Literacy As a State Commodity

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Of all the
goods offered by the state, literacy, ostensibly nonpartisan and
of fundamental benefit to democracy, should be its showcase value.
Success in its instruction should give the lie to Libertarian claims
that every good should be freely contracted, and convince the non-doctrinaire
that some goods are best dispensed by the state.

This brief
article will refute any such notions. It will present sufficient
evidence to show that the crippling of reading ability in this nation
is the fault of a state-sponsored educational establishment that
forced the whole-word method on several generations of children,
children delivered over to it as captives of the compulsory attendance
laws. It will examine the record of the behaviorists from the 1870s,
then turn to, for want of a better term, the pre-behaviorists. It
will consider the contrasting success of the alphabetic-phonetic
instruction of reading, and finally it will try to provide some
reasons to account for the fact that even to this day, in spite
of the overwhelming evidence for its failure, the American educationists
cling to the whole-word method.

compulsory elementary education in the United States, between 13
and 40 percent
of American high-school graduates are functionally
, that is, unable to read and write at a fourth-grade
As a result of the failure of the nation’s elementary schools
to teach reading, businesses and the military have undertaken programs
of their own to improve the literacy of their personnel2;
remedial reading programs have been established even at the university
level; and in the middle-level schools the reading difficulty level
of textbooks has been repeatedly lowered. How has such a scandalous
and tragic state of affairs come about, especially considering that
compulsory school attendance was established throughout all of the
United States in the 1920s? In the 170 years before that decade
there was no remedial reading program in the nation,3
and for those who were able to attend a school, learning to become
literate was not very difficult. In fact the instruction of reading
according to alphabetic-phonetic methods had always been a very
simple affair.4
5 6
Yet in the United States in the 1920s it suddenly began to get difficult.
During that decade all of the phonetic readers went out of
print, having been supplanted by those following the method of a
recently founded educational establishment.7
That was the whole-word, or look-say, method of behaviorism.

That the
new method was a failure should have been evident to its promoters.
The method relies upon a basal vocabulary of words learned by sight
(rather than by phonics), which must be learned in order for further
progress in reading to take place. Yet the method clearly was not
teaching even those words, much less reading. As Samuel L. Blumenfeld
points out,

In 1930 the
word look was repeated eight times in the pre-primer. In
1951 it is repeated 110 times. In 1930 the word oh was
repeated twelve times, in 1951, 138 times. In 1930 the word see
was repeated twenty-seven times, in 1951, 176 times!8

Finally, what
was not admitted by educators was all too evident to parents: their
children could not read. In 1956 they found an articulate spokesman
for their alarmed concern: Rudolf Flesch, an Austrian who was not
a part of the reigning American educational establishment, whose
book Why Johnny Can’t Read was the declaration of war
between the behaviorists who embraced the whole-word method and
the parents who wanted phonics.

is a school of psychology which assumes that the scientifically
measurable aspect of man is his behavior. It attempts to avoid the
introspective study of man because such a study is inherently vague
and unquantifiable. The behaviorist shuns introspection just as
the logical positivist shuns “metaphysics,” and indeed
the school is the practical application of the philosophy. For the
behaviorist, man is the sum of his outward, objectively observable
behaviors. This approach immediately creates difficulties for him
when he confronts the event of reading. For him the uttering of
the 349
or 4310
phonic sounds of English is meaningless, which of course in itself
is true, but which to him is therefore methodologically unjustifiable.
A concept can account for the use of phonics, viz., that our carefully
accumulated experience of hearing the language over the first four
or five years of life should guide our reading of it, but the behaviorist
has eliminated the study of concepts from the outset. He allows
himself to study only meaningful events. For him the first meaningful
event is the utterance of a word; therefore, reading should begin
with whole words, learned by associating a picture with the
written word and then by trying to guess the meaning of a
pattern of words. For him there are two events in reading: the act
of reading (either aloud or silently) and the spoken or written
demonstration that meaning was extracted from that act. The conceptual
work that goes on during the act of reading cannot, by the
dictate of his methodology, be an object of study; it must be treated
as a mystery beyond the realm of science. Thus behaviorists have
difficulty in defining reading. “Learning to read is learning
a vocabulary,”11
according to behaviorist Francis W. Parker (1880); it is “thought-getting”,
even when those thoughts do not correspond to those on the page,
according to behaviorist Edmund Burke Huey (1908)12;
it is a set of subskills that magically combine to produce meaning,
according to Margaret Early and Diane J. Sawyer (1984)13;
and it is a “guessing game” according to Kenneth Goodman.
Dr. Richard L. Venezky sums up the situation as follows:

psychology [principally behaviorists] has no dealing with reading
comprehension. The word, for the most part, simply does not exist.14

