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Experimentally reading ourselves into illiteracy

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“…They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect
that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be…

T.S. Eliot, The Rock

While walking through the problematic nature of Pragmatism’s focus on ‘what works’ rather than on what is true (and right to do) in the previous post, I mentioned Samuel Blumenfeld’s 1985 Hillsdale College address ‘Who Killed Excellence‘, which goes into the educational disaster that followed when a co-founder and leading exponent of Pragmatism, John Dewey, became the leading voice in education reform. Dewey didn’t kill it alone of course, and even though much of this took place a century ago, we need to pay attention to who else was involved and what they did, because their ‘work’ is so deeply embedded into the foundations of not only our schools, but through them into all of our society today, that attempting to fix the outrageous policies we see on the surface, inevitably results in new and more vicious weeds sprouting back up in its place, as CRT & SEL soon followed our attempts to remove Common Core, and as Common Core soon followed earlier attempts to remove Outcome Based Education before that, and so on, and so on, on back to their day, a century and more ago.

That issue of ‘fixing it just makes matters worse‘ is a feature that’s built into the nature of the ‘school reform’ cycle; to escape that cycle we need to pull the whole process out by its roots, but we can’t do that, if we aren’t able to identify those roots for what they are, and wherever they are. You’ll soon see what I mean by that, as we take a closer look at a few of the other key names that Blumenfeld raised in his address, as having played a significant role in ‘killing excellence’ in education, those being Edward Thorndike, James McKeen Cattell, and Wilhelm Wundt, the last of whom was the father of experimental psychology in Leipzig Germany. Wundt was a radical materialist, a proponent of the ‘scientific’/deterministic view which sees human beings as being little more than animated meat-sacks, and he held that the scientific expert’s duty was to conduct experiments that prodded those meat-sacks through the trial and error of stimulus-response, so as to discover more efficient and useful behaviors which they could be made to perform, for the benefit of society.

For at least the first half of the 1800s, it’d been popular amongst American intellectuals to ‘take the European tour’ which centered on the new German universities (see this post), James McKeen Cattell did that, then studied for a couple years in Germany, and returned again to become not only one of Wundt’s star pupils, but his first assistant.

Experimenting with Literacy
During that time he’d taken an interest in some recent fads in learning words by memorizing their appearance rather than by reading their letters, and so he began conducting experiments in the field of reading – not with what to read, mind you, or why to read it, but with how it was that accomplished readers read – typically by recognizing the whole word, rather than sounding it out – to see if new readers could be trained to read in the same way. The fact that even experienced readers do sound out unfamiliar words, did not concern him, nor that they are able to gain an understanding of a new word’s meaning through its prefixes, suffixes, etc., as well as the grammatical structures which authors use to convey their meaning through the words they use. Cattell wasn’t seeking a new way of learning to read because there was any evidence that reading phonetically limited a person’s ability to read and understand what they read, far from it. But if new readers could be trained to ‘read’ words by sight and shape without having to ‘waste time’ on learning to understand the phonetic basis of the letters which words are formed from, and the nature and rules and logic of reading – such a ‘thoughtless’ approach to reading would greatly advance Cattell’s materialist ideals (which included Eugenics), and not surprisingly he found that his experiments ‘proved’ his expectation that students could be trained to guess a word from its shape and contextual clues alone, faster, more efficiently, and was therefore ‘better’ than ‘old fashioned’ phonics & grammar.

On the basis of those intentions and experiments, the initial ‘scientific’ reading method of ‘Look-And-Say‘ (or ‘Whole Word’) was developed, which would quickly be proclaimed as being a more modern and efficient method for learning to read from, than that ‘old fashioned’ phonics (a ‘flat-earth view’, as a later ‘expert’ would put it).

As it turns out, this ‘new!‘ scientific method for teaching students to read, wasn’t actually effective in teaching students to read – which was something they knew fully well, as Blumenfeld notes:

“…What is astounding is that by 1908 Cattell and his colleagues were very well aware that the look-say method produced inaccurate readers. In fact, Huey argued in favor of inaccuracy as a virtue!…”

, but that didn’t dissuade Cattell or his fellows from continuing to promote the ‘Look-And-Say’ method, and as Blumenfeld mentions, his colleague Huey, and many others, even viewed those readers difficulties as a plus! At the very least, this should give you a huge clue that the education, and system for delivering one which they were fashioning, was not pursuing – in either results or purpose – what most people still assume it is (Blumenfeld’s book (available online) ‘Trojan Horse in American Education‘ has a great deal more information on that).

