The Right to Read, Chapter 6: At the Crossroads

the-right-to-readThe history of science is replete with theories that have been thoroughly believed by the wisest men and were then thoroughly discredited.— Popkin & Stroll



It has always been typical of the human being that he wants an explanation for most phenomena he encounters. Having an explanation greatly contributes to his sense of security. This desire is so great that, if he comes across a phenomenon for which he cannot find a reasonable and a rational explanation, he will fabricate one himself. The ancient Greeks, for example, could not find a rational explanation for the changing seasons and then made up the story of Hades and Persephone.

Hades, they said, was the brother of Zeus and god of the underworld. He fell in love with Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the goddess of farming and the harvest. Hades abducted Persephone while she was gathering poppies in Sicily. Grieving over her daughter, Demeter wandered all over the world and in her sadness she forbid the earth to bring forth fruit. Zeus became afraid that all men would die and finally agreed that Persephone could leave Hades and return to her mother Demeter, provided she had not eaten in the underworld. Hades agreed to let her go but tempted her into eating a pomegranate. As a result, she had to spend half of every year with Hades in the underworld and the other half with Demeter. During the half of the year that she is with Hades, Demeter mourns and neglects her duties as goddess of farming and harvest. All the plants fade away and the earth is cold and bare. When she returns to her mother after six months, Demeter is happy and the earth grows warm and all the plants and flowers blossom.

Despite the scientific attitude of modern man, the desire to have an explanation for a puzzling phenomenon is still so overpowering that his opposing desire for logical and scientific thought will often fail to keep him from inventing “explanations” that are no less fictitious than the story of Hades and Persephone.

Since its inception, the learning disabilities field has been immersed in controversy and conflict. This is not surprising at all, if one considers that the popular explanation for learning disabilities — that of a neurological dysfunction — is nothing but a fabricated, mythical notion. The popularity of the idea does not give it any scientific validity. Before it was proved that the earth is round, everybody believed it to be flat. The popularity of the idea did not make it true. Science, therefore, does not always “advance by consensus,” as is maintained by Galaburda.2 In fact, as Heshusius rightly states, science does not advance by addition, but primarily by replacement and transformation.3 When real progress happens, nothing stays the same, as Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein knew.

For as long as children with learning disabilities become adults with learning disabilities, it will certainly not be appropriate to attach the term “advancement” to this field. In fact, the statistics and subjective observations of scholars in the field indicate an explosion in the number of students with learning disabilities. This clearly indicates that there is no progress at all, but that the movement that is taking place is going downhill at an alarming rate.

From a medical frame of reference, this increase in the prevalence of learning disabilities is very difficult to explain. How can a noncontagious “ailment” spread at such a rate?

In evaluating the numbers across handicapping conditions, Edgar and Hayden noted that the number of individuals in all handicapping conditions in the U.S.A. had increased by 16 percent from 1976 to 1982. However, the number classified as learning disabled had increased by 119 percent. In 1976, the four major categories of handicapping conditions, in rank numbers served, were:

speech impaired (1,302,600)
mentally retarded (969,547)
learning disabled (757,213)
emotionally disturbed (283,072).
In 1982, by contrast, rank order and numbers were:

learning disabled (1,745,871)
speech impaired (1,134,197)
mentally retarded (780,831)
emotionally disturbed (353,431).4
Within the next three years another 9 percent increase in the LD category was noted. According to figures released by the U.S. Department of Education in 1991, the growth of the number of children in the LD category since 1985 amounted to another 32 percent.5 The latest figures released by the U.S. Department of Education, those of the 1997-1998 school year, are as follows:

learning disabled (2,748,497)
speech impaired (1,065,074)
mentally retarded (602,111)
emotionally disturbed (454,363).6
The above figures represent the children formally classified in the special-education categories, not the total number of children whom scholars estimate could and should fall under the LD label at present.7 Most estimates of this kind support a percentage of between 10 and 15 percent, although percentages as high as 40 percent are also suggested.8 According to the Orton Dyslexia Society in America, at least one in every ten of otherwise able people has serious dyslexia problems.9 The Foundation of Children with Learning Disabilities states that LD children represent more than ten million of the total population in the U.S.A.10

Many would argue that the increase in learning disabilities merely demonstrate the magnitude of a problem that was underreported or ignored before the 1960s. Others bring charges of overidentification and misidentification.11 However, if one considers the increase in illiteracy and reading difficulties in general, both arguments go for a loop.

