Problem-Solving in the Content Area

WHEN we find ourselves wondering about the meaning of conditions and events, it is always useful to ask, who profits? The problems and disorders in education have become more and more visible in the last few years, of course, and even the ordinary citizen who happens to have no children in the schools suspects that something is very wrong, but he will never understand exactly what is wrong until he realizes that all our educational problems and disorders, none of which are new, although they are more obvious, provide endless and growing employment for the people who made them. Barely literate children may be suffering and facing whole lives of deprivation, but consultants and remediationists and professors of reading education and tax-supported researchers and the editors and publishers of workbooks and handsome packets of materials are doing very well indeed and looking for even better days to come. It is important to note, too, that all those profit-makers have not suddenly appeared among us like the wandering bands of looters who can reasonably be expected to show up after the earthquake. They’ve been around a long time, diligently turning the wheel, professing what must be remediated and remediating what has been professed and enlarging in our society the role of what can only be called the educationist-industrial complex. Anything that may seem to us a disorder in education is for them a golden opportunity–indeed, since they live by tax money, they cannot make their profits until we do see a disorder in education and thus feel obliged to shell out.

Curiously enough, therefore, it is very much in the interest of the policymakers and theoreticians of public schooling that there be problems and failures and that we know about them and also, even more curiously, that any kind of social disorder at all be made the business of the schools. We are encouraged thus to hand over to the educationists not only the problem of widespread illiteracy but also the notorious disinclination of the American voter to trouble himself by going to the polls, the fear and hatred of each race for the others, and the epidemic of venereal disease among thirteen-year-olds.

Sometimes, especially when defending themselves against the charge that they just don’t know how to teach reading and writing and ciphering, the educationists complain that they are unfairly burdened by “public demand” for all sorts of social but nonacademic services and instruction. But, in fact, as any reader of Cardinal Principles would know, they chose long ago to be social engineers rather than academicians, claiming, too, that they had chosen the nobler calling. It would be interesting to put them to the test, offering them the opportunity to give up all that thankless inculcation of right and worthy feelings and habits and stick to teaching only what can be objectively taught and measured. It would, however, take an enlightened and thoughtful public to make that offer, and the influence of Cardinal Principles makes an enlightened and thoughtful public impossible. For all their occasional whimpers, therefore, the educationists are delighted to take upon themselves the right ordering of society, which is, in any case, even more profitable than the cycle of professing and remediating general public illiteracy.

Now here is an interesting and suggestive fact: The seven cardinal principles can be divided, and were in fact divided by their propounders, into two categories. In one category, the category that the educationists themselves have come to call the “cognitive domain,” we can put only one principle, the Command of Fundamental Processes, or Basic Minimum Competence. You will recall that once the principle-makers had named the Command of Fundamental Processes they could think of little more to say about it. There is a fascinating truth hidden in that fact: Educationistic research flourishes where it is possible to say a lot about what is vague and withers where there is little or nothing to say about the concrete. About right emotional response to literature you can natter forever; about adding numbers to each other, what else is there to do but teach it? It is partly for that reason, of course, that all the other six principles are in what they now call the “affective domain,” where there is no limit to talk. Even vocational education, which you might think would be very concrete indeed, is to be a vehicle for various worthy responses, “right relationships toward fellow workers and society,” and even that “clear conception of right relations” between employer and employee, the sort of thing thought useful in East Germany, too. And it is perfectly clear, from Cardinal Principles itself and from educationistic theory and practice thereafter, that educationists are much more interested in the six other principles than in the Command of Fundamental Processes. This is so not only because the Six can generate more verbiage than the One, but because the consequences of schooling in the One are embarrassingly measurable, while the consequences of schooling in the Six are not only impossible to measure but usually not even discernible for so many years that, when they do begin to appear, the people who caused them will all be dead, or at least retired. Thus it is that our educationists are far readier to offer solutions to disorders in their affective domain than in their cognitive.

Consider, as a trendy example, sex. In a sane civilization, to be sure, the citizens would tell the school people that the sexual attitudes and values of the young were none of the school’s damn business and that they ought to stick to facts, but we don’t do it that way. Our schools have been granted the sex concession by virtue of those cardinal principles that put them in charge of Health, in one context, and Worthy Home-membership, in another. And then there is also the Worthy Use of Leisure. Thus chartered, the educationists who have long dabbled in what they call sex education have now, now that unabashed and self-indulgent libertinism has brought upon us great plagues of divorce, illegitimate births, venereal diseases, and all the social and economic and personal disorders attendant on such things, come into their kingdom. Sex education is in bloom in America.

And what form does it take? What form can it possibly take when it is devised by the inheritors of the cardinal principles and the manipulators of stimulus and response? We can, for the sake of convenience although not in any absolute sense, partition the study of sex, and especially human sexuality, into the educationists’ own categories, the cognitive and the affective. In the one category we can put everything that we can name and know, all that is objectively demonstrable and subject to reasonable hypothesis and prediction. In the other category we will have to put the other things, the feelings, attitudes, values, and responses, worthy or not, that so fascinated the makers of the cardinal principles. Thus, while the latter considerations can be included with the Six, the former must go with the One. The teaching of certain facts about sex and sexuality is like the teaching of reading and writing and ciphering. Knowledge about sex is like any other knowledge, publicly available and publicly verifiable and not variable in accordance with attitudes or emotional responses, however worthy. It is what educationists call “subject matter”–often “mere subject matter”–and can easily be learned without the help of any teacher at all. Most of it is in books, to which a good teacher can, of course, provide useful footnotes in the form of newer knowledge, further description, and the devising of analogies by which facts can be seen as functions of one another and from which hypotheses and principles can be formed. The books do exist, and if students had the habit of reading books there would be no shortage of knowledge about sex. But, because of decades of neglect of the mere subject matter of those fundamental processes, they do not have the habit of reading books any more than the schools have the habit of using books as the primary medium of what is called an education.

