K-12: Illiterate New World

Nov 30, 2018 by

“Brave New World” clarifies why we have so much semi-literacy in our public schools today. The secret resides in what’s taught, and what is not taught.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World appeared in 1932. Everyone at that time was dazzled by the technocratic skills of the Ford Motor Company, able to turn out identical cars by the millions on highly efficient assembly lines. (In Huxley’s novel the calendar counts years A.F.—After Ford—and God’s new name is Ford.) 

The Zeitgeist was obsessed with control. Ideologues liked the possibility of more precise social engineering. Communists in particular were focused on planned societies and central economies, with super-smart experts sitting around a table and deciding what every citizen could do and could not do. Psychiatrists like Ivan Pavlov wanted to show how drastically you could manipulate cognition and personality.

Aldous Huxley devised a single beautiful image for capturing all of these hopes and fears: a hi-tech assembly line where infants were manufactured to specification. In particular, oxygen levels were adjusted to create babies of very low, low, medium, and very high intelligence. This image, this metaphor, was stunning in its concreteness. A huge industrial operation, all clean and shiny, all stainless steel and glass, did what nobody had thought of doing before: control human intelligence in embryo.

Many readers did not know whether to celebrate this wonderful new technology or run screaming from what was possibly a tsunami of evil. Was Huxley celebrating his Brave New World, or deftly satirizing the arrogant “Controllers” who built this factory?

   Many readers, confused and ambivalent, worried they did not understand all the implications of the book. At the same time, virtually all readers were intrigued by the image of embryos in glass jars, with bubbles of oxygen carefully adjusted to create college professors and sewer workers. Aldous Huxley presented  his futuristic vision with realistic specifics and glittering details. The book remains one of the most acclaimed in literary history.

 The downside of Huxley’s brilliance was that readers did not extrapolate from his embryo factory to other spheres of activity. His slave new world was assumed to be one-of-a-kind. Furthermore, Huxley’s concerns appeared entirely industrial even as the essence was something else altogether, namely, deprivation. Even shrewd people didn’t see that the industrial metaphor was only a shocking sci-fi surface. It was not the deep-story: human beings are plastic and can be altered.

   And why extrapolate? After all, what other human activities are remotely similar to oxygen-deprived embryos on an assembly line?

 Surprise: it turned out there was a huge activity exactly parallel. That was the creation of readers to order. By the simple device of depriving some children of certain key information, they were stunted, no longer able to become professors, more or less predestined for low-level jobs.

As Huxley in the year 1931 was doing the final edit on his book, this country’s Education Establishment built a new sort of assembly line for producing flawed children. Instead of withholding oxygen, this factory withheld the alphabet.  Parents were told that the ABC’s were not essential and could be ignored.  As one famous expert announced dogmatically  “Current practice in the teaching of reading does not require knowledge of letters.” Really?!?

Instead of the alphabet (twenty-six fairly simple objects that can be memorized in a month or two), children in this new factory were told to focus on  complete words. Instead of memorizing B, for example, you had to memorize BEACH. Just five letters but a hugely complex design; and there were more than 200,000 of them. Parents were told that their children could routinely memorize these visual designs with “automaticity.” That’s like instant recall. The child was supposed to know hundreds and then thousands of these designs with perfect accuracy. In reality, virtually no child could do this, except the few with photographic memories. So in practice the factory created millions of non-readers and weak readers.

 In this ruthless new factory, the obsession with power and control was the same as in Huxley’s factory. Humans would be conditioned and engineered to be what the Controllers wanted. This creepy, highly invasive scheme was a brilliant “success,” once it’s understood that the new goal was limited literacy. Anyway, that was the predictable result. Reading levels dropped from 1931 onward. Several decades later the country had tens of millions of functional illiterates. Those are people who memorize several hundred sight-words with good accuracy, and probably hundreds more with medium or low accuracy. Reading as traditionally understood—a skill both easy and fun—was extinct for a great percentage of the population. What this bold new factory was creating was damaged readers, like the embryos which didn’t get enough oxygen.

This scheme was wildly improbable from the first day. What sort of unconscionable people would dare to perpetrate it?  That the citizenry could accept it was improbable. How many semi-literate people would the society tolerate? That so-called “experts” could put this scheme over on the public remains unlikely to this day. It’s probably not doable unless the Education Establishment has the support of certain unions, certain government agencies, certain foundations, certain universities, and much of the media. There is a big silence. How will the public learn the truth if the Comptrollers make sure it’s well hidden? (Check the archives of the New York Times. You will not find insight into why sight-words can be considered a dubious development.)

 Hardly 20 years after the introduction of this brave new illiteracy, the situation was already so bad that Rudolf Flesch felt compelled to write a book explaining what had happened to the country (Why Johnny Can’t Read, 1955). Many millions of Americans felt compelled to read the book. Almost everyone knew something had gone horribly wrong. It continues to go wrong today.

In Brave New World, the Controllers are always smugly pleased with their factory. The same sort of people seem to be controlling K-12 education for the past century.

Bruce Deitrick Price’s new book is “Saving K-12 — What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?” He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.