In 1910 the literacy rate was so high it was predicted that “the public schools will in a short time practically eliminate illiteracy.”12

In 1930, illiteracy rates in the U.S.A. were as follows:

  1. 1.5 percent among native-born whites.
  2. 9.9 percent among foreign-born whites.
  3. 9.2 percent among urban blacks.
  4. 16.3 percent among blacks in general.

In 1935, a survey of the 375,000 men working in the Civilian Conservation Corps — a government-sponsored work project to provide employment — found an illiteracy rate of 1.9 percent. And this was among men primarily of low socio-economic status.13

Apparently — contrary to today’s illiteracy rates — the illiteracy rates of the first half of the twentieth century reflected, for the most part, people who never had the advantage of schooling.14

Since the 1930s, something must have happened…. As Lionni and Klass point out, “Somewhere along the line our schools had lost the ability to routinely educate children and produce uniformly good results.”15 The erosion of America’s educational performance, which seems to have started in the 1960s, and by now has assumed crisis proportions at all levels, is summarized in a 1976 Los Angeles article:

After edging upward for apparently more than a century, the reading, writing, and mathematical skills of American students from elementary school through college are now in a prolonged and broad scale decline unequaled in history. The downward spiral, which affects many other subject areas as well, began abruptly in the mid-1960s and shows no signs of bottoming out.16

In its Reading Report Card (1985), the U.S. Department of Education found that 40 percent of the nation’s 13-year olds and 16 percent of the 17-year-olds did not have intermediate reading skills (i.e., they could not find key information, link and compare ideas, or generalize, using materials in science, literature, or social studies). Only 5 percent of the 17-year-olds tested had advanced reading skills — the kind needed to understand complex ideas found in professional or technical journals and textbooks.17

The $14 million National Adult Literacy Survey of 1993 found that even though most adults in the survey had finished high school, 96 percent of them could not read, write, and figure well enough to go to college.18 Even more to the point, 25 percent “were plainly unable to read,” period.19

While learning disabilities and illiteracy have been, and are still growing, on the one hand, the standards of education have been declining — tragically and steadily — on the other:

For years, college professors have been complaining that students entering from high school lack such basic communication skills as the ability to read and listen with comprehension, to write and speak with clarity, precision, and correct grammar, and to spell even the simplest and most common words…. For the first hundred years of its existence, a college like Harvard would not graduate a student without a knowledge of Hebrew. Now the point is approaching when one can be graduated without a knowledge of English.20

Reading levels of young Americans fell so low in the 1970s that the Army was forced to rewrite its operating manuals in comic fashion.21 Much reading material previously used for years in American schools became incomprehensible to present-day students and had to be simplified. For example, when a well-known history book was revised with an eye toward the high school market, words like “spectacle” and “admired” were removed. Apparently they were too difficult.22

On 26 April 1983, pointing to the literacy crisis and to the collapse in standards at the secondary and the college levels, the National Commission on Excellence warned: “Our nation is at risk.” The report warned that America would soon be engulfed by a “rising tide of mediocrity in elementary and secondary school.”23

Since the Nation at Risk report, education reforms have taken place in every state. New teaching methods and programs have been tried and evaluated.24 But the overall goal set for the year 2000 — to educate every child to a high standard — has remained a mere dream. “The nation is at even greater risk now,” voiced Senator Edward M. Kennedy a decade after the famous report was published.25 A newspaper reported in 1997 that the standards of education are so low in the U.S. that black Americans are returning to Africa, specifically Kenya, to get better schooling.26 And if the article, published in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution in October 1999, part of which appears below, is only partially representative of conditions in the United States, it should cause great alarm:

In the aftermath of the Atlanta Public School’s announcement that more than half the city’s third-graders may flunk come spring, administratorsteachers and parents are grappling with questions about why the scores were so low and what can be done to improve them. Superintendent Beverly Hall last week revealed the stunning results of the Scholastic Reading Inventory, a criterion-referenced test that gauges a child’s reading skills against what is expected for a child in that grade. Seventy-three percent of second-graders, 55 percent of third-graders, 57 percent of fourth graders and 49 percent of fifth-graders are not reading on grade level, according to the test.27

