That Shriveled Grind (on teaching reading)

Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading

“During the past five years we’ve heard from parents again and again how difficult it has been to get children who have read nothing but pap to focus when the books assigned in class get more complicated.

You wouldn’t belive someone who said it didn’t matter what your child ate as long as they ate something, and then fed them candy all day. Reading is no different.”

I found the foregoing quotation on a really helpful blog called Walls of Books, run by Angela, a home-schooling mom. I must say, I am continually astounded at the serious and diligent labour home schooling moms put into the research required to build their own curricula. Some people don’t want to reinvent the wheel. The home school mom proves the irrelevence of that metaphor. Engineers know that to understand a wheel you have to reverse engineer it. That’s what these moms are doing with the curriculum. If you haven’t had to do it yourself, you don’t realize how courageous an act it is.

But that’s an aside – a panegyric to the home schooling mom. What I want to address directly is the significance of the quotation above on teaching children to read. Angela quoted Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone from their book Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading.

In the typical middle class household, the parent reads books to children before they go to school and those books are usually dominated by Dr. Seuss and other children’s literature. 50 years ago, Dr. Seuss was entering the child’s bedroom in the evening for end of day reading, but most people read classic fairy tales, fables, mythology, and nursery rhymes to their children.

To see what parents read to their children 50 years ago, take a look at the immortal My Book House series, edited by Olive Beaupre Miller. The child who read these 12 volumes by, say, sixth grade, received a junior liberal education. I highly encourage its use as the “Core Curriculum” for the grammar stage. It’s incredibly cost effective too, because you can buy 20 or 30 sets used (they stopped printing it in 1970 after a 50 year run) for about $100 each and be set for 20 years.

I mention this set partly to make people aware of it and partly to show you a significant change that has taken place in reading over the past 50 years. The change is this: 50 years ago, parents read things to children that children could not read themselves, that were not directly primarily at the senses, and that contained deep formal and material lessons for the children.

First, parents read things to their children that the children could not read themselves. That is to say, if a child couldn’t decode the phonograms, that didn’t prevent the parent/teacher from reading to the child. We tend to confuse reading with decoding and then to say a child can only read what he can decode. This misunderstands the very nature of reading. A four year old child can handle an incredibly complicated syntax (grammatical structure) with amazing intellectual dexterity.  

My son Matthew sat still for a long time when he was still in soft blue one piece pajamas with those cute feet that are so adorable in little kids jammies while I read (at his request) one of the Chronicles of Narnia. He might have been three at the time. Maybe even two.

But I’m convinced we make our children dumber by sending them to school. How? By stopping reading books over their heads when they arrive in kindergarten. Suddenly graded readers allow them to read only books that they can decode themselves. What they used to read passively (through their ears) is too often removed from their diets because “it’s above their level.”

It’s to the point now where the children of 50 years ago don’t remember that their parents read fairy tales, adventure stories, fables, etc. to them before they were in school. So they only read Dr. Seuss to their children and those children aren’t particularly interested in reading but if they are they are inclined to read very simple, inane, contentless works to their children.

As a result, we are truly dumbing down our children. We must make at least two distinctions: that between dependent and independent reading and that between reading and decoding. A child is reading dependently when he needs someone else to decode the sound symbols (letters) for him. He may not yet know how to decode or he may just feel like listening. The point is that he is being read to. But his intellect is still reading. The order and structure of the communication is the order and structure of written communication, which is a significantly different thing from spoken communication.

While listening, his eyes are not reading, but his mind is. This distinction is critical. When the child begins to decode words, he is not, to be very precise, reading. He is decoding symbols. The intellectual activity is profoundly different, which is why you can have a superb reader who can’t spel to saiv his lyfe.

Then begins a gradual transition between decoding and reading, during which the mind becomes increasingly comfortable with the decoding, so much so that it becomes automatic, the child no longer needing to pay any more attention to the specific phonograms (letters and their combinations) then the adult does. But this becomes automatic and unconscious only after the child has mastered the code.

That’s why most children need to learn the phonograms very consciously. Some don’t because they seem to intuitively  grasp the coding, but even they benefit from a sound phonics program because it makes them more conscious of what they are doing so automatically.

