Posts Tagged ‘mediocrity’

Democracy

Monday, March 5th, 2018

headland sky by Ian of Zo

Headlands and Sky photo by Ian of Zo

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.” Conan Doyle

In 1972 I was living in a twelve-person commune in Santa Cruz, part of the commune movement that sprung up spontaneously across America as the housing component of the cultural revolution known as the Sixties. And from 1968 to 1975, I was very excited to be part of that housing component and hopeful about the positive social, political, and cultural impact that widespread communal living could have on American society.

The first commune I lived in was an eight-person affair I started with a friend. I left after a year of frustration because my fellow communards were extremely reluctant to subsume their individual needs, even a little, for the betterment of the collective. We gave lip service to that idea, but aside from shared meals, it was largely every man or woman for him or her self.

So I was excited to join a commune with much more collectivity built into an operating system that quite effectively served twelve members and our many guests. I planted a huge vegetable garden and organized the eager volunteer gardeners, we shopped and cooked and cleaned collectively, and the entire group met once a week to discuss practical and emotional problems.

I felt there were a few duds in the dozen, but overall the communal living experience was economical, ecological, healthy, and emotionally satisfying. Four heterosexual couples and four singles, two straight, two gay, composed our twelve, and my only secret complaint was that most of my fellow communards were not particularly creative.

After a year and a half in that commune, my girlfriend and I were on the verge of breaking up, and our dyadic divide coincided with two members of the commune moving out, thus creating two vacancies to be filled through our well-established selection process. Our commune was famously successful in Santa Cruz, we were right on the beach, and we had dozens of people applying for those two spots on the roster.

Eventually we winnowed the applicant pool down to four finalists, three men and one woman. One of the men was Ted, twenty-five, boyishly handsome, charming, a fine musician and actor, a graduate student at the university, and one of the most brilliant, funny, interesting people I’d ever met. The other two men were boorish stoners and I was baffled every time either of them made the next cut. The woman, Tina, was twenty-four, a zealous gardener, poet, yogini, dancer, professional cook, and bright and funny.

I assumed we would immediately and unanimously elect Ted and Tina, and I was so excited about them joining the collective that I kicked off our final group discussion before we voted by extolling their many virtues and speaking of Ted wanting to host a Drama night and Tina wanting to help me expand the garden and lead a daily yoga session.

To my horror, only one of the five women in our commune voted for Tina, and only one other man joined me in voting for Ted. All the women voted for Ted, and all the men voted for Tina, but since eight votes were required to win a place in the commune, Ted and Tina were not invited to join, while the two boorish stoners got the nod. Two weeks later, I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out of town.

But before I moved away, I spoke privately to each of the men who voted against Ted, and I spoke privately to each of the women who voted against Tina; and I asked them why they voted against such wonderful people and for such boorish dopes?

Three of the women admitted to being threatened by Tina’s charm and talent, and especially by how much the men liked her. One of the women said she felt Tina was too good to be true and didn’t trust her. One of the men said Ted was “hyper”, another of the men said Ted was “too intellectual”, and the third male dissenter said he was intimidated by Ted’s talent and by his girlfriend’s attraction to Ted.

Thinking about that turning point in my life—I might have written a hit song with Ted and married Tina and had three kids and moved to Denmark—I am reminded of when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore. In a large national poll conducted a month before the election, seven out of ten American men said they would rather have a beer and hang out with George than with Al, and in that election 75% of all male voters, Democrats and Republicans, voted for George, and 75% of all female voters voted for Al.

And that reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Blazing Saddles when Gene Wilder is explaining to Cleavon Little why the townsfolk won’t accept an African American as their sheriff.

“What did you expect?” says Gene to Cleavon. “A welcome sign? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You’ve got to remember these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons.”

And that reminds me of a recent and shocking study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center that found only 8% of high school seniors across America today identify slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, while 57% say tax protests caused the Civil War. How can this be? And isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon exists throughout the United States, not in isolated areas of the former Confederacy.

I am often chided by friends for being a conspiracy theorist, so I will not elucidate my theory about how and why one of the most important historical facts in American history is not properly taught in our schools. I will say that this monstrous educational lapse cannot, in my opinion, be accidental. Who would be best served by misleading entire generations of Americans about the cause of the Civil War?

