Can't Read, Can't Write, Can't Calculate…But Oh, Can We Relate

How the new education has subverted learning


Anything which is new must always be greeted with caution, for it could turn out to be just another form of an old disease.

—C.J. Jung

Many articles, speeches, and lamentations have emerged during the past several years identifying and discussing the epidemic scope of functional illiteracy in the United States. But they do not seem to have generated sufficient action to improve the situation very much.

The 1978 results of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests showed a leveling off of a 14-year decline in average reading and vocabulary scores but a continued decline in math scores. Of course, after years of falling SAT scores this is good news, but only meager good news, for no lost ground has been made up. The former commissioner of education, James Allen, was inspired to offer a sunny prognosis for 1980"this is education's moon"to which Newsweek responded more realistically: "Education's moon is still light years away, and it seems to be receding. Although illiteracythe inability to read or write a simple messagehas steadily declined almost to the vanishing point, functional illiteracythe failure to read or write well enough to be a productive citizenis growing.…the job is not getting done."


Sen. George McGovern recently proposed the creation of a national commission on literacy, claiming that "millions of American high school graduates lack a working knowledge of reading, writing, and math." He is also one of those who doesn't forsee a leveling off in the decline, maintaining that "the problem is chronic and getting worse, and if this trend continues,…an already deteriorating situation will become an educational disaster and a national disgrace." Whether or not this disconsolate prognosis is warranted, any optimistic forecasts should be carefully hedged when UPI can report that "one-third of applicants for teaching jobs in Florida in 1976 failed an eighth-grade general knowledge test" and when the folksy National Enquirer discloses that testing of reading teachers working on their master's degrees at the University of South Carolina "showed that an incredible 25 percent read below eighth-grade level."

What is responsible for students' poor performance these days? Newsweek notes in its assessment of the "blight of illiteracy" that "experts offer many explanations: a failure of the schools to emphasize basic skills; poor readers being passed along until they emerge from school with a diploma but no reading competency; too much television; a lack of parental involvement." Whether or not these explanations hit the mark, it is true that many factors figure into the learning process, so it would not be fair to place all the blame on the schools. On the other hand, it would be patently foolish to assume anything less than a prominent role on the part of the schools in this depressing scenario, when most children and teenagers in this country are required to spend in them a good part of a day, five days a week, for most of the year, with the hoped-for result that, among other things, they will learn how to read and write.

What makes a disconcerting situation not only disconcerting but ludicrous is that there are plenty of clues to what can be done to both arrest and reverse the decline in literacy. Essentially, the road to recovery lies in responding to the censure of Gene Lyons as it appeared on the cover of Harper's September 1976 issue: "American students are not learning to write because nobody bothers to teach them how." It sounds almost too simple to be true, but there is compelling evidence to support precisely this claim.


Perhaps the most impressive of the evidence is a longitudinal study conducted by a group of researchers at Lancaster University in England and published in America in 1976 by Harvard University Press under the title Teacher Styles and Progress, authored by Neville Bennet. Three different groups of students were compared: those taught by (a) informal teachers, who are characterized in terms of "self-scheduled work, integration of subjects, no effort to curb talking or movement among children, no tests or grading"; (b) formal teachers, "structured lesson plan, fixed work schedule, reward system"; and (c) mixed teachers.

The result of the study? "During the course of the school year, formally taught pupils spent more time working and achieved significantly greater gains in tests of reading, writing, and arithmetic." While the authors do not necessarily argue for a return to "old-fashioned," traditional methods of teaching and do not reject out of hand innovations of recent years, they very clearly make the point that students must be taught in some sort of directed fashion if they are to achieve to their full potential.

Since there has been a nationwide trend toward informal education in the United States during the past decade, this study has some weighty implications for American educators. No less a renowned figure in educational psychology than Jerome Brunner characterized Teacher Styles and Progress as a "powerful, disturbing book that is bound to reverberate in educational and political debate over the coming years."

