(6) the politics of learning
My goal is to figure out the best way to educate my son, Walker, who for most of his life now has been stuck at home with me and his mother because of the pandemic. Approaching two years old, Walker is beginning his education at a time when conventional schooling has been turned on its head. God willing, COVID-19 will be long gone by the time he’s school age. But I wonder what lies ahead for him. Will education return to normal after this? Should it?
My look into how kids are taught to read has revealed a lot that is new to me, including the “war” between the phonics and whole language approaches to instruction, and just how bloody and protracted that war has been. Though new to me, I’m discovering that the controversy has deep roots, and that the arguments haven’t changed much over the past 25 years. An article I recently encountered, “The Reading Wars,” by Nicholas Lemann, published in the The Atlantic Monthly in 1997, shows that everything educators argue about now they argued about then, in exactly the same ways.
In California, Lemann wrote those many years ago, “everybody now claims allegiance to a ‘balanced approach’ incorporating whole-language and phonics, but the truth is that the two sides have one of the purest and angriest disagreements I've ever encountered.”
Just so in the current debate, as some of my previous posts have highlighted.
“The dispute operates at three levels,” Lemann continued, “which is one reason why it is so pervasive. It concerns how people learn, what schools should be for, and the essential nature of a good society.”
It turns out early childhood education is politics by another name. The levels of dispute Lemann names lie at the political crux of the matter. Even more basic, as I argued earlier, is a disagreement about the essential make-up of the human creature. That is, the differing models of human nature that underlie phonics and whole language instruction are the same ones that separate liberals and conservatives.
Liberals generally have a favorable view of the innate potential of humans, and so believe that children, given the right conditions, can essentially educate themselves through unstructured immersion, exploration, and discovery. Reading develops, say whole language enthusiasts, organically within a language-rich environment.
Conservatives are less sanguine about any “natural” virtue in humans, and so rely on tradition and discipline to properly steer a child. What children need, they say, is not free rein but concrete, structured guidance. In the case of reading, that means learning how to decode words through systematized memorization of the alphabet, knowing the sounds each letter makes, and then understanding how printed groups of letters correspond to the words we speak.
The whole-language liberals have depicted phonics instruction as rote training for jobs on the factory floor. The phonics conservatives in turn see whole language as fuzzy-minded indulgence and a waste of effort. The “balanced” approach, which ostensibly combines phonics and whole language, has succeeded neither in improving reading outcomes nor in resolving the underlying political dispute.
The politics of this debate have been truly disturbing and enormously harmful to efforts aimed at improving the quality of education. In California, in the nineties, elected officials for the first time began to legislate a mode of instruction. That is, the politics of reading instruction had reached such a tipping point that bills were passed by the state legislature mandating that teachers teach phonics and not whole language.
After winning the battle in California, the conservative-phonics camp took their campaign nationwide, culminating in The Reading Excellence Act of 1998, which required phonics instruction everywhere. Responding to what she saw as a government take-over of classroom instructional practice, Denny Taylor wrote in 1998,
The ‘reading wars,’ as they have been dubbed in the press, are not wars between teachers who ‘believe’ in phonics or in whole language. The war is political and ideological. . . It is racist and hegemonic, and teachers are the foot soldiers who are supposed to do as they are told, without rights or privilege or professional status. The battle is for power, for control, and of course for profit. Enormous sums of money are at stake. It is about forging alliances with groups across the political spectrum, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and securing dominance. A profound political shift is taking place, a historic cultural shift which has nothing, and perhaps everything, to do with how young children are taught to read. Either way it is a threat to democracy.”
Such were the perceived stakes back then. And such are the perceived stakes still today.
The argument that E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Natalie Wexler make for foundational knowledge as the key to successful reading instruction hasn’t been any less politically mired. Hirsch’s “cultural literacy” list, published back in 1987, was swiftly trounced by critics on the left, who saw it as an instrument of cultural hegemony working against an inclusive curriculum. In contrast, conservatives embraced the list as a bulwark against advancing multiculturalism, which was not at all Hirsch’s aim. Quite the opposite, he thought he was helping minority students gain a voice in white-dominated American culture.