Once the decoding becomes background work, done unconsciously from practice the way a basketball player makes just the right move without thinking about it because it’s been driven into his muscle memory, then the child can read independently. This is the third metastage of reading and it is what we are looking for.

So the child grows through three stages: dependent reading, decoding, and independent reading. I cannot stress enough how important it is for the child to continue to read dependently when he is learning to decode. The four year old who is reading fairy tales through his mother’s eyes and mouth is gaining far more intellectual skill than the five year old who is not being read to beyond what he can decode. And that older child is probably losing the thrill of reading by virtue of the pap on which he is practicing decoding. Nobody wants to “see Spot run” in such a devestatingly unimaginative way.

Second, parents used to read books that were not primarily directed at the senses. Books 50 years ago had pictures in them and some were even beginning to add color. But most pictures were simple line drawings that allowed tremendous room for the imagination to go to work. Book publishers have discovered that children respond to bright red, to primary colors, to thick black lines. They have found that these properties lead to more book sales. Some may even have concluded that since children respond it must be good.

But it has never been a good thing to indulge the senses as an end in themselves. The senses have always tried to dominate the intellect and to distract us from what matters more. They have never been wise in their distribution of energy. Wisdom requires a well trained intellect, one that has carefully considered, not sales, but the health of the soul being nourished.

If we want our children to love reading, we must stop appealing to their untrained senses without regard for taste or intellectual development (cf. Veggie Tales), and we must drive them into the text itself, where they can live the action, feel the anxieties and hopes of the characters, enter the imaginative world of the story, and experience reading as a personal act of the soul instead of merely an external act of analysis.

Third, the books parents read 50 years ago contained deep formal and material lessons for the children. That means that ideas were contained and communicated in the very structure of the text and those ideas were worth learning.

We simply cannot exagerrate the extent to which Progressive Education practices are an intended revolution that has failed miserably by succeeding so spectacularly. Dewey and Kilpatrick and their disciples were radically opposed to the traditional curriculum. They argued that it inhibited the child’s freedom and growth. For it they wished to substitute a contentless curriculum, at least so far as the parents and teachers could inculcate content, a curriculum that minimized the importance of reading becuase reading was secondary to social change. They wanted to produce radicals who would overthrow the old, stifling traditional culture.

They have succeeded. It would be fitting for them to apologize.

And they succeeded primarily by replacing the old stories. When Plutarch wrote his “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans” he did so because he believed that contemplating virtuous actions could help us become virtuous while contemplating vicious actions could warn us against vice. Dewey explictly rejected the notion that seeing vice or virtue in history or literature could cultivate virtue in a child. Books interfered with experience and experience was everything.

So King Arthur was replaced by Dick and Guinevere was replaced by Jane. Children found reading boring just as movies started permeating the world with their Hollywood values of freedom from moral restraints and traditions that tie us down. Commitment came to be seen, not as the means to achieving adult maturity and fulness, but as the obstacle to our development as human beings.

A new literature has been forming over the past 50 years, a literature dominted by excessively direct attacks on issues that are beyond the child’s moral and intellectual capacity to judge, by excessively sensual art, by trivial, dumbed-down language, by disrespect for the divine image, and by an almost complete obliteration of the moral imagination. In this age of the explosion of children’s literature, shockingly and distressingly little has been written that should be placed before the child.

Reading must demand something of the child; it must push him to his intellectual limits. It must also reward the child; he must hear the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in the rhtyhm of the words, he must feel the music of the spheres rolling through his bones, he must be brought alive through the awakening of his faculties of perception.

He must be allowed to hear the great books sing.

One of the benefits of this healthy diet is that the child will be able to read more complicated books when he is older, because he has a long habit of reading things over his head, a habit he received from his mother who gave her life to feeding his soul.

How Dewey has overcome American Christianity and overthrown America

Not everybody should read the ancient pagan writers, only those who want to be educated.

 John Dewey has such a stranglehold on modern thought that most Christian schools don’t even realize the extent to which he rules over them. This is natural, because his strategy was to insist that philosophy/metaphysics is a waste of time. All that matters is experience. Even thinking isn’t such a great thing, because we’ve been doing it incorrectly for 2500 years. We’ve been following this silly Christian classical tradition. We need to escape tradition and lean on experience. We need to come up with a new way to think. We need to stop reading the ancients, both pagan and Christian.

