Hooked on Uniformity

March 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Where are we on phonics now?” I asked Steve, a quasi-relative (he’s a sort of step in-law) who I rarely see. We were having dinner with family down here in Sarasota (it's spring break). He teaches school and does research on primary education. Lately, he’s been digging through historical materials on one-room schools. It turns out in the nineteenth century too, the teaching of reading was subject to changes in fashion, and some of those fashions were remarkably similar to what we find today under labels like “phonics” and “whole language.”

Which teaching system works best? It depends on the kid, of course. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that kids are not all alike and that some learn better with one system while others do better with another.

Then what’s the problem, I asked.

“Texas,” he said, “California.”

In these states, a central committee decides on the book to be used for each subject in all public schools. Their preferences have a huge impact on publishers, whose fortunes may depend on an “adoption” in these states. (California accounts for more than 10% of the US population, Texas nearly 8%.) So decisions in these large, centralized states affect what is available even in other states. The structure of choosing textbooks shapes the content of the books.

But there’s a cultural component as well. “We have this strange assumption that the way to go about it is to figure out what’s the best, and then make everybody use it,” Steve said.

I wondered out loud if this way of thinking is peculiarly American, this uncomfortable amalgam of individualism and uniformity. We think each person should be free to make his own choices. But we also want everyone to choose the same thing, and we get upset when someone chooses something else. (Visitors to these shores since deTocqueville have remarked on the narrow range of political views in the US compared to those in other countries, which are apparently more tolerant of political diversity.)

So we have all these competitions to determine which book or movie or singer is best. Then, once we know what’s best, that’s the one we all freely and independently choose. Or, in the case of textbook committees, we assume that this is the book that will be best for all our schoolchildren.

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