Education Has Been Battered by Bad Faith

The easiest way to understand the field of education is to consider a legal concept: bad faith.  It's been around for thousands of years; in Latin, the phrase was mala fides.  Any time there's a split between what is claimed and what is fact, you've got bad faith.

Lawyers, judges, and juries must wrestle with the subtleties of bad faith.  Philosophers find it a fertile field. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about what it means, existentially, to act in good faith: "[h]uman reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is."  I'd say that Sartre acted in bad faith, as he virtually guarantees that no one will understand what he means.

Education is not so murky.  This is a field clearly disfigured by counterintuitive failure crying out for explanation and cure.  Why are our statistics and test scores so low, why do we have roughly 50 million functional illiterates, why must we import most of our scientists and engineers, and why do we have so many people at the college level who know very little?  These are inexplicable mysteries until you factor in bad faith.  Then everything makes sense.

Think of young teachers, fresh from ed school, teaching their first year of classes.  These teachers have embraced the theories and methods taught to them.  No matter how bad these approaches might be, the young teachers believe in them and are therefore acting in good faith. 

But what about the professors at the ed schools?  They're probably in their forties or fifties.  They've been watching dismal results come back from the public schools for decades.  They know (or should know) that many popular fads are disasters.  Most of these professors have heard of better ideas used in private schools, homeschooling, or other countries.  But they keep promoting the same bad ideas in the schools, with a reckless disregard of the damage caused.

Reading, the quintessential skill, provides a well-documented, open-and-shut case of bad faith lasting 80 years.

In the Roaring Twenties, the Education Establishment conducted research on what would be called Look-say.  Dr. Samuel Orton, a neurologist, drifted into a study of reading difficulties.  It was not his main field, and he was uncomfortable when he found himself at odds with the oncoming orthodoxy.  However, in 1929, he published an article (in the Journal of Educational Psychology) titled "The 'Sight Reading' Method of Teaching Reading, as a Source of Reading Ability," in which he spoke about "a restricted group of children for whom, as I think we can show, this technique is not only not adapted but often proves an actual obstacle to reading progress, and moreover I believe that this group is one of considerable educational importance both because of its size and because here 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."

This famously diffident quote says that Look-say will keep kids from reading and scramble their brains. Almost everyone in the field of reading at the professorial level would know this article.  But in 1931, as the Depression reached its full fury, our left-wing educators jumped at the chance to impose this faulty method on the public schools of America, with disastrous results.

Fast-forward twenty years.  The illiteracy crisis in the United States is obvious to everyone.  This was the context in which Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can't Read in 1955, a book that sold 8 million copies.  It explains why we had an illiteracy problem (sight-words) and what to do about it (bring back phonics).

Instead, the Education Establishment doubled down on its discredited methods, forming the International Reading Association.  This professional association had the tasks of destroying Flesch and imposing sight-words forever.

The point is that at two distinct points, everyone at the top of American education knew that sight-words didn't work, and in both cases, they went right on.  Cut to the present, when we have 50 million functional illiterates and generally low literacy standards.  These professors know that their methods hurt children.  They know that slowly memorizing hundreds of sight-words is a horribly difficult task, which typically leads nowhere. 

So we have eight decades of bad faith in the field of reading.  Had we world enough and time, we could look at math and all the other subjects, and you would see the same pattern.  The Education Establishment favors the theories and methods that lead to bad results.  Bad faith followed by more bad faith. 

But why?  The short answer, I believe, is because John Dewey and his followers were socialists.  They thought leveling is a good plan. 

Progressive educators want to outwit nature and make everybody end up with similar IQs.  Predictably, our schools will be a bust as schools.  As indoctrination centers, they are successful. 

But the educators are not calling the schools indoctrination centers; they are calling them places of education.  And there is all the bad faith you need to kill a civilization.

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author and education reformer. He founded in 2005; his site explains theories and methods.