Not to read but to follow
These ‘educators’ weren’t concerned that a student might not understand and learn how to read with ‘Look-And-Say’, because having a student understand what they were reading was not their goal, training them to follow instructions, wasremember Fichte – what excited them was that if ‘most people’ could be trained into attaining a functional (il)literacy of understanding those words that were most useful for following instructions with, then that would serve their educational and societal purposes just fine (the most useful 220 words for that would become known as ‘The Dolch List‘, which, by the way, nearly all schools still use today).

It was with those same purposes in mind that Cattell, who became head of Columbia’s Dept of Psychology in 1890, and was involved in its Teachers College, had helped to recruit one of the co-founders of Pragmatism, John Dewey, away from the University of Chicago’s Teachers College in 1905, to help spread their new views of education through the flagship Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City, and while how to teach students to become literate was a focus of theirs, having students actually become literate was not, as Dewey wrote in 1898:

“The plea for the predominance of learning to read in early school-life because of the great importance attaching to literature seems to me a perversion.”

, which was a perspective that went well with his view of Knowledge, which was that unless it served ‘social utility’, it was a problematic waste of time. As he explained it:

“…The mere absorption of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat….”

, meaning that they saw no social gain in having knowledgeable individuals, and our schools systems have been fashioned accordingly.

Follow the Social Science
The new, ‘modern!‘ view of education that they were spreading did not see the schools’ primary purpose as being to develop the student so as to be a benefit to their own lives; the modern, pragmatic, ‘progressive’ pro-regressive purpose of school, as designed, is to pragmatically develop students to take socially useful actions in society – they are in short: ‘following the social science’, or as Dewey put it in his “My Pedagogic Creed“:

“I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.”[BTW, if you don't see the foundations of 'SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) in that, you need some new philosophical lenses)]

Helping them to implement that process, was a student of Cattell’s at Columbia, Edward Thorndike, who was also a former student of Wilhelm Wundt’s, as well as a former star pupil another of the co-founders of Pragmatism, William James. Reflecting those same shared views, Thorndike further developed them into ‘teaching strategies’ which aimed at the same new purposes of education (conforming to the group, over individual learning), an approach that’s clear in what Blumenfeld quotes of him here:

“Thorndike wrote: “The best way with children may often be, in the pompous words of an animal trainer, ‘to arrange everything in connection with the trick so that the animal will be compelled by the laws of its own nature to perform it.’”

, and in his ‘Elementary Principles of Education (1906)’ Thorndike applied that approach to dismissing those subjects traditionally taught as the 3R’s,

“…Despite rapid progress in the right direction, the program of the average elementary school is too narrow and academic in character. Traditionally the elementary school has been primarily devoted to teaching the fundamental subjects, the three R’s, and closely related disciplines. In representative schools to-day, more than half of the time is spent on reading, writing, spelling, and other language arts and arithmetic. These subjects are taught, moreover, in a too restricted and formal fashion. Artificial exercises, like drills on phonetics, multiplication tables, and formal writing movements, are used to a wasteful degree. Subjects such as arithmetic, language, and history include content that is intrinsically of little value. Nearly every subject is enlarged unwisely to satisfy the academic ideal of thoroughness. …”

, and together through their flagship Teachers College, they exerted their influence over the lesser Teachers Colleges across the nation (greatly aided by most states having passed progressive legislation requiring teachers to graduate from them, in order to be certified to teach), injecting their new ‘progressive!‘ methods of reading and thinking into each new generation of teachers and through them, the new ‘key facts’ focus of the modern and scientific-ish method of ‘progressive education’ spread out across the nation (with additional help from a few millionaires like Rockefeller’s “…General Education Board (GEB), in encouraging vocationalism in education…”). As Blumenfeld notes in his address, concerning Dewey, Thorndike, and Cattell:

“…By 1908 the trio had produced three books of paramount importance to the progressive movement. Thorndike published Animal Intelligence in 1898; Dewey published School and Society in 1899; and in 1908 Cattell produced, through a surrogate by the name of Edmund Burke Huey, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading.

