Sunday, October 26, 2014

Can You Read This? (How Sight Words Cause Dyslexia)



If your child's school is using sight words instead of intensive phonics for teaching reading, this is how the text of even a simple children's book would look to your child. The child might be able to pick up a few words here and there. The child might figure out that the story had something to do with a farmer, a door, and a floor. If there were any pictures, the child might look to them for clues. But the child would not be able to draw any meaning from the text itself.

This paragraph is the opening paragraph of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. I put all but the commonly taught sight words in Symbol font, so that they appear in Greek letters. Here's the whole text in English letters:
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar--except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.
A child who has mastered phonics can easily read this simple paragraph. By reading it, the child may learn a few new words. For example, the child may be able to guess that lumber is wood. The child can also figure out that a cellar is like a basement, and that cyclone and whirlwind mean tornado. The child would also learn that life was hard for farming families in Kansas around 1900, when the book was written. In contrast, a child who has mastered the 220 most common sight words, plus the 100 most common nouns, but has a poor grasp of phonics would be unable to do more than pick out a few words in this text. The child's eyes will dart all over the page, looking for clues, instead of tracking from left to right. The child would have no clue that the book is about a girl named Dorothy who lived in Kansas.

The advocates of sight-word approaches to teaching reading claim that they are teaching children to read for meaning. Yet as this example shows, they are not even teaching children to read. Even the students who have managed to memorize a few hundred sight words cannot read a real book, not even a children's book.

The advocates of sight word approaches claim that they want to teach children to enjoy reading. But until children somehow figure out that letters stand for sounds, so that they can sound out words like midst and lumber and whirlwind, they cannot read real stories. Until then, any attempt to read will be a frustrating, humiliating, pointless ordeal.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Most Violent People on Earth!

Who are the most violent people on Earth? Think carefully before you answer. The correct answer is two-year-olds: people in their "terrible twos." Toddlers hit. They bite. They pinch. They scratch. (My sister has a barely visible scar on her cheek from a particularly vicious fellow toddler in her Sunday school nursery.) Toddlers also throw screaming tantrums when they do not get what they want. Sometimes, they throw tantrums when they do not even know what they want.

Fortunately, two-year-olds are generally too small and weak to inflict much damage (as long as you keep their fingernails trimmed). Even more fortunately, human beings tend to become less and less prone to violent outbursts as they grow. To study aggression in toddlers, you count the number of violent acts per hour. To study aggression in teenagers, you count violent acts per week. To study aggression in adults, you count violent acts per year. If we want a peaceful society, we must figure out how to get teenagers and adults to stop behaving like toddlers.

Toddlers are violent because they don't know any better. Toddlers are like tiny drunks. They lack the serenity to accept the things they cannot change. Toddlers lack the verbal skills to get other people to change the things that can be changed. Toddlers lack the self-control to hold up their end of a bargain. As children develop those skills, they become less violent. Adults can help children by teaching them rules, such as no hitting, no biting, no pinching or scratching, no screaming. These rules have to be taught and learned. When adults neglect to teach these rules at the proper time in a child's development, we say that the child is spoiled. Robert Fulghum summed up the importance of these rules in his poem All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The poem spells out the rules that little children should learn: Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. And so on.

It's shocking that so many older children and even grownups violate the rules that they should have learned in kindergarten. School bullying and crime boil down to a failure to follow the rules that Fulghum spelled out. People do need to learn those rules from kindergarten. But to become a responsible adult, they must learn a great deal more. They must learn a set of lessons that the ancient Greeks put together 24 centuries ago. The ancient Greeks developed a curriculum of seven subjects that provide a well-rounded education. Their word for it gave rise to our word encyclopedia.

The Greeks' well-rounded education consisted of seven subjects. There were three language arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar is the study of how words are altered and combined to form meaningful sentences. Grammar helps you learn how to say exactly what you mean and to understand exactly what other people are saying. Logic is the study of how sentences are combined to form reasonable and compelling arguments. Logic deals with concepts like all, some, and none and concepts like if-then and therefore. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech. It teaches you how to use your words to get what you want. The ancient Greek curriculum also had four arts of number, space, and time: mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. Mathematics deals with numbers. Geometry deals with number and space. Music deals with number and time. Astronomy deals with number, space, and time.

