Afterword: Plus Ça Change

AS I WAS approaching what I hoped would be the end of this book, I received a fat manila envelope from a high-ranking staff officer in the educationistic bureaucracy of the State of New York. His letter, clipped to a great wad of that slick and grimy-looking paper that comes out of copying machines covered with that medium gray print that always makes you want to polish your glasses, read:

Your advice and example are among the influences on the attached grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities for “A Program of Renew Education in Basic Humanities Disciplines.” Because of your influence, I thought you ought to get a copy of the proposal while we are still awaiting the results of NEH’s peer review, which we should have in March and April. I would like to hear your reaction to the proposal (which, you will note, includes a field-test in New Jersey), and I hope that we will be able to call on you for advice on the project if it is funded. Please don’t hesitate to write or call me with questions or advice.

Although the writer was not unknown to me, and although I had actually once spent a day pattering about this and that at the headquarters of his vast bureaucracy, I could think of no way to justify calling that “advice and example,” to say nothing of “influence.” Furthermore, I felt vaguely discomfited to be even a putative party to that process in which one educationistic bureaucracy solicits a slice of our money from another educationistic bureaucracy in order to remedy some newly visible deficiency caused by a third educationistic bureaucracy. If the teacher-training academies of America had not devoted themselves for more than half a century to militant anti-intellectualism, there would now be no need for the National Endowment for the Humanities to take some of our money and give it to the New York State Department of Education, which will thereupon set about beginning to start to prepare to do what it damn well ought to have been doing all along. Accordingly, in spite of my correspondent’s advice not to hesitate with questions or advice, I hesitated.

As I hesitated, it dawned on me. Of course. I was looking at the latest Great Lurch Forward. The whole history of American educationism can be told in Great Lurches Forward. When we recently noticed that even the taxpayers had noticed that astonishingly few high school graduates could read or write, we made the Great Lurch Forward into Basic Minimum Competency. Well, all right, said our educationists, now we know what to do. That was what they had said when we were all so dispirited by the dread Sputnik, which Clifton Fadiman reminded us, although in vain, was simply a flying dog in a metal box, but which frightened most of us enough to make us turn for succor to the educationists, probably the only people around who couldn’t provide any. Aha! they said; now we know what to do. And they lurched forward. Since the day of the Great Primal Lurch, the life adjustmentism of Cardinal Principles, they have lurched from one bold innovative thrust to another. They have lurched out of “self-contained” classrooms right back into them, lurching in the meanwhile in and out of pods and modules. They have lurched from the old math to the new math to the balancing of checkbooks instead of math. And now they are going to lurch into The Humanities.

The lurchers, notably imperceptive of irony in any case, see no irony at all in proposing that those who couldn’t even make us a minimally literate nation will now make us the possessors of the “thoughtful discretion” of which Jefferson dreamed. Since I do know something about these lurchers in Albany who claim my influence, I can testify that they are not cynical opportunists booking themselves cushy berths on the next great lurch, but that is no consolation. In fact, I could wish they were cynical opportunists, for it may well be that the false and mercenary preacher will convert, out of well-pretended zeal, more souls than will ever be moved by decent, ineffectual honesty. And the Albany lurchers, surely decent and honest, will just as surely prove ineffectual.

Like all those who imagine that it is possible to change or reform the government education system, they seem to have a mistaken metaphor in their heads. I think they see “the schools” as an apparatus of some sort, even, as many educationists unhappily call it, a “delivery system,” something like UPS. There are the trucks. They exist. They even run. You can put in them and then deliver anything you choose. All we have to do is choose. If we choose some nice humanities, we’ll deliver them. But government education is not a neutral vessel into which and out of which diverse fluids can be poured. It is not even an apparatus that can be set or programmed to do whatever we want of it. It is more like an elaborate and complicated organism that has inevitably evolved into exactly and only the creature that can do exactly and only what it must do to survive. It is even more like an extensive, interlocking ecosystem, something like the Great Dismal Swamp, in which every plant and creature, and even the air and earth and water, are what they are and do what they do because that’s the way it must be. You can shoot the tiger, or you can stay out of his way, but you cannot pronounce him a vegetarian.