It was
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt who, with the establishment of the first
laboratory for experimental psychology in Leipzig in the 1870s,
founded behaviorism. The prestige of German science drew students
to Wundt’s lab at the University of Leipzig from all over the
world. Wundt’s first American student was G. Stanley Hall,
the so-called father of American psychology. In 1883 Hall brought
what he had learned to the United States and to John Dewey, who
studied with him a year, and whose career Hall promoted.15
James Earl Russell studied under Wundt also and received his doctorate
from the University of Leipzig in 1894.16
In 1897, five years after Columbia’s Teachers College had received
its permanent charter, he became its dean. For the next 30 years
he would run it, making the Columbia Teachers College the largest
institution in the world for the training of teachers, and according
to the most scientific methods.17
He would also establish Edward Lee Thorndike18
at the college. But it was James McKeen Cattell, who received his
doctorate from the University of Leipzig in 1886,19
who contributed directly to behaviorism’s destruction of reading
ability in the United States. While still at Leipzig he conducted
a series of experiments on adults who already knew how to read (using
the tachistoscope20),
and discovered that they recognized words without having to sound
them out, that they see “total word pictures.” Thus he
reasoned that children who did not know how to read could
be instructed more quickly using the same process. Cattell brought
these findings to the University of Pennsylvania, where he became
the first professor of psychology in the world (Wundt’s degree
was in philosophy). In 1891 he became Columbia University’s
first professor in the psychology department. Perhaps equally important
as his discoveries in reading were his talents as a promoter of
the new discipline. He founded the journal of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, as well as Scientific Monthly
and School and Society. And he published the reference
works American Men of Science and Leaders in Education
and The Directory of American Scholars, mingling names from
the infant science of psychology with established giants in the
“hard” sciences.

discoveries were confirmed by Erdmann and Dodge21
and by Glenn Doman22
for adults who already knew how to read. Also observation
confirms initial success of the whole-word method for children23
because it is at first easier for them to memorize a very small
basal vocabulary than it is for them to struggle through phonics.
But growing beyond that initial vocabulary is difficult or impossible,
as already indicated above. It was only this initial success that
Authur I. Gates claimed as proof of the new method for all children
in an article published in April, 1927.24
According to Flesch, “this Gates experiment was the only test
ever made in which systematic phonics came out second best”
to the whole-word method, and for the reasons given above. A book
of Gates’ published in the same year, The Improvement of
Reading, also reports the favorable results of the use of the
whole-word method for the instruction of deaf mutes. Now it should
be very obvious why deaf mutes cannot use phonics, but through some
twist of logic Gates proclaims that success for those unfortunates
constitutes proof of its value for whole children.25
Thus, with this flimsy evidence, a revolutionary method of teaching
reading was forced upon a nation, and with disastrous results.

as the method was, there were nevertheless earlier examples of the
failure of the whole-word method, whose study might have averted
disaster. Let us call these nineteenth century American whole-word
advocates pre-behaviorists because their pseudo-scientific spirit
is very much like that of the behaviorists themselves. Moreover,
there are several startling parallels – perhaps direct borrowings?
– from these earlier behaviorists to the later ones. The first
such parallel is another report of whole-word progress among the
deaf and dumb. The pre-behaviorist Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet of Hartford,
Connecticut was director of the American Asylum at Hartford for
the Education of the Deaf and Dumb from 1817 to 1830.26
He seems to have been a cautious man who was nevertheless much interested
in any new method to improve the reading ability of the deaf and
dumb. His experiments with the whole-word method indeed indicated
some success for them. Publication of his finding in a 1830 edition
of the American Annals of Education seems to have caused
a stir, and Gallaudet eagerly recommended applying his principles
to normal children, but only to a few private school children at
first. On August 2, 1836, the Boston Primary School Committee experimentally
adopted the primer he had evidently published in the same year.
The Mother’s Primer, as it was called, was given to
several teachers, and after one year glowing praise for it led to
its adoption throughout the Boston school system. What these teachers
were reporting, of course, was the initial success in children memorizing
the small basal vocabulary. Horace Mann became Secretary of the
Massachusetts Board of Education just several months before the
general adoption of Mother’s Primer, and he became an
enthusiastic supporter of its whole-word method. After several years
of its use, however, reports of reading difficulties became numerous.
When Mann, in spite of this evidence, maintained his ardent support
in his Seventh Annual Report of the Massachusetts Board of Education,
the schoolmasters had had enough. They appointed Samuel S. Greene,
principal of the Phillips Grammar School, to state their case, and
his reply, written in 1844, is a brilliant defense of phonics. He

