THE LEANING TOWER OF BABEL
by Richard Mitchell
Their two is not the real two,
Prof Prods Pol!
WE HAVE long hoped to find a good, concrete example, with numbers, of what Emerson must have had in mind when he said, speaking of those whose minds have been replaced by the orthodox slogans of some faction, that even their numbers are not the real thing. It is a puzzling statement, for Emerson could hardly have meant that they were so bad at computation that they always came up with wrong numbers. He could only have meant that even when they said something that the rest of us would take to have a specific meaning, they did not exactly say that.
We can find plenty of that, of course, not only in Academe, but even out there in The World, which may be no better a place after all. The big Twos and Fours, which we hear as “The People’s Democratic Republic of Whatever,” or “Quality Education,” always turn out to mean not what we might have thought. Our obtuseness may require a dose of Reeducation, or, as some apologist for life adjustment remediation enhancement schooling will name it sooner or later, “People’s Democratic Quality Reeducation.” Arbeit macht frei.
But such examples seemed not quite right. We wanted numbers. Now, thanks to three alert readers, all on the mailing list for a newsletter sent out by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we have them. Some professor (of what, you guess) wrote Moynihan, who happens to be a professional politician, some helpful hints for the art of gogy, either peda- or dema-. Here are the excerpts quoted in the newsletter:
[Your] material had a readability level of 10.8-11.2. This means that it would be considered readable to people who had at least a tenth grade reading level. In order to broaden the “target audience” of your newsletter and to make your message more accessible to more voters, I might suggest that such material be written at a lower level of readability.
Moynihan must be an extraordinarily patient man. Or maybe he’s just so busy trying to rustle up “increased funding for quality education” that he can hardly take time off to study the work of the mind as done by the quality educationists who will get to spend the increased funding. Here is Moynihan’s reply:
This is how technique traps us. The intended meaning is that I should write at an eighth grade level, or something such. But the professor has said I should lower the readability level of what I write. Surely that means to make it less readable! It seems to me the professor was not clear.
Why Moynihan calls that stuff an example that shows how we are trapped by technique is hard to fathom. Can he believe that “the professor” is just too good at something, in command of too much technique, or a master of a skill too technical to assure mere accuracy? If so, it would not be surprising. It has long been an article of our folklore that too much knowledge or skill, or especially consummate expertise, is a bad thing. It dehumanizes those who achieve it, and makes difficult their commerce with just plain folks, in whom good old common sense has not been obliterated by mere book-learning or fancy notions. This popular delusion flourishes now more than ever, for we are all infected with it in the schools, where educationists have elevated it from folklore to Article of Belief. It enhances their self-esteem and lightens their labors by providing theoretical justification for deciding that appreciation, or even simple awareness, is more to be prized than knowledge, and relating (to self and others), more than skill, in which minimum competence will be quite enough.
It is possible, of course, that Moynihan shares the delusion, and for all the same reasons. The chosen goals (and probably the inner needs) of politicians are not in any important way different from those of the educationist. But if this politician really thinks that that educationist just got “trapped” by his devotion to the stern demands of “technique,” then the republic stands in greater peril than we thought. Let’s hope that Moynihan was just trying to be polite.
We are not polite. We can say that “the professor” is a boob and a charlatan, and a mealy-mouth too, with his hokey “material,” and his just-between-us-realists-no-offense-intended quotation marks on “target audience,” and that pussy-footing “I might suggest” when he is in the act of suggesting. That sort of thing is usually just an involuntary verbal twitch, pitiable but disconcerting. (Technique does not trap us; ignorance of technique traps us.) But that cliquish use of the word “material” is–well–material.
Educationists just don’t feel right, and feeling is accounted a way of knowing in their world, about books. A book is the work of a mind, doing its work in the way that a mind deems best. That’s dangerous. Is the work of some mere individual mind likely to serve the alms of collectively accepted compromises, which are known in the schools as “standards”? Any mind that would audaciously put itself forth to work all alone is surely a bad example for the students, and probably, if not downright anti-social, at least a little off-center, self-indulgent, elitist. Such a mind might easily bore somebody, since only a very few people can possibly feel an interest in highly specialized subjects. And then there’s the problem of self-esteem, a frail flower, easily bruised by the unfamiliar, by arcane references, snooty allusions, and, especially, by prose that is simply not written at the right grade level. It’s just good pedagogy, therefore, to stay away from such stuff, and use instead, if film-strips and rap sessions must be supplemented, “texts,” selected, or prepared, or adapted, by real professionals. Those texts are called “reading material.” They are the academic equivalent of the “listening material” that fills waiting-rooms, and the “eating material” that you can buy in thousands of convenient eating resource centers along the roads.
