Publish with The Critical Reader

Publish with The Critical Reader

If you’re looking to publish a test-prep or subject-specific study guide, or if you just have a great idea for a general education-related book, The Critical Reader may be able to bring your work to market.

We’re looking to expand our book offerings and are currently seeking manuscript submissions in the humanities and social sciences, with particular interest in the following areas:

  • AP® Exams, especially Human Geography, Government and Politics, Psychology, Spanish Language and Culture, and World History
  • English as a Second Language, including TOEFL® and IELTS® preparation
  • Phonics-based reading instruction

Other subjects will also be considered, though, so this should not be treated as an exhaustive list.

As an established player within our market, we are able to offer a traditional publishing model: you don’t pay us—we pay you. We can also offer support throughout the publication process, including editing, formatting, and cover design.

Please click here for submission guidelines.

The University of California will drop the SAT and ACT: putting the decision in context

The University of California will drop the SAT and ACT: putting the decision in context

So it’s official: The University of California—the country’s largest public university system, serving several hundred thousand students—has voted to phase out standardized testing.

The SAT and ACT will be optional for freshman applicants for applicants in 2021 and 2022; for 2023-4, test scores will be used only for out-of-state-students and to determine scholarship awards; and will be eliminated completely in 2025. If a new, UC-created exam is not ready by that point, then no exam will be considered.

This is obviously a major shakeup in the testing industry, although not a completely unforeseen one. Historically, there has been tension between the University of California and the College Board, with discussions of abandoning the SAT dating back to the early 1990s. More recently, there has been considerable speculation about whether the UCs would continue to require the SAT or ACT essay. Since last winter, however, additional pushback against the use of standardized testing has ramped up. (more…)

SAT vs. ACT reading: 5 key differences

SAT vs. ACT reading: 5 key differences

I was recently invited to do an interview about SAT vs. ACT Reading on the “Tests and the Rest” podcast, which is run by test-prep experts Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin and covers a wide range of issues related to standardized testing and college admissions. (This is actually the second time they’ve had me on; my previous interview, in which I discussed SAT vs. ACT grammar, can be found here. I’m not sure when the new interview will air but will post something when it does.)

I had a great time chatting with Amy and Mike, and as I looked at my notes, the thought popped into my mind that in all my years of running this blog, I had somehow neglected to devote a post to that particular topic. It also occurred to me that perhaps I’d actually done such a post and simply forgotten about, but when I went back and checked, it turned out that I had in fact never devoted an entire post to that particular topic. So I’m putting it up now. (more…)

2020 condensed AP® Guides for online exams now available

2020 condensed AP® Guides for online exams now available

Update, 4/29:

The electronic version of my AP® English Language and Literature guide is now available on Amazon.


My and Larry Krieger’s mini-guides for the condensed 2020 online AP tests are now available!

Because of a technical issue that resulted in the print version of Larry’s book being delayed on Amazon by nearly a week, Larry asked me to post the entire book as a free PDF download on this site. Click here to access it (do not add to cart; scroll down and click on the link in the description).

If you would like to order a print copy, the book is now available on Amazon as well.

Unfortunately, Larry realized that he would not have enough to time to complete the AP Psychology guide and decided to let that project go.

For logistical reasons, I decided to combine the English Language and English Literature sections into a single print book which, as of 4/25, is available only on Amazon.

I’m currently in the process of trying to get the manuscript formatted so I can make the book available in electronic form. I’m hoping that will happen by mid-week.

I’m also currently trying to determine whether The Critical Reader will be able to stock the book as well, given delayed shipping times.

I’ll post an update as soon as I have more information.

Important announcement regarding 2020 AP exams (test questions; new, condensed guides)

In the past few days, the College Board has released important information regarding the 2020 AP exam schedule.

Tests will consist of free-response questions only; last approximately 45 minutes each; and be administered online from May 11-22nd, with additional makeup dates in June. 

After some discussion with my SAT vocabulary book co-author and APUSH expert extraordinaire Larry Krieger, I’m happy to announce that we’ve decided to release condensed (approximately 50-page) AP guides that specifically target the 2020 online exams. We’ll aim to make them available within the next 2-3 weeks, sooner if possible. 