American Christians play directly into his hands, because they are pragmatists themselves, rooting their beliefs and actions in experience and emotion – in that which can be seen and felt. So they are perfectly happy not to think about hard questions like what we can know, how we know, how knowledge can be ordered, etc.  Dewey wins. The patterns that were established by progressives throughout American education through their complete dominance of the teacher’s colleges (another place that wouldn’t condescend to studying philosophy except, perhaps, as a subject) now dominate the American Christian schools. What, after all, could philosophy have to do with education?

By failing to read the pagans, especially Plato and Aristotle, and by failing to see how the fathers of the church interacted with pagan thought, we are not able to become, as we would convince ourselves, more thoroughly scriptural (unlike those benighted church fathers, who were blinded by Greco-Roman philosophy). On the contrary, we simply become more limited in our thinking, more like the age in which we live.

 And what is this age in which we live? Frankly, it’s the age of Darwin as interpreted by Dewey. What does that mean? I’m afraid you’re going to have to be willing to reduce the seductions of Dewey and think about philosophy for a moment to understand not only what it means to live in the age of Darwin and Dewey but to grasp the unbearable implications.

For the most part, John Dewey’s writings are unbearably obscure. For a general critique of his dogmas (and Dewey was perversely dogmatic in his writings), I recommend this book by Henry Edmondson III: John Dewey and The Decline of American Education. It’s a critique, so it takes sides, but this is a good general overview of the Dewey’s teachings and some of their flaws. If it falls short in any area (and I don’t know Dewey as well as Edmondson does), it is in failing to emphasize the significance of Darwin on Dewey’s thought. In fact, neither Darwin nor Evolution appear in the index. This brief post attempts to begin to rectify what I believe to be a shortcoming.

The careful observer can watch the world shift on the Archimedean fulcrum by reading John Dewey’s extraordinary short essay The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy. This is a philosophical treatise, so it’s not easy to read. But given its subject it is very unlike Dewey’s other writings in its lucidity. The language is technical, but at least it is coherent and consistent.

The entire thrust of the essay is expressed in the first paragraph. I will quote it in patches and comment on each.

That the publication of the “Origin of Species” marked an epoch in the development of the natural sciences is well known to the layman. That the combination of the very words origin and species embodied an intellectual revolt and introduced a new intellectual temper is easily overlooked by the expert.

Laymen like you and I, Dewey acknowledges, realize that Origin of Species was a milestone in the natural sciences. It was a big deal. But even the expert tends to overlook the signficance of the title of the book. Even the expert fails to see that Darwin’s title was embodying an intellectual revolt – a revolution. Indeed, more than a revolution, he was introducing a new temper, habit of mind, way of thinking. And how did he do so? By combining the word “origin” with the word “species.”

What!?! Why is that such a big deal?

Here I return to Dewey as he writes two long sentences with simple words but complex syntax and earth-shattering implications:

The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years, the conceptions htat had become the familiar furniture of the mind, rested on the assumption of he superiority of the fixed and final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality. In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the “Origin of Species” introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion. [emph. mine]

In brief, the Christian classical tradition has valued the eternal and unchanging above the temporal and changing. If things change that indicates an imperfection. Understand, however, that Dewey has nothing but derision for religion, especially Christianity. “There is not, I think, an instance of a any large idea about the world being independently generated by religion.” So his attack is not so much on Christianity as on classical categories of thought that were adopted by Christians in the early years of the church.

Frightened Christians who also run from any association with pagan thought fall gently into Dewey’s hands – and under his authority – over the issues in this essay.

What, then, is the ancient idea that Darwin has disposed of? In a word, “species.”

“Few words in our language foreshorten intellectual history as much as does the word species,” reports Dewey. “The Greek formulation of the aim and standard of knowledge, was in the course of time embodied in the word species, and it controlled philosophy for two thousand years.”

Dewey uses a couple pages to brilliantly summarize the development of the concept of species among the ancient Greeks and then among the scholastics. Aristotle called it eidos, referring to that which “keeps individuals distant in space and remote in time to a uniform type of structure and function.” In other words, by noting the structure and function of individual things, you can determine what “kind” of thing they are – i.e. their eidos. The scholastics translate eidos into the Latin word species, which we have since adopted into English.

