Dr. Andrew Bernstein is not only a friend of mine and a contributing editor of this journal, he’s a college professor with decades of experience and the author of numerous essays and books, most recently Why Johnny Still Can’t Read or Write or Understand Math: And What We Can Do About It. He joined me recently on the Philosophy for Flourishing podcast to discuss the problems with American schools today, along with some inspiring solutions. Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Jon Hersey: What’s the story behind the title of your new book?

Andrew Bernstein: In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote a famous book called Why Johnny Can’t Read. He was an Austrian immigrant who knew that in most of Western Europe, children hardly ever struggled to learn to read. And that was true in the United States, too, prior to WWI. After WWI, you see this big uptick in children struggling to read. Flesch showed that the school system had largely done away with phonics, the tried-and-true method of teaching reading: You teach children the letters of the alphabet, the sounds that the letters make, the sounds that the combinations of letters make, and so on. The overwhelming majority of children, by the time they’re four or five years old, understand and can speak thousands of words. And when you teach them phonics, they can match the verbal sounds they already know to the literary symbols on the page. It’s an extremely effective method of teaching reading, and it was used for a long time. Yet, the American school system was set against it, instead pushing what they called the “whole word method,” which doesn’t work. And that’s why Flesch wrote his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read.

Hersey: And what you’re saying in your book is that we haven’t solved this problem in the nearly seventy years since Flesch published his book.

Bernstein: The trend line, unfortunately, has been downward. The biannual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—also called the Nation’s Report Card—has been abysmal. It tests fourth and eighth graders. The scores of American students have long been low, and the 2019 scores largely went down compared to 2017. The only subject in which the scores went up was in math; I think fourth graders’ average scores went up from 240 out of 500 to 241. Now, I was never the world’s best math student. But even I know 240 out of 500 is 48 percent. And the reading scores are terrible, too. Whether we look at the national NAEP test, or the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, the American students score poorly. By the way, I don’t want to depress people, but Project Baltimore recently reported that many high-school students are reading at a first-grade level. That’s heartbreaking. Yet, this is not uncommon in America today.

Hersey: What effects of this have you seen firsthand?

Bernstein: I’ve been in the classroom for most of my life. I attended K–12 in government schools (I think “public schools” is a euphemism; all private schools are open to the public). I went to college, then began teaching while in grad school, and I’ve been teaching ever since. American schools generally were not great when I was a child, but they were much better than they are today. In forty years in the classroom, I’ve seen average academic abilities go down. Here’s one example: I’ve taught many ethics courses in my career at a variety of different colleges. I generally used The Fountainhead as a textbook. I used it for about thirty years. Five or six years ago, I stopped; the students’ reading abilities—just the mechanics of reading—had deteriorated to the point where they struggled just to read the book, never mind comprehend it. I also had to stop giving essay tests because it broke my heart to read the things that they wrote. They struggled to write a coherent paragraph. Most of them can’t write anything even approximating a college-level essay. So, I stopped giving essay tests and started giving short-answer tests—in college philosophy classes.

I want them to read primary sources. There was a time when we did, when I had the students read even Immanuel Kant. But now it’s no use trying to have them read Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Marx—it just goes over their heads. I’ve seen a steep decline in reading and writing abilities.

And many students today are completely ignorant of American history. A couple of years ago, I brought up James Madison to illustrate a point in a logic class. Ten out of twenty students—50 percent—had never heard of him. Ten of them knew he’d been a past president, and zero of twenty knew that he was the lead author of the U.S. Constitution and virtually the sole author of the Bill of Rights.

“Many students today are completely ignorant of American history. A couple of years ago, I brought up James Madison to illustrate a point in a logic class. Ten out of twenty students—50 percent—had never heard of him.”—@andyswoop
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Hersey: You’re indicating the importance of knowing history, but another school of thought regarding education holds that it’s not so important that students know these facts about history. Its proponents ask, “What are they going to do with that knowledge? How are they going to use that?” And they hold that students instead need to learn such things as how to use an iPad or work in a social setting.

Bernstein: Yes, and before I get to the case for academic training, let me just say that practical skills—using an iPad, cooperating with others, maintaining hygiene, balancing a checkbook—all of these things are important, without a doubt.