Here is just one of the objectives of the “Language Arts/English Syllabi” as put forth in the proposal from the New York State Education Department, already tainted, you probably noticed, by that slash, which reveals that no one has paid any thoughtful attention to the conjunction, and thus to the exact nature of the relationship, between those hokey Language Arts, already infamous, and mere English:

Instruction in critical thinking will be integrated into the classroom activities of reading, discussion, and writing about literature and other writing of recognized high quality. The complexity and difficulty of the reading, writing, and discussion will increase progressively from kindergarten through grade twelve.

That certainly sounds great. But, for anyone who knows something of what is done in our schools and teacher academies, who has seen how the work of the mind is done by the theoreticians who design programs, who has an inkling of how education is governed and directed, some questions arise. Who will provide all that instruction in critical thinking? Will they be the teachers who have themselves been exhaustively trained in values clarification and in relating? Will those who carried signs promoting “Quality Educacion” and “Descent Wages for Teachers” cast light on “literature and other writing of recognized high quality”? Will the assistant superintendent for instruction, the ex-shop teacher with a small real estate business on the side, devise the parameters of the plan to integrate the instruction in critical thinking into the various classroom activities? Will that instruction be also integrated into the making of collages for the bulletin board and the appreciation of other cultures at the Christmas party featuring the cookies of many lands? Who will decide, and how, exactly what “complexity” is suitable for the fourth grade and what for the sixth? An ex-guidance counselor turned principal? An ex-principal turned coordinator in Albany? Will the publishers and legislators and professors of education disband their Triple Entente and leave the choice of “literature and other writing of recognized high quality” to the critically thinking teachers? Will the parents, themselves unthinking products of long years of values indoctrination and helpless against the random suggestions of any and all indoctrinators, be tickled pink when their children bring all that critical thinking home? And you can probably devise for yourself dozens of other depressing questions about what is in fact one tiny entry in thirty single-spaced pages of similar “objectives” and schemes and devices.

Furthermore, we can see that in the schools history becomes social studies, writing becomes a communication skill, literature becomes propaganda, and even science becomes brushing after meals. What will “humanities” become? I am sad to say that I have a clue, for in my own school I have seen recently a supposed attempt to cash in on the next Great Lurch Forward, which, fortunately, failed. I say “fortunately” because had it succeeded we would in fact have been further than ever from the education of “informed discretion.”

To see why that failure was fortunate, you must first know some generally hidden things about a public college. By “humanities,” for instance, we mean those studies that do not lead to clearly identifiable paying jobs, and in fact we hardly ever use the word except when we have to distinguish those few and antique disciplines from such things as teacher-training or business education, which are the routine enterprises of the college. Furthermore, we never speak of “the liberal arts”; we are prevented by a superstitious dread of the kind that would prevent the surviving peasants from uttering aloud the name of Count Dracula. When we do have to admit that all our students ought to share some body of knowledge, and can thus be passed off as members in good standing of Western Culture, we call that what almost every other school in America calls it–“general education.” General education, of course, is to education exactly what general science is to science, a smattering of this and that. Nor is “general education” a euphemism for the liberal arts, and certainly not for the humanities. It is, in fact, not an intellectual entity but a political device, the result of a reluctant compromise among the teachers of everything from puppet-making to self-awareness through massage. It has neither center nor theme, and everyone, although for purely sectarian reasons, agrees that it is simply a mess.

One of our subcommittees undertook to reform general education. After many months of arduous labor, the subcommittee brought forth–well, certainly not a mouse, but something more like a hydra as big as the Ritz–a hydra as it might be designed by a subcommittee, however. Its details were only mildly interesting, but its theme was fascinating. It derived all of its recommendations from something that you will recognize: the Student Outcomes Principle. It began by saying, and said again and again throughout, that the “aims” of courses of study were certain student outcomes, which might well be achieved–which, indeed, might best be achieved–not by any traditionally practiced studies but by the ad hoc invention of innovative interdisciplinary studies and other gimmicks.

