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30: The War Against Reading
Complements 21: A Tribute to Rudolf Flesch.
This one is longer, with more historical sweep.
As always on this site, "educator" refers to the
elite with PhD's, never to teachers.

The War Against Reading

Of all the skills and subjects taught in school, none is as important as reading. Indeed, one can reasonably say, as reading goes, so goes the life and career of the student. If you wish to cripple a person or a civilization, what better way than to diminish literacy?

When we examine education throughout the 20th century, we see a puzzling array of unproductive ideas. But no failure is as primal and destructive as the inability of American public schools to teach reading--the one essential skill.

My research persuades me there was, in effect, a war on reading. I want to take you inside this war. As quickly as I can, I will present the statements of eminent authorities, explore the pedagogies, and examine the effects. In short, I will try to make sense of the fact that we have today more than 50,000,000 functional illiterates, people who can’t read a cereal box with confidence. Could such a terrible thing happen by accident?


The first attacks on literacy occur more than a century ago, in the last years of the 19th century. Two new fields, Education and Psychology, are aborning. Curiously, the founders and leaders in both fields have little good to say about traditional school subjects. These people controlled Teachers College, the degree programs, the journals. In the intellectual demimonde they created, they were gods; and their divine edict was that reading is not a priority.

John Dewey was the most famous American educator then and now. He wrote: “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.” (1897) “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.” (1898)

Edmund Burke Huey in his 1908 textbook wrote: “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....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.”

G. Stanley Hall (Huey’s mentor) spelled it out in 1911: “The knowledge which illiterates acquire is probably a much larger proportion of it practical....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.”

Edward Thorndike and Arthur I. Gates in their 1929 textbook: “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...”

In 1936 the Journal of the National Education Association summed up the broader philosophy: "Let us not terms of specific facts or skills [that children should acquire] but rather in terms of growing."

These recommendations are anti-intellecual and anti-academic. The American blueprint called for people to learn all they can, and rise as far as they are able. Educators with kind words for illiteracy are clearly serving some other blueprint. How casually they toss aside “reading,” “writing,” “learning to read,” “phonetics,” “language,” and the notion of accuracy in reading. Why bother, they suggest, with history, geography and arithmetic? Years later this philosophy would be correctly labeled “dumbing down.”
Perhaps you feel that "educators" couldn't be engaged in "dumbing down." Genuine educators could not, but social engineers masquerading as educators could.


Suppose you are the sort of educator who wants children to learn cooperation; you do not like to see some children rise above others. Is it mere happenstance, or nearly inevitable, that you would reject phonics/phonetics, and insist instead that the only valid reading pedagogy is Whole Word (also known as sight-reading, look-say, the word method, and other terms)?

Unraveling motives is difficult. What I can show you is that Whole Word can’t possibly work, but our educators (as we’ll see) preferred it, promoted it to the present day, and defended it with a tsunami of sophistry. Let me take a few minutes to explain the nullity that is Whole Word, and you will appreciate how provocative a mystery we are exploring here.

In the beginning, all languages were picture or symbol languages. “Words” in such languages were designs--variously known as hieroglyphics, pictographs, ideographs, and ideograms. You’ve seen them on the Egyptian ruins; you see them today in Chinese. These symbols must be learned one by one. They contain no phonetic information, no clues about how to pronounce them. (Suppose you have memorized 5,000 Chinese ideograms, a huge undertaking, by the way; you will still have no idea how to pronounce ideogram #5,001.) In short, the vocabularies of these ancient languages, and some contemporary Oriental languages, must be memorized as graphic symbols.


Alphabetic languages, such as Greek, Latin and English, were a great leap forward. These languages are said to be phonetic--that is, letters and syllables convey SOUNDS. Individual letters are joined to form a word; the letters are there forever to help you pronounce that word. It’s simplest to regard alphabetic language as a gigantic mnemonic device. If you learn the alphabet and several dozen of the main rules, you can pronounce, quite accurately, almost 1,000,000 English words. (Yes, that’s how many there are.)

The silliness of Whole Word is that it flipped the calendar back thirty centuries and tried to devolve English into an ideographic language like ancient Egyptian. Our educators wanted to abandon all the gains bestowed by the alphabet, and make children memorize English words one by one by one. Letters and syllables aren’t sounded out (indeed, children are forbidden to do this). Instead, words are learned as designs, like logos, like Chinese ideograms. Proponents of Whole Word pretend the alphabet has not been invented and that English is “not phonetic,” that when you look at an English word, you don’t see any clues about pronunciation. No, not one.

