Underground Grammarian
Volume Fourteen, Number Three
April, 1990

Timor Mortis in Academe

When Silber says back to basics, he means basics: We should begin by teaching children something that, in earlier times, reality taught them through the deaths of siblings and elders: They are going to die. Sound education depends on this contact with reality.
George Will

He alone is wise, who has pondered the end of all things,--which is also the beginning of all things.
Thomas Aquinas

John Silber is known to many in the school game as Long John Silber, which tells us more about the reading skills of school people than it does about Silber, who is as unlike that one-legged piratical dissembler as a man can be. Whatever else he may be, John Silber is neither a hypocrite nor a con-artist. He speaks plain. He is neither politic nor cautious, and not even the slightest bit obtuse. And he is, as you see, able to astound and not fearful of giving offense. It follows, therefore, that he will fail to win nomination as Democratic candidate for the governor of Massachusetts, which he now seeks, and will have to remain president of Boston University. Too bad. It has long been the intent of the educationists to make of government schooling a preparation for life. We have often argued the case for education as preparation against life, a strong defense against the random and the irrational, a rudder against the swirling currents of desires and passions. And Silber is in good company--the very best, in fact--when he holds, as we are sure he does, that the best education is a preparation for death. It follows, therefore, that he will fail to win large numbers of adherents among the school people, who fear death more than dishonor and asbestos more than asininity, and who share, and ardently promulgate, the currently popular belief that there is nothing more important than to live as long as possible, and that the goodness of the good life can be measured in birthdays. Too bad.

Death is not trivial. It is mysterious and solemn. Mystery and solemnity, like wonder and awe, reverence and joy, and even respect and honor, are things not provided by curricular guidelines, and it is their absence that makes of schooling the empty experience that it usually is. On the other hand, their presence would make of schooling strong stuff, as full of pain as of pleasure. If you want truly to educate a child, you could do no better than to take Silbers words and go from there. But you had better be brave. Such an education is not for cowards.

The divinities of Olympus, unlike the deities of later cults, never pronounced themselves lovers of humanity. They had their favorites, of course, but in general they seem to have looked on us as pests and miscreants. When Zeus finally made Demeter return to her proper work of bringing forth nourishment, it was not to feed us, but only to provide us with what was needed to make the sacrifices, and to send up nourishing smoke to the gods. And when we look at the lives of those divinities, we can easily divine the cause of their dislike, which might better be called resentment. The immortals led very dull and empty lives. They ate and drank, they cared for their little patches, they slept around, they carried on vendettas, they stirred up wars among humans, and they thought up elegantly literary punishments for mortals who displeased them. When they had done all those things, they did them again. And again. Forever. This it is that, although we think to tell stories of the immortals, they do not truly live stories, as we can. Theirs is a life that only a thoughtless clod would want to live. It has no shape, no theme; it has no promise of growth or change, either for better or for worse. If the gods despise us, it is out of envy. We can do the one thing they can not do. We can tell, and live, our own stories, beginning, middle, and end. Our lives have frames. Within those frames, we can construct forms. A human life can mean something. It can also mean nothing. The gods are what they are, they can live for ever, but they can not become. Education can be usefully thought of as the art of becoming, which is also the art of story-telling in the heart. What they say now, we don't know, but the Anglicans used to pray for protection against battle, murder, and sudden death for the simple and good reason that such misfortunes can ruin a good story. This is the question that life puts to every child, and that any sane education should put as well: Who will tell your tale?

The tale of the idiot is not truly told by the idiot. It is told by the world, by accident, by nature and nurture, the usurpers out there, and by passion and desire, the usurpers within. When pushed from the left, the idiot veers right; from the right, left. The idiot lives as everyone must live, in obedience to some principles. In the idiot's case, though, these principles are invisible and involuntary, and unaccountably enforced, as though by the gods. The idiot is right, but not justified, as he thinks, when he claims to be a helpless victim of circumstances, more to be pitied than censured. That very claim is a fetter, which, in other circumstances, he might have stricken off. Those other circumstances are the whole of true education.

Such seems to be the nature of us all, that had we world enough and time without the certainty of death, we would see no reason to get ourselves together and tell our tales like sane and responsible authors, mindful of harmony and balance, of the permanent marriage of deed and consequence, of justice and injustice, and of that great and insoluble puzzle of freedom and necessity. It is only because Death will surely close the book that we scribble in it at all.

Well, we will try to be as blunt as Silber. This is the question put to every child: Just how long do you suppose you have to tell a sensible and serious tale? Have you perhaps been conned by your teachers into believing that if only you will watch your cholesterol and discover which brand of bran to eat you might, you just might, live forever? This is not a rehearsal, you know; even right here and now in the third grade, this is your life, your one and only real life. And it is passing, disappearing forever right before your innocent little eyes. So what do you plan to do about it, and when will you get at it?

Not long ago you all remember some little children playing in the schoolyard were shot to death by an idiot, an idiot like any other idiot, except in particularly hideous detail, living by principles engendered in him by desires and passions, a helpless victim, no doubt, of nature and nurture. Thereafter, the survivors of the firestorm were assailed by crews of counsellors, professionals of something or other. We wonder--oh how we do wonder--exactly what counsel those professional counsellors gave.

We won't denigrate them; we are sure they did the best they could, offering something beyond better luck in heaven, on the one hand, and life is a bitch on the other. But we suspect that no counsellor advised the children to give some thought to the shaping of their lives, lest death take them when they have him least in mind. We might all be surprised at how seriously children, even little ones, would take that.

Death is not a problem to be solved. That is what makes it so fascinating, and makes it also a central consideration in all of our literature. Every hero from Gilgamesh to Batman fights with death and with death's other forms--dissolution and nothingness, meaninglessness and darkness. Every thinker thinks of the end, and wonders about the beginning. And all the same is true of every single child, still fresh from the cradle end lessly rocking. Just ask one.

And that is as it should be, for the contemplation of death, which will never solve the problem of death, is the natural source of all of our attempts to put into our lives some meaning, some theme, even some plot. All seriousness taunts death.

To prepare for a life of productive work, as much comfort as possible, and the ability to compete with the Japanese for the sake of the gross national product, may indeed be a useful and important undertaking, but it is not serious. And from where death watches, it is just silly. As to that, the children obviously agree with death. It does them credit. But the school people are so afraid of considering death that they won't even let Jack kill the giant, and never will they do anything serious in school. There ought to be a law: On every teacher's desk, a skull. On every blackboard, an inscription, "Maybe Tomorrow." Let students and teachers behold and consider how they should live this day. And the NEA would go to court to have the examined life declared unconstitutional.


The Underground Grammarian is published by Richard Mitchell, Glassboro, New Jersey 08028