The Sudbury Valley School
I know a school for kids ages three to eighteen that doesn't teach anybody to read, yet
everyone who goes there learns to do it, most very well. It's the beautiful Sudbury Valley
School, twenty miles west of Boston in the old Nathaniel Bowditch "cottage" (which
looks suspiciously like a mansion), a place ringed by handsome outbuildings, a private
lake, woods, and acres of magnificent grounds. Sudbury is a private school, but with a
tuition under $4,000 a year it's considerably cheaper than a seat in a New York City
public school. At Sudbury kids teach themselves to read; they learn at many different
ages, even into the teen years (though that's rare). When each kid is ready he or she self-
instructs, if such a formal label isn't inappropriate for such a natural undertaking. During
this time they are free to request as much adult assistance as needed. That usually isn't
In thirty years of operation, Sudbury has never had a single kid who didn't learn to read.
All this is aided by a magnificent school library on open shelves where books are
borrowed and returned on the honor system. About 65 percent of Sudbury kids go on to
good colleges. The place has never seen a case of dyslexia. (That's not to say some kids
don't reverse letters and such from time to time, but such conditions are temporary and
self-correcting unless institutionalized into a disease.) So Sudbury doesn't even teach
reading yet all its kids learn to read and even like reading. What could be going on there
that we don't understand?
The miracle woman who taught me to read was my mother, Bootie. Bootie never got a
college degree, but nobody despaired about that because daily life went right along then
without too many college graduates. Here was Bootie's scientific method: she would hold
me on her lap and read to me while she ran her finger under the words. That was it,
except to read always with a lively expression in her voice and eyes, to answer my
questions, and from time to time to give me some practice with different letter sounds.
One thing more is important. For a long time we would sing, "A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H,
I, J, K, LMNOP..." and so on, every single day. We learned to love each letter. She would
read tough stories as well as easy ones. Truth is, I don't think she could readily tell the
difference any more than I could. The books had some pictures but only a few; words
made up the center of attention. Pictures have nothing at all to do with learning to love
reading, except too many of them will pretty much guarantee that it never happens.
Over fifty years ago my mother Bootie Zimmer chose to teach me to read well. She had
no degrees, no government salary, no outside encouragement, yet her private choice to
make me a reader was my passport to a good and adventurous life. Bootie, the daughter
of a Bavarian printer, said "Nuts!" to the Prussian system. She voted for her own right to
decide, and for that I will always be in her debt. She gave me a love of language and it
didn't cost much. Anybody could have the same, if schooling hadn't abandoned its duty
The religious purpose of modern schooling was announced clearly by the legendary
University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward A. Ross in 1901 in his famous book, Social
Control. Your librarian should be able to locate a copy for you without much trouble. In
it Ed Ross wrote these words for his prominent following: "Plans are underway to replace
community, family, and church with propaganda, education, and mass media.... the State
shakes loose from Church, reaches out to School.... People are only little plastic lumps of
human dough." Social Control revolutionized the discipline of sociology and had
powerful effects on the other human sciences: in social science it guided the direction of
political science, economics, and psychology; in biology it influenced genetics, eugenics,
and psychobiology. It played a critical role in the conception and design of molecular
There you have it in a nutshell. The whole problem with modern schooling. It rests on a
nest of false premises. People are not little plastic lumps of dough. They are not blank
tablets as John Locke said they were, they are not machines as de La Mettrie hoped, not
vegetables as Friedrich Froebel, inventor of kindergartens, hypothesized, not organic
mechanisms as Wilhelm Wundt taught every psychology department in America at the
turn of the century, nor are they repertoires of behaviors as Watson and Skinner wanted.
They are not, as the new crop of systems thinkers would have it, mystically harmonious
microsystems interlocking with grand macrosystems in a dance of atomic forces. I don't
want to be crazy about this; locked in a lecture hall or a bull session there's probably no
more harm in these theories than reading too many Italian sonnets all at one sitting. But
when each of these suppositions is sprung free to serve as a foundation for school
experiments, it leads to frightfully oppressive practices.
One of the ideas that empty-child thinking led directly to was the notion that human
breeding could be enhanced or retarded as plant and animal breeding was — by scientific
gardeners and husbandmen. Of course, the time scale over which this was plotted to
happen was quite long. Nobody expected it to be like breeding fruit flies, but it was a
major academic, governmental, and even military item generously funded until Hitler's
proactive program (following America's lead) grew so embarrassing by 1939 that our
own projects and plans were made more circumspect.
