What To Do till the Undertaker Comes



A Supplement to
The Underground Grammarian

by Richard Mitchell


[This strange essay by our assistant circulation manager first appeared in, of all things, Geophysics: THE LEADING EDGE OF EXPLORATION. We have made a few small changes.]

I HAVE just had some exciting news about Boating Education. There are some people somewhere who believe that Boating Education should be just as regular an enterprise in the schools as Driver Education, Television Education, and Brothering and Sistering Education, all of which have won themselves places in schools all over the land.

The proponents of Boating Education make a strong case. What is the good, they ask, of teaching reading and writing, or even physics and calculus, if the young people thus laboriously instructed are only going to tip over their canoes and drown, or decapitate themselves by running motorboats at full throttle under docks and bridges?

A good question. And its logical implications are even more compelling than the question itself, which, unfortunately, suggests facetious analogies. We might with the same justification require that our schools provide their students with Rock Climbing Education and Burglar Alarm Education. We might even conclude, since death is even more certain than a diploma to put an end to all learning, that we ought to abandon the whole business of education, and, while waiting for death, pursue only those “studies” that might help us to live as long and as well as possible in the meantime.

The Boating Education enthusiasts may seem silly and all too obviously self-serving (people actually do make livings from such notions), but, given the meaning of “education” in these times, they are logically consistent and impeccably orthodox. It is our fashion, not only in our notions of education but apparently in all others, not only to consider the meaning (if there be any) of human deeds as a function of time and place, but also to reject as sentimental, and maybe superstitious, the belief, the suspicion, the fear, that human deeds have some meaning not dependent on time and place. It is an unspoken presumption of the practice of our schools that “education” is for a purpose, and that the purpose is to live in one style rather than another until we die. Whatever is conducive to the socially approved style of living is, therefore, the legitimate substance of “education”; whatever is not patently thus conducive is, at best, a harmless and perhaps even an “enriching” diversion, and, at worst, an elitist display of conspicuous consumption and leisure, and a dangerous impediment to the cultivation of socially approved, “useful” styles of living.

I do not mean to suggest that our version of education is hedonistic, although it is often cynically described as “fun and games,” and even though Boating Education might come to be “taught” up a lazy river by the old mill run. It is, in fact, quite the opposite of hedonism, and characterized not by abandoned merriment but by a sanctimonious search for a place in life. That place, furthermore, exists only because the social order needs it, and is seen not only as an accepted way to make a living, but, at the same time, to serve some supposed needs of the social arrangement that provides us the opportunity to live. In this respect, modern educational systems do seem to vary, but only in this: while we are all expected to “serve” in some way the system that teaches us how to serve, some systems permit some of us more choice as to how we will serve, and how much pleasure and profit we may take from that service.

This is the final meaning of “life-adjustment,” a term intended both to describe and to justify that presumed education to which we are committed: it is designed to adjust us to life as it now must be lived, in this time and in this place, and with due regard to the collective needs of the society that is said to harbor and nourish us. Thus it is that what we call “education,” once thought a condition, even a virtue, not subject to passing fashions, has come to be thought a filling of some cavity in the mind, a neutral void to be stuffed with this or that, or whatever else the ephemeral “needs” of the society may dictate. And that is why the practice of the schools must change with every real or imagined change in the texture and style of life.

Such a view of education can seem attractively reasonable. After all, we do have to live here and now. That is our most immediately obvious need, and the schooling that will fit us to do it indubitably “meets a need,” a phrase much used by those calling themselves “educators.” And what could be more reasonable and salutary than an education that meets not just one but two urgent needs: the need of the individual to live this life, and the need of this life to be served? Why, when a turn of the wheel brings us a need of navigators, or silversmiths, or computer programmers, should we not “adjust” education itself accordingly? What else is there to live but life?

Why, then, are many of us troubled by what seem, well, at least failures, and sometimes no less than evil fruits, of our system of education? I think it is because we do remember some of our history. We must at least pause to reflect on the troubling fact that education, in its beginnings, and for a long time thereafter, was not in any sense an “adjustment” to the obvious needs of getting and spending, but rather a development of the powers by which we might best endure those needs. It was not a preparation for the world, but a preparation against the world, which will inevitably bring us pain and sorrow. And death.