The ancient Romans embraced the Greeks' well-rounded education. The Romans called these seven subjects the liberal arts: studies appropriate for free men, as opposed to slaves. Free men were expected to think for themselves and to participate in making decisions that affect themselves and others. In contrast, women and children and slaves were just supposed to do as they were told.

During the Renaissance, the wealthy families of Northern Italy expanded the well-rounded education. They added subjects that they called the humanities: philosophy, history, languages literature, and art. Like the liberal arts, the humanities served a political purpose. The liberal arts and the humanities help one learn to be rational and reasonable and to express oneself persuasively. These studies helped the members of the ruling class learn to have productive and even pleasant political conversations. As the sciences advanced, it became increasingly important for decision-makers to have a basic grasp of the sciences.

A society can be truly democratic only if everyone learns to read and gets a solid grounding in the liberal arts, the humanities, and the sciences. Unfortunately, educational policies have been put in place to undermine that kind of education. Public school teachers have been taught and often forced to use a method of reading instruction that does not work. Many children in the United States are expected to memorize whole words as shapes (sight words) instead of learning how to sound the words out. Unfortunately, children who do not learn to read cannot read to learn. Teachers have been told to stop giving formal lessons in grammar. Yet grammar is the first step in studying the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students in the United States also score below average in mathematics, when compared with students from other industrialized countries. If we want American citizens to behave like responsible adults, we need to make sure that our public schools effectively teach the subjects that are appropriate for free people.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Yes, Virginia, the Income Tax Is Constitutional

I take part in a peace vigil that is held every Friday evening. One day, a group of excited young people, all high school graduates, came up to us at vigil to tell us that the income tax is unconstitutional. Fortunately, I always carry a copy of the U.S. Constitution with me, so I was able to give them a dose of truth.

I showed them that U.S. Constitution, as originally ratified, gave the federal government the power to lay and collect taxes. (See Article I, Section 8, Clause I, which is called the Taxing and Spending Clause.) Originally, this power was limited by the Apportionment Rule (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4), which stated that the total amount of direct federal taxes (such as a tax on an individual’s property or income) from the people of any state had to be proportional to that state’s population. So if the census showed that a state accounted for 5% of the U.S. population, then the people of that state would end up paying 5% of the total income tax, regardless of whether the state was rich or poor. I showed them that the apportionment rule was dropped in 1913, with the passage of the 16th Amendment.
The apportionment rule had become a big problem. Imagine, for example, that you have a tiny handful of people, such as mine owners, who are getting fantastically rich from the work of other people, such as coal miners. The millionaires will end up living in fancy places like Boston and New York City. As a result, some people in the richer states (Massachusetts and New York) were getting rich off the work of poor people in poorer states (e.g., West Virginia and Kentucky). But because of the apportionment rule, the amount of federal income tax that you could get from the millionaires in New York or Boston would be limited by the amount of taxes that you could wring out of West Virginia and Kentucky. 

During its first few decades, the federal government was supported mainly by internal taxes, such as taxes on distilled spirits (thus sparking the Whiskey Rebellion), refined sugar, slaves, and corporate bonds. To finance the War of 1812, the federal government collected sales taxes on other luxury goods, such as gold, silverware, and watches. After 1817, Congress did away with the internal taxes and turned instead to tariffs on imported goods to finance the federal government.
The import tariffs turned out to be one of the major causes of the Civil War. By raising the costs of imports, the tariffs reduced competition for domestic manufacturers, which were mainly in the North. However, the Southern planters resented paying high prices for manufactured goods. Thus, they felt that they were being unfairly exploited by the Yankees. (Of course, the plantation owners did not think it was unfair to exploit their slaves.) The Southern states seceded from the Union for several reasons. One was to protect the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery, which had already been abolished in the Northern states (starting with Vermont, in 1777), as well as in Mexico and the British and French Empires. Another reason was to allow the Southern states to develop their own trade policy.