Furthermore, despite absurd claims to the contrary, the human memory is quite limited. Only the very smartest Chinese can retain even 20,000 of their symbols; which shows the impossibility of memorizing the far larger English vocabulary as sight-words. A college graduate probably knows 200,000 words and names. Whole Word, however, aims for a few hundred words per year, because that’s all that most children can memorize. At this pace, no real literacy can be achieved throughout high school. The best students will rarely reach 5,000 symbols, which is properly described as borderline illiterate. Really, of all the languages in the world, English has to be the very worst one to teach via Whole Word. It’s just too vast. But there’s yet another large obstacle, even if you attempt to teach only a limited vocabulary...

English words routinely appear in multiple forms (unlike Chinese ideograms, which are drawn in only one form). English has lower case, UPPER CASE, scripts, and odd typefaces. So a child has to deal with many variations of every word--see graphic below. Mix these in with the multiple forms of similar words--greed, grind, great, plead, breed, freed, grand, etc.--and you have visual nightmares. So many designs, so similar in appearance...but the brain must somehow sort them out at reading speed. That many children exhibit cognitive and behavioral disorders should not be a surprise.


Always keep in mind that the child has no phonetic assistance, nor any awareness of letters, vowels or syllables. Every design, to the first grader, looks like these: xdytsw pqk wdht dghmz. The teacher says, “The last word is pronounced wa-ter.” All right, what do you do? You search desperately for some visual clue in that design that will help you recognize it. Perhaps the roundness of the first letter reminds you of water. Are you going to recall that slender mnemonic a week later? Will you find “water” in DGHMZ or a script version of dghmz? Will you tend to read “water” whenever you see short words starting with d?

I am amazed every time I review these flaws. Recall that British schools traditionally taught children to read by Christmas of the first year. Montessori taught most children to read and write by age seven. How could anyone seriously promote a pedagogy that claims, AT BEST, to achieve semi-literacy by high school? Whole Word seems to me best described as a dangerous hoax. It can’t work; and these elite educators had to know this. Here’s why:


Whole Word was first widely used in the early 1920’s. Already by 1927, Dr. Samuel Orton had discovered learning problems (in his paper "The Sight Reading Method of Teaching Reading, as a Source of Reading Disability"). He tries to be scientific but it’s clear he’s deeply shocked by his findings: “...faulty teaching methods may not only prevent the acquisition of academic education by children of average capacity but may also give rise to far reaching damage to their emotional life....[O]ur own figures indicate that the number of children who show a significant handicap in reading is....related to the teaching method....[T]his strongly suggests that the sight method not only will not eradicate a reading disability ...but may actually produce a number of cases. Many children were referred ... in the belief that they were feeble-minded, others exhibited conduct disorders and undesirable personality reactions...which improved markedly when special training was instituted...”

Orton presents a devastating critique of a reading pedagogy that seems to have been invented by mad scientists. Children become “feeble-minded” and suffer “far reaching damage.” How did our educators cope with this grim news? They put the final touches on the Dick-and-Jane type of readers and, in the early 1930’s, forced them into nearly all public schools.

(Historic backdrop: by this date the USA is sunk in the Great Depression, while the USSR appears to rise ever higher. All of which, for some, confirms Marx’s predictions. Our educators seem to have decided to push ahead with preparation for a Socialist future. Here’s a typical quote from the leader of the National Education Association, 1934: “We are convinced that we stand today at the verge of a great culture....But to achieve these things 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." Mussolini was saying similar things. Hitler and Stalin doted on the idea of social control. Socialism was truly in the air.)

My guess is that Whole Word seemed to these educators the best device for forging children into a more homogeneous mass. In any event, phonics was scorned and Whole Word was king, through the Depression, World War II, and into the postwar boom. Dick and Jane readers were in every classroom; and all the problems that Dr. Orton discussed became commonplace.


Flesch’s book, “Why Johhny Can’t Read” (published in 1955), was a cry in the wilderness. He described a landscape where all leading experts agree that the alphabet of an alphabetic language should not be taught to children. The experts insist on this even as reading problems proliferate. What’s the solution? Our experts recommend further cutting the number of words in the Dick and Jane books. (One series is down to 1147 words by third grade.) Even the better students can’t read the kinds of books that children traditionally read at around nine, such as Anderson’s Fairy Tales or Arabian Nights. Our experts also detect psychological problems in the home. As Dr. Authur I. Gates laments sadly: “The home life might have been organized in such a way as to assist the pupil greatly.” In sum, our schools use a reading pedagogy that doesn’t work; but poor reading is the fault of child or parents.

