Literacy As a State Commodity

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.

Despite compulsory elementary education in the United States, between 13 and 40 percent of American high-school graduates are functionally illiterate, that is, unable to read and write at a fourth-grade level.1 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.

Behaviorism 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:

Experimental 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.

Cattell’s 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.

Revolutionary 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 wrote:

…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 involved.32 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 reading.34 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:

Literacy 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 method.

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.


1 Time magazine, August 14, 1989.

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

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

4 Ibid., p26.

5 Blumenfeld, p124.

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

7 Flesch, p50.

8 Blumenfeld, p162.

9 Ibid., p125.

10 Flesch, p27.

11 Blumenfeld, p157.

12 Flesch, p52.

13 Early, Margaret and Sawyer, Diane J., Reading to Learn in Grades 5 to 12, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984, 480 pages, p35.

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

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

16 Ibid., p32.

17 Ibid., p32-3.

18 Ibid., p36.

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

20 Flesch, p50.

21 Ibid.

22 Lionni, p28.

23 Blumenfeld, p141.

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

25 Blumenfeld, pp160-1.

26 Ibid., pp127-142.

27 Ibid., p148.

28 Ibid., p137.

29 Flesch, p11.

30 Blumenfeld, p123.

31 Flesch, p12.

32 Blumenfeld, p120.

33 Lionni, p62 and pp64-5.

34 Venezky, p18.

35 Mitchell, p202.

December 1, 2005