THE LEANING TOWER OF BABEL
by Richard Mitchell
The essential factor that keeps the scientific enterprise healthy is a shared respect for quality. Everybody can take pride in the quality of his own work, and we expect rough treatment from our colleagues whenever we produce something shoddy.
[The words of Freeman Dyson, a physicist, in The New Yorker for August 6, 1979, page 40.]
WELL, sure, but let’s be reasonable. There are, after all, enterprises in which rough treatment for shoddy work would be downright churlish. When your kids come home from camp, do you tell them that their pots are lumpy and leaky and their popsicle-stick pencil-holders all askew? Do you inform that sweet old lady who plays the harmonium at choir practice that her rhythm is uncertain and her accidentals accidental and that she’d do better playing on a touch-tone telephone? And how about that tap-dancing at the junior high talent show, and the mimeographed newsletter your Aunt Tabiatha emits every Christmas?
Now, if you’ll just give such things a little humanistic thought, maybe you can enhance your values on a holistic basis in the good old affective domain. Then, when your neighborhood principal sends out a page of ungrammatical babble, maybe you’ll be sensitive enough to give him as much consideration as you give the baton twirlers in the homecoming parade. It’s honest effort that counts, isn’t it, and that principal is doing the best he can.
Those of us who have landed steady jobs in the schools understand these things, and we always give each other A for effort, and never, never, any of that rough treatment stuff. When our colleagues undertake a modification of the sequencing of modules within clusters exposing students to a variety of experiences including module instruction in basic skills, do we mutter about a shared respect for quality? We do not. We know that that’s the best they can do, and we give them A for effort. When the guy down the hall is teaching intercultural sensitivity enhancement through sampling the foods of many lands, do we fret about some utterly hypothetical distinction between academic study and those swell self-enrichment courses at the Y on Thursday nights? We do not. It’s a shared respect for academic freedom that keeps this enterprise healthy, and if we find blintzes better than bibliographies and pizzas more to be prized than papers, that’s academic freedom and none of your damn business, or any elitist physicist’s either.
Physicists, you must realize, are unlikely to share those humanistic values inherent in things like experiential curriculum development and the making of collages from scraps of uncooked pasta. They have little appreciation of the noncognitive aspects, phases, and factors of observation-participation-involvement and painting on velvet.
So let’s just restrict that “rough treatment” stuff to the physicists, OK? After all, those birds are dangerous. What they do might even have consequences, for God’s sake!
The Principal and the Interest
INSTITUTIONS feel no pain. Only people can feel the relentless pain of illiteracy, the desperate bafflement of a mind unskilled in the ways of logic and thoughtful attention, and dimly aware, but aware nevertheless, of its own confusion. Schools do not have minds; they have guidelines. Their guidelines run, when it isn’t too inconvenient, as far as what they are not at all ashamed to call the parameters of basic minimum competency. Basic minimum competence (why do they need that y?) is not literacy. It is, however, just enough a counterfeit literacy to convince the minimally competent to fancy themselves literate, except, of course, for those moments of desperate pain.
And there is even worse in store for the pseudo-literate victim of the schools. As bad as it is, self-knowledge is better than public exposure. Imagine, if you can, the pain of a certain high school principal who now finds himself publicly humiliated and accused of incompetence because of an article he wrote, so innocently, for the school paper. Here are some excerpts:
The County office has coordinators in all areas that is willing to help when help is needed.
Every one who participated are to be commended for a job well done. We did not win as many senior games as we would have like too, but both teams showed excellent sportsmanship.
The Senior High band and the Junior High band were always there at the —– stadium when we need them. The Cheerleaders cheered the Drill Team performaned. The motivation and the momentous was there. It worked as clock word or a puzzle each part fell in place at the right time. If you were at the statiurn with me. I am sure you would have been satisfied with the performance.
The article also displayed some startling spelling errors, such as “surch” for “search” and even “intonative” for “innovative,” and if there exists an educationist who can spell correctly only one word, the odds are seven to one that that word will be “innovative.”
A dismayed parent, doing exactly what we have often urged, sent a copy of the principal’s article, with appropriate commentary, to a local paper, and irate citizens petitioned the school board to remove the principal for incompetence. The superintendent said that he would “handle the matter as a personnel problem rather than in public.” The resolution, if any, we do not know.
