Reading the Contempt of Socialists
What, if any, is the connection between illiteracy and ideology?
George Orwell, our greatest political sociologist, has some ideas. He is the master explainer of governance, power, totalitarianism, education, and the dynamics of class warfare. It's an ugly picture.
In his seminal essay, "Ignorance Is Strength," Orwell lays down the iron rule of history: "Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world[:] High, Middle, and Low."
Orwell cynically notes that the Middle always campaign for power by promising the Low that they will be moved toward the top. In fact, if the Middle are able to seize power, they establish themselves as the High, the Low are crushed, and that's the end of the story until the next Middle become powerful enough to start another cycle.
Orwell concludes: "As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High."
Many observers would say, especially with Obama in the White House, that we are witnessing an attempted coup by the current Middle -- intellectuals, academics, ideologues, journalists, thinkers, and talkers (i.e., people who feel entitled to run the world because they are so smart). This hungry Middle wants to take power from the bankers, tycoons, entrepreneurs, and industrialists -- the movers and organizers who have run the world for several centuries.
But let's focus on the Low -- can they improve their lives by siding with the Middle in this ongoing coup attempt? Will the Middle, this time, actually try to lift up the Low?
Orwell's essay is depressing because he sees no hope that the Low can ever improve their condition. In his view, the Middle are always liars, manipulators, and exploiters, despite their honeyed promises.
Why is Orwell so sure that the Middle always abuse the Low? And can we find proof of Orwell's pessimistic vision?
One bit of history strikes me forcefully in this context. When the Progressives in this country took control of public education, fighting under the banner of John Dewey's socialist ideas, you might have expected -- or hoped -- that they would use their new power to lift the lower classes to some higher place. They did not.
They had power by the 1930s, and their first big move was to throw phonics out and introduce Whole Word, which requires children to memorize words as diagrams. It seems to me a particularly revealing move. From that time forward, our public schools have churned out more than 50 million functional illiterates. We have one million dyslexics, with some estimates much higher. We have a vast decline in culture, in general knowledge, and in ordinary common sense. (If people still have any of that, it's arguably because they are constantly interacting with movies and TV; most of this so-called entertainment is more sophisticated than most of the so-called education served up in our public schools.)
And all this decline was accomplished by a simple device: our collectivist educators, having climbed their way to the top, refused to let the peasants learn to read.
To me, it's shocking. But there's little doubt that that is what happened, and it is confirmation of George Orwell's cynicism. He said that the Middle, when they got power, would never give the suckers an even break. That's what we have seen in the public schools of our country for the last 80 years. What the Low get is dumbing down and illiteracy.
The reason for using Whole Word never seemed to have anything to do with helping the Low. A cursory look at literacy statistics proves that this method is a bust and generally hurts the slower students most. The real agenda always seemed to be making sure that the Low stay low, and in creating an economic and cultural disaster zone where the Middle can sign up new recruits and continue their assault on the High. Indeed, the Middle use their control of education primarily to wean the Low away from supporting the High. Education today is a war of propaganda against the status quo, until the High give up. Isn't this what we are seeing?
The Education Establishment pushed Look-say, Sight Words, Whole Language, and Balanced Literacy (all these are the same thing under different names) in an endless rolling barrage unlike anything seen since the trench warfare of World War I. Phonics had to be obliterated. Whole Word had to be enforced, by whatever claims, weird jargon, repackaging, and outright lies were necessary.
So here we are in 2012, and children are still forced to memorize their Dolch words in first grade. What are Dolch words? They are the more common words, named after Edward Dolch, one of the pioneers of Whole Word. Although language and jargon have been changed, the essential gimmick does not change. Kids were made to memorize sight-words in 1935, and they are made to do the same today.
Children still end up reading less fluently, knowing less, and making for a less educated, less independent people.
So I propose that reading theory -- perhaps I should say false reading theory -- provides a miniature diorama of George Orwell's analysis. Our Middle are Socialists, and once they were on the move circa 1931, they showed, at least in education, their true colors. I think it's fair to say that Obama and his far-left friends would like to move to the top. Obviously, this is bad news for the High. But this essay is about the Low. The warning is clear. The Low should not be so foolish as to expect much of anything. The people at the bottom will be kept there, ignorant, on welfare, and for sure hardly literate.
In short, the peasants never get an even break.
In 1911, G. Stanley Hall, one of John Dewey's mentors, went so far as to extol illiteracy: "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."
And so we see that in reading -- theory, methods, and results -- we can read the contempt of Socialists.
Is there any hope? Only if the entire society rejects the blandishments of our Education Establishment. Personally, I think it's correct to conclude that nothing they endorse can lead to education, if they can help it, nor to literacy. All the phonics experts say they can teach virtually every child to read in the first grade. That's what we need. Anything less concedes the battlefield to our ruthless, on-the-march Middle.
Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, and education reformer. He founded Improve-Education.org in 2005; this site explains theories and methods.