The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch. Norton $11.95, Warner paperback $2.95. Less Than Words Can Say, by Richard Mitchell. Little, Brown $8.95. Teaching as a Conserving Activity, by Neil Postman. Delacorte $9.95.

I wish this story weren’t true. Back in the early Seventies, when I was teaching at a local university, my department granted a master’s degree in English to a woman who, in her thesis on Shakespeare, consistently spelled the poet’s name “Shakespear.”

I know that Shakespeare himself couldn’t decide how to spell his name – sometimes he signed it “Shakesper” – but the use of something other than the conventional spelling today is a sign of either eccentricity or laziness. In the student’s case, it was the latter: She hadn’t taken the trouble to notice either how the name was spelled or that she was consistently misspelling it in a supposedly “scholarly” paper. English departments ought to tolerate eccentricity. They ought to punish laziness.

But the reason I wish the story weren’t true is that the student had passed one of my courses, even though she obviously didn’t understand much of the material we were reading and her papers were shot through with garbled syntax and bad grammar. I rationalized my way into giving her the lowest passing grade: Because she had been certified as competent by her high school and college, she was spending money to get a degree for which she wasn’t qualified, and which wasn’t worth the money. Infected by the pseudo-radicalism of the Sixties, I took pity on a victim of the System – and thereby helped perpetuate the System.

I, too, was lazy – too lazy to confront the student with her incompetence, to spend time trying to remedy some of the damage done by her education. I was too lazy to attack the institution’s venality, the willingness of administrators to accept unprepared students in order to boost enrollment and the income from tuition.

The student became an instructor of English in the Dallas County Community College District. I got out of teaching five years ago.

Yes, there is a “literacy crisis,” and it’s not going to go away. It’s produced by the unwillingness of teachers, administrators, parents, and virtually everyone else to work hard, to see that kids are taught what they need to know. It’s been around a long time: Back in the Fifties there was a bestseller called Why Johnny Can’t Read. I can’t remember whether Johnny couldn’t read because he was being taught phonics or because he wasn’t, but that’s what the controversy was about. Like most of the debates over education, it missed the point because it assumed that the right technique was all that was needed. An elementary school teacher I know saw through that assumption: “Johnny can’t read,” she said, “because he’s stupid.”

The woman who said that is a compassionate and hardworking teacher who knows that whatever technique you use, it won’t work in a vacuum – especially if that vacuum is between a student’s ears. I was reminded of her statement by Neil Postman’s tongue-in-cheek apology to a Boston school board member. In an earlier book, Postman quoted the following statement by the man as an example of “semantic nonsense”: “We have no inferior education in our schools,” the board member claimed. “What we have been getting is an inferior type of student.”

Postman thought the board member sounded like a clothing manufacturer who goes bankrupt because he refuses to make anything but large sizes, insisting, “Our pants are just fine. What we have been getting is too many little people.”

But now, Postman says, he realizes that the board member’s statement – setting aside its intent, which was probably to rationalize inaction – really does make sense. We have been getting inferior students, who can’t read because they’re stupid. They’re stupid because everything outside the classroom encourages stupidity. The class- room, Postman says, is “one of the few social organizations left to us in which sequence, community experience, social order, hierarchy, continuity, and deferred pleas-ure are important.” Unfortunately, schools have been yielding to the pressure to make the classroom a place for spontaneity and self-expression, for “getting in touch with your feelings” and “letting it all hang out.”

The result, Christopher Lasch says, is a “culture of narcissism.” We are in danger, he says, of becoming so self-involved that we lose touch with the past and fail to prepare for the future. Education no longer provides the tools with which people can take charge of their destinies. Lasch blames both the right and the left in the educational establishment: “In the long run, it does not matter to the victims whether bad teaching justifies itself on the reactionary grounds that poor people cannot hope to master the intricacies of mathematics, logic, and English composition or whether, on the other hand, pseudoradicals condemn academic standards as part of the apparatus of white cultural control, which purportedly prevents blacks and other minorities from realizing their creative potential. In either case, reformers with the best intentions condemn the lower class to a second-rate education and thus help to perpetuate the inequalities they seek to abolish …. The whole problem of American education comes down to this: In American society, almost everyone identifies intellectual excellence with elitism.”

As a result, only those at the top of the social and economic ladder in this country can afford first-rate education. The middle class once had access to competent teachers and a curriculum that provided the verbal and mathematical skills that made social mobility possible. But now it finds its children’s education undermined by “reforms” that eliminate logic, reason, discipline, precision, and the rewarding of excellence as the oppressive tools of a ruling elite. And the poor are no better off than before. So almost no one gets educated and we are threatened by what Lasch sees as a “reign of universal ignorance.”

