[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1983 pp18,19]
Harvie Barnard: see Journal, Anthology and Bulletins.]

The Costly Extravagance of an Educational System Based upon Confusing, Irrational Spelling, by Harvie Barnard.*


* Not one of the papers presented at the 1981 SSS Conference.
*Tacoma, WA.

Newspaper headline: "State Department of Education will be sued for $180 millions because of failure to educate as required by the state constitution."!!!!

Surprised? Far-fetched? Impossible? Not at all! In fact, it has already happened on an individual basis. And now such a suit could be filed as a "Class Action" legal proceeding on behalf of the children in our communities.

According to the laws and constitutional guarantees of every state of the U.S.A., every child has an inherent right to an education, and the state is charged with the responsibility for providing that service.

And yet, every year, thousands, yes, even millions of children are being deprived of this right by a system which drops them out or excludes them as a consequence of a program which in effect says: Thou shalt not be permitted to apply logical reasoning to English spelling or the use of the alfabet. If you try using logical, fonetic spelling, you will be failed, held back, and thereby relegated to that down-graded segment of humanity castigated as "slow," retarded, or unreachable. And in accord with established practices authorized by Boards of Education and executed by submissive administrators of that system, those who fail to submit to the rules of that system, no matter how irrational or confusing, will be dropped out, excluded, or advised to depart from our state supported system of public education.

This is not only a very serious indictment, but a personal tragedy for the individual involved. It suggest the probity of a class action suit and the vulnerability of the State Board of Education and/or the local school board for damages estimated to be not less than $180 millions every year! This sum is the amount of damage resulting from unwarranted expense to the people of the state in one school year for failure to teach approximately 100,000 pupils who will require at least one extra year of schooling because of failure to master minimum academic basic requirements in the basics: reading, writing, spelling, and probably math also, if they cannot read well enuf to understand the problems.

Based on an estimated average cost of $10.00 per day per pupil for a school year of 180 days, the cost per pupil becomes $180.00 for the year. For every 100 thousand who fail or are held back, the $180,000,000.00 due to lost time is an entirely realistic estimate of yearly loss to the taxpayers who finance the public school program whether it adequately serves its intended purpose or not.

This costly extravagance is so huge that it is unbelievable, which is the reason why these facts hav been generally rejected or "swept under the rug." The truth is that we've endured the system for so long that, like our acceptance of inflation, we hav accepted this condition as unavoidable for so long that it has become the mode rather than what it truly is - a disgrace to the whole problem of public education.

To properly comprehend the basic problem, it would help to consider the fundamental principles of the psychology as it applies to teaching, whether it be a child or an adult. In its broadest sense, teaching is essentially a process of programming the human brain-programming "input" into the `organic computer." Unless this process is managed very skillfully, this programming process may confuse the learner - especially the primary pupil - in many ways, probably too many to mention. Fortunately for the children, the computers of the human family are endowed with a built-in automatic cut-off switch which acts to save the individual from seriously harmful situations. When survival is threatened, the computer sounds an alarm which triggers a defensive reaction which has been called an "instinctive" self-preservation response. In addition, if a situation develops which is perceived to be unpleasant, threatening, or confusing, the computer will simply "freeze" or cut off the offending input, whether it be from fear, anger, shock, confusion or frustration. This is the functioning of the "survival instinct" - perhaps the only true "inherited" human characteristic.

In education, as well as in all other psychological processes, this urgency for survival manifests itself thru the authority of the brain - the organic computer. From the very start of learning, which begins at birth, this computer exhibits a unique ability to perceive what is favorable to survival and what is not. This fortuitous ability is not only the basis for survival, but also serves to regulate the acceptance of learning, which is the basic element of "education", personal human development.

Upon entering the school system, the child may be prepared by the environmental circumstances of "preprogramming" to adjust to the system, or the child may reject. For those who enter from an unfavorable or a "deprived" environment, a period of conditioning or reprogramming - such as pre-school - may be essential to prepare the pupil, (to make ready the child's computer), to accept the discipline of the system. Whatever the condition or attitude of the pupil, the teacher receives them as they happen to be, and the programming begins, hopefully with an attitude of receptivity and pleasure.

The process of programming the essentials of communication is run according to a prescribed schedule, and when administered with the artistry of the skilled and experienced teacher, the input is usually accepted and learning begun with a minimum of rejection. Yet not all pupils are adequately prepared for the program. A percentage may prove to be unready, or may be turned off by what they perceive to be confusing or contradictory input. The pupil's survival mechanism may, in view of a perceived incongruity or frustrating information, turn off, or simply refuse acceptance.

