From 1971 to 1978 Bruno Bettelheim and his staff spent countless hours sitting in primary school classrooms and observing how a generation of young Americans were being taught. Bettelheim, a 78-year-old psychoanalyst and professor of education who spent 26 years running the University of Chicago's residential school for highly disturbed children, has written a forthcoming book spelling out his indictment of American education. This interview, recorded at his California home this spring, was conducted by Elizabeth Hall, a journalist and author of a new textbook on child development. It is excerpted from Psychology Today magazine.
ELIZABETH HALL: Exactly how do the readers that are used in schools turn children off reading? What does the content of the stories tell children about learning to read?
BRUNO BETTELHEIM: That reading is unimportant, and that what one reads is a bunch of lies.
Q: Would you expand on that?
A: First of all, you never see a picture of a parent or a child reading in any of these readers, nor is it mentioned that people read. You might see a television set. But never a book. Not even a newspaper.
Q: So reading is not portrayed as part of life.
A: Not at all. So why learn to read? Nor do readers ever show children at school. They're always playing. Life in these books is nothing but a succession of pleasurable activities on the shallowest level. And there are no real emotions in the readers. Nobody is angry. Nobody has a fight. Nobody suffers.
Q: What does it tell children when they read about all these happy people who have fun and never worry?
A: If a child takes what he reads seriously, he comes to think his own family is terrible, because no family can live up to the expectations about typical family living raised by these stories. So as the child learns to read, he is projected into serious conflicts. He decides that there must be something wrong at home because his family is not like the people in the readers.
Q: How about the way children think of themselves?
A: Well, mostly children think those who wrote the textbooks and those who teach them to read believe that they are dumbbells. Look at this book. Here are Mark and Janet. They are the same age and have the same parents. They must be either faternal twins or adopted, or perhaps the children of different marriages. These children are the main characters in an entire series of readers, yet such an important issue is never mentioned; our children are treated like idiots who would not wonder about it. That's my point. Reading should stimulate thinking. And there we get to the root of the problem: Children are not taken seriously.
Q: You think children would find reading more meaningful if the primer vocabularies were not so easy.
A: There's no justification for the controlled vocabulary. Visit any public school toilet and look at the graffiti. You'll see that when children are interested, they can learn to spell quite complicated words.
Q: At one time in this country, children learned to read from primers that told them, "Thy life to mend, this book attend." But religious content is taboo today. How would you make reading as important to children today as it was in colonial times?
A: Let me give you a simple example. Children are members of families. Why not a story on how the family came about? That it came about because of the relatively long dependence of the child on adults, which gives adults time to teach the child. Human beings can learn so much only because they develop so slowly. For instance, the little kitten can fend for itself after a couple of weeks; the human being can do that only after some eight or 10 years. Don't you think children would find that interesting?
Another example: children are fascinated by how the body works. I've gotten spellbound attention from children by showing them that food doesn't go down by gravity. All you have to do is hold a child upside down and say, "Swallow."
Suddenly they realize the power of the muscles of the esophagus. I might even have a story about what chalk is; after all, they use it to write on the blackboard.
Q: In other words, you would write stories that would satisfy children's natural curiosity?
A: That's right. And I would deal with the crucial problems of the day: divorce, single parents, and so forth.
Q: Suppose one did a story about divorce. If the divorce involved the children who were the main characters in the story wouldn't it seem threatening to children? We know that children identify with the characters they read about.
A: Yes, but you cannot deal with anything serious without creating some ambivalent feelings or even some anxiety. Children have to learn that a certain amount of anxiety is manageable. They need to know, "I can get into difficult situations, but I can manage them."
Q: What if someone taught children to read using fairy tales?
A: I am very much in favor of fairy tales. Anxiety-provoking things happen, serious things happen, still there is a happy ending. But you don't have to use fairy tales. Let's have a serious story about the Puritans, one that goes beyond turkeys and Thanksgiving. Why not talk about the fact that the Puritans were so rigid the Dutch couldn't stand them and kicked them out? Speak about how undesirable rigity can be and the need for tolerance.
Q: We go out of our way to avoid anything so serious. Think of the predicament of the school board that adopted such readers.
A: That's why we don't have the books. It takes up to $20 million to prepare these terribly expensive series, and in order to recoup their investment, publishers must sell all over the country. But boards of education are always afraid of criticism. If there's not a bond issue, there's a school board election. So what happens? You include something that pleases each group and you get a reader that pleases nobody.
Q: That might hold for handling controversial issues, but it certainly wouldn't apply to themes such as, "It's nice to go to school and learn to read."
