From Groupthink to Illiteracy


The Leaning Tower of Babel, by Richard Mitchell, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 256 pp., $14.95

Richard Mitchell's The Leaning Tower of Babel is his third book on what pundits call the "sorry state of the English language." Mitchell is usually lumped with those pundits, like Edwin Newman and William Safire, who have fun picking on sportscasters and "spokespersons." However, Mitchell points out that the fault lies not in the language, which is simply a tool for thought, but in the speakers and, especially, the writers who abuse the language; he has bigger fish to fry, and fry them he certainly does, in the grease of their flabby prose and the heat of his savage indignation.

A professor of English at Glassboro State College in New Jersey, Mitchell is editor and publisher of The Underground Grammarian, a periodical that plays 52-pick-up with the vast house of cards known as "educationism." Mitchell cogently defends against the presumptuously egalitarian charge of pedantry those "elitists" who demand not just correctness—which is a simple skill virtually anyone can learn to master—but sense from writers, especially those who are hired to lead our children to literacy and the life of the mind. And he doesn't shrink from laying blame exactly on those who deserve it: not the average teacher toiling in the trenches of the classroom, but the self-styled professionals of education who have taken over our schools and, what is more important and much more ominous, the teacher-training academies, ensuring that generations of teachers will be trained not in what educationists blithely refer to as "mere knowledge" (things like grammar, history, science), but in the "affective domain"—feelings, self-esteem, appreciation.

Today our society is so complex that it is necessary that many people be accurate and precise in their work; yet, perversely, we now "simply agree with the children that geometry and algebra are useless, and instead of wasting all that time we let them rap about interpersonal adjustment.…This does not, somehow, make them 'well adjusted,' but it does provide that the techniques and devices that they will someday be responsible for won't be very well adjusted either. Even Steven."

The "theory" underlying American educationism is pernicious balderdash, but who is to correct it? The professor of education who offered a course in "Effective Writting"? Or the striking high-school teacher who carried a placard demanding "descent wages"? Or maybe Daryl McCarty, Utah's Associate State Superintendent of Schools for Instruction, who said, apparently explaining his admission that he hadn't read more than two or three books all the way through, "Just because one does not sit down and read Little Red Riding Hood, or novel after novel, doesn't mean they aren't educated or can't do their job." Fat chance. The people who brought us the present mess are the very people our government will turn to—with much, much more of our tax money—for solutions. All the solutions will only make matters worse as long as the foxes are in charge of the henhouse.

In The Leaning Tower of Babel Mitchell gives us the words of our professional of education. The book provides a definitely sadistic pleasure in its skewering of idiots parading as savants, but it's also a disturbing book; often it's hard to tell the tenets of American educationism from the principles of Sovietism. Consider this from a proclamation of the Association of California School Administrators:

"Parent choice" proceeds from the belief that the purpose of education is to provide individual students with an education. In fact, educating the individual is but a means to the true end of education, which is to create a viable social order to which individuals contribute and by which they are sustained. "Family choice" is, therefore, basically selfish and anti-social in that it focuses on the "wants" of a single family rather than the "needs" of society.

Mitchell comments that "Lenin's bolshevism and American educationism have so much in common." You think such outrages exist only in far-off and far-out California? Then listen to this, from William H. Seawell, professor of education at the University of Virginia: "Each child belongs to the state.…We must focus on creating citizens for the good of society." Surely it is bad enough that educationists, lacking any subject to teach, waste everyone's time with their preachy blather, but when that blather is totalitarian group think, we are—the Republic is—in danger.

But who will care? Peter Wagschal, a university-employed "futurist," claims that "students do not read, write and do arithmetic as well as they used to because they can get along quite nicely without these skills.…Our basic skills are declining precisely because we need them less." Out in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Larry Zenke, Superintendent of Schools, quotes Wagschal with approval and goes on to prophesy that soon, when literacy is obsolete, "teachers will be program developers and/or facilitators of group membership, helping students develop interaction skills." But who's going to be minding the store? Mitchell explains:

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 lamp-post in America.

That's the reason for Mitchell's outraged cries of protest when our educationists want to substitute "minimum competency" (why do they need that y?) for literacy. In our schools, anti-intellectualism is pandemic, and the "affective domain" is offered as a substitute for reasoning in clear language. Imbeciles and mountebanks are in charge of our schools, and Mitchell's warning to the people of Tulsa should serve as a warning to all of America:

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?…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?…How is it, O Pioneers, that you are not mad as hell?

Indeed. Once we have escaped, most of us try not to think about what goes on in school, and so, in a sort of revenge of the nerds, the dunces have taken over the classroom while nobody was looking. The problem is that even dunces—maybe dunces especially—can form an effective bureaucracy, and every bureaucracy exists, not to serve the public, but to perpetuate itself. Educationism grows fat, and we are left with the National Commission's "tide of mediocrity." Our one slim hope is not, certainly, in more educational collectivism, but in parents' taking control of their children's education and demanding, not "minimum competency," but competence. And how do we judge the competence of teachers, administrators, or anyone else? Always and only, as Mitchell demonstrates with devastating humor, by paying attention to their language.

Christopher McDaniel is a free-lance writer.