The Year Zero Forever!

The future of the world depends on our willingness to suspend our own judgment of thoughts that we do not as yet understand, feelings with which we are not yet able to identify, and actions that we do not as yet approve.

ONE of our staffers has a job at a nearby State Mental Institution. He is not exactly one of the inmates, which is to say that he is not at the policy-making level, but he isn't exactly right in his head either. All of that stuff rubs off, and on.

These days, his mind is bewildered by Critical Thinking, one of the latest trends in the treatment of mental cases of every sort. It is now clear--at the policy-making level--that such courses of cure as Mathematics Treatment and History Treatment and Language Treatment must have been conducted entirely without thought and have thus not provided any Thinking Treatment. That much, our man can understand. What troubles him is the difference and how to detect it--between Thinking Treatment and that Critical Thinking Treatment. Is the latter a special case of the former, and a threat of things to come? Will it be only one of the many future offerings of the Thinking Treatment Department? Will that soon-to-be flourishing department also provide, along with Creative Thinking and Business Thinking, such nifty novelties as Tolerant (uncritical) Thinking, Family Thinking, and even Career Development Thinking? And what's to be done about staffing? Can just anybody come bopping in and dose out the Minority Thinking, or will it have to be a fully qualified Minority Thinker? And will Mother Theresa really agree to serve as a consultant for a minor concentration in Compassionate Thinking?

Such is the state of his mind. Nor is he consoled by the intriguing fact that Critical Thinking is taught, at his state mental institution, in accordance with the customary logic of such institutions, only to the sufferers who have conclusively demonstrated that they are utterly unable to read, write, or cipher.

We would like to tell him, Pooh. It will all blow over. But we're not so sure, for we have recently come to see, if not to understand, the looming of a new Thinking. A big one.

The epigraph above is from a truly remarkable essay by a certain--all too certain--Julia To-Dutka, who is yet another assistant professor of education at Montclair State College.* Exactly what assistance, and to whom, an assistant professor is supposed to provide, we have never been able to figure out, but this one has certainly assisted us into Fear and Loathing, and gloomy forbodings about Global Thinking, of which mysterious and baleful aberration her essay is a perfect example. It can be found (and we urge the finding, for we can never do it the justice it deserves) in the New Jersey section of the New York Times, September 22, 1985.

Global Thinking, like its apparent progenitor, Ethnic Thinking, seems to derive from the notion that we, on the one hand, would be enormously improved morally by studying the mating customs of the Ainu, and trying out some of their recipes for blubber, but that, on the other hand, the Ainu can learn from us nothing but crass materialism and callous indifference to the suffering of others, deficits of character to which the Ainu, thanks to their ignorance of us, are immune.

To that sort of general understanding, Julia To-Dukta adds the specific caveat that nothing less than "the future of the world" will depend on our readiness to "suspend judgment of...actions that we do not as yet approve." Should it prove the case, for example, that we deem the mating habits of the Ainu as disgusting and reprehensible as their recipes for blubber, we must remember that we are culturally blind, and that we must learn to approve.

(Do you remember Alvarado? He was School Chancellor of New York until he got caught in strange dealings--big loans from pals and interesting jobs for ditto. At one point, he suggested that the only wrong-doing in the whole mess was really on the part of the reporters, whose parochial ethnocentricity had led them to misunderstand the folkways of Hispanic culture. Global Thinking.)

Another notion of the Global Thinkers is that "the world is no longer insular." What that means, we don't know. It should mean, of course, that the Martians have landed, but, if they have, no Global Thinker has mentioned it. If it means only, as Julia To-Dukta says, that "individual countries no longer can insulate themselves from the affairs of other countries," then it is a distinction of dubious value, revealing also the fact that Global Thinkers feel no need to study history. Indeed, they imagine, and very much want to imagine, as this lady puts it, that "In a human sense, we live in a world severed from its ties to the future, as well as to the past." She dreams not only of the Year Zero, but of a permanent Year Zero.

Even in that day when the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold--whose fold would that be, Julia?--the world was "no longer insular." But Global Thinking is simply the newest version of Current Events Education, the trivial pursuit by which millions of us were convinced that particulars pop into and out of existence at random, and blinded even to the possibility of suspecting that history might unfold in obedience to some principle, and that events are the children of ideas.

Suddenly, we understand Thoreau's contempt for newspapers. There is some absolute difference between those who are what they are by the force of events, and those who can make themselves what they ought to be by having ideas.

*Long-time readers of this sheet may remember that many years ago our work took a serious turn, from which it has never fully recovered, in the course of examining the words of a man named Weischadle. It was he who led us to ask: Is there something more than "grammar" to be understood in the fact that a man would prefer not to say that A is B, but would rather choose to say that A "may be perceived as being B." It led us into many thoughts. Weischadle, iike Julia To-Dutka, is an assistant professor of education at Montclair State College.

And Furthermore...

The great ambition professed by public school managers is, of course, education for citizenship and self-government, which harks back to Jefferson's historic call for "general education to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom." What the public schools practice with remorseless efficiency, however, is the stifling of self-government. When 58 percent of the thirteen-year-olds tested by the National Assessment for Educational Progress think it is against the law to start a third party in America, we are dealing not with a sad educational failure, but with a remarkably subtle success.