To finance the war, both the Union and the Confederacy imposed income tax plans that did not follow the apportionment rule. The federal income tax helped the Union finance the Civil War, but it was repealed a few years after the war ended. The income tax was revived briefly in 1894, but the Supreme Court overturned it in 1895, arguing that it was unconstitutional because it violated the Apportionment Rule. So the federal income tax really was ruled unconstitutional in 1895. However, the 16th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913, did away with the apportionment rule. Since then, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the federal income tax on individuals and corporations is constitutional.

To my surprise, the young people had heard of the 16th Amendment. They gave the usual explanations of why it was invalid. One is that the 16th Amendment “conferred no new power to tax.” (But the Taxing and Spending Clause had already given the federal government the power to tax. The 16th Amendment simply voided the Apportionment Rule.) Another argument is that there were typographical errors in the version of the amendment that was ratified by one or more of the states. The Supreme Court has rejected these objections as frivolous. The people who made those arguments in court ended up having to pay their taxes, plus penalties.

The young people were still not convinced. So I pointed out that if the income tax really were unconstitutional, rich people could simply refuse to pay. Maybe that argument persuaded them, but I doubt it.

Two things bothered me about the conversation. The first is that these young people were clearly hungry for knowledge about history, but they had somehow learned remarkably little about history in school. The second was that they were so well-versed in fake history. They “knew” that the income tax was unconstitutional. They had heard of the 16th Amendment, and they “knew” that it had never been ratified and would have made no difference if it had been ratified. These kids clearly had enough curiosity and brain-power to memorize and articulate complex statements of fact. They just hadn’t been given statements of fact that were actually true. I hope that they don’t end up in trouble with the IRS as a result of their miseducation.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Have a Musician Evaluate the Music Teachers

A friend of mine has two careers. In the evenings and on weekends, she is a professional violinist. On weekdays, she teaches music in a public primary school. Recently, she told me a distressing story about how her performance as a teacher is being evaluated.

Her supervisor, who is not a musician, criticized her for how she begins class every day for her second-grade violin students. My friend begins each class by repeating the most important lessons for a child of that age to learn about the violin: (1) the correct way to handle the violin case, (2) the correct way to take the violin out of its case, (3) the correct way to hold the violin, (4) the correct way to hold the bow. The primal importance of these lessons is obvious to any serious musician. You want to keep the child from destroying the instrument, and you want correct posture and technique to become second nature to the child. If children open the violin case wrong side up, they could end up destroying their instrument. Children who hold the instrument incorrectly will never learn to play well, and they could end up injuring themselves. Second-graders need to learn these basic lessons through tiresome repetition. Yet to my friend’s supervisor, who is not a musician, all this harping on the subject of how to pick up the instrument seemed to be a waste of time. So my friend was told to stop “wasting time” on that part of the lesson. This put my friend in an awkward situation. To be a good violin teacher, she has to ignore the well-meant advice from her supervisor.

My friend is facing a problem that many people with specialized occupations have always faced. They are hired for their special expertise. Yet they are often managed by people who lack the ability to evaluate the quality of their work. Unfortunately, the managers themselves may be unaware that they lack this kind of judgment. This problem is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that people who have poor skills in various social and intellectual domains also lack the ability to judge their level of skills in those domains. Their very lack of skill makes it impossible for them to notice their own mistakes. Thus, they end up with an awkward combination of poor judgment and overconfidence. The solution to this problem is to provide training in the skills that the person lacks. As their skills develop, their judgment improves, even as their self-confidence erodes.

My friend’s supervisor has been given an impossible task. There is no practical way for an adult who is not a trained musician to learn enough about music and music pedagogy to judge the quality of a primary school’s music program. It would be like putting someone with no medical training in charge of evaluating the quality of the instruction in a residency program for brain surgeons. Laymen simply lack the specialized knowledge and skills to make useful judgments. As a result, they are unlikely to be able to provide useful guidance and are likely to make suggestions that do more harm than good. A conservatory-trained orchestra musician is an elite professional. Music pedagogy, which is the science and art of teaching music, is also a highly specialized field. If you want to get a reliable opinion about the quality of a music program, you need to seek out someone who has credentials in both fields: a professional musician who is highly respected as a music teacher.

