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21: A Tribute to Rudolf Flesch

A Tribute to Rudolf Flesch

Let it be noted, this is a melancholy saga, probably beyond what you can imagine. It is addressed to anyone sincerely baffled by the practices of our educators. When I speak of educators, I never mean teachers, I mean the people at the top. Indeed, this report is dedicated to America’s teachers--I always feel they are as much the victims of bad theory as students are.

Rudolf Flesch is our tragic hero. A graduate of Teachers College and an authority on both reading and writing, he was himself an educator and, you might think, an insider. Nonetheless, he spent much of his life in a frustrating quest to persuade his colleagues that they had made a tragic mistake by favoring look-say over phonics. His “Why Johnny Can’t Read” was a national bestseller in 1956. But the education establishment vilified him and ignored him. Flesch waited 25 years and tried again with “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read.” Again it was a bestseller. Again the educational establishment snickered; and his earnest, heartfelt effort could not overcome their hostility. He died believing that the situation might be hopeless. This tribute will consist of trying to answer a question: why did Rudolf Flesch have to waste so much of his life defending the obvious?

I’ve read his books and many others dealing with the same topics and I kept asking: what’s really going on here? Phonics has to be a part of any reading program, right? Isn’t it the simplest way to figure out a word you don’t know? Why do his opponents keep pushing ideas that don’t work? All they have to do is read Rudolf Flesch. Two bestsellers! Surely everyone has heard of these wonderful books.

Flesch discusses British schools, where it is normal for children to learn to read by Christmas of their first grade. Once they grasp the phonetic code, they can read anything, at age seven. Children forced into look-say (or whole word) classes learn English as if each word were a Chinese ideogram. This approach is slow and inefficient. Typically, kids can memorize less than 300 "sight words" a year (many kids have trouble reaching 100 sight-words per year). Even by the sixth grade, so-called A-students could be expected to know only 2500 words. With this limited vocabulary, there is no newspaper or cereal box that they can read even half of, at age twelve. Worse still, children that age have more than 30,000 words buzzing around in their heads. They speak most of these words, and recognize all of them in conversation. They just can’t recognize them in print. Imagine the imprisonment and torture we are describing here. Your ears and your brain know 30,000 words, but your eyes know only 2000. You can get a migraine just thinking about this. By the end of high school an outstanding look-say student might know 10,000 words on sight, but by that time the volume of heard or recognized words has probably grown past 50,000. The victim of this abuse will be semiliterate for life. The victim will not be able to read for pleasure. 

It’s difficult for an adult to identify with what a child goes through in look-say. Here are some simple ways to do this. Go on Google and find some pages in a foreign language you don’t know. Or turn a page of English upside down and look at it in a mirror. Now imagine you are told to memorize all those words by SHAPE alone. (Note that you will eventually need to memorize several shapes for each word: “teaching,” "Teaching," “TEACHING,” and versions in hand writing or odd typefaces.) In all cases, you must NOT break words into letters or syllables. You must NOT sound out the words. Just memorize the shapes-- that is, the design, the look, the appearance. Feeling dyslexic, are you? Feeling depressed and anxious? ADD coming on? Yes, that happens a lot.

Here is the fundamental point. Words learned phonetically will always re-introduce themselves to you, a thousand times if necessary. Each word contains its own speech chip, so to speak. The word talks to you, "Here's how you pronounce me!" But a word learned as an ideogram is static and uncommunicative. Either you have memorized it or you haven't, much like a house, car or other object seen as you drive through a neighborhood. Do you know that house or don't you? The house doesn't say. It's up to you to recall the shape of the roof, the color of the garage, etc. (Imagine the nightmare of trying to memorize thousands of houses by name.) For children caught in look-say, English looks like this: htchfgd fhwtrg dsphw mjl bqv xtpkng... There's thousands upon thousands of small, strange, silent shapes to memorize. And they're coming at you very fast as you try to read across the page.

Only the smartest Chinese can learn more than 20,000 of their ideograms (which have only one shape). Even this amount requires excellent memory, great discipline, and endless practice drawing these symbols. Modern educators routinely condemn practice and memorization; how odd that they selected a reading pedagogy that demands both. English now hurtles toward a total vocabulary of 1,000,000 words. Look-say was never a feasible way to deal with this Niagara of symbols.

