Guest essay by Martin G. Selbrede
Whether the National Education Association ever officially identified Samuel L. Blumenfeld as its “Public Enemy #1” or not is hard to say. The claim has certainly taken on a life of its own, particularly on the web, being found most often in liberal hit pieces but also in friendly advertisements targeting audiences who’d see this as a mark of honor. Sam himself was more reserved about this claim. On October 21, 2009, when provided the perfect opportunity to confirm the story, he steered around it:
At the National Education Association’s convention, held last July in San Diego, retiring general counsel of the organization, Bob Chanin, in his swan-song speech to the union’s faithful, asked the rhetorical question, “Why are these conservative and right-wing b*****ds picking on the NEA and its affiliates?”… By the way, I’m probably “b*****d” number one in Mr. Chanin’s eyes, since it was I who first blew the whistle on the ultra left-wing union with my book NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education, published in 1984. The NEA legal department bought 10 copies of the book when it first came out. They went through it with a fine-tooth comb in the hope of finding some error or misstatement. Of course, they found nothing, for I simply quoted NEA publications which were quite frank about where they stood on all of the issues that concerned parents.1
Whether he was an official Public Enemy #1 of the NEA, or simply someone whose parentage the NEA may have questioned, Sam was a formidable opponent of public education, and the NEA in particular. So formidable, in fact, that attempts to rebut criticisms of public schools appear to have been shaped, in part, in response to Sam’s work … without even mentioning his name.
This insight can be perceived in the 1994 volume The Manufactured Crisis, in which authors David Berliner and Bruce Biddle rise to the defense of public schools against alternative educational formats. After announcing their “outrage” at alleged “organized malevolence”2 against public education, the authors get down to business by defusing criticism based on dropping SAT scores.3 They first complain that the drop isn’t statistically significant and cannot be read as a decline in school performance. (Had the scores risen, do you honestly believe they’d say that couldn’t be read as an improvement in performance?) After they work up their preferred weighting of SAT statistics via disaggregation,4 the negative results are reversed: schools are actually getting better, meaning the critics are guilty of “hysterical fraud.”5 They don’t hesitate to use the term liars for their opponents.6
But neither are these two vocal defenders of public education willing to touch the topic of literacy, except to tie it exclusively to poverty7 and never to the ever-blameless state schools. Sam Blumenfeld, on the other hand, was a warrior in the trenches who devoted the better part of his life to restoring literacy to the next generation, often undoing the damage directly inflicted on children by the public schools. Sam worked one-on-one with countless students who’d been written off as hopeless. He also made sure his work would survive him.
Although we rightly mourn the loss of a warrior, we rejoice that he has passed the torch to others to blaze brighter trails into our future. Some of Sam’s torches shed light into the dark corners of American statist education and social engineering, while others served to illuminate positive alternatives. In other words, Sam was the rare reconstructionist who could not only tear down strongholds but also build new foundations. As such, we do him a disservice if we fail to bring both sides of Sam’s work into focus.
Sam Blumenfeld and the Big Picture
Sam’s association with Dr. R. J. Rushdoony and the Chalcedon Foundation has been a long and fruitful one. As to his conversion to Christianity, Sam didn’t hesitate to admit that God used Dr. Rushdoony to bring him to faith. In 1995 Sam provided a new foreword to the reprint of Rushdoony’s The Messianic Character of American Education, thereby closing the circle. Sam was able to distil the progress of the battle since the book’s appearance in 1963 down to four pregnant sentences:
Thirty-two years later we know that Dr. Rushdoony was a prophet who, as one could have predicted, was scarcely taken seriously by Christians at the time, but was, surprisingly, well understood by state boards of education. They hoped that Christian parents would ignore the prophet and continue to put their children in these ungodly institutions. And they did. The result has been devastating—academically, spiritually, and morally.8
While defenders of the state schools charged critics with fraud, Sam reflected the charge back on their heads in articles like “The Fraud of Educational Reform”9 and books with titles like The Whole Language/OBE Fraud. The theme of the former article was later independently elaborated by Dr. Bruce N. Shortt in a heavily documented analysis entitled “School Reform: A Popular Delusion,”10 which exhibited the validity of Sam’s earlier charges. Sam himself made clear that statist educators were guilty of nothing else than educational malpractice, with academia and media being complicit in the cover-up required to perpetuate that malpractice at ever greater social cost:
It is estimated that one third of the children who enter public school do not learn to read—not because they can’t, but because of widespread educational malpractice that keeps them from doing so. State supervision, accreditation and certification of teachers have not only not prevented educational malpractice in the public schools but have guaranteed that it will continue for many years to come.11
To challenge public education is to put oneself in a very hot kitchen, and the statists did not fail to turn up the heat on perceived opponents. It takes remarkable courage to stand against the tide and the massed weight of institutional promotion of the public schools. These considerations didn’t faze Samuel Blumenfeld, who didn’t shrink from openly asserting that “professors of education are probably the most useless, parasitic group in American society.”12
Blumenfeld’s contempt for the educational methods being used in public schools was equally blunt: “current methods of reading instruction in American schools are based on psycholinguistics, which is, in my view, the chief cause of our learning disability explosion.”13 And the reason the defenders of public schools couldn’t mount a defense against these criticisms was because Sam did something concrete to inculcate literacy in the victims of the public school system. Sam’s successes formed a defensive barrier against the machine’s counter-attacks. Sam put his money where his mouth was, thereby stopping the mouths of his critics.