The main points are in Flesch’s first chaper, a mere 21 pages. Read this if you have not, and you will know that there was nothing vague or tentative about what the educators were preaching. Flesch quotes most of the high priests, as he calls them. Here’s a sampling of their pronouncements:

“It is detrimental indeed to have the children spell or sound out their words at this stage.” Professor Guy L. Bond

“Current practice in the teaching of reading does not require knowledge of letters.” Dr. Donald Durrell

“English is essentially an unphonetic language....The skillful teacher will be reluctant to use any phonetic method with all children.” Dr. Paul Witty

“In recent years phonetic analysis of words at any level of the reading program fell into disrepute.” Dr. Roma Gans

“Little is gained by teaching the child his sounds and letters as a first step to reading. More rapid results are generally obtained by the direct method of simply showing the word to the child and telling him what it is.” Professor Walter Dearborn

Flesch notes that reading disabilities are unknown on planet Earth except in the USA, and were unknown there until about 1925. Now they afflict millions.

For me, the oddest single note in all the comments made by all the top educators is that they focus almost exclusively on the younger child (ages 6-9) as they proclaim how successful Whole Work is; they rarely mention older children, ages 10, 11, 12; they don’t mention success stories, they don’t say, “Look at Jack Smith, age 12, he has memorized 22,000 words. He read a novel!” Between the lines, you can discern the bizarre truth. Success stories must be very rare. The best readers are years behind what schools used to achieve. The worst readers are basket cases.

Flesch, by the way, is a linguist with a PhD from Teachers College. He did several years of research for this book. He is for the most part patient and professional. But you can tell this is a man stunned and dazed. How can all these “reading professionals” be so misguided, so cruel ? I am still struggling with the same question. I think you are down to two choices: these people were too dumb to have been admitted to college, never mind graduate school; or they were remarkably tough-minded ideologues. Do you see a third choice?

At any event, “Why Johnny Can’t Read” was a bestseller. Perhaps the public was becoming weary of Dick and Jane by the mid-1950’s. Many parents suspected Whole Word was a fraud. Older and smarter teachers taught phonics in secret. Private and parochial schools typically scorned Whole Word. The reading wars were fully commenced. As a practical-tactical matter, how could our educators keep their game in play?

The 1960’s and 1970’s actually saw a re-affirmation of everything Whole Word. Pious repetitions of claims devised 30 years earlier might not have carried the battle. A better class of rhetoric and jargon was probably needed. Fortunately for Whole Word, if not the country, two brilliant sophists showed up: Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith. There were others but these two, in particular, can take credit for keeping the scheme alive for another 25 years, in the teeth of common sense and reduced reading scores.

Ken Goodman is famous for saying that “reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.” A sophistry occurs right there but most people don’t hear it. I confess that I didn’t. Goodman seems to be redefining reading in a higher, more profound way. Right? And we all think, wow, so that’s what reading truly is! And we ponder and puzzle over the profundity of it all.

In fact, reading for a literate person has virtually no guessing. We know exactly what words say OR we look them up in a dictionary. We don’t guess except as a temporary measure. As the statement stands it’s factually silly, but you are not supposed to notice that.

Goodman’s sentence has a secret ellipsis. Here’s the full sentence: “For the illiterate person, reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.” Well, of course! The person, for example, taught to read by Whole Word. What else does such a person have but guessing from context?

Goodman slyly pretends to construct an edifice based on the needs of the typical person learning to read. But his edifice would, in fact, be meaningful only to the person kept illiterate by a false reading pedagogy, the person trapped forever in the condition of learning to read, but never actually being able to read. As long as you are guessing, you are not reading, and, like Sisyphus, you will never arrive at your goal. But Goodman assures you that your failure is normal...because reading, don’t you know, is guessing.

Bottom line: Goodman’s famous sophistry provided much needed cover for a pedagogy that creates guessers, not readers.

Goodman made thinking intelligently about reading more difficult than ever. Smart people throughout the English-speaking world must have wasted a million hours trying to slog through this morass. Perhaps a billion.


