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6th August

First Published in The New York Sun, August 6, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

 The National Endowment for the Arts recently released a report on our nation’s literacy. Americans are not reading as much as they used to.This trend has been accelerating in the past two decades.There has been a lot of anguish over this news, which has drawn much comment on both the left and right, and no shortage of theories attempting to explain how we came to this. Everything gets blamed, from television to videogames to the Internet. I have my own theory. 

    It is curious is that the movement of our young people away from the joy of reading for pleasure appears to coincide with the rise of the whole language (often labeled “balanced literacy”) method of teaching reading, and the associated content-poor “progressive” teaching model that encourages students to “construct” their own knowledge. 
    This pedagogy, now the predominant way American (and as we shall see, British) children are taught, is supposed to instill a love of reading and literature. “Libraries” are placed in every classroom,part of an effort to create a “literature rich” environment. Small groups of students are organized into “book clubs.” 

    Meanwhile,the role of the teacher as a conduit of knowledge has been subverted. Here in New York City, teachers have been directed to arrange classroom desks in clusters, in which groups of children face each other to facilitate the group projects that have replaced direct instruction by teachers. “Authentic literature” has supplanted textbooks as the tools of learning subject matter. 

    All this is done to promote the love of independent learning, made possible by promoting the love of reading.This is at the center of the ideology promoted by literacy gurus such as Lucy Calkins of Columbia University Teachers College, Diane Snowball of the Australian United States Services in Education, or Aussie, and Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Learning. Our Department of Education is funneling tens of millions of dollars to these theorists, spending perhaps a quarter of a billion dollars in the past year to enforce compliance with this approach.This is wasted money. 

    As more American children are taught by these methods, the love of reading is apparently not increasing, but diminishing at an alarming rate, as the NEA study demonstrates. Can the way children are taught in school actually be the cause of this? I believe it is. 

    The idea that children learn to read and develop a love of reading from merely immersing them in a “literature rich” environment is akin to teaching the children of Gary,Ind.,how to play musical instruments using the “think” system. Prof. Harold Hill and the storyline of “The Music Man” is, I believe, fiction. Knowledge is not acquired by osmosis. It is a process of building, one fact upon another.Those children who develop a love of reading don’t do so for its own sake. It is because these children thirst for more knowledge. 

    That quest is not triggered by being surrounded by books such as the ones in the classroom libraries mandated by the Department of Education. Most of these books are works of fiction, mostly carefully scrubbed and filtered, with content largely designed to build self-esteem rather than impart knowledge. I submit that this kind of literature is the least likely to encourage children to become voracious readers. 

    Are textbooks obsolete? They are now much maligned and in danger of becoming extinct. But in the real world, I have found that they often were motivators for further reading. They provided overview and context, and in my distant youth often lured me into further study.This is not to say that the textbooks of today are without problems. Censors from the left and the right have attempted, and in many cases succeeded, to remake textbooks to advance their political and even religious agendas, undermining their value. 

    America is not alone in exhibiting a rising concern over the anti-intellectual proclivity of the teaching methodologies that have become so widespread. In Britain, the same debate is raging. Even the Prince of Wales has recently weighed in. 

    In a speech to teachers of English and history in state-run secondary schools in late June, Charles lamented that the “faddish” curriculum is resulting in students who are becoming “culturally disinherited.” The prince suggested that the content-poor British curriculum could be a “potentially expensive and disastrous experiment with people’s lives.” 

    The traditional instruction apparently favored by the prince is more in line with the thinking of Professor E.D.Hirsch Jr.,whose Core Knowledge curriculum is based on the idea that knowledge is like Velcro – its acquisition is facilitated by the previous knowledge already accumulated. 

    This suggests that if we believe that reading is good for society and we want our education system to result in a literate and knowledgeable people,we will not find the answers in whole language, balanced literacy, or constructivist ideology.The answers are to be found in a true “backto-basics” movement. The kind of instruction that candidate Bloomberg promised us, but Mayor Bloomberg has thus far failed to deliver.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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