Those marvelous numbers that “the professor” has derived do, in fact, measure something, but not what they pretend to measure. A score of 10.8 means: If this stuff were being considered for a place on our list of approved reading material, we would have to point out that it is only after almost eleven years of our professional tutelage that the average student will be able to achieve scores that indicate basic minimum competence in filling in blanks and checking the appropriate squares on a standardized reading material comprehension assessment instrument, which is “standardized” because we design it to go with the stuff that we use as reading material suitable for students who have had almost eleven years of our tutelage.
If you sniff a whiff of madness in such notions of “measurement,” you must have been reading not simply with comprehension but with understanding. Something important depends on making some clear distinction between the two. Educationists seem to have made, in their practice, a distinction like this: Comprehension is what is shown by the ability to make or recognize more or less accurate rephrasings of what you have just read; Understanding is an inner feeling by virtue of which we can correctly “relate to” people and ideas. Some such distinction must inform their belief that knowledge just isn’t enough, and may not even be needed at all, for the accomplishment of the higher goals of education, which lie in the realm of attitudes and feelings.
We won’t quarrel with that definition of comprehension. We will quarrel instead with the educationists’ apparent notion that comprehension is the point of reading. It is not. Only in some very special cases is comprehension the point of reading–in things like recipes and “reading material.” The point of reading is understanding, and comprehension is to understanding as getting wet is to swimming. You must do the one before you can hope to do the other, but you don’t do the other simply because you do the one.
Comprehension permits us to answer the question: What does it say? Understanding permits us to begin answering an endless series of questions starting with: What can we say about it?
The difference can be demonstrated by Emerson’s sentence, with which this all began: “Their two is not the real two, their four is not the real four.” What score “the professor” would give it, we don’t know. But we do know that those “professors” presume that the syllable is the quantum of comprehension, and that short words are by nature easier to comprehend than long words–“sloth,” for instance, easier than “laziness.” The same applies to sentences; the shorter, the easier. Emerson’s sentence is made of fourteen words and probably is a bit long for reading material, but it is made of two almost identical sentences joined by a comma, and uses only seven different words, each of them a common monosyllable. So its “readability” score ought to be very low. Somewhere in the middle of first grade, any child ought to be able to “comprehend” it. And then?
The professor’s reading is not the real reading. His readability–and this misled Moynihan to the right conclusion–is not the real readability. It is an essential attribute of “reading material” that it be appropriately comprehendable at a certain grade level, which makes it, at any grade level, agonizingly unreadable. That could account for a few other things.
HERE’S some swell news from the Newsletter of the Minnesota Higher Education Coordinating Commission:
“Minnesota post-secondary education is at the threshold of what may become the most dramatic transition ever experienced in the state’s educational enterprise, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Several partially interrelated circumstances and forces are converging in such a manner as to cause a potentially profound impact on the shape of education beyond high school, according to Making the Transition, the Commission’s biennial report. Minnesota post-secondary education also is faced with considerable uncertainty, says the report. . . . Some of the uncertainty stems from conflicting and changing societal forces that impinge on education, and some emanates from lack of agreement on what constitutes desirable and undesirable modifications and directions for post-secondary education.”
So, did you note the remarkable subtleties of its elegant metaphoric texture? It’s not the threshold of a transition; it’s the threshold of what may become a transition. Circumstances and forces, partially interrelated (therefore partially uninterrelated) converge, but not in just any old way. They converge in such a manner as to cause an impact, maybe not a profound one, but potentially profound, and an impact that we might well have missed had the circumstances and forces converged in another way. And that uncertainty! Some of it stems from forces; some of it emanates from lack. And . . . enough. The mind reels.
But here’s the beauty part. If you memorize that passage, leaving out all reference to schools in Minnesota, you’ll find that you can speak with confident authority on any subject just by filling in the blanks! Try it. See?
Holy Cow! Maybe they are educators after all. You’ll never get experiential skills enhancement like that from reading Emerson!
Naming of Parts
LIKE the counterjumper who drinks from his fingerbowl while trying to pass himself off as a peer, the academic arriviste betrays himself by mouthing words he doesn’t understand. His sequenced modules and problematical parameters are Academe’s versions of bronzed baby shoes and lawn ornaments in the shape of flamingos.
The Snopeses of Academe (who won’t even know where to look that up) have problems not only with hard words like holistic, which they occasionally spell “wholistic,” but even with simple words like phase and factor. They seem baffled by words that name the various possible kinds of parts.