Back at the beginning of the twentieth century, the monstrously influential Edward
Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College said that school would establish conditions for
"selective breeding before the masses take things into their own hands." The religious
purpose of modern schooling was embarrassingly evident back when Ross and Thorndike
were on center stage, but they were surrounded by many like-minded friends. Another
major architect of standardized testing, H.H. Goddard, said in his book Human Efficiency
(1920) that government schooling was about "the perfect organization of the hive." He
said standardized testing was a way to make lower classes recognize their own inferiority.
Like wearing a dunce cap, it would discourage them from breeding and having ambition.
Goddard was head of the Psychology Department at Princeton, so imagine the effect he
had on the minds of the doctoral candidates he coached, and there were hundreds. We
didn't leave the religious purpose of modern schooling back in the early years of the
century. In April of 1996, Al Shanker of the AFT said in his regular New York Times
split-page advertisement that every teacher was really a priest.
A System Of State Propaganda
Something strange is going on in schools and has been going on for quite some time.
Whatever it is does not arise from the main American traditions. As closely as I can track
the thing through the attitudes, practices, and stated goals of the shadowy crew who make
a good living skulking around educational "laboratories," think tanks, and foundations,
we are experiencing an attempt, successful so far, to reimpose the strong-state, strong
social class attitudes of England and Germany on the United States — the very attitudes
we threw off in the American Revolution. And in this counter-revolution the state
churches of England and Germany have been replaced by the secular church of forced
Advertising, public relations, and stronger forms of quasi-religious propaganda are so
pervasive in our schools, even in "alternative" schools, that independent judgment is
suffocated in mass-produced secondary experiences and market-tested initiatives.
Lifetime Learning Systems, one of the many new corporations formed to dig gold from
our conditions of schooling, announced to its corporate clients, "School is the ideal time
to influence attitudes, build long-term loyalties, introduce new products, test-market,
promote sampling and trial usage — and above all — to generate immediate sales."
Arnold Toynbee, the establishment's favorite historian in mid-twentieth-century
America, said in his monumental Study of History that the original promise of universal
education had been destroyed as soon as the school laws were passed, a destruction
caused by "the possibility of turning education to account as a means of amusement for
the masses" and a means of "profit for the enterprising persons by whom the amusement
is purveyed." This opportunistic conversion quickly followed mass schooling's
introduction when fantastic profit potential set powerful forces in motion:
The bread of universal education is no sooner cast upon the water than a shoal of sharks
arises from the depths and devours the children's bread under the educator's very eyes.
In Toynbee 's analysis "the dates speak for themselves":
The edifice of universal education was, roughly speaking, completed... in 1870; and the
Yellow Press was invented twenty years later — as soon, that is, as the first generation of
children from the national schools had acquired sufficient purchasing power — by a stroke
of irresponsible genius which had divined that the educational labour of love could be
made to yield a royal profit.
But vultures attending the inception of forced compulsion schooling attracted more
[The commercial institutions that set about at once to prey on forced mass schooling]
attracted the attention of the rulers of modern... national states. If press lords could make
millions by providing idle amusement for the half-educated, serious statesman could
draw, not money perhaps, but power from the same source. The modern dictators have
deposed the press lords and substituted for crude and debased private entertainment an
equally crude and debased system of state propaganda.
The Ideology Of The Text
Looking back on the original period of school formation in her study of American history
textbooks, America Revised, Frances Fitzgerald remarked on the profound changes that
emerged following suggestions issued by sociologists and social thinkers in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The original history of our institutions and the
documents which protect our unique liberties gradually began to be effaced. Fitzgerald
raises the puzzle of textbook alteration:
The ideology that lies behind these texts is rather difficult to define.... it does not fit usual
political patterns.... the texts never indicate any line of action.... authors avoid what they
choose to and some of them avoid main issues.... they fail to develop any original
ideas. ...they confuse social sciences with science.... clouds of jargon.... leave out
ideas. ...historical names are given no character, they are cipher people. ...there are no
conflicts, only "problems' '. [emphasis added]
Indeed, the texts may be unfathomable, and that may be the editorial intent.
The National Adult Literacy Survey
In 1982, Anthony Oettinger, a member of the private discussion group called the Council
on Foreign Relations, asked an audience of communications executives this question:
"Do we really have to have everybody literate — writing and reading in the traditional
sense — when we have means through our technology to achieve a new flowering of oral
communication?" Oettinger suggested "our idea of literacy" is "obsolete." Eighty-three
years earlier John Dewey had written in "The Primary Education Fetish" that "the plea for
the predominance of learning to read in early school life because of the great importance
attaching to literature seems to be a perversion."
