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The Victims of Dick and Jane

By Samuel L. Blumenfeld
September 01, 2002

Who are the victims of Dick and Jane? They are the millions of American adults who, as children, were taught to read by that insipid whole-word, or sight-reading, method which, since 1930, has caused widespread reading disability and dyslexia. Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neuropathologist who had studied reading disabilities in Iowa in the 1920s, warned the educators in 1929 that the sight method would cause reading disability among a very large number of children and that the educators should think twice before putting this new teaching method into all the schools of America. His article, "The 'Sight Reading' Method of Teaching Reading, as a Source of Reading Disability" was published in the February 1929 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology. He wrote, almost apologetically:

I wish to emphasize at the beginning that the strictures which I have to offer here do not apply to the use of the sight method of teaching reading as a whole but only to its effect on a restricted group of children for whom, as I think we can show, this technique is not only not adapted but often proves an actual obstacle to reading progress, and moreover I believe that this group is one of considerable educational importance both because of its size and because here faulty teaching methods may not only prevent the acquisition of academic education by children of average capacity but may also give rise to far reaching damage to their emotional life.

Orton could not have spoken more honestly and plainly. But his words fell on deaf ears. The progressive editorial board of the Journal included behavioral psychologist Edward L. Thorndike and his protégé Arthur I. Gates, both of whom were instigators of the new teaching method. They argued with Orton, dismissed his findings, and proceeded to produce the new whole-word reading programs.

The Dick and Jane program, edited by William Scott Gray of the University of Chicago, was published in 1930 by Scott Foresman, and Arthur Gates' program was published by Macmillan. Gates taught at Teachers College, Columbia University. By 1940 these whole-word programs were in virtually every primary classroom in America. And thus began the dumbing down of the nation.

Creating an Illiterate Citizenry
In September 1993, the U. S. Department of Education revealed the shocking findings of its survey of adult literacy in America: 90 million U.S. adults were barely literate. In other words, nearly half the adults in America had been so severely dumbed down by their schooling that they could hardly qualify for a decent job. These were the true victims of Dick and Jane. But nobody in Congress was willing to hold the education establishment responsible for this literacy disaster. It was all blamed on the children who had grown up to become handicapped semi-literate adults.

How and why was this whole-word method chosen by the educators to replace the time-proven, traditional alphabetic phonics method? It was John Dewey, philosophical leader of the progressives, who, in an influential essay published in 1898, proposed the complete reforming of primary education by de-emphasizing high literacy in favor of socialization. He wrote:

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.

He then outlined a plan whereby primary education would be completely revamped to advance the agenda of the progressives: the creation of a socialist America. He wrote:

Change must come gradually. To force it unduly would compromise its final success by favoring a violent reaction.

The question one might ask is: if what they were hoping to achieve for America was so wonderful, why would Americans react violently against it?

No sooner were the Dick and Jane books in the schools than children began to experience all sorts of reading problems. A whole new lexicon of exotic terms was invented by the psychologists to deal with these new problems: congenital word blindness, word deafness, developmental alexia, congenital alexia, congenital aphasia, dyslexia, strephosymbolia, binocular imbalance, ocular blocks, dyslexaphoria, and more.

In 1944, Life magazine published a major article on dyslexia. It described the cure recommended by the Dyslexia Institute at Northwestern University for one little girl with an IQ of 118: thyroid treatments, removal of tonsils and adenoids, exercises to strengthen her eye muscles. Nobody suggested teaching her phonics.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch's famous book, Why Johnny Can't Read, was published. For the first time the general public was told why Johnny couldn't read: he was not being taught in the proper phonetic way. Flesch wrote:

The teaching of reading all over the United States, in all the schools, and in all the textbooks is totally wrong and flies in the face of all logic and common sense.

He then explained how the educators had gotten rid of the alphabetic phonics method and replaced it with look-say, an ideographic method, in which children are taught to look at each word as a whole configuration, like a Chinese character. He said that when you impose an ideographic teaching method on an alphabetic writing system, you get reading disability and dyslexia. Again, the reaction of the educators was to blast Flesch, discredit him, and reassure parents that Flesch was a charlatan and ought not to be listened to.

But Flesch's book did wake up a lot of parents who began to teach their children phonics at home. As for the professors of reading, they circled the wagons and created the International Reading Association, which then became the citadel of the whole-word method.

The Ox You Slaughter
Another important component of the progressive curriculum was behavioral psychology. It was Edward L. Thorndike, a strong believer in evolution and eugenics, who stressed the notion that children were animals and could be trained like animals. He wrote in 1928:

Our experiments on learning in the lower animals have probably contributed more to knowledge of education, per hour or per unit of intellect spent, than experiments on children. 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 his own nature to perform it."

But it was John B. Watson, the most arrogant behaviorist of them all, who revealed the true contempt that he and his fellow behaviorists had toward their fellow human beings when he wrote in his book, Behaviorism:

Human beings do not want to class themselves with other animals. They are willing to admit that they are animals but "something else in addition." It is this "something else" that causes the trouble. In this "something else" is bound up everything that is classed as religion, the life hereafter, morals, love of children, parents, country, and the like. The raw fact that you, as a psychologist, if you are to remain scientific, must describe the behavior of man in no other terms than those you would use in describing the behavior of the ox you slaughter.