Their students catch their ignorance. A few months ago, we quoted a “communications” major, a young lady who wanted to experience the segments of the field in order to pinpoint a facet to pursue. She was probably following some ga-ga creative writing teacher’s rule for colorful and varied diction, but she will suffer permanent brain damage if she actually thinks that segment and facet are synonyms, or that either makes sense in naming the parts of a field. Of course, she probably wasn’t thinking any such thing; she just wasn’t thinking.
And that explains why our educationists and their victims have so much trouble with the naming of parts. You have to do a little thinking–not much, but obviously too much for some people–to understand the difference between a segment and a facet, and a little more to understand why the mind is not clarified by considering either the segments or the facets of a field.
Such thoughtlessness is aggravated by the cloudiness of field, which readers of pedaguese will recognize as a handy plug-in replacement for area, sphere, and domain. Educationists can babble forever about the phases of their fields and the facets of their spheres. There is no need for precise definition where there are no real things to be defined.
There are no boundaries to the happy land of Let’s Pretend. If you can imagine that you are thinking as you contemplate the facets of your cute little sphere, you are only one baby step away from sucking on their aspects and their parameters. Aspects and parameters are two of the darlingest baubles of the mindless, who find them especially useful in the naming of parts. Segments and phases are in fact certain kinds of parts. If you talk about facets of a segment of your area, some rude elitist–from off the education field, naturally–may call your bluff, requiring that you describe exactly the nature of the parts and of their relationships both to each other and to the whole. You can avoid such embarrassment by hiding in the aspects and parameters, which aren’t parts of any kind. If you prate about the problematical parameters of the affective aspects of your area, your playmates will give you a D.Ed., and the rude elitists, realizing that you are beyond the reach of reason, will trouble you no more. But, hoping still, they will tiptoe away, leaving you to amuse yourself in your playpen with your favorite words; luckily, they’re all sharp instruments.
Also sprach a certain Virgil S. Ward, a professor of education (what else?) at the University of Virginia. We lifted all that neat stuff from a snappy little article called “Washington Policy Seminar,” Ward’s rhapsodic reflections on a synod of so-called “talented/gifted” educationists.†
Ward is not without a tiny gift of his own. He lurches with ease into astonishing figures of speech. He tells of the smoldering welter, the subjugated clarion call, the seed in the scenario, and the maelstrom in the field, in which, most unaccountably, special interests demand a place. But such snippets do him less than justice. Here’s the real thing.
Thus, in conclusion, let it be said plainly, that in the perception of this observer, for what the thought of any one individual may be worth, our conceptual foundations have deteriorated to the point that action is now occurring in a virtual void of theory. Theory, it can be reasonably noted, is the intelligence of practical action. And science–i.e., that ordered array of the firmest understanding available in any given era or short term period, inviolable logic of inquiry and observation spelled out in the deepest possible constructs of semantic and quantitative symbolization, precluding the elective judgment and behavioral alternative which does not meet the requirements of the most fundamental criteriology which philosophic thought can produce–the particular science of Differential Education for the Gifted is the critical need now still more than in the 1940’s and 1950’s when its rudiments might have been forged our but were not.
That, alas, does do him justice. His blithe blurts of primitive poetastasy are all too rare, like flies in the farina, repellent maybe, but at least worthy of comment. He is more often laying waste his powers by distinguishing a virtual void from a mere void and inventing really neat stuff, like fundamental criteriology and the deepest possible constructs of semantic and quantitative symbolizations. That last bit, of course, is the “gifted/talented” way of saying “numbers and words,” or, to be precise, the deepest possible numbers and words. And “available in any given era or short term period” is the deepest possible gifted/talented construct of semantic symbolization for the word “available.”
If you are thinking that Ward’s writing would merit a fat F in freshman composition, you’re right, of course, but you’ve revealed yourself ungifted/untalented. You have fallen into fallacy, not realizing that “articulated developmental experience at the transcendent plane of complexity” cannot waste time on clear writing and thought, which can only be “intra-personal [intra, you got that?] peaks of performance potential.” But who better than Ward himself to explain?
Are our alliances in the political process and the preserves of power, such that we can withstand subtle but consequential misunderstandings, e.g., that DEG is bent upon the evocation of intra-personal peaks of performance potential among the general school-age population, regardless of comparative status of these peaks. And dare we even raise the question and risk important misunderstanding on our own part, whether the time has come firmly to insist that education in the arts among the general populace, while supportive of the rarer talent, does not comprise the necessary objective of quintessential experience brought into the service of distinctive aptitude and performance potential on the part, now as ever, of the rarer few. [No, he doesn’t use question marks.]
