The history of a schism
One reason the reading wars have been so intense is that they reflect two rival views of human nature – a traditionalist view emphasising the need for hierarchy and direct instruction, and a Romantic view stressing the need for engagement and critical thinking. The most influential exponent of the latter in the sphere of education is probably Jean-jacques Rousseau, whose book Émile (1762), an account of how best to raise a child to adulthood, revolutionised attitudes to schooling, popularised the idea of “childcentred learning”, and informed the thinking of “progressive” educationalists such as John Dewey. Yet the backlash against the progressives has been just as intense. In To Kill a Mockingbird, set in 1930s Alabama, Harper Lee poked fun at Dewey’s system: Scout Finch recalls how her teacher waved “cards at us on which were printed ‘the’, ‘cat’, ‘rat’, ‘man’ and ‘you’. No comment seemed expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence.” In the 1950s, Why Johnny Can’t Read, by American author Rudolf Flesch, attacked the “look and say” teaching method, which was dominant at the time and had spread to Britain. In the US, too, phonics has won the reading war. In 2000, the National Reading Panel found “systematic phonics instruction” benefits “all types of students”.