WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 2021
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