A: Don't be too sure. I was adviser for a series that was to include realistic stories of the small tragedies of childhood. One story had to do with children going to a fair and coming home with balloons. That cat jumped onto a balloon and it burst. Cat lovers were up in arms. They said children should learn to love cats, and so the series was not printed.
Q: Turning to the structure of the schools: How does that affect learning?
A: If I were a first grader in one of the suburban schools, I would conclude that schools are geared toward two important things: lining up for lunch and putting the chairs on the desks at the end of the school day. These are the only two things that every teacher I observed adamantly insisted on. The child can only conclude that these tasks -- and not reading -- are terribly important. Everything else in the classroom is more or less laissez-faire. All sorts of distractions are allowed. In one classroom, some children may be playing a table game and arguing violently about it, others may be practicing their flutes or recorders, and still others may be trying to concentrate on their workbooks.
Q: So the classroom is not geared for learning. What else?
A: Everything gets equal praise from the teacher. You can get praise for being a good napper or a good block builder. And it's a damn sight easier to be a good napper than a good reader.
Q: What happens if you're having trouble learning to read and your teacher wants to say something nice to you, so she keeps complimenting you on your block building?
A: You come to believe that block building is just as important in life as reading, since the school is teaching for life. Now you're laughing, and I know that sounds like satire, but it's exactly what's happening in the primary classrooms. In fact, the worst aspect of the system is that we try to make education easier and easier. To become educated isn't easy; it's hard work. Our attitude that it should be easy is detrimental. When education is presented as fun, the child who succeeds gets little feeling of accomplishment, and the child who fails is defeated, since he can't do what he is told is easy to do, so he thinks, "I'm no good." When I taught children, I always told them, "This is difficult, but if you work hard, you can learn it." Under those conditions, if children fail, they're not defeated, since they have been warned that it is difficult. But if they succeed, they have a wonderful feeling.
Q: Can we expect children from homes where parents do not read for pleasure to find reading either interesting or important?
A: It's certainly difficult, because all studies of reading achievements have shown that the best predictor of reading achievement is the literacy level of the parents. Habits are formed in the home by copying one's parents. It's not enough that the parents read; they must enjoy it as well. If parents don't enjoy reading or say what was gained from it, children may learn to read signs and labels and ads on television, but they do not grow into literate persons -- that is, they never find reading meaningful or gain important values from reading.
Q: Is not being read to the reason poor children drop behind middle-class children?
A: Not entirely, It's important that children be read to, but the way they're talked to is even more important. You see, literacy requires the ability to follow complex discourse in printed form, an ability that has a great deal to do with language skills. Children from culturally deprived homes are often talked to in a truncated language. If you listen to a middle-class mother talking to her child, you will hear a wide variety of language and idiom and a somewhat complex style.
Q: Many studies have found that the major difference between middle-class and lower-class mothers is the way they talk to their children. If that is true, what can be done in school?
A: Very little, I'm afraid. One of the best jobs in this respect was done not by the schools but by a teachers' college. Social workers and psychologists went into homes and taught mothers how to play games that they enjoyed so much that they then taught them to their children. They also helped these mothers to budget and shop, skills that the middle class takes for granted. But lanuage differences continue to be a crucial problem in our society. Therefore, those who insist on teaching Hispanic children in Spanish or black children in Black English make the damage even worse. Teaching in a second language is a very subtle way of keeping the culturally deprived out of the mainstream of American life.
Q: It's good intentions again. We don't want children to feel that their culture is inferior.
A: And that's a major source of our trouble. In our liberal relativism -- which was given us by sociologist and anthropologists -- we see all cultures as having the same moral value. They be of equal merit, but they're not all equally suitable for making it in the United States. We destroy school for minority children in other ways. We destroy it by telling children that because of their back-ground they are entitled to special condiseration. So if they fail, it's racism, and if they succeed, they make it because of white guilt feelings. That destroys their self-respect.
I think the problem of the blacks will be with us for a long time. We can't solve it in one generation. If we take the problem seriously -- as our instant solutions fail to do -- we might solve it in three or four generations.
Q: But we went for generations without doing anything.
A: That's most unfortunate, but generations of neglect do not change the fact that it's a difficult problem. We also have to understand that a Hispanic or black parent ofter fears, and rightly, "If my children become successful, they will look down on me."
Q: Does that play any role in what happens when the minority child goes to school?