And this study is not the only evidence. In a provocative article in the August 1978 issue of Human Nature entitled "Why Americans Can't Write," Edward T. Hall describes the results of a comparison between writing samples from African students in Botswana and from American students. The Botswana students are recipients of directed, sequential instruction with an emphasis on classics and proper punctuation, usage, and paragraphing. A former English instructor in America who now teaches in Botswana, Hall observes that the "15- and 16-year olds I have had in this program for two years write better and with more ease than the privileged 17-year olds I left behind in America four years ago. And only a handful of my students know English as their first language."

In the article, writing samples from the work of two New York City high school seniors, the samples "selected at random by the students' English teacher," are printed next to an excerpt from an African essay. The differences in writing competence are so striking, the African student's writing so much more coherent and sophisticated, that the question why America, with the hundred billion dollars and more it expends yearly for education, lags behind Botswana in quality education, sounds like a bad joke.


But bad philosophy can all too easily lead to events that prove to be bad jokes, and bad educational philosophy is no exception. The incongruity of mass functional illiteracy in the world's most affluent society as it operates the most expensive educational machine ever assembled in history is a bad joke. The bad philosophy is the sophistry underpinning the "new education," which has unwittingly helped to write the script for this depressing scene.

It is common knowledge that what can be called the new educationor student-directed or student-centered or non-directed or informal educationhas been an extremely influential movement in the '60s and '70s. Proponents of the new education take their cue from John Dewey's notion that education should be concerned with the "whole child." So they have argued that if students are to achieve self-realization in the course of their schooling, they should have the prerogative of shaping their own curriculum.

The extent to which this view has captured the imagination of contemporary educators is indicated by the widespread proliferation of "open classrooms" in primary schools, while in secondary schools electives became the rage. As Edwin Hall notes:

Many secondary schools adopted the one-term course, an elective on any topic from "science fiction" to "the literature of war" to "creative writing." Students could choose whichever option suited them instead of following a core curriculum for a year or two. Innovation fed on innovation.…I am not saying that these courses were bad; many were rigorous and intriguing. The point is that to make room for these enticing studies, the old-fashioned full-year courseincluding Shakespeare, classical novels, and poetryvanished. The upshot was that a student from one of the best schools in the nation could enter college without having read a classic or having struggled with any written topic more demanding than "The Imagination of Isaac Asimov" or "Student Rights in Our Schools." College teachers found themselves confronted with students of varied and esoteric abilities and wondered what had happened to the common ground on which they used to meet their freshmen.

The degree to which students can shape their own curriculum varies, of course, from school to school, with schools patterned after A.S. Neil's Summerhill providing for the greatest degree of student direction. But in varying degrees and for some time, the siren song of the new education has been a most seductive influence in contemporary educational practice.

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote one of the most celebrated books promoting the new educationTeaching as a Subversive Activity. Praised by Marshall McLuhan and such publications as Playboy, the New York Times Book Review, and Saturday Review, the book delineates the tenets of the new education and allows us to scrutinize its conceptual foundation.


For Postman and Weingartner, core curricula and their attendant requirements are anathema. The learning process, they maintain, is so personal and unique that it should actually be termed "meaning making." And the student must be free to shape his own "meanings" from stimuli.

The "old education" is "based on the assumption that the student is fundamentally a receiver, that the object ('subject matter') from which the stimulus originates is all-important, and the student has no choice but to see and understand the stimulus as 'it' is." But "we now know that this assumption is false," say Postman and Weingartner, offering a quote from Earl Kelley:

Now it comes about that whatever we tell the learner, he will make something that is all his own out of it, and it will be different from what we held so dear and attempted to "transmit." He will build it into his own scheme of things, and relate it uniquely to what he already uniquely holds as experience. Thus he builds a world all his own.…

And they go on to draw out the implications of this view:

The meaning-making metaphor puts the student at the center of the learning process. It makes possible and acceptable a plurality of meanings, for the environment does not exist only to impose standardized meanings, but rather to improve their meaning-making capabilities. And this is the basis of the process of learning how to learn, and how to deal with the otherwise "meaningless," how to cope with the change that requires new meanings to be made.

"Requirements" are systems of prescriptions and proscriptions intended solely to limit the physical and intellectual movements of students"keep them in line, in sequence, in order".…The "requirements" indeed force the teacher—and administratorinto the role of an authoritarian functionary whose primary task becomes that of enforcing the requirements rather than helping the learner to learn.