I think that music is important, and music instruction is no less important. A school system’s music program should have several goals. One is to help a large proportion of the student body become competent amateur musicians. Another is to help even the nonmusicians develop an appreciation for classical music and jazz. Yet another is to serve as a farm team for the local conservatory, just as the school system's athletic program serves as a farm team for collegiate and professional athletics. Therefore, it makes sense to have a music professor from the local conservatory, as opposed to someone who is not even a musician, design the school system’s music program and guide and evaluate the music teachers.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Should You Moderate Your Web Site Comments?

The Internet has made it possible for people from all over the world to share information and opinions. In theory, Internet forums provide an opportunity for true dialectic. In dialectic, people pool their knowledge and correct each other’s errors in reasoning in a shared effort to find truth. Unfortunately, many participants view Internet discussions as an opportunity to vie for some sort of pointless social dominance. As a result, Internet discussions too often descend into “flame wars.” To encourage true dialectic in your Internet forum, you must douse the flames. To do that, you must moderate the comments.

Unfortunately, few people have had any real training in how to moderate a discussion. Many people in the United States were brought up with the belief that it is impolite to talk about politics or religion. The supposed purpose of such a rule is to prevent people from engaging in pointless fights; yet in practice, that rule tends to derail democracy. You cannot have rule by the people unless a critical mass of the people follow the rules of civility, which are the rules for discussing sensitive topics in public. If you want to maintain civility in your Internet forum, you must spell out and enforce those rules.

The citizens of ancient Athens developed a curriculum for teaching civility. This curriculum included training in grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium) as well as mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium). The Romans called these studies the liberal arts because they were considered to be appropriate for freeborn men, as opposed to slaves. Tragically, our educators in the “Land of the Free” have been suppressing the teaching of grammar for the past half century. Yet unless you understand some basic grammatical principles, you cannot begin to study logic. Unless you can apply the basic principles of logic, you cannot even begin to study rhetoric. Thus, you will likely be irrational and unreasonable. Our political discussions in the United States today are ugly and unproductive because few of us have been schooled in these basic disciplines.

Our public schools have also done a poor job of dealing with bullying. As a result, many people have never learned that lying and personal attacks are unacceptable. They have also never learned that ad hominem arguments, which are basically a form of name-calling, generate far more heat than light. If you allow this kind of behavior in your Internet forum, the bad discourse will drive out the good, just as bad money drives good money out of circulation (Gresham’s Law).

There are two challenges to moderating an Internet forum. One is simply finding the time to do it. The second is figuring out how to do it. If the purpose of the Internet forum is to promote productive discussions, you don’t want to suppress inconvenient truth. Instead, you want to teach people how to participate meaningfully in real dialectic.

To have a productive dialectic, you must allow people to present reliable evidence and to make reasonable critiques of that evidence. Any statements of fact backed up by citations of a credible source should always be welcome, even if those facts challenge your beliefs. In contrast, lies and personal abuse should be deleted. But how can you tell whether a statement of fact is reliable, and whether a critique is reasonable? Fortunately, the classical liberal arts were developed to help you make those decisions. An understanding of grammar helps you understand the meaning of sentences. The study of logic helps you sort out valid and strong arguments from misleading nonsense. A study of rhetoric helps you understand the importance of reputation and the proper role of emotion in decision making. Once you have mastered the basic principles of these three classical liberal arts, you will be well equipped to enforce civility in your forum.

To be fair, you should clearly spell out the rules of your forum. Comments that are clearly false or illogical (as opposed to being contrary to what you wish to be true) or that are defamatory should be deleted immediately. People who violate the rules should be gently corrected. People who persist in bad behavior should be blocked, at least temporarily.  

 Laurie Endicott Thomas is the author of Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, published by Freedom of Speech Publishing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why a Bully’s Target Has No Right of Self-Defense



