that the “professionals” had been unable to define the problem thoroughly and accurately. That, too, we had to reject. Such inability would be remarkably similar to ineptitude in “professionals,” surely, but Weischadle says they’re not inept. Only one possibility remains: “To articulate the problem effectively” must mean to find some description that will keep irate parents from thinking that the “professionals” are inept. Of course! That’s just what Weischadle’s is up to in this piece–educating the parents.

He does some pretty fancy articulating as well. Where do they learn that language? In the ordinary graduate school, candidates are expected to be competent in a couple of foreign languages, but in those education places they know that skill in language will cripple the budding “professional” by enabling him to say things plainly. You get no monies that way. Straight talk would mean the end of effective articulation as we know it.

Here are some examples of bent talk from Weischadle’s little piece. He won’t say that people are talking about something; he says that “much recent discussion has focused on” it. He can’t say, “Hurry”; he says that “delay should not be allowed to take place.” He can’t say that people should use wisely what they have; he says that “an enlightened utilization . . . must be present.” He can’t say that the people who deal out discipline should be consistent; he says that “the haphazard application of disciplinary action . . . must be eliminated.” He can’t say, “Don’t worry.” He says that “uneasiness should be settled.”

Still, we worry. For one thing, there is no clear meaning in the settling of uneasiness. In fact, it sounds ominous. If the settling of uneasiness has the same effect as the settling of terms or plans, we don’t want any part of it. For another, how can we take any comfort from a teacher of teachers who condescends, in broken English, to explain why we should have “complete confidence” in him and other “professionals,” so that they may get on, unhampered by our ill-informed and amateurish complaints, with the “acquisition . . . of monies to enact better programs” that will, this time around, solve the illiteracy problem ?

In these examples of Weischadle’s tortured English, the grammatical subjects are things, not persons, and abstract things at that. All things that must be done by people, but we see no people. This language suggests a world where responsible agents, the doers of deeds, have been magically occulted by the deeds themselves. A weird structure of that sort, “utilization must be present,” for example, has the merit (?) of excusing somebody from an obligation to use something. If things go wrong, therefore, it’s not any person’s fault; it’s just that utilization wasn’t present.

Such structures, furthermore, often generate certain morally flavored auxiliary verbs: “delay should not”–“application must,” etc. This is another grammatically symbolized cop-out which implies that moral obligation falls upon deeds rather than doers. It is up to those negligent deeds to get themselves done. This is convenient for those “professionals” who won’t be able to do them.

Normal English, in its typical structure, a simple sentence in the active voice, implies a world where agents perform acts. There are times when we would wish it otherwise, and in our minds we can devise subterfuges that will make it seem otherwise. We do the business of the mind in language, and we make our subterfuges of the same stuff. Weischadle, in his grammatical gyrations, is not just writing bad English; he is positing a certain kind of world. In that world, one can parler sans parler like Castorp and reject in advance all responsibility for what one says. Here’s how Weischadle does it–indeed, how almost anyone of those “professionals” would do it: “The pre-school years have been recognized as being important formulative years.”

He probably means “formative,” although he may be thinking that the pre-school years are the years spent sucking a formula from bottles–but no matter. The important thing is the grotesque contortion by which he escapes having to say that the pre-school years are formative, or, if you like, formulative. It matters not at all to the “professional” that what he has to say is obvious and banal and widely enough known that it needs no saying; he still finds a way to evade responsibility for having said it. In this timid language of misdirection and abdication, no one would dare stand forth and proclaim that a turkey is a turkey. He might mutter, tentatively, that a turkey has been recognized as being a turkey–although not necessarily by him.

Into such prose, human beings vanish. No wonder we couldn’t discover Weischadle’s salary. He has withdrawn into the precincts of the passive voice. He has given over all doing of deeds and drawn up about him the mists of circumlocution. Far from our ken, he has sojourned in the land of the self-eliminating application and followed the spoor of the place-taking delay. He is, by now, by gloomy night and periphrastics compassed round. He is, in short, or sort of short, no longer recognized as being Weischadle. Now we see the truth. There is no Weischadle.


What could be more obvious? When the object of a psychological manipulation fails to respond in the usual way, there must be something wrong with him. This conclusion is the same as the neurologist’s, for whom the failure of a knee to jerk has one ominous significance. In Wundt’s psychology, the mind itself is held to be, must be if the system is to be concretely scientific, a neurological phenomenon, and a predisposition against arithmetic must be a psycho-neurological aberration. Thus we must conclude, when children fail to respond appropriately to tested stimuli, that they have learning problems. That being so, it becomes the aim of educational research to find out all about learning problems and to discover, naturally, that the schools are full of “problem youngsters” harboring hosts of hitherto unsuspected “learning disabilities.” From this preoccupation with pathology, the teacher-training profession takes many benefits.

One of them, of course, is simply the opportunity to do what can pass for scholarship or research, which leads to promotion and pay and to government grants. There would be little hope of such things in a simpler calling like plumbing. Plumbers install plumbing, and, when something goes wrong with the plumbing, they fix it. They don’t care how the pipes feel about it. Teaching reading and arithmetic is much more like plumbing than you probably think. If you know how to read and cipher, you can, if you want to, teach those skills to almost any child in America. The chances are, too, that you will do a better job of it, and in a shorter time, than the schools. If you know a lot about mathematics and have paid thoughtful attention to language, you can do a much better job, and better by far, probably, than anything you can manage with your plumbing. But if the teaching of children were handled that way, simply by people who knew the skills and knowledge they were teaching, and who wanted simply to teach them, then a vast and comfortable empire would fall.

That empire is not, however, the empire of the schools. It is the empire of the teacher-training establishment. Most of what is taught and studied in the teacher academy has nothing to do with the subject matter that the teacher-trainees will someday teach. Teacher-training is itself “child-centered,” and the teacher-trainees are themselves among the children. That’s why so many education courses are devoted either to “enhanced self-awareness” or to a clinical scrutiny of children as psychological entities. The training of teachers is thus a miniature lampoon of the training of the psychoanalyst, who must first be analyzed so that he may do unto others as has been done unto him. The incipient teachers are to be, in fact, therapists, keen to discover, if unable to treat, vast arrays of “learning disabilities” and “problem youngsters.” Teacher-training, therefore, is a colossal and terribly serious enterprise. It calls for more and more courses and workshops and “hands-on” laboratory “experiences” and in- and pre-service training, all of which require larger and larger faculties and counselors and facilitators and support services and more and more money. Without Wundt, none of this would be possible, and the teaching of children would be degraded into nothing more than an honest, honorable, skilled trade.

Wundt may have been wrong, but he was honest. He just wanted to know what he thought could be known. His bequest to us, marvelously transformed, is essentially a metaphor, an ideal paradigm of the process of education. We seem to imagine that there is something “wrong” with children, and that we must fix it. But by that “wrongness” we don’t mean something simple to fix, like the perfectly normal ignorance of arithmetic in one who has not been taught arithmetic. We mean something more like a perverse bias against arithmetic, an innate predisposition whose remedy lies in some “treatment” or other. We can see that the treatment, therefore, must take priority, for the arithmetic depends on the treatment, the modification of behavior. Thus we will first make the student whole, through devising and applying appropriate stimuli, so that he can, if it still seems desirable, learn his arithmetic. This paradigm does not include the proposition, certainly questionable but just as certainly intriguing, that we can make the student whole by teaching the arithmetic.

The Seven Deadly Principles