Monday, May 25, 2015
50.The Ignorant Schoolmaster 51. Frank Had A Dog; His Name Was Spot: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org
The Ignorant Schoolmaster
After Gedike, the next innovator to hit on a reading scheme was Jean Joseph Jacotot, a
grand genius, much misunderstood. A professor of literature at nineteen, Jacotot
discovered a method of teaching nonspeakers of French the French language beginning
not with primers but with Fenelon's Telemachus. Jacotot read aloud slowly while
students followed his reading in a dual translation — to their own familiar language and to
Fenelon's spoken French. Then the process was repeated. After the group reading, each
student individually dismantled the entire book into parts, into smaller parts, into
paragraphs, into sentences, into words, and finally into letters and sounds. This followed
the "natural" pattern of scientists it was thought, beginning with wholes, and reducing
them to smaller and smaller elements.
Jacotot has a reputation as a whole-word guru, but any resemblance to contemporary
whole- word reading in Jacotot is illusion. His method shifts the burden for analysis
largely from the shoulders of the teacher to the student. The trappings of holistic
noncompetitiveness are noticeably absent. Penalty for failure in his class was denial of
advancement. Everyone succeeded in Jacotot's system, but then, his students were highly
motivated, self-selected volunteers, all of college age.
From Jacotot we got the idea anybody can teach anything. His was the concept of the
ignorant schoolmaster. It should surprise no one that the ideas of Jacotot interested
Prussians who brought his system back to Germany and modified it for younger children.
For them, however, a book seemed too impractical a starting point, perhaps a sentence
would be better or a single word. Eventually it was the latter settled upon. Was this the
genesis of whole-word teaching which eventually dealt American reading ability a body
The answer is a qualified No. In the German "normal word" method the whole-word was
not something to be memorized but a specimen of language to be analyzed into syllables.
The single word was made a self-conscious vehicle for learning letters. Once letter
sounds were known, reading instruction proceeded traditionally. To a great extent, this is
the method my German mother used with my sister and me to teach us to read fluently
before we ever saw first grade.
Frank Had A Dog; His Name Was Spot
Two flies now enter the reading ointment in the persons of Horace Mann and his second
wife, Mary Peabody. There is raw material here for a great intrigue novel: in the early
1830s, a minister in Hartford, Thomas Gallaudet, invented a sight-reading, look-say
method to use with the deaf. Like Jacotot, Gallaudet was a man of unusual personal force
and originality. He served as director at the asylum for the education of the deaf and
dumb in Hartford. Deaf mutes couldn't learn a sound-symbol system, it was thought, so
Gallaudet devised a sight-reading vocabulary of fifty whole-words which he taught
through pictures. Then his deaf students learned a manual alphabet which permitted them
to indicate letters with their fingers and communicate with others.
Even in light of the harm he inadvertently caused, it's hard not to be impressed by
Gallaudet. In Gallaudet's system, writing transmuted from a symbolic record of sounds to
a symbolic record of pictures. Gallaudet had reinvented English as ancient Babylonian!
One of his former teachers, William Woodbridge, then editor of the American Annals of
Education, received a long, detailed letter in which Gallaudet described his flash-card
method and demanded that education be regarded as a science like chemistry: "Mind, like
matter, can be made subject to experiment." Fifty words could be learned by memory
before introducing the alphabet. By removing the "dull and tedious" normal method,
great interest "has [been] excited in the mind of the little learner."
Historically, three important threads run together here: 1) that learning should be
scientific, and learning places a laboratory; 2) that words be learned ideographically; 3)
that relieving boredom and tedium should be an important goal of pedagogy. Each
premise was soon pushed to extremes. These themes institutionalized would ultimately
require a vast bureaucracy to enforce. But all this lay in the future.
Gallaudet had adopted the point of view of a deaf-mute who had to make his way without
assistance from sound to spoken language. Samuel Blumenfeld's analysis of what was
wrong in this is instructive:
It led to serious confusions in Gallaudet's thinking concerning two very different
processes; that of learning to speak one's native language and that of learning to read it.
In teaching the deaf to read by sight he was also teaching them language by sight for the
first time. They underwent two learning processes, not one. But a normal child came to
school already with the knowledge of several thousand words in his speaking vocabulary,
with a much greater intellectual development which the sense of sound afforded him. In
learning to read it was not necessary to teach him what he already knew, to repeat the
process of learning to speak. The normal child did not learn his language by learning to
read. He learned to read in order to help him expand his use of the language.
In 1830, Gallaudet published The Child's Picture Defining and Reading Book, a book for
children with normal hearing, seeking to generalize his method to all. In its preface, the
book sets down for the first time basic whole-word protocols. Words will be taught as
representing objects and ideas, not as sounds represented by letters.