The principal further injured himself with defenses so pathetically irrelevant or implausible as to suggest even greater incompetence. He claimed that the piece was a hastily written rough draft, and that he expected that someone on the school paper would “edit” it. His errors, however, are characteristic not of haste but of ignorance; and few parents could have been consoled by his implicit admission that students on the school paper had higher standards, and would do their assignments more conscientiously, than the principal. The poor man put forth as evidence some other pieces he had written for the same paper, pieces in which his competence was demonstrated by “few errors” rather than many. He pointed out, as though the conventions of spelling, punctuation, and syntax appropriate to English prose were different from English prose in newspapers, that the education of principals does not require courses in journalism. And, most astonishingly of all, he further excused himself by telling the parents who had entrusted to him the intellectual instruction of their children that he was, after all, “an inexperienced writer.”
An inexperienced writer. The man is a graduate of a small college, probably with a degree in education. He has a master’s degree, probably in educational administration, from a state university. Can these distinctions, such as they are, be attained by an inexperienced writer? Did he write papers? A master’s thesis? Did his teachers find no fault in his writing, or in his scholarship, which they could not possibly have assessed without reading what he had written?
And that school board that made him a principal and that now faces a nasty “personnel problem” too delicate to be “handled” in public, did it consider his academic and intellectual achievements? How did it measure them? Was that principal never a teacher? What could he have taught, who is so meagerly practiced in literacy?
Regular readers will have noticed that contrary to our usual practice we have not given the principal’s name, or even the name of that stadium. We don’t want you to care who he is, because this case is nastily vexed by the fact that he is black, and that the parents who seek his removal are white.
In one way, that is irrelevant. The academic and intellectual distinctions appropriate to a school principal are whatever they are, for principals of any color. And if such distinctions are not required of principals, which is generally the case, illiteracy and ignorance are no more to be accounted demerits in black principals than in the thousands of talentless gym and shop teachers who have wangled their ways through guidance counsellorship and curriculum facilitation to become white principals.
In other ways, however, this hapless principal’s color is all too relevant. It permits him to claim, as he does, and perhaps even to believe, that the charges against him arise from racial hostility. And he may be right, which is not to say that the charges are groundless but only that hosts of white principals who deserve similar discomfiture remain unindicted. We’re on the principal’s side; we favor equal exposure and humiliation for all the ignoramuses who have been awarded, by virtue of silly degrees from academies of educationism, undemanding employment in the public school jobs program.
But we are not on his side when he says that “there are more people interested in the education of students than in this petty kind of bias.” The blackness of the principal and the whiteness of his opponents are, for some purposes, not to the point, but the redness of that herring cannot be ignored. It is precisely in the cause of “the education of students” that we must object to academic deficiencies in principals of any color whatsoever. Furthermore, the principal’s pathetic ploy makes us wonder: What notion of “education” does he harbor, in which the elementary mechanical skills of literacy are of so little importance? And, even worse, if he in fact believes that the ignorance of an inexperienced writer is being condemned only because the writer happens to be black, would he prefer that it be excused only because the writer is black?
No, the poor man simply has no legitimate defense. But he does have a legitimate complaint. Since he seems unlikely to think of it, and since almost all the rest of us can legitimately make the same complaint, we are going to make it.
That principal is suffering. The students, and their parents, are suffering. The whole town is suffering, and so is a whole nation, where fewer and fewer of those who call themselves “educators” have attained even the once standard level of mediocrity. But some people are not suffering. The teachers who handed that principal his high school diploma without having taught him even such simple things as spelling and punctuation (what else did they neglect?), they are not suffering. And the professors who took their pay from his tuition and gave him passing grades and a college degree and sent him forth as a certified educator and wrote warm letters of recommendation to graduate schools, all without knowing, or caring, that he was “an inexperienced writer” who couldn’t even spell or punctuate correctly, they are not suffering. And the educationists who welcomed him (and his money) into the high calling of scholarship and pronounced him a “master” and in every way fit mentor of youth and who testified to his intellectual prowess and consummate learning to an unwary (and now unhappy) school board, they are not suffering.
The principal thinks himself educated. And why not? All those people told him that he was educated, and they gave him the papers to prove it. So what else can he believe now but that his troubles are the result of racial discrimination? And he may still be right.
Did all of those culprits pass him along because they didn’t know his weakness? Bad. Because they didn’t care? Worse. Or did they presume that his race would probably make superior intellectual achievement unlikely and would also protect him from the consequences of its absence? The worst. Beyond these three unsavory hypotheses, we just can’t imagine any others.
The Interest and the Principle
FROM time to time we find ourselves wondering why our traditional victims, almost always people with jobs in the school business and therefore at least mindful of the importance of education, write such terrible English. The obvious explanation just doesn’t go far enough. While it is easy to see that they are poorly educated and often not very bright to begin with, that still leaves us to wonder why such people went into the school business at all, why the school business so readily accepted and nourished them, and why so little of the presumable influence of the intellectual life seems to have rubbed off on them. Now, thanks to George Orwell, we have a better explanation.
