I encourage this kind of research; it’s fun; it stimulates hypothesizing – conversations together with similarly interested, trained-skilled thinkers and analysts on the subject. This activity is among the greatest pleasures; – – getting ideas and developing them, whether they come out at the initial goal whether or not there is one, whether or not it agrees with the initial thinking, the original cause of the research.
Importantly, it exemplifies my recommendation about how we live learn teach study; people all ages who are interested belong on site of any of this research. They come together because of the mutual interest; they learn they’re mutually interested because they hang around together, because they look for each other to tell each other some of the ideas they want to consider. They bring along their 2year-old. The 90 year-old joins them. Then they spend 25hrs a day – except for the time they take to tend to their basic needs whatever those are, including care of people, including cleaning up after themselves (NO JANITORS!) – they spend their time WORKing at this idea, contributing thereby, to the well-being of the community.
Within this study people who haven’t yet learned how to read write calculate beGIN to, if that’s appropriate, or side-step to find out how to – in a classroom that’s around, or with someone or several people who want to teach and-or learn the skill/s. Learning those takes minutes, hours, not 8 to 12 years (un)learning them, as goes on in the compulsory ‘education’ – school we live with. School is reformed over and over, always, as the review says, to accommodate our Owners, to supply the profiteers with a malleable workforce.
Calculation study goes on infinitely. …just as do studies of all facets of our thinking. …just as studying Shakespeare comes out of living with literature – with reading and writing, advanced calculation beyond arithmetic and algebra and all goes on endlessly.
This review shows us the role of remediation – special ed. Schools showing they had remediative populations could get more funding. Remedial programs solicit funding from the common weal – deceptively – well, incorrectly – working a made-up problem; quantifying it; hiring people trained to teach regarding one or another debility. In fact, remediation was for some decades, the largest direction, the largest site of school funding. School having created ‘misbehavior’ of one sort and another, being unable to limit it by older controls – threats, parental involvement, actual striking, deprivation of rewards or privileges, there became the ‘mental health’ classification, treating aberrant behavior as an anomaly, which to a degree it is – at least in this aberrant society, an anomaly requiring medication or psychiatric therapy. With the competition from private schools, a for-profit business effectively growing out of public school, like so many of our public services – transportation, utilities, recreation, public housing, – privatization of what we, workers, make – private elementary school has to a degree caused reduction of the emphasis on creating a population of imbeciles by perverting educating, substituting reforms, including medical intervention; in effect what we’ve seen in ‘school’ the past 100 to 200+ years.
Calling what goes on in school education is directly connected to our subjugation. Us accepting that we need to be educated, as well as that we must educate, means we accept that we are not educated; and we accept that only through the schooling process do people get educated. Education in this form is an aggression against our intelligence, our knowledge, our individual make-up as well as against people’s communities. It obviates our intrinsic value, our extrinsic talents, our participation in our society, forcing us to be molded by school, instead of by our thinking and experiences together. School is not educational. It is the opposite.
Again, educe: 1. to draw forth or bring out, as something potential or latent; elicit; develop. 2. to infer or deduce. This means we all have content. Education is us coming together to share it, to expand it, to think together. Education is us getting up in the morning, walking out the door, and seeing, hearing, thinking – or staying in bed and thinking, – and the rest of our lives.
It is an insult to be hated, that we must BE educated. Being told we need to be educated surely hates us.
The review looks at some thoughts about complex understandings of what goes on when we begin to read, and what the popular process of being educated is, how it creates conditions said to require therapy of one kind or another, emotional or physical. Many methods for instruction divert our many naturally arising directives to learn and think and get along.
The dyslexia diagnosis much too conveniently ties into the deceptively based therapeutic place of the classroom.
In the review you can see the terribly – the overly – complex analysis of how we come to read, and how dyslexia is a function of that process. The blame is a physical breakage in the brain, or a genetic factor – like the genes of alcoholism, or of criminal behavior. …like the genius gene AS IF!
The Political Economy of Dyslexia by Steven L. Strauss is a neurologist in Baltimore, Maryland and author of The Linguistics, Neurology, and Politics of Phonics: Silent ‘E’ Speaks Out (Erlbaum, 2005). This article is adapted from a keynote address delivered in May 2012, at the 2nd Medicalization of Education conference held in Salvador, Brazil.
There are two diametrically opposed conceptions of reading and dyslexia, each with loyal advocates. This analysis will clarify some of the important categories that are needed in order to participate knowledgeably and critically in current discussions about dyslexia.
