by Bruce Price 12/12/13
This is a story about mad scientists. A true story. In 1932, the Education Establishment forced a new, unproven reading method on American public schools (the method was known at the time as Look-say). The results were disastrous.
In 1936, an American doctor named Walter Freeman performed the first prefrontal lobotomy in the U.S. Ten years later Dr. Freeman created a more novel approach, which was called a transorbital lobotomy. He inserted a metal wire into the corner of each eye socket and swished the wire about until the prefrontal cortex was scrambled. Remarkably, this so-called “icepick lobotomy” could be done in a few minutes with local anesthesia. Freeman performed more than 3000 lobotomies, including one on Rosemary Kennedy, the president’s sister. Some patients improved; some stayed the same; some got worse or died.
The decades between the two World Wars were a time of feverish activity and experimentation in Psychology/Psychiatry and in what many took to be the related field of Education. It is not a caricature to say that the Men in White Lab Coats believed they had all the answers, and now it was time for them to take their proper place in the management of the world.[pullquote]John Watson, the American behaviorist, was famous for declaring (in 1930) that he could turn any child into anything you requested. It’s important to understand the arrogance and hubris of these people.[/pullquote]
A famous Russian named Ivan Pavlov (died 1936) was in many ways the Godfather of all these developments. Most people know that he experimented on dogs. He showed that dogs could be made to connect various stimuli. What most people do not know is that Pavlov also experimented on children, doing the same things with them that he did with dogs. Later, he experimented on adults, with different goals. Much of this is shrouded in secrecy. His concern was shock and mental disorientation. The question was, what did you have to do to break a man’s spirit? How could you most quickly render a person insane? It should be noted that the Communist government was ideologically materialist. Humans were only flesh and nerves. The Russian government was eager to pursue any research that could find better ways to transform people or defeat them.
In general, the Russians wrote the book on psychological warfare and brainwashing. You can see the early results in various Moscow show trials (1936 and later), when Bolshevik heroes abjectly confessed to crimes against everything they believed in. The Russians had a vast prison system, known as the gulag, where scientists could conduct secret research on what would most quickly demoralize people. Hunger? Cold? Torture? Drugs? The Communists used all of their tricks and techniques on captured Americans in the Korean War, circa 1951-1953, and succeeded in turning large numbers into apologists and traitors.
John Watson, the American behaviorist, was famous for declaring (in 1930) that he could turn any child into anything you requested. It’s important to understand the arrogance and hubris of these people. They had their rats in mazes, their sweeping theories, and they were eager to jump from their theories to concrete activity.
Here is some interesting history from a doctoral dissertation by Benjamin Zajicek:
“In 1935 fever therapy was eclipsed by the introduction of an important new method of biological treatment, shock therapy. The introduction of metrozol shock therapy in 1935 inaugurated an intense period of experimentation in European psychiatry, a period that lasted from roughly 1935 to 1952, when the first antipsychotic drugs were introduced. The term ‘shock therapy’ is really a misnomer. Metrazol was a drug similar to camphor that was injected into patients to produce convulsions similar to those seen in people with epilepsy…Italian psychiatrists began inducing seizures by applying electricity to the brain in 1938. Along the way, psychiatrists experimented with almost every other imaginable substance that could be injected into the body to induce seizures. (In the Soviet Union, for instance, psychiatrists sometimes intentionally injected their patients with blood of an incompatible type.) Finally, in the midst of this experimentation with shock therapy, Portuguese psychiatrist Egaz Moniz (1874-1955) announced that he had found a way to cure some forms of insanity by operating directly on the brain. The ‘prefrontal leucotomy’ and its more common American cousin, the lobotomy, arguably became the most notorious method of medical treatment in the twentieth century. Moniz went on to win the Nobel Prize in medicine for his achievement in 1949.”
I mention all these things to give you a feeling of the times, the zeitgeist, which was hyper-scientific, relentless, cold-blooded. Meanwhile, political extremism was the norm. Many agreed on one point: the ends, scientific or ideological, did justify the means. Just imagine all this aggressive research going on at hundreds of laboratories (and mental asylums) around the world. Everybody had a new theory to prove, everyone wanted to score a breakthrough that would forever change how we understood our species. The essential belief was that if you poked a person in just the right way, that person would exhibit a predicted response. This one-idea-will-explain-everything mentality naturally flowed into Education, which was very concerned, thanks to John Dewey’s influence, with socializing children, as opposed to educating them.
As I studied Look-say (later known as Whole Word, Sight Words, Whole Language, and many other names), I often had the sense that it was comparable to a lobotomy in disrupting normal cognitive development. This statement certainly cannot be considered rash given that our country has 50,000,000 functional illiterates.
Despite all the promises and claims, Whole Word never actually worked. That was obvious even by 1955, the year Rudolf Flesch wrote his famous book about why Johnny can’t read. So the practical results were dismal; Flesch explained why; but the elite educators still worshipped their failed god.
