Students do not read, write and do arithmetic as well as they used to because they, can get along quite nicely without these skills.…Americans are finding that they need to rely less and less on 'basic skills ' to find out what they want to know and what they want to do. Our basic skills are declining precisely because we need them less.
—Peter Wagschal, futurist,
University of Massachusetts
Yeah. And that's not all! Just you take a good look at the standard American dogs and cats. They live pretty damn well, toiling not, neither spinning, and they've never even heard of stuff like reading, writing, and arithmetic. They "do quite nicely without those skills,'' and so do tropical fish and baboons. And so, too, did black slaves and Russian serfs, and all those marvelously skillful and industrious ancestors of us all who gathered nuts and roots and killed small rodents with sticks. They all knew everything they needed to know.
We would probably never have heard of Peter Wagschal, or of his neato futurist studies, if it hadn't been for one Larry Zenke, a pretty neato guy himself. Zenke is superintendent of schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where men are still men. Did he quail when the national achievement test scores, which used to be quite good in that prosperous and orderly city, hit new lows last fall? Nosirree. When taxpayers grumbled, did he ignominiously promise to do better? And when the Tulsa Tribune started off its editorial mouth about "fads" and "anti-academic garbage," did Zenke tiptoe away into the piloting of experiential remediation enhancement parameters?
No way. Not in Oklahoma. In the finest frontier fashion, he stood up tall in the middle of Main Street at high noon and told the unruly rabble that maybe they'd like to talk it over, before doing anything hasty, with his pal, Pete (The Persuader) Wagschal, who somehow just happened to drift into town. True grit.
Then, having (by proxy) brought light to the benighted fuddy-duddies of Tulsa, Zenke, who obviously knows more than he lets on, laid a little groundwork for the defense of next year's test scores:"Wagschal even suggests that 50 years from now we could be the smartest, most knowledgeable society that has ever existed, and yet be largely illiterate."
The italics are Zenke's, not ours, and we're grateful for them. We have often wondered what kind of an idea it would take to make a school superintendent excited about the life of the intellect.
And a dandy idea it is, especially for all those much-misunderstood "educators," saddled (for now) with the thankless (and difficult) task of teaching what no one will need to know when the bright age dawns. All that burnout and stress! And for what? For nothing more than an arcane and elitist social grace no more necessary in a truly "knowledgeable society" than the ability to play polo or the lute.
And how, you ask, will people who are "largely illiterate" come to amass all that knowledge? Well, don't you worry, bless your heart. Someone will probably be quite willing to tell them what to know, even if it means all the trouble and expense of attaching loudspeakers to every lamppost in America.
The teachers, then, will be liberated to do what the teacher academies train them to do. Zenke foretells:
Teachers, for example, will no longer be disseminators of cognitive information—machines will do that. Teachers will be program developers and/or facilitators of group membership, helping students develop interaction skills. Some educators, of course, will be found too rigid to survive this metamorphosis, and those who do will find excitement and fulfillment in their new "teaching roles."
And that will be just dandy too. Happy, happy, the teachers of tomorrow, at long last fulfilled and excited! Freed forever from the stern constraints of the tiny smatterings of mere information still incongruously expected of teachers, the facilitator-trainees of the future will be able to spend all their time in the enhancement of their interaction skills, so that they can go forth and facilitate the same for little children. (Those cunning tots, of course, do have to be educated, you know, so that they will sit quietly in organized groups when it's time to hear some knowledge from the loudspeaker.)
Which is it you've lost, Tulsans, your spirit or your minds? Could it be both? Do you lie awake in the still watches of the night worrying about those godless communists who are panting to nationalize oil? Do you fear that bleeding hearts will take away the guns by which you fancy that you won and may yet preserve your liberty? Pooh, Tulsans, pooh.
The most dangerous threat to your liberty, the one that has by far the best chance of turning you all into docile clods, is right there in Tulsa. Think, dammit! Do you imagine that foreign enemies of this nation could devise for your children a more hideous and revolting destiny than the one so blithely envisioned—and as an exoneration, no less—by the superintendent of schools?
Do you yawn and turn to the sports section, citizens of Tulsa, when the man whom you have hired to oversee the growth of understanding and judgment in your children airily tells you that in a palmier day they will have no need of the literacy that alone can give those powers? Do you shrug when he tells you that the children will be spared the burden of whatever "cognitive information" they don't actually need, which must obviously, since the children will have no powers of judgment, be chosen by someone like Zenke? Do you, like Zenke, dream of the day when no one will be able to read our Constitution, but it won't matter, because the machines provided by the government schools will tell us all we really need to know about it? Can you think of something to say to those teachers, and superintendents, who are not excited and fulfilled with leading young minds into the ways of understanding and thoughtful discretion?
Does it not occur to you that the inculcation of "interaction skills" for the purpose of "group development" is exactly the opposite of an education, by which a mind can find its way out of group-think and the pet promulgations of collectivisms? And in short, Tulsans, what are those strange black boxes we see on your lampposts? What soothing message have they recited, even as you slept? How is it, O Pioneers, that you are not mad as hell?
Richard Mitchell is the author of Less Than Words Can Say and the publisher of the Underground Grammarian, from which this column is adapted.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Language: When the Bright Age Dawns".