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.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why Blame the Teachers When the Problem Is Their Bosses?

If a company provides shoddy goods or poor services, many people love to blame the company’s workers, rather than its managers. Perhaps it’s human nature to blame the lowest-ranking available person whenever a problem arises. In a school, the lowest-ranking person is the student. Thus, we have always talked about children who are failing in school, rather than about how the school is failing those children. Low-income people also have a low rank. Thus, poor students’ families have traditionally been blamed for the poor quality of the schools in poor neighborhoods. Now that powerful conservatives are trying to destroy the public workers’ unions, pundits are increasingly blaming the failures in our schools on teachers and the teachers’ unions. Yet if we really want to solve the problems in our schools, we must find the real causes of the problems. To do that, we must start our search at the top of the educational establishment.

To a disturbing degree, teachers in public schools are like assembly line workers. Assembly line workers have to install a particular part or do some other task as a unit passes by their workstation. Likewise, teachers are expected to install knowledge of a particular subject in a student’s mind as the student passes through their classrooms. Unfortunately, the installation does not always go smoothly, especially if something went wrong at an earlier point on the line. If the problem is in some aspect of the design of the assembly line, you cannot solve the problem by giving punishments and rewards to the workers. Instead, you may have to train, discipline, or even replace the managers.

History teachers have told me that many of their students cannot read their history textbooks. Math teachers have told me about students who can do mathematical calculations correctly but cannot read the word problems on their exams. High school English teachers tell me that their students’ writing is atrocious because the students have no grasp of grammar and cannot even spell. These are problems that should have been solved at an earlier point in the student’s education. Like many assembly line workers, teachers do not have the authority to stop the line to solve production problems. Instead, the students just get passed along to the next workstation, whether they learn anything or not.

Many high school students are unprepared for high school because of what went wrong in the earlier grades. Some of these problems result from policy decisions that were made at the highest level within the educational establishment, such as the decisions about what teachers are taught in their education classes. Other policies are made by state or local boards of education, such as the choice of textbooks and teaching methods. Teachers who deviate from these policies are likely to be punished, even if their students are thriving.

The worst of these policies has been the deliberate use of an ineffective method of reading instruction. Instead of teaching children to sound words out, many of our schools are still expecting children to learn to recognize whole words as sight words, as if English words were like corporate logos or Chinese characters. This approach was shown in the 1840s to be ineffective. In the 1920s, it was shown to be the cause of dyslexia. Yet it remains central to the whole language approach that is still popular among educators, despite its miserable failures in California in the 1990s. The sight word approach is retained in the so-called balanced literacy approach that is dominant in educational circles today.

As long as schools are using sight words instead of phonics, they will be generating dyslexia instead of promoting literacy. The consequences are far more serious for children whose parents are poor and uneducated and thus have no other educational resources to fall back on.

Another bad policy was the decision to take the grammar out of grammar school. That policy has led to serious declines in reading comprehension, needless difficulty in learning foreign languages, and an overall decline in rational thinking. As I explain in my book Not Trivial, grammar was the first leg of the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar lessons provide the basic concepts that you need in order to study logic, which you need in order to become a reasonable person. Thus, stripping grammar out of grammar school pulls the rug out from under the child’s intellectual and social development.

To me, it seems that the biggest problem we have in our public schools is the suppression of direct instruction in fundamental disciplines, such as phonics and grammar. This suppression was imposed in the name of constructivism, which is the name given to the preposterous idea that children truly learn only those ideas that they “construct” or figure out on their own. It has been an excuse to avoid teaching children any meaningful facts or having them practice any fundamental skills. It would be like expecting children to become jazz musicians without learning any music theory or practicing their scales.

From the perspective of the people who have real power within our society, the schools are working just fine. The better public schools in the wealthier neighborhoods provide an adequate supply of young people who can do well enough in college and professional school to fill the ranks of the professions and the white collar workforce. The problem is that the vast majority of the population is being robbed of the kind of education that would enable them to understand why the American Dream is dying or to take any meaningful action to secure their own future.