Australian children fare no better. The percentage of children that could read and write increased from 59.1 percent in 1871, to 79.8 percent in 1901, and 90.2 percent in 1911.28 But something must have happened there too, as shown by numerous surveys conducted in the early 1970s. In Queensland, a survey given to eighth-grade students at the Mt. Gravatt High School showed 130 students out of 285 had reading problems varying from reluctance to retardation. A report on reading retardation at Liverpool Boys’ High School, New South Wales, indicated that upwards of 500 pupils out of a total of 1,060 were in need of some form of remediation. The Bonorian High School advisory center in Victoria, surveyed more than 2,600 students in first and second forms (seventh and eight grades) in twelve eastern suburbs high schools. The results showed that 45.7 percent of those tested needed remedial specialist training if they were to profit from high school work, and 25 percent were found to read so badly that they could be classified as illiterate. All these surveys excluded children with acknowledged lower intelligence and migrant background.29 But worse was yet to come. A survey of Australian adult literacy, reported in The Australian in 1990, found that 70 percent of a representative group of adults could not deal with concepts or arguments at the level of a standard newspaper editorial.30

According to the British Dyslexia Association 15 percent of children leave school with inadequate literacy.31 According to a UNESCO report, more than two million Britons are completely illiterate. More than a third of the 11-year-old children arriving at many secondary schools in Britain’s inner cities are such poor readers that they cannot properly understand their textbooks.32

In Canada the estimates of learning-disabled children vary between 10 and 16 percent.33

While these figures vary because of differing definitions and research methods, taken together they suggest that millions of children worldwide are suffering from a disability that has been diagnosed in an increasing number of children and which should properly be recognized in even more.34

The situation raises the fear that we may be approaching another Dark Age, with masses of illiterate people and only a handful of literate ones, like it was during the Middle Ages. In fact, Lewis Mumford concluded, “I have a book on my shelves by a man who says that the Dark Age is coming. I think the Dark Age is already here, only we don’t know it.”35

Not all countries face this “Dark Age.” While the American nation was “at risk” in the 1980s, the Koreans and Chinese reported a very low rate of reading disabilities, and remedial reading facilities were not needed in Japan due to the rarity of reading problems.36 That is another unexplainable phenomenon if one clings to the medical model. Why is this “ailment” more prominent in specific areas or countries? These differences surely cannot be attributed to neurological differences. Therefore some scholars attribute this phenomenon to the differences in writing systems. As the reader will see later, it is much easier to explain this phenomenon in terms of cultural differences.

During 1970, Professor Michael Rutter and his colleagues undertook a research study in the Isle of Wight, a relatively thriving rural district. They found that one out of every ten children had some kind of learning problem. In a follow-up study in London, this figure increased to one out of every six.37

Balow questioned how a reading disability can have a medical etiology if 60 percent of slum children and only 2 percent of suburban children had reading disorders.38

Adherents to the medical model also find it very difficult to explain why learning disabilities are more prominent among boys than girls. The statistics in the literature vary between 3:1 to 10:1. Knox, for example, states in his book Learning Disabilities, “One consistent fact is that 80 percent of dyslexics are male.”39

The adherence to the LD explanation despite these discrepancies in statistics between different cultures, income groups and the two sexes reminds one of the pellagra incidences in the early twentieth century. The popular medical theory at the time was that the disease was caused by germs. However, Dr. Joseph Goldberger, who was asked to head an investigation into the situation in 1914, found that orphans and inmates contracted the disease, but staff never did. Goldberger knew from years of experience working on infectious diseases that germs did not distinguish between inmates and employees. Instead, he believed that the disease was caused by the insufficient corn-based diet of the poor.

Shipments of food, which Goldberger had requested from Washington, were provided to children in two Mississippi orphanages and to inmates at the Georgia State Asylum. Results were dramatic; those who were fed a diet of fresh meat, milk and vegetable instead of a corn-based diet recovered from pellagra. Those without the disease, who ate the new diet, did not contract it.

Amazingly, many of those convinced of the germ theory refused to abandon their view, even after Dr. Goldberger experimented on eleven healthy volunteer prisoners at the Rankin State Prison Farm in 1915. Offered pardons in return for their participation, the volunteers ate a corn-based diet. Six of the eleven showed pellagra rashes after five months. Angry because his experiment was dubbed “half-baked” and a fraud, Dr. Goldberger and his assistant injected each other with pellagrin blood, swabbed out the secretions of a pellagrin’s nose and throat and rubbed them into their own noses and throats, and also swallowed capsules containing scabs of pellagrins’ rashes. Volunteers joined them, yet none got pellagra. Despite these efforts, a few physicians remained opponents of his dietary theory. And Goldberger’s warnings — which turned out to be true — to authorities of a dramatic increase in pellagra when the prices of cotton wool dropped dramatically in 1920, fell on deaf ears. They believed that any negative characterization of their region would discourage economic investment and tourism in the South. The Southern pride and prosperity were on the line.

