Educational Policy

Attitudes vary towards the existence of tricky phenomena like language-ability, or pattern-recognition, or gravity. `I've got enough to worry about as it is, what with all these neolithic upstarts poaching my mammoths.' Or: `God made it, or Nature. To ask how is presumptuous. Refusal to admit this will be dealt with by the theocratic establishment.'

Or: `Suppose I could think of a way of breaking the problem into sub-problems A and B, such that if we take B to remain as problematic as ever, we could imagine how A might in principle have been achieved. Even if we had to take as given very nearly the whole of the original problem, it would still be a kind of compliment to God, or Nature, for having achieved the same result with (slightly) more economical means; and none the worse for being at the same time a kind of compliment to our own ingeniousness in working out the possibility.'

One such precedent can become a permanent challenge to shift a further fragment from the domain of the impenetrable to the domain of the simulable. But along the way this slope becomes slippery. and there are cries of 'Enough! or nothing will be left for Nature, or God.' So for Newton hardness is just a property of matter. But Gravity ? Holà!

If the problem is unsliceable it is not a problem but a mystery, a.k.a. a waste of investigative time. Refusal to admit this is hubris, and will be dealt with by the academic establishment.

Yet someone must waste time on lookout duty, to catch the solution when it comes. In fact we might need a whole corps of these layabouts -- how many, it is for the Maker of Educational Policy to decide. Fortunately there is a supply of people who think they have a vocation for this sort of thing, and don't expect to be paid in folding money.

Education/Training (E/T)

T is about responding to foreseen, E, to unforeseen situations.

T improves by:

Proposals for improvement should specify (more often than they do) which of these areas they bear on.

The first skill required is deciding whether a new situation is or is not sufficiently like one of the foreseen ones. The vagueness of `sufficiently like' means this skill cannot be a matter of T. It also means that mistakes on both sides of the line are to be expected.

The object of E is therapeutic:

In sum, E & T are definable only together -- though that way of putting it concedes too much to their separateness. Perhaps we need a single new verb, to ET. This might help us to move more freely between the superficially different situations of my ETing you, you ETing yourself, you letting those experiences help you to ET others in your turn, all of us participating in the onward transmission of the sociETal.

If E and T are momentarily separate, it is only in the sense that each aspires to the condition of the other. E seeks greater rigour, T secretly doubts some of its own claims to rigour; both seek to hand over the baton.

I can protest that your curriculum should have more T, or more E; or that you convey the content of one of them in the style of the other; but stand condemned if I do so in quite general terms, and in a tone which claims self-evidentness.

J. S. Mill: "Modern education is all cram. The world already knows everything, and has only to tell it to its children, who, on their part, have only to hear, and lay it to rote (not to heart). Those who dislike what is taught, mostly dislike it not for being cram, but for being other people's cram, and not theirs."


There is something infantile, or infantilizing, in applying two-valued logic to daily life. The world-view it implies resembles that of magic, which also comes in Black or White only, enchantment or disenchantment. Which of each pair one chooses is hardly more than a matter of taste, a constitutional preference for the underdog or the top dog.

Those seeking to shift credal statements in the direction of two-edgedness should try to talk of `enrichment' rather than `qualification'. Qualifying a truth, for the Either/Or thinker, is synonymous with destroying it. And he's right, in the sense that the amount of disillusionment should never exceed the maximum yearly dose.


There was a longish wait, lexicographically speaking, between `plebification' (Coleridge 1818) and `élitism' (Riesman 1951). It takes a double effort to conceive how Coleridge can have seen élitism (though he didn't have the word) not only as desirable in itself but as somehow constitutive of a Christian state:

"Statesmen should know that a learned class is an essential element of a state -- at least of a Christian state. But you wish for general illumination! You begin with an attempt to popularize learning and philosophy; but you will end in the plebification of knowledge. A true philosophy in the learned class is essential to a true religious feeling in all classes."

Both sides, as usual, are reluctant to concede how much they need to concede to the other. The risk of popularization turning into plebification, or vulgarisation passing from haute to dumb, is unacceptable to Coleridge (though less so if he had the handling of it himself), and acceptable to the anti-Úlitist (though less so if he didn't have the handling of it himself).

Thomas Jefferson's plan for education: "By this means twenty of the best geniuses shall be raked from the rubbish annually."