Although you can certainly find the occasional problem teacher, teachers in general are not the cause of the main problems in our educational system. Rather, teachers can be part of the solution, if you will let them. To solve our problems in education, thus enabling us to solve all of our other problems, we need a broad-based grassroots movement, with teachers, including public school teachers and college professors, playing the role of learned elders.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dyslexia Is Not a Brain Disease

In August, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed two new bills that are intended to make it easier to identify students who have dyslexia, which is defined as a neurologic disorder that makes it hard for children to learn to read. Yet dyslexia is not really a brain disease. Scientists have known since the 1920s that dyslexia is the result of using “sight words” instead of phonics for teaching children to read English. We need to use effective methods to teach reading, instead of telling healthy children that there is something wrong with their brains.
The word dyslexia implies difficulty in reading. The word originally meant the loss of the ability to read, in cases of brain injury. Yet today, this supposedly neurologic diagnosis is being applied to the 5 percent to 20 percent of otherwise seemingly normal children who are simply not learning to read in school. Yet is the problem really in the children’s brains or in their school?
To understand dyslexia, you must first understand the difference between a natural ability and an academic skill. Walking and talking are natural abilities. If a five-year-old child cannot walk or talk, you can safely assume that the child has some sort of physical or neurologic problem. But reading, writing, and arithmetic are not natural skills that develop spontaneously. They are academic skills that must be taught and learned. When children who have no other evidence of a brain disorder have poor academic skills, the problem is almost certainly in the schooling, not in the child.
Many of our public schools are using a method of reading instruction that does not work. Our schools should start by teaching the alphabet and then intensive phonics (how to sound words out). Instead, many schools encourage children to memorize whole words as shapes, while paying little or no attention to the sounds that the letters represent. Thus, children are taught to treat English words as if they are corporate logos or Chinese characters. This method has been called the look-say method, the whole-word method, and the use of sight words or Dolch words. It forms the basis of the whole language approach to education. And it has long been known to be disastrous.
The whole-word method was developed in the 1830s as a way to teach deaf children to read. It was then introduced into Massachusetts’ public schools by Horace Mann, the state’s first Secretary of Education. It worked so poorly that in 1845 a group of 31 Boston schoolmasters published a book to protest it. They complained, “We love the Secretary, but we hate his theories. They stand in the way of all substantial education. It is impossible for a sound mind not to hate them.”
Methods of reading instruction are often built into the reading textbooks. The New England Primer from colonial Massachusetts used intensive phonics. So did Noah Webster’s blue-backed speller, which was a bestseller second only to the Bible in the nineteenth century United States. The McGuffey Readers also used intensive phonics. Unfortunately, some major textbook publishers embraced the whole-word method in the early 20th century. Serious epidemics of dyslexia broke out as a result.
In the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation sent a medical doctor named Samuel Orton to Iowa to study an epidemic of dyslexia. Orton found that the problem resulted from the use of the whole-word method of reading instruction. The more sight words that a school taught before teaching any phonics, the higher the rate of dyslexia was. Orton found that dyslexia often led to psychological problems. Fortunately, the psychological problems tended to clear up when someone used phonics to teach the child to read.
Despite Orton’s warnings, the sight word method remained entrenched in public schools in the United States. It remained entrenched even after Rudolf Flesch explained the problem in his 1955 bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read. New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards for Language Arts Literacy still encourage the use of sight words. Thus, we should not be surprised that dyslexia remains common among our schoolchildren.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Is Dyslexia Really a Learning Disability?

Dyslexia is a label that is commonly applied to children who seem perfectly normal, except that they have not learned to read in school. Yet the word dyslexia was not originally intended for that purpose. It was originally used in cases in which adults had lost their ability to read as a result of a brain injury, such as from a stroke or from a blow to the head. This loss of reading ability generally went along with other signs of brain damage, including other problems with language. If a child who otherwise seems perfectly normal is not learning to read in school, we should be cautious about using medical terms like dyslexia, which imply that the problem is in the child, and specifically in the child’s brain and nervous system, rather than in the school.

