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The Road to Dumbdon

Here is the dilemma, stated in a single sentence:

Literacy needs to come first, and it needs to get the strong and consistent support from the federal government that it deserves.

Sen. Patty Murray: Literacy Education: The Foundation for All Learning

That would be something like what Aristotle called an “enthymeme,” which is when you state a premise and the conclusion, but not the premise that links the first premise to that conclusion. One of the best ways to identify underlying assumptions in an argument is to find that missing premise.

In this argument it would seem to look something like this:

  • Literacy needs to come first
  • Literacy requires (and deserves) that the federal government provide strong and consistent support
  • If the federal government provides strong and consistent support, the literacy problem will be solved

It’s pretty to think so.

Sen. Murray is talking about two very different issues here. The first I probably agree with her on. Literacy is the foundation of later learning. I’m not sure what she means by literacy, however, though she indicates below that she includes reading and writing under that name.

I would want to see it defined better before we give a non-educational branch of our government authority to make decisions about it. Reading and writing are pretty general skills and they aren’t all that hard to teach in a verbal culture. But they contain a great deal of sub-skills, and ultimately the way you teach reading is rooted in what you believe about reality and how we know it.

The constructivists who would be empowered and funded by the federal government if it did indeed provide “strong and consistent support” to literacy would perpetuate the illiteracy they have produced over the last 50-100 years.

So the issue is not whether literacy comes first, but

  1. What is literacy?
  2. What are the principles and objectives that guide literacy programs?
  3. Who is making the practical daily decisions about how it will be taught?
  4. To whom are they accountable?

The fatal flaw in so much conventional thought is that people have been habituated to assume that higher authorities are always the most effective place for accountability. Reality insists otherwise. If you want a vast number of American children to read well, then put the power in the hands of their mothers and their teachers. If you want them to read badly, put the power in the administrators and the state and federal government.

Why? Because bad theories can only survive within very large operational systems. Phonics, for example, is so popular among home schoolers because the mothers have to teach their children how to read. When whole language or look say or whatever other option they want to use doesn’t work, they talk among themselves and change directions.

In a school, on the other hand, if one program doesn’t work you have to go to the headmaster/principal or school board and wait a long time for a decision to be made – and you have to do it recognizing that you are directly assaulting that person’s worldview, which is always encapsulated in reading theories.

In a school district, you have even less decision making authority in the hands of parents and teachers, which leads to teachers and parents making fewer decisions, which leads to them losing confidence in their ability to make decisions (since we don’t trust ourselves to do well things that we rarely do), which leads to weak minds in front of the class rooms and weak minds in the desks in the class rooms.

Push it up to the state and you can see the mental vacuum hard at work at the levels where mental space is most crucial. Need I reflect on what happens if we go still another level up and put decision making authority in the hands of congressmen who pass bills in order to find out what is in them?

The amazing thing to me is to watch the charade of self-important men and women sitting behind their polished tables and going through all sorts of formalities to hide the fact that they are not there for the children and if they were they would admit they really don’t know what they are doing. They have a theory, and it might even be pedagogically sound, but it won’t work because they are trying to implement it by taking power away from the people who have to do the work.

America’s education problems are very easy to resolve, considered politically. Give power to the right people to make decisions about what needs to be done: teachers and parents. In a school, the headmaster should be firmly literate himself, a practiced teacher, and a supporter of the work of teaching. When things work, they should be preserved dynamically, not legalistically. They might not work next year. Teachers should be aggressively trained to UNDERSTAND and to teach literacy.

It would be messy and a lot of kids wouldn’t learn how to read. But nowhere near as many as now.

But as soon as authority drifts outside of the school or immediate community, literacy, which is first, will become a token for people to argue about other matters. I assume the best intentions on Sen. Murray’s part, but she is simply wrong on her conclusion. The more the federal government is involved in literacy, the less literate a country we will become.

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