…in respect
to spelling, among the candidates for admission from the primary
schools, there has been a great deterioration during the trial
of the new system; a period of about six years…. And, here we
may remark, that the testimony of able primary school teachers
themselves, who have tried both systems, is adverse to this mode
of teaching reading.27

Because of
this and other protests, the primer was dropped in 1844.

Thus a
six-year test of the whole-word method had been conducted on a major
public school system and had failed. Yet the example which certainly
was known to professional educators in the early part of this century
was ignored. And there is another parallel which leads one to wonder
if the Mother’s Primer, despite its failure, may have
inspired the Dick and Jane basal readers of the 1920s, which employed
the same method. For even though there are no surviving copies of
the primer, we know its first line through Mann’s report. It
is: “Frank had a dog; his name was Spot.”28

The success
of the alphabetic-phonetic system, on the other hand, can be measured
by nothing less than the success of Western culture itself. Or as
Flesch says:

[E]ver since
1500 B.C. people all over the world – wherever an alphabetic
system of writing was used – learned how to read and write
by the simple process of memorizing the sound of each letter in
the alphabet. When a schoolboy in ancient Rome learned to read,
he didn’t learn that the written word mensa meant
a table, that is, a certain piece of furniture with a flat top
and legs. Instead, he began by learning that the letter m stands
for the sound you make when you put lips together, that e means
the sound that comes out when you open your mouth about halfway,
that n is like m but with the lips open and the teeth together,
that s has a hissing sound, and that a means the
sound made by opening your mouth wide. Therefore, when he saw
the written word mensa for the first time, he could read
it right off and learn, with a feeling of happy discovery, that
this collection of letters meant a table. Not only that, he could
also write the word down from dictation without ever having seen
it before. And not only that, he could do this with practically
every word in the language.29

And Blumenfeld:

Before the
invention of the alphabet, writing was ideographic. Language was
represented by picture-symbols which required a great deal of
memorization and was never very accurate. It was easy enough to
represent commonplace objects and simple actions by picture symbols.
But when it came to communicating complex philosophical abstractions
or great subtleties, ideographs were inadequate. The alphabet
was a tremendous improvement. Once you mastered the sound-symbol
system, you could write down any thought in precisely the manner
you wanted it to be conveyed. This enabled the Greeks to expand
the mind’s capacity to think and work, and it permitted a
tremendous advance in man’s intellectual development.30

One can
sense the outrage in Flesch that so-called experts would continue
to promote a method which results in the mental crippling of children.
How can the behavior of the behaviorists be explained, then? Flesch
tries to account for it in terms of greed for royalties in the publication
of the Dick and Jane basal primers.31
And similarly, Blumenfeld blames a lobby, the International Reading
Association (IRA), who promote the basal primers for the royalties
Lionni and Klass explain their behavior as that of educational elitists
conspiring with capitalists to provide mindless drudges to fuel
the economy,33
a wild notion that we can safely discard. Venezky tries to account
for it as the imposition of a cultural goal, i.e., democracy, upon
But this implies an absurdity, i.e., that our cultural insistence
on democracy means the leveling of all would-be readers to a common
illiteracy. Yet surely only a national myth can keep the peddlers
of illiteracy in power in the educational bureaucracy. And this
bureaucracy, which is in fact an arm of the government, has peddled
illiteracy. So how does one account for it? Richard Mitchell attempts
the following:

is not a skill or a collection of skills, although it surely does
provide many ever-growing skills; it is rather a way of the mind,
the individual mind, for there is no other…. A government
institution serves the aims of government. The aims of even the
best government, as Jefferson warned us, are not the same
as the aims of free individuals nor can they be. Free individuals,
capable of thoughtful discretion, are the necessary check to the
natural propensities of what Jefferson so aptly named the “functionaries”
of government. It must follow, therefore, that if education provides
us with free individuals, it is not in the interest of
government functionaries to provide education.35

