Prejudice the Soil

The essentialist rejects the progressive theory of growth with nothing-fixed-in-advance, a planless education based upon the unselected experiences and needs of the child or even selected by cooperative, shared discussions of pupils and teachers.  Growth cannot be self-directed; it needs direction through a carefully chosen environment to an end or ends in the minds of those who have been entrusted by society with the child’s education.  The problem is not new; it was first posed in modern times by Rousseau and has been the subject of controversy ever since.  It was answered for all time by Coleridge nearly 100 years ago in the following story.  –Isaac Leon Kandel, Prejudice the Garden Toward Roses?, 1939

Kandel then quotes from Coleridge’s Table Talk, July 26, 1830.

Thelwall thought it very unfair to influence a child’s mind by inculcating any opinions before it should have come to years of discretion, and be able to choose for itself.  I showed him my garden, and told him it was my botanical garden. “How so?” said he, “it is covered with weeds.”—“Oh,” I replied, “that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice.  The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.”

E. D. Hirsch argued that Romanticism took root in American education and has continued to infect it with the kind of naturalism prescribed by Rousseau (The Schools We Need, 1996).  What I continue to appreciate about Coleridge is that he breaks the Romantic mold as it displaces the divine with the human.  The result is, as seen in the above quote, that Coleridge perceived the true nature of education as that which seeks to “exhibit the ends of our moral being.”

Conservatism, Ideology, and the Death of Seeds

Our country is being pulled further and further in two directions, one that can be safely described as progressive and the other as conservative, though not in a way intended by many who use that term now.

To see a nice summary of the progressive position, take a look at this article.

Progressives see the world in terms of ideologies in conflict, each trying to achieve what they consider a just representation. It is a politics rooted in relativism and one that, historically, tends toward centralized planning and thus to tyranny, though in varying degrees.

Conservatives, in the sense that I use the term (rooted in Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk’s writings, not the Weekly Standard or Rush Limbaugh), regard ideology itself as a poison. We don’t see the world as the battlefield of ideologies unless people are foolish enough to embrace an ideology.

Conservatism in this sense is opposition to all ideologies. Conservatism is not an ideology itself for one simple reason: it acknowledges a law of nature and of nature’s God to which everybody is bound.

Ideologies may begin within the constraints of natural law, but they possess an inner impulse to break down those constraints. They turn to the identity of the group instead of human nature.

In general, they join the money-lovers in their assault on nature itself, but they attack it from the other side. Thus, while the money-lover comes from a position of strength and thus strives to establish an oligarchy in which he uses his capital to build a fortune and then buys the state to secure it, the ideologue usually arises from or uses those in a position of weakness.

He organizes the oppressed into a force that rises up against the oppressor, whether that be the Roman Republic of the era of the Gracchi (2nd century BC), the English peasantry under Richard II (late 14th century) the French peasantry under Louis XIV (18th century), the unorganized forces of labor during the railroad years (late 19th century), or the descendants of the slaves in our own time.

The advantage of the ideologue is that he always has justice on his side. In other words, oppression is always wrong and people always absorb guilt into their souls and their communities when they practice it.

The other advantage of the ideologue is that the oppressed are excluded, by definition, from both the centers of influence and the means to those centers of influence of the wider culture. In every case I can think of, that means education. In other words, the oppressed tend to be illiterate.

The illiteracy that the oppressor imposes on the oppressed is the very weakness that leads to the overthrow of the oppressor. It’s simple. Illiterate and oppressed people (they need not be the same) feel vulnerable and weak. They are looking for someone to protect and strengthen them. They become, in varying degrees, gullible.

The ideologue thus becomes the demagogue. He promises peace and prosperity and delivers violence and suffering.

But in so doing he adds a meaning and a hope to the lives of the oppressed that fuels the revolution the seed of which was planted by the oppressor himself.

Then sets in the law of the catastrophic continuum. Once the ideologue is able to gather power to himself, he is attractive to anybody who wants a share of his power. More and more people find themselves oppressed. They establish an identity for themselves. They form a group and feed off the ideology.

And who is not oppressed?

But here is the fatal problem with both money-loving and ideology. Both of them, having built their kingdoms on greed and envy, are idolaters. Both of them are trying to overthrow nature. Both of them, to do so, need ever-expanding power.

The money-lover buys out the established government. The oppressed threatens it.

Both expand it and then find themselves unable to control it.

This is why amoral capitalism leads to socialism and why democracy always leads to demagoguery. The forces of greed and envy unleashed are demons of violence and suffering. Both are impatient. Both deny limits. Both centralize power.

This is where we sit as a nation today, on the knife’s edge between the money-lover driven by greed and the ideologue driven by envy.

Conservatism has been taken over and redefined by the money-lover. Liberalism has been taken over and redefined by the ideologue.

Conservatism has become a sounding brass and liberalism a tinkling cymbal.

The one sure thing is that we will continue to watch our government expand and intrude relentlessly until either we repent and assume responsibility for our lives, our families, and our communities, or we will find ourselves under a “benign” tyranny that stultifies every genuinely human ambition or impulse that does not meet the narrow goals of the ideologue.

What solution, then? Practically, I don’t know. But certainly if we don’t acknowledge truth and a law of nature that governs all of us, including the ruler, the merchant, and the revolutionary, then there is no solution.

The always insightful CS Lewis put it this way in his most important book:

Only the tao* provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

The Abolition of Man

* by “tao” Lewis means what the west has commonly referred to as the natural law.

Because our people have formally rejected this natural law for over a century (as seen, for example, in the maxims and decisions of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.), the oppressed have nowhere to turn but to the direct quest for power themselves.

When the powers that be determine that they are the ones who determine what is right and wrong (the practical definition or at least effect of moral relativism), even their best intentions leave no genuine hope for the oppressed.

This happened to slaves in the pre-civil-war era and it has happened to workers and to descendants of slaves since then.

But if the oppressor does not acknowledge a higher law, then how can the oppressed be expected to?

We are driven by ideologies in conflict, each seeking enough power to protect themselves and to overthrow the oppressed.

But, says St. Paul, if you bite and devour one another, take heed lest you be consumed by one another.

Let us learn not to trust in the deceitfulness of riches, nor to allow envy to drive us into ever new forms of slavery. Perhaps we can model again what Gandhi and King imitated:

Unless a seed falls in the ground and dies, it abides alone.

Weaver on Educational Gnostics

In Richard Weaver’s book Visions of Order, available through ISI, he includes a chapter called Gnostics of Education in which he demonstrates the parallel teachings of the Progressive educators who dominate American thought and the gnostics of the first two centuries.

For one who is opposed to the enemies of the human soul, this essay is enlightening, somewhat discouraging, and even invigorating. Here’s something:

First, we may turn to the objects of learning. Traditional education has always been based on the assumption that there is a world of data, a fixed reality, which is worth knowing and even worth reverencing. The content of education therefore reflected the structure of an antecedent reality. This in fact was education…. The world is there a priori [i.e. it comes first]; the learner has the duty of familiarizing itself with its nature and its set of relations.

Now all of this has been reversed. The main concern of modern educationists is not knowledge of an existent reality, but rather the mastery of a methodology. The aim of the methodology is to “grow through experience.” These are key terms requiring some examination.

Indeed they are. Here you see a pretty fair summary of progressive education compared to that which arises from the Christian classical tradition. Reality cannot be known, says the progressive, and people who try to make it knowable are a problem. Therefore, let us build a school system on the premise that reality cannot be known.

Read that last sentence again.

The Power of Comparison and the Three Obstacles to the Healing of Our Country

It amazes me how much we learn by comparison, the second of the five topics of invention in LTW.

For example, I transitioned from PC to Apple in the last couple weeks because I’d given PC 22 years to figure out how to create a reliable computer and they failed – too driven to stay ahead of whatever they’re trying to stay ahead of.

So now I am learning to use the Apple operating system, keyboard, desktop and all that. And it’s not an easy transition.

Each approach does mostly the same stuff. But each does it differently. And I’m accustomed to the old way. I like the forward delete key on the PC keyboard, for example. I liked how easily I could move between windows on the PC.

Now I’m having to learn all the new tricks with Apple.

I’ll come round, I’m sure, but just by virtue of the act of comparison I recognize some virtues in the PC that I didn’t appreciate much in the past.

On the other hand, we have the two political parties in the US. Both do basically the same things, but they  do them differently.

The Republicans expand government and the Democrats expand government. Each offers the state as the resolution to all our problems.

In this, the Democrats are much more honest and that is why they make “better” politicians.

The Republicans fight wars without much common sense and the Democrats fight wars without much common sense. Each offers war as a way to spread the values of democracy throughout the uninterested world.

In this, neither party approaches honesty or wisdom, so neither does it very well.

The differences in the parties are on their fringes, which is where you can see the sources of their energy. This dynamic complicates our politics, because the fringes are apolitical in that they despise compromise and see the other side as the enemy.

Yet, without those fringes, neither party would have any energy. They would just administer the country without any disguises at all.

I have decided to rename the parties for my own convenience. The Democrats, who have stolen and perverted the word liberal, are in fact the Progressivist party, firmly rooted in a Utilitarian philosophy.

On the fringes, they believe that religion is the ultimate evil that needs to be eradicated from the world, that the State should reorder society based on their pragmatic moral commitments (a mixture of utility and libertinism), and that we should all be forced to get along in one big happy unified country

The Republicans are the Progressive-light party. Since they are the party of Hamilton and Lincoln, they are in favor of gigantic corporations, even when those gigantic corporations fund their enemies.

You can find conservative idealists among them, but they reside somewhere between the people in power and those on the fringes. Their conservatism is only slightly more closely allied with historical conservatism than the Democrats liberalism is allied with historical liberalism.

On the fringes, they believe that religion is the only source of good in the world, that the state has no legitimate role to play in the ordering of society except to defend the homeland, that the real reason for guns is to shoot the tank driver when the feds come to take your children away to their state indoctrination centers called schools, and that we should all be left alone to get along as we see fit.

The game is lost, for the conservative, on two fronts. First, the Progressives have such complete control over education that even in “conservative Christian schools” the Progressive model is followed and Progressive techniques are used to teach.

As a result, Christian schools don’t do a good job of producing Christian kids and they don’t understand why 12 years of A Beka science haven’t inoculated their kids against the Dorm Brothel of college morality.

Furthermore, the colleges are entirely devoted to the Progressive mentality, including and maybe especially in the business schools. I saw a book at the airport that was written by a Harvard MBA student.

I don’t remember the author or title, but he let’s you know how utterly Utilitarian the school is, particularly in matters of ethics.

The second front is financial. We simply love money more than anything else. The “conservative” tends to think highly of Milton Friedman. I like some of his ideas myself. But his statement that the only purpose of a business is to turn a profit for its investors reflects an aversion to ethics that I can’t accept.

The worst thing that can happen to a man or to a business is to do evil, not to fail or die.

And there’s the core agreement between our parties and the American people: no matter what, we must survive. We must be top dog.

There, in turn, we see why the true Christian faith will win in the end. We won’t set ourselves on fire, in the manner of the Buddhist monk. We do like it when we’re set on fire by the Eternal Flame.

But the saints have proven over the centuries that they’ll die before doing evil.

Which leads me to the real point and third front. The evangelical church in America is not the evangelical church I grew up in and the one I grew up in was not the one my father grew up in.

It has lost its way.

Evangelicalism has become party spirited, taking the tone of an Ann Coulter. It’s driven by the market, many churches measuring how they should do their work the same way any other business or government agency does.

If you asked 100 pastors what is the nature of the church, you’d get a diversity of answers, but most of them would, I am quite certain, revolve around some utilitarian definition. The church is what it does.

Sounds great.

But it’s false. In fact, it’s Progressive, just like the two political parties, the public schools, and the various branches of the government.

The Church is the fulness of Him who fills all things.

Market driven people don’t make good martyrs. People who measure their pastoral success by the size of their congregations and the professionalism of their operations don’t make good lovers.

So in the real world, our country continues a decline in some areas and an ascent in others. But neither political party can draw us out of our Progressive/Utilitarian worldview and neither can the Evangelical church, so pleased with itself for continuing to oppose gay rights and abortion, while, practically, accepting fornication and serial adultery.

Maybe in the next generation enough home schooled and classically educated kids will take leadership and have some idea what they are about and what they are up against.

Then maybe we’ll see a gradual weakening of the control of education by the state, of the obsession with giantism by the corporations, and of the parallel obsession with growth by the churches. Maybe people will remember that God gave things a nature and that we have to respect the nature of things.


Arithmetic for a Slave

In their 1920 book How to Measure, Guy Wilson and Kremer Hoke describe what they call “the newer psychology in arithmetic.” They say (the bold parts are my emphasis):

The arithmetic of a generation ago was based upon a belief in formal discipline. The purpose was to develop general powers. While arithmetic is doubtless as useful as any other subject in developing general ability, it is now realized that responses are specific and that ability gained in one line contributes to success in another line only in so far as the two lines have elements in common. There is no such thing as general ability in a subject. There are, in fact, as many separate abilities in even a single subject as there are different specific responses. Arithmetic has been developed rapidly in line with this newer psychology and we have come to realize that each separate response in the useful tool materials of arithmetic must be mastered, and in turn must be tested if the diagnosis of the pupil’s ability is to be complete.

Now , let me say that these measures and tests of which Wilson and Hoke speak (they list 19 available tests on the following pages) are in some cases very valuable, especially when every single school age child is compelled to be in the classroom, willy or nilly. I do not mean, in this post, to question the value of their tests and the diagnoses their tests enabled. What I mean to challenge is the psychology behind the tests.

“There is,” they say, “no such thing as a general ability in a subject.” This statement asserts the fundamental premise of the progressive educator and renounces the fundamental psychology of the Christian and classical tradition. And where did this new psychology come from?

Oh, look! Here’s a big surprise: Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Whoodathunkit? And the theorist: Edward L. Thorndike, a behavioral psychologist who formulated laws of learning that, Diane Ravitch tells us in Left Back, A Century of Failed School Reforms, “were based on the observed connection between stimulus and response.” After all, the last thing the progressive educators wanted was to think about “metaphysical or traditional sources of authority,” when they could make themselves the authorities.

Ravitch’s description is exceptionally clear, as is all her writing, so let me share an extended quote with you:

Thorndike and his colleague Robert S. Woodworth conducted several experimnets to determine whether training one mental function would improve any other mental function. In one instance, subjects were asked to estimate teh length of various lines or estimate weights. In another, subjects were instructed to select certain letter combinations (e.g. the letters e and s) or words  or geometic figures. They also tested the influence of memorizing “on the general ability to memorize.” From their various experiments, the authors found that “the amount of improvement gotten by training in an allied function is small.” They concluded that, “It is misleading to speak of sense discrimination, attention, memory, observation, accuracy, quickness, etc., as multitudinous separate individual functions are referred to by any one of these words. These functions have little in common. There is no reason to suppose that any general change occurs corresponding to the words ‘improvement of the attention,’ or ‘of the power of observation,’ or ‘of accuracy.'” The alleged benefits of mental discipline, they held were “mythological, not real entities.” Rather than seeing the mind as a collection of separate functions (or “faculties”), they maintained that “the mind is, on the contrary, on its dynamic side a machine for making particular reactions to particular situations.” (Page 64 in Ravitch)

The effect of this research?

The Thorndike-Woodworth studies had a dramatic effect among pedagogical professors, who greeted them as proof  that the theory of mental discipline had been decisively ‘exploded.’ Parents and other members of the public continued to talk about ‘training the mind,’ but educationists believed that this had been revealed as a myth.

The issue of transfer of training became crucial to the viability of the academic curriculum, and the implications for the schools were mind-boggling. Some educational psychologists, citing Thorndike and Woodworth, insisted that nothing learned in one situation could be applied to any other, so that all training must be specific to the task at hand. Seen in this light, nothing taught in the school had any value or utility except to satisfy college admission requirements or to prepare those who planned to teach the same subject in the future or those who might have an occupational purpose for learning subjects such as algebra, chemistry, history, or German.

But we’re just getting warmed up:

Pedagogues quickly realized that Thorndike’s experiments had undermined the rationale for the traditional curriculum and that it was up to them to create a new education, one that would train the students for the real world of work.

Did you just feel the earth move? Did you just hear the shackles click? Ravitch continues:

Thorndike confidently asserted that scientific research had made obsolete the once-customary claims about “training of the reason, of the powers of observation, comparison and synthesis” or “training the faculties of perception and generalization” or “disciplining the senses.”… Now pedagogical science would decide which youngsters should study Latin, geometry, English, bookkeeping, cooking, sewing, or woodworking, and which subjects should be removed from the curriculum.

OK, fine, so what does this have to do with testing? I turn again to Ravitch:

Thorndike had faith in the scientific value of measurement, and he developed intelligence tests, aptitude tests, and every other kind of mental test. Only such faith, detached from any cultural values, could make possible the assumption that studies such as Latin and geometry had been decisively invalidated by laboratory experiments in which students memorized nonsense syllables or underlined meaningless letter combinations.

