ANTHROPOLOGY HURTS: The anthropology of logic!


John McWhorter's (very good) kids: Friend, do you believe it? Do you believe either part of John McWhorter's rather familiar claim?

Do you believe either part of the portrait he sketched? As we noted yesterday, the first part goes like this:

MCWHORTER (9/3/21); Scientific investigators of how children learn to read have proved repeatedly that phonics works better for more children. Project Follow Through, a huge investigation in the late 1960s led by education scholar Siegfried Englemann, taught 75,000 children via the phonics-based Direct Instruction method from kindergarten through third grade at 10 sites nationwide. The results were polio-vaccine-level dramatic. At all 10 sites, 4-year-olds were reading like 8-year-olds, for example.

Friend, do you believe it? Do you believe that, in the course of "a huge investigation" way back in the late 1960s, 4-year-olds ended up reading like 8-year-olds at all ten sites nationwide?

Do you believe that happened? For various reasons, we're inclined to doubt that it did.

But also, how about this? Do you believe that public schools across the nation have simply ignored that "polio-vaccine-level" result? Do you believe that, in the face of some such results, they simply went on ignoring phonics? 

Do you believe that second claim? Because that's the second part of the picture McWhorter painted last week in his opinion column / essay for the New York Times.

Do you believe either one of those claims? Everything is possible, of course. But we aren't inclined to believe either one of those claims. 

That said, we're taking a few days off from our recent focus to discuss a painful fact—the fact that anthropology hurts. 

Increasingly, anthropology is teaching us that we humans really aren't "the rational animal!" With that in mind, let's consider a bit of somewhat non-rational conduct as McWhorter's essay unfolds.

On balance, we're fans of McWhorter's work, but we're inclined to think that he sometimes gets a bit too "cranky" (his partial self-description). This may tend to take him out over his skis, as may have happened in his essay last week.

For starters, who is John McWhorter? According to the leading authority on his life, he grew up in a highly literate home, then took things from there:

McWhorter was born and raised in Philadelphia. His father, John Hamilton McWhorter IV, was a college administrator, and his mother, Schelysture Gordon McWhorter, taught social work at Temple University. He attended Friends Select School in Philadelphia and after tenth grade was accepted to Simon's Rock College...

He ended up getting a Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford. "Since 2008, he has taught linguistics, American studies, and classes in the core curriculum program at Columbia University, where he is currently an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature."

McWhorter came from a highly literate home. He's a high academic achiever. 

Still and all, we think he's a little too "cranky" at times. In the current example, here's where that deeply hurtful anthropology comes in:

In his essay for the Times, McWhorter claims that the phonics-based Direct Instruction method works for all kids, whatever their race or their family income. "Crucially, the method works well with poor as well as affluent children," he says at one point. 

Phonics works for everyone's kids! That isn't true for the rival "whole word" method:

MCWHORTER: [The whole word method] tends to work for children from book-lined homes where reading is taught almost by osmosis by family members because print is so deeply embedded in the home culture. But for other children, the whole word method is a big gamble; they learn better by being, well, taught: sounding out words letter by letter.

The whole word method tends to work for kids from highly literate families. But Direct Instruction—featuring phonics—works for everyone's kids:

MCWHORTER: We have known how to teach Black children, including poor ones, how to read since the Johnson administration: the Direct Instruction method of phonics. In this case, Black children don’t need special materials; districts need incur no extra expenses in purchasing such things. I consider getting Direct Instruction to every Black child in the country a key plank of three in turning the corner on race in America...

McWhorter offered those assessments just last week. According to McWhorter, Direct Instruction works for everyone, including black kids from low-income or poverty backgrounds.

In theory, that could be true, of course. We can't prove that it isn't.

But this is where the pain of anthropology arrives upon the scene. It isn't just McWhorter's faith in a high-flying claim from the 1960s. It's also the anecdotal claim with which he ends his piece.

Near the end of his essay, McWhorter offers this further endorsement of the Direct Instruction method:

MCWHORTER: In our moment, as our children go back to school, pandemic-related issues are a clear priority for all of us. However, school boards should be pressured as much as possible to teach reading via the Direct Instruction method of phonics. And if they won’t, there’s what I call the magical book: “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons,” by Englemann with Phyllis Haddox and Elaine Bruner. I’ve seen this method work in my own home, having used it with both of my children and watched that light go on.