Today, the diagnosis of dyslexia is given to many children whose only apparent problem is that they are failing to learn to read in school. Thus, dyslexia is one of a range of problems that are being classified as learning disabilities. Unfortunately, when we apply a label such as “dyslexic” or “learning disabled” to a child simply because the child is not doing well in school, we are jumping to the conclusion that the problem is in the child’s nervous system. Thus, problems in the school, such as the use of poor teaching methods, may go unrecognized and unsolved. We should be much more cautious about using the “d” word—disability—when we are really talking about a simple lack of skill, as opposed to a lack of ability to develop a skill. There can be many reasons why someone has not acquired a particular skill. Sometimes, the reason is medical. Sometimes, it isn’t. Those were lessons that I learned in childhood.

When I was a preschooler, there was a little boy in our neighborhood could not talk and did not seem to understand anything that was said to him. Even though he was over 2 years old, he did not know any words at all, not even mama or dada. Some people suspected that he was mentally slow. Fortunately, a doctor eventually figured out the real cause of the problem. The boy was completely deaf. In fact, the doctor said that the child had been born deaf. The child had been deaf all along, and nobody realized it. The boy could not talk because he could not hear. He could not respond to or imitate speech sounds because he had simply never heard them. Once somebody finally realized that the boy could not hear, he was enrolled in a special school where he could learn to use sign language and read lips and even speak English, along with learning the regular school subjects. The inability to hear is a disability. So is the inability to see. Children who have disabilities of that kind certainly need special schooling. When they grow up, they will also be entitled to reasonable accommodations in the workplace, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A girl in our neighborhood had a different kind of problem. She could see and hear and talk just fine. She seemed to be of normal intelligence. Unfortunately, she wasn’t learning to read in school, and it was making her life miserable. Because of her problem with reading, she was doing poorly in all of her classes except art class. All of her other teachers assumed that she was simply lazy and bad. So they punished and humiliated her for failing to learn. Her teachers failed to teach her to read, but they did succeed in turning a happy preschooler into a young woman with serious emotional problems.

Fortunately, the girl’s problem with reading eventually got solved, not by the school system but through sheer dumb luck. The summer after she finished sixth grade, she started babysitting. One of her charges was a girl who had gone through second grade without having learned to read. This younger child was getting tutored in phonics, and the babysitter was asked to help her with her phonics homework. Thus, the babysitter ended up learning phonics from the younger child. As a result, the babysitter quickly caught up to her own grade level in reading.

The babysitter explained to me that nobody had ever shown her how to sound out words letter by letter. For years, she had been trying (and failing) to memorize whole English words as random sequences of letters, without an understanding that letters systematically represent sounds. She never learned phonics because our school used a whole-word teaching method, which was built into our reading textbooks. Those books were called the Reading for Meaning series. The advocates of the whole-word method claim that their method teaches children to read for meaning, while phonics supposedly only teaches children sounds. Yet how can a child figure out what a text means if the child cannot figure out what the printed words actually say? Several years of whole-word instruction had left that girl functionally illiterate. A few lessons in phonics allowed her to catch up to grade level.

The whole-word method of teaching reading was invented by Thomas Gallaudet in Connecticut in the 1830s, for the purpose of teaching deaf children to read. He reasoned that deaf children could not learn phonics because they cannot hear speech sounds. In the 1840s, Massachusetts’ first Secretary of Education, Horace Mann, decided that Gallaudet’s method should be used for teaching hearing children as well. The results were disastrous, and the teachers rebelled. Yet Mann had the last word because he got to hand-pick the people who went on to teach in the teachers’ colleges. Thus, many aspiring teachers from that day to this have been taught to use the whole-word method, even though scientific studies have consistently shown it to be ineffective and harmful. In the 1920s, Dr. Samuel Orton showed that the use of the whole-word method was the cause of the reading problems that are now called dyslexia. The more “sight words” children were asked to learn before they started learning about phonics, the more likely they were to have problems with reading. Yet the whole-word method remained firmly entrenched in many public schools in the United States, even after Rudolf Flesch explained the problem in his 1955 bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read.