One of the desired student outcomes, for instance, was “an appreciation of the role of science and technology in the modern world.” (Yes, “appreciation.” Plus ça change.) While the proposal did concede that such an appreciation might have something to do with “a course oriented toward [my italics, and well merited, too] the discipline of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, or astronomy,” it quite specifically and emphatically rejected the quaint and elitist notion that a student ought to take a basic course in one of those disciplines. Such a course is neither innovative nor interdisciplinary and cannot be expected, therefore, to provide that appreciation which is the desirable student outcome. Furthermore, a basic course in some hard science provides no opening at all for some nervous member of a shrinking education department who is also a skillful tinkerer with automobiles and motorcycles and who could surely, as teacher-trainee enrollments decline, impart in a real-life situation a worthy appreciation of the role of science and technology in the modern world. (Since I myself do all the typesetting and printing for The Underground Grammarian, I suggested that I too might teach a course in the appreciation of science and technology. My printing press itself exemplifies all of the cunning embodiments of the principles of mechanics that made the Industrial Revolution, and every single one of Newton’s famous, but now unknown, Laws of Motion can be seen at work in that machine. And appreciated. The subcommittee members nodded emphatically, pleased to see that a notorious slow learner was coming around. You cannot, in fact, dream up anything so preposterous that you will not find it being taught in some school.)

The “humanities” are not mentioned in the proposal, although “the human environment” is. And there are the “integrative studies,” in which “innovation and experimentation are strongly encouraged,” and which ought to include things like Racism, Sexism in the United States Today, or New Directions in the Search for Meaning. For obvious reasons, the study of foreign languages is not to be considered a necessary part of every student’s general education, although there would be little harm in teaching a student to appreciate the fact that there are foreign languages. In every respect, even in its call for a massive new bureaucracy to serve the needs of general education, the proposal derives directly from the ideology, and often even from the very text, of Cardinal Principles.

That’s ominous, because there couldn’t have been more than two or three members of that subcommittee who had ever even heard of Cardinal Principles. Indeed, some of those members are so clearly devoted to things like intellectual discipline and all that mere information that they would recoil in dismay from a clear statement of the ideology of Cardinal Principles. This must mean that that ideology has so thoroughly seeped into American schooling at every level that it has become the ground of who can say how many rarely noticed and therefore rarely examined assumptions. Those assumptions are dangerous, and there can never be the education that Jefferson intended while they are the daily food and drink of the schools. And they are. Even the academically disciplined members of the subcommittee signed their names (what were they thinking? were they thinking?) to this:

The realization that study areas refer to desirable outcomes and that these may be met in a variety of ways, ways that may at times deny the custom-established claims to coveted provinces of instruction, broadens the possibilities of curricular offerings immeasurably.

The ideologues of educationism (fortunately for us, if we will pay thoughtful attention) have so thoroughly given themselves to their disdain of intellectual discipline that they always, and always inadvertently, reveal some truth when they pretend to do the work of the mind in writing. It isn’t true, as popular opinion fancies, that the unskilled writer fails to make himself clear; he is far more likely to make himself all too clear. While there is no clear meaning in the assertion that areas “refer to” outcomes and that outcomes can be “met,” there is a clear meaning in the fact that the assertion is made in such a murky way. The very use of the word “realization” is a mindless twitch of longing, for in no way can the Student Outcomes Principle be put forth as some fact to be “realized” but only as an assertion to be believed. It is simply true that he who pauses to choose the right word will find out what he means to mean, and he who can’t will make it clear to his reader that he is ignorant and thoughtless.