And that reminds me of when I watched Jimmy Carter debate Ronald Reagan prior to the 1980 Presidential election, the last Presidential debate I ever watched. I howled with delight as Jimmy made a fool of Ronald at every turn in the debate, and I danced out of my house overjoyed that Jimmy would soon be re-elected, only to read the next day that multiple polls revealed well over 90% of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, felt Ronald easily won the debate.

Which is why, conspiracy theories aside, it didn’t surprise me even a little bit when Donald Trump was elected President of these United States.

Nonsense

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

andmischief

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their son Mischief painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2014)

“Nonsense wakes up the brain cells. And it helps develop a sense of humor, which is awfully important in this day and age. Humor has a tremendous place in this sordid world. It’s more than just a matter of laughing. If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.” Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

The most successful music of the last twenty years is music that garnered the most views of videos in which that music served as background. The music business is now a wholly subsumed subsidiary of the video business. Original melodies have become so rare in this era of image-conveyed quasi-musical rhythm tracks, that melody, in commercial terms, is essentially irrelevant. Indeed, commercially speaking, to bring out a new album of tunes today without simultaneously bringing out several titillating videos accompanied by those tunes is almost unheard of.

“Where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing.” William Shakespeare

According to new research by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the richest one-hundredth of one percent of Americans now hold eleven per cent of the nation’s total wealth. That is a higher share than the top .01 percent held in 1929, just prior to the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. And keep in mind we are speaking of the reported wealth of the top .01 percent, which is very likely a small fraction of the wealth they have secreted offshore.Put another way, 16,000 people are worth 110 million dollars each. That is to say, each of those 16,000 people is worth 110 million dollars, which is 1200 times wealthier than the average American.

“Forgive me my nonsense, as I also forgive the nonsense of those that think they talk sense.” Robert Frost

Have you mailed anything through the Post Office recently? Quixotic is the kindest adjective I can muster to describe the reliability of postal service since the forces of privatization in Congress began their vicious attack on what was once a strong and reliable component of our social fabric. This is the time of year when I mail packages hither and yon to those daring darlings who purchase my books and music directly from me, and packages sent Media Mail today take many days longer to reach their destinations than packages sent to those same places a year ago. Rates have increased dramatically, dozens of postal hubs have been closed, and thousands of postal employees let go, supposedly to save the system while in effect destroying it.

Several of my customers now insist I use UPS or Fed X to ship their goodies despite the higher costs because they no longer trust the post office to deliver their packages safe and sound and in good time. This is precisely what those Cruel People With Small Brains hoped would happen when they began their scurrilous attack on our beloved PO, a fundamental social service for the majority of Americans that Congress says America can no longer afford to subsidize.

Last week, however, the President of the United States announced he was sending 1500 more troops to help fight the Islamist army in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS, at an initial cost of seven billion dollars. That seven billion is, of course, in addition to the hundreds of billions the United States annually contributes to the coffers of corporations and client states messing around in the quagmire created by American foreign policy in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan.

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Carl Jung

Twenty-five-year-old Giancarlo Stanton just signed a 325-million-dollar contract to continue playing baseball for the Miami Marlins. That may seem like a great deal of money, but the contract is for thirteen years, which comes to only 25 million a year. A paltry sum. Assuming Giancarlo pays a little income tax (perhaps an erroneous assumption) and his agents and managers take their cuts, and he spends some of the money on this and that over the years, he very likely won’t end up among those 16,000 super rich people at the top of the American heap. But at least he’ll have a chance to get there.

“Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable.” C.S. Lewis

An acquaintance recently loaned me a bestselling novel she thought I might enjoy. My head began to ache midway through the first paragraph, a seven-sentence construct devoid of grace in which the word it figures prominently but is never defined. By the end of paragraph two, when a bottle of beer asks a woman if it can buy her a drink (because the man I assumed was drinking the beer was grammatically left out of the action), I could read no further.