Because I believe that most of my readers will see the prima facie folly of Thorndike’s approach I won’t spend a great deal of time on the refutation (that isn’t really my point anyway, which I’ll come to shortly). But let me include Ravitch’s reference to Pedro Orata, who exposed Thorndike’s theories in his doctoral dissertation. This highlights some crucial points:

Orata… contended that Thorndike’s experiments had been profoundly misleading; that the efforts to replicate them had been inconclusive; that they tested only “mechanical habits,” which were of little value; and that Thorndike’s theory supported an apprenticeship system, not a democratic system of education. Orata pointed out that psychologists who had trained students to understand “meanings, concepts, and principles or generalizations” had demonstrated considerable transfer of training. When students understood what they were learning, why they were learning, and why it had implications ouside the classroom, they were likely to transfer what they had learned to new situations. Transfer of training occurs, Orata pointed out, when teachers make it a goal of instruction.

Thorndike’s experiments had been focused too narrowly on habit formation and drill, Orata complained, excluding any role for logical thinking and concept formation. His emphasis on the specialized nature of mental functions had made no provision for “disinterested study, for the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake,” or for gauging the ways in which studies of literature, science, and the arts taught importnat intangibles such as open-mindedness and appreciation of other cultures.

No, when you don’t value knowledge apart from its utility, I don’t suppose you would make provision for “knowledge for its own sake.” And yet, to this day, curricula still base their pedagogy on Thorndike’s careless, disrespectful quasi-science, probably because it gave power to people who develop abstract and rather arbitrary measures of students’ development. 

Freedom is rooted in the notion of ideas. The man who cannot see the truth of principles cannot make up his own mind. The man who cannot transfer learning from one domain to another cannot function on his own. Thorndike developed the psychological underpinnings of an education for slaves.  Wilson and Hoke affirmed the application of this slave’s training to measuring arithmetic.

From Christian Love to Progressive Law

The reason for the growth of bureaucracy in American life is a loss of confidence in the spirit of God, al loss of confidence in human dignity, a turning to law from grace. This is a rather obvious historical development that can’t be discussed because we are now a secular nation.  

When grace and spirit are excluded, the solution for broken relationships is always law.  


Love and freedom are replaced with law and regulations. Here is the cause of the rather random impulse toward Romanticism, New age experiments, and other man centered attempts to find what Edmund Burke called the unbought grace of life. 


But perfect love casts out fear. Only Christians who live by grace can restore grace to the world. And that will always begin in the church, the home, and the community. It will never be a global revolution. It will be achieved by the quiet martyrdom of death to self.  


Maybe this is the fundamental social miracle of the gospel. We don’t need to use the law to bring about our hopes for the future. We don’t need to coerce people into the kingdom of heaven. We believe that the grace of God will achieve it’s purposes. In fact, we believe that when we step in and try to achieve God’s ends through law or any other effort of the flesh, we create catastrophe. The story of Abraham and Hagar has reminded us of that from our beginnings. 


But we Christians are a lot like the younger Abraham, the one before he had learned to laugh. We don’t trust in God’s grace to achieve His ends, so we try to enforce them by our cleverness.


It’s time to lighten up!

1901 – The Cat Escapes the Bag

From Diane Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (essential reading for anybody who wants to understand American education – and that must include teachers! Doesn’t it?):

In 1901, sociologist Edward A. Ross… explained that free public schooling was “an engine of soical control.” It was the job of schools, he wrote, “to collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading-board…. And so it happens that the role of the schoolmaster in the social economy is just beginning.” Ward had imagined that the purpose of schooling was to redistribute knowledge, believing as he did that “the lower classes of society are the intellectual equals of the upper classes.”

Ross labored under no such illusions.  He saw the schools as “an economical system of police.” He knew that to acknowledge as much “shocks the public and chills teachers. But now and then the cat is let out of the bag.” Ross predicted that the disestablishment of religion would be followed by the establishment of the school as the guarantor of social order….

The rise of educational sociology and the success of the industrial education movement radically changed public discussion of educational goals… Within only a few years, dicussions among educators about how to teach all children teh great ideas and art of the ages faded away, seeming slightly antique, and were replaced by discussions of social efficiency. 

Ravitch, 80,81

In preparation for my opening talk at the conference next week, I’ve been reviewing the slime that is American educational history at the turn of the previous century. One sees tremendous idealism and even well-meaning attempts at reform. But at its core, its very foundation, is contempt for the local community, contempt for tradition, contempt for religion, radical materialism expressing itself in its blind and unthinking, uncritical acceptance of every Darwinian fad the Herbert Spencers and G. Stanley Halls can come up with as well as the listless, heartless sell-out to the commerical interests of the time.

I do hope you can attend the conference and hear either a really bad joke or a terrible, terrible horror story.

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.