Chapter 3 of The Underground History of American Education is a survey of the history of literacy and reading in America. It is also quite possibly the most infuriating material I have ever read. I literally had to stop and refocus several times as the magnitude of what the schools did to literacy became clear to me.
Simply put, forced education turned us from the most literate nation on the planet to a nation of people unable to understand the instructions on a prescription bottle. The military measures literacy as part of the pre-draft induction. At the start of WWII 96% of draftees passed. At the start of the Korean War only a decade later, 81% passed. Vietnam era draftees failed the test 27% of the time. In one generation, the literacy rate in America, as measured by a huge sample of randomly selected draftees, went from 96% to 73%. The military is not asking anybody to read Shakespeare to get in. They are only looking for a 4th grade reading level.
Back in 1952 the Army quietly began hiring hundreds of psychologists to find out how 600,000 high school graduates had successfully faked illiteracy. Regna Wood sums up the episode this way:
After the psychologists told the officers that the graduates weren't faking, Defense Department administrators knew that something terrible had happened in grade school reading instruction. And they knew it had started in the thirties. Why they remained silent, no one knows. The switch back to reading instruction that worked for everyone should have been made then. But it wasn't.
I went to DoD schools for most of my K-12 life. I remember learning to sound words out and being drilled over and over again on the basic phonics that make up all words. DoD apparently stuck with what worked in their schools.
At this point, you are probably wondering did happen in the schools. The answer is simple. Whole Language Reading. Phonics was abandoned in the 30's. Gatto provides a devastating take down of the Whole Language movement. This probably sums it up as well as anything.
The religious purpose of modern schooling was announced clearly by the legendary University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward A. Ross in 1901 in his famous book, Social Control. Your librarian should be able to locate a copy for you without much trouble. In it Ed Ross wrote these words for his prominent following: "Plans are underway to replace community, family, and church with propaganda, education, and mass media....the State shakes loose from Church, reaches out to School.... People are only little plastic lumps of human dough."The bottom line is that people are not little plastic lumps of human dough, and you can't teach them to read (or do anything else) as though they were. Even if your not up for the assault on Whole language Reading, you should at least read page 1 of Chapter 3 for Gatto's delightful description of the the differences between a school book and a real book as evidenced by the differences between a classroom and a library. I'll end this with just a taste.The school edition of Moby Dick asked all the right questions, so I had to throw it away. Real books don't do that. Real books demand people actively participate by asking their own questions. Books that show you the best questions to ask aren't just stupid, they hurt the mind under the guise of helping it, exactly the way standardized tests do. Real books, unlike schoolbooks, can't be standardized. They are eccentric; no book fits everyone.