Garrison Keillor Gets Angry

Joanne Jacobs highlights a piece in Salon by Garrison Keillor in which he criticizes Democrats for opposing systematic phonics instruction just because it is associated with political and social conservatives.

But Jacobs is right when she says that “phonics instruction is not inherently the property of the GOP or George W. Bush.” Keillor isn’t familiar with the history of the U.S. reading wars if he thinks that ”progressive” opposition to structured phonics is a recent or merely political phenomenon.

After attacking phonics in his annual report of 1843, Horace Mann (godfather of U.S. public schooling) got into an email flame war a tense exchange of pamphlets with 31 Boston schoolmasters. Mann was advocating the “word” or “look-say” method of early reading instruction, which has since morphed into “whole language.” He thought children shouldn’t be taught to systematically sound out and combine letters and syllables, but rather to simply look at words as wholes and know how to say them out loud, as if by magic. The schoolmasters told him he was nuts. (The original sources are cited here, for the curious.)

Education was still too decentralized and market driven in this country in the early 1840s for nutty pedagogical methods to displace ones that had proven themselves effective. It was not until the 1920s, when modern state school systems and teachers’ colleges had become well established, that progressive educators were able to impose their philosophical and pedagogical predilections on teachers-in-training and the public schools as a whole.

The issue here has never fundamentally been a political one. It has always been philosophical. Progressive education philosophers and practitioners generally object to highly structured systematic teaching methods, in any subject, because those methods do not comport with how they believe learning should take place.

The fact that structured methods work, and for many children work far better than the magical osmosis processes of “whole language,” confers no competitive advantage within a monopoly school system that has no real competition. Do public school districts go out of business if they adopt lousy methods or materials? No. That’s why lousy methods have survived for so long in the public school monopoly, and that is why those same lousy methods (and Horace Mann) were laughed at by schoolmasters at a time when educators actually had to show results in order to make a living.