Our current plan is as follows: I will be covering the AP English Language and Literature exams, and Larry will be handling APUSH. 


The 2020 dates and questions for these exams are as follows: 


  • AP English Literature (May 13, 2pm EST): Prose Analysis essay (on the full exam, Free-Response Question #2)


  • AP English Language (May 20, 2pm EST): Rhetorical Analysis essay (Question #2)


  • APUSH (May 15, 2pm EST): Modified DBQ with 5 sources (Question #1)
My new reading site, “Breaking the Code,” is now live!

My new reading site, “Breaking the Code,” is now live!

Exciting announcement:, the new site that I’m co-hosting with my colleague Richard McManus of The Fluency Factory, is finally live (pats self on back for setting up and designing a website entirely from scratch, with only a minuscule amount of help; to my tech people, you’re awesome, but apparently I’ve learned a thing or two in all my years of wrangling this site into shape).

So the good news is that I’ll finally get out of everyone’s hair about little-kid reading problems—even though, for the record, they tend to turn into big-kid reading problems—and stick to writing about testing and admissions-related topics (well, mostly).

Kidding aside, Richard and I really want this to become a major resource for people involved in reading instruction, whether out of personal or professional interest. Richard and his tutors do phenomenal work getting kids who’ve fallen behind in reading back on track. (more…)

The Coronavirus might cause more schools to go test-optional (but you should take the SAT or ACT anyway)

The Coronavirus might cause more schools to go test-optional (but you should take the SAT or ACT anyway)

A couple of weeks ago, as soon as it became clear that there was no way the spring SAT and ACT testing schedule could proceed as normal, I started wondering how the Coronavirus pandemic would affect the trend toward test-optional admissions policies.

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than an Instagram announcement popped up stating that Case Western had decided to go test-optional for students applying in the fall of 2021. At Case, the policy currently applies to those applicants only; policies for future classes will be determined next winter. Tufts has also announced a similar policy involving a three-year trial period.

From what I understand, it seems likely that the pandemic will consist of multiple, overlapping waves of outbreaks in different regions over a fairly extended period, rather than occurring in one single massive wave, and so it would not be at all surprising if these policies were ultimately extended. (more…)

Covid-19 impact on book delivery

3/24 update: International shipping is not available. I’ve just been notified that Amazon, which prints our books, is not currently shipping orders outside the United States. Because international orders must go through Amazon rather than from our regular warehouse, we unfortunately unable to ship abroad.

As of today (3/23/20), delivery times for *most* Critical Reader books remain unaffected by the novel Coronavirus. Our storage and shipping facility is still open and operating normally, and orders should continue to arrive in approximately 5-7 days.

The only exception is the recently released updated AP English Language and Composition Guide. This item must still be sent from the printer, which is currently experiencing delays. Please allow 10 days for shipping.

We will post an update if there are any changes.

To everyone: please take care and stay safe.

Announcing the launch of “Breaking the Code”: a new site dedicated to reading and phonics

Announcing the launch of “Breaking the Code”: a new site dedicated to reading and phonics

As regular followers of this blog may have noticed, I’ve recently been focusing heavily on issues related to phonics and the teaching of reading. I realize that these topics are in some cases only tangentially related to the test-prep and college admissions process, but I haven’t had anywhere else to post my observations… until now.

My colleague Richard McManus, a reading specialist and the owner of The Fluency Factory in Cohasset, Massachusetts, have decided to join forces and start a new website. Titled “Breaking the Code,” the site is dedicated to exploring the issues surrounding the teaching and learning of reading. (more…)

The grammar of fake news

The grammar of fake news

A number of years ago, an acquaintance enlisted me to help her search Craigslist for a sublet in New York City. This is a daunting task under the best of circumstances, but in this case the difficulty was compounded by the fact that my acquaintance was not a native English speaker—in fact, she did not speak much English at all—nor was she particularly internet savvy.

As someone who had spent a fair amount of time on Craigslist looking for apartments herself, I was well-versed in the various scams that flood the site and adept at the spotting the markers for them: TOO MUCH CAPITALIZATION or too much lower case. Word salad, word soup… Or wording that just somehow seemed “off,” in some vague, undefined way.

