Everything Old is New Again: Three Books from the 1950s that Solve Our Nation’s Present Problems

A shorter piece on “Why Johnny Can’t Read” is posted elsewhere.  Throughout the Bush years I could only think about these books, and when I reread them I not only wondered if anyone in the administration had read them, but if any of the press or policy wonks had, either.  A day does not go by where I do not read some adviser or other put forth part of the puzzle that these three had pushed years before.  Bradbury is more of a prophecy than a road map, and so I end with it.

Everything Old is New Again

Three Books from the 1950s That Solve Our Nation’s Present Problems

If you browse the shelves of a sad used bookstore you will find all of the bestsellers from your parents bookshelves. Among the faded copies of The Thorn Birds and Kon-Tiki, long ago vetted from more upscale used bookstore shelves, will be political tracts, whose authors made the rounds of news programs and talk shows, and whose ideas were held up to the light—and then forgotten. You know their names, but probably have never read them: Why Johnny Can’t Read, The Ugly American, andFahrenheit 451. Three books written in the 1950s demand at least a reread, and at best offer solutions to the three biggest issues facing America today: education, foreign policy, and control of our nation’s culture.

Why Johnny Can’t Recede

One measure of the impact of a cultural event or artifact is its catchphrase being perversely appropriated by any and all completely unrelated causes. From the suffix -gate to the got milk? campaign the sign of success in America is shameless exploitation. Unlike where’s the beef? the title of Rudolf Flesch’s classic Why Johnny Can’t Read is a chestnut that will not die. Still, while the phrase why Johnny can’t…. lives on fifty years after its publication, most educators are completely unfamiliar with the book.

Johnny promotes phonics. Actually, to say that Johnny promotes phonics is to say that Ahab did not like Moby Dick. It does not simply make a case for phonics, but lays down a persuasive argument that obliterates all but the strongest critics. It is a mind shattering read that will shake its reader’s belief about current reading strategies, or make them very, very angry.

It is shocking that those who push phonics have let Johnny gather dust. True, the research is now quite dated—it may not have been convincing at the time—but the force of the argument is crushing. Attempts to refer to it in modern texts miss the full impact of Flesch’s ardent, seething build. The Perennial paperback edition describes it as an “angry, practical book”; two words few people would ever put together. While its useful side consists of simple phonics exercises, it is the rage that sold the book.

Why revisit it? A fifty year old book whose persuasive argument is based on even older research, much of which he attacks, still resonates. Can it? It is the passion that demands the return.

Dear Mary

These two words begin the book. Flesch begins his tract with a letter to Johnny’s mother, who had hired him to teach her son. An emotional touch that allows him to introduce himself to the reader hat in hand (You know that I was born and raised in Austria, he writes on the second page—if she knows, why repeat it?), Flesch quickly abandons any pretense of it being an actual letter because Mary is us. By confiding in us as he would any sympathetic parent he now rallies against the other that is the educational establishment. And it works!

Quickly, Flesch lays out a wide reaching history of language that concludes that the faddish reading system of the fifties is like turning back the clock 3,000 years to the Age of Hammurabi, or learning Chinese—all argued in three pages.

It is on the fifth page that the passionate craze begins. Even as his frustration builds towards fury his punctuation remains a dull period. Wiley as a evangelical preacher, he baits his arguments with questions that he knows the answer to. Every paragraph starts to have a questioning sentence:

You don’t believe me?

You know what that means?

So what does he get instead?

Not until the fifth page, though, does Flesch really unleash the stylistic tricks. He uses his first exclamation point! His language up to this point assumed one, but he has craftily waited until now to use it. Every word in the language! is his indignant summation of the previous paragraph. The tone, already disdainful, turns to mocking. He uses contemptuous quotation marks, as in, used with the exactly “right” amount of repetition—you can practically see his fingers making the gesture as he speaks to the typewriter.

All the while he is weaving the text with learned historical references and titles of the classics. Finally, he unleashes his wrathful vocabulary in answer to the question of what Johnny gets as an alternative to Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott or Bulfinch.

So what does he get instead? He gets those series of horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers, the stuff and guff about Dick and Jane or Alice and Jerry visiting farms and having birthday parties and seeing animals in the zoo and going through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-I.Q. children’s activities that offer opportunities for reading “Look, look” or “yes, yes” or “Come, come” or “See the funny, funny animal.”

He had us at Dear Mary, but this seals the deal. From there he takes punches at the usual targets of greedy publishing houses and ivory towered academics—sometimes at the same time. He writes to his rhetorical question, Who writes these books? The reply, Naturally, the stupendous and frighteningly idiotic work on concocting this stuff can only be done by tireless teamwork of many educational drudges. Who can argue that writing what he calls a “textbook” is not drudgery?

This kick in the teeth is why Johnny is still relevant to anyone who cares about how reading is taught. One problem is that we no longer believe that our public schools can do the job. Parents demanding change from the school board, the major thrust for change, are being replaced by parents demanding vouchers. As the repercussions of NCLB kick in, those parents who traditionally would have pounded their fists insisting on changes are now being bought off. It is not the best students who will be skimmed from the public schools, but the most active parents. The naysayers have no vision, but simply want to flee.

As Johnny ages past fifty it seems odd that no one has picked up Flesch’s torch—not of phonics, but of passionate belief in the power of education. Flesch believed in education. For all of his protest, bluster and rant Flesch supported public education. As an immigrant he knew that in a country founded on equality and opportunity our public school system has been the bedrock foundation for which these values have long rested. More important, Flesch laid out not only criticism of reading programs from his era, but also a solution. It was not only well thought out, but quite detailed. Indeed, the last sixty pages offer exercises for parents to supplement what Flesch felt should be taught in schools.

Why can’t all of the critical Johnnies do that today?

