In one of Baudelaire’s spleen poems called “The Generous Gambler,” a boulevardier is steered by a “Mysterious Being” into a subterranean casino. There they drink and chat till dawn, gambling all the while. The Mysterious Being proves an urbane and chatty devil, old fashioned in manners, but progressive in philosophy. The only time he’d ever felt his sphere of influence threatened, he confides, was upon overhearing a preacher, “more subtle than his confreres,” point to the source of much modern progress and enlightenment: “the devil’s prettiest ruse,” said this meddler, “is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist.”
The boulevardier feels flattered to share drinks and confidences with such a superior spirit. After getting drunk, but not sloppy—both are gentlemen—they shoot the moon. The devil wins; the hapless mortal forfeits his soul. Far from horrified, he feels no worse than if he’d lost his visiting card; for the soul, more often than not, gets in the way of human desire. And when Old Nick offers palaces, gold, and social prestige to make up for the loss of that encumbrance, he can’t believe his luck. This being a poem by Baudelaire, ennui, that noonday devil of which the poet had such familiarity and dread, hovers in the background; but the Mysterious Being, in a gesture of extraordinary largesse, promises to exempt his mortal from ever again experiencing that affliction.
Except for the poet’s mention of ennui, this is all familiar—the old Faustian-bargain theme. There is, however, a startling aside that will strike the reader, innocent of public educational institutions, as gratuitous if not bizarre. The devil, seemingly a propos of nothing, confides to the human that he always hovers, albeit invisibly, over academic gatherings. That, from the diabolic perspective, is the ideal environment. In that setting it is so easy to inspire the consciences, the writings, and the very vocabulary of the pedagogues.
Had I not sat through many a faculty meeting, attended innumerable professional development sessions, felt the weight of “long ennui” during the recitation of goals, outcomes, programs and chimeric achievements—all couched in the untranslatable tongue of the professional educator-administrator—I, too, would dismiss the devil’s confession as poetic license.
As an erstwhile English teacher and foreign language department head, I was sometimes asked to sit in on job interviews. Applicants who spoke their native tongue flexibly and naturally, I supposed, would have an advantage. Since they would be teaching language, fluency in same was a sine qua non, thought I. But, strange to tell, such a candidate had no edge over a glib communicator in educationese. How to explain this preference for jargon over English? In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell blamed jargon-larded speech on concealed ideology, insincerity, and mental sloth. The prefabbed phrases of the trade-argot spared the user the trouble of thinking. No doubt sloth and ideology also beget the specialized language of school “leaders”; but there is a further reason peculiar to the education profession. While pursuing certification in administration or education, advanced degree candidates have read, and produced, reams of nonsensical vaporings; in the process, the “consciences, the writings, the very vocabulary of the pedagogues” have been conditioned—sometimes terminally. Such an apprenticeship makes the administrator feel uncomfortable, maybe even devalued, when terms like “instructive scaffolding strategies” and “multiple modalities” excite no glint of recognition or appreciation. A failure to brighten at their invocation bespeaks a deadened sensor.
And so, to anyone thinking about teaching in these institutions, I can offer some forlorn advice: school yourself in the trade language, that minor-devil tongue called ed-speak. If you haven’t already picked up the jargon in your teacher training courses, all you need to know is on the Web. Just type in how to prep for teacher interview or ten most frequently asked questions of teacher-candidates—or any similar phrase. There you’ll find all of the questions anticipated, and links to enough specialized buzz words to impress any administrator. You needn’t waste much time over “subject matter” like history or English lit, or French. After all, you want to teach—that is, “facilitate”—humans, not texts.
Just before the interview, be “proactive and “mastery-focused” on your goal. Work yourself up to a state of preternatural zeal about “interaction” and “sharing” and “individualization” and “learning tools” and “small groups” that get into “pods” before reconvening with “large groups” to share consensus. Show that you intend to address the special needs of the right-brained, but never at the expense of the left-brained or of the “non-print oriented learner.” (Everyone has his/her own learning style.) Be “creative” and “innovative” in lesson design, but “data-driven” in your approach to “outcomes.” Look forward to those endless distractions that go by the name of “professional development.” Be excited about serving on committees that splice and dice curriculum into ever finer fragments in order to align with state, national, Common Core, and intergalactic standards. Volunteer to sponsor clubs and “extracurriculars.” Don’t suspect that this frenzy of activity will destroy the concentration needed in the classroom. Have faith in technology to multiply time.
Don’t present yourself as a haunter of libraries, or even modestly studious. In fact if, during your interview, you expose enthusiasm for the great figures (great according to whom?) of American history or literature, or you suggest that you expect students to know how to make subjects and verbs agree, the administrator’s cold stare will let you know that you have put yourself on the wrong side of the rodent barrier. And above all, don’t be above your students. You are not there to put things into them, but to summon, like the witches in Macbeth, what is already bubbling beneath the surface.
Let me conclude with an example (provided by G.K. Chesterton) of what not to say and how not to say it during an interview: “You may indeed ‘draw out’ squeals and grunts from the child by simply poking him about … but you will wait and watch very patiently indeed before you draw the English language out of him. That you have got to put into him; and there is an end of the matter.”
It is easy to imagine the disdain such unevolved opinion–couched in clear, forceful, mainly anglo-saxon vocabulary—would excite: ‘Thank you, Mr. Chesterton, for that … whatever. You will be hearing from us at some point in time—after our on-going interview process is terminated.” Which may be translated more or less as get thee to a leprosarium.