Dewey provided the social philosophy of the movement, Thorndike the teaching theories and techniques, and Cattell the organizing energy. There was among all of them, disciples and colleagues, a missionary zeal to rebuild American education on a foundation of science, evolution, humanism, and behaviorism. But it was Dewey who identified high literacy as the culprit in traditional education, the sustaining force behind individualism. He wrote in 1898:

My proposition is, that conditions—social, industrial, and intellectual—have undergone such a radical change, that the time has come for a thoroughgoing examination of the emphasis put upon linguistic work in elementary instruction….
The plea for the predominance of learning to read in early school-life because of the great importance attaching to literature seems to me a perversion.”
[emphasis mine]

Surprising? Really?…!
If you’re at all shocked to learn that your educational leaders would promote a ‘scientific!’ method for learning to read, that not only wasn’t effective at training students to read, but was actually harmful to their doing so, it’s because you still think of education’s purpose as being for the benefit of the child, and you’re assuming that those running our schools think so too, but they were and still are using education as a means of accomplishing what they believe is for ‘the greater good‘, that being putting society under the power of experts. There is no reason to be surprised that the ‘thinkers’ of education reform would promote methods that would ruin their students ability to read, that’s long been their stated goal! The fact is that we have been continually, repeatedly, ‘discovering’ that the ‘scientific‘ reading method of ‘Look-And-Say’ (and all of its related versions) doesn’t actually work, and yet over a century later it’s still being used today. How do we dare claim to be surprised by this?

C’mon man! Rudolf Flesch’s ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read‘ came out in the 1950s, and ‘Why Johnny Still Can’t Read’ came out in the 1980s! In Chp. 3 of that, Flesch notes:

“…When I wrote my book Why Johnny Can’t Read in 1955, I [29] listed eleven studies that had been done up to that time. All of them gave results in favor of phonics-first; not a single one favored look-and-say. The scientific proof was complete and overwhelming…”[emphasis mine]

Even recently, just a few years ago, NPR (again) noticed that the ‘scientific’ method of reading had been scientifically shown to be making our student lab rats functionally illiterate:

“…And yet, “this ill-conceived contextual guessing approach to word recognition is enshrined in materials and handbooks used by teachers,” wrote Louisa Moats, a prominent reading expert, in a 2017 article….”

Cattell’s role in devising ‘Look-And-Say’ should earn him the right to justly be called the father of Illiteracy and dyslexia (a title he should share with his colleague Huey, who, as Blumenfeld notes, seems to have done most of ‘the work’), but it hasn’t, and it says a lot about our schools and the educational reforms that they fostered, that it hasn’t. What should make that even more, is that if you do a quick search today (one of the 1st links to pop up for me on typing ‘kindergarten’ into my browser), you’ll find far more hits for current programs that are teaching your kids to learn to read with the ‘whole word’ ‘Look-And-Say’ method that was designed with illiteracy in mind (and although most pepper their programs with the word ‘phonics’, few do so with any seriousness).

If you want to ask yourself why that is, first ask yourself, what happens when parents and community leaders become aware of their child’s lack of reading skills. They demand that schools ‘do something!‘ about falling grades, right? There are at least two things to notice in their response to that problem:

  1. They aren’t asking why their students are unable to read and benefit from what is right and true – what they want is for their schools “to ‘make it work’ so that their students will get good grades and get a good job!” Well… surprise - that response is 100% Pragmatic Progressivism – so why the surprise when we get more of what we asked for?
  2. As those parents and community leaders demand more effort be made to teach students how to read, the administrators reply that ‘Well, if you can get us the budget (maybe pass a funding measure, larger libraries, etc.,) then we can ramp up reading programs...’ and… you guessed it… the reading programs they provide to boost literacy, are the very same programs and ‘strategies’, that destroyed literacy in America.