Walter Karp
Harper's, June 1985

The Bright Angelic Mills

In a world where wands are waved over uniform product codes in supermarkets and where kids have personal computers...just why are we spending billions to teach arithmetic in the schools?

--Anthony Oettinger

Wise men say, Callicles, that heaven and earth, gods and men, are held together by the principles of sharing, by friendship and order, by self-control and justice; that, my friend, is the reason they call the universe 'cosmos,' which is to say "order,' and not disorder or licentiousness. Clever though you are, you seem not to have paid enough attention to these matters; it has, in fact, escaped you what a mighty power is exercised, both among men and gods, by geometrical equality. And it is your neglect of geometry which brings about your opinion that one should strive for a larger share than that which other men possess.


THAT Oettinger fellow also asks, "Exactly what is the meaning of penmanship when keyboard skills are becoming more important?" We are abashed. For all the attention and thought we have given to reading and writing, we do have to admit that we have never elucidated the "meaning" of penmanship.

Oettinger is just as expert in history as he is in the art of writing. "In 1100," he tells us, "educated people talked, only menials like clerics wrote. So the snobbery of writing only began around 1300. Before that snobs only spoke." So there.

But that Oettinger fellow is not, as you probably suspect, a taxi-driver in Hoboken. We have the word from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record that he is a teacher of "applied mathematics" at Harvard, and a consultant to Ronald Reagan's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, as well as a member of the Scientific Advisory Group of the U. S. Defense Communications Agency. That tells us a lot about the state of our Republic, in which menials like clerics have been made obsolete and replaced by menials like consultants. And his words, along with many other such, were spoken--not penned--to a conference put on by the Canadian Institute for Research on Public Policy.

It is, of course, unlikely that we would be able to explain anything at all to a mind that equates writing with penmanship, thus easing enormously the work of literary criticism by making it possible to prove conclusively that Flaubert, for instance, was by far the very worst writer of his time. There is no hope of rational discourse with a man who holds that the "modern workplace" no longer needs "the people who could write and do arithmetic" in the "dark satanic mills and the Dickensian counting houses," and that even "keyboard skills" will prove dispensible once the computers have learned to understand and produce speech, like the snobs of yesteryear. While Socrates would at least give it a try, we know not how to seek the betterment of the Oettingers of this age, and we have to leave them to that work for which they find themselves best suited, the making of public policy for the rest of us.

Callicles, the principal adversary in the Gorgias, was at least amenable to rational discourse and aware of the need to define his terms, although certainly neglectful of geometry. But even he, to say nothing of Socrates, would have been astounded by the proposition that the purpose of learning arithmetic is to be discovered in the bright angelic mills of the modern supermarket, where anyone who can wave a wand finds himself free from the need to cipher.

It is true that those who have learned arithmetic can, usually, calculate; but the idea that we should learn arithmetic in order to calculate is one of the many convenient notions of the schoolers, who will surely be delighted to hear from Oettinger that they will soon be relieved, by pocket wands, we suppose, of the tiresome work of teaching little children to balance their checkbooks. To those who can not understand mathematics--to say nothing of reading and writing--as anything more than "life skills," Socrates' mild rebuke of Callicles must prove mystifying indeed. For Socrates, and even for Callicles, although he didn't like to think about it, the study of mathematics was nothing less than the soul's discovery of order and proportion, of permanent and essential relationships, of rightness. And the idea of Rightness as revealed in mathematics provides understanding of the idea of Justice among men.

It was out of just such an understanding that the poet deemed Euclid alone the beholder of Beauty bare. Socrates would have nodded approval. And it was for his desire to live "out of proportion" that Callicles was rebuked. He was, as it were, an angle of the great polygon who supposed that he could gobble up more than his natural share of degrees without twistng the whole thing out of shape, or, even worse, without caring that he would twist it out of shape.

That such an ancient understanding of the study of mathematics should seem to us at least unusual, if not downright quirky, is, of course, the result of our schooling, and likewise a measure of the shallowness of our education. The schoolers like to think of themselves as "humanists." They suppose that the study of mathematics--and of the hard sciences as well--is in some unspecifiable but nevertheless real way an inhuman enterprise, and not noticeably conducive to feelings of tolerance and kindness, and the burning desire to feed those of the hungry who happen to be very far away.

There is also the unhappy fact that mathematics, unlike relating to self and others, is both hard to teach and, for education majors, hard to learn. Ditto for chemistry and physics, of which Socrates, had he studied them, would have had some interesting things to say, and that entirely without regard to the daily work of the chemist or the physicist.

Thus the educationists find themselves in a pickle. On the one hand, they choose to see mathematics as a life-skill most particularly useful in the "modern marketplace," and thus feel obliged to teach it as essential to their great mission, the production of employable workers who may some day be able to compete with the Japanese. On the other, they find the teaching of inhumane subjects a galling diversion from their even greater mission, the inculcation of "right feelings." And so it is that they have sold us on the idea of minimum competence in subjects like mathematics, by which they mean just enough study for the needs of the modern workplace, but not enough to bring on the suspicion that Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are to be discerned not by the feelings but by the intellect.