Lately, I have heard about more and more children who are getting diagnoses of learning disabilities of one kind or another. Often, the only evidence that anything is wrong is that the child is not doing well in school. One young man who is currently in college told me that he had some sort of “processing disorder.” When he was in school, he had an individualized educational program, or IEP, because of that presumed learning disability. As a result, he was given many accommodations and special privileges in school. He was allowed to take more time than the other children when taking tests, even high-stakes tests like the SATs. On one hand, I’m glad that children who have genuine disabilities, such as blindness or deafness or autism, can get special help and special accommodations. On the other hand, I wonder whether there was really anything wrong with that young man. Did he really have some sort of learning disability, or was he just suffering from the ill effects of bad teaching methods or poor discipline?

I’m glad that the young man was able to get through primary and secondary school and into college, but I wonder whether the learning disability label did him any good. Was there ever really anything wrong with him? If not, would the false diagnosis of a learning disability have done more harm than good? Did the label and the IEP allow the school to hide the fact that it wasn’t successful in teaching basic academic skills? After all, if the boy had good academic skills, he would never have been labeled as learning disabled. And what about the psychological effects of the diagnosis on the boy himself? Might it be harmful for a person who is not truly disabled to have a self-concept of being disabled? Might the diagnosis of a learning disability have bred a sense of complacency, an acceptance that it was okay for him to have poor skills in reading or arithmetic? Although the special attention and accommodations he received as a result of his IEP allowed him to get better grades, not to mention a higher SAT score, did they breed an unhealthy sense of entitlement? Will he expect that the road will be made smooth for him for the rest of his life, because of a “disability” that may not even exist? It’s doubtful that any workplace will make special accommodations for someone with a “processing disorder,” whatever that means.

In recent years, many people have expressed concern over the increasing role that psychological and psychiatric diagnoses as well as psychiatric medications have been playing in education. I share that concern. Psychiatry in the United States went from an overemphasis on psychosocial explanations for neuropsychiatric problems in the mid 20th century to an overemphasis on neuropsychiatric explanations for psychosocial problems today. In the mid 20th century, it was commonplace for psychiatrists to assume that disorders such as autism or schizophrenia were a psychological reaction to bad mothering, rather than being the result of a brain disorder. Today, we are seeing an increasing tendency for nearly any behavioral or academic problem in childhood to be assumed to be the result of a brain disorder. Thus, we are seeing an increasing number of children who receive some sort of medical-sounding diagnosis, and an increasing number of children who are receiving psychiatric medication.

To sort out truth from nonsense, we have to think clearly about the difference between a disability and a mere lack of skill. The little neighbor boy I described above could not speak or understand what was said to him. Thus, he lacked important language skills. Eventually, it turned out that he lacked these skills because he had a serious disability: congenital deafness. Clearly, he needed some special schooling to help him compensate for that disability. Similarly, the girls in my neighborhood who could not read lacked reading skills. However, their problem was not due to some defect in their ability to learn. Their problem was due to the use of a defective teaching method in their school. This defective teaching method had no effect on me because I taught myself to read before I started school. I figured out English phonics by analyzing the rhyming words in my Dr. Seuss books. Likewise, those two girls also eventually learned to read by learning phonics outside of school. Their “learning disability” was solved; but sadly, the school’s “teaching disability” persisted.

If an adult loses his or her ability to read because of a stroke or a head injury, it makes sense to use a medical term like dyslexia to describe the problem. However, if some child who otherwise seems perfectly normal is failing to learn to read in school, the problem is probably in the school, not in the child. The solution is to fix the school, not label the child as disabled.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why Trolls Attack!

For many years, I’ve worked as a technical editor and writer. As a result, I’ve had the privilege of proofreading the work of some truly brilliant, highly educated people. I’ve also had to write highly technical material that was then reviewed by experts. The review process is usually cordial and intellectually stimulating. Educated people are generally grateful when you fix their typos and their dangling participles. They tend to be tough but fair when criticizing your writing. They generally stick to a rational discussion of facts. So I was unprepared for the kind of comments I got from the general public after I started blogging. Occasionally, someone would say something like, “Wow, that’s interesting.” But most of the comments are nothing more than poison pen letters: abusive nonsense intended to serve no other purpose than to provoke an emotional response. In short, I often get attacked by Internet trolls.