Ah yes, the rarer few, of whom there are even fewer than there are of the merely rare few. How lucky they are to have Ward & Co. to disregard the comparative status of their peaks and to provide for them the necessary objectives of quintessential experience in the service of aptitude and potential. The larks will be lucky, too, when the dodos return among us to teach the silly twitterers to fly and sing. Then larks, now merely rare, will soon be a rarer few, and we’ll all get more sleep, won’t we?
† You really should have your own copy of the complete text. It’s splendid for reading aloud at parties. Write to Gifted/Talented Education, 97 Mill Plain Rd., Branford, CT 06405. Ask for the issue for December, 1979. The “editor,” Rudolph Pohl, Ed. D., will be proud to send you a copy.
Sayings Brief and Dark
In accordance with their textbooks, they are always in motion; but as for dwelling upon an argument or a question, and quietly asking and answering in turn, they can no more do so than they can fly. . . . If you ask any of them a question, he will produce, as from a quiver, sayings brief and dark, and shoot them at you; and if you inquire the reason of what he has said, you will be hit with some other new-jangled word, and you will make no way with any of them. Their great care is, not to allow of any settled principle either in their arguments or in their minds, . . . for they are at war with the stationary, and do what they can to drive it out everywhere.
NO, that is not an extract from a report of a convention of curriculum facilitators, or a tale told out of school by someone who escaped from a teacher academy with all of his faculties intact. It is–and we always find this sort of thing refreshing–a passage from Plato, who never even heard of educationists, and who never had to. He knew the archetype, the ideal, of which our bold, innovative thrusters are just local and ephemeral appearances–just our bad luck.
The speaker is a certain Theodorus, and he is talking not about educationists but about some Ephesians who have adopted the notion that knowledge is perception and, therefore, as mutable and diverse as the world and different for every perceiver. And it is because they deny the possibility of permanent and universally pertinent principle, or of any “truth” that might be supposed to exist whether anyone perceives it or not, that they are said to be “at war with the stationary.”
We don’t know much philosophy around here, but we sure do know a neat idea when we see one, and that is one neat idea. It means, among hosts of other neat things, that we are OK, that we don’t have to know much philosophy around here. We can perceive just as well as the next monthly. And when you come to think of it, or even when you don’t come to think of it, you can easily perceive it as a really democratic idea, the very idea we need to prove the worth of rap sessions in which eight-year-olds can decide all about abortion and alternative lifestyles and which passenger to throw out of an overloaded lifeboat.*
Theodorus, however, took no harm greater than exasperation from his visit to Ephesus. He was not obliged by law to spend twelve years among the practitioners of quality philosophy. Nor did he enroll in an Ephesian equivalent of a teacher academy, so that he might experience slogans and incantations relevant to outcomes-based instruction modalities and enhancement facilitation.
We, on the other hand, cannot go home. Athens is fallen, and Ephesians peddle tacky souvenirs among the ruins. There is no dwelling upon argument, but only the rap session, no quietly asking and answering in turn, but only privileged self-expression in the recitation of the latest notions.
We are led into these melancholy reflections by a sad and exasperated letter from a faithful reader. He is in the school business, but is obviously still a thoughtful person.
He was filling out yet another of those countless and mind-numbing forms that educationists, given sufficient funding, of course, dearly love to cook up and send around. (They call that “research,” and the “answers”–usually nothing more than choices checked off by bored and angry people justifiably thirsty for revenge–they call “data.”) The poor man, who is not an educationist, but a teacher, the lowest rank there is in the school business, read these words of wisdom from his betters:
As the individual staff member considers a program of self-improvement, attention should be given to the ability to impart knowledge.
Something must have snapped in his mind. We’ll never know exactly what caused it. Maybe it was that lofty Passive Imperative: “Attention Should Be Given.” Maybe it was the realization that he, a mere individual staff member, couldn’t even identify those of his colleagues who might be of the other kind. In any case, he did what you are never supposed to do in the school business. He looked at one of those sayings, brief and dark, and actually thought about it. Should that sort of anti-social behavior become common in our schools, there would be an end to educationism, which depends absolutely, like any other cult, upon the credulousness of its adherents, and which, like any other cult, fosters credulousness by giving catechism the name of “education.”
The brief, dark saying that caught our correspondent’s mind was that pious and oft-intoned mantra: “The Ability to Impart Knowledge.” How he thought about that, we can’t tell you in detail, but in principle we can tell you, because the principles are stationary. He dwelt upon the question; he did not appreciate it or interact with it. He asked and answered in turn; he did not rap. He inquired the reason of what was said; he did not relate to the reasons for saying it.