However, before I threw the execrable thing across the room, I flipped to the back to see if there was an About The Author paragraph that might shed some light on how this so-called writer had succeeded so famously despite his formidable inability to write anything readable, and I came upon a page entitled Questions and Topics for Discussion. My blood ran cold. I had heard of these kinds of pages but had never opened a book published recently enough and popular enough to warrant the addition of such vomitous bilge. What else to call these questions? Insults to the reader’s intelligence? The codification of stupidity? The death of original thinking?

I only read #1 before thrusting the poisonous volume into the woodstove and spared myself further horrors. Yet though I acted quickly, #1 is still, days later, reverberating in my mind and troubling my sleep. Here it is.

1. Did you like Jack or Sharon? Did you find yourself picking a side? Do you think the author wants us to like them? Why or why not?

“There’s a lot of mediocrity being celebrated, and a lot of wonderful stuff being ignored or discouraged.” Sean Penn

Or as Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

Topics For Discussion: Do you have the capacity to distinguish something mediocre from something excellent? How do you know you have that capacity? Who told you? When was that? Why would someone say something like that to you? Are you feeling defensive about the kinds of books you like to read? Why or why not?

Being Gotten

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Cat and jamming

Cat and Jamming photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2013)

You remember, I’m sure, that time you went to a party with no great expectation of anything beyond munching and drinking and blah-dee-blah, and you met someone with whom you had phenomenal rapport, so much so that your time with them was an amazing emotional and intellectual pas de dux that made you feel better than you’d felt in a long time. And the next day, when you thought about the connection you had with that person, you realized that what made the experience so special was that this person really ­got you, and you really got them, which is to say, the person truly madly deeply heard you, saw you, grokked you, dug you, liked you, and resonated powerfully with your feelings and perceptions, and vice-versa, which made you feel less alone and more…gotten, which is to say you felt less isolated on your own little island of self and more connected to the great big everything.

I know what some of you are thinking; this is another pile of Todd’s hackneyed psycho-spiritual crap. And I know what some others of you are thinking; that being gotten is exactly what you’ve been thinking about lately and you’re thrilled I’m writing about this. Put another way: you get me or you don’t.

What’s your point, Todd? That’s one of those questions I am frequently asked by people who don’t get me. I’m sure that happens to you, too. You’ve done your best to say what you mean, and you’ve said what you’ve said because you really want to communicate those thoughts and feelings, and someone responds with, “What’s your point?” which always reminds me of those angry, humorless literalists I have known and wasted my time trying to placate, except such people cannot be placated because…psychology.

If you’re over fifty, you know the song Alfie by Hal David and Burt Bacharach that opens with “What’s it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?” Those lines remind me of Joseph Campbell saying, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” Beyond merely surviving, I think the point of our human lives is to find and commune with people we truly deeply get and who truly deeply get us, to engage in mutually supportive emotional, intellectual and, yes, spiritual exchanges and dances and meals and drinking cups of warm liquids and having conversations and taking walks and experiencing simultaneous epiphanies that make us feel meaningfully connected to each other, which in turn connects us to the great big everything.

Ah, good. Now that you-know-who has stopped reading, I will continue.

I recently came out with a CD of my original piano music called Incongroovity, my fourth piano album (I still call them albums.) If you’re an artist or a musician or a chef or a designer or any sort of creative person and out-of-the-box thinker, which I’ll bet most of you still reading this are, then you know about those moments of doubt and wondering and hope and fear and excitement and dread and exaltation and despair and curiosity and girding your loins for disapproval and dreaming of passionately positive responses when you present a new creation or thought or feeling to the world. Your hope, your desire, your fervent wish, is that someone, and maybe more than one someone, but at least one someone, will really get what you’re trying to communicate, and that they’ll let you know they got you.

Why do we need someone else to validate who we are and what we do? I think we’re hardwired that way. We can learn to need less validation from others and to heed our own counsel and judgment more than we heed the cawing of cynics and emotionally stunted self-righteous know-it-alls who never have anything nice to say, but because being human is about communing with others of our kind, about hooking up with those who get us, we crave being gotten by others. Why? Because being gotten is an elixir, a cure for the blues, the antidote to doubt, the source of inspiration, and possibly what it’s all about, Alfie or Jane or Akbar or Kyle or Myra.