My acquaintance, on the other hand, was entirely at sea: she would call the numbers listed and be told that the original rental no longer existed but that she could be shown other, pricier options; or that she would have to hand over exorbitant amounts of money for a deposit, and so on.

I eventually got very frustrated trying to help her. She was oblivious to clear warning signs, and she went running to look at apartment after apartment that just obviously wasn’t going to pan out. (more…)

Updated AP® English Language and Composition guide now available

The updated version of The Critical Reader: AP® English Language and Composition Edition is now available

The guide provides a comprehensive review of all the reading and writing skills tested on the revised 2020 version of the exam. It includes a complete chapter dedicated to each type of multiple-choice reading question; a new multiple-choice writing section; and a section devoted to the three essays, with real student samples and detailed scoring analyses based on the new College Board rubric. 

Click here to read a preview.

Please note: The primary changes involve the elimination of vocabulary-based, multiple-answer (I, II, III), and rhetoric questions  from the reading section; the addition of a multiple-choice writing section; and a switch from a 9- to a 6-point essay-scoring rubric (essays themselves remain the same).

If you already have the 2018/2019 version of this book, we recommend supplementing it with rhetoric questions from SAT Writing and Language passages, ACT English passages, or the Fixing Paragraphs section of the pre-2016. Click here for examples of real essays scored according to the new rubric. 


Does Lucy Calkins understand what phonics is?

Does Lucy Calkins understand what phonics is?

As I alluded to my previous post, the U. Wisconsin-Madison cognitive psychologist and reading specialist Mark Seidenberg has posted a rebuttal to Lucy Calkins’s manifesto “No One Gets to Own the Term ‘Science of Reading’” on his blog. For anyone interested in understanding the most recent front in the reading wars, I strongly recommend both pieces.

What I’d like to focus on here, however, are the ways in which Calkins’s discussion of phonics reveal a startlingly compromised understanding of the subject for someone of her influence and stature.

In recent years, and largely—as Seidenberg explains—in response to threats to her personal reading-instruction empire, Calkins has insisted that she really believes in the importance of systematic phonics, a claim that comes off as somewhat dubious given the obvious emphasis she places on alternate decoding methods, e.g., covering up letters, using context clues, etc. (Claude Goldenberg, the emeritus Stanford Ed School professor who helped author the recent report on Units of Study, also does a good job of showing how Calkins attempts to play to both sides of the reading debate while clearly holding tight to three-cueing methods.)

That’s obviously a problem, but I think the real question is even more fundamental: not just whether Calkins truly supports the teaching of phonics, but whether she understands what phonics is. (more…)

Lucy Calkins vs. phonics: the Common Core creators strike back

Lucy Calkins vs. phonics: the Common Core creators strike back

I’ve been so wrapped up in trying to finish my AP English book updates these last few weeks that I somehow missed a new front in the reading wars: Emily Hanford recently published another American Public Media article, this one casting a critical look at Columbia University Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins and her enormously lucrative and influential Units of Study program.

Although Calkins claims to be in favor of phonics (when appropriate, as long as it doesn’t interfere with children’s love of reading), her guides for teachers promote a series of methods that effectively embody the three-cueing system.

The cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg, a specialist in reading problems who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has an excellent blog post in which he methodically dismantles Calkins’s attempts to distance herself from three-cueing methods, and demonstrates the extent to which Calkins engages in semantic game-playing. His reading of Calkins’s work also hints at the depth of her misunderstandings about phonics, some of which are rather astounding. I think they’re very important to highlight, and I’d like to do so in another post. (more…)

Rote creativity

Rote creativity

In July of 2015, the math teacher and author of the Truth in American Education blog Barry Garelick wrote an article in which he described the convoluted explanations to simple math problems that students were expected to produce under Common Core, the logic being that the ability to describe one’s mathematical thinking in detail was a sign of “deep understanding.”