Frank Smith is the author of many books, all of them bestsellers in schools of education. Smith is indefatigable in dreaming up reasons why phonics is no good, and Whole Word (increasingly called Whole Language) is the only sensible route. In fairness, Frank Smith is one of the best writers of ringing non-sequiturs the world has seen. I frankly can’t understand them all; and I have often pitied the young minds toiling through ed school, as I imagine them having to regurgitate Smith’s thoughts on exam day. Here are some of the clear sentences from “Reading Without Nonsense,” 1973, so you can see the kinds of things he says:

“Readers do not need the alphabet.”

“[I]t is not possible to decode written language into speech. Phonics...just does not work.”

“This is the fallacy underlying phonics--the belief that there could be a set of rules that work efficiently to decode written language into sound.”

“[I]t must be shown that readers can recognize words and comprehend text without decoding to sound at all.”

“How is it possible to recognize written words without sounding them out? The answer is that we recognize words in the same way that we recognize all the other familiar objects in our visual world--trees and animals, cars and houses, cutlery, crockery, furniture and faces:--’on sight’.”

“It is not basically the function of spelling to represent sound, but to represent meaning.”

“The fact that written words in some sense ‘spell their name,’ in that they are made up of letters that in themselves seem to be related to sound, is as irrelevant to reading as the fact that most automobiles have their model name stuck on them somewhere is irrelevant to the recognition of familiar types of cars in the street.”

“[R]eaders must bring meaning to print rather than expect to receive meaning from it....[W]here does meaning come from? The only possible answer is that readers or listeners must provide meaning themselves.”

“But there is no evidence that there is any limit to the capacity of human memory...”

“Similarly, a child who reads ‘John didn’t have no sweets’ when the text is ‘John had no sweets’ may well be reading better than a child who is more literally correct.”

“[M]ost readers can recognize on sight and understand anywhere from fifty to a hundred thousand words.”

“I have said that children should not be taught the alphabet...[U]ntil children have a good idea of what reading is about, learning the names of letters is largely a nonsense activity.”

“[C]hildren cannot even begin to learn to recognize a until they can compare it with every letter that is not a.”

“In other words, when we read a word, we do not read letters at all.”

“[N]ormal reading demands comprehension prior to and even without the identification of words.”

“Comprehension depends on prediction.”

And my personal favorite: “The importance of being able to distinguish b from d is grossly overrated.”

If you feel your head separating from your body, what can I say? Smith’s good at that.

While Goodman and Smith did not invent Whole Word, they did provide additional layers of sophistry, confusion and distraction, so that none could say, “But the emperor has no clothes.”


My sense is that Whole Word has no redeeming features. None. As I’ll argue in a moment, it was used precisely because it does not work. So it’s not helpful to be pulled into debates over details pro and con. Whole Word is a sort of jargon factory, a sophistry spigot. No matter what anyone says, educators will concoct a flurry of reasons why that view is horribly incorrect, and all those illiterate citizens we have can read just as well as you but they choose to express their literacy in a different style. Etc. However, if you want a quick run-down of why Whole Word is wicked, consider these:

1) ENGLISH HAS A MILLION WORDS. Even the dean of the movement says people can learn 50,000 to 100,000 sight-words. So he’s just written off more than 90% of the language. But we know he’s wildly overestimating what most people can manage. Even 5,000 sight-words is probably quite high. My impression is that most of those people called functional illiterates probably never reach 1,000. Indeed, a neurologist stated, on the web, that even smarter humans can rarely go beyond 2,500 non-phonetic symbols.

2) MEMORIZATION IS BAD BUT... As noted, only the most scholarly Chinese reach 20,000 symbols. Do you know how the Chinese actually remember their only-one-form ideograms? They draw them over and over, year after year, until they are inscribed on the memory. Language, calligraphy, and endless repetition are one. But American educators hate rote memorization, hate drills, hate memorizing ANYTHING except, as it turns out, all the words in the English language! This discrepancy spotlights the fraudulence of Whole Word. Educators who hate memorization pick the most memory-intensive pedagogy there is. Go figure. And how do they suggest that children do all this memorizing? Why, the teacher will point at a word and tell the student what it says. That’s the “direct method.” The child is supposed to get it, now and for the rest of his life. (If educators were actually serious about Whole Word, they’d make the students print words over and over. But that would be a rote drill. And even the simpler teachers would sense a contradiction.) So they all pretend that children will magically learn new words if someone merely states what they mean. Do you feel the surreality of all this? Let’s say you’re driving slowly through a neighborhood. And a friend says, “That is the Jones house...Smith house...Roberts house.” Could you retain 10 or 20? Maybe. How about 200 or 300, even if you drive through the next day and the next day? Unlikely. How about 2000 or 3000 houses (crockery, art, faces, etc.)? Recalling the names at Jeopardy-speed is not good enough. That might seem fast but it’s nothing like reading speed.

