The Grail Code 
Learning not to read

I’m not a big conspiracy theorist—in fact I spend a lot of my time making fun of conspiracy theorists. So I’m just going to call it a happy coincidence that, the worse schools get, the more professional educators we need to sort out the mess.

It seems like a conflict of interest, doesn’t it? I mean, would you want to buy a car from a dealer that made most of its money fixing broken cars? —Oh, wait, we do that all the time.

Still, heaven forbid that we should ever actually figure out what makes a good education, because then we wouldn’t need any more professional educators—just teachers. Instead, we have a constant merry-go-round of hand-wringing studies showing that Johnny can’t read, followed by new educational theories promising to fix what was wrong with Johnny’s education, followed by more hand-wringing studies showing that Johnny is even worse off now, followed by new educational theories promising to fix what was wrong with the last round of theories, and so on. No wonder Johnny is a bit dizzy. All we need is a Wurlitzer in the middle.

A little while ago I ventured upstream a bit toward McKeesport and picked up a copy of the Daily News. The lead article was a roundup of what your children could expect to find when they went back to school in any of the school districts in that part of the Mon Valley.

For the benefit of people who live in normal parts of the world, I should explain that the area around Pittsburgh is jealously jurisdictional. Every two-bit borough has its own school district. Sometimes two or three one-bit boroughs will pool their resources to make a two-bit school district, but even those are usually quite small. There are more than forty school districts in Allegheny County alone, and that’s just the City of Pittsburgh and the innermost suburbs.

In the Mon Valley, most of the boroughs and cities never recovered from the demise of Big Steel. Most of those school districts hover somewhere between poor and broke.

So how are they spending their meager resources? Well, just for example, one district is giving its elementary school—it has only one—a new “software-based” reading program. “Motivating software”—which I assume involves electrodes wired directly into the brain—will reward the pupils for learning their lessons correctly.

Now, I’m not a professional educator. I have, however, been paid to blither at professional educators, so if I’m only a crank with opinions, at least they’re opinions worth money. In this case, my opinion is that this method is especially designed to teach children not to read.

Say what you like about even the worst of the old readers (and I’m talking about you, Dick and Jane), at least the reward they promised was in the reading itself. The assumption was always that it was worth learning to read because, eventually, you would have fun reading. Now that assumption has been abandoned. Instead, our children are being taught by the most obvious method that reading is a chore, something you get through to get the non-reading reward zapped into your brain.

Would a child learn to appreciate good food if you gave him candy as a reward for eating it? No: he’d learn to appreciate the candy, and soon enough, when he was old enough to control what he ate, he’d skip the food and go straight for the candy.

My theory, if you can dignify it with that title, of teaching reading is simple: at every stage, you must reinforce the idea that reading itself is the reward. You do that with great stories. In a religious school, for example, you could use stories from the Bible. Take that one about the youths who mocked Elisha and were torn to pieces by bears (2 Kings 2:23-24). Kids love that story, but for some reason they never hear it in Sunday school anymore. Once they learn there’s stuff like that in the Bible, and they can only get at it by reading it themselves, they’ll be hooked. I need hardly mention that, for older children, the stories of King Arthur and his knights can be the beginning of a lifelong obsession.

That’s not my only opinion about education, of course. When I gave a lecture to a bunch of Catholic educators a few years ago, I told them that their school expected them to work as hard as they could to sabotage democracy, and it was up to them to be subversive and democratic. Since then, you’ll notice, all the problems have disappeared from Catholic schools, and every pupil is above average. Now I’m ready to offer that same wisdom to the world at large. Stay tuned.

3 Responses to “Learning not to read”

  1. Russell McNeil Says:

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