Consider first a few words from one William Paton, Superintendent of Schools in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, in Forward, a fat pamphlet of education blather about “gifted/talented education” put out by the Wisconsin Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Paton, who laments “a dirth” of suitable teachers and hopes that someone will “give voice on a statewide basis,” writes like this:
It is readily apparent that the major issue facing those of us concerned in this area deals with the question of how we shall provide equal and quality programming opportunities which respond to the needs of all children.
So. The merely apparent seems to be invisible to educationists, perhaps because they are always concerned in an area; they have to wait for the readily apparent. And the issue (major, naturally) deals with the question, the question of how. And what, exactly, are programming opportunities? Programs? Courses? Field trips? Or are they some improbable opportunities for the children to program some quality into an educational system run by grown-ups who can’t make sense?
Well, who cares? Wait. Here’s a better question. Who doesn’t care? That we can answer. William Paton doesn’t care. He’s written his piece and probably listed it on his vita as a “scholarly publication,” so why should he care that it makes no sense to say that the issue deals with the question? Big deal. And, while it is hard to believe that anyone except a penniless old mother would read an educationist’s “scholarly publication,” those others of Paton’s ilk for whom the piece was intended won’t care either. How can they? They are themselves quite concerned in areas where issues deal with questions.
In the essay “Politics and the English Language,” his fullest exploration of the inevitable influences of thought and language upon one another, Orwell shows us how to understand why the Patons of Academe do what they do.* He speaks of the writer who is unable to say what he means, the writer who inadvertently says what he does not mean, and the writer who, improbable as it seems, is not interested in what he is saying and who is therefore indifferent as to what he might mean. The first two suffer merely from incapacity, but it is that very incapacity that is engendered and sustained by the indifference of the third. The babblers of educationism write and think badly because they are not interested in education.
Can you detect in Paton’s prose some impassioned concern for the intellectual nurture of those “gifted/talented” students, who are probably far more attentive and thoughtful than the bureaucrat who presumes to superintend them? Was it out of deep commitment to the value of clarity and precision in the work of the mind that Paton found the issue that deals with the question of how quite good enough for his purposes? What practiced discipline of the intellect, what love of learning, can we suppose in a man who will not even lift his pen a moment to consider what he means by “quality programming opportunities”? And if these are “little” things, shall we conclude from them that this busy superintendent will nevertheless give his powers of attentive thoughtfulness and meticulous workmanship to his superintendence of the big things–like education?
How can it be that people choose to spend their lives in a calling that interests them so little that they won’t trouble themselves to make sense when thinking about it? Adam Smith answered that question long ago:
It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does, or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood, either to neglect it altogether, or, if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit.
Where there is an inward commitment to the worth of knowledge and reason–not only because they are useful, but because they are good–the authority of principle is enough to ensure both the interest and the good workmanship that lead to clarity and precision, and even to grace, in statement. But the typical training of an educationist, which often begins with a skimpy C minus undergraduate major and peters out with a “doctorate” in education, the highest rung on the ladder of social promotion, seems neither to require nor to foster such a commitment. If it did, they would not, they could not, write their habitual, inane gibberish.
And, as they lack the inward authority of principle, they lack also the supervision of outward authority. They have jobs in agencies of government, where people may sometimes be held accountable for some things, tardiness, perhaps, but never, never, for the quality of the work of their minds. In the entire, tremendous apparatus of public education, there is no one who will say, “Look here, Paton. This just won’t do! Surely, the high calling that you have chosen, and which has, by the way, rewarded you rather handsomely, especially considering that with the devotion and ability that this stuff suggests you’d never be superintendent of anything in an outfit that had to show a profit, deserves more thoughtful attention and–yes, dammit!–respect than you have given it!”
But they have principals, not principles, in the public schools. So the legions of Patons will go on forever, securely enjobbed among the like-unminded, impervious to intellectual discipline, which isn’t in their job descriptions, serving what does not interest them but is much in their interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood.
HERE’s another superintendent of schools, Richard C. Hamilton, Ed. D., who superintends the love of learning and the growth of intellectual power among the youth of North Hampton, New Hampshire. He is a man, as the educationists say, very giving of self, and perfectly willing to lighten the darkness of grown-ups too, as he does in his latest annual report:
A new phrase has caught my ear and I would like to use it in discussing you, your children, and the ensuing relationship. The phrase is “centering down.” “Centering down” to me means a placing of one’s interest in a central focus, a separating of the important and the not so important, mentally reducing things to a discernible entity.