The books used in the public schools are almost exclusively books designed specifically to be used in the public schools. This is in keeping with the mandate of Cardinal Principles that every course is “in need of extensive reorganization in order that it may contribute more effectively to the objectives outlined herein.” A history written by a historian is therefore disqualified unless, by some extraordinary coincidence, it happens to foster the approved responses and appreciations, and that without dependence on mere information. Even should that be so, the book probably would have to be rewritten and simplified for students in whom the Command of Fundamental Processes is meager. A scientist’s book on biology, furthermore, would find no place in the schools because it will not be “properly focused upon personal and community hygiene [and] the principles of sanitation, and their applications.” To find a welcome in the schools, a book must be simply written–“childishly” might be the better word–and carefully designed to elicit worthy responses, in which cause mere information can be not only dismissed but even distorted. Because it must meet those standards, a schoolbook can never be a mere book, as we ordinarily understand the term, a record of the controlled and thoughtful discourse of a knowledgeable, individual mind. To guard against every possible occasion of unworthy response and to root out every appearance of mere information displayed in no cause other than that of mere knowledge requires the diligent labor of a committee in collusion with right-minded consultants and editorial assistants.

In America Revised (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1979) by Frances FitzGerald, you will find a full and demoralizing description of how school history books come to be the perversions that they are. And more recently there was a little-noticed but illuminating example of the nature of school “learning materials” in a Hilton Kramer essay in The New York Times on the aftermath of the great Picasso retrospective. The schools are just as good at teaching the right appreciation of art as they are at teaching worthy sexual attitudes, and the Picasso show brought forth not only an “educational” film in which the painter was portrayed, surely to the stupefaction of those with some mere information, as an exemplary parent and role model, but also a teachers’ guide in which Picasso is identified as a Fauve playing with bright colors. That’s bad enough, but his imaginary enlistment in fauvism is also said to have been a result of his abandonment of experimentation with bright colors. And the cover of the teachers’ guide bore a large “Picasso” signature superimposed on a lovely photograph of a studio littered with painter’s paraphernalia and handsome canvases, certainly appreciable, but, to anyone having a little knowledge, easily identifiable as the work of Miró.

As bad as this ludicrous display of ignorance is, there is something worse, which Hilton Kramer probably doesn’t suspect any more than you do, and that is that no one in the schools is likely to be troubled or embarrassed by such a display. Well, so what? Looking at Miró’s studio is also a worthy use of leisure, and a niggling attention to trivial details is exactly the kind of elitism that has always inhibited right emotional response. So there. It is in the same spirit that educationists can blithely justify the omission, in an American history text, of any reference to the Civil War.

The making of a schoolbook is analogous to the classroom rap session in which the ill-informed are supposed to reach understanding through the recitation of slogans and notions and by relating to one another. There are differences, however. For the captive children pretending to formulate “good judgment as to means and methods” for the promotion of some worthy social end and developing “habits of cordial cooperation in social undertakings,” as prescribed in Cardinal Principles, the whole thing is obviously a game. Only a teacher, or an especially dull or cowed student, could take it seriously. But the committees and task forces that devise (you cannot say “write”) those non-books used in the school take their work very seriously indeed. There is profit in it. Even prestige. So we can be confident that the “books,” and all the other wondrously diverse and cunningly packaged “learning materials” out of which sex education will be taught, will be acceptable to the ideology of educationism both simplified and tendentious, careless of mere information and careful in the elicitation of right response in the cause of social adjustment. In other words, this “new” campaign intended to remedy whole hosts of social and personal disorders is different from the old program of education as social manipulation only in extent–and, of course, expense. In both cases, much greater.

As our schools now embark on a massive campaign of sexual rehabilitation for all of American youth, we can naturally expect that they will give it all they have, which means, of course, that what they don’t have they won’t give it. What they do have, all they have, is that earnest devotion to the power of suggestion in the cause of social and psychological manipulation, and, although their decades of devotion to pious social adjustment may not be the only cause of our present disorders, they have certainly not prevented them. Now the necessary concomitant of the social adjustment theory of education is the denigration of intellectual discipline, for the sake of which the command of fundamental processes was slighted in Cardinal Principles. Perhaps it is a bit rash, however tempting, to say it is exactly because the schools have been preaching vapid and sentimental sermons for sixty years that hosts of our newborn children and their mothers will become permanent wards of the state, but it is not a bit rash to suspect that widespread and crippling social disorders of all kinds are directly caused by ignorance and thoughtlessness. There is only one remedy for ignorance and thoughtlessness, and that is literacy. Millions and millions of American children would today stand in no need of sex education, or consumer education or intercultural education or any of those fake educations, if they had had in the first place an education.

We have seen above, for instance, that what is called intercultural education is a shabby dodge by which students and teachers may be excused from the study of history, anthropology, geography, language, literature, philosophy, and who can count what else. That all makes for a long and detailed discussion, but an equivalent and simpler model of the genesis of fake educations can be seen in the trendy and popular consumer education. We are told that we need consumer education because people are easily duped by misleading advertising, cannot figure out the per-ounce price of ketchup, and imagine that they can live on Twinkies and Coca-Cola. (When teen-aged mothers raise their illegitimate children on Twinkies and Coca-Cola, that reinforces the need for sex education and also family living education.) The consumer who is duped by misleading advertising does not need consumer education; he needs to know how to read. The housewife who can’t figure out what ketchup costs does not need consumer education; she needs to know how to cipher. And as to those who want to live on Twinkies and Coca-Cola, frankly that’s their own damn business and we ought to leave them alone, but we might legitimately provide them with knowledge about biology and chemistry first and then leave them alone. Our problems come not from ignorance and thoughtlessness about sex any more than from ignorance and thoughtlessness about ketchup, they just come from ignorance and thoughtlessness, which are preserved and nourished in our schools by those whose profits lie in “solving” the problems they have created.