The ancient Greeks, to whom we owe the very idea of education, saw no important difference between the educated person and the philosopher. To be the one was to be the other. Nor did they equate the trained practitioner of any craft or art, however great his skill or difficult his calling, with the educated man. They would not have said, as we do, that the physician, for instance, has been educated in his art, but that he has rather been trained into it. He might, of course, also have been educated, as might the cobbler or the wheelwright, but not so that he could make a living.

The Greeks did not see education as a process that might culminate in the practice of a profession, or in anything else, for that matter. They saw it as an endless exploration, not a way of making a living, but a way of trying–only trying, no more–to live wisely. It is a measure of our values that we deem any powers other than those by which we make our livings either harmless diversions or elitist luxuries. For the Greeks, education was simply a necessity, not a necessity for life–all creatures have that–or for the happy life–nothing can assure that–but for the virtuous life, whose principles can be discovered, and whose attributes do not change with the turnings of the wheels of fashion and fortune.

Just at the end of The Republic, Socrates tells the mystifying little story of Er, who was mistakenly left for dead and taken, like an ancient Dante, on a tour of the Afterworld. Whether it is as a true believer or merely as one who would teach by parable that Socrates tells the tale, I can not guess, but its power as a parable is quite enough for his purposes. Er beholds the souls of the dead as they are shown new lives from which to choose, lives of every sort, humble or exalted, long or short, pleasant or nasty, rich or poor, brave or craven, even the lives of plants and animals. The souls, whose presence at the choosing is testimony to a desire for virtue, are free to choose, but must bear whatever destinies their choices bring. The good choice has nothing to do with the aims of our kind of education, promotion and pay, and what pleasures they may provide. The good choice is “good” in what has become a “special” sense of the word: it is the choice of a life in which the choosing soul can best seek virtue.

“And, here, my dear Glaucon,” says Socrates, “is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken. Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only, if peradventure he may be able to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life.”

That severe and unfashionable idea of education must seem at the least idealistic and impractical to us, for the bread, after all, must be buttered. We can hardly afford to “leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only.” Socrates seems, furthermore, to command something foreign and incomprehensible to us, an education not for living, but for being. We do believe that we live, but we do not take any clear meaning from the distinction between living and being. Partly for that reason, and partly because of its obvious impracticality, the education urged by Socrates just wouldn’t do in our schools, and I am not about to suggest its adoption. But I do wonder: Why is it that so many people, when brought to consider such an impractical and esoteric education, can not suppress a feeling of longing and loss, and must even think it, however irrelevant to what they suppose to be their “needs,” worthy, estimable, and somehow better than what we have?

But, of course, preposterous. What fools and dreamers we would seem if we said to our children, and to each other: Drop everything else and seek only to learn how to tell what is evil from what is good. Even the teachers, perhaps especially the teachers, would laugh at such an unprofessional notion of education. So we don’t say that. We say instead: Study Boating Education so that you won’t drown and thus fail to live comfortably while also serving the needs of the society that provides you with practical skills like Boating Education. And that, of course, is not thought preposterous.

I will not recite here yet another list of the many, and always multiplying, preposterous things that we do in the name of education. Any reader can, if only from sad experience, make such a list. I will only suggest that they all may be expressions of one pervasive ideology, all variations on an unstated theme. The Boating Education enthusiasts and their ilk bob up and down on the tide of that theme. What good is anything, they ask, except what we can do while we live? All our “needs,” they say, can be defined by what lies outside of us, the world and its ways, to which we must be fitted. The aim of education, therefore, is to fashion us into components compatible with the great system into which we must be plugged, where we “may operate” as effectively as possible until we wear out, when we can easily be replaced by other, and even better, “state of the art” components. And even those few remaining elements of our “education” that do not contribute directly to our componentship, now collected in the disorderly jumble called “general” education, are justified only because they might “enrich” our leisure, and make us feel better, and so contribute to better “performance” as well as satisfaction and self-esteem. It is an education pro tem, an education that sees no destiny but death, an education in which all human understandings once thought incorruptible have put on the corruption of change and decay.