He put questions like these: Does knowledge need imparting, whatever that is, or would telling be enough? When knowledge is told by stones and stars, who is the teacher, and in what statements can we describe the knowable properties of his “abilities”? If the imparting of knowledge is the telling of what is so, who can lack that ability, except the insane, the imbecilic, the comatose, the irretrievably deluded, or the pathologically mendacious? If, however, that imparting of knowledge is something other than the telling of what is so, what, exactly, are its properties? Can we consider the “ability” to do it, or judge whether it ought to be done, without knowledge of its nature? Is knowledge not that which needs beholding rather than assertion, and is the habit of diligent inquiry not the parent of beholding? As to the worth of teachers, and especially teachers of teachers, ought we not to judge of their habits and ways of inquiry instead of their self-proclaimed and utterly unintelligible “ability to impart knowledge”?
Still, as at least one man we know will surely testify, you can learn a thing or two–well, not from, exactly, but because of those people. Maybe that’s the secret of a good teacher academy, a place where the students, sitting still and thinking, could just observe the educationists leaping from tree to tree in their natural habitat.
* They actually do this in the schools. It’s called the Lifeboat Game, which proves that school has its lighter side. The dull labors of math and grammar are offset by playful interludes of childlike chatter as to who shall live and who shall die.
The Master of those Who Know
And raising my eyes a little I saw on high Aristotle, the master of those who know
knowledge: Knowledge is defined as the remembering of previously learned material. This may involve the recall of a wide range of material, from specific facts to complete theories, but all that is required is the bringing to mind of the appropriate information. Knowledge represents the lowest level of learning outcomes in the cognitive domain.
THAT intriguing definition comes from a “Pilot Curriculum” plan of “Program Gifted and Talented” in the Lakota Local School District. We don’t know where that is–the document came from a careful informant–but it doesn’t make any difference Lakota is everywhere.
The definition is miniature rehash of a section of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, a book little known and little read, but influential beyond all measuring. It is at once the New Testament of the cult of educationism and a post-post-Hegelian plan to describe the life of the mind in such a way that educationists might suppose themselves “scientific,” and thus win at last the respect of academe, which ordinarily dismisses them as addled appreciators not only of the Emperor’s clothing but of each of his frequent changes of clothing.
Luckily for the educationists, very few academics bothered their heads about TEO. If they had, the aspiring scientists of educationism might have suffered something more than mere disrespect. However, while the academics’ ignorance of this work is easy to understand, for the book is less fun to read than the customs regulations for the import of plucked poultry, it is less easy to forgive.
Although the Taxonomy seems to have been sort of “written” by a committee, the “credit” is usually given to its editor and principal instigator, a certain Benjamin S. Bloom. Bloom is to educationism what Aristotle is to thought, which is to say, not exactly the master of those who know, but at least, by Bloom’s own definition, the master of those who remember previously learned material.*
Even a glance here and there into Bloom’s Taxonomy would at least have prepared us, as long ago as 1956, for the otherwise unaccountable results of American schooling.
You may, for instance, have wondered how it can be that a generation of Americans seems never to have heard of anything, and knows only as much of our history as the television industry finds it profitable to show them It may have bemused you to hear how many college students in Miami were unable to locate Miami, or the North Atlantic Ocean, for that matter, on a map. It may have been a sad surprise to discover how many Americans could neither recognize nor approve certain provisions of the Bill of Rights, and how few social studies teachers in Minnesota were able to make any statements of fact about Fascism. Such things are not, as generosity, or hope, might dispose you to presume, anomalies, rare and freakish failures of a process that ordinarily produces quite different results. They are in the program.
In the pursuit of mere knowledge, “the lowest level of learning outcomes in the cognitive domain,” educationists are selectively vigorous. They do give each other pretty diplomas for the sort of “research” that reveals that seventeen percent of those guidance counsellors in Buffalo who double as volley-ball coaches never studied volley-ball in teacher school. But where anyone not a candidate for an Ed. D. is concerned, they find knowledge less deserving of high honor, and those who would foster it less than perfect in pedagogy. “Because of the simplicity of teaching and evaluating knowledge,” says the Taxonomy,
it is frequently emphasized all out of proportion to its usefulness or its relevance for the development of the individual. (p. 34)
Well, there. You see? Who can demonstrate that the ability to locate Miami is useful or relevant to the development of the individual? And if the answer is “no one,” how shall we answer the obvious other question: Who can demonstrate that it isn’t? Who can say–who can know enough to say–that this or that particle of knowledge is not worth having?