3) WHAT ABOUT ORDINARY CHILDREN? From the very beginning, in the 1800’s, advocates of Whole Word had a weird tendency to argue from extremes--that is, the deaf and mentally retarded; or experts. Fluent readers don’t always bother with syllables, so why bother teaching letters and syllables to children? As if what NASCAR drivers are doing at 200 mph, or a saxophonist does in a jazz improvisation, has the slightest connection to the early part of the learning curve. The sophistry is so blatant. You point to the extremes if you can’t find confirmation closer at hand.

4) IT’S NOT ABOUT PRONUNCIATION. In his sequel, “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read” (1980), Flesch addresses a misconception that Whole Word people like to belabor. Frank Smith, in particular, talks a lot about how school children won’t have a chance reading anything, what with all the inconsistent pronunciation rules and exceptions we find in English. (That’s the basis for his assertion that “[I]t is not possible to decode written language into speech.”) This problem may be significant for adult foreigners, but not for American children. The reality is that even first graders have a very large speaking vocabulary--estimated at over 20,000 words and names. Pronunciations have ALREADY been learned at home, from parents, friends, television. Children arrive at school sayings thing like, “Brett Favre is the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, right?” The urgent need is to help first graders recognize these words in print, to connect these children to the world they live in. Whole Word guarantees that any connection will occur very slowly. Even by high school, the typical victims of this nuttiness will still not be able to read the words they knew the day they first arrived at school! In those first feverish years, ages 6-9, when children are eager to find out what their world is like, Whole Word stands like a rabid guard dog in their path.

5). FOLLOW THE MONEY. Rudolf Flesch specifically refuses in “Why Johnny Can’t Read” to accuse educators of being “un-American or left-wingers or Communist fellow travelers” (evidently somebody was saying this). But he does note that most of the so-called “experts” were getting rich. Nearly every one was “chief author” of a reading series. Whatever the mix of money and ideology at that time, the chemistry just gets more dark and stinky as we move into our own time. Whole Word creates, as Dr. Orton pointed out, a range of problems. We now have an array of names for those problems: functional illiteracy, ADD, dyslexia, etc. Schools and parents must spend billions tracking and treating these pathologies. Elaborate remedial programs such as Reading Recovery are common. Then comes psychiatric intervention and the prescribing of drugs. Big Ed meets Big Publishing; they team up with Big Pharma and Big Psychiatry. Everybody’s making money off incompetence and the misery of children. And Big Media and Big Academia look the other way. Depressed yet?

6) NOT PROGRESSIVE BUT REGRESSIVE. Everyone in education seems to agree on one thing: no matter how you teach them, at least half of all children (perhaps 60%) will eventually figure out how English works. That is, they will see the phonics inside the whole words. Even if taught Whole Word, they will segue into reading phonetically. Who doesn’t figure it out? Who are, finally, the actual victims of Whole Word? It’s the slower students, the students from non-reading homes, the less verbal students, particularly boys (as girls tend to be quicker with language). Our prisons are full of men who never learned to read.

So Whole Word is not just vicious, it’s selectively vicious, harming disproportionately the defenseless, the non-academic, the poor, the minorities.
Here is the final absurdity: educators pretentiously calling themselves progressive embraced a pedagogy that treads most heavily on the downtrodden.
All the issues in this debate have been played out in the writings of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (who urged better education for the poor so that they might have a chance) and Brazilian socialist Paolo Freire (who was willing to undercut education to make sure that children didn’t contribute to the capitalist machinery). Our educators rejected Gramsci, preferring to favor Socialist ideas that ensure the poor and ignorant stay that way.



The move back to phonics occurred primarily because, circa 1994, reading scores in California dropped to the same low level as Mississippi. Californians were outraged--Mississippi?! Also, the homeschooling movement had gained momentum primarily, I suspect, because reading is so fundamental and so easy to test. Parents can put a page in front of their children and know in seconds the awful truth: despite what teachers might claim, the kids simply cannot read. Suddenly, ads for Hooked on Phonics, etc. seemed to be everywhere. So, the past decade has seen a sharp trend back to phonics.