A teacher-student encounter. One side seeks to `improve' the other, who doesn't mind being improved, so long as it doesn't involve being different. One side seeks to displace, the other has an inbuilt inertia. The resultant is something in between, which both sides settle for. It's difficult (as you see) to stop thinking of one side of this engagement as being somehow Nominative and the other Accusative.

But each side has come to the classroom as to a market. Both end up getting somewhat less than they'd hoped, renouncing a little more than they contemplated at the outset. In the ideal case, both parties discover in this act of renunciation which of their initial hopes were less non-negotiable than they had originally supposed; come to see this as an insight which neither could have achieved without the other; and so (overriding the adversarial terminology of `both parties') learn to abandon their all-too-reassuring Nominativeness or Accusativeness, as the case may be.

English as a second language

Walter Bagehot: "Lord Mansfield is said to have told Boswell that he did not feel, in reading either Hume or Adam Smith, that he was reading English at all; and it was very natural that it should be so. English was not the mother tongue of either. Adam Smith had, no doubt, spoken somewhat broad Scotch for the first fourteen or fifteen years of his life; probably he never spoke anything that could quite be called English till he went to Oxford. And nothing so much hampers the free use of the pen in any language as the incessant remembrance of a kindred but different one; you are never sure the idioms nature prompts are those of the tongue you would speak, or the tongue you would reject.

Hume and Adam Smith exemplify the difficulty in opposite ways. Hume is always idiomatic, but his idioms are constantly wrong; many of his best passages are, on that account, curiously grating and puzzling; you feel that they are very like what an Englishman would say, but yet that, after all, somehow or other, they are what he never would say;-- there is a minute seasoning of imperceptible difference which distracts your attention, and which you are for ever stopping to analyse. Adam Smith's habit was very different. His style is not colloquial in the least. He adheres to the heavy `book' English which he had found in the works of others, and was sure he could repeat on his own. And in that sort of style he has eminent merit. No one ever has to read him twice to gather his meaning; no one can bring much valid objection to his way of expressing that meaning; there is even a sort of appropriateness, though often of a clumsy sort, in his way of saying it. But the style has no intrinsic happiness; no one would read it for its own sake; the words do not cleave to their meaning, so that you cannot think of them without it, or of it without them. This is only given to those who write in the speech of their childhood, and only to the few of these -- the five or six in every generation -- who have from nature the best grace, who think by inborn feeling in words at once charming and accurate."

Hume: "Dear Doctor,

I am at present reduced to the utmost straits and difficulties. I know people are commonly ashamed to own such distresses. But to whom can one have recourse in his misfortunes, but to his friends? The occasion of my distress is as follows: You know that the word enough, or enuff , as it is pronounced by the English, we commonly, in Scotland, when it is applied to number, pronounce enow. Thus we would say: `such a one has books enow for study, but not leisure enuff.' Now I want to know, whether the English make the same distinction. I observed the distinction clearly in Lord Shaftesbury; `Though there be doors enow,' says he, `to get out of life;' and thinking that this distinction of spelling words, that had both different letters, and different pronunciation, was an improvement, I followed it in my learned productions, though I knew it was not usual. But there has lately arisen in me a doubt, that this is a mere Scotticism; and that the English always pronounce the word, as if it were written enuff , whether it applied to numbers or quantity. To you, therefore, I apply in this doubt and perplexity. Though I make no question that your ear is well purged from all native impurities, yet trust not entirely to it, but ask any of your English friends, that frequent good company, and let me know their opinion.

It is a rule of Vaugelas always to consult the ladies, rather than men, in all doubts of language; and he asserts, that they have a more delicate sense of the propriety of expressions. The same author advises us, if we desire any one's opinion in any grammatical difficulty, not to ask him directly; for that confounds his memory, and makes him forget the use, which is the true standard of language. The best way, says he, is to engage him as it were by accident, to employ the expression about which we are in doubt. Now, if you are provided of any expedient, for making the ladies pronounce the word enough, applied both to quantity and number, I beg you to employ it, and to observe carefully and attentively, whether they make any difference in the pronunciation. P.S. I am quite in earnest in desiring a solution of my grammatical doubt."


Originally the metaphor (with its attendants owl-light, cock-light, twitterlight, twilight) protected us, and perhaps was meant to protect us, from binary thinking. Nowadays, in towns where everything aspires to be `at the touch of a switch', the same metaphor implies that understanding differs from non-understanding as day from night. But there are always at least two stages. It is in the second of these that a Catalyser names the till-then-unacknowledged experiences some of the audience have already had. For those who have not yet had that feeling, the catalysing words are best forgotten, i. e. hidden in deepest memory until recalled by the experience that needs them. Pre-experiential explanations clog the eyes and ears.