To be an original artist of any kind in America, as Joseph Campbell said, is to travel a path of great danger. What makes the path of original thinking and making original art so dangerous? Aside from little or no financial support for such independent and daring behavior in a society that demands we have money to survive, most original artists run the terrifying risk of never being gotten. By anyone. As Conan Doyle famously said, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself…” and truer words were never spoken. He goes on to say, “…but talent instantly recognizes genius.” Aye there’s the rub. How do we find those with the talent to get us, while they, too, are busy fighting to survive the slings and arrows of outrageously mediocre imitators who rule the cultural roost and brainwash the masses with redundant poo poo?

Joseph Campbell continues (and I paraphrase), “Yes, the path of the artist is one of great danger, but if you stay on your path and trust your intuitive wisdom, doors will open for you.” You will find people who get you, and then, truly, you will know you have not lived and worked in vain. As a wise woman once told me, “There’s no point in waiting for your ship to come in if you haven’t sent out any ships.”

So even though I love Incongroovity more than any of my previous albums, and though I know in my bones the music is good, when I sent out the first batch of albums to friends and the handful of DJs around the country who give my music air time, I was in a state of high anticipatory anxiety waiting to see if anyone would get Incongroovity. I knew my friends would say they liked the album, but would anyone really get the tunes and communicate that getting to me?

Who cares? That’s another of those epithets disguised as a question that bitter, disapproving, closed-minded people like to throw at people they don’t get. However, I much prefer “Who cares?” to the merely dismissive “What’s your point?” because “Who cares?” succinctly elucidates the existential dilemma underpinning anticipatory anxiety. Will anyone care about what you’ve worked so hard to write or play or draw or invent? Who is there among your fellow earth beings, and that includes stones and trees and rivers and dogs and cats and people, who will get you—such getting intrinsically bound to caring about what you’ve done and who you are.

Did I say cats? Yup. I had a cat who totally got my piano playing, and I don’t mean a human cat, but an actual feline. Her name was Girly Girl, and whenever she saw me heading for the piano, no matter what she was doing, she’d skip to the piano bench and wait thereupon for me. I would sit down beside her and begin to play, and after a little while, she would hop from the piano bench to the nearby armchair where she would sit and listen attentively for as long as I played, for hours sometimes. And I felt she was the ears of Universe digging my tunes, and her listening kept me practicing for days and weeks and months when I had no other indication that anyone else was getting me. Blessings on that musical cat!

So now I’ve heard from a few peeps telling me they love Incongroovity, and seven DJs so far on itsy bitsy community radio stations have blasted my tunes into the airwaves of Maine and Indiana and California and Idaho and Oregon and Vermont. And yesterday I heard from my pal Max Greenstreet, a daring musician and artist and delightfully original freelance human being. He downloaded and listened to a few tunes from Incongroovity in anticipation of receiving the entire actual disk from me, and this is what Max had to say about the title cut.

“I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to come to that area in the middle of “Incongroovity” where the magical thing happens in my body every time, and then to be carried along in that state to the final notes of the song.”

Which is exactly what happens to me, every time.

 

Aht & Cultcha

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

andmischief

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Their Son Mischief painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“A triptych (three related paintings) by the artist Francis Bacon sold for $142,405,000 on Tuesday, breaking the record as the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, according to the auction house Christie’s.” CNN

I was curious to see this creation that someone, ostensibly a human being, paid 142 million dollars for, and when I found the image online and made the triptych large and clear on my computer screen, I was surprised by how unremarkable I found this work to be. I’m sure there are academics and art experts galore who can babble at length about why “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” painted by Francis Bacon in 1969 is of great importance in the history and evolution of modern art, but to my eyes this is yet another case of the emperor’s new clothes, as opposed to innovative, revolutionary, or masterful art. The work left me cold, both emotionally and intellectually. Please don’t tell me it was Bacon’s intention to leave the viewer cold. Or…go ahead and tell me that was his intention and I will respond, “Phooey.”

I have no doubt that “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” is a work of art. An artist painted the thing. Beyond that I will leave the analysis and debate to others, except to say that if I hadn’t been told the work was valuable I would never have guessed “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” had any value at all, save for those super duper matching gold frames. The expression “student work” came to mind when I looked at the three very similar paintings, followed by the thought “needs practice.”

