America’s reading problem vs the dyslexia debate: the hegemony of the /right/, institutional inertia and radicalisation

In literate societies writing (and reading) defines our sense of self. It is therefore worth taking Gillian Tett’s ‘America’s reading problem’ FT.COM MAGAZINE December 19 /20 2015′ further in a wider educational, economic and political context.

However I’d best start by framing the ‘message’ within the work of Karl Popper, Stephen Pepper and a particular holistic view of the human attributes.

1. Popper is to be noted for his claim that (a) there are no such things as theory-free [culture-free] observations (b) that academic disciplines [silos] arose through historical accident and are maintained for primarily bureaucratic reasons, and (c) that ‘What is ….?’ essentialist questions are unscientific since they don’t lend themselves to being straightforwardedly operationalized. In summary he characterised scientific progress as being problem-driven rather than discipline-based.

2. In 1942 Stephen Pepper wrote a generally ignored but seminal work entitled World-Hypotheses: a Study in Evidence!!! To be noted are three aspects (a) he postulated that there are three cognitive attitudes – dogmatism, scepticism and reasonable scepticism, (b) nothing can or will convince dogmatists and [utter] sceptics against their better judgment. Reasonable sceptics are those open to being swayed by evidence and (c) of all the objects that are in the world they reduce to six core and incommensurable world-views. Here he was anticipating Mary Douglas’s How Institutions Think, which explains why experts, ostensibly working in the same field so often disagree with each other – they hold different world-views.

3. Viewing human attributes. There are two core world-views about the relationship among human attributes: atomistic and holistic. The former hold that the physical, intellectual, emotional and social attributes exist as separate components which may or may not interact with each other for better or worse. The latter hold that these attributes reflect observers’ focus of attention and are therefore better regarded as different facets of a single integrated entity. This core faceted world-view implies that if anything is found to be out of kilter with one of the facets then (often as the result of deeper probing) something will be found to be out of kilter in the others too.

America’s reading problem vs the dyslexia myth. It is worth noting that Tett didn’t follow the ‘dyslexia’ trail in her piece, which is what Labour MP Graham Stringer did in 2009. In a column for the website Manchester Confidential he said millions of pounds were being wasted on specialist teaching for what he called a “false” condition. (Intriguingly his column forms the opening paragraph of the first chapter in Elliott and Grigorenko’s The Dyslexia Debate.) As a visitor to Strangeways Prison in Manchester Stringer noted the link between incarceration and poor literacy which Tett also commented on. What intrigued me more were the comments (ignored by Elliott and Grigorenko) provoked by Stringer claiming the correlation was a consequence of poor teaching. To quote Stringer: “The education establishment, rather than admit that their eclectic and incomplete methods for instruction are at fault, have invented a brain disorder called dyslexia, … To label children as dyslexic because they’re confused by poor teaching methods is wicked…. If dyslexia really existed then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%. …There can be no rational reason why this ‘brain disorder’ is of epidemic proportions in Britain but does not appear in South Korea or Nicaragua. … Currently, 35,500 students receive disability allowances for dyslexia at an annual cost of £78.4m… Certified dyslexics get longer in exams. …There has been created a situation where there are financial and educational incentives to being bad at spelling and reading… It is time that the dyslexia industry was killed off and we recognised that there are well-known methods for teaching everybody to read and write.”

Although I disagree with Stringer’s faith in phonics as a remedy, I agree totally with his view that there is a dyslexia assessment, teaching and honours industry which covers up inadequate teaching and evaluation. The tone and content of the comments following his piece evidenced the presence of the usual vested interest groups, with those supporting him being in the minority. They were preoccupied with asserting the existence of dyslexia. The abuse, much of it vitriolic, ranged from; if his view represents the Labour Party’s view they would be revoking their membership of the party, all the way to the claim that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s no surprise to learn that the majority of such comments were from either teachers who denied the role of poor teaching, or from those proclaiming personal testimony to their dyslexia.

I wonder what comments followed Tett’s America’s reading problem ? It would be interesting to compare them.

At the heart of the multiplicity of issues, lies the hegemony of the right / write / wright / rite and media and institutional inertia. And at the heart of this hegemonic quartet, to repeat, is the fact that in literate societies sense of self is determined to a large extent by our ability to read / write. To illustrate: quoting feedback from Judge Mort, in a case involving a repeat young offender “Why don’t all psychologists know about this (the implications and consequences of not writing with the adept hand)? The judge had requested an evaluation specifically to determine why all previous psychological evaluations had failed to identify the condition and thus why all previous sentencing ‘treatments’ had failed. Whilst his comment is still true in the Anglo-Saxon speaking world it isn’t true in Germany. (See Dr Johanna Barbara Sattler’s work on Converted Handedness: )

The ‘argument’ is two-fold: some people are born naturally right or left handed and a very small minority equi-handed. This natural hand can execute complex manipulations (of which writing is one instance) with seemingly effortless ease; it can be called the adept hand. However for a variety of complex cultural and familial reasons many individuals have been induced or coerced into writing with the non-adept hand. The majority of cases involve writing with the right hand when the left is the adept one. However there are also many cases involving writing with the left hand when the right is the adept one. The argument is not over whether one is right or left handed but whether there is a mis-match between the writing and the adept hand. If there is, the person will suffer an ill-at-easeness, not being in harmony within themselves and with the external world (of writing).