A recent case from Pennsylvania teaches us an important lesson about why bullying is such a serious and persistent problem in public schools in the United States. Teachers and principals often allow bullies to say and do appalling things, day after day. A reasonable person may imagine that those teachers and principals fail to intervene because they are weak and permissive. Yet those supposedly weak and permissive adults can come down like a ton of bricks if one of the children who are being targeted by the bullies tries to defend him- or herself, even nonviolently. In other words, many teachers and principals actually condone bullying. Some of them actually participate in the bullying, while others simply take the bullies’ side. Education and human rights activists need to understand why an adult might behave that way.
In the case from Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old boy used his iPad, which he was allowed to bring to class, to record evidence of the living hell that his math class had become. When the principal heard the recording, he did not discipline the teacher or the bullies. Instead, the principal reported the bullies’ target to the police. The bullies got off scot-free, but principal saw to it that their target ended up facing a felony wiretapping charge, even though the recording was made in self-defense and only after the school authorities had ignored repeated requests to solve the problem. The wiretapping charge did not stick, because the principal had destroyed the recording. (The principal’s need to hide how bad things were at his school outweighed his desire for vengeance against a child who dared to defend himself.) So a judge convicted the boy for disorderly conduct instead. Fortunately, the boy’s mother had transcribed the recording before it was destroyed. She wants the judge to drop the charges and the school district officials to apologize.
Why would a principal have criminal charges brought against a child who simply provided evidence that he was being bullied at school? Why didn’t he stick up for the rights of the abused student, as any decent person would have done? To understand the principal’s reaction, you need to understand something about the nature of social hierarchy. Like a flock of hens, a human society tends to organize itself into a social hierarchy. High-ranking hens police the behavior of lower-ranking hens by pecking them, thus creating a pecking order. The children who are being bullied at school are similarly at the bottom of the school’s pecking order. Anyone can attack them: the principal, the teachers, and even other children. People with an authoritarian personality seem to feel that as long as the strong are attacking the weak, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. But they perceive any attempt at self-defense by someone on the bottom rung of society as a threat to the entire social order. The high-ranking people will thus attack the underdog for defending himself, in order to preserve the social hierarchy and thus their own exalted rank within it.
When a flock of hens is badly managed, the higher-ranking hens may gang up on a lower-ranking hen and peck her to death. The usual cause of this problem is overcrowding. The lower-ranking hen simply cannot escape from her tormenters. Unfortunately, schools create precisely the same situation. Bullying is rampant in classrooms, on playgrounds, and especially on school buses because the lower-ranking children simply cannot escape. Like a prison, a school provides a bully with targets and an audience. But even if a teacher does not have the skills to manage this problem in the classroom, the principal can solve it by putting physical distance between the bullies and their targets, such as by reassigning one or more of the children to a different class.
That student in Pennsylvania felt that he has a basic human right to walk through the hallways without being tripped, slammed into lockers, or burned with a cigarette lighter by his fellow students. He felt that he has a right to have a math class where no one threatens to pull his pants down, shouts obscene insults at and about him, or “just tries to scare him” by slamming a book on his desk. The teacher and the principal and even the judge in this case evidently had a different opinion.  By convicting the boy on a disorderly conduct charge, the judge sends the message that the boy had no right to record evidence of the offenses being committed against him, that he has no right to defend himself.
The boy in this case is described as having special needs. According to published accounts, he has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and processes some kinds of information slowly. Yet who could focus on math problems in that kind of setting? Would this boy have had any trouble with learning if he were not being treated like Piggy in The Lord of the Flies? Maybe the real diagnosis in his case should be post-traumatic stress disorder, not a learning disability. In a classroom like that, children learn very little math, but they learn a lot about social oppression. The bullies in that school learned that they can get away with all sorts of horrible behavior, and their target eventually found out that the oppression gets even worse if he takes reasonable steps to defend himself.
Hens may live within a pecking order, but we human beings have other options. We do not have to peck each other mercilessly, even when we are penned up like animals. We can understand and apply such concepts as compassion, equality, and human rights. Those of us who are not birdbrains can use our conscience as our guide.
One of the most important public responsibilities of private citizens is to ensure that people who act like birdbrains do not remain for long in a position of public trust. People show indifference to a student’s basic human rights should not be teaching and should certainly not be working as a principal. Anyone who would convict a 15-year-old of a crime for simply documenting the abuse to which he is subjected on a daily basis in a public school classroom should not be a judge.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Is Logic Politically Incorrect?

I wrote my book Not Trivial to explain that children need direct instruction in phonics, grammar, logic, and other academic disciplines. To my delight, conservatives are embracing this message. True conservatives respect tradition, and they understand that some important skills can be developed only through direct instruction and practice. What surprises me is the push-back I get from some people on the left.