Literacy is like the kingdom of Heaven. Those who seek it first will find that other things are added unto them. Literacy is not the same as Basic Minimum Competence, but, if we provide an emphasis that seems not to have occurred to the principle-makers, it might indeed be described as the command of the fundamental processes of word and number. The power of number, to be sure, is not usually included in “literacy,” but it should be, for it is through the ability to command the techniques both of word and number that we can know and think. There is no other way. To say that we can “know” or “think” in other ways is to blur those words into uselessness so that rather than making fine distinctions they can point vaguely in the direction of any events at all that seem to take place invisibly in the mind. It is exactly that reluctance to seek or even tolerate fine distinctions that makes the muddled jargon of the educationists what it is, and it is not surprising, therefore, that those who have neglected literacy should look for some presumed other ways of knowing and thinking. This makes it possible to excuse or even to justify the failure to teach literacy by claiming that it doesn’t have to be taught anyway. Consider the following, a brief and unfortunately oversimplified piece from The Underground Grammarian:


The Idea of Expressing Feelings In New Mexico

It had to happen. Last month we granted the world’s first DEd, horroris causa, and now everybody wants one. Two new candidates present themselves, and they are not some silly educationists but bona fide associate professors of English out at what they call Eastern New Mexico University.

Laid-back folk. Arlene Zekowski, Stanley Berne. Hate apostrophes. Rules. Arbitrary. Down sentences! Up feelings expressing! Up Zekowski! Up Berne! Right on!

Or, if you prefer, On right! “We’re professors of English,” says Berne. (Hm. Shouldn’t that be “Were professors of English”?) “We are concerned with the idea of expressing feelings. Arbitrary rules of grammar prohibit that.” (Cmon, be patient. Sure he talks that tired old grammar, but only because he has to get to we elitists.) Hes wright. No, thats not expressing feelings. He rite! Wordsworth feeling-expressing fouled-up by verb-subject agreement. Shakespeare shot down–Donne undone by nonrestrictive clauses. Whitman comatose from commas.

Zekowski: “Grammar is elitism. I wish to destroy what is dead, lifeless and snobbish.” How’s that for boring from within? “Arbitrary sentence structure is logical,” she complains, “but the brain isn’t logical. [How true!] You don’t think in sentences. You think in terms of patterns and images. It’s random association.” And further: “Many advertisements don’t use sentences or grammar. They use words to create images.” (Exactly how they use the words she doesn’t say. Could be they sprinklem here and there, collage-wise. Cool. Just think. If Das Kapital had been done like that, we wouldn’t have all this damn trouble now. There’s nothing more dangerous than a bunch of logical sentences, but what would you expect from an elitist like Marx?)

If there’s one thing we love around here, it’s the classing of icons, and we support the idea of expressing feelings 1,000 percent. That’s exactly what we should be teaching these kids. For one thing, it’s a cinch, like playing tennis with the net down, as Frost put it. Another: if we let them in on the secrets of logical sentences and coherent discourse, the ignorant little bastards will go on to take away some of our cushiest jobs, perhaps even as associate professors of English, and that will be the end of lifeless elitism as we know it.

However, while we applaud Zekowski and Berne for their cunning subterfuge, and while we admit that it is the first duty of a DEd to cook up schemes for job security, we cannot give them their degrees just yet. Their plan sounds good off paper, but when they write their grammarless English, we read: “Once upon a time ago. But now nevermore.” Cute and expressive of feeling, sure, but clogged up with grammar. Maybe next year.


Following the appearance of that article, I heard from many readers who accused me of inventing Berne and Zekowski. How silly. Bernes and Zekowskis are generated spontaneously out of the primordial nutrient broth of Cardinal Principles. If you find them unbelievable, you might be sobered to know that they have written many books for the guidance of public school English teachers and are said to go about holding workshops and training sessions for same.

The “thought” of Berne and Zekowski–I know that’s not the right word, but we may not even have the right word in English–repays study. Consider: “You don’t think in sentences. You think in terms of patterns and images. It’s random association.” All of that is true, of course, if you happen to be an imbecile, or maybe a gnu. All of it is also true even for conscious human beings if the verb to think refers to anything, anything at all, that takes place invisibly in the mind. The mind does indeed, from time to time and often with dismal consequences when there is a certain kind of work to be done, find itself occupied with patterns and images and random associations. And it does many things that have no need of sentences: it regrets, it exults, it yearns, it wonders, it fears, it expects, it dreams (perchance to sleep), it wanders, it sees, it hears . . . you can make your own list. The very fact that there are so many words for the invisible acts of the mind reveals that our language can and regularly does make, as Berne and Zekowski do not, countless fine and subtle distinctions among those acts. And the act in which we do, if we have a command of fundamental processes, make such distinctions may be called thinking; and, in fact, we do that thinking in sentences, in which we say to ourselves that yearning and thinking are different for such and such reasons. We may perform any number of mental acts “in terms of,” whatever that means, patterns and images, but thinking is not one of them. Thinking is done in sentences, logical sentences. Principia mathematica is not random association. Nor, for that matter, is poetry, which Berne and Zekowski are said to write, and which they seem to confuse with “expressing feelings,” which could also include smashing urinals in the boys’ room. It is one of the great wonders of poetry that it can be supremely free and individual in spite of countless traditional and arbitrary restraints, and even in spite of the often greater restraints that poets usually choose to impose on themselves.

Berne and Zekowski, I admit, are probably an extreme case of educationistic anti-intellectualism, but they are, don’t forget, professors of English at a state university where English teachers are trained. Their notions are right at home in the context of Cardinal Principles. They are concerned with expressing feeling, or, as they put it, with the “idea” of expressing feelings. (I don’t know what that might mean, but I suspect that it is not some fine distinction between “expressing” and “the idea of expressing.”) They wish to destroy elitism, which, although dead and lifeless, somehow manages to remain snobbish. They characterize rules as “arbitrary” rules, as though no one had ever put modifiers near what they modify until the rule had been devised, and assert that the arbitrary rules prohibit the expression of feelings, against which assertion some evidence could be adduced. They turn, for example, to the demotic, the advertisements that “use words to create images,” as though that were some startling new use of language and especially to be prized because of its commercial quality. They differ from garden-variety educationists only in detail (and perhaps in their taste for the dramatic–notably absent in educationists) but not in principle. They prefer emotional response to knowledge; they equate technical proficiency with elitism; they imagine grammar as a set of rules, mere information, and the stuff of rote learning; and they depend for their lessons on the popular or practical, to which students can presumably “relate.”