The first conception is dyslexia as biological disease—medicalized dyslexia. By the medicalization of dyslexia is meant that dyslexia is considered to arise from a pathologic condition of the human brain and mind. The etiology of dyslexia, in the medicalization perspective, is to be found in abnormal circuitry in the brain and in a corresponding abnormality in one circumscribed segment of psychology, psychology itself being one of the main functions of the brain.
In principle, the medicalization of dyslexia can take a number of forms. But the dominant principles of medicalized dyslexia, at least in the way they are discussed in the U.S. media and professional journals, can be summarized as follows:
Dyslexia is a specific type of learning disorder, manifesting as an otherwise unexpected difficulty with learning to read. It is unexpected because the dyslexic individual is normal with respect to all the presumed prerequisites for becoming literate—such as normal intelligence and adequate education level.
Dyslexia arises from the effects of an abnormal gene or gene complex.
The abnormal gene interferes with the normal ontological migration of neurons (nerve cells) to specific regions in the brain.
These now pathologic brain regions are unable to carry out phonological processing—the conversion of alphabetic letters to oral phonemes (the basic sounds of the language).
As a consequence of not being able to convert visual language to oral language, the author’s text is unable to enter the language processing parts of the brain, a necessary step in reading, as the human brain is hard-wired to process only oral language, not other material forms of language.
As a result, the reader is unable to identify words and find their associated meanings in his or her oral lexicon. The reader is unable to turn print into meaning.The most widely cited figure in the medicalization model of dyslexia is Sally Shaywitz, a pediatrician at Yale University.1
A very different conception of why some people fail to learn to read can be found in the transactional sociopsycholinguistic model of reading, whose most widely cited figure is educator Kenneth S. Goodman.2 Rather than looking inside the poor reader for the source of the problem, this model looks to the surrounding social context. Its principles are:
Reading is making sense of print.
Making sense of print is a process of constructing meaning as one moves through the text.
The construction of meaning is a psycholinguistic guessing game, in which the reader recruits a variety of cuing systems—syntax, semantics, graphophonic (letter-sound) knowledge, background knowledge, and background belief systems—to formulate hypotheses about the author’s intended meaning.
These meaning hypotheses are continually tested against incoming text, to be either accepted, rejected, or revised.
The various cuing systems differ in the degree to which they are effective and efficient in helping the reader construct meaning from print. Background knowledge and syntactic knowledge are highly effective and efficient—they are more meaning-laden—whereas graphophonic relationships are much less effective and efficient, because they have little intrinsic connection to meaning.
The use of cuing systems in constructing meaning from print is, in essence, the same phenomenon as that which occurs whenever we make sense of the world—whether that means interpreting a visual scene, sounds in a park, or oral language.
Therefore, reading is not its own unique psychological process. Instead, it is one example of what humans do all the time. We make sense of our world—or at least we try to.
The impulse to make sense of the world—of language, behaviors, scenes, and scents—is entirely natural, requiring no formal instruction, though it requires appropriate means, motive, and opportunity.
Therefore, learning to read is a fundamentally natural process, requiring no formal instruction, but only exposure to authentic reading materials.
For a beginning reader, this exposure to authentic reading materials is a social event, accomplished alongside a more competent partner. A teacher, parent, or older sibling sits and reads with the child. This is a Vygotskyan notion.
The early cultivation of the notion that reading is all about making sense of print is aided not only by the partner’s focus on the author’s meaning, but by the text itself being supplemented with meaning-laden cues, like pictures of the characters and actions.
As a consequence, the cause of failure to learn to read, when the child is otherwise healthy and normal, is to be found in environmental factors, chiefly in inadequate access to means and opportunity, which may suppress motive. Failure to learn to read is therefore a social phenomenon, akin to failure to learn French if you grow up in Salvador, Brazil. It is failure to learn a certain language—written English, or written Portuguese.
The phenomenon of individual reading failure must be understood as part of the more general social problem of illiteracy.