For the balance of this discussion I'm going to step into deeper water, first reviewing
what reading in a Western alphabet really means and what makes it a reasonably easy
skill to transmit or to self-teach, and then tackling what happened to deprive the ordinary
person of the ability to manage it very well. I want to first show you how, then answer the
more speculative question why.
The National Adult Literacy Survey represents 190 million U.S. adults over age sixteen
with an average school attendance of 12.4 years. The survey is conducted by the
Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey. It ranks adult Americans into five
levels. Here is its 1993 analysis:
1. Forty-two million Americans over the age of sixteen can't read. Some of this
group can write their names on Social Security cards and fill in height, weight,
and birth spaces on application forms.
2. Fifty million can recognize printed words on a fourth- and fifth-grade level. They
cannot write simple messages or letters.
3. Fifty- five to sixty million are limited to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade reading.
A majority of this group could not figure out the price per ounce of peanut butter
in a 20-ounce jar costing $1 .99 when told they could round the answer off to a
4. Thirty million have ninth- and tenth-grade reading proficiency. This group (and
all preceding) cannot understand a simplified written explanation of the
procedures used by attorneys and judges in selecting juries.
5. About 3.5 percent of the 26,000-member sample demonstrated literacy skills
adequate to do traditional college study, a level 30 percent of all U.S. high school
students reached in 1940, and which 30 percent of secondary students in other
developed countries can reach today. This last fact alone should warn you how
misleading comparisons drawn from international student competitions really are,
since the samples each country sends are small elite ones, unrepresentative of the
entire student population. But behind the bogus superiority a real one is
6. Ninety-six and a half percent of the American population is mediocre to illiterate
where deciphering print is concerned. This is no commentary on their
intelligence, but without ability to take in primary information from print and to
interpret it they are at the mercy of commentators who tell them what things
mean. A working definition of immaturity might include an excessive need for
other people to interpret information for us.
Certainly it's possible to argue that bad readers aren't victims at all but perpetrators,
cursed by inferior biology to possess only shadows of intellect. That's what bell-curve
theory, evolutionary theory, aristocratic social theory, eugenics theory, strong-state
political theory, and some kinds of theology are about. All agree most of us are inferior,
if not downright dangerous. The integrity of such theoretical outlooks — at least where
reading was concerned — took a stiff shot on the chin from America. Here, democratic
practice allowed a revolutionary generation to learn how to read. Those granted the
opportunity took advantage of it brilliantly.
Name Sounds, Not Things
So how was the murder of American reading ability pulled off? I'll tell you in a second,
but come back first to classical Greece where the stupendous invention of the alphabet by
Phoenicians was initially understood. The Phoenicians had an alphabetic language used
to keep accounts, but the Greeks were the first to guess correctly that revolutionary power
could be unleashed by transcending mere lists, using written language for the permanent
storage of analysis, exhortation, visions, and other things. After a period of experiment
the Greeks came up with a series of letters to represent sounds of their language. Like the
Phoenicians, they recognized the value of naming each letter in a way distinct from its
sound value — as every human being has a name distinct from his or her personality, as
numbers have names for reference.
Naming sounds rather than things was the breakthrough! While the number of things to
be pictured is impossibly large, the number of sounds is strictly limited. In English, for
example, most people recognize only forty- four. 1
The problem, which American families once largely solved for themselves, is this: in
English, a Latin alphabet has been imposed on a Germanic language with multiple non-
Germanic borrowings, and it doesn't quite fit. Our 44 sounds are spelled 400+ different
ways. That sounds horrible, but in reality in the hands of even a mediocre teacher, it's
only annoying; in the hands of a good one, a thrilling challenge. Actually, 85 percent of
the vast word stock of English can be read with knowledge of only 70 of the phonograms.
A large number of the remaining irregularities seldom occur and can be remastered on an
as-needed basis. Meanwhile a whole armory of mnemonic tricks like "If a 'c' I chance to
spy, place the 'e' before the 'i'" exists to get new readers over the common humps.
Inexpensive dictionaries, spell-check typewriters, computers, and other technology are
readily available these days to silently coach the fearful, but in my experience, that "fear"
is neither warranted nor natural. Instead, it is engendered. Call it good business practice.