I say this as an art-loving person who was once a voracious reader of art history, art reviews, art theory, and artist biographies. I was also a frequent visitor to art galleries private and public in California and New York and Los Angeles, I have many artist friends, and I have been making art for most of my life, with the intention of leaving my viewers warm in some way or another.

“The only thing that happens overnight is recognition. Not talent.” Carol Haney

My sister, a professor of Biology, was for some years in the 1970’s a weaver of spaciously abstract wall hangings and big puffy pillows. Having pursued her art in the privacy of her home for several years, she decided to make her pubic debut by getting a booth at the KPFK Christmas Faire in Los Angeles. I helped her build her booth, we hung her weavings, arrayed her pillows, and sat back to see how people would respond to what she’d made. To my sister’s surprise and delight, people bought every last one of her pillows and all but two of her wall hangings. By the second day of the faire, she had almost nothing left to sell.

To make a long story short, inspired by her initial success, my sister spent several months creating a new body of work, got a booth at the KPFK Summer Faire, and sold almost nothing. A year or so later, she told me she no longer considered herself an artist. I asked her to explain. She said that having lived through a terrible mudslide that destroyed many of her possessions and forced her to move out of a house she loved, she made a weaving that captured her frazzled and emotionally upset state. “It was ugly,” she said. “Truthful, but ugly, and I realized I don’t want to make anything ugly, which means I’m a craftsperson and not an artist.”

“There is only one way to treat a cold, and that is with contempt.” Sir William Osler

I currently have a cold and a runny nose and a nagging cough. Feeling awful, I looked in the mirror this morning and thought, “If I film my face looking dreadful and forlorn as I talk about how crummy I feel and how that crummy feeling infects my perception of everything, and I put the film on YouTube, I can probably get quite a few people, thousands maybe, to watch the film if I call it A Response to ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ by Francis Bacon by Todd Walton. The search engines will find my little movie and list it on the first page that people come to when they Google Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, only I’d better make the movie right away while the news of the 142 million dollar sale is still a hot topic.”

Later over coffee I thought, “Then I could make a second film of me sitting in a chair in the manner of the human figures in ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ and I could call that second film Responding To the Avalanche of Comments About A Response to ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ by Francis Bacon by Todd Walton. And so on. Would that be art? Absolutely. Would it leave people cold? I don’t know about other people, but it would certainly leave me cold, so I’m not going to do it.”

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

When I was eight-years-old, my parents took me to the De Young Museum in San Francisco to see a big show of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Fifty-five years later, I still remember how I felt when I stood in front of The Potato Eaters—amazed and frightened and sad and overwhelmed.

“Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.” Laurence J. Peter

I was ten when I first leafed through a book of paintings by Picasso. I vividly remember two things about the experience: I kept referring to the Table Of Contents because I was sure the paintings in the book were by several different artists and not just one person named Picasso, and after looking at Picasso’s paintings for a long time, I got out my colored pencils and crayons and a pile of blank paper and made dozens of colorful pictures.

The only DVD I have ever purchased (other than the DVD of the movie based on my first novel) is The Mystery of Picasso. Made in 1955 by Henri-Georges Clouzot, The Mystery of Picasso was officially declared by the French government in 1984 to be a national treasure, and if that doesn’t impress you, Pauline Kael called The Mystery of Picasso “One of the most exciting and joyful movies ever made!”

Imagine you are looking at a blank canvas filling the entire movie screen. On the other side of the canvas, invisible to the viewer, stands Picasso, the actual artist, fully alive and raring to go. As Picasso begins to draw, his strokes instantly bleed through the canvas so we may watch his creation come into being stroke by stroke. For anyone who draws or paints or creates things, the experience of watching Picasso work in real time is mimetic heaven. Later on in the movie Picasso paints in oils, and Clouzot uses stop-motion animation to capture the step-by-step evolution of several paintings. In the course of this feature-length film, we witness Picasso create dozens of stunning masterworks, though I’m sure there are plenty of people who would call Picasso’s creations poo poo. Such is the subjective nature of taste.