But the most unsettling revelation of that passage is of the automatic assumption that underlies the characterization of the “claims of disciplines” as “custom-established” and “provinces of instruction” as “coveted.” What else must be true of one who automatically assumes that it is out of custom that we turn to the scholar of history for knowledge and understanding of history? Would he also assume that it is out of nothing more than custom that we take our shoes to the cobbler or our teeth to the dentist? What can you guess about devotion to discipline and the love of learning in one who airily presumes that it is out of covetousness that the physicists greedily demand the privilege of teaching the physics courses? When the outcome seeker suggests that we might do better to teach the appreciation of history and physics by devising innovative interdisciplinary courses to replace the customary and coveted work of the physicists and historians, who is covetous? Such bizarre notions are not only possible but inevitable in a world where there really are no academic disciplines, where this year’s general science teacher may just as well be next year’s guidance counselor and then another year’s assistant principal for instruction, where this year’s professor of curriculum facilitation will probably be next year’s grants proposal coordinator and another year’s supervisor of pre-service hands-on experiential continua. Among the educationists, who make policy and devise theory, there is so little experience of academic discipline that they probably really can’t imagine any reason other than “custom” for giving the teaching of physics into the hands of the physicists. Physics, for them, is not a concrete and complicated body of real knowledge and understanding but just one of many vaguely similar vehicles for the enhancement of appreciation. Nor is it surprising that those who have, because the mere teaching of general science or social studies did not arise from or command love and devotion, indeed coveted the nobler and more lucrative work of the guidance counselor should imagine that the scholar of history has seized his chair, in which he seems so disturbingly and unaccountably content, out of covetousness.

What can we hope for now that such people have boldly announced their intention to devise new programs of emphasis on the great role of the humanities in the development of Western Civilization and the powers of knowledge and critical thought as the necessary virtues of a free society?


Or, more precisely, nothing but more of the same.

The state of American government education is simply not a “problem” that can be solved. It is rather an enormous fact of life, a self-perpetuating institution elaborated from within by principle, not caprice, governed by collective assent, not individual talent. It easily absorbs the shock of every criticism by pretending to “reform” itself, only to transform and dilute whatever it claims to embrace into nothing but more of the same. It easily swallows and digests and incorporates into its substance everything in the world around it, popular fads and fancies just as readily as appropriately diluted new knowledge in genetics or psychology or in any of the disciplines that it will not teach. Whatever there is in our society–fast-food merchandizing, militant homosexualism, disco dancing, supply-side economics, weird religious cultism, futurology through computers, jogging, astrology, est, you name it–will find its analogue in the schools.

The Commission for the Reorganization of Secondary Education set out to adjust the ordinary American child, whatever that might be, to life in American society, whatever that might be. It did not clearly and fully understand either, but who does? It nevertheless succeeded prodigiously, if only by a roundabout way. By now the children–and the children of the children of those children–whom they “adjusted” have become American society. In strictest truth, therefore, it may not be correct to say that the educational system absorbs and replicates the mindless fads and the manipulative practices of society and commerce. It may be just the other way around. After more than half a century of preparing children for life, our government education system has prepared a life for children.

That system is a tiger that we can neither kill nor evade. To shoot the tiger is unthinkable; the consequent social and economic upheaval would turn us from a nation of children into a nation of crazy and desperate children, a condition from which we are now (more or less) protected not by the good offices of the schools but by their mere existence as employers and purchasers of goods and services. Furthermore, the ideologues and leaders of teachers’ unions are indisputably correct when they recite, to the thunderous applause of millions of government employees, the assertion that a free society’s impossible without a free, public, and universal system of education, although they are absolutely wrong in imagining that an education is what that system in fact provides. Curiously enough, therefore, that assertion is actually an incitement to the abolition of the public school system, for we will never find that universal education, which we do in very fact require in a free society, in these schools.