The education that Socrates commended to Glaucon was not, in any modern sense of the word, “religious,” and certainly not churchly, for Socrates knew nothing of what we call “church.” In fact, the inquiry that he urges, the lifelong questioning of good and evil, is not the chosen task of churches, any one of which can easily recite numerous and invariable rules that will put an end to all questioning of good and evil. In that respect, the church is not different from the school; in the one, questions about good and evil, and in the other, questions about relevance and irrelevance, are routinely settled by “information.” We must not imagine that what some churches now propose in their squabble with the schools would be a remedy. Should they have their way, we would have what we have now, except that some unquestioned presuppositions would change. It is important to keep that in mind, for I now have to say something about education according to Socrates that makes it sound “religious”: That education was neither the learning of skills nor the acquiring of knowledge, however worthy and necessary those things surely were, but the process of growth in the soul. Our educational devisers have concluded that there is no such thing as a soul.

This is what makes it so difficult–probably impossible–ever to win any battles with the educationists. If we oppose them in detail, they can always retreat, if they have to, into tinkering and adjustment through “innovative thrusts,” which always thrust us away from education. If we oppose them in principle, we have to sound like zany metaphysicians ranting against an age of scientific “certainties,” and speaking in categories about which professional educationists have generated no findings, not even a parameter. Having proved myself an amateur by speaking of good and evil, I now do worse and speak of the soul. Absurd. Can I really be that far behind the times? Have I never heard of Planck’s constant, or of behavior modification? Do I also believe in phrenology and flying saucers? Can I really propose that education, a vast, collective, bureaucratic agency, take cognizance of the soul, instead of things that we know to exist, things like intelligence, and existentiality, and reading readiness, and self-esteem, all of which we can and do weigh and measure through whole batteries of standardized assessment instruments of proven effectiveness, complete with established norms for age, and place of origin, and ethnic background, as well as socio-economic? Preposterous!

Well, maybe. And yet, I am not at all convinced that the exploration of the “affective domain,” always pursued with startling incongruity through a statistical method applied to hearsay evidence from witnesses whose self-interest is inevitable and whose self-knowledge is dubitable, is somehow less preposterous than a consideration of the soul. And, while in considering the “affective domain” I must mingle with glib, self-satisfied functionaries, in considering the soul, I find myself in excellent company. I would rather sit with Emerson and Dostoyevski than with concocters of self-worth enhancement assessment instruments. If they see no point in sitting in such excellent company, that fact alone could be sufficient comment on education in our time. And that fact suggests the beginning of a prescription for education: Search out diligently the best, wondering minds, and go and sit with them. And remember as you do that, that our children sit with facilitators.

When we do sit among those best minds, we find that people we know to be “dead,” no longer “meeting current needs,” are, strangely, not dead at all. They speak to us with far greater power and effect than we can expect from most of the “living,” whatever that might mean. And it is to us that they speak; we do not merely overhear them “meeting the needs” of their time and place and forming components compatible with their systems. They had us in mind, but not in our roles as temporary life-forms subject to the necessities of time and place. It is as though, out of something that is not bound by time and place, they spoke to the same something in us, knowing it would be there. And it is. I do not think it preposterous to say that they spoke as souls to souls. I don’t know a better word.

Furthermore, if we have from time to time sat with the best, something in us is vexed and saddened by anything less. That is how we know that it is in some deep principle and not just in a multitude of silly particulars that the way we “educate” our children is wrong. Except for brief meetings with the best, almost always happy accidents and seldom a provision of the “guidelines,” most of schooling is remembered as a wasteland, where there was neither power, nor passion, nor nourishment, but only, if we were lucky, skills development. Education seems a process through which we must pass, not a condition into which we may grow. We are usually glad to be done with it, so that we can begin to live the life to which schooling is a long, dull overture.

What is it in us that is thus vexed and offended? Does it not also tell us (unless that “education” has overcome us utterly) that the getting and spending, the meeting of needs and having needs met, are not enough, are not the nourishment for the need? Does it not trouble us, hinting that there is more, and better, than job security and comfortable retirement? Does it not hint that there is something degrading in being adjusted to a system, and something vile and tyrannical in a system that admits, no, affirms, that it is not likely to survive unless most of us are adjusted to it?