The Uglier American

First published in 1958, The Ugly American became a catchphrase that also took a life of its own. Like Johnny, the catchphrase came to mean something different than the original work, leaving everyone into thinking they had read the book, or got the gist of it, from the phrase itself.

They were wrong.

Co-written by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, the book is a collection of stories woven together around the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan. Each story offers a specific illustration of how people use their skills and resources for a positive change, or how self-centered, short sighted ignorance undermines native people’s natural goodwill for America. And while each story has a certain “duh” quality in the strategy’s obviousness, they are oddly inspirational in their subtle complexity. By the end of the book you want to slap every White House, DOD or state department talking head with a copy of it.

There are several minor stories, ranging from adventure seeking secretaries to wise-but-overruled military men, but the tale of Homer Atkins, the “ugly American” himself, is typical. Described as “ugly” because his nails are dirty from working with his hands, those same hands have built him a multi-million dollar business back in Philadelphia. In Vietnam as a consultant to large engineering projects, he disappoints handsome-but-incompetent government officials by suggesting decidedly low tech ones instead. Asked by the progressive ambassador to Sarkahan, Gilbert MacWhite, the one thread holding the book together, Atkins solves a water transportation problem using local resources.

But it is his method that piques our interest.

Atkins wants to turn a profit. Kind hearted by no Peace Corp volunteer, Atkins wants to help the locals but also recognizes that only a profit motive will sustain any permanent change. His native protégé, Jeepo (a.k.a. the “Ugly Sarkhanese), says, “…on the ones (pumps) we make, we deserve the profit. That is the way of working men.” Later, Jeepo, quotes Atkins to his sales force saying, “one of the best things that can happen to engineers like yourself is to be allowed to sell what they make.” And he is not an isolated case. The book starts with the story of John Colvin, a Wisconsin OSS operative-cum diary farmer who introduces dried milk as a profitable protein source. By the end of the book both are prospering, as is Sarkhan. In the end, it is a bootstrap Republican aid package.

It all sounds like the stories of microloans told during the lead-up to Mohammad Yumas and the Grameen Bank being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. These loans have gone mostly to women, and the life-changing capability of funding bamboo furniture production or a cell phone to link a rural village to the world for a profit has been well documented. If it works in Bangledesh and countries without our help, why can it not work in nations we really, really want to pacify?

Unlike Why Johnny Can’t Read, where practice and success of reading strategies is still being debated, the lessons from The Ugly American have played out again and again, most notably in our failures in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And while cultural empathy and understanding are liberal boilerplates, Lederer and Burdick have made a sound case for those traits that make the world look to America despite our hapless blunders.

The Book About Burning Books

Out of these three, Fahrenheit 451 is probably the one book you have read, albeit in junior high school. When you read it, you focused on the irony of firemen burning things, mostly books, and the theme that great ideas are dangerous to social order. This is what you wrote a paper on, at least, or wrote on the quiz.

And that is all you can remember.

Now that books seem quaint, and buying them is more of a activity surrounding gift giving than actual cultural relevance, “Fahrenheit 451″ is a phrase used to impose images of fascism. Orwell corners the general market on references of totalitarian rule, with 1984 offering phases like “big brother” and “newspeak”, and having child story suggesting Animal Farm lend quotes to drop like, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Yet Fahrenheit 451 and author Ray Bradbury is evoked when the arts are involved. The first line, “It ws a pleasure to burn” sums up the desire of those in power to destroy the word of truth.

And if that is all you can remember, all the more the pity.

Bradbury might have seen books as a physical savior of society, but his portrait of television, violence and youth was fifty years ahead of its time. These ideas are the ones that are forgotten, even by those who read the book.

The radical of the book is a teen age girl Clarisse McClellan. Barely a character, she is a foil for everyone else. While everyone is focused on things, she is enlivened by nature. Her family does not own a television, while the protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag, is married to Mildred, a woman who feels deprived because her television does not have a fourth wall. While Clarisse talks of ideas, Montag’s wife cannot remember the plots of her shows and is incapable of having a conversation. We are introduced to Mildred after she has overdosed on pills, which too handymen with a machine clean her out of for fifty bucks, while Clarisse is killed by a car (although a definitive end is never said).

And that car.

Society breaking into a bored violence is the point that many people miss when reading Bradbury. It seems that, without arts and literature and only the drivel of television, life becomes cheap. Teens amuse themselves when they go to the Fun Park to, “bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with a big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lampposts, playing ‘chicken’ and ‘knock hubcaps’. She says, “I’m afraid of child my own age. They kill each other… Six friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of the died in wrecks.” And then she disappears, but not before acting as a wake up call to Guy Montag.

There is an overriding boredom in Bradbury’s world.

While dystopian overabundant societies are many in movies and literature, Bradbury’s conceits are simple acts of blandness. There is no running man as a modern bread and circus, designed to distract the population from the state. Mildred is excited because she has been chosen to perform in one of the teleplays. The script has been sent to her, and the characters speak their lines and pause for hers. But, unlike Winston Smith’s television in 1984, they cannot see her and the tape is unaware when she fumbles her lines and the play moves on without her. Still, to Mildred, it is the one moment she feels alive; that she belongs.

If everything sounds, well, done before it is Bradbury’s understated presentation of the world that makes this dystopian novel more current than Orwell and Aldous Huxley’s hedonistic Brave New World. It is not about what can happen, but the now. This is why we think of Fahrenheit 451 as being about burning books; our voting for America’s next singing idol or survivor distracts us from seeing more.

Two of the titles—Why Johnny Can’t Read and The Ugly American—have gone in and out of print, while Fahrenheit 451 continues to be a middle and high school staple. The subject you want to be upset most about is the way to chose which book to start with, but be ready to push the discussion beyond catchphrase at your next social gathering.


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