Phonics, Geographics ‘Mankind’, and survival

View 750 Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I had finished the editorials and news and was thumbing through the entertainment section of the LA Times when my attention was drawn by a photograph of Spartan soldiers, which attracted me to read a review of a new TV series by National Geographic: Mankind: The Story of All of Us. The series begins tonight at 9PM. Oliver Stone will do his liberal view of about 75 years iof US History in 10 hours. The Geographic will manage to tell the story of mankind from the Big Bang To present. We weren’t around for a long time after the Big Bang, so the story starts with hunters in the grasslands of East Africa.

I haven’t seen the series, but the reviewer says “As with ‘the Story of Us’, ‘Mankind’ with its emphasis on battles, weapons and gadgetry, is clearly aimed at engaging the easily distracted preteen male.” It will be interesting to see which battles National Geographic considers decisive in the history of mankind. As long time readers will recall, I recommend Fletcher Pratt’s Battles that Changed History as one of the best overview summaries of the history of Western Civilization, in part because of his essays on why obscure battles like the Nike Sedition in Constantinople, and Las Navas de Tolosa in southern Spain were selected over the better known battles of Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World which I also recommend. (I also recommend that you read Pratt first, but that’s not terribly important – I read Creasy before I ever heard of Pratt. But Creasy concentrates more on the battles; Pratt embeds the battle into its times, and that can be important.) I suspect the Geographic series will draw heavily on Creasy. Most lecture series of this kind do so.

That, however, isn’t what intrigued me about this upcoming history series. The review continues “There is no way to tell the history of mankind in a dozen hours of television without resorting to absurdities, which here include having “experts” explain how terrible cold and hunger can be, how difficult it was to build the pyramids, how dangerous bandits were and how the invention of the alphabet made it easier to learn how to read.”

Given the state of historical knowledge – abysmal – stretching from the White House and Cabinet through many level of University scholars and down into the public school system, even I am not at all convinced that it is absurd to explain to young American people how terrible cold and hunger can be. We have immigrant children who know these truths in their bones, but the middle class American teen agers who watch the National Geographic Channel are not likely to have experienced such things at first hand. More, concentration on battles and military history cannot be a bad thing. I suspect that “Mankind” will not show the crucial scene in the education of Alexander of Macedon (not yet The Great) who as a teenager was sent with one of Phillip’s marshals with a small force to deal with insurgents and raids on the frontier. On the way they encountered a stream of refugees, young people, women well raped, carrying everything they had as the fled toward the order represented by King Phillip. The old marshal pointed to the stream of misery and said “That is defeat. Avoid it.” Alexander remembered that all his life. It is a lesson every free person should learn.

But that was not the phrase that attracted my attention to this review.

Reviewer Mary McNamara, the Times Television Critic, may think it absurd to have to explain to viewers that the invention of the alphabet made it easier to learn how to read, but I can guarantee you that a very great number of professors of education – and tens of thousands of their students who have become teachers – have never given that idea much thought. Until not very long ago California public schools, like those in many other states, discouraged the teaching of phonics in first grade. They taught “whole word” reading, which is essentially reading as if there were no alphabet. Words are presented as if they were icons. The notion is that one learns to read by word recognition. This bypasses the ‘decoding’ of words by ‘sounding them out’ and thus makes for faster and smoother reading. This is, after all, the way good readers read. There is a lot of research data proving that. So why teach the painful process of word attack, phonics, syllables and sounding out? Better to teach children to read well. Alphabets are all very well, but the important thing is to learn to read words and understand them.

The results were disastrous and California has never recovered from this. School readers had to be revised for ‘grade level’, meaning that stories like Ruskin’s King of the Golden River, poems like Longfellow’s Skeleton in Armor and Macaulay’s Horatius at the Bridge, short stories like The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, many stories by Steven Vincent and Rosemary Benet, all of which were taught by 7th grade in Capleville Consolidated in the 1930’s to farm children, vanished in favor of Dick and Jane and the whole parade of vocabulary controlled junk written specifically for grade schools. The first words of the McGuffy Reader which served America for generations were “No man can put off the Law of God.” The first words of the Soviet first grade readers were “For the joys of childhood we thank our native land.” The first words of a most widely used first grade reader in the United States during the height of the look-say period were “’See Spot run.’ said Jane. ‘Run Spot run.’”