A: Yes, it does. I'd like to tell you a story that illustrates the problem neatly. A first-grade teacher in Toronto told me that she had taught her class the difference between a circle and an ellipse. The next day, a very bright black girl said that she had gone home and asked her mother, "Do you know the difference between a circle and an ellipse?" and the mother slapped her daughter's face and said, "Don't use that uppity language with me." The teacher was astounded when I said the mother was absolutely right. You see, a bright 7-year-old knows the level of her mother's language skills. If she had said, "Mother, I learned something interesting in school today. The teacher told us the difference between a circle and an ellipse," there would have been no violent reaction. But when the child says, "Do you know the difference?" and she jolly well knows the mother doesn't know the difference, then the girl is trying to show her own superiority. And that is uppity. So the mother reacted appropriately to the girl's provocative intentions.
Q: What happens to the girls? Does she know she's been slapped because of her intentions?
A: No, the girl just learns that school learning and happiness at home don't go together, and if she wants to retain the unquestioning love of her mother, she'd better not learn too much. Or she'd better hide what she does learn.
Now that we're on the subject of minorities, I'll say that one difficulty with the schools is desegregation. Not integration. Even in its most besotted moment, the Supreme Court never assumed it could order the schools to be integrated. Integration is positive, desegregation is merely avoidance of the negative. The consequence of desegregation is that the children in a classroom have no common background; they come from all over the map. As a result, we have four or five reading groups in each class, and it's extremely difficult to teach the same class on so many levels. Eighty percent of the teacher's time is spent distributing children into groups, seating them, quieting them down.
Q: So you spend more time shuffling than you do teaching.
A: That's right. A reading group is lucky to get 10 minutes of instruction.
Q: Yet the old one-room schoolhouses had many grades in a single classroom.
A: But children in the one-room school had a common background; they would normally have played together, too. So without any effort, the teacher could understand what life was like in their families.
In addition, a one-room school can't function unless the older children help teach the younger ones. Now, having worked with highly disturbed children and academic failures, I've found that having some children help to teach is the best way for all children to learn. The older child learns material that can be mastered only by rote much better by teaching it to a younger child. The one-room school was the best school we ever had.
Q: In the one-room school there were no classes on sex education. From reading your book on fairy tales, I would guess that if you were to teach a course in sex education, the first lesson would be based on the "animal-groom" stories, in which the princess falls in love with a nonhuman being.
A: Indeed it would. The fairy tale teaches about sex in symbolic ways. In "The Frog Prince," sex at first seems disgusting or vulgar. "Beauty and the Beast' presents the same lesson. First the beast appears uncouth and animalistic; then, when love develops, it appears beautiful. Children need to learn that as one comes to appreciate the good qualities in the other person, the beastliness falls by the wayside. I would give them these animal-groom stories and say "Why do you think that kind of story was invented?
Q: So you'd get them started with something they feel comfortable with. Do children invariably feel an initial disgust at sex?
A: Yes, because it's scary. And for two reasons: First, it's unknown, and we're always afraid of the unknown; second, in sex your body does things over which you have no control.
Q: Since most children learn the literal facts of life from their playmates, is clearing up distortions the major value of sex education?
A: No, because correct information about sex does not do away with incorrect information. That's a prejudice. New information is just grafted onto the misinformation and leads to greater confusion. Right here in Palo Alto, a colleague's daughter came home from school and said, "We saw a movie that shows where babies come from." Her mother asked her where babies come from and the little girl said, "Babies are brought by the nurse to the mother. I saw it in the movie."
Q: What would good sex education be like?
A: In my opinion, sex education is impossible in a classroom. Sex education is a continuous process, and it begins the moment you are born. It's in how you are bathed, how you are diapered, how you are toilet-trained, in respect for the body, in the notion that bodily feelings are pleasant and that bodily functions are not disgusting. You don't learn about sex from parental nudity or by showering together. That's nonsense. How you feel about sex comes from watching how your parents live together, how they enjoy each other's company, the respect they have for each other. Not from what they do in bed to each other.
Q: So you believe there's no point in having direct sex education?
A: I think such classes are even a danger and that they're implicated in the increase in teenage sex and teenage pregnancies. You cannot have sex education without saying that sex is natural and that most people find it pleasurable. Now what are lonely and dejected teenagers to do with their free time? Something that is natural and pleasurable. Sex education cannot teach respect for the integrity of one's body. The problem in sex is sexual anxiety, and you cannot teach about sexual anxiety because each person has different anxieties.
Q: In a good many schools, children learn very elementary material about the reproductive system; about memstruation and that sort of thing.
