Democracy literally means rule by the people. Yet in practice, democracy means that the important decisions within a society are made through public discussions, often among elected representatives. To play a productive role in political discussions, you need a set of skills that do not come naturally, which is why they have traditionally been taught in school. Unfortunately, our public schools in the United States are failing to teach these skills. Many people want to blame the students, the parents, or the teachers for this failure. Yet as I explain in Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, the public schools have been set up for failure, by policies made at a high level.
In the 1920s, a medical doctor named Samuel T. Orton was studying a new and disturbing epidemic that was being called congenital word blindness. Large numbers of children with normal vision, hearing, and intelligence were mysteriously failing to learn to read. Many of these children then went on to develop emotional and behavior problems. All of these problems were being blamed on some unknown disease of the child’s nervous system.
Dr. Orton found that the explanation was much simpler. He found that the schools were using an ineffective method for teaching children to read. Instead of teaching the children to sound out the words letter by letter (phonics), the schools were asking children to memorize whole words. This latter method has been called sight‐reading, look‐say, or whole word. It’s the center of the “whole language” educational approach that proved to be so disastrous in California in the late 1980s. When Orton’s “word blind” patients were taught phonics, they quickly learned to read and their emotional and behavior problems went away.
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