But here’s for me the more revealing truth. The education establishment is fighting this trend every inch of the way. They don’t confess that they made huge mistakes; they don’t accept guilt for creating 50,000,000 functional illiterates and millions of dyslexics; they don’t apologize for carpet-bombing the educational landscape with their foolish ideas; they don’t write tell-all books so we can finally know the names of those who caused the most damage. No, they concede only the ground they have already lost. They hang on tenaciously to every little shred and shard of their unworkable pedagogy. The usual tactic is to say, “Well, of course X is true but we still need Y.” So they give with one hand but, if at all possible, snatch back what they gave with the other. The current manifestation of this is Balanced Literacy. Suddenly, about 1999, there were articles everywhere announcing this marvelous insight: phonics is, after all, sometimes helpful; so the best thing is to mix the two together, phonics with Whole Word. As if mixing clear water with polluted water will make the perfect drink.

In short, what we have now is the most godawful jumble you can imagine. Every bad idea going back to 1900 is still in play (most perversely, Huey’s idea that children should bring meaning to the page). Every bad idea that Goodman and Smith concocted is still in play. And each bad idea requires an attending retinue of bad ideas. To justify Balanced Literacy, educators devised the gimmick of “different learning styles,” and assumed it’s true, just as years before they had announced the concept of “reading readiness,” which was a gimmick for justifying the ominous fact that children seemed to be learning to read later and later. (If your child wasn’t reading, that was due to your child’s lack of reading readiness!) Now, there are gimmicks justifying dyslexia--I saw a comment on the internet where someone claimed that dyslexia is not a disability (just a difference) and has its own set of “positives and giftings.” Only someone in education could talk like that. More recently I saw a comment where somebody insisted that Dewey was correct--reading need not be emphasized. Why? Because “you could teach a great deal without reading, even geography, history, science, facts, knowledge, etc.” But why would anyone want to? Where does a goofy thought like this even come from? Welcome to the jumble.

Here’s an entry on Wikipedia that might be termed Son of Frank Smith: “Some reading specialists suggest that many reading difficulties stem from problems in mastering phonics. It is suggested that children who have strong visual and spatial abilities are often sight readers. Whole word learning may strengthen visual memory and allow a greater ease in learning prefixes and suffixes. Learning whole words may later help students discern meaning from new vocabulary by identifying root words embedded in Greek or Latin-based text.” Two suggest’s and two may’s, signifying nothing. Almost beyond belief. Whole Word means you don’t see parts of words--prefixes, suffixes, roots. See how this game works? They hang on to whatever they can, and say whatever they think will fend off critics. Education today is like an old drain, full of gunk and goo.

I think we have to consider the conclusion that educators want it that way. Surely they could clean it up if they cared to. Why don’t they? Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, the joke goes, but our educational elite appear to have a 24/7 addiction to the second-rate and sophistical, the wrong-headed and destructive, the inept and inappropriate. What’s going on? More and more, I have come to think they are not inept at all; they are deliberate and methodical.


The war on reading is easier to perceive and understand when we step back and realize that there is an identical, parallel war on mathematics.

Recall the quote by Thorndike and Gates in 1929 arguing that “subjects such as arithmetic...include content that is intrinsically of little value.” It’s a straight line from there to the disastrous New Math, then to subsequent variations loosely and derisively called New New Math (Mathland, Everyday Math, TERC, etc. are common today), all of which pretend to teach math but actually undercut a student’s ability to do everyday arithmetic without a calculator.)

If you like symmetry, it’s quite pretty. Whole Word makes reading impossible. New Math, etc. make math impossible. These are the two fronts of a comprehensive assault on precision, clarity, truth and intelligence, whether with numbers or words. These two fronts seem to me to constitute a war on our civilization.

Whole Word and New New Math articulate common themes: imprecision is okay; guessing is good; fuzziness is a higher value than accuracy; and what the student thinks is as important as the actual answer.

Edmund Huey, all the way back in 1909, had the quite startling idea that (these are my examples) “a glass of soda” could be read as “a glass of water, “a glass of milk,” or “a glass of juice,” because it’s fine “if the child substitutes words of his own for some that are on the page, provided that these express the meaning.” But how can a wrong word ever express the meaning? Similarly, “fuzzy math” celebrates close. If students think 3+4 is 9, well, that’s in the ball park. Who could ask for more?

