Philosopher’s Holiday

A book by that title starts with a story much like that of the doctor who gets button-holed at parties with questions about vague aches and pains. In this case, when the party-goers find out the author is a philosopher, they proffer him their magnum opus. He winds up preferring it were a magnum of champagne, for the reading is less than stunning.
Here a man has started a successful business, has seen many people come and go, has raised children, worked in his church, and has seen the country change over a few decades. He truly believes he has something to offer. What he delivers is an eighth grade essay of around 500 words, 100 of which are cliches. He just runs out of steam really fast.
That’s what I am afraid will happen in my little essay here. A tiny group of Latin-list members plus a friend of mine began exchanging private e-mails on the topic of testing. We had spoken before about forming our own little listserv, just to avoid the distracting queries like, “Well, how do they learn the language unless you have them memorize the case endings?” One member had actually done so, very successfully, several years earlier. Nevertheless, we were so comfortable being able to spin off into tangential areas of discussion without having to duck annoying brickbats that a thread just among us got started.
As per usual, my thoughts went back over the years that I have seen the country change. I wrote about the triumph of the number crunchers (the blog entry is titled A Reaction to Several Posts Re Education & Testing). It got me to thinking about what I see as the trends over the last 6 decades as they touch on education.
Of outstanding eminence is behaviorism. This is a theory of learning. While there were always competing theories and behaviorism has declined greatly over the four decades since its heyday, the aggressiveness of behaviorists was such that it permeated education and general thinking. Who hasn’t used terms like reinforce, aversive, stimulus, positive, negative, and so on? More importantly, we now tend to think about learning and behavior in general in a behaviorist framework even if we don’t subscribe to an openly behaviorist approach to psychology.
Compare behavioral psychology to cognitive psychology. One example: when 5 out of the top 11 behaviorists were at AzSU in the 60s,  the library had to take psychology books designated (approved of) by the psychology department and recatalogue them into the science section. Next time I go over there, I’ll check at Noble Science Library to see if it stll has psychology books there. Normally, psychology would be in the social sciences (300s, I think). The ASU psychology department eventually lost its accreditation b/c it was so one-sided in its instruction and so blatantly discriminatory in its treatment of persons wanting to work outside the behaviorist framework.
I hope someone will check my facts for me; the aforementioned events at ASU were told to me by people involved in the processes. I was an anthropology major and that department was taken over by behaviorists when I was there. What I sensed was the same thing I saw later as the Viet Nam war heated up: a total, exclusive reliance on data generated by so-called empiricism. So we need to take a look at what people call empiricism.
In my experience, in-depth knowledge was acquired through experience. The empiricism involved, learning through the senses, through observation, was that of the local actor, the involved entity, the participant-observer. It might have been a plantation manager on an island in the Pacific giving information to the military prior to a landing; it might have been a part-time sympathizer filling in intelligence operatives on local conditions affecting politics; it might be a crash-course in local customs and biases available for exploitation and manipulation of the populace (always to a good end, of course). That was the role of empiricism and it was opposed to the arm-chair philosophizing about “native peoples” and the role of the Great Powers and the civilizing mission they imposed on others. Embedded in it was a respect for local culture, a disease labeled “head” by the British, as in Japan head, i.e. a person who had learned the local culture well enough to be sympathetic to local needs and desires. They were useless then to the home country who had sent them as envoys with the express purpose of turning the host country to the needs of the home country.
As the U.S. took on more and more roles overseas, more and more information was pouring in and some way had to be found to make it useful, like the transformation of data into information. The information coming in could be called “data” and it had to be turned into information. In order to do this, algorithms had to be found to apply to the data, i.e. patterns had to be found and laid over other patterns to form the basis for action and for policy.
Mathematicians entered the picture early on, partly b/c of the need of algorithms and partly b/c of the early success of computers. I remember a time when most of us thought that in order to use a computer, you had to be a math whiz, so close was the link between computers and mathematics. Pride of place was given to math and numbers.
I recall my surprise to find that the Navy was funding research into Black English. My guess is that this was the heyday of military/security/intelligence funding for all sorts of things, incl bizarre psychological experiments reminiscent of the Manchurian candidate. Universities became tied into the military-industrial complex and the corporate world through funding. Black English research may have been benign, finding ways to train Black sailors, or less so, wanting to understand better the “lingo” of Black ghetto revolutionaries.
At this point, I’m probably getting into areas that ring a bell with people my age: the campus protests of military recruiting, yes, but also of military and CIA funding of campus research. Professors were supposed to be helping us understand the Vietnamese, not kill them more efficiently. That was felt to be some sort of betrayal of the academic oath. Those battles are still with us.
Therefore, it is no wonder that educators began more and more to find themselves called upon to justify their financing and display their planning in the same way government entities and corporate endeavors had to: through crunching numbers. Anything else was labeled “soft” or “fuzzy”. Over time, as people grew up in schools dominated by this thinking, getting outside of it got riskier and riskier. Lots of people did, but they got labeled New Age, Airy Fairy, Fuzzy-Headed, Hippy-Dippy, and so on. In truth, a lot of “far out” thinking did make it into print and into other media and still does. Here’s what happens:
Last week and the week before I read two articles in the NYT on education. Both articles characterized not “data-driven” approaches to education as extremes, as not based in reality, and did so by citing marginal and almost non-existent scenarios. In one, people who questioned the plethora of tests and asked about their validity were deemed Chicken Littles who believe that the sky will fall on children’s heads if they have to face a test. The same with this past week’s article on drills in which those questioning drills are depicted as believing only parents hell-bent on raising valedictorians praise rote learning.
More recently, observers have noted the polarization of our political discourse and point to similar tactics there. Conservatives are called fascists and Liberals are called socialists or communists. It is standard and few find fault with it, believing, it seems, in their heart of hearts that if you do not agree with them, then you must be beyond the pale and only political philosophies beyond the pale will explain your perfidy.
I just heard something on a video blog that resembled this tactic and I can’t remember now what it was. I need to jot these things down, good examples, I mean. I noticed McWhorter, one of the participants, used a couple of non-standard forms, which is his wont in his writing, as though challenging the grammar mavens to criticize him so he can slam them with the facts. His co-participant, Ben Zimmer of the NYT, started to say ’less’ something and switched to “fewer” with both him and McWhorter grinning at it. IMHO it was a case where fewer would definitely be called for in usual circumstances but here it was clear Zimmer was thinking of the items as a mass.
Mavens don’t want to talk about this b/c it might dilute their outrage and righteous indignation, which is what gives them their authority. The average person thinks that if someone is THAT outraged, they must really know a lot about it, when in fact mavens rarely know much about language. The blog response to the discussion between Zimmer and McWhorter showed that. One person named Florian just kept at it and kept at it with this unassailable belief in his own superiority. It was pitiful.
Many others on this blog spoke with Great Authority due to their age on how people spoke during the 50s and 60s, as if no one else on the blog was older than 30. I was 10 years older than the “old guy” on the blog who assured everyone that people did not use contractions, etc. and who regaled his audience with nonsensical tidbits about ’the old days’ just like so many old timers around the cracker barrel.
Between this crap and the political atmosphere where people speak of dabbling in witchcraft as a teenager as ’normal’ and think they should be able to watch evolution as species change before their eyes as the only validation for the theory, the attractions of Norwegian and Urdu grow, not to mention some of Comrie’s books on linguistics and Stella Artois. A good cup of coffee in the morning or a B&B at night with a good linguistics book on the lap or chest….. that is the Holy Grail. These idiots be damned.
I have more to say, but probably after the AZLA conference this week end. John DeMado is our keynote speaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *