Saturday, June 11, 2005


At the grammar school where the romantic poet William Wordsworth studied in the late 18th century, one can still learn lessons that might, indeed should, be applied in English and American schools.

Apparently in the belief more than 200 years ago that an idle mind can be the devil’s playground, Wordsworth and his classmates spent 11 hours a day in school, five days a week, and half a day on Saturday. They didn’t study sex education, or the environment, or any of today’s trendy subjects that masquerade as a real education.

Instead, says the school’s guide, they studied just three academic subjects: Latin, Greek and mathematics. If they missed three church services during the term, they could be expelled. No American Civil Liberties Union existed then, thank God (then, you could).

One nonacademic subject they also studied was a little booklet called “The Rules of Civility; or The Maxims of Genteel Behavior.” While many of the rules can be discarded today (such as the proper placement of one’s sword at meals), others recall a lost tradition in human relationships designed to protect and honor half the human race and civilize the other half.

There are instructions on how to respect and treat women, often referred to as “ladies.” My favorite teaches the “proper” way to greet ladies: “It is not becoming a Person of quality, when in the Company of Ladies, to handle them roughly; to put his hand in their necks, or bosoms; to kiss them by surprise; to tear their fans; to snatch away their Handkerchiefs.”

England may not be returning to such days, but it is paying homage to the past by reverting to how it once taught children to read before the social experimenters began using kids as guinea pigs for their untested schemes.

Beginning in September next year, English grammar school children will again learn to read using “synthetic phonics.” They will be taught the sounds and letters of the alphabet within the first 16 weeks of school. In recent years, teachers were told to encourage children to memorize words by their shape and guess at them by their context. The results were disastrous.

As in America, phonics in England was abandoned in the 1960s in favor of “look and say.” That this approach produced kids who couldn’t read, or read up to their grade levels, seemed not to bother education “experts” and bureaucrats who refused all appeals for returning to the old, successful method.

A recent Scottish study found students taught to read with phonics three years ahead of their peers. Politicians are now mustering the political will to roll back the failed “progressive education” approach to reading. It helps that a prominent figure in the pro-phonics movement, Andrew (now Lord) Adonis, is Prime Minister Tony Blair’s junior education minister.

Prince Charles has announced plans to set up his own teacher training institute to “fill the gap many in education believe has existed for too long.” School vouchers are now debated here, as in the U.S., because of dysfunctional public schools.

It has always been a peculiarity that human beings seem discontent with what works and feel compelled to change, or “improve,” what for centuries produced desired results. The English, as well as Americans, managed to successfully instruct generations of children using proven principles. They also believed it was not enough to feed knowledge into someone’s head, unless his or her heart and soul were also nourished.

Were parents surveyed and did those surveys reveal they did not want their children educated the way they and previous generations were taught? Who decided that the basic and classic knowledge taught to William Wordsworth and his classmates was not as good as that acquired in our modern age? Who concluded the wisdom of the ages had expired like a “don’t sell” label on perishable food?

No one did. It was forced on English and American societies by tiny elites who thought they knew better than everyone else.

An excerpt from Words-worth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” seems an appropriate response to this educational madness:

And much it grieved my heart to think

What Man has made of Man.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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