But for one, I think a lot of this should be left to mom and dad, who can teach these things effectively. And two, the parents can do it effectively, particularly if schools teach children basic thinking skills: reading, writing, and math. Before a child can learn to balance a checkbook, he must know math.

But let’s talk about the case for academic education, starting with history. Recall what the Harvard philosophy professor George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s exactly right. Where human society is today, or at any point in time, is a direct function of its past. You have no way to understand the present if you don’t know the past—and I don’t mean that it’s difficult—I mean that it’s impossible.

Consider the struggle with jihadists today. Most of us still remember September 11, 2001. We remember al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden hiding out in Afghanistan, sheltered by the Taliban. But we can’t truly understand why they were there or able to do what they did without understanding the Cold War; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; American opposition to the Soviet invasion and the arming of the mujahideen (the Islamic warriors from which the Taliban emerged). And there’s no way to understand the Cold War without understanding the end of WWII—and so on, going back into history.

And why do they hate us? Why do they want to blow up American cities? Some claim that it’s blowback from American interventionism, American involvement in Iran, American support for Israel, all of which I think has some truth to it. But if we do know the history of Islam—Muhammad’s lifetime, the Quran, the Hadith (which is the compendium of sayings and actions ascribed to the prophet, the second most holy book in Islam)—we know that Muslims believe Islam is the one true faith, it’s God’s final revelation, it’s destined to rule the world. And we see that its adherents have been endlessly aggressive against their enemies. We’d also know that the last Islamic attempt to conquer Europe—the final assault on Vienna—was defeated on September 11, 1683. That date has been forgotten in the West. But it’s remembered by jihadists; Osama bin Laden did not pick that date out of a hat. He was delivering the message: Jihad has been quiescent for several centuries as the West grew strong, but it’s back—so be afraid; be very afraid. If we don’t know history, we don’t know any of this. There’s no way to understand that no, it’s not primarily American interventionism, such as it was. It’s the nature of Islam—its teachings and its history—its drive to conquer its enemies.

The same goes for other academic subjects. If we don’t know science, for example, we can’t understand and evaluate claims of man-made global warming. If we do know science, we know that today’s modern warm period was preceded by what’s called the Little Ice Age, when the Earth was much colder. And before that was the Medieval Warm Period, roughly 900 to 1300 AD, when it was a lot warmer—when the Norse settled Greenland, grew crops, and even thought to name it “Greenland.” Before that was the Dark Ages Cold Period, and so on and so forth. We know that the Earth’s temperature fluctuates and that the change in temperature in our day is very modest. And it’s completely within the bounds of natural variability. So, we’d ask, “What is all this hysteria about?” But students today don’t learn this science.

Learning about literature, of course, enables us to appreciate the masters, the beauty of language, and the great stories. TOS just published my essay on learning from tragic literature about how to avoid similar fates. The great writers give us real insight into human nature and moral character.

And mathematics, in addition to its obvious practical applications, trains the mind in rigorous logical thinking. So, I think human beings need basic thinking skills: reading, writing, math. And then they need content: science, literature, history. And once they have that? I agree with Robert Maynard Hutchins, of the Great Books school of thought, who said that if employers can find people who had a real education in this regard, they can train them to do virtually any work via on-the-job training in a matter of weeks, maybe months at most.

Hersey: That’s a good indication of the value of academic education, but I’m wondering if people really grasp the full extent of the arguments against this. I know from your book and your other essays on this topic that there’s a long history of thought that opposes this view. Could we unpack some of that history?

Bernstein: That’s a good question. Prior to WWI, a little more than one hundred years ago, academic education in the United States was outstanding. We have a lot of proxy data showing very high literacy levels. My favorite, going back to the Revolutionary period, is the Federalist essays. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote all of this high-level political theory. College graduates today overwhelmingly would struggle to read the Federalist. But these essays were written as newspaper editorials for laymen of the time. There is a lot of proxy data like that, right up into the early 20th century—even after the imposition of government schools in the mid-19th century.

It starts to change with the rise of the so-called Progressive Era in the early 20th century. The Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” It always rankles me that that era is called “progressive,” because there’s nothing progressive about the socialist schemes propounded by the era’s leading thinkers. They were regressive. They wanted to do away with capitalism to establish a socialist—if not a Communist—system in the United States. And they asked, “Well, how are we going to do that?” IQ testing, the Stanford-Binet tests, had just been developed. And one idea they had was to IQ test all students to find the brightest and then offer them the full academic program: math, science, reading, writing, literature, history. These would be society’s future leaders, both in the legislature and in the classroom. And then the rest, the overwhelming majority, don’t need much academic training. They need practical skills—hygiene, driver’s ed, sex ed, home economics, vocational training, metal shop—because they don’t need to do that much thinking.