Reading instruction, of course, isn’t the only subject that has been embroiled in recurring political controversy. In The Knowledge Gap, Wexler recounts the story of how an effort to develop national history standards in the nineties ran aground due to politics, with people on the right complaining that the standards undermined American patriotism. The drafted standards ultimately were scrapped.
Today’s strife over what to teach American students about their own history is just as political. The New York Times’s 1619 Project , for example, has stirred debate about how to tell the story of America’s founding. Published to mark the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of African captives to America, the 1619 Project comprises a collection of articles and images that identify the introduction of slavery, rather than the Revolution, as the nation’s true origin. The project won a Pulitzer Prize and now offers a podcast and a curriculum for high schools.
The 1619 Project has provoked a backlash from pundits, political leaders, and historians who see it as an ideologically-driven misrepresentation of American history. They object to using it as a classroom resource on grounds that it is both bad history and politically lopsided. In reaction to the controversy stirred by the project, President Trump issued an executive order that called for teaching “patriotic history” to US students. A group he commissioned subsequently published the 1776 Project, a classroom resource summarizing the nation’s founding in what the authors see as patriotic terms. The document has been summarily panned by historians, civil rights activists, and educators on the left.
Not just history standards, but standards across the board have been political fodder for years. The Common Core State Standards were an attempt at the federal level to establish K-12 academic standards nationwide, in hopes of lifting the quality of education, holding educators accountable for the performance of their students, and establishing a basis for comparison of learning outcomes from state to state. No sooner were the standards released, back in 2010, than conservative state-level legislators began to campaign against them, arguing federal overreach into state business. (Strangely, similar objections weren’t raised when the conservative-backed Reading Excellence Act mandated phonics instruction across the land a few years before. See above.)
People on the left also objected to the CCSS, seeing them as an unfair, draconian instrument for penalizing teachers and withholding school funding. The real problems underlying our education crisis, they argued, are economic inequality and a lack of social supports for families, issues hardly within the purview of classroom teachers to overcome.
Following such political reactions, many states withdrew support for the CCSS or repealed their initial adoption. Some even passed legislation prohibiting use of the standards.
I’m convinced that we unavoidably adopt a particular worldview whenever we make decisions about what to teach and how to teach it—and that that worldview has inescapable political implications. This is true not just for reading and history instruction, but for writing, math, and science as well. (I know little about math and science instruction but will get around to it eventually.)
There’s a great old piece of scholarship by James A. Berlin (“Contemporary Composition,” 1982), in which he claims that, “[t]o teach writing is to argue for a version of reality, how it can be known, and how it can be communicated . . .” Writing teachers, when they choose a mode of instruction, whether they know it or not, are committing to a particular worldview: Their students, as writers, are either disembodied conduits between readers and objective reality, or else embodied actants situated within particular real-world contexts. In the first case, the politics of writing instruction reinforce the status quo; in the latter, they enable social change.
Ultimately, there is no neutral curriculum, and choosing an educational pathway means choosing a politics, like it or not. That pathway doesn’t have to be wildly partisan; it can perhaps be the product of well-meaning compromise. But the politics are there, no matter how disguised by the language of “neutrality” or “science-based evidence.”
I acknowledge the inescapable politics. Nevertheless, as Walker learns to read, write, count, and think, I don’t want him swooped up in someone’s grand political mission— neither right-wingers pushing phonics nor lefties touting whole language—not so long as either camp is more interested in notching political victories than in doing what’s best for my kid and his classmates.
The best I can do, I believe, is to think hard about our family values, articulate them for myself, and justify the educational choices I make for Walker on that basis. Whether he ends up in public school, private school, home school, whatever—it’s my responsibility to be aware of the politics inherent in his curriculum, and to respond, confident in what I think is best. That response might mean PTA activism. Or it might mean hand selecting materials to put in front of him and consciously adopting instructional methods that align his education with our values.
Or it might mean making sure that he can himself look deeply into what he’s being taught, recognize the underpinning worldview and larger implications, and evaluate for himself the nature and quality of his own education.
Is that too much to ask of a kid?