Finally, what is education but the precise use of words and numbers? Well, that’s what it was for thousands of years. Our educators had a different vision. Here’s the essence: they’re not interested in education as most parents use the term; if education is defined as social engineering, then our educators are for it.

A famous sociologist named Edward Ross wrote a very influential book in 1901. Title: Social Control. Ross announced: "Plans are underway to replace community, family, and church with propaganda, education, and mass media....People are only little plastic lumps of human dough."

Let me sum up the mood at that time by saying there was great fear of the waves of immigration, the hordes of the unwashed and supposed inferior. Dewey and all the other big thinkers at the time have an almost identical disdain of religion, tradition, and biological family. They agree with Karl Marx that "Society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand." It appears that all of the people taking control of American education studied in a German university and picked up sternly Prussian ideas about the insignificance of the person and the overriding need for subservience to the community. Sieg Heil. Mix in yet another batch of ideas that have faded but were very influential at the time: eugenics, selective breeding, forced sterilization, phrenology, and racial superiority. In short, a lot of thought was directed at this simple goal: keeping the peasants in their place. What other reason can there be for dumbing down education? Theorists can posit many distinctions between Socialism, Communism, collectivism, fascism, and totalitarianism. But at the level of the ordinary citizen, the end game is the same: all-powerful government, voiceless people. Many teachers calling themselves liberal would probably be shocked to realize that they have been enlisted in a campaign that is best described as illiberal.

So the policies--the wars against reading, math and civilization--that seem so crazy and unexplainable are not. For the educators themselves, everything is much more seamless and ordinary. They want to build a new, improved society. Nobody asked them to do this; but never mind. They think they know how to do the job, it’s just of matter of organizing things. For most of the population, too much education is a waste. They’ll be working in farms or factories. Keep them simple. Why put unrealistic dreams in their heads? Note that all of these repressive ideas were in place before the Great Depression and the elite’s belief that “a dying laissez-faire” (capitalism) must be euthanized. Now add on decades of Cold War, when the best way to help an expansionist Russia was to weaken the USA. Bad motives compounded bad ideas.

There don’t seem to have been any GOOD motives or ideas. First steps whenever possible: Whole Word and some version of New Math, as these are the surest routes to dumbing down. I think by now all the bad tendencies have been institutionalized. There's so much edspeak, psychobabble, sophistry and perhaps a good deal of self-deception. All part of the educationist genes, the educationist air. 

A recent news story said that the USA ranks 29th in science education. I’m reminded of a joke often heard in Manhattan. How does one get to 29th place? Practice! Practice! Practice!

Traditionalist that I am, I like to think that education is about liberation and empowerment. Isn’t it amazing how little such concerns enter into the history of education in the last 100 years? I have to tell you frankly, many of my conclusions make me uncomfortable. However, every time I run through the evidence, I’m saddened to find I end up with the same deduction: people calling themselves educators conspired against reading. It’s too horrible to believe. Then you start through the evidence, as if for the first time, and you end up right back at the same spot: Whole Word doesn’t work, phonics is essential, and the people saying otherwise were foolish or dishonest or worse.

(An interesting parallel to Whole Word/New Math occurred in Russia during the 1940’s to the 1960’s. Lysenko’s theory of acquired characteristics was official dogma, mandated by the government. Mendelian genetic theory was outlawed; scientists who disagreed were imprisoned. The parallel is that politics determine what is “true.” The Communists wanted to believe that environmental forces can change genes, because the USSR was supposedly creating a new type of human. So, for political reasons, Lysenko was declared one of the country’s great geniuses. He wasn’t. Similarly, our educators declared Whole Word and New Math to be higher truths. They weren’t.)

The question we all need to ask is this: do you feel that our educators are acting in good faith, that they are sincerely trying to do the best possible job. If they were, we could forgive a lot. I no longer feel that they are. They always seem to be pretending, like Marcel Marceau pulling on that invisible rope, or like a Rube Goldberg contraption that whirrs mightily but produces nothing. Fifty million functional illiterates! People who can barely read a McDonalds menu! If we give unthinking support to our educators, we doubly damn these victims.


Another phrase heard in Manhattan a great deal is “Slave to fashion.” Well, we know what that means and we recognize those people.