When we look around America, we notice, of course, what seems to be a general decline in our young people of the powers of observation and discrimination and the habits of accuracy and precision that we might expect in the literate. This is an illusion born of the fact that it is only the young people who are occasionally tested or measured. The same disabilities are to be found in all groups, because they have been fostered for so many years now. And those many years of malpractice have fostered the same disabilities within the ranks of the educationists themselves that we can see in the public at large. The now-retired professors of education who learned their appreciation of the “command” of fundamental processes in the shadow of Cardinal Principles taught it to the professors of education, who taught the same to all the teachers and supervisors and facilitators now in the schools, who in their turn can pass on to their students nothing but more of the same.

It follows, therefore, that the formulation and direction of the currently faddish fervor for those fundamental processes are given into the hands of those who lack the skills of those processes and who have grown up in the climate of opinion out of which Berne and Zekowski have formulated their principles. The enterprise cannot succeed any more than pygmies can grow tall by pulling upward on their ears.

Here is how one state system of teacher academies plans to solve the problem:


The Missouri Compromise

You will not be astonished to learn that there are some people in Missouri who cannot manage commas, cannot avoid sentence fragments, cannot regularly make verbs agree with subjects and pronouns with antecedents, and cannot help sounding like literal translations from Bulgarian. If you are a regular reader of this journal, you’ll also be unastonished to hear that those pitiable illiterates are members of the Missouri Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.

These poor saps have finally noticed that lots of irate citizens “have indicated concern of [yes, of] the decreasing standardized test scores of students.” They even know that a “sensitivity has become quite manifest in the development in state wide [yes, two words] assessment systems.” But they don’t seem too worried. They’ve cleared up the whole mess in a “position statement” called Assessment of Basic Skills Competencies of Potential Teachers.

The Missouri educationists have also just discovered, or have at least come to suspect that they might perhaps decide to assume–tentatively, what the rest of us have always known. They put it thus: “Although many factors may intervene the teacher is viewed by many as a critical variable in the teaching-learning process and, therefore, the key to the improvement in the basic skills of students.”

“The teacher,” they say, “must have a high degree of proficiency in the basic skills. They are expected to transmit to their students through precept and example.”

Yeah. And here are some of the precepts and examples through which these Missouri Teacher-training Turkeys transmit:

“The latter [‘field experiences’] being principally in student teaching with a major emphasis on institutional planning, execution, and evaluation of subject matter to be presented.” And, “Utilizing the assumption that the measuring/ascertaining of the competencies of potential teachers should be done on or about the end of the traditional sophomore year.” For the Turkeys, those are sentences. So why should they care? It’s the taxpayers and children who’ll have to serve them.

Those, of course, are just supersaturated, freebooting participles, but this one passes understanding: “If the student does not meet the prescribed standards of basic skills and the student, before they are formally admitted into teacher education and certainly before graduation, should have remediation and reevaluation.” (Wow, these people are tough! Before graduation, no less.) Any competent sixth-grade teacher would flunk such rubbish, but the Turkeys aren’t worried. As long as they’re in charge, there will be damned few competent sixth-grade teachers in Missouri.

“Also,” say the Turkeys, “there is a question of the relationship of secondary and co-secondary schools in terms of relationships. The authors [ ! ] of this position paper agreed that such an assessment process can have a significant impact [they never discuss insignificant or mere impacts] on secondary school curriculum in turning to an assessment instrument to which the public schools might be inclined to reach toward.”

Why do the good people of Missouri suffer such humbug, without turning to some blunt instrument to which they might be inclined to reach toward? We can tell you why. It’s because these ugly crimes against nature are committed in private among consenting Turkeys. How many “authors,” do you suppose, conspired to write, rewrite, edit, and finally to approve all that gibberish? How many of Missouri’s teacher-trainers, would you guess, have read it? Was not one of them embarrassed or outraged by this sleazy display of ignorance and ineptitude? And if there was one, what do you think he did? He kept his mouth shut. It’s better to suffer a momentary discontent than to attract the taxpayers” attention.

So, unhampered by pesky public outcry, people who cannot devise sentences or make sense or even punctuate will get on with the business of providing Missouri with teachers. And they don’t want any interference, if you please, as they make, well, not “clear,” to be sure, but at least “quite manifest,” in their ghastly and ungrammatical peroration:

“There is an advantage to each institution in Missouri preparing teachers to have an institutional level responsibility rather than a state wide . . . responsibility for assurance of proficiency of basic skills. Alternate assessment processes allow for diversity of response by each institution. It [?] allows for diversity of response loads [?] by students, it allows for diversity of interpretation of what is basic [that’s the part they like best] for that institution’s student population, and it eliminates conflicts of perogatives [typo?] and rights of faculties of institution to set curriculum in means of assessing a testing or assuring of competencies.”

We have some advice for the good people of Missouri. Turn those rascals out. Pension them off for life at full pay, requiring only that the never again set foot on a campus. Don’t worry about the cost. In fifty years or so, there won’t be any cost. As it is, you’re planning to pay more and more of them for ever and ever. Once they’re gone, on the day they go, in fact, your schools and colleges will become the best in the land.

A knowledge of history is one of the basic skills of which we have been deprived by the educationists’ fervor for shabby social studies and smug civics. We have forgotten that the storekeeper used to pay miscreants to stay away. It worked We’ve gotten it backward. We pay them to hang around and smash the windows. Let’s be realistic and pay the miscreants to do that one thing the we most need them to do-nothing, nothing at all.


