In my institution I have been sharply critical of the public relations attempts at self-justification and self-elevation in the interest of the community’s largess, the larger grants of public money to support a larger and larger institution. I have been particularly critical of my school’s official insistence that its primary concern is with “new knowledge,” a phrase I quote from our “Red Book,” the official rules used to examine faculty for promotion. The effect of such a provincial understanding of knowledge has been an emphasis upon publication by our faculty and pressure for “innovation” in its teaching.
The fundamental necessity of knowing what men have said of this idea or this fact is either ignored or rejected by such a prescription for a university’s relation to community. In the pressure that results, the faculty member struggles to survive by being innovative and original. He contributes to the flood of “research” that even large libraries equipped with the latest technology can no longer keep up with. Little wonder that a faculty member, whose own contribution is supposed to be made in the light of what has already been done, cannot know whether he has made an original contribution to “new” knowledge or not.
A colleague in philosophy tells me of a system designed in answer to these pressures for new knowledge, most difficult to discover in philosophy of all sciences. One submits his paper to a board of referees. If the paper is accepted, he is notified, and the paper is filed away. He has an official tide of a “refereed” paper to add to his vita toward that fateful occasion when promotion is decided. But even under this system, he will have had a larger readership than many published pieces enjoy. I have seen a study that reports the number of readers of a published chemistry paper as 1.5. In chemistry, the number of research publications is so multitudinous that it has become impossible to know the extent of duplication in the field. The expected savior, the computer does what it can for those genuinely interested in the undetected duplications, but, for the most part, the illusion of a multiplication of new knowledge by faculty is maintained without question.
My criticism of the “publish or perish syndrome” baffles my antagonists, since I myself have published rather extensively and sometimes see evidence that I have as high as 2.5, even three readers, now that my children are older. I do not, of course, object to the publication of research papers or scholarly examination of the thought of Descartes or Heidegger. I applaud genuine “new knowledge,” even as I remain confident that it is extremely rare in any academic field. My objection is to the perversion of words, and through them of minds, by forced publication. This mechanistic and statistical distortion of legitimate ends when applied to the young scholars, whereby they survive at what is an economic more than an intellectual level. Promotion committees depend largely upon the number of published pages, despite protests to the contrary, and upon a received opinion on the current prestige of the periodicals in which these pages appear. The validity of the words published receives little or no attention in the counsels of committee. Whether the words bear false witness or not gets lost in the procedural mechanisms.
What is more disturbing, because of its influence on intellectual health, is the effect upon the would-be teachers whose survival is determined at a Darwinian level. That many bear false witness is inevitable, even should witnessing count. Nor do I necessarily impute deliberate intellectual subversion, though young professors are like the rest of us—human and so capable of willful distortion. Intentionally or not, they put the word at risk. Very often a prematurity of mind results in the wrong use of words. It is with that recognition in mind that a colleague of mine, reflecting on the flood of academic publications, remarked that here, too, are “children having children.”
These are certainly analogies between the biological and intellectual levels of community, in both of which the gifts of being are no longer generally valued. If pornography is viewed as a factor in the rate of teenage pregnancy and perhaps even in the violence of ordinary social affairs, surely it has tacit approval when community authority dissolves. There is, I suggest, a parallel pornographic industry in the undisciplined use of words, in this instance actually encouraged by academic authority.
New knowledge reveals its validity in the light of old knowledge held by an active mind. That mind casts a light backward to meet a light of mind cast forward by old knowledge, feeding the infant flame—the active mind—in the surrounding intellectual night. And any mind in any age is always struggling in that night. There is a symbiotic relation between old and new knowledge, lifting and feeding and bearing the growing intellect. In this respect we might say that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The discrete intellectual body—this particular mind—is enlarged, advancing beyond itself But see how easily one uses the wrong word? “Advancing beyond” has tempted me to imply an intellectual race, rather than a fulfillment of the mind’s dance in creation. It is exactly such wavering in the academic authority which casts “new knowledge” in the role of programming an endless assembly line in the name of Progress. Thus academic authority invests “originality” with a glamor and value beyond its merits through an obsession with “new knowledge.” That assembly line, in the daily round of community life, is a ratification of acceptable signs—the concrete consumer products. This is the world which we pretend to believe, with the help of a very active advertising industry, a crystal palace all compact of roses and the morning. But our restlessness gives advertising’s “poetry” the lie, though its poetry is a far more demonic sort than Plato imagined. For it is, with deliberateness to deceive, an imitation of a decreed illusion, and not even a shadow of a shadow.