Dewey recognizes the significance of the term “species” when he says, “The conception of eidos, species, a fixed form and final cause, was the central principle of knowledge as well as of nature. Upon it rested the logic science… Genuinely to know is to grasp a permanent end that realizes itself through changes, holding them thereby within the metes and bounds of fixed truth. Completely to know is to relate all special forms to their one single end and good: pure contemplative intelligence. ”

Knowledge was formerly conceived as knowledge of truth, and truth was unchanging. To really know something is to know its purpose or end. To really know all things is to see how they all relate to each other and tend to one final ultimate goal or end. Of course, Dewey is only responding to the classical tradition, not respecting the Christian developments (the existence of which he denies). But we can simplify this to the common sense statement that for the western tradition, everything has a purpose. To know that purpose is the goal of learning. Dewey, basing his dogma on Darwin, utterly denies this.

Thus, in the third section of his essay, Dewey confronts the argument from design, which is based on the notion of fixed species and argues that all things have purpose. In this context, he makes this extraordinarily insightful statement: “Science was underpinned and morals authorized by one and the same principle, and their mutual agreement was eternally guaranteed.” In a designed universe, there is no conflict between the study of science and the study of morals or between the practice of science and the practice of morals. Both were governed and directed by the idea of purpose.

But there is no purpose, according to Dewey, so the relationship between morals and science is broken. I leave it to the reader to develop the implications of that notion in his leisure time (I mean thus to illustrate the absolute necessity for leisure for those of us who wish to live consistent lives and to educate children)

In this context, he thrusts his dagger. Of course, the victim is dead now, so we don’t feel the dagger thrust any more. But try to imagine for a moment that you are foolish enough to believe that life has a purpose and that things are what they are by nature and always will be what they are. He says:

The Darwinian principle of natural selection cut straight under this philosophy. If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence tht is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them.

So much for intelligent design, which Dewey regarded as a “crucial instance” of the question of the implications of Darwinism on philosophy. Since we have done away with design, what further conclusions can we draw?

In the first place, the new logic outlaws, flanks, dismisses–what you will– one type of problem and substitutes for it another type. Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and asolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them.

No longer will philosophy ask questions about the purpose of things and the meaning of life, no longer will philosophy try to determine some ultimate origin and source for all things. Instead it will use the scientific method to study specific values – the way things are – and specific conditions that generate them -how those values came to be held. While it seems hard to deny the value of such a study, its self-refuting nature (its own values are ultimate) and its ultimate relativity explain the futility of so much sociology and psychology as the have developed out of Darwin’s naturalism as interpreted by Dewey.

For example, are you as astonished as I am that we have spent over a century figuring out all the sources of happiness and unhappiness and failed utterly to build a community that is able to wisely pursue happiness? Of course, when truths are no longer self-evident (i.e. rooted in the necessities of a permanent nature), you can’t turn to them as unquestioned foundations for such a society. And we no longer believe that the right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness are self-evident truths. Only specific values that arose from specific conditions.

Dewey deludes himself and America by convincing himself that he is being practical, action oriented, facing reality with manly endurance:

In the second place, the classic type of logic inevitably set philosophy upon proving that life must have certain qualities and values… because of some remote and causal goal…. The habit of derogating from present meanings and uses prevents our looking the facts of experience in the face.

But by not wasting our time on “the habit of seeking justification for ideal values in the remote and transcendent” we can demonstrate “that knowable energies are daily generating about us precious values.” This extraordinary statement needs unraveling. What energies? Are they of a permanent or temporary type? How are they to be known? What on earth (since that is the only place we are permitted to look) makes these values precious? Precious to whom? Caesar certainly had values he deemed precious. How are we to assess them?

Well, at least we can clarify them. Because our society values values clarification. On the other hand, our society values other things that Dewey didn’t like, like religion. These things need to be allowed to die. So much for religion in school.

Of course, when we are rooting our knowledge in immediate experience there is little value studying a history of a people who believed in species. So much for history studies.