I am very sorry to have to award any points at all to the compromisers of Missouri, who are contentedly unconscious of their own ignorance and the ludicrous pathos of their determination to ensure the “measuring/ascertaining” of that “high degree of proficiency in the basic skills,” but they do deserve a few. In the first place, if this is an exculpation, their ignorance was visited upon them by the system in whose service they labor, and, in the next place, there is much justice in the educationists’ routine disclaimer of responsibility for the literacy of incipient teachers. That, they happily point out, is supposed to be the business of the English departments. And they are right, although, if literacy is a fundamental process, it ought to be a concern in every department. But there is no doubt that English departments must be charged with teaching everything that can be taught about the technical skills that provide a command of literacy. And Berne and Zekowski, you will surely remember, are professors not of education but of English, who ply their trade in a school where teacher-training happens. Although it is, to be sure, the very existence of the articles of educationistic faith that makes Bernes and Zekowskis possible, professors of English are supposed to have some of their own articles of faith, which ought to double them up with hysterical laughter when Bernes and Zekowskis appear at department meetings. So the poor professors of education are put in the sad position of having to lament aloud that even the professors of English have swallowed the potion bottled by the professors of education. There’s a satisfying sort of justice in that, but it still means that there is not much hope of breaking the cycle in which illiteracy is passed on from generation to generation.

The story of what has happened to English departments in the last few decades, especially in English departments attached to teacher-training academies, would make a fat and dull book. In brief, that history can be seen as a conditioned response to the dual role of the study of English as imagined in Cardinal Principles, where the command of fundamental processes on the one hand and the right emotional response to literature on the other were obviously assigned to the same people. Since a fervid dedication to the former has not exactly been a hallmark of the schools, and since the latter can more or less be “taught” by anyone, the teaching of English has evolved into a curious creature that now looks something like a pair of wings with no bird between them. There is the Right Wing, devoted to the study of literature (pronounced in four syllables and without any trace of a “ch”), which has handed over the much-hated and laborious teaching of composition to graduate assistants and junior department members panting after promotion, who look upon the work as a necessary apprenticeship to be swiftly accomplished so that they might go on to teaching seminars in the early Elizabethan dramatists.

The Left Wing is more complicated, because it is divided into two persuasions or parties, the democrats and the technocrats. The democrats are really true inheritors of Cardinal Principles, for they propose literature as a vehicle of social and “interpersonal” understanding and an incentive to the appreciation of the brotherhood of all mankind and the human condition. It is the democrats of the Left Wing who have multiplied the offerings in the catalog by cooking up courses in everything from the Urban Experience to Adolescence in America and Female Problems in an Age of Lowered Expectations. Such courses all have, inevitably, their analogues in the high schools, where the study of literature comes down to mini-courses in ghost, sport, or animal stories adapted from popular magazines.

However, while the democrats hold large tracts in the kingdom of government education, the broadest acres are being deeded to the technocrats of the Left Wing, who have prudently provided for themselves and their progeny by reconstruing reading and writing as “communication.” Communication is socially acceptable. Even the desultory deliberations of the uninterested ignorant can be called “communication.” And the eighth-grade rap session on free abortions for eighth graders suddenly becomes a skill to be taught as a legitimate “fundamental process.” All the presumed skills of communication, including film-making and tape-recorder operation and even (this is true) television-watching, become precincts of the great realm of communications, where writing itself, only one precinct, is subdivided into utilitarian fragments. The study of writing thus gives way to courses in Personal Writing, Creative Writing, Journalistic Writing, Technical Writing–well, however long the list, it will be longer tomorrow.

The innumerable offerings of the communicationists–they sometimes call themselves “communicologists”–recommend themselves in the world of educationism by virtue not only of their collectivist aims but also because of their technical flavor. Idle chatter finds respectability and curricular justification when it becomes Interpersonal Group Communication Methodology. Furthermore, while a course in writing needs only some paper and pencils, courses in communicology can generate some very impressive budgets.

Here is a case in point, indeed, a case in several points, for whose sake I must provide some background. The Communications Department in question does its business at the college where I do mine, and it is famous here for having announced its withdrawal from the division of arts and sciences, as we call them. The announcement, a portion of which is quoted, was neither preceded nor accompanied nor followed by any action at all. That in itself was a splendid display of the paramountcy of communication over substance. Now, however, there is some substance at issue, specifically, a proposal to establish what was then called a “Flagship” program of great excellence in the “field” of communications. (The word “Flagship” cannot be printed out in full in The Underground Grammarian):


The Works of Scriblerus X. Machina

When the Communications Department blasted off into the unknown regions of interdivisional space, its chairman left us to mull over his now famous Farewell (sans Hail):

But in the sober light of day after the intoxicating elixirs of self-delusion have begun to fade, after the sonorous tones of your voices have begun to sound hollow, after the technicolor hues of your dreams have begun to mute into the blacks and whites of reality–then you may perhaps face these details of reality.

He was reminding us that we had not yet entered the twentieth century, so he must have chosen that quaint and antiquated tone of purple fustian for ironic emphasis–don’t you think? How subtly he reminds us of our enslavement to outworn tradition by his innovative use of “mute” as an intransitive verb and that multimedia metaphor in which our elixirs “fade” before our very eyes!

Now the Communications Department re-enters our atmosphere, blazing like another Kohoutek, and bringing no faded elixirs but a heady draft proposal for a F——— of its very own.

We looked at the part where they tell all about the teaching of writing, twentieth-century style. Here’s the plan:

The communications Department proposes to establish an ideal classroom for the teaching of the basic writing course. . . . While there is no single classroom prototype that could be considered ideal for all circumstances, there is a concern that different approaches be taken. One of the keys in suggesting an ideal classroom is that traditional classrooms have a way of perpetuating traditional approaches…. By bringing together in one room a large variety of audiovisual implements, creating a relaxed atmosphere by having the room carpeted with pictures on the walls and easy chairs and tables and by having duplicating equipment and a variety of newspapers and magazines readily available, we can encourage attempts to change both students’ perceptions and teachers’ approaches to the task of learning how to write.

Now why couldn’t we have thought of all that neat stuff? Because we’ve been hung up perpetuating traditional approaches–things like drill and practice, writing and rewriting–that’s why. Even desks! Now we see. What we need is a dentist’s waiting room redone by Radio Shack, magazines and Muzak, comfy chairs, and a shiny new Xerox so the scholars won’t have to fight over the latest number of Popular Mechanics.

Notice a refreshing absence of flat, empty surfaces where a thoughtless student might accidentally write words on a piece of paper and set the whole class back a century. That’s the hard part, all right, putting the words on the paper. That’s why hardly anyone was able to write before the advent of that large variety of audiovisual implements. (Implements?)