It is not out of ignorance that we discover understanding. It is exactly because of what we already know that we can know more, that we can discern organizing principles, and make and test hypotheses, and act rationally. But all of that is not the end to which the acquisition of knowledge is intended by Bloom, et al.
That end is rather the typically slippery and empty “development of the individual.” To decide that some degree of “emphasis on knowledge” is “all out of proportion” to the “development” of millions of “individuals,” or even of one, is several steps beyond effrontery. Some might say that it borders on blasphemy. We are content to call it the hubris of invincible ignorance, which quite naturally and appropriately afflicts those who denigrate knowledge. What do they know, who know the “correct” nature of the development of the individual? Is a general and pervasive ignorance the result of some “emphasis on knowledge” small enough to be in proportion to that development?
If there is an “emphasis on knowledge all out of proportion,” to what is it out of proportion? How much time and effort should be reserved for a duly proportionate “emphasis” on whatever it is that is not knowledge?
There is a word for that which is not knowledge. It is ignorance. But Bloom and his friends must be either consummately cagey or colossally obtuse in championing ignorance.
They begin by claiming, maybe, that knowledge isn’t really knowledge in any case;
It is assumed that as the number of things known by an individual increases, his acquaintance with the world in which he lives increases. But, as has been pointed out before, we recognize the point of view that truth and knowledge are only relative and that there are no hard and fast truths which exist for all times and all places. (p. 32)
Well, we recognize that point of view too. It was a hot item towards the end of sophomore year, when its titillating paradoxicality brought on neat bull-sessions as to whether that statement could itself be permanently true. However, while the Bloomists seem to admit only to recognizing the sophomore’s delight, that is due not to cautious thoughtfulness, but only to imprecision of language. In fact, they subscribe to it, and derive from it a grand scheme of “education” depending on the belief that nothing can be known.
It is to support that belief that they must define knowledge only in a trivial sense. As though to prove the vanity of all learning, they point out that “punctuation is solely [that probably means “only”] a matter of convention.” We know that. And we can know its requirements and principles. The Taxonomy gladly informs us that “how we pictured the atom” has changed, Which is as enlightening as the fact that Aristotle could not have located Miami either. And, most important, because this kind of assertion will lead to the Taxonomy’s true agenda, the promotion of “education” as “modification in the affective domain,” the demonstration of “what is knowable” concludes by calling to witness “the cultural aspect” of knowledge.
“What is known to one group is not necessarily known to another group, class, or culture,” Bloom tells us. As to whether that is a statement about “the knowable,” there is a test. Just read it again, putting “knowable” where “known” appears. It is to be hoped that not even Bloomists would say that there could be some knowledge accessible to Arabs but not to Jews, but that is what they say when the contrive a definition of knowledge that will permit the inclusion of attitudes, beliefs, and feelings, or any other variety of supposed knowledge Those things, all of them “previously learned material” all too easily remembered, make up that other category, to which an “emphasis on knowledge” is “all out of proportion” for “the development of the individual.” Those are the things that the Bloomists wanted “education” to be all about. And it is.
Aristotle was partly right. Some, by nature, do desire to know; some remember previously learned material.
* Bloom is still extant. His latest, and probably most startling discovery is that students who study more will often learn more than students who study less. Such a complicated idea is difficult even for the professionals to grasp—and “remember as previously learned material”–without a master of those who know who can tell them all about the enhancement of learning outcomes through time-on-task augmentation. And it is of such wisdom that Bloom has fashioned the bold, innovative thrust now widely known, and hailed with capitals, as Mastery Learning. The rules for Mastery Learning, however, and not surprisingly, turn out to be not rules for some way of learning, but for a way of teaching: First, teach someone something–some “material,” maybe. Next, give him a test. If he passes, good; go on to something else. If he flunks, start over. Keep at it. Stunning. What next?
Of human kind,
My great offense in aiding them, in teaching
For, soothly, having eyes to see they saw not,
All blindly floundering on.
Æschylus – Prometheus Bound
The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us to see and perceive all things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its own subject. John Locke
WE CAN now begin to make out, monstrously looming in the near distance, the swelling hulk of the next bold, innovative thrust, the great lurch forward into Thinking. It will bring us, at first, Basic Minimum Thinking. Next, so that consultants and departments of educationism may thrive even in an Age of Thought, there will come in-service thinking workshops, so that schoolteachers can acquire enhanced appreciations of this newest pedagogical modality. Then, either to pass the buck or spread the wealth, there will arise among us comprehensive programs of Thinking across the Curriculum, engendered by the exciting discovery that even in family living courses and driver training at least some rudimentary form of thinking might be justifiable. And, at the end of it all, professors of geography and Medieval literature will be hanging on to their jobs by teaching two or three sections of Remedial Thinking.