From their dilemma, Anthony Oettinger will deliver them, and, noble fellow that he seems to be, at no small cost to himself. What work will there be for a teacher of applied mathematics when no one has to apply mathematics any more? His loss, however, will be the schoolers' gain. Those who used to struggle with the teaching of writing will be able to justify the much easier task of teaching basic minumum keyboard skills, and, to replace the few and rapidly disappearing teachers of mathematics, the gym-teachers will stand forth as providers, even to tiny tykes, of just enough dexterity out of which to wave a wand over a checkout counter or a checkbook. It's all in the wrist.

Things equal to the same thing, we seem to recall from somewhere, are equal to each other. Makes sense.

And that, of course, is another way to understand the worth of all sorts of studies not just now popular. Mathemetics makes sense, and it makes sense in anyone who contemplates it. Wandwaving does not make sense in the waver; it merely works. It is interesting that the latter is progress in the world, and the former, betterment in a person

Stillness Education

It is my belief that Physical Education is movement education, and it is the ability of students to think critically in a movement context that distinguishes Physical Education from other disciplines. Therefore, all Physical Education classes should focus on maximizing constructive movement time ("learning by doing") and minimizing the verbal components of the lesson.

--M. Lazar, Assistant Principal

SUDDENLY, while thinking critically in a stillness context, we understood just why it is that, utterly unlike Dinah Shore, or even Patti Page, the pop singers of our time can not hold still. They have all been to school. And their productions, also unlike those of Dinah Shore, are intended to please children by maximizing movement time while minimizing verbal components in the great cause of thinking critically in a movement context. And most children, although they do have enough sense to despise gym and to feel the appropriate mixture of pity and contempt for gym teachers, do not have enough sense to withstand the influence of "learning by doing." Horses and dogs have the same problem, luckily for some of us.

In every schoolhouse, the aroma of gymthink seeps upward from the dank locker-room into the libraries and the classrooms, and even into the office of M. Lazar, the Assistant Principal, who may well be, like so many other holders of that exalted rank, an erstwhile gym teacher who also felt the appropriate mixture of pity and contempt for gym teachers, and, having no papers to grade, easily found time to attend night classes in Ed. Admin., and fulfill the American Dream by rising from lowly status into the aristocracy of the mind. And so it is that his mere belief is authority enough upon which to found the "discipline" of Critical Thinking in a Movement Context.

Like the rocking rollers, those school people can not hold still. They wriggle and twitch to the latest sound and, just now, they are gyrating prodigiously to the hot, pounding rhythms of Critical Thinking, an electrifying group, particularly adept at the minimization of the verbal component. Well, you know how it is. Some, to be sure, are born to boogie, but some, like the aristocrats of the mind, must learn to boogie, and others, especially all of the children in schools, will just have to have boogie thrust upon them. For their own good.

The conditions necessary for thinking, as for writing, are stillness, silence, and solitude. In schools, they are all accounted signs of deviance, which can only lead to Deviant Thinking. Their opposites are classroom activities, participation in group discussion, and relating well to others, all of which produce warm, cozy Nondeviant Thinking.

The Hinterback of the Debate

Now that writing as a tool of thinking is about to return to fashionable consciousness, instructors everywhere are rushing to the forefront of the debate on how to encourage writing assignments in the regular curriculum.

--Martha J. Pierce

So I beheld, and lo! an ensign borne whirling, that span and ran, as in disdain of any rest; and there the folk forlorn rushed after it, in such an endless train, it never would have entered in my head there were so many men whom death had slain.

--Inferno, III: 49-54

ONE of the most entertaining one-page frequentlies in America is Innovation Abstracts, a little poopsheet put out by an educationist welfare organization called the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, which seems to be one of those countless shelters from the stormy blast dreamed up by, and for, people who like the cozy and uncompetitive comfort of the academic life, but who have no academic interests, convictions, or powers. Such folk are always hot for "development," of what, and why, they don't care. All they need is the semblance of work in the shop. It is largely to the existence of their ilk that we owe the never-ending succession of fake and zany innovations that disorder our schools and our minds three or four times a year.

It was in Innovation Abstracts that we found Martha Pierce's despatch on the late, breaking news of the coming of the Great Writing Revolution to the sleepy (we guess) campus of North Harris County College in Houston. We thought, at first, that her writing needed a little help, but now we're not so sure. Her opening sentence does sound as though it might have come from a Glamour piece on the return of the skirt, but it may be that she has found just the right voice in which to announce yet another twirling of the "fashionable consciousness" of which schooling is always made.

She has it right. It's all a question of fashion. Schoolers are people who rush from time to time to the forefront of this or that debate. An endless train of folk forlorn, sometimes they suppose that the deliberate ordering of facts and ideas is a "tool of thinking," and sometimes they suppose that it isn't. They are consistent, but without knowing it, in only one thing, and that is in supposing that supposition is the Way. And why not? Their neglect of geometry has led them to suppose that there can be no such thing as Knowing.

Or maybe it's all political. There is a whiff of the absolute in Knowing; the free and democratic way is Guessing.

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