I first saw The Mystery of Picasso on a big screen in a movie house in Sacramento in the 1980’s when the film was being revived after being out of circulation for many years. The audience was composed largely of artists, and the experience for me was thrilling and joyful and wild, with people spontaneously shouting their feelings in response to the intuitive and uninhibited moves of a master painter. However, as I left the theater, I overheard a woman I knew to be a professor of Art at UC Davis say to her companion, “Narcissistic show off parading around in his underwear.”

“President Obama is asking Americans to give money to help the Philippines recover from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan.” USA Today

The record high price paid for the Francis Bacon triptych is but a small part of a recent explosion in record prices being paid for art created by dead or soon-to-be-dead American and British artists who are famous for being famous, and not really for their art. For instance, an insignificant piece by Andy Warhol recently sold for 105 million, and a lesser work by Basquiat sold for 55 million. Who has that kind of money? Could real people actually be spending these incredible sums of money? Or is this “art bubble” some sort of money laundering scheme for the super rich? Based on my wholly subjective opinion that most of the art fetching these billions is not particularly great or remarkable or of historic or stylistic importance, I would guess this “art bubble” is, indeed, some sort of lucrative scam.

However, if by some miracle the selling of piles of mediocre art for billions of dollars is not a money laundering scheme, and actual real people are in a frenzy to buy art for huge amounts of money, I wonder if they, these incredibly rich people, would like to buy some of my neato drawings. That would be so cool, wouldn’t it, if they would give me millions of dollars for my art? I could then pay half the money in taxes to fund military and corporate imperialism and to nibble away at the interest on the national debt and subsidize oil companies and carbon-emitting corporations responsible for creating more and more devastating storms and droughts and environmental disasters. And I would still have some left over to give to the Philippines.

Genuine Praise

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Carl Jung

My recent essay on the shams of mockeries of travesties that masquerade as Creative Writing programs in America’s universities inspired a wide range of responses, including miniature treatises on the disintegration of American education, the impact of mass media and real-seeming special effects on human psyches, the validity of vampires as cultural metaphors, and a general theory of mediocrity. To wit:

“From a systems analyst’s point of view we can see that vampire novels turned into movies or boy-wizard novels turned into movies inspire similar art formats in that systems follow the myriad paths of least resistance; and so whenever there is a popular something on TV, movies, theatre, books, music, etc. the purveyors of those things will copy that something ad nauseum. Thus our cultural reality, from a systems perspective, is that the more consumers of system output there are, the more influence those consumers have on what is purveyed, and if you accept that what is purveyed is driven by the most common of popular culture, i.e. what has the broadest appeal, then all successful art forms can only become more and more common as population increases.”

This same correspondent, a successful Internet Technology consultant, said there are hundreds of jobs available in the Bay Area for people with decent computer skills and competence in Word and Excel, two programs found on nearly everybody’s computer. But these jobs go unfilled by Americans and necessitate outsourcing and/or the importation of foreign labor. This seems crazy in the face of millions of unemployed and the ease with which any moderately intelligent and literate person can become proficient at Word and Excel. So what’s up? The key word here is literate. For the past thirty years our high schools have churned out tens of millions of graduates who cannot write well enough to be of much use to any but the lowest tech employers. Our youth may send forth billions of impromptu text messages at lightning speed, but most of these same youth cannot construct coherent sentences, let alone useful paragraphs. In short, our public schools don’t work. Why not? Is it because teaching has devolved to crowd control and forced memorization? And if so, what caused this devolution?

One correspondent suggested that the ethos of non-criticism underlies the demise of our educational system. “Circa 1975 and for decades thereafter it was verboten in public elementary schools to correct kids’ grammar and spelling for fear of injuring their self-esteem. Furthermore, children were praised for anything they did, even if what they were doing was wrong. You can see the results today. It isn’t that our young people aren’t intelligent, it’s that they are essentially illiterate and incapable of critical thinking, and so don’t even have the option of educating themselves.”

Which would leave out learning how to use Word and Excel.

When I lived in Berkeley, I tutored a Berkeley High School senior, a brilliant young woman who, at the outset of our working together, could not construct the aforementioned proper sentences. And verily she said unto me of her regular English class at one of the better public schools in the Bay Area, “If you show up most of the time and don’t cause any trouble, you’ll get a C. If you try to do some of the assignments, you’ll get a B. And if you do all the assignments and run them through spell check, you’re golden.”