The proposal itself seems to have been put together in just such an innovative, relaxing setting. Notice, for instance, the creative (or easy chair) treatment of punctuation in that bit about the pictures. The room is carpeted with pictures on the walls. The pictures are on the walls and easy chairs and tables. It’s a split-screen effect. Electronic!

Elsewhere we find:

A second prong in the outreach of the department would come from a Communication Consultancy Center. This would be created as an umbrella from which many different kinds of services could be offered to the community.

Stunning. No fuddy-duddy of the age of paper and pencil could ever have accomplished prose like that. The secret is “vision.” Only a writer who has learned his craft from long hours of assiduous (but relaxed) scrutiny of a twenty-inch color implement could hope to develop a vision modern enough to see that outreaches have prongs, prongs coming from their Centers, and that a prong, or maybe a Center, can be created as an umbrella, an umbrella from which services can be dispensed, services that can help us all to learn how to communicate in just this fashion.

Well, you can just bet your Bearcat scanner against a busted quill pen that all our staff writers will be standing at the door the day they open that Communications Consultancy Center. We’re mired in traditions. We could never, for instance, have come up with these spiffy structures that go the tired old passive at least one better–maybe two:

. . . [the] Department can provide leadership that will cause it to be viewed as a resource .

. . . few of the courses . . . have been able to be offered on a regular basis.

. . . needs should be able to be filled . . .

You just can’t hope to master that smooth modern style without spending hours, whole seasons probably, in the old easy chair, beer and pretzels at hand, studying the styles of the greatest play-by-play and color men to be found on the audiovisual implement.

And just look at these daring departures from stodgy tradition. We’re so old-fashioned that we almost thought they were mistakes:

. . . the advantages the computer offers . . . lies in continuous availability.

. . . the equipment needs . . . is appended.

. . . there needs to be provisions made . . .

All of this is encouraging for anybody who worries about the teaching of writing here at Glassboro. It shows that the Communications Department is perfectly willing to put some of the taxpayers’ money where somebody’s mouth is–in a collection of machines. Time was when your basic model communications teacher would rather watch reruns of “Washington Week in Review” than teach a writing course. Now they’ll be clamoring to twiddle the dials and leaf through Cosmopolitan and rap about nontraditional approaches to interpersonal communication in the easy chair.

So not to worry. We can all go down to the launching in good conscience, sing in our hollow tones one chorus of “Anchors Aweigh,” smash a fifth of faded elixir on the prow of the refitted Starship Triad, newly home from one uncharted deep, sallying forth into yet another, carrying our hopes and dreams, ere they mute, our tuners and amplifiers and, of course, the prongs of our outreach.


In that blazing display of furniture and equipment, you may have missed the fact that the “ideal classroom” (certainly ideal for some lucky contractors) is for “the teaching of the basic writing course.” Advanced courses in various “writings” will require yet more specialized doodads. The implicit suggestion of all the paraphernalia and even the carefully designed environment will be the same, to wit, that writing is just one of many “skills” of communication, similar in kind to the making of television commercials and the grammarless collages that so pleased Berne and Zewokski. And it follows that “reading” is the skill of receiving and registering “communication,” which, accordingly, may or may not come in the form of writing. And it further follows, therefore, that what the schools mean by “literacy” is not what you think it is. Literacy may be “visual literacy” or the ability to program computers, although it is hard to imagine how people who are not interested in punctuation or spelling can meet the even more stringent demands of computer programs.

But the greatest achievement of the communicationists, and the one that best assures their prosperity, is that they have transformed writing from a private act into a public one, from a solitary search for understanding into a public display of some communication. This suggests some deeper reasons, deeper than their obvious distaste for the mere information required in the teaching of writing, for the pro forma mention and subsequent neglect of those fundamental processes in Cardinal Principles. Everywhere in that pamphlet, we can find exhortations to socialization through group efforts, group discussions, group thinking, and even games and dances. We find specific condemnations of too much knowledge of mere facts and too much attention to intellectual discipline, characteristic foreshadowings of that later indictment of “excellence narrowly defined.” In an even more recent policy statement from the National Education Association, Curriculum Change Toward the 21st Century (1977), a reappraisal and expanded reaffirmation of Cardinal Principles, we read:

Imbedded in the question of freedom is an educational dilemma–the long-standing enigma of how to obtain the important output of superior minds without creating an elite of scientists, politicians, social planners and commentators, military specialists, business executives, and so on.

Or, in other words, how can we manage to muzzle the ox while he treadeth out the corn?

The supposed love of democracy out of which the commissioners devised their principles is really just a hatred of those “superior minds,” from which, notice, we can profit not by the study and practice of superior mindfulness but by “obtaining their output.” While we will discourage students from a painful retracing of the path of Newton’s logic, for instance, we will take profit and pleasure from the fact that Newton has made it possible (for some few of us, who do have to be watched carefully for signs of incipient elitism) to construct devices that work.

But we mustn’t forget that bullet, the one that “spins” end over end in perfect but antisocial obedience to the laws of motion. (A thoughtful writer would have written “tumbles,” but, having done that out of thoughtfulness, he would probably, out of that same thoughtfulness, have understood that the point of the example was utterly irrelevant.) Of the output that we might obtain from those superior minds, some must prove unworthy, which is to say, antihumanistic, which in turn is to say, the work of an individual mind heedless of collective values. It is thus a primary aim of social adjustment educationism to disarm and overwhelm the individual mind and replace it with a comprehensive data bank of received and unexamined attitudes, values, opinions, and worthy emotional responses. All of the curricular dilutions and manipulations prescribed in Cardinal Principles are means to that end. And, to that end, there is only one certain impediment. It is the one “student outcome” that our schools simply cannot afford to provide, even if they could, which, out of thoughtless acceptance of their own principles, they can’t. It is, of course, literacy.

