THE GIFT OF FIRE By Richard Mitchell Fireside. 276 pp. Paperback, $7.95
Richard Mitchell is, on the evidence of his published writings, an old-fashioned man who believes -- passionately -- in the traditions upon which human society once rested. Like Allan Bloom, now enjoying a most improbable fling atop the best-seller lists with "The Closing of the American Mind," Mitchell is vehemently opposed to contemporary cant in all its forms, whether psychobabble or bureaucratese or academic jargon; he wages war against these and other depredations in the Underground Grammarian, a monthly publication of which he is editor.
He has also carried on the fight in books, most recently "The Leaning Tower of Babel," published in 1984, a pungent attack on the "educationists," the "jargon-besotted, half-witted administrators, the officious noncombatants of the school war." That's the way Mitchell writes when in high dudgeon, and so long as the reader is not himself a target of Mitchell's attacks, they make for great sport.
There is considerably less sport, though, in "The Gift of Fire." Mitchell's fourth book finds him in a contemplative rather than satirical or bombastic mood, though his subject is once again education. Here he is less concerned with the specific shortcomings of what he calls "schooling" than with such broader questions as the conflict between reason and appetite, and the human tendency to underutilize, or abuse, the extraordinary powers of the human brain.
Unfortunately Mitchell is far less interesting as philosopher manque' than as social and cultural critic. Like the pitcher in a sandlot baseball game, he has an elaborate windup, but when the ball finally gets to the plate there isn't much on it. For all the gyrations to which he subjects himself and the reader, the conclusions he finally reaches are neither surprising nor original.
The reader who slices through all of Mitchell's hemming and hawing is left, at the end, with the argument that contemporary American education reflects contemporary American society, in its fascination with "feeling" and its indifference to reason. He contends -- and what civilized person can possibly disagree with him? -- that a central mission of education is to teach the primacy of reason over appetite, but that in the unbuttoned climate of the 1980s this responsibility has been abandoned. Instead, he suggests, our schools teach "how to go beyond an unknowing obedience to appetite into a fully conscious and willful obedience to appetite."
Though it is a pity that Mitchell chose not to leaven this rather heavy dough with a few illustrative examples, there can be little question that in essence he is correct. Since the 1960s American education at all levels has been content to reflect the ethos of a culture in which feeling good is taken more seriously than thinking clearly. Mitchell reflects on those foolish SAT questions about the movement of trains, and then remarks that students are "led to believe first of all that great human mysteries can be boiled down into something very much like a train problem, and thereafter that anyone at all, whatever the depth of his ignorance, can make the world a better place by relating well to others and muddling through."
From this promising observation Mitchell moves not into the specific but the generalized, puffing on about "the Knowledge people and the Goodness people" and similar exercises in deep thought that are not really quite so deep as their author imagines them to be. How much more interesting it would have been if Mitchell had proceeded to a discussion of how the "train problem" has become the obsessive preoccupation of our schools -- of how schools concentrate not on teaching students how to think and learn, but how to take aptitude and achievement tests, which measure nothing except the accumulation of valueless facts and "skills."
As is quite evident from "The Leaning Tower of Babel" and Mitchell's earlier book on education, "The Graves of Academe" (now reissued in a Fireside paperback at $7.95), he is wholly aware of these specific offenses against sound educational policy, but for whatever reason he eschews discussion of them in "The Gift of Fire" in favor of the theoretical and speculative. One can agree with these theories and speculations, as for the most part I do, and still find them far less interesting -- and in the end less persuasive -- than Mitchell's fulminations.