Why Johnny Can’t Read…or Write…or Count

Jane Jimenez

Jane Jimenez

July 9, 2004

Michelle Malkin, bemoaning a summer program that teaches the poetry of Tupac Shakur to high school students, points to the specifics of why Johnny can’t read.  No one expects him to read.

Her editorial shared space this past week with American father Bill Cosby who has blasted his American black family.  Why can’t Johnny read…or behave?  Because, Mr. Cosby says, no one expects him to.

These two people, Maulkin and Cosby, are addressing the bad fruits of a culture that has planted and watered the wrong tree.  This tree was planted back in the 1960s when I entered Arizona State University to train as a teacher.

When Rudolf Flesch provoked the academic elites in 1955 with his bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read, people saw the breakdown in education as one of simple methodology:  the “look-say” method of teaching reading versus phonics.  But this debate ignored a greater problem, the changes in basic educational standards.

Black English classes went beyond validating unique cultural sentence structure and dialect when college professors advanced it as an alternative to standard English.  English-as-a-second-language programs mutated into massive bilingual bureaucracies that institutionalized Spanish as an alternative track for children who lost any incentive to move beyond basic functional English.

And it is no surprise that these changes occurred at the same time as America’s pop-psychologists worked to make everyone forever happy.  In a culture that esteems self-esteem, we began to teach children their happiness comes as the result of never being criticized or challenged.  This has had disastrous results in the classroom.

Under a banner of diversity, educators refused to exclude any possible form of communication for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.  Discipline could only be positive.  And as the breakdown of two-parent families gained momentum, homework became optional.

It is no digression, as Mr. Cosby points out, to discuss marriage.  Two-parent families where both Cosby Show Familya mother and father share the responsibilities of raising children are essential to success in the classroom.  Fathers and mothers working together have the energy and resources to lay the basic foundation of respect for education, take children to the library and supervise study time.

Removing Tupac’s poetry from the summer reading list is a start in improving education for our children.  But it’s only a start.

If we want children to read poetry of substance and meaning, the answer involves everyone from teacher to parent to student.  We must unabashedly embrace two-parent families with both mother and father as the optimal environment to support schools and teachers.

Teachers must have students who do their homework.  And when the papers are graded and report cards come out, teachers must have the backing of parents who understand that a “D” in English is evidence that the child is not performing, and not evidence that the “teacher is punishing my baby.”

And if we really want our children to read…and write…and count, we must finally accept that there are general standards of excellence in education that transcend culture and race.  We must have the courage to select the best of human achievement and set it as the standard for our children.

Because we are race-sensitive, criticism of Tupak and his poetry becomes a racial argument, ultimately suggesting that black children aren’t capable of basic standards of literacy because their self-esteem is too fragile to call trash what it is…trash.

It is silly when teachers, if white, are discounted as racists in a culture where it is impolite to suggest that gansta’ rap is anything other than cultural comment.  It is ridiculous when only Hispanics can tell Hispanics that their children must learn proper English in order to succeed.

It is no surprise that good teachers would see Tupak as their “key” to reaching kids. Teachers, lacking a culture of support, try desperately to find some method of getting kids to turn off the video stream and study a spelling list on Friday night.

If we really want to turn things around, we must all get involved.  We need to finally embrace as a culture what it means to be civilized, humane, and dignified…and then teach it to our children.  Most importantly, we must do this together…black, brown, red and white…mothers and fathers.  If we fail to take the lead, we can’t expect our children to follow.


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