I have a Web site (www.gorillaprotein.com) and a blog (www.wheredogorillasgettheirprotein.blogspot.com) that explain scientific research about human nutrition. Reactions to my Web site and blog are mixed. People who have actually studied nutrition or dietetics in college or graduate school love my work. However, many people who have no training in nutrition or dietetics hate my work, simply because I tell them things that they do not want to hear. They want to hear that fatty foods are good for them. As a result, they worship the self-appointed nutrition gurus who tell them to eat meat and fish instead of potatoes. They heap scorn on me for pointing out that people who eat a diet based on unrefined starches and vegetables are generally slim and have a low risk of chronic degenerative diseases. As a result, I get a lot of hostile comments on my blog and even some hostile e-mail.

I’m disappointed that nobody seems to post serious comments about the scientific issues I discuss. Instead, the feedback is filled with nonsense, insults, and wild accusations from people who are obviously uneducated. Commenters have told me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I don’t care about human health, that I’m in league with some organization whose work I actually oppose, or even that I hate women (because one of several persons whose work I criticized was female). Such comments are not only obnoxious, they are stupid.

The troll metaphor is appropriate for two reasons. First, the trolls of mythology were stupid, ugly, and potentially dangerous (though perhaps slow-moving). Second, the trolls of mythology could operate only under the cover of darkness. They turned to stone in the light of day. Likewise, Internet trolls sit alone with their computers, thrilled by the opportunity to annoy people who would never socialize with them in person.

The first rule of Internet etiquette is “Don’t be a troll.”The second is “Don’t feed the trolls.” The Internet creates an environment where bad behavior is often rewarded but never punished. As any dog trainer can tell you, that’s a recipe for disaster. Never reward a dog for doing something that you dislike. Otherwise, you will essentially be training the dog to misbehave. Similarly, if you respond to Internet trolls in any way other than by deleting stupid comments and blocking repeat offenders, you are rewarding them with attention for behavior that should be discouraged.

I usually delete stupid comments from my blog, unless the stupid comment offers a useful “teachable moment.” Likewise, I generally ignore abusive e-mail, unless I want to get a better understanding of troll psychology. Such correspondence has allowed me to test a theory about trolls. Some trolls are just jerks. They just want to annoy other people. However, some trolls genuinely believe that they are participating in genuine intellectual exchange. These sincere trolls think that what they are saying is true and important. They think that they are dazzling you with their brilliance. If you break off the discussion with them, they imagine that they have “won.” They genuinely don’t realize that they are making fools of themselves.

The sincere trolls are suffering from a problem called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that people with poor intellectual and social skills typically don’t realize that their skills are poor. Because of their lack of skill, they can’t notice their own mistakes. Nor does anyone in their daily life bring those mistakes to their attention. As a result, people with poor skills end up thinking that their skills are above average. In other words, ignorance and incompetence beget overconfidence. Fortunately, this problem can be solved through training. As the unskilled people’s skills improve, their overconfidence melts away.

There seems to be a distressingly large number of sincere trolls in the United States. I think that the problem stems from failures in our educational system, which I’ve explained in my book Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free (www.not-trivial.com). In the early 20th century, powerful people within our educational establishment decided to promote a method of reading instruction that slows down the rate at which people learn to read and leaves many people functionally illiterate. The rate of learning is so slow that many adults “don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.” Our educational system also deliberately suppresses the formal teaching of the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Yet those are the disciplines that you must learn if you want to go on to have real intellectual dialogues with other people, about any subject.