To implement the "meaning-making metaphor" the authors advocate a "questions curriculum," which, it is maintained, would be responsive to the students' "actual and immediate" needs and would cultivate inquiry and relevant "meaning making." Students would shape their curriculum based on their responses to such questions as the following, a sample from the many suggested by the authors:

What do you worry about most?

How can you tell "good guys" from "bad guys"?

What's a good idea?

What is "change"?

What bothers you most about adults? Why?

What's worth knowing? How do you decide?

Any further questions generated from these would also be part of the new curriculum.

Basically, the teacher would become a companion, stimulating questioning but generally refraining from directing activities toward any preconceived goal. To find answers, the students would "go to books, to laboratories, to newspapers, to TV sets, to the streets, to wherever they must go to find their answers." Students would be in complete charge of the direction and the content of their own education.


Everything in Teaching as a Subversive Activity hinges on the authors' account of perception. Underpinning their claim that "meaning making" is the desirable metaphor to depict the learning process is a supposition that they reiterate in various forms:

What we perceive is largely a function of our previous experiences, our assumptions, and our purposes (i.e., needs). In other words, the perceiver decides what an object is, where it is, and why it is according to his purposes and the assumptions that he makes at any given time. You tend to perceive what you want and need to perceive, and what your past experience has led you to assume will "work" for you.

Since our perceptions come from us and our past experience, it is obvious that each individual will perceive what is out there in a unique way. We have no common world, and communication is possible only to the extent that two perceivers have similar purposes, assumptions, and experiences.

The fact that both groups will agree to the sentence "It is raining" does not mean that they perceive the "event" in the same way.

In the light of all this, perhaps you will understand why we prefer the metaphor of "meaning making" to most of the metaphors of the mind that are operative in the schools.

As empirical confirmation for their characterization of perception, Postman and Weingartner cite the work of Albert Ames, Jr., which is summarized as follows by the Britannica Macropedia:

Psychologist Albert Ames, Jr., and Egon Brunswick proposed that one perceives under the strong influence of his learned assumptions and inferences, these providing a context for evaluating sensory data (inputs). In keeping with enrichment theory, Brunswick and Ames contended that sensory stimuli alone inherently lack some of the information needed for mature, adaptive perceiving; enrichment was held necessary to reduce ambiguity.

Much of the evidence for the contention that all perceiving is modified by one's assumptions comes from investigations in which most of the visual, everyday stimuli are eliminated. Often, the subject may view an isolated target in total darkness or look at a motionless display while keeping his head steady. To show that learned assumptions about physical size affect perceived distance, the observer may be asked to judge how far he is from a rectangle of light displayed against total darkness. He is told at one time that the rectangle is a calling card; at another it is called a business envelope. His assumptions about these objects in relation to the size of his retinal image are invoked as prompting him to say that the "envelope" looks more distant than does the "calling card".…

Ames held that perceiving under unusual conditions (e.g., in a dark room) follows the same principles that govern more ordinary experience. The special conditions are said to permit experimental scrutiny of the same processes that are so difficult to examine under ordinary, uncontrolled conditions.

But if this can be taken as a credible account of the Ames experiments, we are left with many problems. They scarcely resolve the question to what extent perception is dependent on innate or learned factors. Nor do they confirm the authors' contention that perception is "largely a function of our previous experiences, our assumptions, and our purposes (i.e., needs)." As the Macropedia goes on to note:

An opposing view is that such perceptual assumptions and inferences operate only under specific experimental conditions. It is asserted that only when commonly available sources of information are eliminated is the subject forced to rely on assumptions.

Further, it is pointed out, any suggestion to discount the role of innate factors in perception should be greeted with caution, when studies are available of human newborn and very young infants, indicating highly organized and stable perceptual functions.


Even if perception were a completely learned process, its thoroughly subjective characterization at the hands of the authors would still not be justified. According to Webster's, to perceive means "to obtain knowledge (of) through the senses, to take cognizance of the existence, character, or identity (of) by means of the senses; to see, hear, etc.; as to perceive a distant ship, to perceive a discord." And common experience quickly discloses the unremarkable fact that people's perceptions, regardless of the extent of differences in background or experience, can be unique only to a limited degree, since perception must be linked to an explicit physical world of objects and events.