Memorizing short, common words (house, stop, good, but, they, what) may not be too bad at first. Children might learn one or two thousand such words and get A’s in third and fourth grade reading. (Provided, of course, they are reading books written in this controlled vocabulary--so the A’s are quite dishonest.) But progress will now come more slowly because the children will have to move on to bigger, more visually cumbersome words (bathroom, apartment, however, television, somewhere). Their brains will struggle to remember the tiny visual differences between, for example, virtue, virtual, visit, vertigo, vision, verse, visible, vista, version, visa, visiting, virgin, visual. (What mnemonic tricks would you use to remember that “virtue” has something to do with morality but “virtual” has something to do with computers? Would those tricks work a month later? Could you transfer those memory tricks to VIRTUE and VIRTUAL?) Still more bad news: Once children learn to sight-read a few thousand words, their brains resist phonics. If these children try to read some words phonetically, well, they can’t, not easily. It hurts. Their brains have become wired for shapes, not sounds. These children will say they hate reading. Teachers will start calling them dyslexic.

According to Flesch, we are wired to talk by age three, write by age five, and read by age seven, roughly speaking. These things happen naturally, with time and encouragement. Learning to talk, he notes, is a far greater intellectual leap than learning to read. But what do you know-- three-year-olds do it. Similarly, seven-year-olds will almost universally learn to read, if you don't put obstacles in their way. An inability to read is rare among humans; you would expect to find actual brain damage. The evil genius of look-say is that it creates the symptoms of brain damage in healthy children. Here’s a grim but probably accurate thought. If our educators were teaching children to talk, we would have a society overflowing with mutes. As it is, we have a society overflowing with "functional illiterates." 

Frank Smith, whom many educators regard as a great expert on reading, did more than anyone else to perpetuate the war against phonics and against Rudolf Flesch. Smith states flatly: “Readers do not need the alphabet.” He ridicules phonics (“the 166 rules and 45 exceptions,” as he puts it). Smith likes to pretend that young children are empty-headed and will be sounding out exotic words they do not know. But that’s a phony set-up. Kids in first grade already know more than 20,000 words. They need help ASAP in recognizing the printed version of all these words. Smith himself gave the game away when he wrote, as a put-down: “Phonics works if you know what a word is likely to be in the first place.” Yes, and that can be a big help--just what the child needs to keep going. Suppose the story is about a farm; there are chickens, mules, ducks, cows, pigs, turkeys, horses and a rooster there. The child knows all those words; with just a hint of the starting sound, the child reads all those words. Call phonics one of the great inventions of human history. Or call it a code-breaker, a crutch, a trick, a cheat sheet. It lets children read all those thousands of fairly complex words they speak in conversation by age five, but with look-say will not be able to read until they are in high school, if ever. Words such as hurricane, internet, digital, vacation, interstate, Mercedes, crocodile, computing, cheerleader, quarterback, aspirin, battery, janitor, detergent, headquarters, electricity, military, Manhattan, athletic, chemistry, understand, groceries, religion, Hollywood, etc., etc. My guess is that children don’t need a lot of phonics to get started. (I say this knowing that Dr. Flesch would disagree. I say this because I somehow graduated from college and became an author without learning even a single phonics rule. I think that what happened was that I was in look-say classes but the teacher was teaching some informal phonics on the side! Fortunately. Indeed, it's one of my favorite theories that a LOT of guerrilla teaching occurred in this country. Otherwise, the look-say disaster would be much worse than it is.) At most (and this is just my impression), young children need one consonant sound plus the long and short vowel sounds. But here’s what they absolutely have to know: the alphabetic concept by which letters can stand for sounds. And it’s this great cultural treasure that look-say was designed to keep forever hidden. Judging by everything I've read, look-say is the worst possible way to teach reading. Whenever it's used, literacy declines. Weird reading problems proliferate. Look-say (or whole word) is arguably a form of child abuse.

What, by the way, is the best way to teach reading? I suspect it’s the same way we teach tying shoelaces, cooking, using a computer, and all the rest. An adult sits by the child and helps the child along. Children love stories and they love repetition. So there's plenty of opportunity to point at letters, syllables and words, to repeat sounds, to enjoy rhyme, and to discuss what a wonderful but sometimes whacky thing the English language is. I also suspect that poetry--anything with rhyme, including nursery rhymes and doggerel--should be central.

Well, this debate has been played out in many books and throughout the country. At this date, 20 years after Dr. Flesch passed away, his message largely prevails. The forces of whole word--especially since 1995--are slowly receding, like some dark tide. But we are still left, ever more intriguingly, with the question: why did this bogus technique come into vogue in the first place? To find the answer, we have to peer back at the history of education, all the way to the early part of the 20th century and into the late 19th century. Two entirely new fields were born at that time, Education and Psychology; the same small group dominated both. What were the motives and goals of these willful men, the ones who perpetrated look-say and so many other dubious strategies? For many years I simply could not figure it out. Why were American educators so incurably drawn to bad ideas? I kept hoping there was a benign explanation. Then I began suspecting that these people were either the biggest bunglers in history or huge criminals. But which? And why? For a long time, American educational theory and practice seemed to me like a bizarre mystery story.