To talk of the soul is doubly embarrassing. Not only does it invite the charge of silliness, but it requires me to make, on the soul’s behalf, some demands that can never be met by a bureaucratic agency of government. The soul seeks not information, but truth; not cultural enrichment, but beauty; not citizenship education, but goodness. These things are not, and should not be, provided for in the official guidelines of a government agency. It is, therefore, by its nature, and not only by its choice, that a system of schooling can not educate.

It is, however, somewhat more by choice than by nature that it makes it difficult for education to erupt, even by accident, within its precincts. The teachers are not expected to have any special propensity for sitting among the best, wondering minds; and the “books” in the schools are ordinarily collective concoctions whose aim is to serve some social cause. Even more significantly, the best minds are very rarely invited to talk to the students, who are seldom at an appropriate level of “reading ability” anyway. Furthermore, the school people make no secret of their opinion that going to sit among the irrelevant ancients is an empty ritual, which opinion they have easily engendered in their students. They cannot imagine that it might be otherwise, that we might go to listen with love and respect to our elders, who speak the inquiries of their minds and the meditations of their hearts from beyond the boundaries of time and place.

The churchly challengers of education have at least found the right word for it: secular. They misconstrue the word, however, in supposing that it distinguishes schools from churches. Churches are just as secular as schools; both are agencies with agendas, hard at work not only in this time and place but on them. Both are adjusters of persons according to the guidelines. Those who resort to the churches will find there what children find in their schools: smooth counsellors reciting glib answers to great questions. And the best, wondering minds, for whom such questions are wellsprings of contemplation, seldom speak.

Our “education” is, therefore, dying. That is not a prophetic utterance, but only another way of describing it as secular. All institutions are dying. The time will come, if we can survive as a species, when no one will remember, or care, what we did in schools or even whether we had such things. Who, a thousand years from now, will know or care what energy and wealth we spent in moving from the self-contained classroom into the open classroom and back? How many would now remember Socrates, had he held off questioning his listeners until he could generate some findings about their comprehension levels, and their cognitive styles, learning disabilities, and occupational aptitudes? Our very science, which we love, and our soft pseudo-science, which we worship, will pass away or be changed beyond anything we can imagine, if not in a thousand years, then two. Or ten. It doesn’t matter. Only what souls have spoken to souls will endure as long as humanity lives. Unless, of course, our schools and their brand of “education” should triumph utterly.

Be of good cheer. That won’t happen. Any soul is stronger than a whole Department of Education. Schools do what they do with Death always in mind, under the rubric of What to Do till the Undertaker Comes. Souls, even the most ruthlessly adjusted, have Life in mind, and they know it when they see it. I have been there–so have we all–when some soul, oppressed by experiential self-awareness continua, or Boating Education, finds itself spoken to, person-to-person, by one of those best, wondering minds. It knows, in that moment, not the knack of competence, minimum or maximum, not the vainglory of induced self-esteem, but joy. Such a soul does, at least for a little while, and who can hope for more in our times, “leave every other kind of knowledge and follow one thing only.” It finds a purity of heart and mind never achieved in Boating Education, or even in interpersonal relating enhancement role-playing.

There is no counting the sad things we do in the name of education, nor would the counting be sufficient indictment. They are, after all, mostly trivial nuisances committed by little people who do mean well but don’t know what “well” means. It’s almost as though a curse were laid upon the whole enterprise of schooling. Twist and dodge as it will, it never comes up with anything but new nuisances. But a curse is even harder to believe in than the soul; a more reasonable explanation might be sin. Our education commits us utterly to this world until we die and lose our entitlements. We quest not after virtue, but after maximized potentials and safe boating. We have accepted death and fallen into despair. And despair, some say, is the unforgivable sin, since it precludes even the hope of learning “to discern between good and evil.” And if that is so, then our “education” will not only die, but will be damned as well. And to that, amen.

Why Good Grammar?