The heartfelt antipathy toward poor teaching being a cause of poor reading problems can be illustrated best by citing Uta Frith’s comment on Elliott & Grigorenko’s work, “It makes me feel ill.” (Frith is a much honoured psychologist, latterly cognitive neuroscientist for her work on autism and dyslexia.) But as anyone who has ever watched television trouble shooters, such as Gordon Ramsay or Alex Polizzi, at work will have noted that the physical, emotional, social and mental are but different facets of a single entity; and that fundamental change is never achieved without strong emotions being aroused – with social interaction often getting worse before it gets better.

But there is a deeper systemic problem endemic within professional and academic institutions. To illustrate. In 2007, as a long standing Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society with Chartered Psychology status I conducted separate evaluations on three primary school pupils. The outcome for the first two was typical. For one, I heard nothing further from the family after I sent them my report. The second involved two follow-up meetings with the family and one at the child’s school. It was the third that exposed the silo thinking within and the institutional inertia of the British Psychological Society (BPS). The simple facts were that the Mrs K Brown, headteacher of Sandiway Primary School, Cheshire complained to the BPS that the report did not conform to the format of Chartered Educational Psychologists (note I was a Chartered Psychologist, not an Educational Psychologist) and that the school had been maligned for not ensuring the child’s progress. She had sounded out other Educational Psychologists and none of them had ever heard of latent-handedness: the condition therefore did not exist, and even if it did, it wouldn’t explain the pupil’s need for special educational needs status! It is worth noting that during the hearing Brown did not show her face and that the parents had already changed the child’s school and were on the verge of moving the child again. Crucially, when the BPS became involved the child’s father Mark Sugden, remained silent, thereby compromising his personal integrity.

During the ensuing disciplinary hearing into my professional competence, the psychologist on the panel (Prof McKay, former president of the BPS) noted: (a) that I had offered to run an in-house workshop for the school and the BPS to appraise them of the condition (b) that both the school and the BPS failed to take up my offer and (c) asked somewhat rhetorically whether all educational psychologists, counseling, forensic, indeed all psychologists need be appraised of the condition. He wondered how I discovered the condition. This rendered the failure of the appeal all the more puzzling and resulted in my Chartered Status being revoked for the reason that I would not retract the significance of the role of latent handedness in a variety of presenting problems. Not surprisingly I resigned forthwith from the BPS. I was granted Regional Fellow membership of the Royal College of Medicine, with full disclosure of the BPS case!

At the parochial level it is easy to see why there is such institutional inertia. It is easier to say one person is wrong rather than the organisation is wrong! The ultimate paradox is that the BPS has chosen to resolve the cognitive dissonance by sticking with their ‘evidence’ rather than changing their minds!! One consequence of the BPS’s denial of the role played by the writing-adept hand mis-match in a variety of ‘psychological’ conditions is that they are willfully blocking access to assessments and treatments. Unfortunately the BPS’s intransigence has further global consequences.

At the global level failure to emulate the work of Dr Johanna Barbara Sattler, and my own is much more profound. And here I draw an analogy between the ‘dyslexia debate’ and the ‘what is the mechanism of radicalisation towards, for example, Daesh’? Surely it is the fact that almost everywhere on the planet (see Conflict Conflict Tracker) there are those who ‘resolve’ the differences between themselves and others by at best intimidating them and at worst, torturing and exterminating them. A seminal case is that of Osama bin Laden. The FBI website identified him as left handed (presumably on the basis of his physical gestures, in particular holding his rifle with his right hand and pulling the trigger with his left. What defines Osama bin Laden as being out of kilter within himself (ie a latent left hander) is that he writes with his right hand! Contrast him with Barack Obama, a left hander who writes with his left hand. There are clearly other factors at play, in each case.

One result of an unacknowledged mis-match between the writing and the adept hand is a sense of ill-at-eseness, which is resolved by ‘freezing’, ‘fleeing’, or ‘fighting’. It is probably being too cryptic to claim that bin Laden resolved his personal problem (ie the mis-match between writing and adept hand) politically by taking on, literally and metaphorically the might of the right (ie America). In short those who are ill-at-ese within themselves will locate the cause outside themselves. In many cases they acknowledge their non-identity with others by seeking banners under which to validate their actions, whether it be repeat offender, dyslexia or murderous Islam. Handling America’s reading problem, which represents the mere tip of a global iceberg, evidently entails handling this hegemony, or should it be the rhetoric, of the right!

About petermathews

Member of the Royal Society of Medicine
This entry was posted in British Psychological Society, Dyslexia, Hand, Hegemony, Osama bin Laden, Psychologists, Radicalisation, Reading, Right and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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