Back when the Genie SF Roundtable was in operation, there was a fellow who proclaimed that Iraq had a higher literacy rate than the U.S. I thought this a very dubious proposition and told him so. Then I went and checked the statistics given by various sources (including the ones mentioned by my fellow Genian), and the stats said I was right. Iraq has a literacy rate of around 80% and the U.S. comes in at over 99%.
Not that the person in question was convinced, or changed what he said in public; I’ve heard him since say exactly the same thing as he said then, citing exactly the same sources. But I don’t really get into these Culture War arguments expecting to change the minds of antagonists. What I’m interested in is where these talking points come from and to what purpose.
I tracked what I believe was the source of this particular idea to a Clinton-era Dept. of Education study of “functional literacy.” This was a classic “ain’t it awful” document that has been used in advocacy of greater education spending by the left and in advocacy of drastic changes to public education by the right. No surprise there. When I managed to strip away all the obfuscatory verbiage, as nearly as I can tell, it said that 40% of students’ reading comprehension was in the bottom two quintiles of reading performance.
Yes, and it’s a damn shame that half of our children are below average, too.
Now “Why Johnny Can’t Read” has been a teapot tempest for a long while. It’s not hard to find those who think that public schools are teaching the wrong things in the wrong way to the wrong people, and not fulfilling their job of properly indoctrinating children in what someone thinks they should be indoctrinated. And then of course there are those who think that schools should teach “critical thinking,” which I’ve never been able to translate to something other than “teach them to think like me.” That may be a fine thing, (especially if the template is to be me) but I won’t pretend that it isn’t self-serving.
It should come as no surprise that the Conservative Movement has a doctrine, talking points, faux statistics, and ways of making money off of this. In particular, I don’t think that the last point is surprising, since the CM also thinks that free enterprise is an intrinsically moral enterprise. Of course they would create businesses to supply the things they think schools should have, and of course they would work at the local, state, and federal politics of advancing those business interests. That is how they believe the system should work.
Nevertheless, there are certain points of doctrine that can cause real suffering when adamantly asserted and applied to the world. Of those, I think the two most pernicious are the denial that there is such a thing as “dyslexia,” and the assertion that phonics is the only proper way to teach reading.
At RPI, I came to be on good terms with Arthur Burr (now deceased), then the Dean of the School of Engineering. He once confided to me that his son was dyslexic; he had some glitch in his visual perception that made reading difficult. He could and did learn to read, but reading was always an effort for him, and if prolonged, would cause headaches and other maladies. So he read those things that he found essential, but reading for recreation was simply impossible. The result was a gap in shared experience between father and son that could never be bridged.
Still, Art’s son had fashioned a good life as a house carpenter and father, and Art could, and did, treasure their outings and times together. But imagine if he was committed to the belief that dyslexia wasn’t real, but rather a subterfuge to avoid having to read. What sort of alienation between father and son would that produce? For that matter, if I had expressed that opinion, how much of a betrayal of my friendship with Art would that have been?
When I was in the fourth grade, one of my classmates, whom I’ll call Ken, was called upon to read aloud during English class. He was not a good reader; he read slowly and frequently stumbled. The rest of the class listened politely, until Ken hit the word “nowhere,” which he pronounced “now here.” And there was laughter.
With the luxury of decades of hindsight, I can notice that, in fact, Ken was doing the correct thing according to the doctrine of Phonics. He broke the word apart into syllables, sounded them out, then pronounced them. He was betrayed by the nature of English and its spelling, which requires that a lot of words be simply memorized and taken at a glance, rather like the “look-see” method that Phonics advocates deride.
Being doctrinally correct gave no assistance to Ken, of course. I wish that I could say that I was not one of the ones who laughed at him, but I have no memory either way. I do strongly suspect that I did laugh, however. I was young and that’s what young people do. I’d like to think I didn’t laugh, but I’m left only with the wish that I hadn’t, and the probability that I did.