Just as shocking, the theoretical basis for this method was always very flimsy. In an odd way it was an offshoot of Pavlov’s work on conditioned reflexes. It was akin to John Watson and B. F. Skinner saying they can control everything by the conditioning a person receives. In some weird way, words on the page were to be the stimuli; when the child said, “See Dick run,” this was the response. There actually seemed to be the feeling that learning to read English would be an extended version of teaching chickens to press certain levers to get kernels of corn.[pullquote]This one-idea-will-explain-everything mentality naturally flowed into Education, which was very concerned, thanks to John Dewey’s influence, with socializing children, as opposed to educating them.[/pullquote]
I remember thinking, when I first became aware of this theory, that for it to work there would have to be a reward after almost every word. Otherwise, you don’t have the reinforcement that textbook stimulus-response demands. Somehow there would be a dispenser that gives you a piece of candy when you read the sentence correctly. Isn’t this ludicrous on the face of it?
So Pavlov — and remember this man was a brilliant surgeon who inserted tubes into the jaws of dogs (and children) so that he could measure their saliva — is really the guiding spirit behind stimulus-response and Look-say. (It seems to me clear that any animal above a shrimp can connect various stimuli, so I think Pavlov’s results were vastly exaggerated.) Even if his discoveries were valuable, a scientific lab is very small and constrained; you wouldn’t think that anybody would try to extrapolate from that tiny controlled arena to the vast cosmos of language. But our Education Establishment surely tried.
That’s the thing we see, as we watch Dr. Freeman stick an icepick into a person’s eye socket: these scientists were willing to take great leaps of experimental faith. The creed, spoken or unspoken, is always this: we must take bold steps if we are to bring science and reason to this benighted planet. So we see that Dr. Freeman, like Pavlov, is a blood brother to the high priests of Look-say. (By the way, the Russians knew from their own bitter experience with Whole Word, roughly 1920-1931, that it didn’t work at all. If those clever schemers pushed this hoax on us, it wouldn’t surprise me. Then these “high priests” were not so much dunces as traitors.)
Is it fair to mention lobotomy and Whole Word in the same sentence? Well, first of all, let us note that the brain is exceedingly complex; and when you poke it, you can’t be sure what you will get, as Dr. Freeman found out again and again. In the case of Look-say, its effect on many people would seem to be simple illiteracy, almost as if they were simply never taught anything. But at a deeper level, their brains have been successfully inoculated against language. Decades later, these victims still marvel that other people can read books for pleasure. These illiterates, stuck with a holistic (whole-word) reflect, assume that reading is an odd gift, much like perfect pitch. Some have it, some don’t; there’s nothing you can do. So yes, these people have been “lobotomized” in a non-surgical way that makes reading impossible.
There’s a second set of victims, who wind up with results that are even more dramatic. This condition is called dyslexia. Here you find very elaborate confusion, where the words appear backward or they seem to move on the page. Encountering what dyslexics say about learning to read is a twilight-zone experience. A young woman wrote this to me: “Then he pointed to another word, and asked me if I knew that word, but I didn’t. I could not tell what letters they were, and then there was no sound or meaning in the word. It was an empty word then…but he showed me, he wrote it on a paper, and I knew the word then. I know it well… When I say that the font changes are very difficult for me, I mean that strictly in a visual way. Not from sight words, but because the letters do move, or turn, and if they are touching, or close to touching…then I cannot see them clearly, to find their sound.” Possibly she was born with a defect; more probably, according to every phonics expert, Whole Word is the culprit.
Furthermore, when children reach roughly age seven and realize that they can’t read, that they’re falling behind their friends, and that they are defective in some way, they begin to exhibit many unfortunate behaviors. The psychiatric community is only too eager to treat these behaviors with powerful psychiatric drugs. And so you find another kind of lobotomy, that caused by too many years of Ritalin.[pullquote]The creed, spoken or unspoken, is always this: we must take bold steps if we are to bring science and reason to this benighted planet. So we see that Dr. Freeman, like Pavlov, is a blood brother to the high priests of Look-say.[/pullquote]
My own sense is that Whole Word and Ritalin are not cures, but causes of more problems. At the very least, children should be given a steady diet of phonics and exercise. First, find out if these work. Phonics tutors always report renewed self-confidence, with a dramatic drop in undesirable behaviors.
In the 1950s Dr. Freeman was forced to abandon his approach. Look-say (now known by a half-dozen names) survived as the dominant method until almost the end of the century, and even now survives in what our Education Establishment calls Balanced Literacy. My sense is there is nothing balanced about it at all. If you mix dirty water with clean water, you don’t call the mixture a balanced beverage. This so-called Balanced Literacy is a strategic ploy for retaining some of the worst aspects of Look-say, namely, that little children are forced to memorize graphic designs (i.e., sight-words) as a passport into reading. As many children can never memorize more than 100 or 200 sight-words, in fact, reading is forever forbidden to them. Brain-warping effects are what they get instead.
The 1930s, unfortunately for all of us, were a maelstrom of reckless, unabashed scientism, and an equally reckless ideology in politics and education. I suspect that one of the mutants bred from these excesses was Whole Word.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org • (2267 views)