Medicalized dyslexia, in my view, overestimates the number of people who may actually have some neuropathologically based reading disorder, because it conflates into this category cases of reading disability which are more likely the result of social factors, that is, individual instantiations of the same forces that produce illiteracy as a social phenomenon. The transactional sociopsycholinguistic model underestimates the number of true biological dyslexics, because it has no biologically based research of its own to justify excluding it as an explanatory mechanism (though broad principles of cerebral organization are most consistent with it).3
But there is no question that the medicalized approach is highly suspect as a scientific enterprise, because its very conception of the reading process as the piecemeal processing of increasingly larger linguistic units is at odds with empirical facts that have been known for a half century. In general, we know that reading, in fact, is the dialectical interaction of whole-to-part and part-to-whole processing, guided always by the effort to make sense of the text. Therefore, to the extent that medicalized reading and dyslexia is promoted as political policy, it is merely political propaganda parading as science.
It can therefore be appreciated that those who promote medicalized dyslexia will insist that they are just being good biologists. They are simply interpreting the scientific data, the hard facts. They will support their claims with high-tech experimental studies, which can dazzle the lay public. Notions such as class and its role in the unequal social distribution of literacy and illiteracy do not figure into their elegant experiments.
Conversely, those who recognize the social character of literacy have had to defend alternatives to experimental design in the scientific study of language, because the function of language, which is the level at which the psychology of making sense and constructing meaning operates, is fundamentally altered when language is taken apart, then taught and learned one decontextualized piece at a time. Function-centered research cannot be pursued with strictly experimental methodology applied to abstracted portions of the phenomenon. An experimental study of how children sound out a word on a flash card does not extrapolate to how a proficient reader treats that very same word in a linguistic text and psychosocial context.
Shaywitz’s seminal 1998 article “Dyslexia,” which appeared in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, can be thought of as a key milestone in the evolution of the contemporary medicalized approach to reading problems. More than a decade later, Shaywitz criticized the transactional sociopsycholinguistic approach to understanding reading failure, writing that “self-appointed opinion makers…ascribe children’s reading problems entirely to sociological or educational factors and totally deny the biology.”4 The most generous interpretation of her phrase “self-appointed” is that her opponents are on shaky scientific grounds and are entitled to no nod of approval from the broader scientific and academic community. In fact, Shaywitz was herself an appointed opinion maker, serving on the politically appointed National Reading Panel, whose charge was to prepare a report for Congress that would be described as one with major “significance for the future literacy of this nation and for the economic prosperity and global competitiveness of our people.” So announced Dr. Duane Alexander, head of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, on the occasion of his presentation of the National Reading Panel report to Congress in 2000.5
Thus, Alexander took Shaywitz’s high-tech, allegedly basic, scientific research on reading and dyslexia, and gave it the economic dressing for which it had certainly been commissioned in the first place. Its political rationale appeared in quite explicit terms with the recent Council on Foreign Relations publication of Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice’s document U.S. Education Reform and National Security, which states that “America’s education failures pose five distinct threats to national security,” including “threats to economic growth and competitiveness.”6 Klein was the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, before moving on to work for an education division of News Corp, publishers of the right-wing tabloid the New York Post. Rice, of course, was the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under George W. Bush.
The very title of the report raises questions as to what the consequences might be for those who oppose the “reform.” But the content of the report also emphasizes that the economic and political concern about reading and literacy is not merely proficiency as a reader. Rather, it is “reading for information,” or, extrapolating further, reading to become an engineer rather than a lover of poetry. Indeed, the specific emphasis of the current, corporate-promoted education reform in the United States is on just two school subjects—reading and mathematics. Reading for information, that is.
There is the type of reading we do for work, and there is a very different type of reading we do in our free time. The type of reading the medicalizers have in mind is work reading, reading for specific information, reading for developing and troubleshooting new software and other digital technology. Academic researchers are all too familiar with the difference between work reading and non-work reading, since in professions that have only fuzzy boundaries between work time and free time, there is often the unfortunate, sometimes irresistible, urge to do work reading during leisure time.
When the sole type of reading that counts for government policy is work reading, reading for information, and when such reading is deemed critical to U.S. global economic competitiveness, it is clear that we are talking about reading as a labor skill, one that is necessary to maintaining U.S. hegemony in the global capitalist economy. This is a polite way of saying that a new form of literacy would be required to sustain the U.S. empire. According to the logic of empire builders, dyslexia is the failure to learn a specific labor skill.
It is therefore no coincidence at all that the theoretical model of reading promoted by the medicalizers is an automatic, computational, information-processing one. Identify the letters in a word, compute their phonemic equivalents, concatenate the phonemes into words, retrieve the word’s lexical meaning, compose the meanings together, and arrive at the author’s meaning. A government commission on education and the economy identified “21st century literacy” as the ability to “read, write, and compute,” the crucial linguistic labor skill needed to win the battle for the market in the new digital economy.7 The National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided policymakers with a scientific cover.