Nothing less than the perceptual capacity to fathom the intrinsic constitution of things has empowered man to prevail in the world and to make a personal inventory. As Teilhard de Chardin observes in The Phenomenon of Man, "For man to discover man and take his measure, a whole series of 'senses' have been necessary, whose gradual acquisition…covers and punctuates the whole history of the struggles of the mind." Among these are: "A sense of spatial immensity, in greatness and smallness, disarticulating and spacing out, within a sphere of indefinite radius, the orbits of objects which press around us"; "A sense of proportion, realizing as best we can the difference of physical scale which separates, both in rhythm and dimension, the atom from the nebula, the infinitesimal from the immense"; and "A sense, lastly, of the organic, discovering physical links and structural unity under the superficial juxtaposition of successions and collectives."

These senses develop in each person to the same purpose, whether through innate or learned factors, though the prevailing view is that they develop through a combination of both. The necessity of dealing with external reality assures considerable uniformity and objectivity in individuals' perceptual processes, regardless of how diverse their backgrounds.

The issue, of course, is not whether perceiving can to some extent be subjectively influenced, even shaped to degrees by "previous experiences, assumptions, and purposes." Plenty of experiments in the literature of experimental psychology illustrate such influences. Even perception focused on clearly visible and defined objects can be so affected. For instance, an experiment in 1963 by Lambert, Solomon, and Watson suggests that the size of an object can be overestimated because of its social value: children from varying socioeconomic backgrounds differed in their judgment of the size of tokens redeemable for candy rewards. Experiments also suggest that the ability to distinguish between geometric shapes, such as the square and the triangle, is learned.

Nonetheless, perception cannot amount to making anything at all out of what is "out there," for objects and events possess a reality vetoing any extensive straying into uniqueness. There is a lesson to be learned from Samuel Johnson's response to Bishop Berkeley's philosophy, which held that the world is each person's subjective creation. As Berkeley's ideas were being explained to him, Johnson kicked a rock down the path he was walking along, exclaiming, "Thus do I refute Berkeley."


In his Psychology of Education, M. Ray Loree recounts some studies that ostensibly demonstrate cultural differences in perception.

A few of these experiments have made use of an adapted version of the old-fashioned stereoscope. With such an apparatus, it is possible to create binocular rivalry, since one picture may be viewed by the right eye while a different picture is viewed by the left eye. Bagby (1957) constructed pairs of slides consisting of one picture of an individual, object, or symbol that would be of particular interest to the Mexicans; in the other, a picture of particular significance to Americans. For example, in one pair of slides a picture of a bullfighter was matched with a picture of a baseball player. When these pairs of pictures were shown to Mexican school teachers, most of them saw the Mexican symbol; when the same pictures were shown to American school teachers, most saw the American symbol. Thus, the culturally significant was perceived by the members of both groups.

Does this experiment provide further evidence, along with the Ames studies, of the "unique way" in which learners perceive and more justification to reject common classroom requirements? The problem with such a conclusion is that the experiment does not indicate any cultural differences in focused perception, with subjects consciously centering their attention on a specific object. It only demonstrates that, because of certain differences in background, the subjects revealed distinct preferences in responding to visual cues. Preference in perception, whether consciously or unconsciously motivated, is easily noted in everyday experience.

Some people are also more "perceptive" than others in that they can perceive more of the constituent elements of events. But notwithstanding any differences in perceptual acumen between two individuals, both participate in an extensively common phenomenological world. And it is the very possibility of focused perception that can make it possible for the more perceptive to reveal the subtler elements of the world to the other.

The capacity to perceive selectively, or preferentially, may be unsettled by psychedelic drugs, which can precipitate an overwhelming, uncontrolled onrush of perceptions. This may happen because of a great acceleration in the neural firings within the brain, as suggested by physicist Lambert Dolphin, a former experimenter with LSD. Or it may be caused by a temporary suspension of the filtering function of the brain, making possible a flood of perceptions otherwise restrained. Neither explanation, however, impugns the power of focused perception to comprehend objects and events. They only dramatize the necessity for controlled perceptual processes to contend with what is "out there."