“Literacy” needs some redefining. When Jefferson spoke of that literacy that would provide “informed discretion,” he did not mean the ability to read the instructions for assembling a swing set or even for assembling a nuclear power generating plant. He did not mean the ability to write a correctly punctuated letter of application for a job. He did not mean the ability to devise, or even to “appreciate,” advertisements that “use words to create images.” He did not mean the habit of worthy emotional response to literature. In short, he did not mean any, or even all taken together, of those “skills” that we now put forth as studies in communications or language arts. He did mean certain habits and powers of the individual mind, habits and powers that can be learned and refined only by long practice in reading and writing.

Literacy is not, as it is considered in our schools, a portion of education. It is education. It is at once the ability and the inclination of the mind to find knowledge, to pursue understanding, and, out of knowledge and understanding, not out of received attitudes and values or emotional responses, however “worthy,” to make judgments. Literate people are not easy prey. They do know an inference from a statement of fact. They are not easily persuaded by pretended authority. They are attentive to the natural requirements of logic. They can make distinctions, very fine distinctions, and are able both to notice and to examine their own predispositions and even their only presumably “right emotional responses.” To say that young human beings are incapable of such powers is elitism.

But our schools do say that. And thus they not only preclude those powers in the students but in the whole system. Today’s teachers and the teachers of today’s teachers are all the inevitable results of the system. They simply don’t know what literacy is. This accounts for one of the most bewildering contradictions to be found in the current pandemonium of bold, innovative thrusts in basic minimum competencies. On the one hand, our educationists fancy that literacy is something you achieve when you have developed enough “skills.” But it turns out that many of those skills are in fact the results of much practice and hard knowledge and habits of rote learning and mere information, things in short supply not only among the hapless students but also among the teachers and the teachers of the teachers. Therefore, on some other hand, having discovered how hard it is to teach those skills in a system where no one is very good at them, the educationists can also fancy that literacy is not simply a matter of skills, which now become “mere” skills, and that it might just as well be achieved in their absence.

“Problem-solving in the content area” is a favorite pastime of educationists. In the case of literacy, it works this way: Literacy, whatever it is, must be a student outcome. So let’s try to teach those basic skills and offer mini-courses and interesting electives in all sorts of communications and language arts and let the students express themselves and improve their self-esteem. Then we’ll find out what the student outcomes are and call them “literacy.” Put in those terms, the proposition sounds too preposterous to win approval even among educationists, unless you happen to be one of millions of American parents who have wondered how compositions full of uncorrected and perhaps unnoticed mechanical errors could earn such good grades.

The convenient redefinition of literacy, however, is not merely a happy dodge for teachers. It is national policy in the realm of educationism, which embraces even those outlying provinces that we mistakenly deem buffer states between us and the traditional expansionism of governmental social adjustment. The same comfortable and undemanding redefinition is a matter of policy at the Educational Testing Service:


The Holistic Hustle

Fortunately for American educationists, there is never any dearth of trashy and popular fads, the raw material of curricular novelty. The half-life of most bold innovative thrusts is less than that of the pet rock or the nude encounter group, and pedagogical gimmicks have to be cooked up more often than situation comedies. But, thanks to the fertile inventiveness always inspired by exuberant greed, the master schlockmongers will always provide the educationists with full measures of readily adaptable inanities.

Of course, there is a difference between the peddlers of pop and the educationists. The peddlers of pop are skillful. When promoters have deposited the take from Woodstocks and Earth Days, the educationists come limping behind with mini-courses in the “poetry” of rock and roll, and environmental awareness. In a frantic scramble after what crumbs may fall from the merchants’ tables, they rush to “teach” soap-opera-watching, the casting of horoscopes, and the throwing of the Frisbee. Coming soon: Elvis, the copper bracelet, and the T-shirt as literature.

Future historians of education (how’s that for a dreary calling?) will understand better than we that the most powerful influence on education in our time was not new knowledge of the psychology of learning, not the rise and dominance of the electronic media, not the fervor for democratization that followed the civil rights movements, not even the newly awakened public recognition of the tensions between the demands of an increasingly automated society and a reinvigorated and often antimaterialistic individualism, but, purely and simply, the Big Mac. Our schools are, in almost every respect, analogues of the fast-food industry, although there probably is some nourishment in the Big Mac. Even the slogans are the same: Have it your way; We do it all for yoo-oo-oo.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that educationists respond to public discontent not by trying to improve what they do, but by trying to “educate” the public into some other “perception” of what they do. In education, as in the fast-food business, it’s called “image enhancement,” and, like all flackery, it’s done with slogans and buzz words. When the public finally noticed, for instance, that fewer and fewer children were learning to read, the educationists quickly discovered that “learning disabilities” were far more common than anyone had ever suspected. Therefore, we ought in fact to praise the schools for doing such a great job with swarms of undernourished, disaffected imbeciles, many of whom were also myopic, hard of hearing, hyperactive (if not lethargic), or even lacking in self-esteem.

Now, pestered by complaints about student writing, the educationists have drawn from the bottomless pit of mindless pop a bucket of inspiration, the Whatever Turns You On Plan for the Enhancement of Public Perceptions Concerning Student Writing. They call it “holistic” grading. It will improve grades dramatically without requiring any improvement in the teaching of writing. It will work even in schools where there is no teaching of writing. Now that’s educationism.

Most of what we’ve heard about holistic grading has come from the horse’s mouth, the National Council of Teachers of English. We now have a report from another part of the horse, the Educational Testing Service, which is offering “workshops” in holistic grading:

With this method, the essay is read for a total impression of its quality rather than for such separate aspects of writing skill as organization, punctuation, diction, or spelling. The method takes a positive approach to the rating of compositions by asking the reader to concentrate on what the student has accomplished rather than on what the student has failed to do or has done badly. Holistic scoring is both efficient and accurate. The standards by which compositions are judged are those that the readers have developed from their training and from their experiences with student writing.

We have to presume that the written parts of tests given by ETS will be “rated” in this “efficient and accurate” fashion from now on. In a few years, we’ll hear that the writing crisis, if indeed there ever was one, is over.

This, you see, is a “positive approach.” To fuss about organization, punctuation, diction, and spelling is the bad old negative approach that caused the whole flap to begin with.