For further technical reasons why whole word is a disaster,
see eight ADDENDA at end of piece.




---G. Stanley Hall---John Dewey---Edward Thorndike---
Bunglers or Criminals?



Finally, in 2006, the puzzle came together for me. It’s a tangled story unfolding over many decades, and involving many dozens of major players and institutions. I don’t want us to get lost in the details. (Whole books have been written about pieces of this story; a few of these will be listed at the end.) I'm going to summarize the story as intellectual history. To do this, I compiled about fifteen revealing quotes to show how the main educators were thinking. But it's probably helpful to start with a quick run-down of the ideas and recurring themes swirling through these quotes.


THEME 1) The early leaders in Psychology and Education (circa 1890) were claiming to produce bold new scientific breakthroughs even as they all seemed to suffer from inferiority complexes. Remember, even 50 years later, Psychology was considered little better than palmistry in some circles. The result: no matter how dangerous and unproved an idea, it was promoted with stubborn dogmatism.

THEME 2) Their philosophy tended to be materialistic and mechanistic. One might also add godless and soulless. They believed in conditioned reflexes, Pavlovian training, and behavior modification. They sometimes talked about raising children to new levels but they planned to do this by first treating children as if they were rats in mazes. How far can you raise a rat?

THEME 3) These pioneers talked a great deal about democracy. In reality, they were all socialists and totalitarians of one stripe or another. What really mattered to them was what children did as a group. But it’s even weirder than these words suggest. Most of these people believed in eugenics, selective breeding, sterilization, racism, and the inferiority of many of the races trying to emigrate to America. In a nutshell, white people were the master race, but this master race was in the main so incompetent that an additional master race--these scheming educators--had to preside over it.

THEME 4) These people called themselves educators and continually acted as if they cared about education. But to a man they were anti-intellectual, and thus anti-education as most people understand the term. This is for me the weirdest part. They presumed to know that most people really don’t need that much reading, writing and arithmetic, not to mention history, science and art, so why waste time giving it to them? The correct approach was obvious: keep children busy (so parents don’t complain too much) but in pointless ways (so that future adults won’t be educated beyond their station in life).

THEME 5) Our educators spoke of human fulfillment and liberation but their deepest desires seem focused on control and coercion. Virtually all the early leaders in Psychology and Education were partly educated in Germany--perhaps Teutonic tendencies rubbed off. (The pervasive idea being that the individual is nothing, the community everything.) All these men exhibited a love for massive social planning: a place for everybody and everybody in their place. The smart people (them) would run things, and the dumb people (everybody else) would do the menial jobs. We’re talking here about clearly defined social classes, almost to the point of a caste system.

Even summarizing this weird tangle is difficult. Some of the ideas are extreme (flat-earth extreme). Others are contradictory: can you create a better society by first making the children stupid? Other ideas seem stillborn: just because you declare children to be lumps of clay which can be molded into any shape doesn’t make it true. And finally, the one thing that holds all these ideas and themes together is the real poison: an enormous yearning for power that must be kept hidden and unacknowledged. Look back over the whole litany. Where do all the ideas point? Here it is: these people become the secret masters of your society. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are for them, not you.

One day I remembered where I had seen, several decades before, all these ideas discussed and dissected. But I didn’t grasp the whole picture at the time. In “Brave New World” (published in 1934), Aldous Huxley is making savage fun of something--but most of us don’t know exactly what it is. Now I know: it’s these wannabe dictators. Let us revisit Chapter 1 and walk along with the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning as he briefs some new arrivals...

“And this,” said the Director, “is the Fertilising Room....the operation undergone voluntarily for the good of Society...Can’t you see? Can’t you see? of the major instruments of social stability!” He quoted the planetary motto. “Community. Identity. Stability....After which they are sent down to the Embryo Store....” The escalator for the Social Predestination Room....the Decanting Room... “We also predestine and condition. We decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas, or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or....future world controllers....Nothing like oxygen-shortage for keeping an embryo below par.” Again he rubbed his hands. What an enormous saving to the Community...“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue--liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.”

So that, I submit, is what our educators thought they were doing--making Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons. Conditioning people to fit in their slots. Huxley was very attuned to these ideas because they were foaming up in more public forms during the 1920’s, in the years just after the Russian Revolution. And oxygen shortage? Do I have to tell you? That’s every gimmick the educators concocted whose true purpose was the dumbing down of students. Quintessentially, that’s look-say (introduced widely about 1930).