Are you starting to see the problem here? If you aren’t aware of the forgotten names and aims of those who reformed our educational system, then you cannot escape from being caught up in their webs, and even help in spreading them, because being ignorant of them blinds you to their dangers and ensures that you’re own efforts to do what you think is right, will actually bring about more of what was designed to undermine and eliminate everything that you think of as being right. See your local ‘Reading is Fundamental!school library for reference.

What they mean by educating your children, is harming your children
Remember that in Pragmatism, ‘truth’ is nothing more than what works, and it can only be determined at the end of the process being worked out. What that means in practice, is that failure and ‘falsehood’ are not indications that the process is headed in the wrong direction, but only that it has not yet reached the expected completion. Take another look at the previous post for what mainstreaming that notion into popular thinking, has done to the world, let alone to education. Remember the 20th Century’s pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty’s comment mentioned in that post, that “…To know your desires is to know the criterion of truth…” and that “...the truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with…”, coupled with Dewey’s own view that ‘there is no clear social gain‘ in turning your students into knowledgeable individuals, what more could be expected, than what we have today?

For the pragmatic progressives, turning the process of reading into a burdensome effort for students that leaves them mostly illiterate, was always a feature, never a bug, in the process of developing their goal for social unity. Illiteracy is a pragmatic value in pursuing what they see as being the purpose of school, and what works is ‘true’, right? As long as we let them get away with making our children into less than knowledgeable individuals, they will continue using our schools to do exactly that, for our own good, of course.

The Progressives (rightly) believed that the ability to read, coupled with a thirst for quality literature, produces intelligent individuals who value living in society with their fellows in liberty, which is what Cattell, Dewey, and Thorndike, recognized as being threats to the progressive revolution they were instigating to replace our society with, often complaining that:

“The last stand of oligarchical and anti-social seclusion is perpetuation of this purely individualistic notion of intelligence.”

They fully understood what they were doing, and what their purpose for doing it was, and they very deliberately designed the nature of our modern educational system so that it would be mistaken for an institution that was doing what parents would assume it would – to better their children’s lives, while all the while it was deliberately eradicating every aspect of the knowledge and understanding – philosophically, socially, and morally – that is required for that.

Modern education is intended to be political, not educational (C3 Social Studies bible has grade level expectations for social activism beginning in kindergarden, noted here), and their political aims are not compatible with the principles that America was developed from, they very seriously believed that liberty is anti-social, a point Dewey makes clear in his derisive rehearsing of Lockean ideas of individual rights in ‘Liberalism and Social Action‘:

“…The whole temper of this philosophy is individualistic in the sense in which individualism is opposed to organized social action. It held to the primacy of the individual over the state not only in time but in moral authority. It defined the individual in terms of liberties of thought and action already possessed by him in some mysterious ready-made fashion, and which it was the sole business of the state to safeguard. Reason was also made an inherent endowment of the individual, expressed in men’s moral relations to one another, but not sustained and developed because of these relations. It followed that the great enemy of individual liberty was thought to be government because of its tendency to encroach upon the innate liberties of individuals. Later liberalism inherited this conception of a natural antagonism between the individual and organized society. There still lingers in the minds of some the notion that there are two different “spheres” of action and of rightful claims; that of political society and that of the individual, and that in the interest of the latter the former must be as contracted as possible….”

Of course those inalienable truths which he is mocking and deriding in that passage, individualism and liberty, are the ideas they wanted (and want) to leave behind and have be forgotten, so as to eliminate them from society. They desire that, because he, they, pragmatically, have an entirely different view of what ‘individualism’ is and should be, rejecting the ‘idea’ that an individual person can be thought of as an individual person – in their view an ‘individual’ is only a part of the societal matrix. From Dewey’s ‘Individualism old and new‘:

“…When the patterns that form individuality of thought and desire are in line with actuating social forces, that individuality will be released for creative effort…”

, meaning that it’s only when the ‘individual’ is reflecting what the group believes (got any ‘project learning‘ activities going on in your schools?), that they can become ‘one’ with, or an individual aspect of, the collective, and only then do they have a useful value in taking those actions which the experts have deemed necessary and worthy. In the pragmatic view the individual can only experience ‘liberty’ once they’ve merged into the expectations and realities of their collective society, as he ends his book with,

“…To gain an integrated individuality, each of us needs to cultivate his own garden. But there is no fence about this garden: it is no sharply marked- off enclosure. Our garden is the world, in the angle at which it touches our own manner of being. By accepting the corporate and industrial world in which we live, and by thus fulfilling the precondition for interaction with it, we, who are also parts of the moving present, create ourselves as we create an unknown future.”

