Learning Disabilities and the Classical School

By Ian Mosley, Instructor of Latin, School of the Ozarks

The human immune system is a complex bit of machinery. As it learns to define and identify potential threats, it has immense potential to protect us from disease; of course, the most effective diseases find ways around easy identification, using their protean disguises to slip past our defenses. Moreover, having an overzealous immune system can become a disease in itself, as our bodily systems turn and attack those very things that should be familiar and beneficial to them. Teachers often get ravaged by illness in their first few years of teaching and then emerge with ironclad immune systems because they have been exposed to so many potential threats—but the possibility always remains that a well disguised virus can bypass even the best.

In a similar way, classical Christian education has developed some very good “resistance” to many features of conventional education. We can spot a bogus pedagogy or problematic worldview assumptions from a mile away. But as mainstream education continues to morph and change, we are perpetually faced with the challenge of trying to decide whether these changes are mere disguises of educational viruses trying to slip past our defenses or legitimately beneficial developments we can learn from and adopt. Just as with the human immune system, there is a ditch on both sides of the road, and the possiblity of sinning by omission or comission.

One lively front is learning disabilities. The disagnosis of learning disabilities has become increasingly prevalent in the mainstream educational system. Some 5% of American school children have been diagnosed with some form of learning disability, although by some estimates language processing disorders alone (such as dyslexia) may make up more like 15-20% of the population. Some in the classical education movement, even many teachers, think that classical schools are lagging behind in not properly identifying these conditions and remediating them.

Critics, however, point out that in many cases these conditions are unscientific and ill-defined. There is no consensus, for example, on how to define exactly what constitutes dyslexia and methods of diagnosis differ widely and are not necessarily consistent with each other. Julian G. Elliott, a British educational psychologist and co-author of the book The Dyslexia Debate, goes so far as to argue the term dyslexia is not useful and should be discarded entirely.

Elliott does not question by any means that there are children and adults who have a bigger problem than average in learning to decode words and read. He points out, however, that there is no different form of remediation for those classified as “dyslexic” as opposed to those who simply have a hard time learning to read but do not fall under the classification. Since we should help all people with reading challenges the same way, in his opinion, there is no value in developing a special category for dyslexics.

Other research suggests that dyslexia may have as much to do with pedagogy as biology. Samuel L. Blumenfeld argues in his article “Dyslexia—the Disease You Get in School” that there is a strong connection between the abandonment of phonics in teaching reading and the prevalence of dyslexia. Douglas Wilson, an eminent pastor and classical educator, makes the same argument in his book The Paideia of God. This argument is certainly complicated by the fact that some people seem easily to pick up reading no matter how they are taught—but the potential of phonics to remediate reading difficulties is promising.

One of the common idols of our society is egalitarianism: the notion that we are all equal, not just as citizens entitled to equal protection of the law, or as sinners without exception in need of redeeming grace, but equal in every way that matters. Those who embrace this ideology all prescribe the same remedy for apparent inequality in our society: identify the groups who are apparently disadvantaged; coalesce them into a lobbying group; demand from the powers that be some kind of redress that will make them at least functionally equal to everyone else.

Classical Christian educators must entertain the possibility that such an ideology might be a driving factor behind the learning disabilities movement. On the other hand, we should not hastily dismiss the movement merely because it is a trend in conventional education either. All sides should be willing to look at the evidence with rigor and humility and should be willing to admit error if the data do not agree with their conclusions. Above all, we should guard against identifying either with or against the movement to such an extent that it becomes a source of identity and hardens us against looking at the contrary evidence.

Furthermore, we should all agree that schools should devote resources at their disposal to help remediate struggling students, whether they have a particular diagnosis or not. No teacher or administrator wants to see any student fail who might succeed with the right help. They are the very people our school’s “immune system” is designed to protect!

One thought on “Learning Disabilities and the Classical School

  1. Thanks, Ian. This is very helpful. In my very pedantic understanding of the issue based on my experiences around some students and a program focused on remediating these kinds of issues, I have seen a strong correlation between the tactics that are used specifically with students diagnosed with dyslexia and the tactics used for all students in the classical model. I think there are children with special cases, but I am a believer that so much of that is addressed in teaching reading the “classical way”, with some needing more help along the path than others. It does seem that much of the work of these special programs might be unnecessary if schools had not abandoned the basics.


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