The Lysenko School of Education

in Education

Summary: Article notes disturbing similarities between Communist “biology” and American “education.”

In mid-20th-century, the Communist Party wanted to believe that the environment could alter a species. The political payoff would be that Russia’s Communists could grow more wheat and create a New Socialist Man in a generation or two. A scientist named Trofim Lysenko elaborated this theory in great detail; and Stalin pronounced it True. For several decades there were two kinds of genetics in the world, what the Communists believed and what the rest of the world practiced. Stalin simply declared that 2 + 2 equals 5, as in the famous scene in Orwell’s “1984,” and all the people under his power enthusiastically accepted Lysenko’s teachings.

Wikipedia sums up the story this way: “Scientific dissent from Lysenko's theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was formally outlawed in 1948, and for the next several years opponents were purged from held positions, and many imprisoned....Today much of Lysenko's agricultural experimentation and research is largely viewed as fraudulent.”

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “That’s so stupid. Those Commies are such jerks, pretending they can just dictate what the truth is. Fortunately we never had anything like that in our country...”

Many in the West derive a smug feeling of superiority vis-à-vis the ursine Russians. There is just one little problem. Lysenko apparently operated a branch office over here. Did you never hear of Look-say? How about New Math? What about Constructivism? And a dozen other preposterous gimmicks? All of these things were taught as fact at the Lysenko School of Education. You might say that Lysenkoism comes in many shapes and sizes.

In the mid-1930’s (when Lysenko began creating his politically correct genetics), American educators were creating a new method for the teaching of reading. I’d argue that Look-say (which is also referred to as Whole Word, Dolch Words, and other aliases) is just as fraudulent as Lysenko’s genetics. And please note, propounded for the same reasons. The people running the show wanted this theory to be true. So they piled up a mountain of so-called research, presented their story to the world with a straight face, and thereby eased the public schools into the twilight zone.

But, you might be asking, is it really that simple? Yes, if you’ve got centralized power, and Party members who enthusiastically embrace the Party Line.

As of 2011, our Education Establishment has morphed Whole Word into Balanced Literacy. (This shift is best understood as a strategic retreat.) So it’s important to remind ourselves just how completely insane this theory was in its pure form from 1935 to 2000. That’s 65 years when the official dogma was that children could learn to read by memorizing the graphic shapes of words, the same way we memorize currency symbols, electrical symbols, flags, faces, or the designs of cars. Truth is, 100 designs is doable; 1,000 is a huge project beyond the capacity of most people. (Remember, the theory presupposes that children can achieve instant recall or automaticity, which is very difficult for even a small set of designs.) But the Party Line stated that most people could learn 50,000 sight-words!

Here’s the main historical point: the public schools of the United States taught this hoax with the same fervor that the Russian Communists brought to the teaching of Lysenko’s bogus genetics. Teachers were fired (purged) when they refused to give up phonics. The result of this unhappy shot at social engineering was 50,000,000 functional illiterates. Perhaps (this must be considered) diminished literacy was the goal. Many elite educators, we know, were obsessed with social control and ideological transformations.

To pursue such schemes, you must have the kind of Party members that Orwell described in “1984”: “A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm.”

Savor next a quote from H. L. Mencken in 1928 when he described educators at Columbia Teachers College: “To take a Ph.D. in education in most American seminaries, is an enterprise that requires no more real acumen or information than taking a degree in window dressing....Most pedagogues...are simply dull persons who have found it easy to get along by dancing to whatever tune happens to be lined out. At this dancing they have trained themselves to swallow any imaginable fad or folly, and always with enthusiasm.”

I find it fascinating that Orwell and Mencken use the word “enthusiasm” in exactly the same way, to describe mindless totalitarian zeal.

Orwell is our great elucidator of ideological extremities, where 2+2=5 and you learn to love Big Brother. I suspect that Orwell’s “Ignorance Is Strength” is the greatest political analysis we’ll see. He explains the psychology of the Party and the kind of person who rises to the top of such organizations. More than anything else, they must have enthusiasm for whatever they are told to have enthusiasm for. Unfortunately, there are many such people at the Lysenko School of Education.

I harp on Whole Word and the 50,000,000 functional illiterates because they give us the most clear-cut case of malfeasance committed in plain sight. But I’m satisfied now that New Math comes from the same people, and was intended to do for math what Whole Word did for reading. And then they came up with Constructivism, which seems to me to do for all subjects what New Math did for arithmetic. Well, you see the point. The great genius of American education is to create phony programs that pretend to do something they don’t do, and then promote them with boundless enthusiasm.

Do any of these charges sound extreme? Have you not seen the international comparative testing which invariably places United States 20th or 25th or 30th in basic subjects such as reading and math? Given that the country is spending as much per student is any other country, we would expect to see our students in the top five spots. That we do poorly in these international comparisons tells us that the Lysenko School of Education is still powerful, still churning out armies of enthusiastic experts.

American geneticist I. Michael Lerner calls Lysenko’s genetics "the most bizarre chapter in the history of modern science." Evidently, Lerner never heard of Whole Word.

(Bruce Deitrick Price writes about culture, education, and language on Improve-Education.org. For analysis related to the article, see “36: The Assault on Math” and “42: Reading Resoruces” on that site.)

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Bruce Deitrick Price is the founder of Improve-Education.org, an outspoken education and intellectual site. One focus is reading; see "42: Reading Resources." Another focus is education reform; see “38: Saving Public Schools.” Price is an author, artist and poet. His fifth book is "THE EDUCATION ENIGMA--What Happened to American Education."

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The Lysenko School of Education

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This article was published on 2011/03/08