Frank Had A Dog; His Name Was Spot

Two flies now enter the reading ointment in the persons of Horace Mann and his second wife, Mary Peabody. There is raw material here for a great intrigue novel: in the early 1830s, a minister in Hartford, Thomas Gallaudet, invented a sight-reading, look-say method to use with the deaf. Like Jacotot, Gallaudet was a man of unusual personal force and originality. He served as director at the asylum for the education of the deaf and dumb in Hartford. Deaf mutes couldn’t learn a sound-symbol system, it was thought, so Gallaudet devised a sight-reading vocabulary of fifty whole-words which he taught through pictures. Then his deaf students learned a manual alphabet which permitted them to indicate letters with their fingers and communicate with others.

Even in light of the harm he inadvertently caused, it’s hard not to be impressed by Gallaudet. In Gallaudet’s system, writing transmuted from a symbolic record of sounds to a symbolic record of pictures. Gallaudet had reinvented English as ancient Babylonian! One of his former teachers, William Woodbridge, then editor of the American Annals of Education, received a long, detailed letter in which Gallaudet described his flash-card method and demanded that education be regarded as a science like chemistry: "Mind, like matter, can be made subject to experiment." Fifty words could be learned by memory before introducing the alphabet. By removing the "dull and tedious" normal method, great interest "has [been] excited in the mind of the little learner."

Historically, three important threads run together here: 1) that learning should be scientific, and learning places a laboratory; 2) that words be learned ideographically; 3) that relieving boredom and tedium should be an important goal of pedagogy. Each premise was soon pushed to extremes. These themes institutionalized would ultimately require a vast bureaucracy to enforce. But all this lay in the future.

Gallaudet had adopted the point of view of a deaf-mute who had to make his way without assistance from sound to spoken language. Samuel Blumenfeld’s analysis of what was wrong in this is instructive:

It led to serious confusions in Gallaudet’s thinking concerning two very different processes; that of learning to speak one’s native language and that of learning to read it. In teaching the deaf to read by sight he was also teaching them language by sight for the first time. They underwent two learning processes, not one. But a normal child came to school already with the knowledge of several thousand words in his speaking vocabulary, with a much greater intellectual development which the sense of sound afforded him. In learning to read it was not necessary to teach him what he already knew, to repeat the process of learning to speak. The normal child did not learn his language by learning to read. He learned to read in order to help him expand his use of the language.

In 1830, Gallaudet published The Child’s Picture Defining and Reading Book, a book for children with normal hearing, seeking to generalize his method to all. In its preface, the book sets down for the first time basic whole-word protocols. Words will be taught as representing objects and ideas, not as sounds represented by letters.

He who controls language controls the public mind, a concept well understood by Plato. Indeed, the manipulation of language was at the center of curriculum at the Collegia of Rome, in the Jesuit academies, and the private schools maintained for children of the influential classes; it made up an important part of the text of Machiavelli; it gave rise to the modern arts and sciences of advertising and public relations. The whole-word method, honorably derived and employed by men like Gallaudet, was at the same time a tool to be used by any regime or interest with a stake in limiting the growth of intellect.

Gallaudet’s primer, lost to history, was published in 1836. One year later, the Boston School Committee was inaugurated under the direction of Horace Mann. Although no copies of the primer have survived, Blumenfeld tells us, "From another source we know that its first line was, Frank had a dog; his name was Spot." On August 2, 1836, Gallaudet’s primer was adopted by the Boston Primary School Committee on an experimental basis. A year later a report was issued pronouncing the method a success on the basis of speed in learning when compared to the alphabet system, and of bringing a "pleasant tone" to the classroom by removing "the old unintelligible, and irksome mode of teaching certain arbitrary marks, or letters, by certain arbitrary sounds."

A sight vocabulary is faster to learn than letters and phonograms, but the gain is a Trojan horse; only after several years have passed does the sight reader’s difficulty learning words from outside sources begin to become apparent. By that time conditions made pressing by the social situation of the classroom and demands from the world at large combine to make it hard to retrace the ground lost.

Mann endorsed Gallaudet’s primer in his Second Annual Report (1838). His endorsement, Gallaudet’s general fame and public adulation, erroneous reports circulating at the time that mighty Prussia was using a whole-word system, and possibly the prospect of fame and a little profit, caused Mann’s own wife, Mary Tyler Peabody—whose family names were linked to a network of powerful families up and down the Eastern seaboard—to write a whole-word primer. The Mann family was only one of a host of influential voices being raised against the traditional reading instructions in the most literate nation on earth. In Woodbridge’s Annals of Education, a steady tattoo was directed against spelling and the alphabet method.

By the time of the Gallaudet affair, both Manns were under the spell of phrenology, a now submerged school of psychology and the brainchild of a German physician. Francois Joseph Gall, in working with the insane, had become convinced he had located the physical site of personality traits like love, benevolence, acquisitiveness, and many more. He could provide a map of their positions inside the skull! These faculties signaled their presence, said Gall, by making bumps on the visible exterior of the cranium. The significance of this to the future of reading is that among Gall’s claims was: too much reading causes insanity. The Manns agreed.

One of Gall’s converts was a Scottish lawyer named George Combe. On October 8, 1838, Mann wrote in his diary that he had met "the author of that extraordinary book, The Constitution of Man, the doctrines of which will work the same change in metaphysical science that Lord Bacon wrought in natural." The book was Combe’s. Suddenly the Mann project to downgrade reading acquired a psychological leg to accompany the political, social, economic, and religious legs it already possessed. Unlike other arguments against enlightenment of ordinary people—all of which invoked one or another form of class interest—what psychological phrenology offered was a scientific argument based on the supposed best interests of the child. Thus a potent weapon fell into pedagogy’s hands which would not be surrendered after phrenology was discredited. If one psychology could not convince, another might. By appearing to avoid any argument from special interest, the scientific case took the matter of who should learn what out of the sphere of partisan politics into a loftier realm of altruism.

Meanwhile Combe helped Mann line up his great European tour of 1843, which was to result in the shattering Seventh Report to the Boston School Committee of 1844. (The Sixth had been a plea to phrenologize classrooms!) This new report said: "I am satisfied our greatest error in teaching children to read lies in beginning with the alphabet." Mann was attempting to commit Massachusetts children to the hieroglyphic system of Gallaudet. The result was an outcry from Boston’s schoolmasters, a battle that went on in the public press for many months culminating (on the schoolmaster’s side) in this familiar lament:

Education is a great concern; it has often been tampered with by vain theorists; it has suffered from the stupid folly and the delusive wisdom of its treacherous friends; and we hardly know which have injured it most. Our conviction is that it has much more to hope from the collected wisdom and common prudence of the community than from the suggestions of the individual. Locke injured it by his theories, and so did Rousseau, and so did Milton. All their plans were too splendid to be true. It is to be advanced by conceptions, neither soaring above the clouds, nor groveling on the earth—but by those plain, gradual, productive, common sense improvements, which use may encourage and experience suggest. We are in favor of advancement, provided it be towards usefulness....

We love the secretary but we hate his theories. They stand in the way of substantial education. It is impossible for a sound mind not to hate them.