Well, the darndest things will catch the ear in a cold climate, but this one sounds really neat. Come on now, haven’t you always wanted to reduce things to a discernible entity and all that other good stuff? And how about the meaning and purpose of life? That interest you any?
To “center down” in regard to our children is to me a putting into focus what we are here for.
Well, sure you want to learn to center down, and of course it’s hard. It’s positively philosophical. But don’t you worry, bless your heart. You’re going to have the unmitigated help of Richard C. Hamilton, Ed. D., and he’s a professional educator who knows how to explain very complicated things even to the likes of you so that you can understand them right in the comfort of your own home! Ready? He-e-e-e-re he goes!
Have you “centered down” by climbing into a tent formed by the kitchen chairs and a blanket? Have you “centered down” by agreeing to put up with what goes with a puppy?
Now you get out there and center down and BOOGIE!
The Great Iacono Flap
It has come to my attention that the announcement that I conveyed via the intercom the day following the Chester High-St. James basketball game which I disapproved of the loss. It was inferred, unfortunately, that I placed the reproach upon my coach. I wish to rectify that immediately.
CAN our schools ever hope to rise above their own principals? It seems unlikely. Consider for instance a certain A. N. Iacono, whose words, conveyed in this case via bulletin on December 12, 1980, you have just read. Iacono–Oops! We should have said Doctor Iacono. University of Pennsylvania, ya know. Fine old ivy league school. Real high standards. OK. Doctor Iacono is the principal of Chester High School in Chester, Pennsylvania. Here’s the rest of his bulletin:
First, I had apologized to Mr. Wilson in the presence of Mr. White, Athletic Director, after the announcement for my error for which I maintain my innocence. Second, the following day, I made another announcement personally to Mr. Wilson explaining and apologizing for my actions. Third, I apologized to Mr. Wilson in the presence of Mr. Zyckowicz because of a grievance which was lodged. Fourth, I am apologizing to the faculty via my own volition and by no method a prompting from anyone because of those receivers of my announcement that perceived it as unprofessional.
I adhere to the dictum that professionalism must be maintained at all costs, and by no means would I thrust any aspect of our profession which may be construed as negative.
For the latter I abjectly apologize. However, I will continue to maintain my stance that I appreciate winning, and I want to be part of a winning team. This is by no means a reflection upon any individual but rather an indictment of my personality.
Yes. Well, we do agree, although we would prefer not to stick to a dictum, that “professionalism” should be maintained,” whatever that means. However, we find it hard to figure out exactly what profession it is of which Doctor Iacono will so prudently thrust by no means (or method) any aspect which may be construed as negative. Doctor Iacono signs himself “Principal,” but the quality of his prose, which he apparently does not disapprove of the loss, suggests something less than the academic and intellectual excellence that we might have expected of a learned Doctor and leader of youth in the ways of the life of the mind. In fact, if the basketball players of Chester High School can dribble and pass with twice the grace and precision, and love of excellence, with which their principal plays his little game, it’s going to be one hell of a long season.
In spite of his lofty Far be it from me, and precisely because of incompetence in language, the medium of thought, the hapless Doctor Iacono does manage to thrust some aspects of his “profession” that must be “construed as negative.” His solecisms and gaucheries are outward and visible signs of certain inward and ideological aspects,* the very aspects that have foisted upon us schools whose chief academic officers† just can make sense–neither via intercom nor volition.
Buried in that ludicrous prose is the far from ludicrous belief that incompetence, which counts in sport, doesn’t count in the mind. Doctor Iacono, an educationist who knows that self-esteem is far more important than mere accuracy and precision, blithely refers to his evidently garbled and thoughtless announcement as “my error for which I maintain my innocence”!
Farther down, there is even a hint that the “error” may have been no such thing at all. Doctor Iacono does make it clear that if there had been any “prompting” it would have been “because of those receivers of [his] announcement that perceived it as unprofessional.” So there.
And there, in miniature, is the guiding ideology of educationism, an anti-intellectual, no-fault relativism, where it just wouldn’t be fair if mere errors had consequences, and where the meaning of facts and events is not the object of thoughtful inquiry but rather a sentiment that some receivers may perceive. It is only through consistent application of such principles that we get such principals, who can neither dribble nor pass on paper, but who will thrust no negative aspects and will bravely maintain their stances that they appreciate winning.
† But it may be that principals don’t think of themselves as “academic” officers. A recent Bulletin of the Council for Basic Education quoted some school superintendent who apparently could see no irony at all in proclaiming himself “a leader in education except for curriculum.” Those who automatically equate the money that is spent on the schools with “funding for education” would do well to consider the implications of those words.