The Necessity of a Two-Pronged Approach
It’s one thing to attack statist education. It’s another thing entirely to promote a credible alternative. As Dr. Gary North was right to observe, “You can’t fight something with nothing.” Sam understood this fact, even prior to his conversion to Christianity (which put yet another tool into Sam’s hands: the moral obligation of the parents in respect to the schooling of their children). Sam used a sword-and-trowel approach, although unlike his predecessors in Nehemiah’s time, Sam’s sword was an offensive weapon.
There was surely a need to expose the public school system, but exposés do not constitute a complete strategy. As Dr. Rushdoony often pointed out, it is far more important to plant strong healthy plants than to endlessly pull weeds. And although it alienated many who equated exposés and critiques as the proper sum of anti-statist efforts, Rushdoony pressed forward with this emphasis. Isaiah taught that “they that shall be of thee shall build” (Isa. 58:12). Sam was as dedicated to building literacy in America as he was to tearing down strongholds.
The glory, perhaps even the big money, was in attacking the public schools, but Sam continued to focus as much, if not more, attention on the far-less-glorious work of building workable alternatives and putting them into practice in real lives. “Here’s the right way to teach reading” (including development of an entire phonics program14 and its associated materials)—this was the more valuable work Sam did, however unsung these efforts seemed to be. These constructive achievements gave Sam a basis for comparison that nobody could diminish. He couldn’t be effectively countered … only ignored. But his legacy rests in his positive contributions to literacy among Americans, and particularly among American Christians.
This two-pronged approach can be seen in the work of Dr. R. J. Rushdoony as well: the finely honed critique of American public education (The Messianic Character of American Education15) followed by a positive exposition of what a Christian curriculum is intended to achieve (The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum16). For theological and ideological underpinnings of a curriculum, the latter work is unmatched, but the nuts and bolts of a curriculum did not fall within its scope. Samuel Blumenfeld’s work, however, does exhibit the required granularity to constitute an actual, worked-out curriculum. That it is uniformly excellent—not to mention fully proven in real life application—only strengthens its hold on our respect. In effect, Sam’s work delivers on the kind of in-depth application that Dr. Rushdoony’s works had called for, and done so in a definitive fashion.
It is no surprise, therefore, that a cursory glance at Sam’s published books shows that constructive works and critical works dovetail one after another in almost perfect alternation—beginning with the constructive component first.17
Undoing the Damage of Public School Reading Programs
Sam Blumenfeld documented the knowingly deliberate inculcation of disorganized behavior and mental processing forced upon students subjected to modern look-say and whole language reading programs in the public education system. In 2005 he summarized his findings in alarming terms:
Children are unable to react to two mutually exclusive tendencies (holistic and phonetic) and therefore have a cognitive breakdown, which is then labeled as dyslexia, functional illiteracy, reading disability or learning disability. And the behaviorists know exactly how to make this condition occur. The process can be easily explained: what would you do if as a motorist you were confronted at an intersection with both a green and red light? Would you stop or go? Your tendencies would be in conflict, and thus you would be paralyzed. Imagine this process taking place in the brain of a child paralyzed by a conflict between the holistic and the phonetic.18
In short, there is a major difference between students who learn language from the outset via a phonetic approach versus those upon whom modern reading methods have been inflicted. The latter student has become impaired in the use of his mental apparatus: he starts far behind the starting line when he begins remedial measures. This regression must be overcome. Sam, looking out on the bleak landscape of state-sponsored illiteracy, moved in terms of the human tragedy being played out before his eyes:
One of the reasons why it is so difficult to remediate a dyslexic is because the holistic reflex is so firmly established that learning to read phonetically can become a very uncomfortable, if not painful, process. It requires learning the alphabetic system and being drilled in letter and syllable sounds so that the learner develops a phonetic reflex to replace the holistic one. This writer has achieved success in curing some dyslexics of their reading problems by using his own highly structured instruction program. In other words, there do exist perfectly good phonetic reading programs that the schools can use. We are not looking for a cure for cancer. The cure to America’s illiteracy problem exists, but the schools will not use it.19
Not surprisingly, John Dewey identified the teaching of language using the dyslexia-inducing methods championed by modern educators as “subversive, in the best sense of the word.”20 By mounting a counter-revolution against the educrats, Sam Blumenfeld was himself being subversive in providing an alternative to the statist agenda.
In other words, to teach actual literacy is now considered a revolutionary act, as such action tracks in the opposite direction intended by those in charge of American public education. Sam’s books have become revolutionary, or more accurately, have heralded a conservative counter-revolution to the statist status quo. The burgeoning of homeschooling and Christian schooling during the heyday of Sam’s work in the field of education was no accident, nor was his eventual association with the Chalcedon Foundation as a research specialist.
