Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University
Interviewer: Mr. Mencken, how long since you left us?
Mencken: I have been dead fifty-six years in January. And, on the whole, it’s been a relief.
Interviewer: How so?
Mencken: I once wrote that, “… those upon whom we lavish our veneration are reduced to absurdity in the end by dying of cystitis, or choking on marshmallows or dill pickles.” Well I had become temporarily famous, the “Sage of Baltimore” they called me, and I was content to meet a similarly ignominious end. Instead a cerebral hemorrhage left me fully aware, but almost completely unable to speak, read or write. Imagine, loving language as I did and then having it stolen from you. And it took another 8 long years until I could achieve the ultimate, stupendous and irrevocable act of death.
Interviewer: But you can speak now; and I was hoping you would share your thoughts on education.
Mencken: Education? Sure, why not? I was never hesitant to share my thoughts when I was alive.
Interviewer: Let’s begin with higher education. You’ve made fun of professors in the past. Have you changed your mind?
Mencken: Not at all. There is no idea so stupid that you can’t get some professor to believe it. Plus collegiate pedagogues have an unprecedented talent for saying nothing in an august and heroic manner. And what is a university professor’s function? Simply to pass on to fresh generations of numskulls a body of so-called knowledge that is fragmentary, unimportant, and, in large part, untrue.
Interviewer: Hasn’t that improved in recent years?
Not at all. As a matter of fact, this nothingness has been raised to a higher power by many professors inserting enormous slugs of mathematics into their jottings. This has made their works even more laborious and muggy, incomparably tangled and utterly unintelligible —the self-evident made horrifying, the obvious in terms of the staggering.
And because of athletics, academe is now morally and intellectually bankrupt. It is impossible to think of games among young men and women save as reversions to an earlier stage of growth. A really intelligent educational policy would try to discourage the taste for them, just as it tries to discourage the taste for making mud-pies.
If they must insist on these games to raise revenue they should at least make some adjustments. For instance, college football would be much more interesting if the faculty played instead of the students, and even more interesting if the trustees played. There would be a great increase in broken arms, legs and necks, and simultaneously an appreciable diminution in the loss to humanity.
And speaking of university trustees, they are a major reason for the sterility of higher education. A professor’s whole professional activity is circumscribed by the prejudices, vanities and avarices of a committee of soap-boilers, nail manufacturers, bank-directors and politicians. The moment he offends these vermin he is undone. He cannot so much as think aloud without running a risk of having them fan his pantaloons.
Interviewer: You speak of professors as if they are all male. But a lot of females have joined the occupation since your death.
Mencken: Yes, forgive me for losing track of that. By in large, the addition of females represents a vast improvement. The truth is that neither sex, without some fertilization by the complementary characters of the other, is capable of the highest reaches of human endeavor. Man, without a saving touch of woman in him, is too doltish, too naive and romantic, too easily deluded and lulled to sleep by his imagination to be anything above a cavalryman or a theologian. And woman, without some trace of that divine innocence which is masculine, is too harshly the realist for those vast projections of the fancy which lie at the heart of what we call genius.
Interviewer: I hesitate to ask you about schoolteachers, but that’s next on my list.
Mencken: The essential difficulty of pedagogy lies in the impossibility of inducing a sufficiency of superior men and women to become pedagogues. And no wonder, for how can one imagine an intelligent person engaging in so puerile an avocation. They have invented a bogus science of pedagogy to salve their egos, but it remains hollow to any intelligent eye. What they may teach or not teach is not determined by themselves, or even by any exercise of sound reason, but by the interaction of politics on the one side and quack theorists on the other.
Interviewer: What about public schools? Their alleged poor quality is much in the news.
Mencken: The public schools of the United States were damaged very seriously when they were taken over by the State. So long as they were privately operated the persons in charge of them retained a certain amount of professional autonomy, and with it went a considerable dignity. But now they are all petty jobholders, and show the psychology that goes with the trade.
Interviewer: But at least they teach kids to read and to think.
Mencken: You are erroneously assuming that the aim of public education to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to down dissent and originality.
Interviewer: But, overall, hasn’t public education reduced human misery?
Mencken: The curse of man, and the cause of nearly all his woe, is his stupendous capacity for believing the incredible. And public education tries to cure that at its peril.
Interviewer: You are famed for your newspaper reporting on the Scopes “monkey trial.” Eighty-six years later the fight over teaching evolution in the public schools is still going strong. Some, including former President George W. Bush, and Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Michele Bachman think the answer is to teach creation science along with evolution so that the kids get both sides of the story. Their opponents say creation science isn’t science. What do you think?
Mencken: I think both sides miss the point. Imagine the Creator as a stand up comedian — and at once the world becomes explicable.
Interviewer: You seem a terrible cynic.
Mencken: Yes? Well cynics are right nine times out of ten. But a cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. I don’t always do that.
Interviewer: Then what do you believe in?
Mencken: I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. (Which makes me forever ineligible for public office.)
Interviewer: Our brief allotted time is up. Do you have a last thought or request?
Mencken: Before I died I wrote my own epitaph. “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.” I’ll stick with that.
This “interview” was constructed of actual quotes taken from a variety of sources. While minor modifications were made to fit the venue, Mencken’s thoughts and sentiments remain scrupulously intact.