The movement to teach Black English in the schools is the most familiar, and most controversial, example of subordinating intellectual discipline to sociological ends. Richard Mitchell sees it as a form of crypto-racism: “Here are the unacknowledged assumptions behind the Black English movement in the schools: Most black kids are too stupid to learn fluent, standard English. Some few are, perhaps, not too stupid, but to teach them fluent, standard English is hard work for the teachers. (Some of the teachers are too stupid to teach fluent, standard English, anyway.) It would be better, in any case, if they didn’t learn fluent, standard English, since we would then have to admit some of them to important and lucrative professions. Black parents can be calmed into approving this scheme through appeals to ’ethnic pride,’ which we will also ’teach’ in the schools just to provide a little extra insurance. We can explain that spelling and punctuation are devices of racial and economic oppression and that verb forms that change in the past tense are the result of centuries of prejudice and intolerance. They’ll buy it.”

Mitchell comments, “When we. . . see that schoolchildren are more ignorant than ever, and that black schoolchildren are ordinarily the most ignorant, we are inclined to think that something has failed. That is a naive conclusion. In fact, something has succeeded.”

As Mitchell’s exegesis of the assumptions behind the teaching of Black English suggests, he thinks there are economic determinants behind the state of contemporary education. So does Lasch, whose critique of contemporary culture has a Marxist bias.

“Schools in modern society serve largely to train people for work,” Lasch says, “but most of the available jobs, even in the higher economic range, no longer require a high level of technical or intellectual competence. Indeed most jobs consist so largely of routine, and depend so little on enterprise and resourcefulness, that anyone who successfully completes a given course of study soon finds himself ’overqualified’ for most of the positions available. . . . Contrary to the pronouncements of most educational theorists and their allies in the social sciences, advanced industrial society. . .requires. . . a stupefied population, resigned to work that is trivial and shoddily performed, predisposed to seek its satisfaction in the time set aside for leisure.”

A chilling thought – that the poor education our kids receive, that seems to be turning them into narcissistic sheep who trample one another to death trying to get into rock concerts, is exactly what they need. And that the people who should have been most alive to the dangers of spreading stupidity, the social scientists, have been the most effective in bringing it about by developing curricula that provide “techniques” rather than knowledge, “adjustment” rather than skills.

Lasch devotes only one chapter of his book to the failure of American education. (“Failure,” that is, from the point of view of those of us who believe, as Lasch does, that it has failed, that it has produced people “unable to use language with ease and precision, to recall the basic facts of their country’s history, to make logical deductions, to understand any but the most rudimentary written texts, or even to grasp their constitutional rights.” Education has succeeded, of course, from the point of view of those who believe such knowledge can produce dangerous discontent.) It is, however, the most compelling chapter in what is otherwise a diffuse but provocative book. Lasch finds the disastrous effects of the new narcissism in everything from psychoanalysis to sports. The media, as you might expect, come in for a large share of his criticism. They have, he says, helped produced a culture in which “truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.”

Blaming “the media” is often a rogue’s game. But every critic of contemporary education eventually does it. Neil Postman devotes most of his book to a theory of education predicated on the sensible assumption that the electronic media are not going to disappear or be abolished. (One recent book was, in fact, called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.) Education’s function, as Postman sees it, is to conserve those skills and values that are likely to be swept away – in our time they include skills such as the ability to reason, to analyze, to pursue the truth with patience. They are likely to be swept away because the electronic media – not only television, radio, recordings, and movies, but pocket calculators and the inevitable household computer as well – are providing a new set of values.

These sources of instant information, Postman says, teach us to value “instancy” or “constancy.” “Constancy,” he says, “is one of the main teachings of civilization. But constancy presupposes the relevance of historical precedence, of continuity, and, above all, of complexity and the richness of ambiguity. A person trained to read a page in three seconds is being taught contempt for complexity and ambiguity. A person trained to restructure his or her life in a weekend of therapy is being taught not only contempt for complexity and ambiguity but for the meaning of one’s own past. And a person who abandons a five-thousand- or two-thousand-year-old religious tradition to follow a fourteen-year-old messenger for God has somehow learned to value novelty more than continuity.”

Television presents us with instant solutions to all our problems, not only in cop shows in which the murderer or rapist always gets found out before the final credits roll, or in sitcoms in which personal anxieties get laughed away in thirty minutes, but in the commercials in which “the problem. . . is rarely trivial but the solution always is. Your anxiety about your sexual appeal gets solved with Scope – in thirty seconds. Your failure to achieve social status gets solved with a bottle of Coke and a song – in sixty seconds. Your fear of nature gets solved with Scott toilet tissue – in twenty seconds.”

TV commercials are an easy target, and we’ve heard that criticism before. Surely the medium can be used for education – what about “Sesame Street”? “Sesame Street,” says Postman, is “brilliant television. . .but what it teaches is what Burger King commercials teach.” By presenting its lessons in the form of songs and jokes and cartoons, in segments never longer than eight minutes, “Sesame Street,” like the rest of television, emphasizes “time-compressed experience, short term relationships, present-oriented accomplishment, simple and immediate solutions.” A child educated by electronic media alone would never learn a respect for “long-term planning, . . . deferred gratification, … the relevance of tradition, and. . . the need for confronting complexity.”