A Warrior with a Heart for Children
We all know of social critics who passionately decry the abuses they claim to see, but who don’t lift a finger to remove these burdens off the backs of the afflicted. Such individuals have the benefit of cheap virtue on their side, but the societal rot isn’t lifted, even incrementally, under the weight of their disputations. This is the weakness of working with a sword but leaving your trowel back in the shed. Critics who only criticize are much like the priest and the Levite who made a wide berth around the badly beaten man in the roadside ditch, who later talked tough about crime on Judea’s roads. What is actually needed is a Samaritan to make a beeline straight for the injured victim.
Samuel L. Blumenfeld was that Samaritan. He made his work much more difficult as a result of that orientation, but he reached out to undo the effects of state educational malpractice, and to put human lives back on track. So when Sam would hold forth on the effects of public education on the young, he comes by his passion honestly. He’s not merely a hearer of the word, but a doer of the word.
Watch closely, if you will, the section where Sam is briefly interviewed in the landmark film IndoctriNation. The earnestness in Sam’s eyes as he explains what public schools are doing to America’s children is not the result of slick theatrics or refined oratory mixed with calculated moral posturing. You are witnessing a heart sold out for the cause of the victims of statist, humanist education, a report from the front lines of the battle from someone who not only took the battle to the enemy, but who carried the wounded off the battlefield and nursed them back to health.
Samuel L. Blumenfeld was the whole package, one who exemplified, in his heart and in his person, a rather surprising prediction of the prophet Obadiah. That Old Testament prophet foresaw an extraordinary thing that would mark the future, where the two-pronged approach of delivering the wounded and judging the oppressors would mark the warriors of God: “And saviours shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau” (Obadiah 1:21). We don’t often see the concept of multiple human saviors in Scripture, who also undertake to judge the evils of their time: men who simultaneously bind the wounded and discomfit the adversary.
Sam was one of these men. And we are the poorer for his being called home by the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior by way of eminence. Pray that those now standing on Sam’s shoulders would catch and extend that same vision, with the same selflessness, as Sam had.
Our times call for no less a level of commitment. We are blessed to have had the best of examples to emulate.
- Samuel Blumenfeld, “NEA Chief Calls Conservatives “B*****ds”, The New American (October, 2009).
- David C. Berliner & Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994), p. xi.
- Ibid, pp. 16–23.
- Ibid, p. 20f.
- Ibid, p. 14.
- Ibid, p. 160, subhead “Liars, Damn Liars, and Statisticians.”
- Ibid, p. 10.
- R. J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1995 ), p. viii.
- Samuel Blumenfeld. “The Fraud of Educational Reform.” Journal for Christian Reconstruction 11:2 (1987), pp. 22–26.
- Bruce N. Shortt, The Harsh Truth About Public Schools (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon, 2004), pp. 239–292.
- Samuel L. Blumenfeld, How To Tutor (Vallecito, CA: Storehouse Press, [1973, 1986] 2014), pp. x–xi.
- Samuel Blumenfeld, “The Fraud of Educational Reform.” Journal for Christian Reconstruction 11:2 (1987), p. 23.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers (Vallecito, CA: Storehouse Press, [1983, 1997, 2005] 2011). Of particular note is the expanded description on the work’s title page: An effective, step-by-step, intensive phonics program for teaching reading to beginners of all ages. In bold type beneath this description: Student Workbook & Instruction Manual. The goal of gaining automaticity in reading phonetically is reachable due to the painstaking attention to detail that Sam took in preparing this volume. I’m only aware of one other approach that comes close to this work’s achievement (Romalda Bishop Spalding’s The Writing Road to Reading), implying that Sam’s work is one of the top two phonics programs currently available.
- Op. cit. One can also cite Rushdoony’s work from two years earlier, Intellectual Schizophrenia, as the first volley across the bow of statist education, but Messianic Character is more directly focused on the educational enterprise than its predecessor.
- R. J. Rushdoony, Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books,  2011).
- The first three decades of books by Samuel L. Blumenfeld break down chronologically in this manner: How to Start Your Own Private School (1972, constructive), The New Illiterates (1973, critical), How to Tutor (1973, constructive), Is Public Education Necessary? (1981, critical), Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers (1983, constructive), NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education (1984, critical), The Whole Language/OBE Fraud (1996, critical), Homeschooling: A Parents Guide to Teaching Children (1997, constructive), and The Victims of Dick & Jane and Other Essays (2003, critical).
- Samuel L. Blumenfeld, “The Dumbing Down of America,” Faith for All of Life Nov./Dec. 2005: p. 22.
Martin G. Selbrede is vice president and resident scholar for Chalcedon. Martin serves as editor for Faith for All of Life magazine and the Chalcedon Report.
Republished from the July/August 2015 issue of Faith For All of Life, Chalcedon Foundation, Vallecito, California
© 2015 Used by Permission