Several people have told me that by urging people to teach children some lessons that come from the “Western canon,” I must be secretly promoting “Western” ideology, to the exclusion of everything else, and thus promoting imperialism and white supremacy. This accusation is ridiculous on many levels. For starters, if you had told a citizen of ancient Athens or Ephesus or Alexandria that he should be put in the same category as the barbarians of what is now Britain, France, or Germany, he would have been highly offended. “The West,” and “the white race” and even “Europe” are modern concepts. Studying ancient history helps you see how artificial those concepts are.

Modern Greece is a tiny country in southern Europe. Yet the ancient Greeks were sea-faring people who established independent city-states along the shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, from Spain in the West to Georgia in the East. Greeks were even allowed to establish a major port city in Egypt. Under Alexander the Great, Greeks established an empire stretching as far east as the Indus Valley. Thus, it makes no sense to pigeonhole the ancient Greeks as “Western.”

Some people on the left evidently need to look down on anything that they classify as “Western.” I think that they are succumbing to an error in thinking that Edward Saïd called Orientalism. They make false assumptions about what they consider to be the Western world, and they have bizarre, romanticized ideas about the East. For example, several people have told me that logic, in particular, is “Western” and that people in the East have “different ways of knowing.” I wonder if they imagine Westerners to be nerdy scientists who fly around in airplanes while Easterners are magicians with flying carpets.

A few people have told me that “Western” ideas promote imperialism, as if “Eastern” ideas do not. In reality, some of the writings that are central to the Western canon, such as the book of Exodus and accounts of the battle of Marathon, were about the struggle for freedom and self-determination. In contrast, the works of the Chinese philosopher Confucius actually strengthened Western imperialism by teaching the British and the French how to develop an effective civil service to run their own empires. Empires have existed in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It’s silly to claim that imperialism is something that only Europeans do.

Ancient Greek literature remains important to the present day for some simple, practical reasons. There is a lot of it, much of it is interesting and useful, and the ability to read it was never completely lost. Thus, Greek literature preserved a lot of stories and ideas from places like Egypt and Mesopotamia, long after the last person who knew how to read hieroglyphics or cuneiform had died.

Although literacy had played an important role in Egyptian culture, only priests and royalty could afford the time it took to learn the complicated Egyptian writing system. In fact, the art of reading Egyptian hieroglyphics was lost for centuries. In contrast, the Greeks used a simple phonetic alphabet. To learn to read and write, a Greek speaker just had to learn phonics: the relationship between letters and sounds. As a result, lots of ordinary Greek people, not just priests and royalty, learned to read and write.

Some ancient Greeks wrote important works on political science because Greek society was practically unique in the ancient world. Most civilizations that were sophisticated enough to have written records were ruled by a king or emperor who had semidivine status, which meant that the citizens had little political or intellectual freedom. In contrast, the societies with a much more egalitarian political structure, thus allowing considerable political and intellectual freedom, generally left little or nothing in the way of literature. The Greeks were able to learn about writing and other technologies from neighboring civilizations. However, the Greek city-states were small and dispersed. None of their leaders could afford a permanent standing army. Thus, anyone who aspired to power in a Greek city-state needed the political support of the men of military age. This political reality meant that ordinary Greek men often had a great deal of political and intellectual freedom.

When I point out that the ancient Greeks coined the term democracy, some people point out that Athenian democracy was imperfect, by modern standards. The Athenians permitted slavery, and they allowed only the male citizens to have a voice in government. Of course, I am fully aware of all that. I am not looking to ancient Athens, or any society in history, as some sort of utopia or golden age. Practically all ancient civilizations oppressed women and condoned slavery, and even the societies that were generally egalitarian had shockingly high homicide rates, by modern standards.

What I am saying is that some traditional disciplines that were developed in ancient Greece remain valuable. They provide the basic skills that you need for any serious intellectual activity and for participating productively in democratic politics. Besides using phonics for teaching reading, we should give children direct instruction in the seven classical liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. These seven classical disciplines help children learn to think rationally and express themselves effectively. The ancient Athenians valued these studies because they helped to strengthen democracy. They are no less important today.