In short, the goal of the Progressives was to saturate students in the spirit of service and prepare them for community life. On the other hand, the goal of the heroic educators opposing them was to teach students to think, learn, and understand the world.

In order to achieve their ends, Progressives needed to do more than merely attack the ideas of Montessori, Hutchins, and Adler. Their antiacademic campaign would culminate in an assault on the very root of cognitive development. What was the most effective way to bar millions of students from intellectual training? Cripple their ability to read.

The Great Reading Wars

In 1955, when the campaign in favor of intellectual training seemed lost, Rudolf Flesch fired a shot heard ’round the nation with his brilliant book Why Johnny Can’t Read. Flesch was an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis and emigrated to America. He held a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna and earned a PhD in library science from Columbia University. Knowing there was little illiteracy in Austria and in Western Europe more broadly, he was nonplussed by the rampant reading problems he encountered in America.

Flesch wrote to American parents about, among other things, remedial instruction for deficient readers:

There are no remedial reading cases in Austrian schools… . There are no remedial reading cases in Germany, in France, in Italy, in Norway, in Spain—practically anywhere in the world except in the United States… . Did you know that there was no such thing as remedial reading in this country either until about thirty years ago?

He discovered that from the start of the 20th century, American educators almost uniformly repudiated the tried-and-true phonics method of teaching reading. Phonics makes efficient use of one of the great intellectual achievements of human civilization: the development of the Roman alphabet. This alphabet is the basis of most European languages and is composed of twenty-six letters that give rise, in English, to forty-four sounds.

By the time most children are five, they generally can speak thousands of words in their mother tongue. At this point (and probably earlier), it is possible to teach them the alphabet, the literary symbols that make up the verbal sounds. In a matter of months, children between the ages of five and six can master the written alphabet and begin to sound out words.

For centuries, billions of children in dozens of nations around the world have mastered the all-important art of reading by this method. Even in English, a so-called irregular language, only approximately 13 percent of words are pronounced differently than they are spelled. This means that children trained in phonics can sound out about 87 percent of words in the language. Then, as proficient readers, they learn by experience to match irregular spellings—for example, “rough”—with the spoken word that they well know.

But throughout the 20th century and continuing now well into the 21st, the majority of American educators have rejected phonics, opting instead for some variant of the “whole word” method. This method teaches children to look at the whole word, to recognize its shape, to examine the context in which it is deployed, and, if necessary, to guess. The first iteration of this method, known as “look-say,” held that children learn to recognize a written word by seeing it repeatedly. The theory was: Students need only master a core group of commonly used words and then employ context cues to decipher the rest. The children cannot be overloaded with thousands of new word shapes at a time. Therefore, the look-say method, starting in the first grade, entails introducing children to only several hundred new words per school year, which are then relentlessly repeated. Here, for instance, is a sentence from the kind of books commonly used: “‘We will look,’ said Susan. ‘Yes, yes,’ said all the children. ‘We will look and find it.’ So all the boys and girls looked. They looked and looked for it. But they did not find it.”

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