Friday, April 13, 2007

Why Can't Americans Read, Write or Think?

After sober and judicious consideration, and weighing one thing against another in the interests of reasonable compromise, H. L. Mencken concluded that a startling and dramatic improvement in American education required only that we hang all the professors and burn down the schools. His uncharacteristically moderate proposal was not adopted. Those who actually knew more about education than Mencken did could see that his plan was nothing more than cosmetic and would in fact provide only an outward appearance of improvement. Those who knew less, on the other hand, had somewhat more elaborate plans of their own, and they just happened to be in charge of the schools.

Those who knew less, to be specific, were the members of the National Educatio
n Association's Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, a.k.a. The Gang of Twenty-seven, now long forgotten but certainly not gone. They builded better than they knew, and their souls go marching on in every school in America today. The Commission was established in 1913, the year that also brought us the income tax. Many of its members were functionaries of school bureaucracies, from the United States Commissioner of Education himself down through supervisors and associate superintendents and principals and even a high school inspector, whatever that was, to no less a personage than a senior educational secretary of the YMCA. Professors and assistant professors of education represented the higher learning. One of them was chairman of the committee on mathematics, naturally, while the committees on lesser disciplines, notably classical and modern languages, were directed by high school teachers. The stern sciences were served by a professor of education, while the smiling sciences like social studies and the other household arts were overseen by federal bureaucrats. In the whole motley crew there were no scientists, no mathematicians, no historians, no traditional scholars of any sort.

That was surely no accident, for it seems to have been an article of the Commission's unspoken agenda to overturn the work of an earlier NEA task force that had been made up largely of scholars, the Committee of Ten, called together in 1892 and chaired by Charles W. Eliot, then president of Harvard University. That committee had come out in favor of traditional academic study in the public schools, which they fancied should be devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and the training of the intellect. But what can you expect from a bunch of intellectuals?...

Thus begins Chapter 4 ("The Seven Deadly Principles") of Richard Mitchell's classic work, The Graves of Academe: Why Can't Our Nation Read, Write, Cipher or Think? a book which Clifton Fadiman described as, "of the highest importance. . . a slashing and irrefutable attack, not on teachers, but on the educational establishment that trains them--and which has trained us. " Fadiman concluded, "Mr. Mitchell is invaluable. Also -- he's enormously entertaining."

George Will spoke of the late Mr. Mitchell's writings as a "cleansing fire" whereas the erudite journalist and grammarian Edwin Newman remarked, "If English is saved, he will be one of its saviors."

I have long appreciated Richard Mitchell, especially The Graves of Academe, Less Than Words Can Say, and The Leaning Tower of Babel and I heartily recommend reading him as a way to learn not only the English language but the processes of intelligent thought. His books are frequently available in used book shops and public libraries. But you can also utilize the unique and authorized web page, The Underground Grammarian, where you can read Mitchell's works online.