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The Dumbing Down of America

Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as not only the most ferocious and destructive natural disaster to hit America, but also for what it revealed about our social underbelly.

  • Samuel L. Blumenfeld,
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Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as not only the most ferocious and destructive natural disaster to hit America, but also for what it revealed about our social underbelly.

It uncovered the fact that an affluent, technologically advanced America has a large population of people that can only be called an underclass. This underclass not only existed in New Orleans, but exists in every city in America. These are people who live in poverty and are greatly dependent on government programs for their basic needs. Most of them are functionally illiterate.

How can this be in a country with compulsory public education? We know that the road out of poverty is education, but apparently the American public schools are establishing, not eradicating, lifetime poverty.

As we all know, the famous War on Poverty was enacted during the Johnson administration back in 1964. Its goal was to eliminate poverty in America. Since then, several trillion dollars have been spent on the program. So how is it that 40 years later, poverty still exists and that there may be even more of it today than there was in 1964?

The answer is very simple. During that same administration, LBJ, with the help of the National Education Association, enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 in which the federal government entered public education with both feet. Politicians decided to spend billions of dollars to “improve” education. One of the programs in that act was Title One, Compensatory Education, which was designed to help underclass children learn to read. Forty years later, after an expenditure of countless billions of dollars, there is now more illiteracy among the underclass than there was back in 1965.

Is this the result of inefficient government bureaucracy? Or is it proof that minority children in the underclass are somehow mentally defective and simply can’t learn to read no matter how much money is spent on them? Marva Collins, a Chicago teacher who founded her own private school, took these same children who were considered uneducable and turned them into highly literate individuals with a future. How did she do it? Simply by using teaching methods that work. So why won’t the public schools use these methods?

The Plan for Failure

The plain truth is that there has been in this country a deliberate plan to change the nature of education in America so that the American people could be easily led into a socialist system. The story begins with John Dewey, who became the philosophical leader of the Progressive Education movement.

Dewey, born in 1859, was reared among conservative Christians in New England. At the University of Vermont he eagerly accepted the Theory of Evolution and began his voyage from Christianity to atheistic socialism. At Johns Hopkins in 1881 he studied Hegel and the New Psychology taught by G. Stanley Hall, who had gotten his doctorate under Wilhelm Wundt at Leipzig. Dewey became a socialist after reading Edward Bellamy’s 1888 book, Looking Backward, a utopian fantasy about a socialist America in the year 2000. He later wrote that Bellamy was “imbued with a religious faith in the democratic ideal…. But what distinguishes Bellamy is that he grasped the human meaning of democracy as an idea of equality and liberty. No one has carried through the idea that equality is obtainable only by complete equality of income more fully than Bellamy.”1

In 1894 Dewey joined the faculty of the University of Chicago as Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy. It was there that he set up his famous Laboratory School where the new collectivist curriculum could be tried out. Dewey’s idea was to build the curriculum not around academic subjects but occupational activities, which provided maximum opportunities for socialization.

In his famous statement of belief, “My Pedagogic Creed,” written in 1897, Dewey spelled out quite clearly that the school was to be the vehicle of America’s socialist revolution. In his Creed he put forth his collectivist concepts of an organic society, the social individual, the downgrading of academics, and the need to use psychology in education. To Dewey, an individual was no more than a cell in a larger organism.

In 1898, Dewey wrote his seminal essay, “The Primary-Education Fetich.” In it he attacked the traditional emphasis on teaching basic academic skills in the primary grades, particularly the teaching of reading by the phonetic or phonics method. The phonics method produced good fluent readers, individuals with independent intelligence who could think for themselves and read anything. Dewey’s aim was to create a curriculum that would lead to collectivist or group-think, in which individualism would be replaced by socialist man. The first step was to change how reading was taught.

By 1898 Dewey had become a socialist revolutionary, determined to change America into a socialist state. However, he realized that the American people could not be persuaded to give up capitalism, private property, and individualism so easily. As an educator, he and his socialist colleagues decided that the only peaceful means of reaching their goal was to take full control of the public education system and educate children with a socialist curriculum. Dewey wrote in “The Primary-Education Fetich”:

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

Dewey left Chicago in 1904 and joined the faculty at Columbia University and Teachers College in New York. There he grew in stature as the moral interpreter of American progressivism and had an enduring influence on all of the educators who passed through the portals of Teachers College.