As Barry pointed out, however, the process of describing one’s thinking became an end in itself rather a sign of actual comprehension. Essentially, students were being trained to display a set of behaviors that made it appear as if they were thinking deeply, whether or not they truly understood—a phenomenon he termed “rote understanding.”

I still think this is one of the most brilliant phrases I’ve come across in the edu-blogosphere; it perfectly captures the superficial, performative quality that is often held up as a signal of “true education” or “authentic learning.”

So with Barry as my inspiration, allow me to propose a term of my own: ladies and gentlemen, I give you “rote creativity.” (more…)

Why did Caltech drop its SAT II requirement? Well, it’s complicated…

Why did Caltech drop its SAT II requirement? Well, it’s complicated…

I was browsing through the admissions section of Inside Higher Ed recently when I came across a brief article announcing that Caltech had decided to move from requiring two SAT IIs (one math and one science) to making the exams optional. Now, over the last few years virtually every selective college—with the exception of a few engineering schools—has downgraded SAT from “required” to “recommended.” The fact that one more school is jumping on the bandwagon might not seem particularly noteworthy, just one incidence of the backlash against standardized testing.

Because the story involves Caltech in particular, however, it’s somewhat more interesting than it might at first appear. Not only because Caltech has traditionally been seen as a bastion of uncompromising rigor, but also because it’s difficult to see the move as separable from the school’s downward trajectory in the US News and World Report Ranking over the past 20 years, especially over the last decade. (more…)

If schools don’t care about facts, society won’t either

If schools don’t care about facts, society won’t either

A while back, a colleague recounted to me the following story: On the train to school one morning she found herself sitting next to a fellow teacher, one who taught AP® Government. They chatted about their classes and upcoming exams, and at one point her colleague began lamenting the fact that he was forced to make students learn facts like, say, the number of members in the House of Representatives. As he explained, his former students wrote to him with great enthusiasm about the political science courses they were taking in college. Why, he wondered, couldn’t he teach a course that generated that kind of excitement in students? Why couldn’t he just skip to the good stuff and focus on “real learning”?

I can’t say I was surprised by their conversation: I’m perfectly familiar with the trope of the teacher who proudly proclaims that it doesn’t matter whether students remember whatthey learned in his class—what really counts is the love of the subject and perhaps the habits of mind they acquired, not all those pesky little facts. But the incident stuck in my mind, and it also prompted me to finally try to put down some things that I’ve been trying to find a way to convey in less than a book-length post for a very, very long time now.

When I first discovered E.D. Hirsch’s work back about seven or eight years ago, I was already well acquainted with the deep-seated anti-intellectualism that runs through American society, but I did not fully grasp the extent to which facts themselves were maligned within the educational system.

Indeed, this is a trend that far, far predates the current political situation—by around a century, in fact; it’s just that its full consequences have not manifested themselves to quite the current extreme until recently. As Hirsch points out, certain nineteenth-century Romantic notions about education—ones stressing the primacy of “natural” experience and the dismissal of factual knowledge as contrary to true learning—have become so deeply embedded in the American school system that any alternative is literally inconceivable in many circles.

Somewhere along the line, the pushback against the teaching of rote, disconnected facts morphed into a conflation between rote, disconnected facts and factual knowledge itself; that morphed into a narrative in which the acquisition of factual knowledge was construed to be the opposite of “real learning”; and that (along with a healthy dose of bipartisan political pressure) in turn morphed into an insistence that facts not be taught at all.

Now typically, schools’ anti-knowledge bent is cast in terms of the desire to have students “go beyond the facts,” but in reality it often means that students come away with vague and airy notions about, say, “historical thinking” but have no idea whether the Enlightenment came before or after World War I.

In The Schools We Need (1996), Hirsch recounts his experience as a speaker at a school-administrators’ conference, during the course of which he became aware that the anti-knowledge sentiments he had commonly heard expressed by educators were not merely a tool for resisting curricular changes, but rather, as he puts it, “expressions of fundamental belief.”