He meant to be shocking, because he had to convince his students that they had to treat human beings as animals. He wrote further:

The interest of the behaviorist in man's doings is more than the interest of the spectator — he wants to control man's reactions, as physical scientists want to control and manipulate other natural phenomena. It is the business of behavioristic psychology to be able to predict and control human activity.

Eventually Dick and Jane were phased out and replaced by Whole Language, a deconstructionist reading program that has caused a literacy catastrophe in California and elsewhere. Its proponents insisted that Whole Language was an improvement over Dick and Jane because the latter were insipid, boring little stories. The Whole Word advocates would give the children real literature to read — stories about witchcraft, the occult, murder and mutilation. Dick and Jane may have been boring, but they didn't give the children nightmares. Whole Language "literature" does.

And because Whole Language rejects phonics, its proponents had to offer a new definition of reading in keeping with their methodology. Here it is, in their own words, written by three Whole Language professors of education:

From a whole language perspective, reading (and language use in general) is a process of generating hypotheses in a meaning-making transaction in a sociohistorical context. As a transactional process, reading is not a matter of "getting the meaning" from the text, as if that meaning were in the text waiting to be decoded by the reader. Rather, reading is a matter of readers using the cues print provides and the knowledge they bring with them to construct a unique interpretation. Moreover, that interpretation is situated: readers' creations (not retrievals) of meaning with the text vary, depending on their purposes for reading and the expectations of others in the reading event. This view of reading implies that there is no single "correct" meaning for a given text, only plausible meanings.

That gem of professorial wisdom comes from a book entitled Whole Language: What's the Difference, page 19.

Can you imagine the frustration experienced by millions of American school children trying to learn to read according to the above philosophy? The victims of whole language are by now in the millions and nothing will be done by the public educators to repair the damage that has been inflicted on these children.

Crippling the Children
What the educators have done is devise a curriculum that purports to teach children to read, but which actually cripples them. And they do this at great expense to the taxpayer for whom the educators have nothing but contempt. After all, they are managing to extract from the public billions of dollars for not doing what the public expects them to do: teach children to read. That's the substance of the whole-language fraud.

Perhaps the best expression of contempt that the educators have for parents was given by Professor Anthony G. Oettinger in 1982 at a conference of communications executives in Canada. The professor is chairman of the Center for Information Policy Research at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, where the elite decide the future for the rest of us. So we can be sure that the professor's thinking is a reflection of the thinking of the ruling cognitive elite. He said:

The present "traditional" concept of literacy has to do with the ability to read and write. But the real question that confronts us today is: How do we help citizens function well in their society? How can they acquire the skills necessary to solve their problems?
Do we, for example, really want to teach people to do a lot of sums or write in "a fine round hand" when they have a five-dollar hand-held calculator or a word processor to work with? Or, do we really have to have everybody literate — writing and reading in the traditional sense — when we have the means through our technology to achieve a new flowering of oral communication?
What is speech recognition and speech synthesis all about if it does not lead to ways of reducing the burden on the individual of the imposed notions of literacy that were a product of nineteenth century economics and technology?
It is the traditional idea that says certain forms of communication, such as comic books, are "bad." But in the modern context of functionalism they may not be all that bad.

Now, I doubt that there are any parents in America who send their children to school to learn to read comic books. If anything, they want their children to be taught to read and write in the traditional manner. They don't consider learning to read as a burden imposed on the individual. Rather, if taught in the proper way, learning to read can be a joyful experience for children eager to explore the wonderful world of the written word.

Literacy, by the way, is not the product of nineteenth century forces. It is the product of the sixteenth century Reformation in which the need to be able to read the Bible was the imperative for universal literacy. In a Christian civilization everybody has to be literate. But of course Professor Oettinger is of a different persuasion. He believes that literacy is only necessary for the ruling elite. "Do we really have to have everybody literate?" he asks. Well, if not, then who chooses who is to be literate and who is not? Wasn't the idea of universal literacy behind the creation of our public school system? Wasn't compulsory school attendance enacted because it was believed that everyone should be literate in America?


Topics: Education, Culture , Psychology, Socialism

Samuel L. Blumenfeld

Samuel L. Blumenfeld (1927–2015), a former Chalcedon staffer, authored of a number of books on education, including NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education,How to Tutor, Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers, and Homeschooling: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children

He spent much of his career investigating the decline in American literacy, the reasons for the high rate of learning disabilities in American children, the reasons behind the American educational establishment’s support for sex and drug education, and the school system's refusal to use either intensive phonics in reading instruction and memorization in mathematics instruction.  He lectured extensively in the U.S. and abroad and was internationally recognized as an expert in intensive, systematic phonics.  His writings appeared in such diverse publications as Home School DigestReasonEducation Digest, Boston Magazine, Vital Speeches of the DayPractical Homeschooling, Esquire, and many others.

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