Yes, these people saw themselves as Directors of Hatcheries and Conditioning. A new aristocracy; a new order of priests. Note that although Huxley ridicules the Director, the Director himself is absolutely smug and comfortable with his role. He preens. And so did they all, these early educators and psychologists. Who, you may wonder, asked them to do one tiny bit of their monstrous program of reconstruction. Who discussed, who appointed, who voted? They did. Why, it was unanimous. They get to be Alphas, you get to be a Delta. Don’t worry. You’ll like it. Your school will keep you dumb and unreflective. You’ll hardly be able to read your diploma. Being a Delta will seem just the goodest thing there is.


Brave New World


An article from Colliers’ Magazine circa 1954 gives us a look back at the early days of this gospel in action: “Extensive reading-method studies were made in Iowa in 1926-27 by the late neurologist, Dr. Samuel Orton, under a Rockefeller Foundation grant. At that time children who couldn't read were said to have ‘congenital word blindness’--but Orton wanted proof. What he found was quite different. He reported his findings in a scientific paper entitled, ‘The 'Sight Reading' Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability.’” Orton, by the way, was surprised by his findings and uncomfortable with them. He was probably brought in to conclude that Rockefeller was paying for good ideas. Orton is often mentioned as an early warning that look-say didn’t work. He was ignored, of course. But the part of this story I hope you’ll focus on is that Dewey and Company were actually willing to let normal children be categorized as suffering mental retardation. “Congenital word blindness” sounds a lot like Deltaville to me. The current term, of course, is dyslexia. This malady, whatever it is called, is what Rudolf Flesch began to encounter in the late 1940's, in his role as reading tutor. He was dumbfounded that this condition could be so pervasive. His outrage lead to the writing of "Why Johnny Can't Read."

Now, let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s listen to these eager saboteurs as they set demolition charges beneath the foundations of the American experiment and the American Dream. (Please note: the men quoted are not minor figures. These are the Founding Fathers of Education in this country.)

1885: “Total word pictures....These results are important enough to prove those to be wrong who hold with Kant that psychology can never become an exact science.” James McKeen Cattell, discussing theoretical basis for look-say.

1897: “We violate the child’s nature and render difficult the best ethical results by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc....The true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, not literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child’s own social activity.” John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed

1898: “It is almost an unquestioned assumption, of educational theory and practice both, that the first three years of a child's school-life shall be mainly taken up with learning to read and write his own language...It does not follow, however, that because this course was once wise it is so any longer...The plea for the predominance of learning to read in early school life because of the great importance attaching to literature seems to me a perversion.” John Dewey, The Primary-Education Fetich

1899: “The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.” John Dewey, The School and Society.

[Note the date: 1899. The war against “facts and truths” is officially declared. That war continues to this day. See also #20 on this site: The Quizz.]

1906: “The aim of the teacher is to produce desirable and prevent undesirable changes in human beings by producing and preventing certain responses.” Edward Lee Thorndike, The Principles of Teaching Based on Psychology

1908: “As child nature is being systematically studied, the feeling grows that these golden years of childhood, like the Golden Age of our race, belong naturally to quite other subjects and performances than reading, and to quite other objects than books; and that reading is a ‘Fetich of Primary Education’ which only holds its place by the power of tradition and the stifling of questions asked concerning it....It is not indeed necessary that the child should be able to pronounce correctly or pronounce at all, at first, the new words that appear in his reading, any more than that he should spell or write all the new words that he hears spoken. If he grasps, approximately, the total meaning of the sentence in which the new word stands, he has read the sentence....And even if the child substitutes words of his own for some that are on the page, provided that these express the meaning, it is an encouraging sign that the reading has been real, and recognition of details will come as it is needed. The shock that such a statement will give to many a practical teacher of reading is but an accurate measure of the hold that a false ideal has taken of us, viz., that to read is to say just what is upon the page, instead of to think, each in his own way, the meaning that the page suggests.” Edmund Burke Huey, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (Q.E.D.: accurate reading is not required; fuzzy is good enough.)

1911: “The knowledge which illiterates acquire is probably a much larger proportion of it practical. Moreover, they escape much eyestrain and mental excitement, and, other things being equal, are probably more active and less sedentary. It is possible, despite the stigma our bepedagogued age puts upon this disability, for those who are under it not only to lead a useful, happy, virtuous life, but to be really well educated in many other ways. Illiterates escape certain temptations, such as vacuous and vicious reading. Perhaps we are prone to put too high a value both upon the ability required to attain this art and the discipline involved in doing so, as well as the culture value that comes to the citizen with his average of only six grades of schooling by the acquisition of this art.” G. Stanley Hall (Q.E.D.: illiteracy is acceptable and might even be desirable.)