As he describes:

In my first small-group session, an educator asked me what sorts of things I thought first graders should know. I mentioned…some fables of Aesop; some facts about Egypt, including mummies and the Nile; some elements of geography, like being able to find north, south, east, and west…as well as being able to identify the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and the seven continents. Immediately, one of the participants asked me if I really thought it was of any use whatever to a first grader to learn the seven continents. No one at the meeting was willing to defend the idea of teaching such facts to young children…

During the next several days, I traveled to two more IDEA campuses, where a large number of educational administrators were gathered, representing a good sampling of the thinking of school officials across the nation. On each campus, I encountered similar attitudes regarding the uselessness of factual knowledge and the undesirability of asking students to learn it. It was almost universally assumed that the teaching and learning of facts must occur in a fragmented, dry, and inhumane way, and that teaching such information as the names and shapes of the seven continents could only be accomplished by memorizing meaningless items disconnected from a child’s interest and experience.

In IDEA discussions, facts and information were invariably referred to as “mere,” in contrast to something better called “true knowledge.” In these educators’ minds, there existed a polarity between exciting, practically useful, morally beneficial teaching on the one hand and memorization of meaningless facts through dry, dull teaching on the other. At IDEA, I had entered an either-or world that had the flavor of a medieval morality play, in which good was set against evil. The possibility that factually rich and demanding learning of subject matter could, while requiring hard work, also be interesting, even captivating—not to mention morally beneficial and skill-enhancing—was not a concept that IDEA participants brought under discussion.

These hundreds of participants did not consider themselves to be enemies of knowledge, and might have thought it outrageous that anyone would so describe them. On the contrary, they thought of themselves as friends of “true knowledge” as distinct from “mere facts.”When I asked what they meant by “true knowledge,” some participants said that it consisted in knowing “the interrelations of things,” but they did not explain how things can be related without first being known. They also assumed that any really important factual knowledge is picked up automatically in the course of experience. (That it is not automatically picked up by American students is now well documented.)

What I think is so important about this passage is the way in which Hirsch spells out the way in which anti-fact discourse functions rhetorically—the set of clichés about learning and education that predominates in ed-world, establishing them not as conclusions that people arrive at through a process of careful observation and independent thought, but rather as a fixed discourse, an empty series of received ideas that continually get parroted more or less verbatim.

It is almost impossible to overstate the extent to which the attitude outlined in the last couple of paragraphs has been absorbed into the mainstream. Read almost any moderately serious (generally left-leaning) newspaper or magazine closely these days, and it is possible to observe an interesting dichotomy: on one hand, there are the continual wails about a populace that no longer pays attention to facts, (inevitably accompanied by calls for schools to teach critical thinking). At the same time, however, one cannot be help but be struck by the skeptical, if not outright derogatory, terms in which the direct transmission of factual knowledge is characterized (“rote learning”).

Take, for example, a 2017 Atlantic piece that bemoaned high school seniors’ lack of basic factual knowledge about slavery, then turned around and cited a teacher whose “straightforward” solution was to give students… primary source documents so that they could discover answers for themselves. (Exactly how many high-schoolers can navigate nineteenth-century vocabulary and syntax? Exactly how many high schoolers even do their reading assignments at all?) The implication, of course, was that if students encountered factual information in an “authentic” way, they would naturally remember it, and thus there would be no need for the teacher to teach it.

Or consider a May 2019 article by John Urschel, a Ph.D. candidate in math, which appeared on the NY Times op-ed page and epitomizes the type of rhetoric Hirsch describes:

Growing up, I thought math class was something to be endured, not enjoyed. I disliked memorizing formulas and taking tests, all for the dull goal of getting a good grade. In elementary school, my mind wandered so much during class that I sometimes didn’t respond when I was called on, and I resisted using the rote techniques we were taught to use to solve problems. One of my teachers told my mother that I was “slow” and should repeat a grade. 

But my problem wasn’t with math itself. In fact, I spent countless hours as a child doing logic and math puzzles on my own, and as a teenager, when a topic seemed particularly interesting, I would go to the library and read more about it.

And later on:

The mathematical research I was doing [in college] had little in common with what I did in my high school classrooms. Instead, it was closer to the math and logic puzzles I did on my own as a boy. It gave me that same sense of wonder and curiosity, and it rewarded creativity.

I am now a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I have published several papers in mathematical journals. I still feel that childlike excitement every time I complete a proof.