Reading, a Tool for Revolution

The key to the socialist curriculum was a different way of teaching reading that would reduce reading skills to where they could only be used to further socialist goals. The whole-word method, which teaches reading without intensive phonics, would be adopted for use by the schools, and professors of education would train new teachers in how to use the new “sight” method.

That the new method would cause reading problems was already known by 1929 when Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neuropathologist who specialized in speech disorders and reading problems, wrote an article published in the Journal of Educational Psychology entitled “The ‘Sight Reading’ Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability.” He wrote that “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.”

Despite Dr. Orton’s warning, the educators went ahead with their plans. The “Dick and Jane” reading program and other look-say or sight-word programs were put in the schools as early as 1933. By 1955, these new programs had produced so much reading disability, that Rudolf Flesch brought out his best-selling book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. In it he told a startled public:

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

As for how the educators were able to perpetuate such “error” without any sensible or effective reaction among dissenting, conservative educators, he wrote:

It’s a foolproof system, all right. Every grade-school teacher in the country has to go to a teacher’s college or school of education; every teachers’ college gives at least one course on how to teach reading; every course on how to teach reading is based on a textbook; every one of those textbooks is written by one of the high priests of the word method. In the old days it was impossible to keep a good teacher from following her own common sense and practical knowledge; today the phonetic system of teaching reading is kept out of our schools as effectively as if we had a dictatorship with an all-powerful Ministry of Education.

That situation still exists today. As the author of a very effective intensive phonics reading program, I have tried every way to get my program adopted by local schools. It’s been like hitting one’s head against a stone wall. Whole Language — the latest form of the whole-word teaching method — still holds sway in our schools and teachers’ colleges and is producing more and more students who can’t read.

And that is why conservative education reform is impossible. You may get a school here and there that will respond to conservative parental pressure, but as soon as that pressure relents, the school will return to the establishment goals. That process follows the communist strategy of two steps forward and one step backward. That’s how progressives make progress.

Conditioned Reflexes

It should be noted that the progressives rely on teaching methods scientifically proven to be effective. Edward L. Thorndike at Teachers College developed the Stimulus-Response (SR) technique of teaching, comparable to what Ivan Pavlov and his colleagues discovered about conditioned reflexes in their laboratories in Moscow. (A conditioned reflex is a learned habit, which we automatically repeat.)

Thorndike, a student of William James at Harvard, experimented with chickens and, by watching them, developed his theory of how children learn. He wrote in 1928:

[E]xperiments 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.”

John Watson, often referred to as the father of behavioral psychology, wrote in Behaviorism, in 1924:

It is the business of behavioristic psychology to be able to predict and control human activity…. Every one of the printed and written 15,000 words that a well educated individual can respond to in an organized way must be looked upon as an example of a conditioned stimulus.

That basically is the philosophy of Behavioral Psychology, which permeates teaching methods in our public schools. The problem is, however, that while it is possible for both animals and humans to be trained, humans can also be educated, animals cannot.  American children are given lots of training, but very little, if any, education.

What do we mean by education? Simply, the passing on to future generations the knowledge, wisdom, and moral values of the past. That means learning to read phonetically, learning history chronologically, and learning the Bible, none of which is being done in the public schools. Wisdom cannot be acquired through SR conditioning.

Modern Methods

Meanwhile, the techniques of dumbing down children have become much more sophisticated and complex. For example, the methodology in the “Dick and Jane” books evolved into the Whole Language approach which is prevalent today. Here’s a definition of Whole Language as given by three professors of education in a book entitled Whole Language: What’s the Difference published in 1991 (p. 32):

Whole language represents a major shift in thinking about the reading process. Rather than viewing reading as “getting the words,” whole language educators view reading as essentially a process of creating meanings. (See the development of this view in the writings of Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith.)  Meaning is created through a transaction with whole, meaningful texts (i.e. texts, of any length that were written with the intent to communicate meaning.)  It is a transaction, not an extraction of the meaning from the print, in the sense that the reader-created meanings are a fusion of what the reader brings and what the text offers…. In a transactional model, words do not have static meanings. Rather they have meaning potentials and the capacity to communicate multiple meanings.