It is safe to assert that a person of Mexican background could perceive and accurately note the details of the American symbol, and vice versa for the person of American background. The point is highly elementary but crucial for escaping the solipsistic snare set by the authors. Teachers ask pupils of various backgrounds to focus their attention on the letters of the alphabet, on words, on numbers, on pictures, on their voices, etc. And notwithstanding differences in background, everyday experience easily discloses that in the average classroom most pupils can understand what is taking place (does this even have to be pointed out?), especially since the teacher is eliciting their attention and providing explanations. (Exceptions are pupils afflicted with functional handicaps, such as dyslexia.) And while pupils may well vary in the significance or meaning they attach to what they perceive, such differences reflect an interpreting or construing function following perceptual apprehension.

But Postman and Weingartner confusedly lump together cognitive apprehension and the emotive and attitudinal reactions of personality. Not surprisingly, then, they end up with a bloated concept of perception. Their reference to individuals agreeing to the fact that it is raining but not necessarily perceiving the event in the same way is a good case in point:

If rain is falling from the sky, some people will head for shelter, others will enjoy walking in it. Their perceptions of "What is happening" are different things. The fact that both groups will agree to the sentence, "It is raining" does not mean they perceive the "event" in the same way.

What is puzzling here is the notion that people can "agree" that it is raining without perceiving the event in the same way. If the members of a group can even "agree to the sentence, 'It is raining,'" there must be an extensive similarity in perceptual apprehension as to the physical reality of what is taking place.

Of course, the immediate perceptual apprehension of an event can be distinguished from the subjective, interpretive response that follows. But this is a distinction apparently lost on the authors, who lump everything together and call the results perception. Such a sloppy maneuver vitiates the possibility of drawing distinctions between critically different aspects of mental functioning; for it is possible to be very much aware of the general nature of an event in the more or less objective sense, while simultaneously being aware of the emotions or attitudes the event is generating within. Such awareness, by checking unwarranted preconceptions and promoting respect for facts, contributes to learning in the best sense.


Perhaps Postman and Weingartner could find their consciousness expanded by momentarily returning to the 19th century and contemplating the following observation of one of its seers, Emerson:

Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions; for they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time all mankind,although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.

In a similar vein Ayn Rand, a contemporary writer, has John Galt, the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged, saying:

Those who tell you that man is unable to perceive a reality undistorted by his senses, mean that they are unwilling to perceive a reality undistorted by their feelings.…They want to cheat the axiom of existence and consciousness, they want their consciousness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence, and existence to be not the object but the subject of their consciousness.

A poignant illustration of the objective dimension intrinsic to perception can be found in Colin Wilson's study of modern philosophy, Beyond the Outsider. After the birth of her second child, a mother found herself in a condition of such emotional oversensitivity that "the thought of pain or misfortune would bring her close to tears." While in this overwrought condition, she happened to read John Hersey's account of the bombing of Hiroshima. The effect was to burn her out:

She became completely incapable of any kind of feeling, as though all the "feeling nerves" had been cauterized. Even when she had recovered physically, the capacity to feel did not return, although she "went through the motions" of social and family life. One of the symptoms of this state of "inner deadness" was that grass took on an artificial appearance, while the leaves on trees seemed to be cut out of green tin.…A year later, she and her husband were thinking of buying a cottage in Hampshire, and went to view it. (She) went out alone into the field behind the cottage. The grass, as usual, looked a clever imitation, and the leaves like tin. She noticed some unfamiliar blue flowers in the grass; their blue was so intense that she stopped to stare. Suddenly, the blueness seemed to break through the glass wall between herself and reality, and a sense of tremendous emotional relief followed so that she burst into tears. She knew this was the beginning of recovery.

What is significant in this account is that, even though the woman's emotional state was badly impaired, the inherent, objective dimension of her perceptions remained intact. "The grass and leaves were seen as lifeless," but as Colin Wilson further observes, 'it would hardly be untrue to say that grass and leaves really look rather like green raffia and tin; we supply their 'life' in looking at them. The burning out of the internal fuses meant that this energy was no longer available to the subconscious intentionality, so that nature was seen as dead." Whether we supply the sense of "life" to our perceptions of nature or discover it (with over-sensitized nerves temporarily disturbing this capacity), this account obligates a certain distinction between perception and feelings.


