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Our lobotomized children

By Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld

You see them everywhere. These young people without brains who congregate in parking lots, haunt shopping malls, drive around aimlessly on Saturday night, partying, drinking, smoking, having sex, experimenting with drugs, getting into fights. They complain so often about being bored, bored in school, bored with themselves, bored with life. Of course, the reason why they are bored is because they themselves are so utterly boring. They haven't read a good book in their entire lives; they have no intellectual interests or curiosity. It's as if the entire world of the mind is closed to them, and the only activities that make them feel alive are uncontrolled sex, drugs and violence -- all of which are so self-destructive.

Jay Leno often interviews these vapid individuals on the avenues of Los Angeles so that we can get a good laugh from their ignorance. But their ignorance is nothing to laugh about. It's a great American tragedy. We compel these kids to spend 12 years in school at a cost of billions of dollars to be "educated," and what we get is appalling ignorance. It's as if all of these kids have undergone lobotomies, so that they no longer have minds that can analyze, or think, or be creative. What we have are teen-age consumers, easily stimulated by highly emotional ads, whose interests are limited to what they can touch in a department store or see in the movies or on television or hear on a rap music station.

Back in the 1930s and '40s, when I was going to school, I was never bored. I could read, and therefore the library was a tremendous source of stimulating ideas and stories. The world was a tremendously interesting place. I was taught music appreciation in the third grade by a teacher who played short classics on a portable Victrola. That short once-a-week class opened the whole world of classical music for me. I can still remember some of the pieces she played: "The Swan" by Saint-Saens, "March Slav" by Tchaikovsky, "The William Tell Overture" by Rossini.

We read good poetry written by the great poets, not the cute greeting-card type of poems that kids now read, devoid of insight or wisdom or true beauty of language and thought. And it isn't that today's kids are not capable of learning to enjoy such great literature. It's that their limited ability to read makes it impossible for them to even venture into that ever fascinating and expansive world of the written word.

Some months ago, a father brought his 15-year-old, ninth-grade son to me to be tested. This very intelligent boy had a reading problem which was preventing him from advancing in his education. He was tested by the school which determined that the boy should sit closer to the teacher, be given extra time to "process information," have his assignments cut into smaller segments for easier handling, listen to books on tapes, use Cliff notes when reading novels, and stay after school to make up for missed work. There was no attempt whatever to deal with the boy's reading problem. Which is why his father brought him to me. I cure dyslexics.

This youngster was no different from so many others I have worked with over the last 30 years. He was a typical sight-reader who had been given a sight vocabulary to memorize in the first grade and thereby acquired a holistic reflex, which would handicap him for the rest of his life. In other words, he had been taught to look at each word as if it were a Chinese character and was required to remember it holistically by its configuration or association with a picture. When a child is taught to read holistically and develops a holistic reflex, the reflex becomes an obstacle to seeing the word in its phonetic structure, especially if the child has been taught little or no phonics.

All alphabetically written words have a phonetic structure. But you must learn the letter sounds and be drilled in consonant-vowel combinations in order to develop the needed phonetic reflex or automaticity, so that reading becomes easy and enjoyable, and the phonetic structure of a word is perfectly transparent. But if you have not been taught intensive phonics, and made to look at each word as a picture, you will never become a fluent reader.

When I asked this boy, who is now in high school, what was a short a, he had no idea. He did understand the concept that letters stand for sounds. But this kind of phonetic knowledge in and of itself does not create a phonetic reflex; it simply provides information, which the child may or may not use. And because it requires conscious effort to use this information, reading becomes a difficult and painful chore which must be avoided. In fact, I once tutored an adult, a highly successful entrepreneur, who told he that he would rather be beaten than have to read.

And this could easily have become the case with this youngster. When I had him read paragraphs from a variety of books, it was easy to see that he was a holistic reader and made all of the misreadings typical of this kind of sight-reader. The only way he could read multisyllabic words was to find smaller sight words within the big words. But he made so many crucial errors in his reading, that his comprehension had to suffer.

That the schools permit these learning problems to persist and can offer no hope of meaningful remediation means that every child who has developed a holistic reflex is condemned to a life with a very limited use of mind. It is true that some individuals have the inner resources to overcome their reading disability, but apparently these empty headed kids with the lobotomized look, do not have that inner resource. They will go through life believing that they are stupid, pursue careers that require a minimum of reading, and lead lives of illiteracy. They will suffer, their children will suffer, and America will suffer.

Some months ago, Frontline of the Public Broadcasting System, did a documentary program on the "Lost Children of Conyers, Georgia," where an outbreak of syphilis among high school students brought attention to the dissolute life style of many of the teen-agers in that town. The social life of these kids revolved around their peer groups at school. They were bored. They had nothing to do, so they indulged in sex, drinking, drugs, cigarettes and obscene rap music. What was missing was the life of the mind, the ability to think, to analyze, to understand that life meant more than just abusing oneself. Everybody tended to blame the parents because the parents gave these kids every material good available.

Nobody blamed the school and the fact that these kids had been lobotomized in the first grade by their loving teachers. These kids could not use their minds because they no longer had them. Thus, their lives would revolve around emotional and sensual activities that resembled a roller coaster ride. They would be reduced to primitive pre-civilized behavior. True, they had all of the paraphernalia of our high-tech civilization, but their emotional lives would be lived on the level of pre-literate, prehistoric society.

That's what public education has given us, and the vast majority of Americans have no idea why it is the way it is. And that's why they keep supporting the system with billions of tax dollars.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of parents who have seen the light and have turned to home schooling. In general, home-schoolers teach their children to read by phonics so that their children can eventually educate themselves by reading history, biographies, novels, poetry, and the Bible.

Meanwhile, the two major candidates for the Presidency offer different approaches to our ongoing educational problems. Gore, the obedient child of the National Education Association, strongly opposes vouchers and is not at all friendly toward home-schoolers. In fact the Democratic Party platform reflects the NEA's hostility toward home schooling. Bush, on the other hand, favors vouchers, speaks highly of phonics, and is sympathetic toward home schooling. Both, of course, intend to spend lots more money on public education. What this means is that we ought not to expect politicians to solve our education problems. They will have to be solved by parents willing to make the necessary sacrifices to send their children to decent private schools or educate them at home, for the only true reform of education will take place when the government gets out of the education business.

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