The policymakers proceeded to enact No Child Left Behind, the “education” reform law that would push reading as the chief twenty-first century labor skill needed to maintain the empire. George W. Bush called it “a jobs bill.”8 Any doubt that mastering certain labor skills is the real goal of NCLB is eliminated by the simple observation that the law only applies to public schools, that is, the schools for working-class children. It does not apply to the private schools for children of the overprivileged—schools attended by President Obama’s daughters, for example.
A closer look at the theory behind medicalized dyslexia reveals that Shaywitz and her colleagues actually ignore their own criteria for identifying reading failure. Shaywitz’s “Dyslexia” article defines developmental dyslexia as “an unexpected difficulty in reading in children and adults who otherwise possess the intelligence, motivation, and schooling considered necessary for accurate and fluent reading.”9 But what does she mean by “motivation” and “schooling”? These are never defined, as if their meanings are all too obvious. They are taken for granted. Scholarly research on this is never reviewed.
But is schooling in an inner-city, poor neighborhood, where school libraries are empty and the school-to-prison pipeline constitutes one of the tracks, the same as schooling in a privileged, suburban neighborhood, filled with all the latest technological gadgets? Is motivation equal?
In giving lip service to their relevance without addressing them head on, the biologically based model of reading is not true to its own definition of dyslexia. It pays a big price for ignoring social variables. In fact, it betrays an implicit social theory, one in which the motivation and schooling of inner-city kids and privileged well-to-do kids are considered equivalent.
But to understand motivation and related matters as they apply to reading would require a scientific investigation of factors such as family literacy, the patterns of library use, and distribution of work time and free time. These cannot be studied with experimental methodology; they require ethnographic tools instead. And such tools are not in the medicalizers’ workshop.
When the medicalizers do wax social in their thinking, they betray a truly profound level of ignorance and imperialist hubris. Reid Lyon was the director of reading research at the NIH during the period of activity of the National Reading Panel. He wrote and spoke widely about the need for phonics in the reading classroom—getting kids to master the letter-sound relationships of the language in order to convert visual language to oral language. These relationships, he claimed, are based on an alleged “alphabetic principle,” which maintains that “written spellings systematically represent the phonemes of spoken words.” Lyon wrote that “unfortunately, children are not born with this insight (the alphabetic principle, SLS), nor does it develop naturally without instruction. Hence, the existence of illiterate cultures and of illiteracy within literate cultures.”10 This quote does not require much additional comment. But it is surely worth summarizing: illiteracy in the third world is due to the unfortunate population not having been taught the alphabetic principle. Means, motive, and opportunity play no role in this sophomoric pseudoscience.
This is the logic that derives from the modes of thought that come from a society whose fundamental driving force is to build and maintain an empire. But it is precisely empire that generates illiteracy, and the truth is that we will really never know what dyslexia is, what its real incidence and prevalence is in society, until we control for the harmful effects of empire.
So I would like to make the radical proposal that we pursue the scientific study of dyslexia by “controlling for empire.” And since learning to read requires means, motive, and opportunity, all of which are denied by empire to enormous segments of humanity, I would say that the best way to control for empire is to eliminate it once and for all.
There are good reasons to take this proposal seriously, not the least of which is that the medicalizers have taught us virtually nothing. Their biological and psychological assertions are empty.
For example, being able to image brain regions where sounding out letters takes place does not mean that sounding out letters is the key to successful reading. It just means that we have a technology that can identify where the brain accomplishes the conversion of letters to sounds. For sure, we have learned something about the technology, that it has a certain degree of cognitive resolution, so to speak. What it tells us about reading remains an open question. When a researcher asks, “Where in the brain does sounding out letters occur?,” this could easily be interpreted as a question to the MRI machine, essentially, “I want to see how good you are. Let’s see if you can show me where in the brain sounding out letters occurs?” In fact, the MRI reading researchers have also demonstrated where in the brain the identification of false fonts occurs, false fonts being letter-like creations of the researcher. In other words, magnetic resonance technology is powerful enough to find brain regions that carry out otherwise useless and meaningless tasks, like identifying a font as not conventionally familiar. For all we know, sounding out letters is just as useless and meaningless. Its status as a central principle in a model of reading and dyslexia needs to first be established on the basis of the empirical evidence from reading research. In other words, the high-tech evidence cannot be interpreted in the absence of a theory of reading.