John Dewey, who was the godfather of these ideas, was very clear: He thought most of us don’t need academic training. What we need are two things: (1) to be good at our jobs and (2) to obey the wise rules of the state. He held that if everybody lives for the state, we’ll have a very happy collectivist society. His leading disciple, William Heard Kilpatrick, taught philosophy of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and personally taught many teachers. He developed and taught the “Project Method,” which included group projects that emphasized not mere cooperation but conformity. That is, if a student’s judgment contradicts the group’s consensus, he’s wrong. He’s supposed to just go along with the group. That’s what they emphasized, in contrast to, say, Maria Montessori, who emphasized that the child’s independent thinking should be encouraged. Where did Dewey, Kilpatrick, and other “Progressives” go to find the educational system that they admired? They went to the Soviet Union—the Soviet Union under Stalin. And they came back with glowing reports, because the Soviet system beat individualism out of the students and trained them to serve the state. Dewey said explicitly that learning to read at an early age, and gaining an academic education, tends very naturally to pass into selfishness—that the child is then equipped to function independently, and there’s no social gain. Instead they should learn to conform to the group and obey the state. That’s the genesis of this anti-academic training. It’s ugly.

Hersey: Well, to play devil’s advocate, surely ideologues of this consistency and caliber can’t still be running the show, right?

Bernstein: Unfortunately, ideologues of a much worse consistency and caliber are now running the show. Of course, there are still many good teachers in the school system across the country. But they get burned out trying to teach children academic subjects while having to battle a stifling bureaucracy. American historian Arthur Bestor wrote a book in the 1950s called Educational Wastelands, pointing out what he called the “interlocking directorate,” which has all the power in the school system. This consists of the teacher colleges, the state departments of education, and back then what was the forerunner of the federal Department of Education. They have the power, and many of them are hardcore leftists.

Their goal today is not even the practical skills of vocational training so much but pushing a lot of leftist propaganda. For instance, the idea that there are many different genders, and young children—in kindergarten, first grade, second grade—have to be encouraged to choose a gender, as if this were a choice rather than a biological fact. They also foist upon young children the idea of man-made global warming and that America is systemically racist today, like it was one hundred years ago during the Jim Crow era, and that white people are inveterately, inherently racist. If they teach American history at all, very often they use Howard Zinn’s textbook A People’s History of the United States. Talk about much worse than Dewey and Kilpatrick! Zinn was not just your typical Marxist professor; according to the FBI, he was a member of the Communist Party. And his book is just a Communist screed against America. Its message is that America’s evil and racist, capitalism is evil, and Communism is good. This is a lot of what goes on in the school system, which is why parents were so shocked during the pandemic when they were looking over their children’s shoulders and seeing (1) how little education goes on and (2) how much indoctrination goes on.

This is why thirty-year-old soccer moms are outraged at the school boards and with what their children are being “taught” in the schools. And of course, these parents who have this funny idea that they want little Johnny to learn how to read, write, and do math—they’re labeled terrorists by the National School Boards Association, which has called on the federal government to use the full force of government to meet these “terrorists” on their own terms.1 A survey done last summer by the American Federation of Teachers asked parents a simple question: What do you want? And the parents overwhelmingly responded that they wanted more academic education, less indoctrination. That’s what they want, and their demands for it are what makes them terrorists, according to the National School Boards Association.

Recall what Terry McAuliffe, Democrat and former Virginia governor, said: Parents shouldn’t have any say in their children’s education. And just recently, Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman from California, said the same thing. Parents shouldn’t have any say in their children’s education. Now, what does that mean? It means that the state should have total control and be able to teach children anything they want. They should be able to teach them that white people are racist and evil, that capitalism is bad, Communism is good, and so on. It means that students’ minds belong to the state, and the state can do whatever it wants with them. What’s the ultimate goal here? If children belong to the state, that means that when they grow up, their lives don’t belong to them—their lives belong to the state. That’s really what they’re pushing us toward—the same goal as Dewey and Kilpatrick.