1929: “Artificial exercises, like drills on phonetics, multiplication tables, and formal writing movements are used to a wasteful degree. Subjects such as arithmetic, language and history include content that is intrinsically of little value....That the typical school overemphasizes instruction in these formal, academic skills as a means of fostering intellectual a justifiable criticism.” Edward Thorndike and Arthur Gates, Elementary Principles of Education

Fundamentally, what happened was that a handful of professors decided that the USA was not a melting pot but a boiling pot: too much immigration, growth, industrialization, wealth, individuality, urbanization, upheaval. Everything needed to be slowed down and managed. Dewey uses a similar phrase again and again: what was appropriate once is no longer appropriate--given the new circumstances. For example, an emphasis on literacy was no longer appropriate...What bizarre non-sequiturs. It reminds me of the 1990s when our educators trumpeted invented spelling and fuzzy English exactly as the internet was heating up and precise language would be more important than ever.

Isn’t the continuity amazing? A century ago our so-called educators were already plotting against accuracy, against meaning, against learning, against literacy. This last, of course, is the central part of the juggernaut, the part that Rudolf Flesch encountered. As he explains in the introduction to "Why Johnny Can't Read," mothers brought children to him that the public schools had classed as illiterates. He taught them to read.




The Russian Revolution is a fact of history by 1920. Shock waves spread around the world. Lenin has instructed the Third International to overthrow all capitalist governments, especially the USA. More and more, as you’ll see, our educators are avowed Socialists, etc. They are not so intent on crafting clever new educational theories. They want big changes quickly.

Karl Marx



Marx, Stalin, Depression

1932: "Historic capitalism, with its deification of the principle of selfishness, its reliance upon the forces of competition, its place of property above human rights, and its exaltation of the profit motive, will
either have to be displaced altogether, or so radically changed in form and spirit that its identity will be completely lost." George Counts

1933: “Through the schools of the world we shall disseminate a new conception of government--one that will embrace all the activities of men, one that will postulate the need of scientific the interests of all people.” Harold Rugg, The Great Technology.

1934: "...many drastic changes must be made. A dying laissez-faire must be completely destroyed, and all of us, including the owners, must be subjected to a large degree of social control." Willard Givens (secretary of the National Education Association)

1936: "Let us not terms of specific facts or skills [that children should acquire] but rather in terms of growing." NEA Journal

1936: "Too much emphasis cannot be laid upon the fact that undue premium is put upon the ability to learn to read at a certain chronological age....The entertainment plus information motive for reading conduces much to the habit of solitary self-entertainment." John Dewey

1937: "Only education which seeks the reconstruction of society is [valid]....Teachers should play an active part in securing acceptance by their communities of new social ideas and ideals." NEA Journal

1946: “It might be necessary for us to control our press as the Russian press is controlled.” Progressive Education Magazine

By 1930 hundreds of Communist fronts and agents of influence were in place; then came the Depression, which seemed to confirm their doctrines. At that point, all the pronouncements became more shrill and even smug. Indeed, many people suppose, looking back to 1930, that the Communists must have imported all our bad ideas. But what struck me as I looked back toward 1900 is that the ideas were already in place. The blueprint was agreed upon. There would be a war against religion, against individuality and family influence, against ordinary American values. And that war would be carried out by taking control of the colleges that train teachers, and then using indoctrinated teachers to push the ideas upon the public. All the Communists had to do was aid and abet our homegrown quackery, which they did with great energy. Thus, America got hit by a double whammy. We’re still reeling.

It’s just a guess but I’ll bet those first Russian agents, here to subvert the USA, were astonished to find that our own subversives were already doing the job quite nicely, thank you. Stalin doubtless laughed, “Marx always said, give capitalists enough rope and they’ll hang themselves!” And observe please the supreme irony throughout. Dewey talks about the collective, interdependent society. But these guys are themselves self-appointed egomaniacs, not the least bit interdependent. Just as scary, most of the ideas found in the blueprint are still in play one hundred years later. (Today they have been repackaged as Whole Language.)

We have to pause and wonder: was Rudolf Flesch merely a romantic fool, a Quixote, to imagine he could stop this juggernaut? He supposed that if you tell people what’s true, they’ll prefer it. What more could a man do than to write two best sellers stating the obvious? But the educators were still able to “disappear” him. I suspect Flesch had no idea of the forces arrayed against him. He was focused on reading, but our social engineers were wreaking havoc across a vast front.

John D. Rockefeller made billions of dollars by 1890 but became the country’s most hated man. He and his family decided to use philantrophy, especially to education, as a device for redeeming his public image. So far so good. But Rockefeller and his advisors embraced John Dewey’s tragic trifecta: socialism, paternalism, infantilism. The General Education Board was a shadowy trust that Rockefeller financed. The GEB, for one example, funded Teachers College which, by 1912, was the country’s fourth largest graduate school. TC had the job of brainwashing eager young people and sending them back to their small towns as “progressives.” Wave after wave of these people sought to transform America according to the Gospel of Dewey, Thorndike, Huey, Rugg, Counts and so on. That gospel, in practical effect, meant little other than dumbing down the children.