If we do want to “do something” about the schools, we must begin by giving up forever the futile hope that the educationists will do it for us if only we ask them often enough. Governmental agencies do not change from within except for their own purposes, and their “responses” to external cries for change, even when well meant, are inevitably subterfuges. However, while public education is best understood as simply another government agency, it does differ from the IRS and the Marine Corps in one supremely important detail: it harbors hosts of dissidents, dissidents who are themselves sick to death of what they see in the system that demeans and subverts their best efforts. The plight of dissidents in the soviet of educationism embodies precisely the principal thematic tension that engendered Cardinal Principles: They are individual minds and talents caught in a system of collective ideologies and values.

Consider, for instance, the case of a certain tenth-grade English teacher in a Maryland high school. This audacious fellow had his students read the Poetics of Aristotle and The Prince of Machiavelli as obviously useful and thought-provoking adjuncts to the study of Julius Caesar. Since Aristotle and Machiavelli are not approved by the local curriculum facilitators, the teacher, who refused to recant, was suspended without pay for insubordination and misconduct in office. (At this writing, he is still awaiting trial, and I have no idea what will become of him.) The superintendent of the school system where this outrage occurred was quoted in Time (December 15, 1980) as follows:

I don’t know whether [he] is right or wrong about the books. But in a public school system, you have to have reasonable procedures to determine what is to be used, and the superintendent has to uphold them…. What if a teacher decided to use Playboy or Hustler? I think the school system has an obligation to set standards and to set curriculum.

Forgive me, reader, if I fear that you may have missed the main point of this little story. If you are exasperated at yet another suggestion that we have put the yahoos in charge of the schools, then you have missed the main point. That superintendent, yahoo or not–and it doesn’t really matter–is absolutely right. He recites with perfect accuracy the principles of an ideological collectivism. Now you might say, speaking as an individual mind that can know, understand, and judge, that the difference between Playboy and the Poetics is obvious. It is, quite simply, a matter of worth. But a superintendent is not an individual mind but rather a functionary of a collective ideology. It is not his function to know, understand, and judge, but only to function appropriately according to his place in the apparatus. (That sort of “worker” seems superbly characterized by the word “apparatchik,” the best possible job description for most of the people who “educate” our children.) The apparatus is not intended to distinguish what is worthy from what is not, but what is approved from what is not. That distinction requires only knowledge of the list, and it absolutely precludes understanding and judgment. Therefore, from the point of view of the apparatus of which the superintendent is simply a component, there is no difference between Playboy and the Poetics. We have thus an educational system that, exactly because it is “values oriented,” can by its intrinsic nature have no values whatsoever, but only collectively derived “standards.”

Now, if you still dream that education can be changed by the people who work in it, imagine yourself trying to discuss that little matter with that superintendent, the man in charge of the life and work of the intellect in a whole school system, and who says, “I don’t know whether he is right or wrong about the books.” Remember, he speaks the truth. He doesn’t know. In that imagined conference you will see a miniature but perfectly accurate paradigm of all intentions to change the government schools.

It is instructive to notice that when dissidents are unmasked in the schools, it is usually because of a book. I mean, of course, a book, not a textbook. A book is the permanent record of the work of a solitary human mind, to be read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested by another solitary human mind. A committee can no more make a book than it can play the violin, but almost every “book” used in schools–and in teacher-training academies–is written collectively and for collective purposes. The makers of schoolbooks are “writers” only in the sense that the sign painter who labels bathroom doors is a “writer,” or the pilot who draws in the sky slogans in smoke. Such messages–enormously dignified in schools as “communications”–can never, however long and seemingly complex they become, provide the substance of anything more than collective training. Education comes from books. And it goes into books. Education arises when one mind ponders the work of another. Thus, since the elements and circumstances of an education are beyond number, since all minds are different not only from one another but even from their earlier selves, there is no end to understanding, no final judgment. And that is why books are so scarce in schools and why a teacher can find himself a pariah in the “academic” enterprise because of an essay by Aristotle. The schools are devoted to collective conclusions, what that superintendent calls “standards,” and not to the interminable (and to educationists “selfish and anti-social”) ruminations of understanding and judgment.