The interesting end of this drama is that the land reform Goldberger believed necessary to eliminate pellagra was accomplished not by scientific reasoning but by the invasion of boll weevils. The insect destroyed cotton fields and forced Southerners to diversify their crops. By growing more food crops, they improved their diets and suffered less from pellagra.40

Unfortunately boll weevils will not invade the field of learning disabilities and lessen the suffering of children. It can only be done by educators — parents, teachers and specialists — who are serious about their educational task, who are willing to part with the illogical theory that learning disabilities have a biological cause and who are prepared to address the true cause. In the same way that the “pellagra germ” could not distinguish between inmates and employees, a “neurological deficit” also cannot distinguish between different cultures, income groups and the sexes.

The previous chapters — as well as this one — show that the field of learning disabilities is in a scientific crisis. Because one’s pride is on the line, one can choose to ignore this crisis. One can side-step this crisis with something like Einstein’s famous remark, “if the facts do not fit the theory, then the facts are wrong.” One can also rationalize the crisis with the common suggestion that “LD is still new and experiencing growing pains.”41 Or one can help to change the system and thereby create new hope for a better quality of life for millions of children.

More and more experts, dissatisfied with the current status, are indeed declaring their willingness as well as their eagerness to consider alternative approaches. The field of learning disabilities is “in obvious turmoil, if not in disarray. We move to an uncertain future, but when was that not true?…We are ready for something better,” remarked Gallagher.42 Others call for “radical transformation.”43

LD professionals, who acknowledge that a neurological explanation is unfounded, have been debating what changes the field should make. “If they consider the mythology on which the field has been built, the harmful effect it has had on children’s academic development, and the ways in which it has helped cloak the causes of academic failure, perhaps the proper question is,” states Coles, “whether the field should continue at all.”44 Maybe Blatt’s wishes, already expressed in 1979, will come true: “My hope that this foolishness will stop is nurtured in the possibility that enough people will realize that the creators of this ‘disease’ have gone too far, and thus they expose themselves.”45

It appears that the theory of learning disabilities has arrived at crossroads,46 in a situation similar to Alice in Wonderland when she asked, “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?” And the Cheshire Cat responded, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”47


