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Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Thursday, August 23, 2001

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These are two short essays, presented together for reasons that will be clear when you finish reading them.


I wrote the following disquisition on DYSLEXIA as a contribution to a discussion group; it seems to have survived some criticism by people I respect. It's not really a stand-alone essay but it's close enough. The original topic was why dyslexia was not bred out of the human race (Greg Cochran is part of the discussion group). There had been some speculation on what advantage if any dyslexia might confer in a non-reading society.


The first thing is to agree on what "dyslexia" "is". In our reading consulting work "dyslexic" means a child that the local public school could not teach to read. The local school is likely to be using some "modern" system of "whole language" instruction that does not involve systematic phonics and considers systematic instruction to be "drill and kill". 

(It would be amusing to see how well inability to do math correlates with the diagnosis of dyslexia; many schools no longer require the addition and multiplication tables to be memorized by rote, greatly slowing the arithmetical progress of the students; such schools tend also to non-systematic "reading" instruction, treating English as an ideographic language. That produces a lot more 'dyslexics' than do schools that use 'drill and kill' systematic phonics and 'sound it out' instruction.)

The people I have known who are truly dyslexic - who really and truly have problems seeing the difference between dog and god, bod and dob, and other conventional reversal letters - have tended to have other neurological problems, and I cannot think any of that is an advantage. In at least two cases the aetiology is birth trauma; I don't say there might not also have been an hereditary element, but the simple explanation is that they were damaged by forceps delivery.

True dyslexia is quite rare. There are pseudo dyslexias, that are fairly easily overcome by training pupils to use alternate sensory modalities, such as 'writing it in the air', and even saying the word one letter at a time before trying to decode it. And of course there were dozens of cases of dyslexia cured in my wife's school by giving the kids spectacles: they were so astigmatic that it was no wonder they couldn't read. They couldn't see the letters.

The usual 'dyslexic' is a kid the teacher gave up on, and may or may not have any systematic neurological problems. So before you erect a theory of the natural advantages to dyslexia, think on a definition of what dyslexia 'is' and how you diagnose it. For more on reading, see my wife's web site.

Lionel Tiger then asked if I "would turn my laser" on ADD, and this was the result:

Well, I have less expertise on ADD than "dyslexia" simply because it hardly existed when we were active in correcting "learning problems" (which now seem to be "learning disorders"). So far as I can tell, a great number of the cases of ADD translate into "In school while being a normal boy", i.e., "we're having trouble teaching this kid self-control, we're not allowed to whack him a few as they did to you when you were an unruly kid in Capleville, so we are going to drug hell out of him."

 Having raised four boys to manhood without losing any to the police, drugs, or madness, and without having drugged any of them, I can tell you that boys need a heck of a lot of imposed disciple so that they can learn self-discipline; something that I am sure comes as no surprise to an anthropologist but seems to be a major shock to most of those in the "social sciences" and "human sciences". I have noticed that a lot of bright kids are drugged as ADD, and they become a great deal tamer, but they also lose a lot of what we prize bright kids for.

When they integrated my wife's school (a county detention school formerly all girls) she got a lot of boys who would be diagnosed as ADD today, but the County didn't at that time believe in drugging its wards and tried not to do it. She managed to teach them without drugs.

I do not know of a good unbiased study of ADD. I know of thousands whose conclusions were known before the study was done, or which use such sloppy methodology that no conclusion could be drawn. It's a hard experiment to design; but is it reasonable to assume that in 30 years we have gone from an unrecognized problem to one requiring us to drug over 20% of the boys in school? It does not seem reasonable to me.

I do know that it is a lot easier to drug kids than it is to teach them self-discipline. I also suspect that the threat (with actuality if needed but the threat is usually sufficient) of corporal punishment seems to help a lot in teaching self-discipline: the kids need something to be afraid of. When I was young we were seldom beaten whipped or otherwise struck, but we were somewhat afraid of it, and more, we could use that fear with our peers: "I'd love to do that with you but my folks would beat me to a pulp." Of course they wouldn't beat me to a pulp, but by putting forth something we all legitimately feared, we had a good reason not to put bags of burning dog-turds on the neighbor's front porch and do other things that we thought would be a very good thing to do except that the consequences would be severe. And "being grounded" wasn't a big threat at least not in WW II when it wasn't possible to "ground" farm kids, and in high school when few of us had cars or access to cars in the first place.

I suspect but can't prove that the explosion in cases of ADD correlates with the total abandonment of corporal punishment for boys (and yes I know that this sort of thing can be over-done. I have read Tom Brown's School Days and other such stories; I can only say that in my time we were terrified of the Sisters in early grades, the teachers in middle school, and the Brothers in high school, but I know of no one actually harmed by these "child abusers"...)

And I don't need abusive letters from psychiatrists who seem to think I want nothing more than a chance to flog children. My point was that teaching self-discipline requires a credible and effective deterrent to the behavior you are trying to get them to extinguish. Mere withdrawal of privileges and rewards is sometimes effective but not often. Kids know what you will and will not do. Also, punishments that require a great deal of wasted time are time wasters, while assigning academic work as punishment is very likely to teach an obvious lesson we don't want taught. A whack with a wide belt or ping pong paddle is mildly painful but no more so than boys get daily in their normal course of life; it is over with swiftly; and it is credible.

Let me emphasize again: teaching self-discipline is work for both the teacher and the pupil. It is one of the hardest lessons for bright, active, young boys to learn. It is also one of the most important. Drugging them does not teach them much other than lessons about drugs; it certainly does not teach mastery of urges.

I have no magic solution to this, but my wife tells me that in LA County at least the drug companies are getting rich, more than a quarter of the kids are drugged, and the situation is getting worse, not better.

And from a reader:

I just finished reading your pages on Dyslexia and ADD. Thought I'd add a bit more fuel to the fire...

My mother is a degreed reading specialist and former teacher. Note the FORMER. She got out of teaching years ago when she realized that the educational bureaucracy was mainly in it because they could not teach. Her last teaching job, she was fired for being too effective. How so? Because she used non-traditional methods to get kids to read. Main thing she found was actually getting them interested, so she stole my comic books when I was a kid. I may forgive her someday. Anyway, she found very few true dyslexics, and only occasionally what you called pseudo dyslexia's. Those usually took a couple of hours to find, and about 1 hour to teach kids alternatives. An interesting case in point is my wife. She had a tendency to reverse numbers. Still does. My mother found it in about 30 minutes of diagnostic testing, told her to read large print and gave her a fresnel lens style magnifying glass. Problem solved. Note, my wife had successfully graduated from college with this pseudo dyslexia.

The other point was the ADD. My eldest son has severe ADHD. Now, before you shut off the rest of my discussion, he has a number of other neurological problems that go with "true ADD". We resisted this diagnosis for over a year precisely because I do believe that most kids are drugged into compliance. Were it not for the other neurological symptoms (such as a palsy in his hands, a tic with his tongue, and hypertension of certain muscles) doubtless we would continue to resist. All that is to say that there is an ADD & education industry devoted to making money off these kids. Parents should be VERY leary of drugging their kids without a competent evaluation from a pediatric neurologist specializing in ADD & related disorders.

Teachers asked us to drug #2 son. Politely told them to go to hell.