B. P. Blood: "We assume that if the light were to go out, the show would be ended (and so it would); but we forget that if the darkness were to go out, that would be equally calamitous."

J. R. Lowell: "Before 1789 there was a delightful period of universal confidence, during which a belief in the perfectibility of man was insensibly merging into a conviction that he could be perfected by some formula of words, just as a man is knighted. He kneels down a simple man like ourselves, is told to rise up a Perfect Being, and rises accordingly. It certainly was a comfortable time."

Epistemology & the Political Row

Proust: "Certes, Bloch pensait que la vérité politique peut être approximativement reconstituée par les cerveaux les plus lucides, mais il s'imaginait, tout comme le gros du public, qu'elle habite toujours, indiscutable et matérielle, le dossier secret du président de la République et du président du Conseil lesquels en donnent connaissance aux ministres. Or, même quand la vérité politique comporte des documents, il est rare que ceux-ci aient plus que la valeur d'un cliché radioscopique où le vulgaire croit que la maladie du patient s'inscrit en toutes lettres, tandis qu'en fait, ce cliché fournit un simple élément d'appréciation qui se joindra à beaucoup d'autres sur lesquels s'appliquera le raisonnement du médecin et d'où il tirera son diagnostic. Aussi la vérité politique, quand on se rapproche des hommes renseignés et qu'on croit l'atteindre se dérobe. Même plus tard, et pour en rester à l'affaire Dreyfus, quand se produisit un fait aussi éclatant que l'aveu d'Henry, suivi de son suicide, ce fait fut aussitôt interpreté de façon opposée par des ministres dreyfusards, et par Cavaignac et Cuignet qui avaient eux-mêmes fait la découverte du faux et conduit l'interrogatoire; bien plus parmi les ministres dreyfusards eux-mêmes, et de même nuance, jugeant non seulement sur les mêmes pièces, mais dans le même esprit, le rôle d'Henry fut expliqué de façon entièrement opposée, les uns voyant en lui un complice d'Esterhazy, les autres assignant au contraire ce rôle à du Paty de Clam, se ralliant ainsi à une thèse de leur adversaire Cuignet et étant en complète opposition avec leur partisan Reinach."


Alexander Bain: "Every one who has taught science to boys, knows that if you give them a proposition neatly and shortly expressed in words, they learn these by heart, and give themselves no further trouble, unless they are compelled by cross-examination to realise the conceptions. Whenever a set of truths have been completely established, and perfectly expressed in accurate language, their tendency is to fade gradually in the vividness of their impression, till they disappear altogether from men's minds. Nothing can prevent this but a system of teaching in which the forms are perpetually varied, even supposing it should be for the worse."


Richard Feynman: "There is always another way to say the same thing that doesn't look like the way you said it before. I don't know what the reason for this is. I think it is somehow a representation of the simplicity of nature. Perhaps a thing is simple if you can describe it fully in several different ways without immediately knowing that you are describing the same thing."

T. H. Huxley: "...that inability to comprehend that the same facts may be accurately described in different ways, which is the special characteristic of the commentatorial mind."


Paul Goodman: "Fundamental theoretical errors are invariably characterological, the result of a neurotic failure of perception, feeling, or action. (This is obvious, for in any basic issue the evidence is, so to speak, `everywhere' and will be noticed unless one will not or cannot notice it.) A fundamental theoretical error is in an important sense given in the experience of the observer; he must in good faith make the erroneous judgment; and a merely `scientific' refutation by adducing contrary evidence is pointless, for he does not experience that evidence with its proper weight -- he does not see what you see, it slips his mind, it seems irrelevant, he explains it away, etc. Then the only useful method of argument is to bring into the picture the total context of the problem, including the conditions of experiencing it, the social milieu and the personal `defences' of the observer.

Then, our method is as follows: we show that in the observer's conditions of experience he must hold the opinion, and then, by the play of awareness on the limiting conditions, we allow for the emergence of a better judgment (in him and in ourselves). We are sensible that this is a development of the argument ad hominem, only much more offensive, for we not only call our opponent a rascal and therefore in error, but we charitably assist him to mend his ways! Yet by this unfair method of argument, we believe, we often do more justice to an opponent than is common in scientific polemic, for we realize from the start that a strong error is already a creative act and must be solving an important problem for the one who holds it."

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