A Special Education teacher had this to say about praise. “Praise is a primary tool teachers use to engage their students, assuming the praise is authentic and specific. As long as teachers are also passing along foundation skills as well as some rationale for doing good in the world, I see no problem with praise in that context.”

Another teacher wrote, “Far more important than praise is engagement. My best response is one that ignites or continues discussion. Otherwise, I’m just patting people on the head for knowing the right answers. Answers are only valuable if they further investigation, and learning to investigate, to uncover the intricacies of a subject, that’s the essence of learning. And, of course, nothing meaningful can take place if a class is out of control or the students have tuned out.”

A high school English teacher wrote, “I teach five classes a day, thirty-five students in each class. If I assign one short essay per week, which isn’t nearly enough to provide sufficient writing practice, that makes one hundred and seventy-five essays I have to read and correct and grade. Every week. Where would I possibly find the time to do that even remotely well? And remember, most of these students, this is regular English, not remedial, haven’t mastered even the most basic writing skills. What they were doing in elementary school and junior high, I don’t know, but they come to me with terrible skills. And people wonder why English teachers burn out so quickly. It’s an impossible task. We should be refining their skills at this point, working one-on-one, not teaching basic grammar. As for praise, I don’t have time to praise anybody.”

Some years ago I was hired to teach a one-week course of creative writing at a GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) elementary school in Sacramento. I worked with seven different classes, kindergarten through sixth grade, twenty kids in a class, and each day I spent an hour with each class. I suggested to the folks who hired me that it would be better for all involved if we spread the work out over several weeks, but that didn’t fit the school’s learning schedule, so I endeavored to do my best under those rather concentrated circumstances.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the shocking revelation of the decimation of individuality and creative thinking that intensifies with each step up the educational ladder. My kindergarteners did not yet know how to write, but their inventiveness was remarkable and their lack of creative inhibition thrilling. Sparks of such inventiveness remained in some of the first and second graders, but most of these youngsters already exhibited profound symptoms of numbness and stress from being penned up in classrooms for months on end and having to know answers to irrelevant questions hour after hour under fluorescent lights. By the third grade, the grapes, if you will, were thoroughly crushed. Conform or be ridiculed (by the teacher or your peers) had become the fully operational default setting for the group mind; and this governing ordinance would only strengthen thereafter, so that by the fifth and sixth grades I might as well have been talking to child soldiers trained to only reveal their names, ranks, serial numbers, fart jokes, and the plots of popular television shows about morons.

And though it was tempting to blame the individual teachers, the sameness of their styles and techniques made it clear they were only following the dictates of wholly inadequate teacher training for people who are not necessarily themselves well educated. And therein, I think, is a primary source of the decline and fall of our educational system: poorly educated teachers trained by misguided educators to be behaviorist drill sergeants otherwise incapable of actually teaching anything.

Consider your own education. Can you not recall a moment in fifth or seventh or tenth grade when it dawned on your benumbed consciousness that the older person standing in front of the class was not very bright and might possibly be a moron? Sure you can. And trust me, you didn’t think this person was an idiot simply because you were a surly, disenchanted teenager. No. You thought this person was an idiot because he really didn’t know what he was talking about.

When I was in my late twenties I attended a New Year’s Eve party at the home of my high school Drama teacher, one of two excellent teachers I was fortunate to have in high school and with whom, not coincidentally, I developed a lifelong friendship. Attending this party was another of my former teachers, an English teacher I labored under for two of my four years in high school. In the course of my conversations with her that evening, as she grew drunker and drunker, she confessed that she found teaching so stressful she frequently resorted to alcohol and/or valium on the job, she was addicted to pornography, she fantasized constantly about having sex with her teen charges, and she felt like an utter failure.

And I said to her in all honesty, “What I most appreciated about your teaching was how you encouraged us to engage in lengthy discussions, and how you only intervened to keep us on topic.”

To which she responded by bursting into tears and saying that in her twenty-five years of teaching no student had ever sincerely praised her for anything.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com. Praise, flattery, or MacArthur Genius Grants may be sent to him there.