, or IOW you are only ‘you’ as a result of them, or ‘Students of the world unite!‘. That is what the reformers mean by reform. And whereas the True North that guided the founding of America was that liberty led to deeper and more meaningful societies filled with a wealth of social interactions, what Dewey meant by ‘organized social action’ was actions that followed & abided by the collective plans of experts such as himself. America’s orientation towards True North is what Dewey was expressly opposed to, and the old promise for an education and the benefits – knowledge, virtue, wisdom – to be expected from one, ran and still runs contrary to their every pro-regressive ideal, which is why they were so deliberately replacing every aspect of the old True North understanding of Education, because those maps wouldn’t lead to where they intend us all to travel to.

Lessons not yet learned, which we very much need to learn
The truth is that illiteracy is a feature in progressive education, not a bug, as people who no longer can read, or who dislike reading, or read only to retrieve what experts have deemed to be ‘key facts’ or useful ‘informational text’, are unlikely to have any regard for, or use for, those self-evident truths and inalienable rights that America was founded upon, and which our Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian civilization values and depends upon. And that is the educational direction that the maps of Dewey & Co. have been leading us by.

However good their intentions initially were, what we are dealing with today, is the logical progression of events that were sure to follow from the initial reforms begun by our Founding Reformers. While it may not have been obvious that the changes they initiated would lead to where we are, they started the process rolling downhill when they unwittingly reformed the purpose of education, from that of benefiting the student, to benefiting society, and from gaining wisdom, to being useful. And catastrophically, they did this at the same time that Philosophy was being transformed by Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Peirce, James, and Dewey, from the love of wisdom, to being how smart people can change the world for ‘the greater good’. From those two very different pursuits,

  • Wisdom respects, values, and acts upon what is timelessly true.
  • Pragmatism values what has the power to further the experts immediate interests – that defines something as ‘being true.

, two very different views of people, and of society, must follow. Our schools today are deliberately less educational, than informational, and the innovations that were introduced into it over the 19th century, were less concerned with any one student’s education, than with the political process that their educations could be used towards. That outlook was carefully tended to over the course of the 1800s, until it exploded into the 20th Century with the creation and expansion of school districts, and the consolidating of them into ever larger systems, adding new superintendents and ever more staff to more efficiently manage them as a means of producing a ‘new man’ within the ‘old fashioned’ constitutional system which America was founded upon.

Dewey’s admirer and educational Field Marshal, Elwood P. Cubberley, described their vision for public schools, in his ‘Public School Administration‘ (1916) as being:

“…Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down…”

, and the leading products which rolled off of that production line, were designed to be ever more illiterate students, to help in slowly, progressively, transforming our society into something it is deliberately not; a process which was solidified by Horace Mann, and radically perfected by John Dewey, and which made it possible for, and still sustains, the radical Marxist programs (SEL, CRT, DEI) of today. That is our system of education in America. What ‘school reform’ do you suppose can ‘fix’ that problem when most of your neighbors are sending their kids to school to study hard and get a good job? If you think that School Choice will, you need to re-read the two-step scenario I sketched out above. Choosing your own poison, doesn’t make it any less poisonous.

What you can do about this today, is to get involved in your schools and school boards to slow down the harm that they are doing through your political representation and tax dollars, but first and foremost, get your kids out of the establishment minded schools, and just as importantly, make sure that the alternative form of education you choose for them is truly educational.

Our educational system has been reformed to inject a stimulus of illiteracy into our society (not jsut the inability to read, but the lack of interest in doing so), and the only logical response (outcome) to be expected from that, is ignorance. It seems to me that you have to fight pretty hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that the reason for doing so, is that an ignorant populace is especially useful to those who attain power over them, which is what we’ll begin looking at next.

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