  1. Popkin, R. H., & Stroll, A., Philosophy Made Simple (London: WH Allen, 1969), 176.
  2. Galaburda, A. M., “Learning Disability: Biological, societal, or both? A response to Gerald Coles,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1989, vol. 22(5), 278-282.
  3. Heshusius, L., “Why would they and I want to do it? A phenomenological-theoretical view of special education,” Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 1984, vol. 7, 363-368.
  4. Edgar, E., & Hayden, A. H., “Who are the children special education should serve and how many children are there?” Journal of Special Education, 1984-1985, vol. 18(4), 523-539.
  5. U.S. Department of Education, Thirteenth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Washington, DC, 1991).
  6. U.S. Department of Education, Twenty-first Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, website of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.
  7. Coles, G. S., The Learning Mystique (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), 11.
  8. Knox, J. M., Learning Disabilities (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989), 15.
  9. The Orton Dyslexia Society and the Problem of Dyslexia, pamphlet by the Orton Dyslexia Society, cited in Coles, The Learning Mystique, 10.
  10. Understanding Learning Disabilities, pamphlet by the Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities, cited in Coles, The Learning Mystique, 10.
  11. “The special/general education integration initiative for students with specific learning disabilities,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1 September 1994, vol. 27, 435.
  12. Blumenfeld, S. L., NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education (Boise, Idaho: The Paradigm Company, 1984), 102.
  13. Blumenfeld, S. L., “Who killed excellence,” Imprimis, September 1985, vol. 14(9), 5, cited in B. Wiseman, Psychiatry: The Ultimate Betrayal (Los Angeles: Freedom Publishing, 1995), 276.
  14. Nash, R. H., “The three kinds of illiteracy,” website address: https://bit.ly/2BUu4GB
  15. Lionni, P., & Klass, L. J., The Leipzig Connection: The Systematic Destruction of American Education (Portland, Oregon: Heron Books, 1980).
  16. McCurdy, J., & Speich, D., “Student skills decline unequalled in history,” Los Angeles Times, 15 August 1976, cited in “Education and social ruin,” Education: Psychiatry’s Ruin (Los Angeles: CCHR, 1995), 2-3.
  17. Sherrow, V., Challenges in Education (Englewood Cliffs: Julian Messner, 1991), 21.
  18. “A closer look — Special education,” Right to Read Report, January 1994, vol. 1 (8), 1-3, cited in Wiseman, Psychiatry: The Ultimate Betrayal, 275.
  19. Baughman, F. A., Jr., “Johnny can’t read because phonics is all but ignored,” The Daily Californian, 16 February 1994, cited in Wiseman, Psychiatry: The Ultimate Betrayal, 275.
  20. Lean, A. E., & Eaton, W. E., Education or Catastrophe? (Wolfeboro: Longwood Academic, 1990), 27-28.
  21. Honig, B., Last Chance for Our Children. How You Can Help Save Our Schools (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1987), ix.
  22. O’Brien, S., “The reshaping of history: Marketers vs. authors,” Curriculum Review, 11 September 1988, cited in T. Sowell, Inside American Education (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 7.
  23. Kantrowitz, B., et al., “A nation still at risk,” Newsweek, 19 April 1993, 46-49.
  24. Sherrow, Challenges in Education, 7.
  25. Kennedy, E. M., “The nation is at even greater risk now,” in J. F. Jennings (ed.), National Issues in Education: The Past is Prologue (Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappa, 1993).
  26. “Illiterates swop slums for sums,” Sunday Times, 27 July 1997.
  27. Carter, R., Schools struggle to find solutions. Dismal showing by lower grades on reading tests prompts some to ask why system has failed,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 14 October 1999, J1.
  28. Commonwealth Year Book 1924, 477-478, cited in Cleverly & Lawry (eds.), Australian Education in the 20th Century (Longman, 1972), 1-2.
  29. Wallis, J. M., The Disaster Road (Bullsbrook: Veritas Publishing Company, 1986), 92-93.
  30. The Australian, 1990, cited in J. D. Frodsham, “Introduction,” in J. D. Frodsham (ed.), Education For What? (Canberra: Academy Press, 1990), 1.
  31. Coles, The Learning Mystique, 11.
  32. “Illiteracy and crime: An international problem,” Education: Psychiatry’s Ruin (Los Angeles: CCHR, 1995), 20-21.
  33. Coles, The Learning Mystique, 11.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Lean & Eaton, Education or Catastrophe? 31.
  36. Sheridan, E. M., “Reading disabilities: Can we blame the written language?” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1983, vol. 16(2), 81-86.
  37. Hornsby, B., Overcoming Dyslexia (Johannesburg: Juta and Company Ltd., 1984), 14.
  38. Balow, B., “Perceptual motor activities in the treatment of severe reading disability,” Reading Teacher, 1971, vol. 24, 513-525.
  39. Knox, Learning Disabilities, 27.
  40. Kraut, A., “Dr. Joseph Goldberger and the war on pellagra,” website address: https://bit.ly/2BXNuKF, 1996.
  41. Kavale, K. A., “Status of the field: Trends and issues in learning disabilities,” in K. A. Kavale (ed.), Learning Disabilities: State of the Art and Practice (Boston: College-Hill Press, 1988), 17.
  42. Gallagher, J. J., “Learning disabilities and special education: A critique,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1986, vol. 19(10), 595-601.
  43. Brantlinger, E., “Using ideology: Cases of nonrecognition of the politics of research and practice in special education,” Review of Educational Research, 1997, vol. 67, 425-459; Lipsky, D. K., & Gartner, A., “Equity requires inclusion: The future for all students with disabilities,” in C. Christensen & F. Rizvi (eds.), Disability and the Dilemmas of Education and Justice (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1996), 144-155; both sources cited in J. M. Kauffman, “Commentary: Today’s special education and its messages for tomorrow,” Journal of Special Education, 15 January 1999, vol. 32.
  44. Coles, The Learning Mystique, 307.
  45. Blatt, B., “Bandwagons also go to funerals,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1979, vol. 12(4), 222-224.
  46. Lerner, J., Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching Strategies (4th ed.), (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), 497.
  47. Kavale, “Status of the field,” 18.
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