There’s nothing new about Postman’s criticism of “Sesame Street,” either. The British made the same criticisms a few years ago when they decided not to air the show. But Americans appear to have shrugged it off as evidence of the hide-bound elitism of British education. Education associations still regularly give awards to the Children’s Television Workshop for “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company,” which, says Postman, is akin to “the Railroad Workers of America commemorating the birthdays of the Wright Brothers.”

The real problem comes, Postman thinks, when the schools adopt the methods of “Sesame Street,” knowing they have to compete with the instant gratifications of television. Teachers “tell jokes. They change the pace. They show films, play records, and avoid any lecture or discussion that would take more than eight minutes. . . . Although its motivation is understandable, this is the worst possible thing they can do because it is what their students least need.”

The electronic media reward laziness. You don’t need to learn to extract a square root when a pocket calculator can do it for you in a millisecond, or read the newspaper when Tracy and lola will tell you what’s going on. They reward lazy teachers, too. It’s easier to zap a cassette into a tape player than to lead a coherent, well-focused discussion or deliver a lecture that will hold a class’ attention. Even teachers who resist such methods tell me that school administrators insist on them, probably because the investment in all that equipment has to be justified.

We must return to the traditional curriculum in the schools, Postman says, and to an emphasis on verbal and mathematical skills, on history and foreign languages, on thinking, speaking, writing, and calculating with precision. Otherwise, these skills may be lost forever. Teaching is a “conserving” activity aimed at the preservation of endangered values. Twelve years ago. Postman published a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. As he wryly admits in the preface to Teaching as a Conserving Activity, “I do not seem to be facing in the same direction as I was in 1967.” Not many of us are.

But while Postman agrees with many who call themselves “conservatives” – he advocates a curriculum emphasizing “basics,” classrooms that stress order and discipline; he even favors dress codes – he’s quick to dissociate himself from “conservatism” as an ideology. While Postman wants to go back to basics, he points out that “back to basics” is a slogan usually employed by people whose “basics” are founded on absolute concepts of political or religious authority. “To borrow from George Orwell,” Postman comments, “many subjects are basic, but some are more basic than others. They have the capability of generating critical thought and of giving students access to questions that get to the heart of the matter. This is not what ’back to the basics’ advocates usually have in mind.”

Schools, Postman says, should act like a thermostat. Just as a thermostat acts to maintain a constant temperature in a room, education attempts to maintain balance in our culture: “Stated far too grossly, education tries to conserve tradition when the rest of the environment is innovative. Or it is innovative when the rest of the society is tradi-tionbound. . . . The function of education is always to offer the counterargument.” In this context, Postman quotes Andre Gide: “The only real education comes from what goes counter to you.” In that sense, Postman’s philosophy of education is still “subversive.”

Obviously, Postman is not so naive as to think the educational establishment is going to redirect itself overnight and save our kids from being rootless ignoramuses. The educational bureaucracy is about as receptive to criticism as the Politburo. Nor do Mitchell and Lasch have much faith that reform is on the way. Mitchell in particular urges us not to pin our hopes on the legislatures that are now passing laws requiring that insurance policies and government decrees be written in plain English, or in the “minimum competency” tests that school districts have come up with to show that yes, indeed, they have standards, even if the standards are well below what they ought to be.

“There is,” Mitchell writes, “an alternative to the plain English fad. . . . We could simply decide to educate all Americans to such a degree that they could read and understand” bureaucratic jargon.

But would that really do the trick? There’s nothing new in the observation that bureaucrats from the Pentagon to the public schools get away with atrocities because no one knows what they’re talking about. As long as you call a spade an excavatory module you can go a long way in the bureaucracy. Take that master jargoneur Dr. Nolan Estes, for example. Mitchell quotes one of Estes’ loony bits of educationalese, “motorized attendance modules” – an Estesism for school buses – as a classic example of technocratic jargon. The secret of Estes’ success was that such jargon served as protective coloration, allowing him to slip into the thickets of the bureaucracy whenever anyone was out for his hide.

I’ll bet that Estes received a traditional education, the kind that Postman and Lasch and Mitchell would like to see reinstated, with lots of drilling in grammar. I’ll bet he could still diagram a sentence if he wanted to. Just because people are educated to use language precisely, that doesn’t mean they won’t use it imprecisely if their jobs demand it.

To his credit, Lasch is the only one of these three writers who tackles this problem. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to say other than that “citizens will have to take the solutions of their problems into their own hands.” And his Marxist tendencies lead him into statements like “the struggle against bureaucracy. . . requires a struggle against capitalism itself,” which is a good example of what he means by “statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.”

So if we want our kids to learn to read, we have to become directly involved in their education. That means not tolerating double-talk, incompetence, and the misuse of the schools as baby-sitting services and media centers.

I’m afraid that’s not likely to happen.We’re too lazy.


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