Although the seeds of this movement can hardly be said to have been sown, they did at least fall among the thistles as long ago as 1981. In the fall of that year, when the young victims of the Basic Minimum Competence Frenzy came back to school for more of the same, the National Assessment of Educational Progress discovered that seventeen-year-olds had suffered “sharp declines in inferential comprehension.” The results of its standard test, said the NAEP, seemed to “signal some erosion in older teenagers’ thinking and evaluative skills.”
At first, before the educationists realized that they were hearing the distant rumble not of a new storm of abuse but of an onrushing band wagon, they tried to explain away this new erosion by reminding us that we had burdened them with the old one. Here we are, fighting for functional literacy, they said, and bringing the blessings of minimum competence into the land! How can we, saddled with your petulant demands for mere basics, also be held responsible for the teaching of “higher-order” skills? We can hardly be expected to teach reading, writing, and ciphering, and also thinking at the very same time, you know, and without even a penny of thinking-funding either!
It must have that last point that lit their bulbs. Nowadays they say: Well, of course, we could teach thinking too, if that’s what you want, but we would have to have . . . And their shopping list will make such folk as the environmental awareness educationists and consumer educationists look like shy pikers. As “vital” as all such educations surely are, Thinking Education deserves some big money.
And then there are serious considerations, which arise not so much from the silly, self-serving behavior of our educationists as from the ideological presumptions that underlie all their behavior, all their practices and beliefs. From those who have never even defined education except as anything and everything done in schools, who neither own nor seek any firm principles by which to distinguish education from training, or socialization, or persuasion, or even from entertainment, what can we expect as a definition of “thinking”? By what principles, if any, will the idolaters of the Affective Domain distinguish thinking from guessing, or hoping, or remembering, or daydreaming, or, for that matter, from their most prized “mental” acts, appreciating, relating, and self-esteeming?
And what evidence can we find in the results of their practice and the ludicrous curricula of their own academies as to the quality of the educationists’ thinking about thinking? Are their inane questionnaires and the jargon-laden banalities of their pathetic “scholarship” the “pains and arts” by which they understand the understanding? Is it through awareness enhancement and arranging the desks in a circle that the torpid educationistic mind has come to take the grasp of itself, and to the power of leading others in that enterprise?
We already have a hint as to what “thinking” will become in the schools. The National Council of Teachers of English has recently discovered that “thinking and language are closely linked.” (NYT, Education Survey supplement, Jan. 9, 1983.) Although that may seem a tiny step forward for that crowd, we have to see it in the pale and flickering light of their announced beliefs about the language to which they now find thinking so “closely” linked. Will the same rules of cultural relativity and political expediency govern their “teaching” of both? Will they concoct some kind of “holistic scoring” by which, without fussing about the “trivial mistakes,” to judge of the better and the worse in the practice of logic? Will they discover other thinkings, just as “valid” and worthy of “respect” as that kind of thinking that just happens to be the current and socially acceptable habit of the “dominant class”?
The questions are, of course, rhetorical, for the NCTE has already begun to make just such discoveries. “A policy statement by [that] organization,” says the Times,
suggested that teachers approach thinking skills from three directions–teaching creative thinking to recognize relationships that lead to new ideas, logical thinking to create hypotheses and detect fallacies, and critical thinking to ask questions and make judgments.
And there we have already three “thinkings,” which is only the barest of beginnings in that blindly teeming system that has already brought us a swarm of “educations” and even a little pack of “writings.” Soon there will he absurdities like Civic Thinking, Driving Thinking, Environmental Thinking, Family Thinking, and probably even Health and Personal Grooming Thinking, for so it is that empires grow and the goodies are passed around in the merry old land of educationism.
But there is much more at issue here than routine featherbedding, so, difficult as it is, we must try not to be facetious about the NCTE’s “policy statement.” (At this very instant, in fact, we are trying not to imagine how it came to pass that a band of schoolteachers suddenly decided, by golly, that the time had come for an official policy on thinking. Yeah. It’s as though the Pope were to . . . Enough! We have to stop this right now.)
So let’s examine their “policy.” Do they truly suppose that “creative” thinking need not be logical thinking, that “logical” thinking is not the thinking by which to “recognize relationships that lead to new ideas,” that “critical” thinking is going to detect fallacies without being logical thinking? Is the making of judgments achieved in one thinking and the creation of hypotheses in another? Do we need yet one more thinking, still to be named, by which to make judgment of hypotheses, and still another by which to form hypotheses about the provenance of weird judgments?