Sheer Doctoral Competence
High Order Acquisition Testimony to
Awesomeness Partially Comprehended in Texas
YES, it’s true. Only in Texas could it happen, and only Nolan Estes could have brought it off. It was Estes, as superintendent of schools in Dallas, who put an end to busing. With a single flap of his nimble tongue, he sent the children to school in motorized attendance modules. So we just knew that if there was any educationist who might partially comprehend the awesomeness of superintending, it would have to be good ol’ Nolan.
He says so himself, in a real fine article we found in Texas School Business. (You won’t find a sprightlier journal of thrusts from out on the cutting edge of the fast lane than good ol’ TSB.) Estes’ article, co-authored by one L. D. Haskew, who doesn’t seem to have made any difference, is called “The Cooperative Superintendcy Program,” but maybe that’s a typo. It’s really about some great superintendency program that Estes is running at the University of Texas, where he has become a “Professor” and also an “Education Administrator,” or maybe just a plain “Professor Education Administrator.” From the way it’s printed, it’s hard to tell. Anyway, it’s a swell job for an experienced flapper of tongue. Consider this:
Doctoral courses in Educational Administration focus on high-level superintending attainments (e. g. planmaking as well as upon intellectual development (e. g. organization strategy for Instruction) and sheer doctoral competence (e. g. research design, rational thinking). Seminars, called “Leadership Clinics,” plumb the technological assists to constructive leaderly superintending. Dissertation design and publication are high-standard endeavors which also focus on a chosen facet of superintending’s broad concerns. Flexibility in the hourly schedules for TEA work-assignment performance enhances competence-development by course engagements. The Fellows emerge with a University of Texas Ph.D. degree as testimony to high order professional and scholarly acquisitions.
How’s that for sheer doctoral competence in high-standard endeavor?
It is entertaining, of course, to think of plumbing the assists and enhancing that “competence-development” by “course engagements.” And we could provide you a titter by prowling through the piece and telling you that the elements abound with training, that performances will be factored into competencies, that far upness must escalate, and that there should be plenty of relational constructiveness with workmates. It might be fun to hear that when Estes and Haskew say “Artifacts from administrative/developmental performance,” they don’t mean, as one who knows both the meaning of “artifact” and the nature of educationistic labors might suppose, dried up ball-points, æroplanes folded from memos, and paperclips malformed into projectiles. E. and H. mean, however, “newspaper clippings, citations or awards, pointed [?] letters of commendation, employee evaluation sheets.” Or we might consider superintending itself, myriad in its demands, they say, and test whether we too–so naive that we can’t even understand why people who want a Leadership Clinic don’t just go and have one, instead of setting up a seminar and then calling it a Leadership Clinic–test whether we can hope to comprehend partially the awesomeness of superintending.
But this, unlike the esoteric TSB, is a humble little journal of simple ideas. It’s as much as we can do to handle the easy stuff. Hyphens, for instance. Hyphens, in fact, can tell us all we need to know about sheer doctoral competence (e.g. rational thinking) in Texas.
These sheer “doctors” of educationism have as much trouble with little things as with big (e.g. rational thinking). They are holistic, and can not waste attention on mere details, unless, of course, they have to do with expense allowances and fringe benefits. You must have noticed, in the cited passage, that the “high-level attainments” and “high-standard endeavors” suggest the tastes and habits of some environment other than Academe. “Now this here’s your easy-clean high-standard chopper-dicer.” But, more to the point, we are led to wonder about the “acquisitions” at the end of the paragraph. How come they’re only “high order” instead of “high-order”? Is there, in fact, some significant (and intended) distinction between “high level” and “high-level,” a distinction that the authors judiciously chose not to make in the case of “high order”? Is that absent hyphen simply a typo, which the authors, had they noticed it, would have taken pains to “correct” in the interests of clarity and precision, or out of mere sheer doctoral competence?
And what distinction do the hyphens clarify in “competence-development” and “work-assignment performance”? Is it the same in both cases? The former can only mean the development of competence, and that is what it would mean without the hyphen. But if the latter means the assignment of work, then the “fellows” must be those who perform the assignment of the work rather than the work itself. So what the hell is it with these hyphens?
If you pay close attention to the sheer doctoral scribbles of educationists, and if you assume that unusual practice must serve some principle, you will understand why nothing can be done about schools. The people who manage them won’t even pay attention to their own utterances, and they serve no coherent principles. See what principle you can derive from these forms, all from Estes and Haskew:
There. Now, if your work-assignment performance has been high-level, you will be smarting from office-insolence and in danger of mind-o’erthrowment.