But here’s a kindred phrase that needs more discussion: slave to ideology. It means, quite simply, that an idea dictates your actions. Hitler’s ideology compelled him to kill 6 million Jews. Pol Pot felt he had to run back to Cambodia and kill 25% of his own people. Stalin’s ideology justified killing more than 10 million of his own citizens. I think it’s important for us, here in the safety of the USA, to contemplate these hellish histories. Ideology makes people murderous. Our ideologues probably feel good about themselves: they kill only literacy and academic achievement in order to build a Brave New World.

Here are the final thoughts. Don’t fool yourself that very much in American education is accidental. These educators wanted dumber; they got dumber. Imagine having the power to do that. All that power to mess with people’s heads, to shape them and stunt them, to force them to be the people they should be if only they had the good sense to know it. (Power. I suspect that people want it to the degree they don’t have much else to be proud of.)

My recommendation for improvement is that we face an unpleasant unreality. Our elite educators are probably not capable of reform until sorely pressed. Our best bet is to ignore them. We need a sort of secession movement, the majority of Americans from the land of the education commissars. Senator Patrick Moynihan said such a brilliant thing, that he would rather be ruled by 400 people out of the phone book than by the faculty at Harvard. Exactly. Any random group of people will do a better job with the schools than the so-called experts.

I’m particularly hopeful that the business community will become more active in education. Not as partners (in which role they’ll just be enablers) but as the effective bosses. John Dewey and his gang seized control via the ed schools. Why can’t business leaders retake control via the school board, the PTA, community groups, elected officials, the bully pulpit? It’s not just that business people are practical and have good common sense. They know, as an everyday experience, that our public schools are turning out people that have one thing in common: they need remedial training to be useful. A recent government report, chaired by Norman Augustine and Bill Gates, declared that our society is at a tipping point. The public schools are endangering our economic future.

Another famous government report, A Nation At Risk (1983), concluded that our public schools seem to have been created by an enemy power. Exactly. An enemy that would want Americans to read feebly and count inaccurately.

And so, my friends, after all this, do you pull back in alarm from deciding that, yes, these people were up to no good? Do you prefer the other option where these people are simply not too bright? Well, you have some good company. Writing in 1928, when this horror show was cranking up, H. L. Mencken had this to say:

"To take a Ph.D. in education in most American seminaries, is an enterprise that requires no more real acumen or information than taking a degree in window dressing....Most pedagogues...are simply dull persons who have found it easy to get along by dancing to whatever tune happens to be lined out. At this dancing they have trained themselves to swallow any imaginable fad or folly, and always with enthusiasm. The schools reek with this puerile nonsense. Their programs of study sound like the fantastic inventions of comedians gone insane. The teaching of the elements is abandoned for a dreadful mass of useless fol-de-rols... Or examine a dozen or so of the dissertations...turned out by candidates for the doctorate at any eminent penitentiary for pedagogues, say Teachers College, Columbia. What you will find is a state of mind that will shock you. It is so feeble that it is scarcely a state of mind at all." (From "The War On Intelligence.")
So which is more disconcerting to contemplate: these people are subversively simple, or simply subversive? 


I made several short videos (about 5 minutes each) that tell you the essence of the foregoing article. On (These are graphic videos, not a person speaking. Quite informative.)

Phonics vs. Whole Word

John Dewey and the Burden of Ideology

IMPORTANT NEW BOOK about educational collapse in the UK--"The Great Reading Disaster" by Mona McNee and Alice Coleman--spells out what I can only prove circumstantially for the USA. Here’s the big picture:

American educators are almost a secret cult. Their bad ideas seem to percolate up from some invisible spring. It’s difficult to prove the true thinking or motives. The situation is different in the UK. There, the Labour Party is frankly Socialist. Its polices are called Progressivism. The aims are clear: forced egalitarianism, with a full-scale assault on traditionalism, classism, sexism, et al. Whole Word was loudly praised and promoted, whereas phonics was dismissed as obsolete. In short, vis-a-vis the UK, pointing out that Whole Word is a Socialist plot is quite a mundane comment. 

I recommend this book. Please see my review on 


37: Whole Word versus Phonics

42: Reading Resources

44: The Myth of Automaticity 


Reading so much about reading forced me to refine my own thoughts about reading. If you're thinking about picking a program or designing your own program, these reflections might be helpful.



© Bruce Deitrick Price 2009-11