Postman and Weingartner advocate the umbrella concept of "meaning making" to depict the learning process. But here, as with their view of perception, they fail to consider the degree of objectivity that can exist apart from the subjective element. In other words, not all forms of learning can be conceived of in the way Kelley did, where the learner, whatever we tell him,

will make something that is all his own of it, and it will be different from what we held so dear and attempted to "transmit." He will build it into his own scheme of things, and relate it uniquely to what he already uniquely holds as experience. Thus he builds a world all his own.…

There is the cognitive, or intellectual, dimension of learning to consider. The process whereby students acquire such intellectual skills as rational thinking, reading, writing, and arithmetic is a learning process that can scarcely be conceived of in the attitudinal terms of "meaning making."

Meaning is undeniably essential to a person's life (especially in the spiritual senseVictor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is a beautiful illustration in point). Yet it is implausible to employ their "meaning-making metaphor" of learning to make sense of the development of intellectual skills. While these skills can be utilized in the process of meaning making, they are not meanings as such. Students may very well attribute different values or meanings to the importance of acquiring such skills as thinking logically, reading, and writingdepending on their backgrounds, environments, personality types, etc. (especially since, contrary to the authors' view, pupils don't always know "what's worth knowing"). But that is not to say that the process of learning to master such skills can be considered an attitudinal, "meaning-making" process.

Any suggestion, then, to dispense with educational requirements on the grounds that they prevent the learner from realizing his own "unique world" is illogical. Structuring a set of learning expectations in the form of requirements is quite feasible, since perception is not as unique as the authors envision and "meaning making" is hardly an adequate metaphor to characterize the full range of the learning process. The objective dimension of the learning process makes requirements psychologically workable and practical.


The sociopolitical issue, howeverwhether schooling itself should be required (compulsory), as discussed by Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society, for exampleis another question. It does not bear on the contention here, which is that there must be elements of direction in the educational process if it is to lead to mastery of such basic skills as reading and writing. Whether the process takes place at home under the tutelage of parents, in a makeshift school, or in a public school is not relevant to this point.

The irony today is that, while public schooling or an approved variant is made compulsory for the ostensible purpose of vouchsafing learning, the resultant diploma has become all too often meaningless as any reliable indication of it. For instance, a former commissioner of education a few years ago characterized the New York City high school diplomas as mere "certificates of attendance."

In the light of such a development, perhaps it would be desirable to make available the following three alternatives: (a) schooling with a sequential, core curriculum and limited electives, leading to a certificate of achievement and competency; (b) schooling with few requirements, if any, leading to a certificate of attendance; and (c) no schooling at all. At least in this way, the current widespread confusion about the significance of a high school diploma would be dispelled.

In conclusion, while alluring in its outer apparel, the "new education" on closer inspection harbors a deadly potential for generating incompetency and cultural uprootedness. Ostensibly designed for the cultivation of "whole" personalities, it has vigorously contributed to a contrary result: the proliferation of the insufficient, whose sense of being becomes correspondingly limited and fragmented as they are cut off from the mainstream of social participation.

It is impossible to conceive of the term whole as it applies to a human being without recognizing the extensive socialization it presupposesa socialization that, to be fully realized, requires the mastery of basic communication skills, including reading and writing. Proponents of the new education, such as Postman and Weingartner, fail to see that directed forms of education are crucial to the realization of personal wholeness in this complete sense. They neglect, as well, the possibility of real and meaningful inquiry existing simultaneously with a basic curriculum of requirements, and they fail to recognize in "requirements" the concern and love motivating a community to assure for the young adequate preparation for a life of capability and purpose.

To the extent that the new education encourages inquiry and affirms the uniqueness and wholeness of the individual, it has value. But to the extent that it promotes an inordinate subjectivism and thereby impedes that vital process whereby one generation imparts to the next the legacy of man's skill, achievement, culture, and inspirationto that extent, it is worthless.

Louis Segesvary is a high school teacher with the Department of Defense. He is presently assigned to Bitburg, Germany, and is concurrently a doctoral candidate in German literature at Frankfurt's Goethe University.