I don’t doubt that Mr. Urschel was indeed bored in elementary-school math class—and I’ve certainly encountered classroom teachers who taught by rote, seeming not to really grasp the underpinnings of their own subjects—but the piece, entitled “Math Teachers Should be More Like Football Coaches,” is far more interesting for its rhetoric than for its actual content.

Are we seriously to believe that if math teachers—who, for the record, in American schools often arealso football coaches—simply sought to instill a sense of wonder and curiosity (“true learning”), then students would miraculously become as adept as Urschel became?

Students who are sufficiently motivated to go to the library and read about academic subjects at a high level for their own pleasure are by definition outliers; should their experiences really be used to dictate pedagogy for everyone? (Almost as a throwaway, Urschel credits his “boring” math teachers with giving him a solid enough foundation to be able to jump directly into higher-level work in college.)

But that is the worldview that outlets like the Times are more or less dedicated to propagating: if teachers would just stop with all the boring, rote facts and motivate students to just think creatively, then achievement would soar.

The problems, though, extend far beyond even that.

In his book Reading at the Speed of Sight, University of Wisconsin professor Mark Seidenberg highlights the role central role that constructivism has come to play in contemporary American education. Taken to the extreme, this is essentially the belief because people construct their own knowledge based on individual circumstances and experiences, nothing can be known for certain, and thus it is useless and even damaging for teachers to attempt to inculcate knowledge in their students:

Much of the air may have gone out of the Theory balloon at the Modern Language Association, but it remains influential in education because it complements existing beliefs about learning. The idea that children learn by being taught came to be seen as fundamentally flawed because learning is the process of constructing knowledge.

Seidenberg further cites Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who in a 2013 Education Next article (ironically pro-Common Core and entitled, what else, “Twenty-first Century Teacher Education”) took ed schools sharply to task for their anti-knowledge stance:

Harking back perhaps to teacher education’s 19th-century ecclesiastical origins, [the mission of teacher education] has shifted away from the medical model of training doctors to professional formation. The function of teacher education is to launch the candidate on a lifelong path of learning, distinct from knowing, as actual knowledge is perceived as too fluid to be achievable.

The strength of this trend was further driven home to me during the summer of 2018 (yes, that’s how long I’ve been trying to finish this piece!), when a colleague alerted me to the existence of Teaching Channel.

For those unenlightened souls among you, the Teaching Channel is to Common Core and progressive pedagogy roughly what Pravda was to the Communist Party, or what Fox News is to the Republican Party. And lest you think this is some sort of obscure aberration, it was a central part of the online “professional development” that my colleague—a public school teacher—was required by the Department of Education to undergo.

I spent several days watching, transfixed, as teacher after teacher babbled on wide-eyed (don’t these people ever blink?) about the joys of group work, Socratic Seminar, and twenty-first century skills.

In what were effectively conversion narratives, teachers proclaimed that they had seen the light and come to understand that students should never be corrected or told that they are wrong, and that all discussions must be framed in terms of agreement and disagreement.

Once in a while, a teacher might cop to directly instructing students, but only,only—they made clear—because they had no choice but to do so for that particular lesson.

Invariably, they also made a show of their guilt, in a sort of public spectacle of self-abnegation.

I generally try to avoid hyperbole, but those videos were truly over the top—they felt like scenes from a re-education camp. I couldn’t help but think of them when I came across the following quote:

Thought reform, at least in its full expression, is a systematic project that makes extensive use of criticism, self-criticism, and confession, both in groups and individual interrogations. Its ambitious aims [are] not only to bring about change in people’s political views but in what Erik Erikson called their inner identity. 

It does not require a great act of imagination to wonder whether students who have spent 10+ years in classroom run by teachers who do not really believe in the importance of factual knowledge, and who eschew the notion that they might bear some responsibility for transmitting it to their students, might come to have some, shall we say, difficulty with it as well.