The medicalizers claim that giving dyslexic readers hours and hours of intensive direct phonics instruction can literally repair their damaged brains. They obtained MRI pictures before and after such instruction and showed that whereas previously the poor reader was not utilizing the letter-sound brain sites in the expected fashion, after the instruction the scans were just like those of skilled readers. “We had observed brain repair,” boasted Shaywitz.11 No; they merely observed that the subjects of their studies learned what they were taught.
The medicalizers’ claim that there is a dyslexia gene, or set of genes, is a preposterous notion within their framework. By their own logic there can be no dyslexia gene because, in their model, reading is not a natural cognitive phenomenon. Written language is not language, they maintain. The brain is hardwired to accept only oral language. That is precisely why words have to be sounded out. Therefore, there can exist no reading gene, which means there can be no pathologic mutation of such a gene. Therefore, any gene that puts a child at risk for dyslexia must be more general. It must impair broad cognitive functions only one of which is reading. But that is not a dyslexia gene, just as a gene that causes muscular dystrophy is not a dysfootball gene.
Despite their bold assertion, the brain is not hardwired to accept only oral language. Every expert on sign language can explain why. It is learned in an entirely natural fashion. It is a real language, with complex syntactic and morphologic structures. And it certainly cannot be translated first into an oral form in order to gain entry into the brain’s language regions, because its users are largely deaf and mute.
Morphometric discrepancies (the differences in size of certain brain regions in normal compared to dyslexic readers) are easily explained by the one thing we do know about children with reading problems—they do not read. Or they do not read as much as children without reading problems. We know from brain plasticity research that brain regions grow in size the more they are used. Taxicab drivers in London have larger anterior hippocampi than non-taxi drivers, and the size increases with experience. This is plasticity. The researchers who get excited about morphometric differences in dyslexics need to control for plasticity in their studies. As far as I can ascertain, they have not done this.
The medicalizers’ exalted alphabetic principle is a myth. The historical transition from logographic (word-based) to alphabetic (sound-based) writing, which was consummated when the ancient Greeks added vowel symbols to the Semitic consonantal system, achieved the advantage of creating an orthography with a relatively small number of manipulable units. Compare the two dozen or so letters of the Roman alphabet to the tens of thousands of signs in Asian logographic writing systems, like Chinese. Logographic signs represent individual words, which are inherently unlimited in number. Every oral language, however, utilizes a small, fixed, finite set of individual sounds, or phonemes.
Now, alphabetic symbols can represent sounds, of course, but they can also express lexical information, such as when two words with the same pronunciation are spelled differently. For beat and beet, or tents and tense, the distinct spellings are tolerated because they convey distinct words. Conversely, spellings may not change, even when pronunciations do, in order to show that we are dealing with a single lexical unit. The plural suffix in backs and bags is a voiceless spirant in the former and a voiced spirant in the latter. They are not spelled backs and bagz because, apparently, this visual change obscures the linguistic fact that the words end in the same suffix, despite a difference in their pronunciations.
The medicalizers have no explanation for a whole range of established facts about real reading. Here is one: proficient reading is not a process of accurate word identification. How do we know this? From observing and analyzing real reading. Real readers who are proficient at reading for meaning do not look at fully one-third of the words on a page. Real reading is not pronouncing words presented individually on flash cards; this is not a communicative event. Real reading means reading authentic text—language generated by an author with the intention of conveying meaning. Only in such cases is the reader’s goal as it should be: to make sense of the print. And making sense of the print now includes taking into account that the text was composed by a human agent who composed the text purposefully. What is this author trying to say? That is a communicative event.
In such cases, we see that a proficient reader omits words, adds words, and changes words. Here is a typical example. A story might contain the sentence: Well, sitting here in the living room is a lot better than doing what I did the last time Bill was away overnight! A competent reader instead begins: We’re sitting here in the living room is a lot better, but then corrects this to the actual sentence on the page.12 This reader is reading for meaning, to make sense of the text, and does not tolerate phonics-based changes that lead to nonsense.
