Volume Fourteen, Number Three
The Uses of Audacity
Sometimes we simply cannot decide which might better be driven into the sea with stings and nettles--the silly people who operate the schools, or the silly snobs who think themselves far better than the silly people who run the schools.
What you see above is from an op-ed piece in the Orange County Register, and the author is a certain John Dentinger, identified only as "a writer in Los Angeles." What he says here, he says only in passing, and to lend support to his thesis, to wit, that school is a form of child labor profitable only to the proprietors, and that most of the young would do better in real jobs. That is an argument worth making, but Dentinger makes it without noticing his own reference to learning without the schools, as though schooling and education were the same. And he threw away, out of pure and simple self-indulgence, an opportunity to subvert schooling with a jolt of education, pure and undefiled.
We have read and heard the words of countless promoters of "critical thinking." We have never found one who could make, or who had even thought of making, any clear and useful distinction between that "critical thinking" so nifty to pronounce and so elegantly technical to propose, and just plain ordinary thinking. Nor do we expect such a distinction to come forth in time, since it is preposterous by definition.
There is, of course, a clear and useful distinction to be made between thinking and the vast multitudes of other acts that can be committed invisibly in the mind, such as fantasizing and self-esteeming, for instance, but this is a distinction of which neither the school people nor their lofty betters seem capable. Well, perhaps they haven't yet decided whether to make such a distinction through critical thinking or through mere thinking, and, in any case, they would probably not want to make it at all, for it would blow away like fog and smoke all their darling devices.
So take a long look at Dentinger's class and the chubby loudmouth brunette, who is asking not for information, which anyone can look up, not for indoctrination, which comes with the territory in school, not for stroking and buttering-up, the snake-oil of our age, but for an answer, dammit, or, at least for what Debbie would call an answer.
Sweet are the uses of audacity. She may indeed be asking to provoke, and as a challenge, and without even suspecting that she truly does want an answer, or even that there is one, but all of that can be said of every true and important question. The important question is the one that no one can answer, as we can answer questions about the principal exports of Brazil and the capitals of the states. The important question calls not for that sort of answer, but for thoughtful consideration. It calls for that thinking of which Debbie's teacher seems to have detected no trace in, of all things, the study of algebra! It is very interesting that a man who is taking the taxpayers' money for teaching algebra seems not to have considered a question more important than Debbie's--Why on earth would anybody teach this stuff to a whole bunch of children who will never again algebrate once they leave this place?
Here we can see the difference between the answering of a question and thoughtful consideration of a question. There surely is an answer, and an especially appropriate one in the case of a teacher who hasn't done any serious thinking about his work: Those who teach it can get some money from the taxpayers. While he would have provided only an accidental occasion of education in doing it, he would have won our praise for candor and good citizenship by the truth: "You have to take this course, Debbie, since it is required by law; and I am teaching it in order to get paid for putting you through your term of enforced labor for the state. So shut up and mind your QED's." In his case, so far as we can tell, that is not only the truth, rare enough, but also the whole truth, rarer than rubies. And we would praise him for it, although, to be sure, we would not pay him to teach our daughters. We would prefer that he remained a writer in Los Angeles. But that truth, we suspect, Debbie knew already. Her question means: I know what's going on here, but I can't understand why such an unaccountable system should exist at all. Can you tell me, Mr. Teacher?
It's a fine question, and a fair one. It is also a question that Debbie would probably not have had to ask at all had her teacher asked it first of himself and considered it. Had he done that, he would have been teaching in a way that would have led Debbie out of darkness and into light.
A specter is haunting the schools. The dead hand of problem-solving rules them. They can find no other justification for the study of algebra than the hope that some of the students will be able to solve problems in algebra. Sometimes they do go a little further and claim that such studies as algebra are pushups for the mind, exercises for the strengthening of something or other. But even this slightly better idea they trivialize by supposing no other possible power of the mind than the same old problem-solving. Well, of course, Debbie, we know that you will never again in your life have to solve problems in algebra, but you will have to be an "educated" consumer who can figure out unit prices in the supermarket, won't you, to say nothing of balancing your checkbook?
Such an argument is, of course, too puny, even for the school people, to preserve algebra as the "required course" that Dentinger would like to see ousted by critical thinking, as though Debbie would find that much easier than the thinking required by algebra. It is also, typically, an argument from particulars rather than principles, and any Debbie of our time could demolish it by whipping out her calculator. Here we can see the great mystery at the heart of the school mess. What is it with these people, that they scramble like demented trash-pickers after every newly noticed particular and never see the principles of which every particular is no more than an instance? AIDS comes along, and they need new programs, with funding. Cholesterol comes along, an old grandmother dieting in a nursing home comes along, oat bran comes along, cocaine comes along, abortion, toxic waste, the fractional latchkey family... Particulars are always infinite. And they all need programs, and funding. But in principle, such things are never new; they are all local appearances of the permanent and universal.
Algebra is a world of principle, and a dramatic revelation of the power of principle. In fact, algebra, and even algebra alone, could provide a true and sufficient education out of which to understand the worth of living by principle in a life beset by a never-ending succession of nasty particulars, and at the same time provident of joy and goodness and thoughtfulness.
Listen, Debbie, and be comforted. There is nothing wrong with your impatience and chagrin. Your very objection proves that you can see, if only from a great distance, an important truth. Algebra is a strange study indeed. It doesn't even exist, in the sense most ordinary to that word. There is no algebra out there; you will not find it under a rock or washed up on the beach. Never will a little child bring it to you, asking what it is. Algebra isn't even as "real" as a poem or a song, which can be picked up in the world even though the world could never make it.
Algebra has its dwelling place only in a mind. We can not even say, as we can of our power of language, that algebra exists in the mind. It can live only in a mind that creates it anew for itself. That's why I can't really teach you algebra, and why I am, as you seem to have figured out, a bit of a fraud. But I can no more create something in your mind than I can take off a few of your chubby pounds by watching my calories. I can show you some tricks, but you must do the teaching. And, no matter what they tell you in the slippery world of pliable convictions and values, you will have it in your mind that you can know something--truly know it, and not just believe it, or be informed of it--and maybe, since that is so, you can truly know something else. It's interesting to wonder what such a something else might be.
I think you should learn algebra, because I wish you well, as a teacher, even a bit of a fraud teacher, should, and not because I want you to solve algebra problems. You will find that algebra shows you some truths. The first great truth is that there can be something real, and complete, and harmonious, and even, in some strange way, absolutely perfect right in your own mind, and made by you alone. You will see that you have a wonderful freedom not mentioned in the Bill of Rights, the freedom to decide what your mind will contain and how it will work. You don't have to copy the rest of the world.
Algebra tells sad truths too. Where there is no balance, there is no truth. What is equal is equal, and between the equal and the unequal there is no conference table, no convenient compromise. In this terrible law there is a hinting question for all of life. Are there other things like that?
Algebra will show you the inexorable, the endless and permanent chain of consequence, the dark thread of necessity that brought you to a wrong answer because of a tiny little mistake back in the second line. How unfair that seems, and how scary that what seems unfair is nevertheless justice. Is life like that too, as all of nature seems to be? How then shall we live? What are the laws of the algebra of our living, and where do they exist, where created? Who can show us how to learn them.
No prudent teacher would ever say such things to Debbie, of course; she is probably not ready to listen. It takes some serious living to see the truth hidden in algebra. But if he doesn't know such things, and teach as though he knew them, he does well to leave at the end of the semester and go to Los Angeles.