I was leafing through Natalie Wexler’s recent book, The Knowledge Gap, recently, and although little of what the author had to say was new to me, the section in which she described one Connecticut elementary school’s attempt to implement a knowledge-based (!) curriculum stopped me cold:

Lina Wolters’s school, Cannan Elementary, adopted [E.D. Hirsch’s program] Common Knowledge in 2013. The first year was the hardest, she says, with some teachers resisting the focus on facts. Even now, Wolters has to remind teachers it’s important to provide kids with what she calls “free information.”

It’s very hard for them to remember that knowing stuff makes you a better reader,” she says. And so I try to put it into those simple terms all the time: knowing stuff makes you a better reader.”

Assuming that you, reader, are a reasonable person, just stop and try to process that for a moment.

I mean, good lord, how on earth did we get here? Do people truly not grasp how utterly, profoundly, outrageously disturbing a statement that is? How could a situation like this even be allowed to develop? I mean, I understand on an intellectual level—I’ve read enough about the history of education in the United States —but still. Seeing it spelled out so bluntly was kind of shocking.

The more I learn about reading pedagogy in the early grades, the earlier I realize this mindset permeates the classroom from students’ earliest days in school. How else to explain the ideological rejection of the fact (not the opinion!) that letters stand for sounds, and that decoding is literally a process of matching one to the other?

How else to explain the notion that children should be encouraged to just plug in words that fit the narrative, regardless of what is actually written on the page? Students taught like this are essentially trained to ignore reality—in a sense, to believe that reality is irrelevant, only what they happen to think— from a very young age.

This is, incidentally, in part why I’ve become so fascinated by the reading wars: they seem to me a symptom of a much deeper cultural instability, one that I’m still struggling to grasp.

Now, there is obviously nothing wrong with pondering the nature of reality as a philosophical exercise—people have done so for millennia. But it is one thing to consider the limits and distortions of human perception intellectually, and another to actually attempt to live as if reality itself were suspect(red pill! red pill!).

In order to function in the world, people must put aside this kind of extreme disbelief and accept that there can be some basis for common experience.

When people stop accepting this—or are manipulated into believing that such thing is impossible—then society itself breaks down.

Let me return to Hirsch, who wrote prophetically in The Knowledge Deficit:

The very fabric of our peaceable and unified democracy is at risk when we do not know how to communicate with each other…A content-neutral, skills-oriented education concept of education has the unintended effect of…diminishing the shared content we need for communication and solidarity within the nation as a whole…People who cannot communicate with one another do not trust one another. They do not feel a sense of responsibility to the larger community. Such conflict is inevitable in a big, diverse country. But some of the polarization has less to do with ideology than which the inherent suspicion and lack of solidarity among people who fail to share a common basis of knowledge—a commonality of discourse that alone enables shared allusions and mutual comprehension.

If the situation is at all to be remedied, teachers must believe—really, truly believe, not just give lip service to—that facts themselves are important. They are not “mere facts,” they do not just represent “rote learning”; rather, they are the basis for a functional society. And teaching them to students is in no way at odds with instilling a healthy sense of skepticism or the ability to assess arguments critically. The alternative is a situation in which people continually talk past each other, or else conversations devolve into nonsense.

That is not to deny the existence of a gray area, where the lines between “x happened” and “how x is interpreted” can and does get blurred (sometimes in good faith, sometimes in bad); nor is it to deny the sheer superabundance of information floating around on the Internet; nor is it to deny that Americans come from an extraordinary range of backgrounds and have many different cultural heritages. However, to use these objections as an excuse to insist that schools should avoid the teaching of factual knowledge is a pathetic cop out.

It is impossible to know when someone is uttering blatant falsehoods unless you first know what the truth is—unless you think that there is such thing as truth. (As Hannah Arendt famously said of citizens who cannot believe anything, “With such a people, you can do what you please.” Or, as someone less eloquent put it, “It’s possible to be so open-minded your brain falls out.”)

And contrary to popular belief, there is no magical set of critical thinking strategies that will permit people to recognize nonsense when their knowledge base is ludicrously insufficient.

Indeed, if students’ main takeaway from school is that facts really don’t matter that much after all; that everything is just a matter of interpretation; that every question is open ended; and that there is no such thing as true or false, right or wrong, then it should surprise no one when society comes to disregard them as well.