Suddenly — dreadfully — she wakes up. What has happened? Something dreadful has happened. No — nothing has happened. It is only the wind shaking the house, rattling the windows, banging a piece of iron on the roof and making her bed tremble. Leaves flutter past the window, up and away; down in the avenue a whole newspaper wags in the air like a lost kite and falls, spiked on a pine tree. It is cold. Summer is over — it is autumn — everything is ugly. The carts rattle by, swinging from side to side; two Chinamen lollop along under their wooden yokes with the straining vegetable baskets — their pigtails and blue blouses fly out in the wind. A white dog with three legs yelps past the gate. It is all over! What is? Oh, everything! And she begins to plait her hair with shaking fingers, not daring to look in the glass. Mother was talking to grandmother in the hall.
These are the first lines from a short story, “The Wind Blows,” by Katherine Mansfield, which lets us enter Matilda’s piano lesson on a windy day and join in a walk along a breeze-swept esplanade. The best story in the English language, my old Shakespeare professor at UT said.
You have entered into this poetic text by a reflex. This automatic action is the act of reading in which eye, ear and mind work together to blow you along the lines as if you, too, were in the story (which, I daresay, you are, if you love literature).
The reading mystery explained
Reading is a gift that is easily taught to people between 4 and 13 years old, something that can be grasped in a few hours, with a little practice. The reading crisis in the U.S. has been decades in the making, with millions left illiterate under its benefits. In Detroit, 47 percent of adults are “functionally illiterate.”
This loss of reading among the people is arrived at by the rejection of phonics instruction in the teaching of reading. Ordinarily, your children learn to read by connecting each letter of the alphabet with a sound. They learn to connect a series of sounds to make short words, then longer ones. You fly through a Katherine Mansfield story by a glorious and rapid reflex of eye and “the mind’s ear” that hears the stream of narrative and enters it imaginatively (something no animal can do).
The modern method of teaching reading blunts that phonetic reflex and and replaces it with what Sam Blumenfeld calls a holistic reflex. By converting a sequence of letters that comprise a word into a pictogram or a word-picture (as in Chinese), the modern whole-word or look-say method of reading instruction causes a disorganization in the human behavior. The blunting of reflexes, in animals, is a sort of neurosis. Seeing words as pictures develops a holistic reflex or habit that becomes a block against seeing our alphabetic words in their phonetic structure. Reading is a learned reflex, says Samuel Blumenfeld, whose phonics reader my wife, Jeannette, and I used with our four children. Teaching children to view words as pictures prevents automaticity of reflex, and by second or third grade brings to the student what we call dyslexia, an ailment unknown before the behavior school of psychology got a hold of the educational establishment.
“[T]he correct reflex to develop is a phonetic reflex,” Mr. Blumenfeld says, “which is acquired by learning the letter sounds and being drilled sufficiently in the consonant-vowel combinations, so that the child learns to see the phonetic structure of a word and can automatically sound out the word by articulating each syllabic unit. In other words, the child automatically associates the letters with sounds. When that phonetic reflex is developed, reading becomes easy, fluent, and enjoyable” (“Creating Dyslexia: It’s as Easy as Pie,” in Revolution).
Our automaticity has been blunted; can we sharpen ourselves?
Mr. Blumenfeld and Rudolph Flesch (Why Johnny Can’t Read, and What You Can Do About It) worked in the 1960s through the 1980s to interest public school authorities in the solution to the reading disaster, with limited success. The analphabetization of the American student, it should be understood, is public policy and not a mistake. Research in the 1920s showed that the whole-word method causes what Mr. Blumenfeld calls “a collision of reflexes” no later than the third grade. But many pedagogues saw an advantage in this lack, as they wanted to create a new sort of man subtle in his obedience, democratic spirit and suggestibility.
In many areas public schools make complex what is simple, and draw out over a semester ideas or means that can be learned in a week. Subjects easily entered into are thrown this into a great distance. Let’s ask ourselves if this learned inability in dyslexia might be a picture of other areas of modern existence.
Could it be a picture of how world systems keep us from liberties beyond those claimed by the soul who has read Katherine Mansfield or Murray Rothbard, the libertarian? Have we been taught to struggle where we should fly, to dodge left when we should leap ahead, to hesitate when we should fling forward, to take cover in a trench when we should advance, blazing away?
One area the world systems hurt us is the fear of man. “The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord shall be safe,” the God assures us in Proverbs 29:25. Another is confidence in lordly men. “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes,” Psalm 118:9.
A third confusion I wish to propose touches the area of local economy. We ignore the way God made us physically, to dwell in time and place. This overlooked fact is the reason we can be assured that lococentrism is part of the fabric of reality. I don’t want to suggest that not being a provincialist is a sin. But self-conscious lococentrism — in a day of the fromless and placeless Internet and national salvation governments — may keep us from being tempted to sin. Lococentrism may be part of a grid of ideas that spares us the fear of men and the obverse of that sin, confidence in princes.
If we consciously build an identification with our hometown — from wherever we may be —we can see more clearly, we might be able to read the story that the nearby hills, the river not far off, are telling us.
Sam Blumenfeld, Revolution via Education and Other Essays (Vallecito, Calif.: Chalcedon, 2009), 178 pp. An excellent overview of the public school mess that the Common Core takeover of state systems will not cure.
Sam Blumenfeld, The New Illiterates and How to Keep Your Child from Becoming One (Boise, Id.: Paradigm, 1988, 1973), 358 pp
Sam Blumenfeld, NEA, Trojan Horse in American Education (Boise, Id.: Paradigm, 1984), 284 pp. I first read this book in Switzerland, where I had gone to live and never come back. Mr. Blumenfeld’s work helped convince me to bend my life toward journalism and Christian ministry together.
Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read, and What You Can Do About It (New York: Harper & Row, 1983, 1955), 222 pp. Dr. Flesch’s The Art of Plain Talk develops his concept of the fog factor in bad writing.
Katherine Mansfield, ed. John Middleton Murray, Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (London: Constable & Co., 1920), 793 pp. Mansfield is my favorite short-story writer and is called a literary impressionist. She specializes in a breathtaking narratorless dramatic style that is remarkably female and perceptive. Her work was, for me, an epiphany.