The structure of community is not that of an infinite collocation of shelves among which we wander, supplied by that factory we call the academy, with its “new knowledge.” Current pressures upon the academy would make it precisely and only this. But our restlessness suggests that life itself is not an action of desperate pursuit of illusions posited as reality, to be encountered as we turn into the next aisle. The perfect machine with its attendant warehouse and outlets is not a suitable symbol for either personhood or community, though such a symbol has its effective uses in the control of persons and communities by the lords of power.
We may discover the truth about such illusions, only if we can determine the validity of new knowledge about the truth of things. That is why it is crucial to recover what Dorothy Sayers calls the “Lost Tools of Learning.” It is obvious that tools are needed so that we may excavate the site where community collapsed, burying its mind. What is needed is a recovery of known but forgotten truths. In a philosophy department, the teacher who knows what men have said of virtue and all its complexities is far more important to the intellectual health of the student than one who labors at situation ethics from an ad hoc present, thereby encouraging his student to regard his own whims and twitches of mind as sound thought. This is a specific instance of intellectual pornography very popular in the academy for a number of years now. But it is only that professor who knows old virtues, who knows what men have said of virtue since saying began, who can see clearly the possible truth or probable falseness in situation ethics. The adolescent intellectual, whether full professor or freshman, is at last capable only of thought at an adolescent level. In one way or another he will be one of those “children having children,” most of which offspring are destined to perish in the righteousness of time.
Old knowledge, depending upon our familiarity with it, will be dismissed as cliche, especially if we let old things pass, like Chaucer’s fat monk, who was given to the new world about him, of fine horses and fat roasted swans. But there are cliches and cliches. Once upon a time I spent much energy trying to demonstrate the meaning of cliche to my freshman theme writers. In our text, a Thanksgiving “groaning table” was said to be improperly described because the metaphor was worn out. But my freshmen had never encountered “groaning board” before. It was as fresh to them as any other poetic device, poetry having been largely killed in them. A metaphor appears worn out only after we have encountered it too often, like the “long moment,” so misused in hundreds of short stories and novels.
In my attempt to rescue cliche, I have no brief for “groaning table” or “a long moment,” though they might be effective as satire or irony. What I would have us do, however, is to recognize and distinguish among so-called cliches. Some are not only valid but crucial, however much used and abused. What is more worn than “two plus two equals four”? The phrase E=MC2 is also rapidly becoming tedious. The grammar of knowledge—old or new—is by its nature inevitably cliche since it formulates an elementary ground which we must share in order to encounter the truth of things. It is only when such elementary formulation may be assumed in our conversation that we are free to move beyond the seeming deadness of grammar, the weariness of the elementary. And the desire to move beyond the elementary itself requires our constant reexamination of the grammar of our conversation, since we so easily mistake or confuse that ground. If we fail to be committed to the elementary, we will find ourselves as community in a panic moment such as the current one. Our cry will be, “back to the basics.”
The elementary ground, the grammar of knowledge, which we are likely to condescend to insofar as we take ourselves to be sophisticated, is more tolerable to the very young. For them, all the world is new, including very old words with buried histories. The literal surface of “Little Jack Horner” is a portrait of a seemingly inoffensive little fellow, quietly feasting. He is safe, just beyond the adult world, in which he would not be tolerated to fish in his plum pie. The story is quietly seductive in its music and in the teasing rhyme, and in the situation itself As we grow older, we begin to wonder why Jack is in the corner and just what beyond the literal fruit may be meant by “plum,” since there is little reason for self-congratulation in finding a plum in a plum pie. Thus we may later rescue, or rationalize, our childhood delight by finding possible historical implications. It has been suggested, for instance, that the name is a historical one; Thomas Horner, stewart to Abbot Richard Whiting at Glastonbury Cathedral, was sent to Henry VIII with a pie in which was secreted deeds to 12 manorial estates. Horner, the tale says, took out the deed to the Manor of Mells, where his family has lived ever since. Abbot Whiting, with Horner on the jury, was convicted of hiding sacramental cups from the King’s greed and was hanged, beheaded, and quartered. Or so claims Baring-Gould in his Annotated Mother Goose. Our child’s delight advances to adult delight: The irony that Horner sat on the Abbot’s jury seems less history than art; the historical date seems off, more likely to have been in the reign of Henry’s father (Henry VII) than that of his more colorful son. There seems to have been some tampering. Here is a play in the making, caught in a nursery music with teasing overtone. That elementary ground to the basics of education, the grammar of knowledge, is here. Or consider the music of “Hickety pickety, my black hen,” in itself an immediate delight; but it is a larger preparation as well, we discover, when we happen at last upon something like A.E. Robinson’s line “Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn.” The line echoes in its syncopation that older music out of the childhood of our language, out of the time of the Tudors; it becomes an effective signal that Robinson’s whole poem is built out of cliches. In mimicking Miniver’s arrested development, his refusal to accommodate old and new knowledge, Robinson makes a commentary on our humanity that enters the rational mind through the imaginative mind. Our response to Robinson, then, is a stage in our education that has been underway long before we encounter the poem itself.