Virtually everyone is well aware of the principle part of the strange and often confusing area of primary instruction. It is spelling, and if you've never been stung by a spelling "bee", you've missed a painful part of education. I'll never forget the morale shattering experience which befell me when I stubbed my toe on "dissolve." It was the very first word called and I tried desperately to decide whether there were two esses or one. Then I recalled that there were many pages of "dis. . ." in the dictionary, but relatively few "disses," so I guessed the "dis", and of course was disappointed. I "dissolved," and from that day on hav loathed the irrationality of words like bough, through, thought, numb, dumb, college, knowledge, chasm and deceive , or believe (which is right?). Such wierd spellings hav been a part of the "establishment" for so long that, as Mark Twain sed in his entertaining essay on "Spelling Reform," "Like cockroaches under the sink, we have grown accustomed to their presence and accept them without question."

Altho we hav stedfastly closed our eyes to the thousands of inconsistencies between pronunciation and proper spelling, speech and "correct" writing, primary pupils as well as linguistic experts hav puzzled over spellings for meny generations of confused children and academic failures. Samuel Johnson's venerable Dictionary of the English Language, publisht in 1755, is still the standard for most users of the English language, altho in the United States there hav been several rational "variants" or "Americanizations." These alternative spellings include honor for honour, color for colour, liter for litre, catalog for catalogue. I suppose we could mention thru for through, and defense for defence, and even tuf for tough, but that mite be a bit ruf stuf for the dedicated devotees of "pure" English, or as "Ye honorouble bard of ye merrie olde England" might spell it, "Englishe."

Our little two-legged computers fall into three categories: 1) those who, thru obedience training, hav lerned to accept the system; 2) those gifted with fotografic memory and therefore are essentially indifferent to the irrationalities of the system; and 3) those whose computers turn off and tell them that there's something wrong, questionable, irrational or confusing about the content which is presented for input.

Those in the third group recognize conflict, and the computer stutters, hesitates, perhaps turns off, and is therefore labelled "slow." The pupil may become temporarily confused and may get help, or the confusion may become more or less permanent and the unfortunate child may give up trying to rationalize the irrational, and eventually become a non-reader, a "dyslectic," or just another of that 15 or 20% who "can't just hack it:" It is the members of this third group who may become socially malajusted, unemployable, and eventually wind up as inmates of institutions for the unfit or the "enemies of society."

Those persons genuinely concerned with the plight of the illiterate, or the "functionally illiterate," may also be concerned over the dollar costs of illiteracy or academic failure to the more fortunate members of society who are charged with the bill. But society does hav a choice. We can either accept the annual loss of $180,000,000 resulting from academic failure - or we can recognize the problem and make a commitment and a start to correct the shortcomings of the system.

The first step would be to recognize the problem: our spelling, which is the basic roadblock to written communication and which also relates to difficulties in reading. Perhaps the initial question would be to decide what the schools are trying to teach - "proper" spelling, or communication. The development of communicative ability is certainly the main objective of public school education, especially in the elementary grades. Spelling is important only inasmuch as it enables a person to communicate, to express ideas in speech, writing, and perhaps by means of computers and calculators. Spelling is useful only in so far as it expedites the use of symbols, words, and the transmission of thoughts or concepts. To make such transmission difficult or unnecessarily complicated by confusing, irrational or illogical use of symbols, letters or words, is not only inefficient, hence costly, but makes the lerning of the communication system slow, tedious, and discouraging to those whose survival often depends on mastering the intricacies of the system.

The answer, obviously, is spelling reform. It has been sed that altho this is, or could be, the answer, "It can't be done." To those who cry "impossible," let me remind these "naysayers" that no problem can be solved unless it is approached with determination, intelligent planning, consistency and perseverence. We may consider at least 2 approaches to a solution: 1) the painfully slow, gradual change of evolution or "natural selection," which is going to happen whether the present generation approves or not, or, 2) intelligently planned spelling reform, which, like our metric system - which is essentially our system of dollars and cents - will soon be replacing the old English system of weights, measures and quantities.

To those who say, "Metrics will never be accepted," I would remind the unconvinced that while "home measures" (cups, pints, teaspoons and tablespoons, also pinches), will probably go on forever, all scientific development has utilized complete metrics for more than 100 years, and will continue to do so regardless of the conveniences of kitchen measures and cookbooks. Similarly, as long as traditional spelling is taught in the schools, it will be used by most people who are unfamiliar with the newer or reformed modes and methods. But once the use of simplified, streamlined, easy-to-lern spelling is made available as a rational alternative, it will be used and adopted by all who are concerned with communication as the essential basis for lerning and for the transmission of information. For those worried about the "SFTPOSB," "Society for the Preservation of Spelling Bees," they should be reminded that spelling bees may be held just as often and widely in simplified spelling as in eny other kind, and to a better, more useful purpose! So let's get on with reformed spelling, NOW!

Ed. note:

 7 years ago in England and 5 years ago in U.S.A. legislation was passed adopting the Metric system, to be put into use gradually. All packaged goods hav been marked with both English units of measures and Metric equivalents.

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