TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2021
Do you believe this happened?: Like love, anthropology hurts.
That said, it also teaches. According to leading scholars in the field, anthropology teaches us that we humans pretty much aren't "the rational animal."
In the western tradition, we'd always been taught that we were. Anthropology says that we basically aren't. For a recent example, consider:
At present, by journalistic convention, it's back-to-school time in the United States. Perhaps for that reason, John McWhorter has offered an essay about the best way to teach kids to read.
Does some such "best way" really exist? We wouldn't assume that it does.
That said, McWhorter feels sure that instruction in phonics works better, for more children, than the so-called "whole word" method. In this passage, he starts by defining the dueling approaches:
MCWHORTER (9/3/21): A popular strain in the education world has it that English’s spelling is so bad that there’s no point in teaching children how to sound out words letter by letter. Rather, they should learn to recognize whole words at a time by the general look of them: the whole word method.
And that may be the way you learned to read. It 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.
In a word, phonics...
With instruction in phonics, kids are taught to "sound out words." With "the whole word method," kids are encouraged to recognize whole words—including the many irregular words which they pretty much can't "sound out."
As he continues, McWhorter speaks up in favor of phonics. Most strikingly, he revisits a long-standing claim about a long-ago miracle cure:
MCWHORTER: In a word, phonics...
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 that claim? Do you believe that actually happened?
In that passage, McWhorter describes a "dramatic," "polio-vaccine-level" cure for our reading woes. But friend, do you believe it?
Do you believe that, in the late 1960s, "a huge investigation" ended with "4-year-olds reading like 8-year-olds" at all ten sites nationwide? Do you believe that happened?
Everything is possible, of course. But for reasons we've described many times, we can't say we're ready to swear that any such thing really happened.
More to the point, do you believe that those miracle results were recorded in the course of "a huge investigation" but, more than fifty years later, that finding has had little or no effect on the way reading is taught across the United States?
Friend, do you believe that? Do you believe that no one reacted to the spectacle of "4-year-olds reading like 8-year-olds" in ten out of ten research sites? That everyone has just plowed ahead, as if no such thing ever happened?
Sadly, we'll acknowledge that some such thing is possible. In a way, that helps establish anthropology's hurtful point!
For ourselves, we're not strongly inclined to believe that any such "polio-level" miracle event ever happened. In our experience, claims of public school miracle cures have routinely turned out to be fraudulent, bogus, false.
It has happened again and again and again. In this particular area, there's been a whole lot of Bogus out there!
That doesn't mean that this particular miracle cure didn't actually happen. But it doesn't seem to have crossed McWhorter's mind that the polio-level event he's describing, followed by nationwide indifference, may not have really occurred.
McWhorter read about that miracle outcome, and it seems he simply assumed that it must have taken place. We'd grade him way down on points for that, but anthropology makes it clear that we humans tends to reason in such imperfect ways.
Man [sic] is the rational animal, we've long told ourselves in the west. Increasingly, anthropology teaches us that this has never been so.
The later Wittgenstein's work can be seen as a highly specialized part of that process—of the process by which we've been shown that our highly self-impressed species just isn't deeply rational at its core after all.
According to Professor Horwich, the later Wittgenstein taught that high-end academic philosophy had long concerned itself with "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking." By that account, our most exalted high-end thinkers hadn't been successfully "rational" at all!
Let's leave that aside for now. In the next few days, let's briefly turn to the here and now—especially to the here and now as practiced by our own blue tribe here in our own blue towns.
We'd give McWhorter a failing grade for his highly credulous column concerning that miracle cure. At the same time, we'd give him a very high grade for the essay he wrote, in July of last year, about the antiracism theoretics of Robin DiAngelo, a major star in our towns.
Wherever Franklin D. Roosevelt looked, he saw "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." Wherever we look today, we see a blue tribe which is reasoning very poorly, and perhaps counterproductively, concerning issues of gender and race.
DiAngelo and Blow, oh my! But also, the latest on Gawker—and our blue tribe's war-inclined commenters!
We encountered this stuff all weekend long. The highly jumbled later Wittgenstein seemed to be lurking nearby.
Tomorrow: Charles Blow spots the Klan