Practical application: “To improve our education, to ameliorate our manners, to advance our politics, we must have recourse to specific conditions of generation.” Here I truly believe that Dewey has overreached himself and fallen into the fatal temptation of intellectual man. He speaks of improvement against no ideal, amelioration (gradual improvement) against no standard of perfection, advancement toward no final goal. Then what guides his improvement, amelioration, and advancement?

His values.

Suddenly, not only has the pursuit of happiness been discarded, so has liberty. We are to become (and indeed we have become) the objects of his experiments. The masters will put in place “specific conditions of generation” and those conditions will turn us into the kind of people the masters want us to be. On this matter, I refer the reader to the great novel by CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength. Let me point out what was once obvious to all thinking people: you are not free if you are another man’s lab rat, no matter how happy he makes you being his lab rat. Soma is no substitute for human dignity rooted in the Divine Image. But I digress.

My point was that Dewey is practical, not philosophical, and this is regarded as a good thing. He says, “if insight into specific conditions of value adn into specific consequences of ideas is possible, philosophy must in time become a method of locating and interpreting the more serious of the conflicts that occur in life, and a method of projecting ways for dealing with them: a method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis.”

So philosophy must have its tools taken away and then get on with the most difficult problems with which humans confront. Dewey reflects a touching naivete that can be traced through western philosophy from the day sof Descartes and Bacon, the two parents of modern thought, from whom we received our temperament. A touching confidence in reason, a sentimental hope that people will work together for global well-being, a precious fancy that we’ll all get along when we are properly conditioned by the masters. I thank God for the human spirit that rebels against this nonsense, but the only pure rebellion that is not both rejecting and absorbing Dewey’s teaching is that of the Christian classicist.

Dewey concludes his essay by pointing out that

Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, presdispositions, deeply engrained attitudes of aversion and preference… Intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume–an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them.

This may not have been a conscious move on Dewey’s part, but one can easily see the psychological strategy Dewey is handing to those who share his consciousness. Those who are opposed to us are simply not over the questions we have left behind. If they win the argument, that is irrelevent. The question no longer matters. it is not vital or urgent. We don’t care.

Simply ignore the old questions and drown the old habits and the day is won! That explains why Darwinism is so little defended and so often applauded and why theories like Intelligent Design re so little argued against and so often derided.

I’ll bet you never thought a single word could move the universe. But with the “Origins of Species,” Dewey made sure it did.

But, though you are no doubt exhausted, I have one more point that needs to be made. Earlier I quoted Dewey saying, “There is not, I think, an instance of any large idea about the world being independently generated by religion.” I’m not sure what he means by independently generated, and since I don’t believe anything is independently generated, I can accept the truth of this statement. The trouble is, it is meaningless. There is also no instance of any large idea about the world being idendently generated by philosopy, or science, or art, or by my mother, or my neighbor, or by Dewey. This provocative statement leads to one long bored yawn.

But, and this matters enormously, the concept of species is not unique to Greek thought and did not originate there. So far as I can tell, the first use of this concept is in an ancient Hebrew text that predates Aristotle by hundreds of years. In it, the Hebrew account of the creation is recorded. The Hebrew God creates animals and plants from the dust of the ground and He gives them instructions. He tells them to reproduce. And He tells them to do so “after your kind.”

Species, kind, same thing. Whether the Greeks got this idea from the Hebrews or just from looking carefully at the obvious, I don’t know. But it is by sharing this concept that Christian classical culture built an extraordinary civilization and continues to be the conscience of what is left of the “West.” Dewey is determined to put a final end to it and so far he has been astonishing effective. He has convinced us that philosophy is a waste of time and that we can have schools that pay no attention to transcendent ideas. He has designed an experimental approach that sets aside the soul, denying it the truth, goodness, and beauty on which it feeds. He has overseen the teaching methods of most Christian schools in America.

He laughs every time one of their graduates loses his faith, which he would have been less likely to do if he had understood more Plato, Aristotle, St. Athanasius, and St. Thomas.

Next time the parents in your school want to know why you read the ancient pagans, tell them it’s because you want to escape the traps of the post-Christian pagans. Tell them you are in revolt against Dewey and want to get educated no matter how opposed he is to education in the schools. And go read some Mortimer Adler.