It is a marvelous gift, being
able to read, and to be able to share, and discover the works of other
minds. It's an almost magical thing, really. Indeed, the illiterate masses
of centuries ago thought the written word to be a magical thing, which
is where the idea of the rune came from. It is a shame that so many of
our self appointed betters consider this to be a gift too valuable to share.
Of course, sharing has never been a big part of the philosophy of those who
presume to exercise power over the lives of the rest of us. Reading is
so basic, that those who can not reason, or read, are dependent upon those
If knowledge is power, then an inability to read at
a reasonable level so as to be able to access knowledge, and to record experiences
reduces us to a level of powerlessness. This is the reason why, back when
there was still salvery in this country, it was illegal to teach slaves
how to read. This was a more certain and powerful method to gaurantee inferiority
and servitude than any chains, laws, or shackles. It remains so today. We
are once again reaching a point where we have illiterate masses who hold
in awe, the powers of their betters to be able to decipher the magic runes
of the written word. The whole word method, at best, gives just enough ability
to be marginally usefull, but not enough to excell, or to become a competitor,
a threat, or to rise much in life. It is the twilight zone of reading. At
it's worst, the whole word method confers total illetaracy, even after years
of effort and study by children, or adults.
The use of whole word reading instruction is obviously
destructive to literacy, but I wonder if it might also be destructive
to mental flexibility, and to perception, by changing the way that our
minds process information. There may be more to it than a simple loss
of a critical ability. It may be that in shaping, organizing, and forming
our minds to the task of reading, we may be shaping and enhancing other mental
abilities as well. To see how this might be true, it is instructive to look
at the differences in cultural outlook between the very dynamic, and successful
occidental cultures, and the comparatively (until recently, when they were
flooded with occidental influences) stagnant Oriental cultures.
One of the things which has often confused, and mystified
people who look at history or at comparative cultures, is the way that the
Chinese, and other eastern cultures seem to have reached high levels of
sophistication, and organization, and yet never achieved the type of progress
and dominance acomplished by the west. This despite the early Chinese invention
of printing, the rudder, the compass, and steel, as well as arab advances
in litteracy, math, and number systems. The west, by comparison, seemed
to be little more than the constantly warring barbarian residue, left over
after the collapse of Rome.
It seems to me that one
of the reasons for the success of the west, maybe the entire reason, is
the way we break things down, take them apart, and see how they work. A
side effect of this process, is the ability to reassemble these parts of
things into different structures than those we originally had. We have a
special name for this reassembly; we call it innovation (some call it progress).
Oriental cultures, traditionally, did not think this way. They had a more
passive outlook, and a more holistic way of looking at things. This was the
philosophy of Tau, Zen, Ying and Yang. This holistic outlook, though useful
in some instances, did not really allow for the concept of deconstruction,
and reconstruction. This outlook seemed to be social, as well as mechanical.
In contrast, there is a presumption in Western thought, to be able to understand,
and influence the world, and even the universe, around us.
We probably got much of
this through Christianity. Unlike the Oriental outlook, the Christian and
Jewish influenced western outlook does not teach the oneness of the universe.
Instead, we see the universe as an object, or more accurately, as a series
of objects, discreetly created by an individual being. Christianity teaches
right, wrong, and the concept of justice, but it does not embrace the concept
of balance in the Oriental sense. The Oriental oneness of the universe,
requires balance, the discreet creations filling the Christian universe,
do not. In theory, the balance of the Oriental universe, would require an
act of goodness to be balanced somewhere, by a corresponding act of badness.
The Christian universe requires no such thing, with good, evil, and whatever
else, existing independently of each other, as matters of individual free
will. Christianity taught the idea of accountability; you get what
you deserve. The Oriental oneness of the universe infers that you get what
you are meant to have, independent of any personal control. The Christian
universe allows for, and even requires, self determination; the Oriental
universe, by implication, does not, and even discourages an attempt at such
a thing. In addition to negating the ideas of progress, and free will, the
idea of oneness stresses the futility of questioning, or of attempts at examining
the mechanics of how things work.
One great example of this
is the eastern story of the blind men and elephant. Every man touches a
different part of the elephant, and perceives it's nature differently. Though
most westerners are familiar with the story, it expresses the traditional
Oriental attitude, that it is pointless to try and reach an understanding
of anything, by an examination of individual components. It also shows a
certain single mindedness, as if none of the blind men would be able to familiarize
himself with more than one part of the elephant, being locked into the concept
of the oneness of the elephant.
These cultural concepts
extend to written language. As with everything else, we in the west started
taking words apart, mechanically, in an attempt to see how they work.
We broke them up into their component parts, their sounds, and reassembled
them as written words. The oriental way of setting words down, in accordance
with the general holistic outlook, is to leave words intact, and give each
it's own unique whole symbol. This severely limited the numbers of people
who could devote the time required to become literate, to a small elite.
The inferiority of the illiterate masses tended to reinforce their docility
and the sense of place which was already a part of the culture. Independant
individuals had no place here, nor did ideas of advancement, and self determination.
Westerners were numerically
inferior, and were crammed into a little continent hanging off the edge
of Asia. They had nothing like the resources of the east, and were always
at war with each other. Yet they did have the idea of independence, self
reliance, and a forward looking, hard edged view of the universe. With
the development of these simple, but powerful tools, they took over the
world. This was the triumph of the self determined individual over the
selfless member of the herd. This is, incidentally, a historical refutation
of the mantra of modern business, that teamwork and conformity are everything.
This is an idea which, if you recall, we most recently took from the Japanese,
though in truth, it has been introduced at various times in American history,
with differing degrees of success. This runs counter to the outlook that
gave the west it's power. The traditional Western outlook embraced the idea
that the whole could be understood by gaining an understanding of it's parts.
In turn these parts, once understood, could be manipulated in a way to influence
the whole. This is really the basis of most of modern engineering, and
science. This idea that the parts can influence the whole, can be extended
to the idea of the individual being a free agent in society, and influencing
things on his own.
It may be that, when we
teach the holistic style of reading as embodied in the whole word method,
we are changing more than just the way a person reads words off of a page.
Since we use language to order our perceptions, and to do much of our intellectual
work, our concept of it greatly influences our manner of thinking. I think
that the historical examples of the rise of the West, and the concurrent
stagnation of the East clearly illustrate the limiting effect of the holistic
outlook. It is interesting to note that the Japanese and Chinese are going
to phonetic alphabets, even as some here in the West seem bent on forcing
upon us, our own whole word version of oriental ideograms. Though destructive
enough on it's own, this change of approach in reading, when combined with
the other "progressive" initiatives, removes the patterns of thought that
gave the West it's unique power in the world. So besides hurting a child's
reading abilities, we are also hurting that same child's reasoning abilities,
and independence by teaching a holistic style, in which we can not recombine
to make new structures, either in reading or in reasoning, but are limited
to only those we have been shown. This limits exploratory powers, and severely
limits creative abilities.