But again, enough. Such a game of words could go on forever, just like the list of “thinkings.” It is by means of such games, and out of a remarkably superstitious belief in the reality of anything that can be named, that they have cooked up such things as microteaching and experiential continua, which can be elaborated (and funded) without any consideration at all of what is meant by “teaching” or by “experience.”
In educationists, there dwells the demon Kakepistemé, who spake by the prophets of socialization through Ed. Psych. 101. He diligently compels them to define backwards, and without regard to the nature of what is being defined. As to education, for instance, they begin by guessing that some socially acceptable “outcomes” must be the result of education– making a living, for example, or appreciating a line from Hamlet, or being able to balance a checkbook and write a letter of application. Thus, by the educationists’ definition, it is the same thing that brings about, in one case, the mind of John Stuart Mill, and, in another, the practice of brushing between meals.
So, too, will it be with thinking, for the educationists have no principle to distinguish it from their precious idol, problem-solving. Thus they can say, and believe, this sort of thing:
Thinking is the one skill that makes street-smart kids so adaptable. They know how to solve the problems of the street, and now they have to learn how to apply those skills in the classroom.
Those are the words, as quoted by the Times, of one Charlotte Frank, executive director of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the public schools of New York City. If there be justice in the fabric of the universe–a consideration that calls not for problem-solving but for thinking–Frank will be demoted to the lowliest rank in education, teacher, so that those adaptable street-smart kids can go and apply their skills in her classroom.
So, it is thoughtfulness is it, by virtue of which those street-smart kids are what they are? And it must be out of an even greater thoughtfulness–the “creative” kind, maybe?–that their older counterparts, and mentors, are what they are. And what of the rats, the astonishing, problem-solving rats of New York, not only surviving but actually prevailing in an implacably hostile and enormously complicated environment?
To lead, however successfully, in the streets or in the board-rooms, a life of problem-solving is to lead “a random life from year to year,” a life directed not from within by principle, but from without by accident. There is surely no recommendation in the fact that countless millions lead such lives; there is rather a reminder that thinking is not a “survival skill.” While the thoughtful may prosper by thoughtfulness, they also may not. Utterly unlike the street-smart kids, who know just what they want and exactly how to get it, the thoughtful are at least occasionally handicapped in the Great Struggle for Survival by nagging questions as to whether they should want what they want and whether the getting would he worthy. If Charlotte Frank is right. if success in the schools’ version of Thinking Education comes easiest to the street–smart, then we know something about the schools. We don’t need to damn the whole system and all of its deeds. Its Charlotte Franks will do that for us, as they always have.
Maybe she just wasn’t thinking when she said that.
And that leads to the big question: Who are they to teach our children how to think? For years we have examined the dreadful language of educationism, not simply to display its pitiable ineptitude, which is merely entertaining, but to analyze the work of the mind as done by those who are charged with the making of theory and policy and the training of teachers for the public schools of America. We have to conclude that the “professionals” who make our schooling what it is must have been standing behind the door when Prometheus was handing out gifts. They persevere in blindly floundering on.
And it’s too bad, because it is, in fact, so easy to teach the rudiments and habits of thinking that it could be done even in our schools! But first, those who are to do the teaching will have to follow Locke, and contrive, through art and pains, to do some thinking about thinking. To seek the understanding of understanding, the mind’s grasp of itself, is nothing but the first stirring of thoughtfulness. After that, it gets easier, and even children can do that.
For that, we have the testimony not only of experience and Plato, of whom educationists seem to know nothing, but also of one Matthew Lipman, director of an Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, at Montclair State College in New Jersey. Here, in a letter to Basic Education (April, 1983), he says something very important:
I find myself quite uncomfortable with the notion that reason and inquiry skills are “higher order skills.” . . . I find skills like classification, concept formation, inference, assumption-finding, criterion-analysis, analogy analysis, and the furnishing of reasons to be in fact rudimentary.
Much more worthy of being called “higher-order skills” are reading, writing, and computation. The reasoning and inquiry skills are relatively simple and eminently teachable. One might think of them, together with mental acts, as fairly atomic, in contrast with which reading, writing, and computation are enormously complex and molecular.
To begin the teaching of thinking with that understanding would make sense, but educationists, hearing, hear not. When they hear that “thinking” is not a “higher–order skill,” they’ll go right back to the professional stuff, writing letters of application for jobs and playing the Lifeboat Game.