Donald Trump is a graduate of an Ivy League university. He gained national fame as the co-author, or at least the main character, of a best-selling book, The Art of the Deal. Yet Donald Trump did not write one word of that book. Moreover, it is likely that Donald Trump cannot read well. Neither could Nelson Rockefeller. Like Rockefeller, Trump was born into such a rich family that he could get by without learning to read and write. This would mean that he cannot read the executive orders he issues, or the legislation he signs into law. It also means that he cannot read intelligence briefings.
Nelson Rockefeller was the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, who was the richest American ever. Nelson and three of his brothers went to the Lincoln School, which was an experimental primary school run by Columbia Teachers College. All four of the Rockefeller boys who went to the Lincoln school had lifelong difficulties with reading. For example, Nelson never learned to read well enough to use a teleprompter. Yet he was graduated from an Ivy League college with honors. He was Governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 and Vice President of the United States from 1974 to 1977. Nelson’s brother Winthrop, who was also functionally illiterate, was the governor of Arkansas from 1967 to 1971.
Why did the four Rockefellers who went to the Lincoln School fail to learn to read? Their problem was not genetic. This problem did not show up in earlier generations of their family. Nor did the brother and sister who were educated elsewhere have trouble with reading. The teachers at the Lincoln school simply never taught Nelson and his brothers how to read. A similar thing probably happened to Donald Trump. It has been happening all over the United States.
The Lincoln school was under the influence of John Dewey, who did not think that reading was important. Dewey argued that the focus on teaching reading in primary school was “a fetich” and that the emphasis on literature in education was a perversion. Dewey also promoted a bad method of teaching reading. Instead of teaching children how to sound words out letter by letter, teachers were supposed to have children memorize whole words as graphic designs, without sounding the words out. Thanks to Dewey’s influence, this method was taught in teacher’s colleges all over the country. It was even built into the reading textbooks.
This “sight word” method is a recipe for dyslexia and functional illiteracy. However, it is still heavily used today, which is of course why we still have epidemics of dyslexia and functional illiteracy. Tragically, Donald Trump may be one of the millions of Americans who never learned to read well.
Much of the education profession in the United States is still in denial about the cause of our dyslexia epidemic. They insist that dyslexia is a brain disease, and that the cause is genetic. Yet dyslexia runs in families for a nongenetic reason. Parents who cannot read cannot teach their children how to read. Lately, researchers have even been using images of brain function to try to prove that dyslexia is a brain disease. Yet those images merely show that you have different patterns of brain activity if you know how to read than if you do not.
Donald Trump shows many of the telltale signs of functional illiteracy. The most obvious is his refusal to use a teleprompter. Another is his small vocabulary and the simplicity of his sentences. An analysis by the Boston Globe found that Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level, two grade-levels below his Republican primary opponents. In contrast, Hillary Clinton spoke at an eighth-grade level and Bernie Sanders at above a 10th-grade level.
In a pre-election episode of her late-night comedy show Full Frontal, comedian Samantha Bee said, “The signs that Trump can’t read have been in front of us all along. In some cases, the signs have literally been right there in front of us.” (She then showed a photo of a protester holding up a sign that says “Trump Can’t Read.”) Bee showed some footage of a legal deposition, in which Trump refused to read a section of a lease, complaining that he did not have his reading glasses. Bee also showed a clip of an interview with Pete Davidson, a cast member of Saturday Night Live, who noted that Trump cannot follow a script because “he doesn’t really know how to read.” The interviewer said, “For real?” Davidson answered, “Yeah.”
How could Trump fool so many people? How could Trump graduate from an Ivy League university and become a best-selling author if he cannot read and write? How can he tweet at all hours if he cannot write? The answer is simple. He is rich, and he is cunning. He is rich enough that he could get special privileges. And he is cunning enough to know how to use them. For example, Trump would simply have to pick courses in which the grade is based on papers, rather than on written examinations. Trump could afford to hire tutors to help him with his readings, and then he could dictate his papers to a stenographer. Occasionally, Trump may memorize a short and simple piece of text, which he could then pretend to read.
Tony Schwartz had written a harshly critical article about Trump. Thus, Schwartz was surprised when Trump hired him to ghostwrite The Art of the Deal. Although Trump “loved” Schwartz’s article, Trump might not have actually read it. Schwartz admitted writing every word of The Art of the Deal. Schwartz assumed that Trump read the manuscript because someone made marks on the manuscript. Yet those marks, like Trump’s tweets, could easily have been made by Trump’s clerical staff.
The Constitution has only three requirements for someone to serve as President. The person must be a natural-born citizen over 35 years of age who has lived in the United States for at least 14 years. There is no literacy requirement. Yet how could an illiterate person serve as President? An illiterate President would not be able to read the bills that he signs into law. He would not be able to read the text of the executive orders he issues. He would not be able to read intelligence briefings or the reports from federal agencies. (Nor does Trump have the attention span to allow others to read to him.) So it is time for journalists to demand to know, how well can Donald Trump read?