Hersey: So, we have this massive problem. What do we do about it?

Bernstein: The government schools cannot be reformed. E. D. Hirsch wrote a very good book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, in which he called the American school system an “impregnable fortress”—it can’t be overrun, changed, reformed. He’s right: It can’t be. But it can be outflanked and circumvented. The best thing parents can do is pull their children from the government schools; stop feeding the monster, and educate children at home. That has many advantages. On every metric, homeschoolers tend to score as high as students who go to the top private schools—and far better than those who go to government schools. And you can see why. In addition to learning from their parents, they’re at home in a safe environment. The government schools have problems with drugs, bullies, crime. There’s usually none of that at home. At home, there also aren’t thirty students in a class; you have two or three children, generally, and mom or dad is teaching.

I know some parents are skeptical. They think, I’m not a teacher. I don’t have teaching skills. And my response is: Well, how good a teacher do you have to be to do a better job than the government schools are doing today? And the answer is, you don’t have to be that much of a teacher. Well, some say, we’re tired after work. I understand that—but it’s your child’s education. And you have many options besides homeschooling, including homeschool co-ops, where parents get together and pool their resources.

Many leftist states, the blue states, have laws against this, but the more conservative states generally do not. And let’s give credit where it’s due: As much as I reject religion and repudiate its faith-based beliefs, American Christians spearheaded the drive toward homeschooling in this country and got it legalized in every state. Three cheers for them on that count. So, more religious, rural areas generally have fewer roadblocks, and parents can pool their resources. One child’s mom is an engineer, so she can teach math. Another’s dad is an MD, so he teaches biology, and so on. Even in the blue states, you have to jump through a lot of hoops, but you can still sometimes do this.

Micro-schools are another great solution. Just a few months ago, we were at an event hosted by our good friend Mike Gustafson, who runs such a school, Atlas Academy in Dracut, Massachusetts. A micro-school is a small community school, the kind that the great Marva Collins ran in Chicago.2 You set up a whiteboard and some chairs, and you have a teacher who knows that students need phonics to learn reading, who knows that they need to learn real American history, not Communist propaganda, and so on. This is so widespread a phenomenon today that Forbes magazine, about a year or so ago, ran an article on micro-schools. They’re often called the return of the one-room schoolhouse. Some have only one teacher with a small number of students who may even be at different grade levels. But they’re learning real cognitive subject matter, not political propaganda. Notably, although Massachusetts is one of the bluest of blue states, if you’re a certified teacher there, as is Mike Gustafson, there are fewer hoops they can make you jump through, so it’s easier to opt out and start your own school. So, I think micro-schools—the return of the one-room schoolhouse—will be a big part of the future of American education. A good website for parents, founders, and funders of micro-schools is MicroSchoolRevolution.com.

So, there are many options: homeschooling, homeschool co-ops, micro-schools—and let’s not forget tutors. I’m a tutor, and this relates to a story I tell in the book. In 1999 or 2000, the CliffsNotes company approached me to write the CliffsNotes for three Ayn Rand titles: Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. The general editor of CliffsNotes told me that when they started out, in the late 1950s, their main demographic was high-school and college students who were too lazy to read the book or who didn’t understand it. Today, their main demographic is high-school English teachers, who either never read these books when they were in college, or worse, don’t understand them—maybe even lack the training to understand them. Why is that?

The reason is that, in every state in the country, future teachers are required to major in education. They have to take tens of hours of education courses, method courses in how to teach, not content courses on what to teach. So, for example, future math teachers are taking significantly fewer math courses than your average math major. They know less math than the average math major. Similarly, for English and science teachers, they take loads of education courses but fewer content courses. They don’t get enough content.

As I point out in the book, teacher training is not that difficult. I’m considered a very good teacher; if you were to give me a bunch of college graduates who really know their subject, whether math, science, history, whatever it is, I could teach them how to teach in one course. It doesn’t take four years of education classes. I would teach them to give lots of examples; tell stories; inductively pull the principles of the subject matter out of the stories and examples; yell if you have to, not in anger, but to generate enthusiasm; walk around the classroom; put stuff on the board. There are a whole bunch of tips to improve their teaching, if they know the subject. But you have to know something to teach before you can learn how to teach it.