A magnificent education, as countless examples attest, can come from nothing more than reading and writing. In the one we behold the work of the solitary mind, in the other we do it, but we do it in such a way that we can behold again, and understand, and judge, the work of a solitary mind-our own. In the cause of education, there are no substitutes for reading and writing, nor do they require any supplements. Film-strips and flip-charts and all the countless gimmicks and gadgets that clutter our classrooms–which are, by the way, every bit as profitable as the antennas and jet exhaust fumes so righteously deplored by our humanisticist educationists–are the trash and pollution of education and reveal the schools’ corporate belief that children are mentally crippled and must be cajoled into learning anything at all. But the gimmickry of the schools is more than simple cajolery, which most students see quite clearly as something between condescension and contempt; it is an integral and large portion of a general program designed to prevent solitude. And while the children themselves are pestered with values clarification modules and relating sessions and group activities lest they fall into solitude, they are also protected from dangerous exposure to the fruits of solitary thinking in others. Committees and commissions and teaching teams and curriculum standard setters make the film-strips and movies and tapes and slide-shows and packets of learning materials. Their very teachers, raised in the same tradition and then doubly indoctrinated in the teacher training academies, are not solitary minds but collective spokesmen, not minds that pursue understanding but only mouths that transmit communications. The system will find no fault in any teacher, no matter how scant his knowledge, who is ever mindful of awareness enhancement and the parameters of remediational strategies in meeting the felt needs of the whole child, but it will suspend without pay a teacher who brings into class a nonstandard work of a solitary mind.

Still, some dissidents do survive. And, because they are themselves solitary minds, some few lucky students will find, even in the worst school, the beginnings of an education. The dissidents are those teachers we all remember, the Miss Morrisons and the Mr. Martins who made–we don’t know just how–some important difference. And they will always make that important difference, although our schools of education make it harder and harder for a solitary mind to emerge intact and independent. But they will save only a few other solitary minds here and there. They cannot save, or reform, or even change the system. Two facts prevent them: They are almost always teachers, privates in the ranks, the least powerful and influential people in the schools; and, for all the good that they do now and then, their self-interest is best served by the same establishment that harbors and rewards the guidance counselors and curriculum facilitators and the supervisors and superintendents and all the whole host of fools and frauds who could probably not make a living in anything other than a government agency. They are–the dissidents–also government agents.

We have reached a point at which even Mencken’s sound advice would be no help. Sure, we could probably burn down all the colleges and hang all the professors, but that would still leave us with fifty state departments of education, and a federal one, hundreds of educationistic research institutes and curriculum development outfits, a like number of publishers and learning materials designers and manufacturers, who knows how many awareness-orientated teachers’ centers, and who can count what else, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Unfortunately, burning the colleges and hanging the professors just won’t do it. Our schools, a parody of education, are impervious to anything less than revolution-obliteration and reconstitution. But that is impossible.

In the first place, nobody cares that much. It just isn’t worth the trouble. The only ones who care, although not that much, might be the dissidents, but they can never make a revolution. In America we have rules for revolution, and obviously good rules at that. Who would make a revolution among us is expected to pledge thereto life, fortune, and sacred honor. Some of us dissidents (I think I can speak for them) would like no doubt to imagine pledging our lives in some great cause, but when you get right down to it there is nothing more at stake here than the freedom of somebody else’s children. Besides, we have contracts. Whether we can pledge our lives or not they do not specify, but they do make it clear that there is to be no tampering with the terms and conditions of our employment. As to our fortunes, well, you know very well that we have none. Most unaccountably, the wise and happy society of ethical characters and worthy citizens that we have fostered for so long in our schools now seems to value us less than it values bus drivers and trash collectors. So we can pledge no fortunes, not even our guaranteed annual increments. And as to that sacred honor, which sounds suspiciously antiquated and elitist, you do have to admit that it is a value notoriously difficult to clarify in group discussions. On that we must pass. The closest we might come is to pledge our tenure, but we can’t. It sounds noble, of course, but it would simply erode the standards of the profession.

But maybe things will change.