Worse than the sacrifice of literature to banality was the plunging literacy rate. And worst of all was the loss of continuity: with no professor of education teaching phonics, no new teachers learned to teach that English is a phonetic language, and the whole notion of teaching reading through phonetics and teaching children to ‘sound out’ words was pretty well lost. Since professors of education have tenure, replacing those who believed in look say (and clearly didn’t understand phonics) takes a long time – and in many cases is being resisted because those tenured professors don’t want to bring in new professors who know the old goons to be culpable ignorami.

Incidentally, for those who don’t know: of course a study of people who are good readers will not reveal many who ‘sound out’ words. Almost no one reading this exposition will read that way, until he encounters polyethyldimethyltoluene, and depending on reading habits more common words that may be unfamiliar. One may or may not be able to read quaggas at a glance, although if the book in question is a history of large South African mammals it will be encountered often enough to become part of the recognition vocabulary, just as Hannibal and Punic will become familiar to those reading Roman history. On the other hand, those who know phonics will be able to read both those words. They will also be able to read many others they may have heard in conversation but have never seen in print. And of course they will encounter words they have never heard before, and must infer their meaning from context or by looking them up or asking a teacher. It’s a lot easier to ask the meaning of a word one can say. **

I don’t suppose that the National Geographic explanation of how the alphabet allowed more people to learn to read will much change the world, but there is a potential there. The problem here is that smart children often figure phonics out for themselves, but since they have never been taught the principles they don’t learn them all. My wife’s reading program requires seventy half hour lessons to go through English phonics in a systematic fashion. When the student is done with it the student can read, and it works with pretty well every intelligence level. (My mother taught first grade in rural Florida in the 1920’s; when I asked her if any of those farm children left first grade without learning to read, she said, some years there might be one or two, but they didn’t learn anything else either.) Bright kids will learn to read, sort of, without knowing about phonics, but some will have problems; far better to learn systematically. Less bright kids – and some bright ones – just don’t catch on to phonics until the subject matter has by-passed them. If you can’t read by fourth grade you won’t be likely to get much from the rest of your education.


You may take the above as relevant to the question of survival for the next four years. One thing you can and must do is educate your children. The public schools are not likely to do that, and I see no incentive for them to get dramatically better anytime soon. The most important part of early education is to be able to read. It is your duty, — not the school’s – to see that your children can read before they leave first grade. It would be better that they know before they enter first grade. Since the British education system for centuries was to have nannies teach middle and upper class pupils to read at age four, and it is not likely that those children were better protoplasm than yours, you may safely embark on doing this. If you want to know how, start with Mrs. Pournelle’s reading program The Literacy Connection. It’s old and it’s hokey, but seventy half hour lessons will do the job. Some may have to be repeated, but that’s no difficulty. While you are at it, see that your kids learn the Addition table to 15 + 15 by then end of first grade, and the Multiplication table to 20 by 20 by the end of second grade. None of that requires home schooling, which may not be possible. More on this another time: but one thing you may be sure of is that with the current election results, dramatic improvement in the schools is unlikely. You may add bad education and increased illiteracy to the inflation and unemployment of the next few years. Inflation, unemployment, and increased illiteracy may not be inevitable, but that’s the way to bet it given the past.

Smart people should be in survival mode. That doesn’t mean trekking out into the woods and hiding. What you need to do is find ways to make it more probable that you will survive in place in the coming stagflation. We will from time to time look into observations on this, and of course I welcome discussion.


I would say that National Geographic is correct in designating the invention of the phonetic alphabet as a key event. Of course those of us brought up on V. M. Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World have known that from an early age (I read it at about age five; my father bought it and left it lying about the house…) Alas, I don’t know of a reliable low cost source, but I can recommend the book as an early work for American kids. I suspect my father’s method of getting me to read it was optimum in my case, but I also understand that others have had success with bribes…

For that matter, leaving Pratt’s Battles that Changed History lying around for teen agers is worth a try. It too is worth a bribe…


I had thought the Benghazi / Petraeus story could not get more bizarre. Clearly I was wrong. Speculation without facts is a waste of time. We have not heard the last of this.


And once again let me remind you that inflation is almost certainly coming. Make some preparations. At least learn something about it.


** For grins, did you note the relationship of Punic to phonetic?


Note that the election was extremely close. Well under a million votes in six key states would have changed the outcome. The imbecility of the Republican consultants who built a strange and utterly faulty ground game should be enough to let us get rid of those suckers, although I wonder if the leadership has enough good sense to do that.

Close isn’t winning. But despair is not justified.




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