So, this is where tutors come in, and this is another good thing that was accelerated by the pandemic: online learning. Graduate students across the country—across the world—are studying content. Maybe a grad student is getting a PhD in biology at the University of Oregon, and here’s a family in Michigan looking for a biology tutor for their children. Well, the PhD student has a degree in biology, not in education, and is taking a whole bunch more graduate courses in biology, so he knows vastly more about the subject than most high-school teachers do. And this poor guy is a graduate student—he’s probably starving. He’s looking for work. Maybe he’s never taught before, but he knows the subject. So, you can get him relatively cheaply. He can make maybe $40 an hour, and he doesn’t have to run from one college to another like I did, when I was tutoring while in grad school. He can sit in his living room or his dorm room and make money at home while building a résumé. And the parents, crucially, get a tutor for their children who knows the subject and who can teach it inexpensively. It’s in everyone’s self-interest.

Hersey: So, take your children out of school, homeschool, maybe form a micro-school with some other parents in your community, and rely on this huge pool of intelligent graduate students who are studying the content of the subject. An education degree is not necessary.

Bernstein: Right—if you know the subject, you can learn how to teach relatively quickly. You can see what works and what doesn’t. Now for future elementary school teachers who are going to be locked in a room with twenty-five little children, that’s a different challenge. And I think future elementary school teachers need to spend a lot of time in the classroom with experienced elementary school teachers to see how it works. In that context, classroom management is critical.

But when you’re homeschooling, you don’t have that problem. You generally have just a few students at a time. It’s much easier, and I’ve seen some really good homeschool parents who motivate their children to get up in the morning, get breakfast, and crank from, say, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. with really rigorous academic subjects—and then they’re done. The children are free for the rest of the day. They can go play with their buddies or whatever. When you motivate them in that way, you can get a lot done in three or so hours. You can really push them academically when they know that when they get this done, they get to go to the park and play football, or whatever. Many good homeschool parents also take their children on field trips. They go to museums, they travel, and they mix education with fun. For instance, maybe they go to Rome. They’ll go to the Colosseum, and mom or dad will discuss the history of the Roman Colosseum with the children. There are endless ways to mix homeschooling with fun childhood activities.

Homeschool parents now also have many resources . There are countless homeschool networks, online curricula, organizations you can join to ask experienced homeschool parents for advice, and so on.

But here’s the key thing, and it’s simple: The most important cognitive skill is reading. And it’s very simple to teach your children to read. It’s very easy, unless the child has brain damage or severe dyslexia. But the vast majority of the population can learn to read easily by the time they’re four years old. Here’s what I did with my daughter when she was two. We used to go to the park and play games and do fun stuff. And part of the fun stuff was that afterward, we’d go to the bookstore or the library, and she would pick out a book. It’s important, parents: Let the child pick out the book. Because the first goal here is to show the child that reading is fun. And, so, my daughter would pick out books about dogs that could fly and kittens that thought the full moon was a bowl of milk—you know, goofy stories like that. But for her at two or three, these were fun. And I read them to her. If you do that regularly, the child learns: Wow, reading is fun—there’s cool stuff in books—I want to learn how to read so I don’t have to rely on mom or dad or teacher. And then by the time the child is four or five at the latest, using systematic phonics, you can teach him to read in a matter of weeks. And then the whole world of knowledge is open to that child. It’s the single most important cognitive skill, and any parent can do it—and do it easily.

Hersey: That’s incredibly powerful advice. I have a little one on the way, as you know, and I find this so inspiring. Thank you for your book and for taking the time to talk about it.

Bernstein: Always a pleasure both to talk to you, Jon, and to talk about education, the most fundamental field of all.

“The government schools cannot be reformed. The best thing parents can do is pull their children out; stop feeding the monster, and educate children at home.” —@andyswoop
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1. See Jon Hersey, “Public School Pandemonium Teaches a Valuable Lesson,” The Objective Standard, November 3, 2021, https://theobjectivestandard.com/2021/11/public-school-pandemonium-teaches-a-valuable-lesson/.

2. For more on Marva Collins, see Carrie-Ann Biondi, “Marva Collins, Her Method, and Her ‘Philosophy for Living,’” The Objective Standard, August 30, 2018, https://theobjectivestandard.com/2018/08/marva-collins-her-method-and-her-philosophy-for-living/.

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