Education in its preliminaries, then, is the labor of acquiring necessary cliches. In its advanced concerns, education is the assaying of cliche. For the cliche is a common coinage whose true value is obscured by the residue of frequent handling and abuse. All language suffers such wear and distortion. But the mystery of language is that the validity of words, insofar as they are precisely oriented to reality, are never absolutely destroyed by use and abuse. A word may be mistaken and so mis-spent because not fully assayed. It will nevertheless carry within it what it has to say about the truth of things. Aside from its intrinsic value, of course, a word may pass as coinage of quite another value, through general assent. Thus, if I should suddenly proclaim the virtue of prejudice, given the present surfaces of the words as we spend it most recklessly, I would ruffle sophisticated feathers. Then I should have to explain, by recourse to the depths of the word, that it involves prejudgment and that we live our lives out of acts of prejudice that are perfectly justified by judgment. It is such prejudice that makes me drive on the right side of the road or cross under a green light. It is such prejudice that makes it possible for me to set aside worry as to whether the stairs will be there when we leave this place. It is such prejudice that makes me more or less confident of my bank account or of tomorrow’s sun. Without sound prejudice to depend upon, I should have to begin every moment of my conscious life as if there had been no moment of my life before this moment.
We use words, sometimes, at the face value they seem currently to have, not so much recognizing their value as recognizing the smudges given them by current transactions with them. Thus meanings accumulate in dictionary incarcerations of the word, bearing in such history the evidence of shifting prejudices, often evidence of a slippage between the signification and the signified. There is present, for instance, in the entry in the New English dictionary on the word imagination a complex history of our understanding of man’s place in the world and the role man plays as maker in the world, from the medieval understanding of the thing signified by the term imagination down to our own uses of this much worn coin. In freeing such a word from its present limits, seeing its full life in relation to mind, we discover in that word a more fascinating complexity, though much more may be revealed to us than we are prepared to accept. This is to say that we grow out of ignorance, out of adolescence of mind, sometimes in proportion to our exploration of old knowledge, our recovery of subsurfaces in the cliches we so randomly spend. Let me illustrate the point by personal witness.
When I have 30 sophomores in a literary survey course write a paper comparing the opening lines of Sidney Lanier’s “Marshes of Glynn” with the opening lines of Poe’s “Ulalume,” my primary purpose is to make sure each one understands what is meant by “imagery” in relation to words. I do so with the knowledge of experience which tells me that imagery is a green term to them, though they have heard it spoken of It is in some respects an attempt as futile as convincing them that “groaning table” is a cliche, though it is a far more necessary task in its consequences to the growth of their minds. I am always arrested by the consequences of exercise. First off, there is a vocabulary common to a given class, out of their immediate encounter with the world which differs from mine, though we are in the world at a coincident time. Theirs includes, for instance, the latest pop music and movies and television shows. Just as there is a common popularity in the naming of infants, influenced by current fascinations (read the birth announcements in the “Family Section” of the Sunday paper), so is there a more general vocabulary among those babies as they come into their language. We have come through the Shirleys and Scarlets and Jennifers. Next semester’s roll will say what we have come to. But their papers will no doubt still be full of “in my opinions,” our moment of history having so heavily emphasized as if a fundamental truth that, in a society of the autonomous (as opposed to a community of the dependent), every mind’s opinion has the same validity as any other mind’s.
What I then go on to point out to my students is that, though they use much the same vocabulary and are restricted by the assignment to examine precisely the same two texts, each of the 30-odd papers is unique. Each is, more or less precisely, a revelation of the mind using those common words. Short of plagiarism, no two papers are the same, though the problem each addresses is the same and the evidence to solve it is the same. Nothing is likely to bring home the point that this range of difference reveals levels of personal accomplishment so much as to read aloud a good paper and a bad one. The conditions—the limits of the papers—are rather commonly perceived by the exercise itself Those students who accept one tennis player as superior to another, having accepted the lines of the court and the rules of play, sometimes begin to see that similar distinctions are possible even in intellectual “games.”
But what I am most concerned to reveal to the individual student is that, beyond these dissimilarities in native gifts of intellect and habits of diligence, there is a recognizable presence of his own mind in the paper. There he may begin to discover the limits of his own gift. Since those limits are not yet arrived at, within the recognition lies incentive and direction to a development, insofar as he will take up the point. Incidentally, he notices a conspicuous dissimilarity in the imagery used by Poe and by Lanier. He sees a common world separately taken through a common language by the two minds. He begins to discover the presence of a distinctly discrete mind in common language. And at last, if grace allow, he begins to discover a collocation of several minds in the words he takes to be his very own as he writes his name and date on the paper in expectation of my judgment of him. There really is, then, a community of minds within the words he has set down, though he has set them down in such a way that they are as distinctly his words as the handwriting is distinctly his.
