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.


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.