He who controls language controls the public mind, a concept well understood by Plato.
Indeed, the manipulation of language was at the center of curriculum at the Collegia of
Rome, in the Jesuit academies, and the private schools maintained for children of the
influential classes; it made up an important part of the text of Machiavelli; it gave rise to
the modern arts and sciences of advertising and public relations. The whole-word
method, honorably derived and employed by men like Gallaudet, was at the same time a
tool to be used by any regime or interest with a stake in limiting the growth of intellect.
Gallaudet's primer, lost to history, was published in 1836. One year later, the Boston
School Committee was inaugurated under the direction of Horace Mann. Although no
copies of the primer have survived, Blumenfeld tells us, "From another source we know
that its first line was, Frank had a dog; his name was Spot." On August 2, 1836,
Gallaudet's primer was adopted by the Boston Primary School Committee on an
experimental basis. A year later a report was issued pronouncing the method a success on
the basis of speed in learning when compared to the alphabet system, and of bringing a
"pleasant tone" to the classroom by removing "the old unintelligible, and irksome mode
of teaching certain arbitrary marks, or letters, by certain arbitrary sounds."
A sight vocabulary is faster to learn than letters and phonograms, but the gain is a Trojan
horse; only after several years have passed does the sight reader's difficulty learning
words from outside sources begin to become apparent. By that time conditions made
pressing by the social situation of the classroom and demands from the world at large
combine to make it hard to retrace the ground lost.
Mann endorsed Gallaudet's primer in his Second Annual Report (1838). His
endorsement, Gallaudet's general fame and public adulation, erroneous reports
circulating at the time that mighty Prussia was using a whole-word system, and possibly
the prospect of fame and a little profit, caused Mann's own wife, Mary Tyler Peabody —
whose family names were linked to a network of powerful families up and down the
Eastern seaboard — to write a whole-word primer. The Mann family was only one of a
host of influential voices being raised against the traditional reading instructions in the
most literate nation on earth. In Woodbridge's Annals of Education, a steady tattoo was
directed against spelling and the alphabet method.
By the time of the Gallaudet affair, both Manns were under the spell of phrenology, a
now submerged school of psychology and the brainchild of a German physician. Francois
Joseph Gall, in working with the insane, had become convinced he had located the
physical site of personality traits like love, benevolence, acquisitiveness, and many more.
He could provide a map of their positions inside the skull! These faculties signaled their
presence, said Gall, by making bumps on the visible exterior of the cranium. The
significance of this to the future of reading is that among Gall's claims was: too much
reading causes insanity. The Manns agreed.
One of Gall's converts was a Scottish lawyer named George Combe. On October 8, 1838,
Mann wrote in his diary that he had met "the author of that extraordinary book, The
Constitution of Man, the doctrines of which will work the same change in metaphysical
science that Lord Bacon wrought in natural." The book was Combe's. Suddenly the
Mann project to downgrade reading acquired a psychological leg to accompany the
political, social, economic, and religious legs it already possessed. Unlike other
arguments against enlightenment of ordinary people — all of which invoked one or
another form of class interest — what psychological phrenology offered was a scientific
argument based on the supposed best interests of the child. Thus a potent weapon fell into
pedagogy's hands which would not be surrendered after phrenology was discredited. If
one psychology could not convince, another might. By appearing to avoid any argument
from special interest, the scientific case took the matter of who should learn what out of
the sphere of partisan politics into a loftier realm of altruism.
Meanwhile Combe helped Mann line up his great European tour of 1843, which was to
result in the shattering Seventh Report to the Boston School Committee of 1844. (The
Sixth had been a plea to phrenologize classrooms!) This new report said: "I am satisfied
our greatest error in teaching children to read lies in beginning with the alphabet." Mann
was attempting to commit Massachusetts children to the hieroglyphic system of
Gallaudet. The result was an outcry from Boston's schoolmasters, a battle that went on in
the public press for many months culminating (on the schoolmaster's side) in this
Education is a great concern; it has often been tampered with by vain theorists; it has
suffered from the stupid folly and the delusive wisdom of its treacherous friends; and we
hardly know which have injured it most. Our conviction is that it has much more to hope
from the collected wisdom and common prudence of the community than from the
suggestions of the individual. Locke injured it by his theories, and so did Rousseau, and
so did Milton. All their plans were too splendid to be true. It is to be advanced by
conceptions, neither soaring above the clouds, nor groveling on the earth — but by those
plain, gradual, productive, common sense improvements, which use may encourage and
experience suggest. We are in favor of advancement, provided it be towards usefulness....
We love the secretary but we hate his theories. They stand in the way of substantial
education. It is impossible for a sound mind not to hate them.
The Pedagogy Of Literacy