Because my favorite animal is the okapi, my youngest recently drew me a picture of one labeled “O’Copy.” (“Well, that’s how some people spell ‘o’!”) Charmingly mistaken, but clearly evidence of someone who is now engaging print well. She’s 6. Lit’racy for real—and this level of ability is normal for kids who learn the Englemann way.

We'll guess that McWhorter's kids are lucky, in various ways, in who they got for their parents. But his kids are textbook examples of kids who are growing up in "book-lined homes where reading is taught almost by osmosis by family members because print is so deeply embedded in the home culture."

For the record, their father identifies as black; according to their father, their mother identifies as white and Jewish. But their success with "the Englemann way" doesn't support the claim that everybody's 4-year-olds will jump ahead four calendar years if they just get taught with phonics.

Even anecdotally, the success of McWhorter's (very good) kids can't be used to establish his basic point. Yet there they are, at the end of his essay, offered as the final bit of evidence in support of his rather implausible two-part claim.

What does this have to do with anthropology—with the way anthropology hurts? Our answer would go like this:

McWhorter is a professor at Columbia; he's a high academic achiever. But even he swallows the sweeping claim about Direct Instruction's mammoth success without a hint of skepticism, and he closes his essay with an anecdotal example which is wholly irrelevant to his most important claim.

This is an example of the anthropology of logic (or of rationality) at the highest academic and journalistic levels. McWhorter's example doesn't make sense, but there it sits in the New York Times, offered by a Columbia professor. And this kind of bungled logic is on wide display, right here within our own blue tribe, every day of the week.

As we'll see in the next two days, the anthropology of logic is deeply hurtful—and that's even true Over Here!

The Others have basically lost their minds. That said, the hurtful examples we're going to show you will come from the stars of our own flailing tribe.

Anthropologically, it's very bad among The Others. But in the absence of the logicians, what are we like Over Here?

Tomorrow: In the absence of the logicians, Storyline typically rules


  1. "Do you believe either one of those claims? Everything is possible, of course. But we aren't inclined to believe either one of those claims."

    When there exists a specific reality, that reality is true, and it is not the case that anything can be possible.

    Somerby presents an unlikely event (that 4 yo kids in all 10 schools are reading like 8 yos). In the absence of the facts of that study, it is still not true that anything is possible because the likelihoods or probabilities of occurrence make some things more much possible than others. Further, this is not a situation involving chance in which every occurrence would have the same likelihood of occurring. It is a situation determined by many other facts in the world, making some occurrence so unlikely as to be impossible. For Somerby to say that anything is possible in such a situation is grossly misleading to the point of being ridiculous, or even constituting disinformation. Yet Somerby says something like this nearly every day.

    If Somerby really believed that anything is possible, he would have no way of making decisions. He couldn't leave his house because he might be run down by a car outside his front door. But he couldn't stay in the house either, because the house might be hit by a plane. What could he do safely? Nothing. He would be immobilized. Fortunately people do not reason that way, and neither does Somerby. But he keeps saying that anything is possible, when he obviously doesn't behave as if that were true. Why does he say it?

    My best guess at this point is that he says this in order to give license to Trumptards to believe the disinformation spread by conservatives, to further political aims of the right by encouraging people to reason like morons. If you have a better suggestion, let's hear it.

    1. Another suggestion? Consider putting your thoughts on audio book as a sleep aid.

    2. That doesn't answer the question, but if you're asleep that won't matter to you.

    3. Elba:

      Can’t say for sure, but Somerby seems to be saying that “phonics” and the “whole word” method are both legit. Keeping in mind, of course, that every child starts out learning the “phonically” way.

      How do you teach a child to say “good.” You say it. How do you phonically teach a child to say “food?” Same way.

      How do you spell the words? ‘Nother animal entirely. The phonic method is mainly for children who are learning to speak (as well as foreign-language students). Getting them to undestand the spelling (whole word) becomes another important step in their evolution, and can lead to endless delights – as long as they’re taught.

      Like almost everything else, the important questions have both answers.


    4. Esperanto always struck me as a good idea, btw.


    5. No, the phonic method is for children who are learning to read.

      There is no one here named Elba. Who are you talking to?

      There are a whole bunch of problems that do not have "both answers".