We go on from there to talk about the particular presence of Poe in his words, of Lanier in his. We may discover, by the end of the course, that having read a poem identified as by Robert Frost, one may take up an anonymous poem and discover it also written by Frost, or by someone imitating Frost. Individual papers identifying accurately Frost as the poet of the anonymous poem nevertheless vary considerably in the authority with which each student shows the point, a consideration which makes professional judgment a requirement. One does at last have to say that this is an A paper and this is a C paper, even though each paper may have named the right poet. For, in addition to the fundamental concern of leading each mind to occupy its potential with authority, students’ authority differs in degree as does teachers’ authority. As some poems are better than others, though all are poems, some minds are better than others, though all are minds. Both the teacher and the student have a double responsibility: to the individual mind in its potential; to the community mind in its necessities. What is confusing, given our world’s distortions of both judgment and the ends suitable to intellect, is a mistaking of moral judgment as implied in the student’s A or C, a point I shall return to.
Out of such exercise the point will have been made that mind is responsible both to and for words—it leaves marks on the words it uses for good or ill. In judging and in signing one’s judgment, the only moral danger to the student lies in his not discovering and accepting and working with the gifts that make him a discrete person. It is not easy to bring a student to celebrate his C in these days, when most have unexamined A’s and B’s, anymore than it is easy to be certain beyond hesitation that one’s own judgment as teacher in these matters is valid. One professes with a constantly justified—that is, reexamined—authority, but one must profess. And the inescapable ground of profession is a confidence that words well spent reveal the educated mind: that is, an active mind engaging active minds is the context of any labor suitably called “education.”
The importance of such student exercises in my view, then, is to make clear to the growing student mind the importance of seeing and identifying and judging the various fingerprints that cling to this coin of the realm, that cling to words. To do so is to discover the multiplying presences that gather in words, the minds in one’s words as potentially infinite as angels on a pin head. For here we are on the border of a mystery in words: In the words lies the focus of community, a community independent of time and inhabiting the house of language. In words are such presences that in a very real and not fanciful way we become members of a company of minds. And here I mean company, not in its commercial sense, but in that sense we mean when we announce to our household, “company is coming.” There follows from such an announcement a cleaning and ordering of the house so that we may receive that company. That is what significant education must be most concerned with, the cleaning and ordering of the head and heart, into which place may come a various company indeed. Homer and Plato; Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein; the Saturday politician and the Sunday priest. The list of invited and uninvited guests goes on and on. Among the marvels is that any invited guest happily attends. The danger is that uninvited guests may. And in a disorderly house, the disorderly guest is safest from detection.
In either instance, then, the authority is, and it should properly be, that of the host or hostess of heart and mind, the particular consciousness issuing invitations or leaving the door ajar for the surreptitious interloper. If we, through neglect of our own house, make it equally available to whatever guest would enter, many strange and curious presences will attend, some settling down to a parasitic existence which if unnoticed and uncorrected may eventually dislodge the host. For though ideas have consequences and enter mind through words and are sent forth from the mind in words to wander in the world, those consequences may be either good or bad. For there are bad and good ideas no less than good and bad intentions. The consequences are upon the life of the individual mind and subsequently upon the community of mind. Even welcomed guests may bring unwelcomed ideas into the mind. That is a point I make by caveat against Plato’s argument of the inevitable good to the particular soul from its education, and it returns us to our confusion of a well-ordered intellect as certifying moral virtue. The enlightened mind, our Plato seems to believe, must be consequently a good mind, and evil a matter of ignorance rather than of willfulness.
That is why, in resisting that idealistic view of the mind and its education, I have insisted that an educator can only teach what seems known about the truth of things; what men have said of virtue one may teach, but it will not follow that the student will therefore become virtuous, even when he makes an A in the course. As each citizen of community must be responsible for his peculiar gifts so that he may become an ordinate member of community, so—and even more so, in the nature of his gifts—must the student be responsible for the ordering of mind and heart; he must be, so that he may receive wisely and well those guests both invited and uninvited who are eager and more than eager to attend him. Education is the preparing of the mind for the presence of our common inheritance, the accumulated and accumulating knowledge of the truth of things. Each according to his gifts, but each with a responsibility for those gifts. It is from this point of understanding of the means of education that one may the more ordinately embark in a final journey to ends, into the country of moral concern.