September 2018

How William Caxton, Robert Louth and Washington Irving Destroyed Education

In 1476 a business man named William Caxton saw an opportunity to make a lot of money by printing the English language. With no consideration for the 40+ sounds in English Caxton wrote it down using the Latin alphabet with only 26 symbols. He made a mess. It is because of Caxton that English spelling makes no sense. In 1603 without reflection, all his spelling mistakes were cataloged in what I like to call the BBM, the Big Book of Mistakes otherwise known as the dictionary. He effectively separated written from spoken English and overnight he made what is one of the simplest languages on earth one of the most difficult to learn. Education has been copying one man’s spelling mistakes for over 500 years.
It gets worse. In 1762 a clergyman named Robert Louth enjoyed grammar as a hobby. Without deliberation he took Latin Grammar, changed the name to English Grammar, and published A Short Introduction to English Grammar. It went viral. Bill Bryson says, “Making English grammar conform to Latin rules is like asking people to play baseball using the rules of football. It is a patent absurdity” 250 years later this ridiculous unqualified little volume remains the cornerstone of the English language education we teach today. English wouldn’t be such a ‘difficult’ language if we taught it with the right set of rules!
Same old, same old. In 1828 American fiction writer Washington Irving created the story A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. It is one of the first examples of American historical fiction and a typical example of national myth-making undertaken by American writers of the 19th century who saw American history as a useful means of establishing patriotism. Education didn’t bother to distinguish History from propaganda. Europeans were well aware the world was round for hundreds of years before Columbus sailed. He never actually made it to America much less ‘discovered’ it. He landed in the West Indies (he was lost – he thought he’d sailed around the word). Columbus raped and tortured the natives, cheated his crew out of their wages and was a horrendously bad man. Unchecked a fictional story of Christopher Columbus has been told and retold in our education system as fact. We had no reason not to believe what our teachers told us, but we do now.
Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press he stole it from a Dutch inventor named Koster. IPA is a useless tool for learning English perpetuated by… wait for it – the Big Book of Mistakes… When two vowels go walking they make any sound at all. Had enough? I can go on.
Why we teach what isn’t true is easy – Confirmation Bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. If humans are given information by an authority figure (parent, teacher, priest) at a young age, we will support, share, even kill to defend that information – whether it is true or not.
Caxton, Louth and Irving didn’t destroy education. We did. They were nobodies, capitalists. opportunists who cashed in on their chance to get rich. Mindless acceptance of what our teachers, parents, ministers, politicians, doctors, marketers … told us was the norm. It isn’t any more. The internet is shining a light into dark corners none of us even thought of looking into before.
Now that you know what you know, what are you going to teach tomorrow? The number one skill people need to survive past 2020 is Critical Thinking and it’s a skill we as teachers don’t have. I hope to see you at the Disruptive Education Conference in Toronto on November 3,4 2018. Don’t be left behind again.