A: Teaching about menstruation only scares boys. From a fairly adequate explanation of the process, a 13-year-old boy can only conclude that it's a bloody mess. And girls are embarrassed when the subject is discussed in class alongside the boys they go to school with. Certain things should be private.
Q: What if classes were divided by gender?
A: It would help a bit, but I don't think it's a real answer. After you've learned about menstruation, you still don't know now it feels to have intercourse. I object to the pretense that the course material is what sex is all about. But sex is a heck of a lot more tha a sperm and an egg meeting.
Q: But many parents feel too embarrassed to discuss sex with their children.
A: I've never seen a teacher who could do it well. She's embarrassed, too.
Q. What about books that are meant to help parents tell preschool children about sex?
A: They only lead to misinformation. None of us can begin to understand sex until we are well into adolescence and have been dating and petting. Until we have learned what it feels like to be petted, and the anxiety and tension and pleasure connected with it. Which book is going to give us that?
Q: What about the pregnant mother with a 3-year-old child? What does she tell her child?
A: She cannot tell anything but the truth. But who knows what the child will make of it? As one child said, "Let's send it back." Children can only interpret sexual information in terms of their existing knowledge and their stage of intellectual development.
Q: Then what would you recommend? That adults just answer children's questions?
A: I would not just answer. I would find out what the children really want to know. It might be very different from the answer you are inclined to give. The child is ready for only a little information at a time. There is nothing simple about sex, but when you teach it you have to make it simple, and then you rob it of everything important.
Q: In your book on fairy tales, you said very little about any fantasy that has been written since Hans Christain Andersen.
A: That's because so much of it is contrived. Now some modern fantasy is poetic. For example, the fairy stories by Oscar Wilde. But the value of the traditional fairy tale is that it was repeated over the centuries. Therefore, everything that was not of universal quality was eliminated in continual retelling. In a pinch, I trust the workings of time much more than I trust the skill of the artist.
Q: But recently there has been a tremendous interest in fantasy.
A: That interest comes about, I think, because people are so starved for fantasy in childhood. I wrote "The Uses of Enchantment" because I believed that our children are given too much realism and not encouraged to flights of fancy. Life can be very harsh if we don't have imagination, and I fear we are lacking it. Many terrible things that have happened would have taken place if we had had enough imagination to imagine the consequences of our actions. And I think the best food for the nurturing of the imagination is the fairy tale. But I also would include great writers and great poets.
What I like in fairy tales is the terrible struggle that always goes on.
Q: There's the same kind of struggle between good and evil in the Tolkien books -- and in all good fantasy. A struggle in which evil is not defeated, but temporarily set back.
A: Exactly. It's an eternal struggle that can never be completely won. I think that's another reason that fantasy is so popular. The popularity of Tolkien, of "Star Wars," of "The Empire Strikes Back" shows that young people have a tremendous need for this fantastic elevation of good against evil, where good wins out, but the battle always has to begin anew.
Q: You recently addressed the American Film Institute . . .
A: I said that the motion picture should be the art of our day. It speaks to everybody. It's available to everybody. It shapes the ideas of everybody. Movies could take the function of great art in every epoch: the moral function.
Q: Television influences children more than movies do. The Average child watches about three hours of television each day.
A: You have to ask why they do it. If they had something better to do, they wouldn't watch television. Again and again, I hear parents complain that their children watch too much TV. And what is the punishment? To withdraw the television. Now if television is such a great good that withdrawing it is the most severe punishment imaginable, then children know that their parents value television highly.
Q: So watching it becomes more desirable.
A: Much more desirable.
Q: Children keep the television set going even when they are not watching it.
A: Just as they turn on the hi-fi when they study. It blocks out fantasies or ideas that they don't want to come to their awareness; it keeps them subconscious. Making a lot of noise is one of the oldest methods of scaring away the devil or evil. And that's what our youngsters do; they turn on the TV and the noise drives away evil or scary thoughts.
Q: Why would they find it necessary? We got along fine without constant background noise when we were children.
A: I think that life was more secure and in better order then. What they are really afraid of is chaos -- the chaos with that would destroy them: the chaos in the streets.
Q: When life has meaning, much of the confusion fades away. It seems to me that if children felt useful, felt that they had an important role, their lives would have more meaning. But the culture has changed and children no longer feel that they make a vital contribution to the family -- or to anything. How does a child of 10 or 15 in today's culture derive a feeling of usefulness?
A: That is the task of the school. When I went to school, the school instilled in me the idea that if I made an educated, cultured person out of myself, I had done something good for society and for myself.
Q: So we're getting back to that first reader again.
A: It's a small world.