To judge writing by this “holistic” method is like judging a musical performance without reference to rhythm, tempo, or dynamics, and taking no heed of false notes or of “organization.” What could we say of a performance in which all of those things were wrong? We could certainly not judge it as a musical performance if we choose to give no weight to the attributes of musical performance. If we could consider things without regarding their attributes, which we can’t, we wouldn’t even know what the hell they were. It is only by their attributes that we can distinguish a musical performance from a billiard ball. It is by just such attributes as organization and diction, dismissed above as presumably optional “aspects,” that we can distinguish between written composition and the egg stains on an educationist’s face.

And that is a distinction that we had better learn to make. There will never be good, universal, public education in America until we learn, from their own words, that the people in charge of it are badly in need of an education. Educated people will not be deceived by such nonsense. Some knowledge of the history of thought and some skill in logical language can be expected of the educated, but they are not required for a degree in “education.”

Educated people are likely to know what “holistic” means. They know, simply because they have the power of language and thought, that if something is more than the sum of its parts, it cannot be less than the sum of its parts. They even know what “aspects” are, and that to call punctuation, spelling, diction, and even organization, “separate aspects” of writing suggests either ignorance or mendacity. They know, too, that this slick hustle, designed not only to deceive the taxpayers about the state of student writing but also to make the grading of compositions one hell of a lot easier, may appropriately be called many things, but “holistic” isn’t one of them.

“Contemptuous,” however, is one of them. It is not out of kindness but out of contempt (and sloth) that educationists design ways to excuse students from the demands of good work. To tell a student that “what he has accomplished,” however little that may be, is an adequate substitute for “what he has failed to do or has done badly,” however much that may be, is not “humanistic” (they don’t know the meaning of that word, either) or even humane. It is arrogant.

It is also unmistakably to imply that the mastery of good writing is not important. Do you suppose that those educationists would want their dentists or even their electricians “rated” by their “holistic” method? When pilots and flight engineers are licensed by “positive approaches” without regard for all those trivial “separate aspects” of their crafts, will the loyal members of the National Council of Teachers of English fly to the annual convention anyway, just to demonstrate their faith in a “total impression of quality”? Will they consult physicians whose diplomas have been granted in spite of “what the student has failed to do or has done badly”?

One thing must be said in fairness to the educationists who have packaged and touted the Holistic Hot ‘n’ Juicy: The standards by which they propose to measure students’ work are no more rigorous than those by which they judge their own work. After all, the ability to write good English isn’t required for a doctorate in education, so why bother high school kids about it? Of course, there may be some kids who aim higher and would like to do useful and respectable work that calls for the habits of accuracy and clear thought that come from the mastery of written composition, but the fast-food business doesn’t work that way. When ETS serves up the Holistic Hot ‘n’ Juicy, everybody eats it.

And the educationists all get to do a little something for themselves too-oo-oo.


In a school where “holistic rating” is accepted orthodoxy, will a student’s understanding of the mere facts of human sexuality be measured, and applauded, out of a total impression of its quality? Will the mindless appreciation of expressed feelings in grammarless (and successful) advertisements have some consequence in the classroom next door where children are learning to be canny consumers? Having completed their courses in sex and consumer education, will students be every bit as knowledgeable and thoughtful in their sex lives and their ketchup selection as they are in the separate aspects of writing skills? Will it come to pass with them in the world according to whatever little they may have “accomplished” rather than according to what they have done badly or failed to do?

In the absence of literacy and the habits of mind that it both induces and permits, no one can understand anything, for understanding is not the same as knowing. What we know can be expressed in statements about the world. What we understand has to be expressed in statements about statements about the world. Understanding calls for classification and organization, fine distinctions, and logical testing, all related to knowledge. All of those things can be taught in schools to very young children, but they can not be taught where an “impression” of overall quality supersedes the measurement of “separate aspects of writing skills,” which are precisely the devices of classification and organization, fine distinctions, and logical testing. There is thus an absolute limit imposed on what the schools can do in the zany “educations.” Even should the schools be able to provide some knowledge about human sexuality, for instance–and that itself is not to be counted on in an atmosphere hostile to mere information and rote learning–they will never be able to provide understanding until they have first provided literacy.

That absolute limit can also be understood in social and political terms, terms of the educationists’ own devising. We have seen that even the technically skillful and ingenious, to say nothing of the educated (not always the same thing), are beheld by the educationists with wary suspicion. They may well be the products of that “excellence narrowly defined” that has fouled the air and water, and they are certainly the incipient elitists who constitute that “dilemma” in the form of a “long-standing enigma.” Is there perhaps some danger in a program of sex education that gets too close to “excellence narrowly defined?” Will some lurking “superior minds” seize the opportunity to become more knowledgeable and thoughtful than most of their classmates and become as skillful and effective in matters sexual as they are in designing those demonic transistors? Will they become a sexual elite, leading prudent and orderly lives in stable families, from which privilege the great mass of Americans is unjustly excluded? And from such a privileged elite, which uses its thoughtfulness and knowledge exclusively in its own private interests, how can we obtain any useful output?

Since our educational system thrives on the disorders it causes, such questions are not as farfetched as they may sound. A case in point is the new and much-talked-of “awareness” among educationists of a looming and promising problem that will bring hosts of new programs, research grants, administrators, counselors, facilitators, and specialists: the fact that children who live with only one parent don’t, as a group, do as well in school as children from what is coming more and more to be thought of as a special case, an “intact family.” That is, at least in part, a problem of sexual values, attitudes, and habits. While the children who live with only one parent may be in some personal distress, their growing numbers are good for business. The workshops alone will provide employment for thousands. On the other hand, any significant diminution in their numbers would be bad for business. It is not realistic to suppose that a massive governmental institution will do anything that will someday give it less to do.

There is, in fact, no “problem-solving in the content area,” although there are certainly problems “in the content area.” But in a government institution, there is only one area in which problems are taken seriously, and that is the political. Many of the strange things done in American educationism suddenly become perfectly understandable when we see them not as educational methods but as political maneuvers. We must understand illiteracy, therefore, the root of ignorance and thoughtlessness, as not some inadvertent failure to accomplish what was intended but simply a political arrangement of great value to somebody.

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