If proficient reading is making sense of print, then we can predict empirically that the reader’s text will vary from the author’s, because making sense of the author’s text does not require that the reader reproduce that text word for word. All that matters is that the reader’s text be a coherent and cohesive manifestation of any of the innumerable ways of making sense of the print. In contrast, if proficient reading is the accurate identification of individual words, in order to be able to enter the language module of the brain and retrieve the words’ meanings, then we would predict that proficient reading is the accurate, faithful reproduction of the author’s text by the reader. In this instance, the medicalizer’s model of reading makes the wrong empirical prediction.
In fact, poor reading is characterized by an attempt to be phonically accurate. Here is an example of a poor reader’s oral rendition of a piece of text. Instead of reading The bees had been making honey all day long. At night it was cool and calm, this reader reads The best had been making hone all day long. At night it was cold and climb.13 Sense is sacrificed on the altar of phonic accuracy.
These are typical examples of the differences between the oral readings of proficient and nonproficient readers. Proficient readers are willing to sacrifice phonic accuracy for coherent meaning. Nonproficient readers are willing to sacrifice coherent meaning for phonic accuracy. But making sense is what the human brain does all the time. To not do it requires vigorous, conscious suppression. It feels like holding your breath. Soon enough you just have to let go and let the lungs do what they are supposed to do.
The medicalizers want kids to hold their cognitive breaths. That is not sound medical advice.
So all the brain imaging research, genetic research, and pathology research on reading is fundamentally irrelevant, because it is generated by and interpreted within an unsalvageable theory of reading. All the proposals about how we need to drill kids hour after hour on letter-sound relationships are entirely counterproductive, because they take the focus off meaning.
So why is this preposterous pseudoscience in the media, in the classroom, and in the laws passed by Congress? What is the big difference between medicalized reading and the alternative?
The big difference, the one that really matters, is this: the ideas and opinions of the medicalizers are in power; the ideas and opinions of their opponents are not in power. And, to paraphrase Karl Marx, the ruling ideas of society—the ideas that are in power—are the ideas propagated and promoted by the ruling class.
Am I saying that the owners of the giant corporations in the United States came up with medicalized reading? That they took time away from their greedy plunder of the planet to try to understand the reading process and dyslexia? That they just became curious about psychology and language and wanted to make a humanistic contribution?
Of course not. The truth is that the current economic crisis has been of such a profound character that corporate America bought the quick-fix, snake oil phonological processing model, the one that asserts that within a matter of weeks it could repair a human brain. One is reminded of the Stalin-era acceptance of Lysenko’s quick-fix solution to the young Soviet Russia’s famine crisis.
Corporate America got scared in the latter part of the twentieth century. As they themselves understood, they were losing hegemony in the global capitalist marketplace. (That translates into: the empire was falling apart). Recessions began to occur. Their profits were in danger. They had to act fast. They needed a plan. They went to their think tanks. The think tanks advised them to retool the U.S. labor force completely, and to use the public schools to do this. They needed a whole new generation of workers, trained to enable winnable competition in the global, high-tech, digital economy. They needed workers skilled in information processing—knowledge workers, engineers. One such skill involves reading software and hardware manuals, and composing new ones.
But teachers and educators had long before recognized that new research about reading for meaning could explain what they were observing with their children. Phonics was becoming less and less the vogue. The newer understandings of reading also promoted self-selection of reading materials by the children, itself an inherently democratic act, for the very simple reason that it is harder to focus on meaning if you are not interested in the topic. In other words, teachers were adopting a paradigm of literacy which recognized the fundamental importance of meaning-centered curriculum and democratically run classrooms.
The corporate execs of the Business Roundtable and similar outfits had a problem on their hands. Freely chosen meaning and true democracy in the classroom threatened their plans to hijack public education. They had to get rid of the existing classroom paradigm, install a new one, and retool the curriculum. When practiced on a larger scale, we call this “regime change.” And that is precisely what they did. They came up with a plan. And they had both major parties in their hip pocket. In 2000, the Republican President George Bush said, “Phonics needs to be an integral part of our reading curriculum; intensive reading laboratories; teacher retraining.” And in 2005, Democratic President Barack Obama said, “We’ll have to reform institutions, like our public schools, that were designed for an earlier time.”14
So Bush’s No Child Left Beyond evolved into Obama’s Race to the Top, both effectively consummating the handover of the public schools to the corporate agenda. This agenda referred to public schools as “workforce development systems.” It conceived of public schools as factories that manufacture workers with a certain set of labor skills. They call these “21st century literacy skills.” The emphasis is on digital literacy. Only mathematics and a certain type of reading are important in the new curriculum. This new type of reading is reading for information, reading to compute, reading in the world of software and hardware. “Read, write, and compute” is the new mantra.
