K-12: Killing Democracy

Rudolf Flesch, in his 1955 book, noted that "things have changed in the last 10, 20 years.  For the first time in history, American parents see their children getting less education than they got themselves.  Their sons and daughters come home from school and they can't read the newspaper; they can't spell simple words like February or Wednesday; they don't know the difference between Austria and Australia.  The fathers and mothers don't know the reason for this, but they know that something terrible has happened to their most precious dreams and aspirations[.]"

Isn't it beautiful – the way Flesch perceives the decline of American civilization from two tiny examples?  Austria and Australia look alike.  What's the big deal about telling them apart?  Such casual imprecision is how students think today and is the essence of our problem.  Flesch remains The Man in American education.  Early on, he grasped the garish symptoms of the country's intellectual death spiral.  A school system that doesn't teach children the difference between days of the week and months of the year?  Well, there's little hope for it.

Even as the Education Establishment insisted that American children read, write, and spell better than ever, Flesch proved the absurdity of this claim.  He saw the country's academic decline; he saw the intellectual fabric of the country start to unravel.  "The American dream is, essentially, equal opportunity through free education for all.  This dream is beginning to vanish in a country where the public schools are falling down on the job[.]"

Please read that three times.  There should be symphonic accompaniment with big drums.  The American dream is vanishing; equal opportunity through free education is fading.  All of this was stated back in 1955, in Flesch's famous book, Why Johnny Can't Read.  Writing ostensibly on competing theories about reading, Flesch exposes competing theories of who shall control the country.  Flesch is talking about power.  With sight-words, people don't have any.

You do not need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  If hostile forces want to subvert the country, the simplest technique is to subvert reading.  Australia-Austria become part of the same blur.  Words and language, reading and comprehension – these touch every aspect of every life every day.  Poison reading, and you poison everything else.  (And the victims are made to pay for it all, in ever higher education budgets!)

Rudolf Flesch, who had both a law degree and a Ph.D. in library science, was the sharpest knife in the drawer.  He saw this attempted coup directed against reading.  He saw that the use of sight-words (also known as the whole word method) was nothing less than an attempt to destroy reading as traditionally understood and replace it with a crippled sort of faux reading.  He saw the grand significance of this coup: "I say, therefore, that the word method is gradually destroying democracy in this country; it returns to the upper[] middle[] class the privileges that public education was supposed to distribute evenly among the people."  Everyone who has a good patriotic heart should feel sick reading that. 

The Founding Fathers saw public education as the means for fulfilling the country's big dreams.  Public education was supposed to give everyone an even shot.  Without fair, efficient education, however, the benefits could not be distributed.  Those in the upper middle class could hold on to their privileges and expand them.  People cynically calling themselves liberals and Democrats would assist this illiberal, anti-democratic operation.

Flesch's chronology starts in the middle 1930s, a few years after sight-words were made the dominant instructional method.  He notes sarcastically that the educators "trot out all sorts of data and statistics to show that American children read, write, spell much better than they used to."  In fact, there were many illiteracy problems, including dyslexia.

The Education Establishment knew that sight-words are not an actual way to read or to teach reading.  What, then?  Sight-words were more like a psy-ops directed at the enemy's weakest point.  This salient, wide and powerful, exists to this day.  The majority of children in the United States learn to read with sight-words.  Nothing has changed since the 1930s.  This is a remarkable victory for the dark side.

As a practical matter, the victims of sight-words are given a severely limited vocabulary.  You might think of it as a worker's or slave's vocabulary.  Instead of the 100,000 or 200,000 words that most educated people speak and read without much effort, you have people who are painfully confined to a reading vocabulary of only 500 or 1,000 sight-words.  These people are called functional illiterates, and they are not a tiny minority.  This is 50 million people.  Illiteracy and sight-words go together like love and marriage.

Flesch is such a keen observer and thinker that he seems to be a prophet.  In fact, anyone could see who wanted to.  The Education Establishment was committed to dumbing down the country.  Its operatives went with the method that would do that.  Anyone seriously interested in turning the situation around has to go back to the beginning, circa 1935, when things started to fall apart.  Eliminate the big change at that time: the introduction of sight-words.  Return to the traditional teaching of reading by phonics.  Presto.  We are reborn.

Why Johnny Can't Read can be purchased on Amazon for under $10.  Every educated person should read Chapter 1, about 22 pages.  Indeed, you understand our educational problems only when you have read this.  Flesch wrote a second book in 1981 called Why Johnny Still Can't Read.  If you have time to read an entire book, this is the best choice.  It's built around the ten alibis, and they haven't changed in forty years.  The main one is "We do teach phonics."

As that claim shows, K-12 is a swamp of sophistry and insincerity.  There's not much you can trust.  Flesch and phonics – trust them.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12.  He deconstructs educational theories and methods at Improve-Education.org

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