In other words,
the government cannot be a disinterested referee; it cannot be an
impartial dispenser of goods even when there is universal agreement
on the value of a good as fundamental as literacy. The state
has market-bending interests of its own. Of course this is just
the point of the Public Choice school of economics of James Buchanan,
Gary Becker, Ronald Coase, and others. The point is more subtle
than the
classic libertarian statement of J.S. Mill
, which is true notwithstanding:

A general
state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be
exactly like one another; and the mould in which it casts them
is that which pleases the predominant power in the government,
whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the
majority of the existing generation. In proportion as it is efficient,
it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency
to one over the body.

In Mill’s
case one imagines self-conscious agents, willing an articulate agenda
upon a recalcitrant but equally self-conscious mass. But this image
of romantic struggle is false, although one could wish for such
opponents. In a mass democracy the true image is one of swarms of
bureaucrats: numberless, faceless, and invincible to reason. Each
is convinced that he is offering a valuable public good and is offended
that people exist who oppose the experts and the eternal institution
which provides not only his livelihood but his very self-esteem.
Repetita placent – repetition pleases – as Bastiat
says in his famous essay
on the broken windowpane
: folks have followed a system for a
time, and they can’t conceive that affairs could possibly be
different. Meanwhile it breaks the heart to think of the thousands
of young minds who struggle in frustration to acquire the key that
unlocks all the doors, who instead become part of the “mysterious”
epidemic of dyslexics, who have been deliberately crippled by a
failed method vested in the interests of the state.

This essay
has shown the genealogy of a failed method of teaching reading.
But there is nothing in behaviorism that makes its whole-word teaching
method inherently appealing to the state. It just happened that
way. The state might just as haphazardly embrace the beneficial

Our conclusion
is this: even when there is universal agreement on the value of
a good offered by the state, even when the state can offer it more
cheaply than the market, even when the state embraces a method or
a good that has demonstrable benefit, the Libertarian should oppose
it. We oppose the state-sponsored commodity because it becomes hedged
with the power of the state, because the apparatus of its delivery
is forced into the habits of a nation and becomes almost impossible
to change. We oppose it because it institutionalizes the standard
of power in opposition to the standard of truth.


Time magazine, August 14, 1989.

Blumenfeld, Samuel L., The
New Illiterates – And How You Can Keep Your Child From Becoming
, New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1973, 358
pages, p19.

Flesch, Rudolf Franz, Why
Johnny Can’t Read – And What You Can Do About It
New York: Popular Library, 1956, 208 pages, p29.

Ibid., p26.

Blumenfeld, p124.

Mitchell, Richard, The Graves of Academe, Boston: Little, Brown
and Co., 1981, 229 pages, p66.

Flesch, p50.

Blumenfeld, p162.

Ibid., p125.

Flesch, p27.

Blumenfeld, p157.

Flesch, p52.

Early, Margaret and Sawyer, Diane J., Reading to Learn in Grades
5 to 12, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984, 480 pages,

Venezky, Richard L., “A History of Phonics in American Reading
Instruction,” The Reading Informer, Vol.9, No.1, October
1981, p3 and pp18-20.

Lionni, Paolo and Klass, Lance J., The
Leipzig Connection: The Systematic Destruction of American Education
Portland: Heron Books, 1980, 109 pages, p22.

Ibid., p32.

Ibid., p32-3.

Ibid., p36.

Ibid., pp27-30, for this and the following account.

Flesch, p50.


Lionni, p28.

Blumenfeld, p141.

Flesch, pp53-4 for this and the following account.

Blumenfeld, pp160-1.

Ibid., pp127-142.

Ibid., p148.

Ibid., p137.

Flesch, p11.

Blumenfeld, p123.

Flesch, p12.

Blumenfeld, p120.

Lionni, p62 and pp64-5.

Venezky, p18.

Mitchell, p202.

1, 2005

Hulsey [send him mail]
is a writer living in Fort Worth, Texas. His latest book is Heroic
Tales and Treasures of the Lonely Heart

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