To make sure classrooms devote their efforts to manufacturing digitally literate workers, schools must demonstrate progress, or else they get shut down and handed over to private companies. To demonstrate progress, kids are given endless tests. More and more, in fact, public school is just test preparation. In some kindergarten classrooms, nap time has been eliminated to allow more time for test preparation.
Tests are the school factory version of quality control. Kids who pass the test are learning the desired labor skill. They are permitted to move along the assembly line. We call that “getting promoted.” Kids who do not pass the tests are held back and, eventually, discarded, like just another flawed product. They find work either in the military or in prison.
Reading is now work reading, seen as an exploitable labor skill. And what is dyslexia? It is failure to become a competent digital worker.
We all know what capitalism has done to the life span. If you are old you are considered worthless. You no longer have the skills and energy to make someone rich. Your wisdom about life does not count for anything anymore.
Now capitalism is trying to destroy youth as well, as it did at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Then, if you were five-years old, you were considered a worker. Now, if you are five-years old, you are a worker-in-training. And, one day, when being five-years old is not considered young enough to begin labor-skill training, then it will be four, then three. The NIH will find some charlatans who have evidence that we can teach reading skills to kids in the uterus.
Clearly, it is not enough to have our own ideas and science and logic that opposes and exposes the ideas, science, and logic of the medicalizers of children. It is necessary, of course, but the opposing ideas are in power. They have an advantage not in virtue of the empirical facts, but in virtue of having the armed state backing them up. Becoming knowledgeable about the science of these issues is only the first step; we also need to completely replace the profit-driven economic system, which falsely and viciously medicalizes children who cannot master a certain set of labor skills. We need to organize society around the needs of the majority of humanity, not the privileges of a tiny handful. We need to bring some sanity back to science, society, and humanity.
To do this we need to abandon wishful thinking. Empire is the fundamental priority of both the Democrats and Republicans. But there are rumblings occurring under the surface. There are protests all over the country against the war on quality public education. There is a movement of civil disobedience urging kids not to take the punitive tests, a pedagogical Russian roulette. Save Our Schools and United Opt-Out are two grassroots organizations working to educate the public about the dangers of the Bush–Obama corporate education reform agenda. Many socialist parties and groups understand that there is a capitalist-class attack on the public classroom. Now it is crucial that we also understand that the evolving classroom struggle must address the pseudoscientific program of the medicalization of education.
When the day arrives where we are victorious in putting an end to empire, literacy shall bloom in every corner of the planet. We shall clear away all the lies and pseudoscience that currently suffocate so many young people. And, if there are those who truly have difficulty becoming literate, we shall treat them with compassion and respect. The highest priority of society will be the health, happiness, and well-being of its children. And if there are indeed some children who, after society’s best efforts, are still unable to learn to read, they will not be denied a life of dignity and love. They will not be given the message that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, that they are failures in life. Because they are not failures in life. They will be one with all of us, dancing together in our dancing circles and singing together in our choirs.
↩ Sally Shaywitz, “Dyslexia,” New England Journal of Medicine 338 (January 29, 1998): 307–12; Overcoming Dyslexia (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).
↩ Kenneth S. Goodman, “Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game,” Journal of the Reading Specialist 6 (1967): 126–35; What’s Whole in Whole Language? (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986).
↩ Shaywitz, “Dyslexia,” 4.
↩ Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Education Reform and National Security (NY: Council on Foreign Relations. New York, 2012), 7.
↩ Duane Alexander, “Director’s Testimony at the Hearing on the National Reading Panel Findings, April 13, 2000,” November 30, 2012, https://nichd.nih.gov.
↩ Twenty-first Century Workforce Commission (Washington, DC: National Alliance of Business and U.S. Department of Labor, 2000), 22.
↩ Shaywitz, “Dyslexia,” 307.
↩ Shaywitz. Overcoming Dyslexia, 86.
↩ E.J. Paulson and A.E. Freeman, Insight from the Eyes (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).
↩ Susan B. Argyle, “Miscue Analysis for Classroom Use,” Reading Horizons (Winter 1989): 98 .
↩ “October 11, 2000 Debate Transcript: The Second Gore-Bush Presidential Debate,” Commission on Presidential Debates, http://debates.org; Barack Obama, “Knox College Commencement” speech (June 4, 2005), http://obamaspeeches.com .