Also, communicating abstractions in picture language is a subtlety requiring more time
and training to master than is available for most of us. Greeks now could organize
ambitious concepts abstractly in written language, communicating accurately with each
other over space and time much more readily than their competitors.
According to Mitford Mathews: 2
The secret of their phenomenal advance was in their conception of the nature of a word.
They reasoned that words were sounds or combinations of ascertainable sounds, and they
held inexorably to the basic proposition that writing, properly executed, was a guide to
sound, reading. A number of other good treatments are available for the newcomer.
Learning sound-sight correspondences comes first in an alphabetic language.
Competence with the entire package of sounds corresponding to alphabet symbols comes
quickly. After that anything can be read and its meaning inquired after. The substantial
speaking vocabulary kids bring to school (6,000 — 10,000 words) can now be read at
once, and understood.
When the Romans got the alphabet through the Etruscans they lost the old letter names so
they invented new ones making them closer to the letter sounds. That was a significant
mistake which causes confusion in novice readers even today. Through conquest the
Latin alphabet spread to the languages of Europe; Rome's later mutation into the
Universal Christian Church caused Latin, the language of church liturgy, to flow into
every nook and cranny of the former empire.
The Latin alphabet was applied to the English language by Christian missionaries in the
seventh century. While it fused with spoken English this was far from a perfect fit. There
were no single letters to stand for certain sounds. Scribes had to scramble to combine
letters to approximate sounds that had no companion letter. This matching process was
complicated over centuries by repeated borrowings from other languages and by certain
massive sound shifts which still occupy scholars in trying to explain.
Before the spread of printing in the sixteenth century, not being able to read wasn't much
of a big deal. There wasn't much to read. The principal volume available was the Bible,
from which appropriate bits were read aloud by religious authorities during worship and
on ceremonial occasions. Available texts were in Latin or Greek, but persistent attempts
to provide translations was a practice thought to contain much potential for schism. An
official English Bible, the Authorized King James Version, appeared in 1611, preempting
all competitors in a bold stroke which changed popular destiny.
Instantly, the Bible became a universal textbook, offering insights both delicate and
powerful, a vibrant cast of characters, brilliant verbal pyrotechnics and more to the
humblest rascal who could read. Talk about a revolutionary awakening for ordinary
people! The Bible was it, thanks to the dazzling range of models it provided in the areas
of exegesis, drama, politics, psychology, characterization, plus the formidable reading
skills it took to grapple with the Bible. A little more than three decades after this
translation, the English king was deposed and beheaded. The connection was direct.
Nothing would ever be the same again because too many good readers had acquired the
proclivity of thinking for themselves.
The magnificent enlargement of imagination and voice that the Bible's exceptional
catalogue of language and ideas made available awakened in ordinary people a powerful
desire to read in order to read the Holy Book without a priest's mediation. Strenuous
efforts were made to discourage this, but the Puritan Revolution and Cromwell's
interregnum sent literacy surging. Nowhere was it so accelerated as in the British
colonies in North America, a place already far removed from the royal voice.
Printing technology emerged. Like the computer in our own day, it was quickly
incorporated into every corner of daily life. But there were still frequent jailings,
whippings, and confiscations for seditious reading as people of substance came to realize
how dangerous literacy could be.
Reading offered many delights. Cravings to satisfy curiosity about this Shakespeare
fellow or to dabble in the musings of Lord Bacon or John Locke were now not difficult to
satisfy. Spelling and layout were made consistent. Before long, prices of books dropped.
All this activity intensified pressure on illiterate individuals to become literate. The net
result of printing (and Protestantism, which urged communicants to go directly to the
Word, eliminating the priestly middleman), stimulated the spread of roving teachers and
small proprietary and church schools. A profession arose to satisfy demand for a popular
way to understand what uses to make of books, and from this a demand to understand
'The "problem" with English phonics has been wildly exaggerated, sometimes by sincere people but most
often by those who make a living as guides through the supposed perils of learning to read. These latter
constitute a vast commercial empire with linkages among state education departments, foundations,
publishers, authors of school readers, press, magazines, education journals, university departments of
education, professional organizations, teachers, reading specialists, local administrators, local school
boards, various politicians who facilitate the process and the U.S. offices of education, defense and labor.
2 Mitford Mathews, Teaching to Read Historically Considered (1966). A brief, intelligent history of reading
A number of other good treatments are available for the newcomer.
The Meatgrinder Classroom