While I’m no apologist for phonics, I do think that language structure — and teaching language structure — is pretty important. And, as the regular blog entries on the LEX home page will attest, I think that linguistic accuracy in structured language education is paramount. So, perhaps because of my past phonicky training, or perhaps because of my current research in orthographic linguistics, I found myself rather bristling at the whole-language-esque contempt for language structure throughout Patrick Shannon’s history of various “progressive” education movements in the 19th and early 20th century in the U.S.
Actually, Shannon himself corrects the idea that this text is strictly a history; it is also a story. “Typically,” he writes, “history is thought to be an objective description of factual events that are reported, not interpreted.” (16) While he does give historically factual information in a linear fashion (thus justifying its historicity), the author also “purposefully blur[s] . . . the distinction between story and history.” (18) Shannon does indeed have a bias, a whole-language-colored perspective, that colors the selective history he presents, and likely glosses over significant considerations in the ongoing dialectic about how to teach language and literacy.
Shannon lays out successfully his explication of the roots, growth and legacy of four strands of progressive education in the U.S.: a humanist approach, a child-centered approach, a scientific management approach, and a social reconstructionist approach. But I found the consistent association — stated or implied — between a lack of skills instruction in language and progressivism just odd. Through his citations and discussion, Shannon paints a picture of skills-based instruction that is unthinking, dull, rote, and miserable, purveyed upon children by bovine teachers incapable of bucking the system or having independent thoughts. What’s amazing to me is how much this portrait mirrors images that other authors have painted for me about practitioners of whole language. I also found echoes of the many, many stories I have heard from teachers of systematic phonics who simply smiled and nodded at their schools’ whole language regimes, and then shut their classroom doors and taught kids about consonants and vowels and sounds and syllables and suffixes.
Will the real progressive educator please stand up?
Throughout the discussion of the progressive movement in the U.S., I was surprised to see no mention of Maria Montessori, whose methods has begun to stir up significant interest in the U.S. by the middle 1910s, nor of Rudolf Steiner, whose progressive, child-centered Waldorf school model had become established in the U.S. by the 1920s. Surely the approaches developed and favored by these two pioneers can be characterized as progressive, even as social reconstruction. I wonder why they were excluded from the history, and also from the story. Is it, perhaps, because Dewey and his adherents or other progressivists did not care much for their methodologies (or, perhaps, for their rising popularity), and worked to discredit them?
Reading this history made me think time and again of another educational history, John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education (2001). Gatto, who boasts an impressive resume as a decorated public school teacher, offers this well documented but unconventional narrative, in which he reveals the troubling historical ties between public education and commercial enterprise, and makes this staggering assertion:
“Something strange has been going on in government schools, especially where the matter of reading is concerned. Abundant data exist to show that by 1840 the incidence of complex literacy in the United States was between 93 and 100 percent, wherever such a thing mattered. Yet compulsory schooling existed nowhere. Between the two world wars, schoolmen seem to have been assigned the task of terminating our universal reading proficiency.” (Chapter 3) Gatto traces a connection between local autonomy and local accountability and success, similar to that suggested by Shannon’s acocunt of Moonlight Schools. However, Gatto also reveals information that Shannon omits. For example, Pestalozzi, the Swiss-German champion of experiential learning, was himself barely literate. His efforts to teach the poor, according to Gatto, merely “offered them love in place of ambition” and used “psychological means [to avoid] . . . class warfare.” (Chapter 7). I know that Gatto considers many of the same movements and personalities as Shannon, and I plan to return to Gatto’s history again after reading Shannon, especially his perspectives on Huey, Dewey, and Parker, and the historical dialogue about skills-versus-content-based literacy instruction.
I’m almost embarrassed at how much I continue to bristle at Shannon’s historical sketch; it’s not, of course, the historical facts per se, it’s how he strings them together. I have to question what’s revealed by any assessments of methodologies prior to the passage of Public Law 94-142, which created special education, prior to which, children with severe disabilities were often kept home or institutionalized, and children with what we now recognize as learning disabilities often didn’t make it into high school, even though they may have been very capable and very intelligent.
A single, barely significant passage in Shannon’s book strikes me as one of the most important, and it haunts me as I consider what’s really revealed by this particular history. Paul McClintock, an alumnus of Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, reported as an adult that he “never learned to spell. I do not know how to spell now [after 30 years], I have no sense of spelling.” (71) I am struck by McClintock’s accurate diagnosis that he has no sense of spelling, since spelling’s very job is to make sense, and also by the likelihood that for the one alumnus whose half-literacy is documented here, there are likely several others whose stories never got told. Having worked with hundreds of intelligent children disabled by their schools’ inability to teach them how to spell, my teacherly heart aches for all those who were the likely products of the experiential literacy instruction detailed in Shannon’s pages.
Of all of the assessments and evaluations that Shannon cites in support of his progressive reading instruction, I see no mention of how well the children could spell relative to their peers, or whether they had a decent understanding of how the writing system works. In his extolling the benefits of progressivism, I see him committing the same sin of omission as more recent literacy theorists and pedagogical critics: he forgets about spelling. One might argue that spelling doesn’t matter, as long as people are better citizens, better participants in their communities, or whatever, but that wouldn’t be an acceptable response if it were my kid who had been left for half-literate. I also wonder whether the results of the Lab school as chronicled by Mayhew and Edwards take into account the socioeconomic and familial structures that may have contributed to the students’ attested stability and success later in life.
The author’s aversion to explicit literacy skills instruction, and his consistent reiteration of literacy as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, made me question on several occasions why the concept or idea of justice or of the coal trade is an end worth pursuing, but the idea of what makes a vowel a vowel or a suffix a suffix is somehow . . . not?
I won’t even mention how crazy it makes me when anyone asserts that literacy will make people better participants in a democracy. While I recognize the obvious benefits of literacy in a democracy, I’m not sure that the benefits of literacy are causal to the benefits of democracy. After all, Cuba has 99.8% adult literacy.
I see in this reading, of course, the seeds of many modern-day movements and dialogues about education in general and about literacy education in particular: project-based learning, communities-as-schools, and movements for local accountability, to name a few. I also see, and better understand, that pedagogy is not always just laying down its history: it’s also laying down its story at any given time. Pedagogy is part psychology, part philosophy, and part zeitgeist: it always has a spin. Stymied at first in my response to this book, my thinking was really opened up by my professor’s counsel that “pedagogy is a dialogue” during our discussion. It is a dialogue indeed. As a teacher trainer, I spend a lot of time talking about teaching literacy to children. Reading these books is I need to speak out, and sometimes I need to shut up and listen.