The sincere trolls have never learned how to parse or reason. Thus, they cannot be persuaded by facts. Nor can they recognize the flaws in their own reasoning, even when those flaws are pointed out to them. As a result, they will be unwilling to learn anything until they discover that they have a lot to learn. Yet they will not make that discovery until after they have already learned a lot. So pity the trolls. Just don’t feed them.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What I Learned From the McGuffey Readers

When I was a child, my parents bought a set of reprints of the old McGuffey Readers, which had been widely used as elementary school textbooks in the United States until the mid 20th century. When I read them, I was shocked. Mr. McGuffey had obviously expected that most children would learn to read as quickly and easily as I had. I taught myself to read at age four, by analyzing the spelling of the rhyming words in my Dr. Seuss books. (“Sam. I am Sam. Sam I am. Do you like green eggs and ham?”) McGuffey didn’t wait for children to figure out those letter-sound relationships on their own. Instead, the first volume of the McGuffey Readers taught children the letter-sound relationships directly. Once children knew how to sound words out, they could read just about any word they saw in print. As a result, the students quickly progressed to reading real literature.

The reading textbooks that I had in school were a lot different from the McGuffey Readers. The authors of our textbooks didn’t teach us how to sound words out. Instead, they wanted us to memorize a small set of common words, without paying much attention to the sounds of the letters. The authors then repeated those words endlessly to drill them into our memory. Because of this need for endless repetition of a tiny vocabulary, our schoolbooks contained dull, maddeningly repetitive “stories” of the “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!” variety.

Because I could already read, I spent my first few school years staring at the walls, bored out of my mind, while the rest of the class struggled to memorize “sight words.” Even though our reading textbooks had few if any rhymes, most of my classmates eventually figured out the letter-sound relationships on their own, as I had. A few did not.

One of the girls in my neighborhood still could not read at the end of sixth grade. Then, through sheer dumb luck, she ended up babysitting a child who was getting private tutoring in phonics after having failed to learn to read by the end of second grade. The babysitter ended up learning phonics from the younger child. Thus, both girls suddenly became fluent readers. The older girl told me that she had never been taught phonics in school. Neither had the child she was babysitting. So it was no wonder that neither of them had learned to read in school! Everyone in the neighborhood knew that school had made life miserable for both girls. Their teachers had punished and even mocked them for failing to learn to read. In that light, the school’s failure to teach phonics seemed to me to be sickeningly cruel.

When I first read the McGuffey Readers, they filled me with an odd mixture of relief and horror. I was relieved to realize that there was nothing strange about me. I was horrified by the realization that there was something seriously wrong with my school. Since I learned to read before I started school, I was way ahead of my classmates at the beginning of first grade. But if my class had used the McGuffey Readers, most of them would have caught up to me by Christmas. Instead, they ended up wasting several years in learning to read, while I started reading to learn. As a result, I pulled further and further ahead academically.

The school’s failure to use an efficient method for teaching reading created a widening social gulf between me and my classmates in school, even though I got along fine with other children outside of school. My classmates started to sneer at me for being “smart.” One of my teachers even egged them on, mocking me for knowing things that I hadn’t learned in school.

From what I could see, schoolchildren quickly learned that they must put forth at least some minimal effort in school to keep from being punished for failure. Yet most children quickly learned not to embrace learning for its own sake, and not to get too far ahead of the other children, for fear of being shunned socially. The goal of the educational system seemed to be to keep all of the children learning at the same pace, a pace that was slow by historical standards.

The McGuffey Readers taught me that I hadn’t learned abnormally fast, not when compared with my grandparents’ generation. My classmates were learning abnormally slowly, not because there was anything wrong with them but because our school was using bad teaching methods, which had been built into our textbooks. I was not the first person to notice this problem. Rudolf Flesch’s book Why Johnny Can’t Read was a bestseller several years before I was born. That book explained that millions of children in the United States were failing to learn to read because schools were teaching sight words instead of phonics. This problem should have been solved even before I was born.

Today, prominent members of the educational establishment still oppose direct instruction in intensive phonics for teaching reading. They complain that phonics is “drill and kill.” Yet their method of having children memorize sight words requires far more drill and leaves many children unable to read at all. The solution to this problem is so obvious that I figured it out before I finished elementary school in the early 1970s. So why don’t the college graduates who are running our educational system solve this problem today?