Bruce Deitrick Price
K-12: Illiteracy can kill us
By Bruce Deitrick Price
September 12, 2019

Every time I hear about an industrial accident or a Navy ship catching fire, I wonder if the real cause is that the workers can't read the manuals.

On the good side, we have a stampede of wonderful new gadgets and apps to play with. On the other hand, that means many new instruction books to comprehend and many features we never figure out. An instruction book for even a thirty-dollar item can go on and on. Personally, I wing it a lot. And I can read. What happens to all the people who can barely read? They are accidents waiting to happen.

All these thoughts came together when I recently watched the video of a professional mechanic taking apart a new Supra B58 engine (from Toyota). A beautiful high-tech marvel with hundreds of parts. I am in awe of people who can work on something so complex. This mechanic quickly and smoothly extracted the parts and arranged them on his workbench.

But at 10:19, the mechanic says, "Now we flip the engine over and start pulling the short block apart. This bolt is actually reverse rotation. I have been reading the service manual on this, and this is one of the reasons why you always want to read the manual if it's available because a bolt like this can really give you a bad day if you don't realize its reverse rotation. You keep turning it counter-clockwise to try to loosen it and you may end up breaking it or something. I knew ahead of time, turned it clockwise and it came right out."

In the middle of this engineering masterpiece, they hid a booby trap. And if there, one could be anywhere.

You naturally assume that it's unscrewed counterclockwise. Imagine there's an emergency, a fire is starting, some guy who's only a semi-pro is trying to fix something quickly. He'll probably try to force the screw and break it. The guy in the video is a top pro and he was clearly shocked to find such a surprise.

We have almost 50,000,000 functional illiterates. For these people, life is full of surprises you can hardly imagine. They can half-read. They can half-understand. They can guess and skip, as instructed. These people could be called semi-literate, or semi-illiterate. They can't read for pleasure. They can't read quickly and confidently, that's the main point. They can't be sure they have understood the instructions.

Many observers believe that Progressive educators, wanting to level the society, deliberately created this vast vulnerability by the simple device of using instructional methods that don't work. And now our semi-literate are everywhere. Probably millions have drivers licenses and do complex work. They learn just enough to get along. That's what the phrase "functioning illiterate" means.

The risk to these individuals, and the society, is a serious problem. According to the Literacy Foundation: "Illiterate individuals have more workplace accidents, take longer to recover and more often misuse medication through ignorance of health care resources and because they have trouble reading and understanding the relevant information (warnings, dosage, contraindications, etc.)." Imagine all the billions of dollars wasted by these mistakes.

Five-year-olds can learn to read so why do we have this unnecessary and dangerous problem? Reading is the essential skill, the pathway leading to all the other subjects. Maybe that's why it was the first skill that John Dewey and his Progressives started undermining 90 years ago.

Professor G. Stanley Hall, one of Dewey's mentors, opined that illiterate people can have pleasant lives in spite of their handicap. Dewey wanted to teach reading later and more slowly than was normal. Start in the fourth grade, that was his plan. Dewey hated the idea of a kid curled up with a book. She wouldn't become a good socialist because she could withdraw from the group. Sight-words were intended to be the final solution for American reading. Everyone ends up a crippled reader.

The secret to understanding our current illiteracy problems is to grasp why sight-words don't work. The English language is vast, almost 1,000,000 words. Criminally foolish educators claimed that children can memorize English words one at a time. A hopeless project unless someone has a photographic memory. Children should be reading in the first grade. If they are not, you know the school is using a bogus method.

QED: Make sure your local schools are doing a good job with literacy. This might save some lives.

By the way, watching a video about a motor is not as esoteric as some may think. Almost three million people watched it in the several weeks after it appeared.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is "Saving K-12 – What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?" He explains educational methods on

Bruce Deitrick Price

© Bruce Deitrick Price


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Bruce Deitrick Price

Bruce Deitrick Price is the author of six books, an artist, a poet, and an education reformer. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia, earned Honors in English Literature from Princeton, served two years in the Army, and then lived many years in Manhattan.

Price explains educational theories and methods on his ed site (founded in 2005). He has 400 education articles and videos on the Internet. More forcefully than most, Price argues that the public schools are mediocre because our Education Establishment wants them that way.

Price's literary site is .


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