      You are talking out of your ass here. And you know nothing at all about second-language acquisition (what you call "foreign-language students". You think this is all intuitive or common sense, but there is an actual body of knowledge concerning how kids learn to read. The best way to find out about this is to (1) ask a trained reading specialist, (2) read a textbook, not a trade book selling anxious parents on a miracle approach, (3) talk to your child's teacher.

      Do you actually speak Esperanto, Leroy? If not, why do you think it is a good idea, especially given that it has never caught on?

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  2. "McWhorter is a professor at Columbia; he's a high academic achiever. But even he swallows the sweeping claim about Direct Instruction's mammoth success without a hint of skepticism..."

    But that's perfectly natural, dear Bob: eggheads, typically, are dumb. Dogmatic, and utterly lack common sense.

    And that's a well-known fact, dear Bob. You didn't have to waste so many pixels.

    1. If eggheads are dumb, there is no hope for the demonstrably dumber people like you, Mao.

    2. How are Russian children taught to read?

  3. It isn't that unreasonable that 4 year olds who are reading should read like 8 year olds nationwide. At 8, kids have barely started instruction in reading. Those who read at 4 are precocious and brighter than average. If a child has started reading at 4, why would he or she read at the same level as a child who has just started at 8? If the 8 year old had also started at 4, you would expect him or her to be ahead of the younger child, but do we know whether the comparison schools are starting kids off in reading at age 4? It seems likely they are not.

    Further, if you teach a child phonics at 4 (which is not the same as actual reading), then test 8 year olds who are reading but have never been exposed to a phonics curriculum, the 8 year olds may be unfamiliar with the phonics questions or not understand what was being expected of them, and may do poorly on such a test.

    Somerby really needs to delve into the details of what happened in the study in order to know what the results mean. From what he has written, he doesn't appear to have done that.

  4. "But even he swallows the sweeping claim about Direct Instruction's mammoth success..."

    Is anthropology the most likely explanation for McWhorter's endorsement? Do we know he didn't receive any payment for his essay (from purveyors of teaching materials like the one he specifically mentions at the end)? Perhaps he owns stock in the company or is related to the authors?

    Or perhaps McWhorter has an ideological commitment to phonics. Although reading instruction should be non-partisan, the right made it a cause and promoted it vigorously as a way to attack public schools and promote charter schools and home schooling (which is an industry). Phonics carries baggage similar to CRT and common core and back to basics and similar political causes on the right. McWhorter claims to be a grumpy liberal, but this isn't the only way in which he marches to the beat of the right's drummers.

    And then Somerby expects every academic to know everything about every field, not simply the one in which they got their doctorates and can legitimately claim expertise. McWhorter is not a K-12 teacher, does not focus on language acquisition in his research or training, and really has no greater knowledge about how kids learn to read than any other parent. His essay appeared because he is a public celebrity, not because he has the credentials to talk knowledgeably on this subject. As such, he will have no basis for critical thinking about educational claims.

    Somerby should have some basis, but the best he can come up with is that the claims seem unlikely to be true. He doesn't exert himself to actually examine the study or the method of teaching or anything else. But he isn't interested in reading instruction -- his purpose here is apparently to knock McWhorter and tear down the idea of expertise. In this he is advancing conservative goals, but that is problematic because McWhorter is himself conservative and is supporting a conservative cause (phonics). Is it possible Somerby doesn't know McWhorter's politics? Anything is possible, so I suppose it could be. Or perhaps his bigotry just takes precedence.

  5. "This is an example of the anthropology of logic (or of rationality) at the highest academic and journalistic levels."

    There is such a thing as the anthropology of logic, also called ethno-logic. It does not include the kinds of things that Somerby talks about:

    "The anthropological dimension of logic may be observed, for example, in the debates that Lévy-Bruhl's notion of “pre-logical mentality” of indigenous peoples has generated for more than a century. Anthropologists and other actors have often referred to logical skills to define the boundaries of humanity."

    Somerby is just using logic and anthropology as rhetorical devices to scold people he dislikes. He isn't seriously considering any of the ideas that arise from an anthropological or sociological examination of human reasoning and logic. That's a shame, but frankly, I don't think he is up to it.

  6. Ur, Bob, I’m not going to look a McWhorter as anything but a guy who was pushing the minstrelsy of railing against, “Ebonics” during the 90s. He had his quite nice seat in The Manhattan Institute as the AA scholar who made White pundits comfortable.


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