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.


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.