Here’s another huge irony worth savoring. Communists often complain that one of capitalism’s chief sins is that it churns out too much useless junk. To sell this junk, capitalists must create artificial needs and hungers in the people. Marketing, the Communists like to sneer, is the empty essence of capitalism. Surprise. Seems to me that marketing is the one and only thing our progressive educators were truly gifted at. Selling gimmicks that the public never asked for and didn’t want. Here are some of the marketing campaigns used over the decades: look-say, whole word, child-centered education, active learner, cooperative learning, invented spelling, open classroom, self-esteem movement, bilingual education, effective learning, mainstreaming, whole language, alternative assessment techniques, New Math, fuzzy math, new new math, Mathland, Outcome Based Education, higher level thinking, critical thinking, and more I’ve missed. The newest campaign features “creativity.” If you’re simply teaching kids to read and write, you don’t need marketing; if you’re telling children how to add and subtract, you won’t waste time dreaming up cute slogans. My impression is that not one of these campaigns actually led to better education. More frightening still, I don’t sense that any of them was ever intended to do so. All of them are like look-say: an ugly idea with cute bells and whistles, endless promises, and high-pressure salesmanshp. Ten years later, the country’s a billion dollars poorer and everybody’s dumber.

But after all this, can we yet say why Dewey and his comrades chose these destructive ideas? Well, do we ever know why a man chooses a life of crime or of alcoholism? I find a remarkable smilarity between John Dewey and Karl Marx. So different in so many ways, but here’s what they had in common: IQ close to 200, a hostility toward everything that the ordinary person likes, and a wrong answer to every question. Communism has a particular appeal to unhappy, alienated intellectuals. Communism and Socialism say: join us, we will put you in charge, and you can boss your neighbors around. Socialism is a jobs program for precisely the sort of people you don’t want running your life or your schools (people like Dewey and Marx). You know the old joke: if you’re so smart, how come you aren’t rich? Intellectuals hate this joke. (I can vouch for that.) Socialism says, now you can have your revenge; they may be rich in money but you will be rich in power. I asked earlier if Dewey and Friends were bunglers or crooks? Perhaps both, but I suspect the more basic problem is that they were quacks.

That’s as far as I can explain Dewey’s love of what I consider the dark side. Here’s what two others had to say:

A Congressman named Dan Smoot gave this explanation in 1962: “While the hardy individualists, who were the products of traditional American education, were building the nation, the thoughtstreams of the nation were being corrupted in prosperous and settled regions, by some intellectuals who were ill at ease in the daring and manly world of America--and who, therefore, readily responded to the tired, cynical, and sickly socialist philosophy prevalent in Europe.” In other words, Dewey & Co. were twits.

And here’s what Friedrich Neitzsche had to say all the way back in 1901: "What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism...”
In other words, Dewey & Co. were empty and full of darkness; they’ll try to take away our light.


I’m always struck by the moral aspects here. It’s not all right to kill your neighbor’s child. Surely it can’t be all right to kill that child’s prospects. What sort of person would want to? Here’s the thing I find the most repellent: our elite educators actually appear to share an indifference to children, not to mention the more obvious contempt for country. These educators have their agenda, and if children are in the way, too bad for the children.

Let me close with my vision of what education should be concerned with. Simple: pushing and cajoling each child as far as each child can go. It seems to me this approach is better for the children; they’re more likely to be happy, self-fulfilled and earn a higher income. This approach is better for the society, because our human resources are our most important asset. There is no way to know what talent or skill or contribution lies within each child. Why foreclose anything? Why not nurture and encourage all that is there?

Add your content here

PS: I feel I should explain why this tribute to Flesch had to cover so much ground...Of all the things that educators did during the 20th century, none was more central and more destructive than the war against literacy. The primary tactic in this war was the use of a reading pedagogy that does not work (i.e., whole word). Who could believe this?? So my first task was to say, hey, if you really examine this thing, you’ll see for yourself it doesn’t make sense....So, at this point, the average person thinks, well, okay, maybe it doesn’t work, but that was probably just an accident. They meant well. They’re educators, right? They couldn’t be so depraved that they’d try to make people illiterate...That was also my first reaction...So then I had to pull back and discuss the whole story from the broadest possible perspective, and show that, yes, it appears they were that depraved. The evidence is overwhelming....Killing phonics, promoting whole word, reducing literacy, defaming Rudolf Flesch--all were parts of a larger war for the mind and soul of America...Studying the whole conflict lets us see the true significance of the details.



Now I want to mention some of the heroes of American education. Like Rudolf Flesch, they have spent their lives fighting the nonsense served up by our alleged educators. Their pictures should be on our stamps.

