Monkeys, Rats and ... Children
Trained by two Wundt students, Andrew Armstrong and Charles Judd, Edward Lee Thorndike ventured into experiments with monkeys, cats, rats, mice, chickens and other animals in mazes or other laboratory settings, pioneering “animal psychology,” then applying the same techniques to children, resulting in publication of, among others, his 1903 text, Educational Psychology.
References to similarities between man and various animals run through Thorndike’s works.
“We do not know when homo sapiens split off from the parent anthropoid stock,” he wrote in Human Learning, “whether for example he is uncle, cousin, or nephew of the chimpanzees.” But, he claimed, one found the “same type of learning” in monkeys and man.6
In 1906, Thorndike presented a new definition of education in his book, The Principles of Teaching Based on Psychology: “the art of giving and withholding stimuli with the result of producing or preventing certain responses.”
Most of Thorndike’s works were published during his long affiliation with Columbia University’s Teachers College, which named a building after him. But the accolades he received were not enough for him. A eugenicist to the end, he expressed his hope that the school would establish conditions for “selective breeding before the masses take things into their own hands.”7
So disdainful of intellectual development among the “masses” was he that Thorndike ridiculed the three Rs and scorned fundamental learning with such statements as “drills on phonetics, multiplication tables, and formal writing movements are used to a wasteful degree. Subjects such as arithmetic, language and history include content that is intrinsically of little value. ... [T]he typical school overemphasizes instruction in these formal, academic skills.”8 (Emphasis added.)
Thorndike became known as the “father of educational psychology,” with his stimulus-response hypotheses instrumental in teacher training. Engineered by educational psychologists, schools and their curricula evolved into the new mazes, with children the experimental “animals.”
“Academic Child Abuse”
Another American, James Cattell, traveled to Germany in 1883 and spent three years with Wundt, earning a doctorate. In Wundt’s lab, he studied the reading patterns of literate adults.
Because these adults did not “sound out” the words they read, Cattell theorized that neither should children. He “determined that little is gained by teaching the child sounds and letters as the first step to being able to read,”9 reasoning that children should instead focus on the “whole word.”
Thus, efforts to eliminate teaching the individual letters of the alphabet and to drop phonics in favor of “word-sight-recognition” stem from Wundt’s laboratory.
According to author John Taylor Gatto, former New York State Teacher of the Year and three-time New York City Teacher of the Year, “From 1911 to 1981, there were 124 legitimate studies attempting to prove Cattell and the other whole-word advocates right. Not a single one confirmed whole word reading as effective.”10
This failure to give children full opportunity to learn to read was described to Freedom as “academic child abuse” by Dr. Patrick Groff, board member and senior adviser of the National Right to Read Foundation.
But it has been a factor in America’s literacy decline — from among the most literate of nations to today’s middle-of-the-pack status. Decades of problems have followed in its wake. Studies document, for example, that those who are illiterate are more inclined to turn to crime, with one source noting “85 percent of all juvenile offenders have reading problems.”11