John Dewey, Dumbing Down, and The Scandal of Dyslexia

My encounter with John Dewey (America’s most famous educator) began in the trenches of the reading wars. There the big question is: why did our educators discredit phonics, which works, and promote another approach, called whole word, which doesn’t work? Why, indeed? Yes, they’re connected–this terrible trio of American culture–all connected. Permit me to be your guide to the dark side:

To carry off this scam, educators relentlessly attacked Rudolph Flesch, the reading expert who celebrated phonics in two huge best sellers (1955, 1980). I thought that Flesch was merely stating the obvious–phonetics has to be the smart way to teach a phonetic language. Anyway, you can be sure that our educators knew all the arguments pro and con even as they taught only one side of the debate, and even as they ridiculed Flesch. I ended up feeling sorry for the guy; I wanted to write up his story. But right off, I ran into the question of motive. Why had American educators acted in this bizarre way–ignoring truth, embracing the unworkable? Why, indeed?

Let me state the mystery more grimly: why did our educators use every imaginable stratagem to protect policies that twisted millions of children into functional illiterates, usually with behavioral disorders (often lumped under the heading ADD) and reading disabilities (often lumped under the term dyslexia)? These bad effects are everywhere visible in American society. However, even the biggest expert I contacted couldn’t explain motive to me. “Our educators,” he said, “are jerks.”

Not satisfying. I wanted to get inside their heads. So I read anti-phonics guru Frank Smith (no easy task) and lots of other stuff, working my way back in time to the early 1900s. There, of course, you run smack into John Dewey and the founders of Education in this country. All so long ago. People might assume that events more than a century past couldn’t hurt us now. Wrong. It’s not until you confront John Dewey that you start to understand how American education got so screwed up that illiteracy and dyslexia are ordinary.

John Dewey, in his long life, wrote dozens of books and hundreds of articles. A lot of it is murky and ambiguous. Whatever you wish to promote, you can find support from Dewey. But in the interest of speed, let me summarize: he and his buddies were Socialists. They were sick of individualism, the pioneer spirit, free enterprise, and people doing their own thing. John Dewey wanted you to be a happy member of a group. You didn’t need that much literacy or knowledge. Dewey actually saw these as impediments. He calls, especially in the early grades, for sharply curtailing the study of literature, history, math, science, geography and such, in order to make room for social activities, specifically, “cooking, sewing, manual training, etc.” (his words). So here, tragically and pathologically, John Dewey, Educator, metamorphosed into that most unexpected of things: John Dewey, Anti-Educator. To advance his sociopolitical visions, Dewey was eager to dilute content and diminish learning.


  1. Betty Peters

    This was the exact topic of conversation with some friends yesterday and I have just shared this article with them via email. It's scary that after all these years our schools of education still worship at the feet of Dewey; I firmly believe this will continue under Obama's fed ed scheme called Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) goes into effect. CCSSI covers all aspects of education including professional development and ed school curricula. The recommended pedagogy will remain constructivism–if you don't believe me, just stop to think who is behind this "total transformation of education." It's late but I believe we can still expose and stop the federalization of education.

  2. Robert Oliphant

    Phonics has always worked well in a uniform-pronunciation suburban setting. But for multi-dialectal city classrooms look-and-say avec flashcards have always delivered the goods. Current Sina (Chinese English) wisely centers upon standard worldwide American pronunciation English (SWAPE), using midwestern pronunciation as the first pronunciation presented in our four major college-size dictionaries, and is unique in so doing. Dictionary based normalization and testing would soothe our dysfunctionally turbid waters. If not, we'll continue to get our technocrats from the Pacific Rim and use home grown Anglos for stoop lavor.

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July 31st, 2010

Jimmy Kilpatrick

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