What parent can make sense out of that? In whole language, no intensive, systematic phonics is taught. What whole language does is develop in the child a holistic reflex, that is, the automatic tendency to look at all printed words as whole configurations, like Chinese characters. This occurs when the child is taught a Sight Vocabulary. Children can memorize a couple of hundred words that way, but by the time they reach the third grade, where a much larger reading vocabulary is required, they hit the wall. The holistic reflex creates a block against seeing the phonetic structure of the words. To be able to read any word fluently requires that the child develop a phonetic reflex. But it is this conflict of reflexes that creates the condition known as dyslexia.

All of this was well expounded in a book written by one of Pavlov’s colleagues, Alexander Luria, The Nature of Human Conflicts, Researches in Disorganisation and Control of Human Behavior, published in 1932. It was translated from the Russian by W. Horsley Gantt, an American psychologist who had spent the years 1922 to 1929 working in Professor Pavlov’s laboratories. Dr. Luria wrote:

The researches described here are the results of the experimental psychological investigations at the State Institute of Experimental Psychology, Moscow, during the period 1923-1930. The chief problems of the author were an objective and materialistic description of the mechanisms lying at the basis of the disorganisation of human behaviour and an experimental approach to the laws of its regulation….
Pavlov obtained very definite affective “breaks,” an acute disorganisation of behaviour, each time that the conditioned reflexes collided, when the animal was unable to react to two mutually exclusive tendencies, or was incapable of adequately responding to any imperative problem.

And that is exactly what happens in American schoolrooms. Children are unable to react to two mutually exclusive tendencies (holistic and phonetic) and therefore have a cognitive breakdown, which is then labeled as dyslexia, functional illiteracy, reading disability or learning disability. And the behaviorists know exactly how to make this condition occur. The process can be easily explained: what would you do if as a motorist you were confronted at an intersection with both a green and red light? Would you stop or go? Your tendencies would be in conflict, and thus you would be paralyzed. Imagine this process taking place in the brain of a child paralyzed by a conflict between the holistic and the phonetic.

One of the most effective experimenters in this field was Kurt Lewin who came to the United States in 1933 from Germany, founded the Research Center for Group Dynamics at M.I.T. and shortly before his death in 1947 founded the National Training Laboratory at Bethel, Maine, where teachers learn the techniques of sensitivity training and how to become effective change agents.

Lewin is mentioned in Luria’s book as “one of the most prominent psychologists to elucidate this question of the artificial production of affect and of experimental disorganisation of behaviour.”

One of the reasons why it is so difficult to remediate a dyslexic is because the holistic reflex is so firmly established that learning to read phonetically can become a very uncomfortable, if not painful, process. It requires learning the alphabetic system and being drilled in letter and syllable sounds so that the learner develops a phonetic reflex to replace the holistic one. This writer has achieved success in curing some dyslexics of their reading problems by using his own highly structured instruction program. In other words, there do exist perfectly good phonetic reading programs that the schools can use. We are not looking for a cure for cancer. The cure to America’s illiteracy problem exists, but the schools will not use it.

The result is that textbooks for history, social studies, science, etc., have been dumbed down. Contrary to wishful thinking, one hundred years after John Dewey showed the way, the progressive establishment has not abandoned its political and social goals. As the authors of Whole Language: What’s the Difference wrote in an article in The Whole Language Catalog published in 1991 (p. 418):

Whole language teaching is subversive, in the best sense of the word, because it seeks to restore equality and democracy to our schools, to our children, and in essence, to our society. [When were the schools ever models of equality and democracy? –S.B.]

Whole language puts power for learning, decision-making, and problem solving back into the hands of teachers and students. It creates active learners; it empowers all of us to act upon and transform our environments and society in general. We are not just asking for a change in the teaching of reading, but a radical change in the social and political structure of schooling and society.

President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” reform has done nothing to deflect the progressives from their goals. The only solution for parents who wish their children to become literate human beings is to educate them at home or place them in a private school that has their confidence.

And so we can expect our government to continue spending billions more to alleviate the poverty of those in the underclass who will continue to be miseducated and victimized in our schools. Meanwhile, the educators can laugh all the way to the bank.

1. John Dewey, “The Great American Prophet,” 1934. The work was a tribute to Bellamy.

  • Samuel L. Blumenfeld

Samuel L. Blumenfeld (1927–2015), a former Chalcedon staffer, authored 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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