Samuel Blumenfeld (second only to Flesch, I believe it’s fair to say, in fighting the good fight)
John Taylor Gatto (author “The Underground History of American Education,” which is on the web)
Charlotte Iserbyt (author of “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America,” which is downloadable)
Martin Kozloff (a professor of education and a tough critic of his own field; big internet presence)
Charles Sykes (author of several books)
Richard Mitchell (author of several books)

These people have written widely; a huge amount of material is on the net. Rather than list a link or two, I’d rather suggest you explore for yourself. Type the name in Google with an additional word such as reading, phonics, reform, look-say, education or whatever aspect interests you. You’ll find whole pages of valuable citations. Or order their books from Amazon.

If I’ve omitted an important name, let me know. Comments are welcome.

"30: The War Against Reading"
is a newer article that covers much of the same ground
but with more far-reaching conclusions.
"33: How To Help A Non-Reader To Read" is chiefly about treatment but in the process reveals much about how the damage is effected. 


ADDENDUM I: Dr. Seuss Condemned Look-Say
In 1981 Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) said: "[People] think I did it in twenty minutes. That damned Cat in the Hat took nine months until I was satisfied. I did it for a textbook house and they sent me a word list. That was due to the Dewey revolt in the Twenties, in which they threw out phonic reading and went to word recognition, as if you’re reading a Chinese pictograph instead of blending sounds of different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country. Anyway, they had it all worked out that a healthy child at the age of four can learn so many words in a week and that's all. So there were two hundred and twenty-three words to use in this book. I read the list three times and I almost went out of my head. I said, I’ll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme that’ll be the title of my book. (That’s genius at work.) I found “cat” and “hat” and I said. “The title will be The Cat in the Hat.”
ADDENDUM II: Whole Word Drives Out French, Spanish, etc.
A local paper held a contest for a Big Idea we must have right away. The winning proposal called for an institute to promote the study of foreign languages. The proposal mentioned that American schools study foreign languages almost entirely in high school, if at all, even though children learn more quickly when younger. Hmm, isn’t that curious? On the web I find a similar proposal (very long and detailed) by Leon Panetta, a Clinton Administration official, stating that our neglect of foreign languages is “scandalous.” Wouldn’t you think modern educators would dote on foreign languages? What’s more multicultural?... Then I got it. Imagine a room of fourth graders studying French in the traditional, rational, phonetic way. Then imagine those same children turning to the study of English in the whole word manner....Even the kids would see the chasm. The parents would see it. They’d be screaming, “That’s what we’re talking about. Teach English the way you teach French!” Educators must know this. Ergo, no foreign languages for kids. This matter needs investigation. But I’m guessing now that if you want children studying foreign languages, you first have to banish whole word.
ADDENDUM III: On Reading "Backwards"
For fluent readers, one of the more mysterious things about so-called "dyslexia" is that children flip words and try, as it were, to read backwards. You might think, "Oh, there really must be some kind of cognitive problem."
Not so! This behavior is easy to understand. When we memorize a Chinese ideogram or any object such as a face, car or house, we do not see it as starting on the left and reading to the right. We don't see it as having top or bottom. Our brains will fix on the distinctive features that catch our attention, wherever they are. A "sight-reader," looking at "xtpkng," might find the "ng" just as helpful as the "xt" in memorizing this shape. Suppose the symbol is next to a picture of a wave--wouldn't it be quite natural to see the curve of the wave in the "g" but not the "x"? At that instant the child starts to flip words and is well started toward so-called "dyslexia."
(This condition has been described as being not "cognitively impaired" but "pedagogically impaired.")

ADDENDUM IV: The Difficulties of Look-Say
One device used by look-say enthusiasts to explain their strategy was to say: "Think about a STOP sign. You don't sound it out. You read it as an ideogram, a single object." Yes, you think, that seems to be the case....
Never mind that we've seen these signs a thousand times and this familiarity makes STOP a special case.
The real problem is never mentioned or explored. Even with a simple four-letter word like STOP, the struggles for a look-say reader are just beginning. Look at these four incarnations. They hardly seem to be the same word.
Basically, our alphabet is lean and effective when used phonetically. Used ideogrammatically, however, our alphabet is a grotesque failure. You wouldn't wish it on an enemy. All the weird little shapes are too similar to start with, and they come in too many variations.


