K-12: Illiterate New World
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World appeared in 1932. Everyone at that time was dazzled by the technocratic skills of the Ford Motor Company, able to turn out identical cars by the millions on highly efficient assembly lines. In Huxley's novel, the calendar counts years A.F. – After Ford – and God's new name is Ford.
The zeitgeist was obsessed with control. Ideologues liked the possibility of more precise social engineering. Communists in particular were focused on planned societies and central economies, with super-smart experts sitting around a table and deciding what every citizen could do and could not do. Psychiatrists like Ivan Pavlov wanted to show how drastically you could manipulate cognition and personality.
Aldous Huxley devised a single beautiful image for capturing all of these hopes and fears: a hi-tech assembly line where infants were manufactured to specification. In particular, oxygen levels were adjusted to create babies of very low, low, medium, and very high intelligence. This image, this metaphor, was stunning in its concreteness. A huge industrial operation, all clean and shiny, all stainless steel and glass, did what nobody had thought of doing before: control human intelligence in embryo.
It turns out there is an activity in the real world, in real society, that is exactly parallel. That was the creation of readers to order. By the simple device of depriving some children of certain key information, they were stunted, no longer able to become professors, more or less predestined for low-level jobs.
As Huxley in the year 1931 was doing the final edit on his book, this country's Education Establishment built a new sort of assembly line for producing flawed children. Instead of withholding oxygen, this factory withheld the alphabet. Parents were told that the ABCs are not essential and could be ignored. As one famous expert announced dogmatically, "[c]urrent practice in the teaching of reading does not require knowledge of letters." Really?
Instead of the alphabet (twenty-six fairly simple objects that can be memorized in a month or two), children in this new factory were told to focus on complete words. Instead of memorizing B, for example, you had to memorize BEACH. Just five letters, but a hugely complex design – and there were more than 200,000 of them. Parents were told their children could routinely memorize these visual designs with "automaticity." That's like instant recall. The child was supposed to know hundreds and then thousands of these designs with perfect accuracy. In reality, virtually no child could do this, except the few with photographic memories. So in practice, the factory created millions of non-readers and weak readers.
In this ruthless new factory, the obsession with power and control was the same as in Huxley's factory. Humans would be conditioned and engineered to be what the controllers wanted. This creepy, highly invasive scheme was a brilliant "success," once it's understood that the new goal was limited literacy. Anyway, that was the predictable result. Reading levels dropped from 1931 onward. Several decades later, the country had tens of millions of functional illiterates. T hose are people who memorize several hundred sight-words with good accuracy, and probably hundreds more with medium or low accuracy. Reading as traditionally understood – a skill both easy and fun – was extinct for a great percentage of the population. What this bold new factory was creating was damaged readers, like the embryos that didn't get enough oxygen.
This scheme was wildly improbable from the first day. What sort of unconscionable people would dare to perpetrate it? That the citizenry could accept it was improbable. How many semi-literate people would the society tolerate? That so-called "experts" could put this scheme over on the public remains unlikely to this day. It's probably not doable unless the Education Establishment has the support of certain unions, certain government agencies, certain foundations, certain universities, and much of the media. There is a big silence. How will the public learn the truth if the controllers make sure it's well hidden? (Check the archives of the New York Times. You will not find insight into why sight-words can be considered a dubious development.)
Hardly 20 years after the introduction of this brave new illiteracy, the situation was already so bad that Rudolf Flesch felt compelled to write a book explaining what had happened to the country (Why Johnny Can't Read, 1955). Many millions of Americans felt compelled to read the book. Almost everyone knew that something had gone horribly wrong. It continues to go wrong today.
In Brave New World, the controllers are always smugly pleased with their factory. The same sort of people seem to be controlling K-12 education for the past century.