ADDENDUM V: Cut Off From Names They Know
Keep in mind that MANY THOUSANDS of words that even a six-year-old knows and uses are proper names--of places, people, products. Names such as Canada, Vermont, Mississippi, Atlantic Ocean, Chicago, George Washington, Rolling Stones, Wendy's, Martin Luther King Boulevard, Cape Canaveral, Venus, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, Macintosh, Jay Leno, Aunt Agnes...Think of all the movies, TV programs, commercials and conversations these kids have heard. Their brains are like sponges, picking up many new words every day...Now think of those measly little 400 sight-words they will learn in first grade, and another 400 in second grade, and another 400 or so in third grade...Do you suppose that any of these proper names are on those little lists? Of course not. So note how, with whole word, the children are systematcally cut off from things they know and care about. They are rendered helpless before maps ...With a little phonics, with even the slightest ability to sound out words, they would be able to figure out many words for themselves...That's the glorious idiocy of whole word--when a child's brain is hyperactive, when the child is eager to engage with the world and learn at a frantic pace, teachers are saying: memorize these few shapes, don't sound out, stay as illiterate as you are now....

ADDENDUM VI: Guessing Games????
Frank Smith and Ken Goodman said reading is not a matter of reading what words say but of guessing the meaning from clues, cues and context. Goodman is famous for his phrase “a psycholinguistic guessing game.” All right, consider the last sentence in a news story: “At the end of the meeting, Arab leaders decided to nestotl the treaty.” What is nestotl? Accept? Reject? Rewrite? Ignore? Study? You’ll never know from the context. I’ve seen pages of instructions, labels on pill bottles, etc. where a single word was unknown and no matter how much I played with it, I couldn’t deduce a certain meaning. The point is that even educated, fluent readers can experience dead-ends. Now imagine a nine-year-old stumbling from one such dead-end to another, not allowed to sound out the word or to use the alphabet to look it up. The teacher in whole word is trained to say: “What do you think it means?...Guess...Look at the pictures...Think about the context...Just keep going...” It has to be very frustrating for the child. Instead of being a precise, factual, logical, even scientific enterprise where you know things for sure, reading become soft, mushy and fog-bound. The child is going to be made to feel stupid, sort of the way I felt in college calculus. Not surprsingly, a lot of children just give up on reading.

ADDENDUM VII: The National Tragedy of Dyslexia
All the points made so far add up to this: whole word can't work (except perhaps in the case of people with extremely retentive and agile memories).
Additionally, whole word would almost invariably cause precisely the reading problems that are lumped under the heading "dyslexia." This condition is not synonymous with illiteracy; it's worse! Dyslexia is a cognitive impairment, a sort of minor brain damage, that makes literacy more difficult to achieve.
That a country's educators would perpetrate this practice for 75 years is, I have come to feel, one of the great crimes of American history. We are talking about a sort of non-surgical lobotomy inflicted on more than 50,000,000 people. In effect, people with an IQ of 110 end up with an effective IQ of 105 or 100 or 95, because they can't read instructions, they can't communicate above a rudimentary level.
The bizarre part is that John Dewey's ideas are called "progressive." In reality, this dumbing down is regressive. It's a war against the whole culture waged one brain at a time. And don't miss an important aspect: children from better-off families escape to private schools and gifted programs. Whole word mainly cripples the most defenseless: kids from middle and lower-economic families.

April '07--I've just read over the first part of Flesch's first book. It's even more remarkable than I remembered. A perfect time capsule ca. 1950--a bleak era when America's educators had successfully routed phonics. You can feel Flesch's frustration on the page: "Come on, people, this isn't complicated. English is phonetic so you've got to study it phonetically." He quotes a dozen top experts who say the opposite: "Phonics is obsolete and dangerous. We have a new, modern way." I've had interesting conversations with people who say that my analysis pushes too far toward the conspiratorial and Machiavellian. Folks, we're talking decades here. Tens of millions of children were damaged. Can all this be just incompetence and carelessness? Can it be lust for book sales? Name your own explanation. Sure, a year or two might be explained by any theory you put forward. Even a decade. But not 70 years! Finally, you have to come back to the most obvious, most devastating point: they HAD to know whole word didn't work, but they kept it going anyway. How can you explain that away? How can you forgive that? I'm satisfied there was, at the very least, reckless social engineering. Here's what I think is a pretty parallel. When a woman loses one husband to food poisoning, we think, Oh, bad luck. When she loses two, we think, Well, she certainly is careless in the kitchen. But when she loses three husbands, everybody thinks the same thing, UH OH. Please, if you have not done so, read Chapter 1 of Why Johnny Can't Read. You'll see how brilliantly Flesch spells it out. Only heads of stone could argue against Flesch. And hearts of stone.



"37: Whole Word versus Phonics"

Also see: "40: Sight Words--The Big Stupid" 

"42: Reading Resources"

and others 



Also see "Phonics vs. Whole Word"--a graphic video. Click link:

"Phonics vs. Whole Word"--video on YouTube

(Once there, see "More From: BruceDeitrickPrice")

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2006-2011