The Most Mysterious of Arts: On the Science of Reading
Adrian Johns Considers Our Attempts to Codify and Optimize Learning
Reading is a good thing. We like to believe that it is a fundamental element of any modern, enlightened, and free society. We may even think of it as the fundamental element. It has long been standard to identify the emergence of contemporary virtues like democracy, secularism, science, and tolerance with the spread of literacy that occurred in the wake of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in the fifteenth century.
And of course we maintain that the ability to read successfully is functionally essential for anyone who wishes to become a fully actualized, participating citizen in the modern world. Almost nobody nowadays would argue that reading is anything but a beneficial and intrinsically meritorious practice for everyone. If there is one practice that unites the most elevated moral reflections on modernity with the most quotidian of everyday experiences, reading is it.
All of us who are literate—and it is worth remembering for a moment that many even in the developed world are not—have, of course, learned to become so. Reading, as one of its first scientific investigators pointed out, is not natural. No nonhuman creature has ever done it, as far as we know. And yet, “this habit,” as Edmund Burke Huey marveled in 1908, “has become the most striking and important artificial activity to which the human race has ever been moulded.” Huey was surely right in that arresting realization.
And the questions that forced themselves upon his mind in consequence of it were surely the appropriate ones too. Since reading is unnatural, he asked, “What are the unusual conditions and functionings that are enforced upon the organism in reading? Just what, indeed, do we do, with eye and mind and brain and nerves, when we read?”
Apparently simple, these questions are in fact deep and complex; and they are extremely difficult to answer. They require not only sophisticated psychological and physiological concepts but stances on such matters as the mind-body relationship and the nature of knowledge itself. All of science and philosophy, we might almost say, are implicit in them.
That is surely why, Huey observed, in ancient times reading was accounted “one of the most mysterious of the arts,” and why its operation was still accounted “almost as good as a miracle” even in his own day. And yet, starting in about 1870, generations of scientists did take on Huey’s questions. The Science of Reading is about the rise and fall—and subsequent rise again—of the enterprise these scientists created to answer them.
Huey posed those questions at the beginning of what was the first major book in this new science to be published in America. The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading first appeared in 1908 and proved to have extraordinary longevity. It was reissued several times in the next two decades, it was reprinted again by MIT Press in 1968 as a classic of cognitive science, and it enjoyed a new edition as recently as 2009.
The volume is valuable as a gateway into the subject of my new book, The Science of Reading, not only because of its prominence in the field, which is unrivaled, but also because Huey was remarkably and explicitly reflective about the cultural concerns that underpinned his new science and gave it its purpose. Although the questions that he posed in his research were in one sense naturalistic—that is, they were questions about the properties of readers considered as human beings in general, independent of time and place—Huey was well aware that what made those questions meaningful were contemporary contexts both large and small.
He was writing in the era of the first mass education and the first mass democracy. Industrialization and the Gilded Age had given rise to giant capitalist institutions that transformed perceptions of society and people’s places in it. Telegraphy and telephony were transforming communications, and radio would soon do so even more. The mass-circulation newspaper was changing how people thought about themselves, their privacy, and that oddly numinous entity “the public.”
Optimism about social and technological progress was tempered with anxieties about decadence, degeneration, addiction, atavism, and other perils. And Darwinism—social as well as natural—suggested powerful ways to understand and master the dynamics of all these processes, for good and ill. As we shall see, Huey had all these hopes and fears very much in mind when he made his remarks about reading’s marvelous and mysterious power. They played a signal part in motivating his pursuit of a scientific approach to the practice.
One aim of my book is to explain the origin, development, and consequences of the science of reading that Huey and his peers inaugurated. In that light, its approach is thoroughly, and, I hope, convincingly, historical. Yet it is also worth considering that the questions that excited researchers in Huey’s time do have their echoes in our own age, just over a century later. We too have our optimistic hopes and our existential anxieties, many of which have to do with new communications systems and the problems of large-scale capitalist institutions.
The economic and social inequalities of 2020s society, notoriously, are greater than they have been at any time since Huey’s, and it is possible that the moral and political instability arising from the conjunction of communications technologies and social strains may prove as great. True, we now talk about our situation in rather different terms than Huey used to address his. We invoke information technology, surveillance capitalism, and attention, and we worry about what happens in and to our brains as they are exposed to the firehose blast of multichannel, polysensory information that characterizes twenty-first century life.
Those are concepts and technologies quite different from Huey’s. But when we ask how we can educate the next generation so they may live full lives in this environment, and nobody seems to have a definitive answer, our concerns are not so far removed from his generation’s. And in many ways our capacity to pose and tackle such questions is indebted to that generation’s work. Moreover, the science of reading that evolved from that time is in fact responsible for central aspects of the very experience that inspires our own anxious questioning.
The story therefore does not end with the ascendancy of the science of reading in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, nor even with its eclipse—temporary, as it turned out—in the 1960s and 1970s. It extends into the present. One point is to cast light on the ways in which we think about equivalent problems today. Although the science of reading that Huey and his fellows brought into being does not provide answers for us in any simple way, considering it historically does help us appreciate our own questions and their meanings in a better light. And a history of the science of reading need not be so rigorously self-denying as to shy away from profound questions about how and why we now think, wonder, and fear as we do.
The Science of Reading traces the emergence, consolidation, and implications of a tradition of research from about 1870 to the present. This tradition arose out of what was known as psychophysics, a then-new experimental approach to psychological phenomena that was pioneered in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. It was introduced into the United States by a handful of keen young researchers who had gone to Leipzig and Halle and returned to take up positions in American institutions, where they constructed instruments, developed laboratories, and taught generations of students.
The first part of the story thus traces the creation of a scientific discipline. We then look at what the scientists of reading actually did—their laboratory techniques and practices—and show how their central concepts and tools circulated beyond academic institutions to reach almost every area of American life.
Both the questions that motivated these researchers and the answers they generated were of broad and fundamental importance. Schools and workplaces across the United States took notice, believing that solutions to their problems lay in the instruments that the scientists of reading invented and tinkered with. The science of reading began in the first era when corporations were becoming geographically distributed entities tied together by filing systems and other informational machines; industry and commerce required a skilled, literate workforce and demanded that the nation provide it; and advertising and other forms of market information governed their ability to make ever-larger profits.
Mass newsprint was a powerful political agent, and all the more so in a country that from the start had been proud of its informed, well-read citizenry. Americans’ lives were now structured around books, newspapers, magazines, posters, card indexes, folders, files, and all their associated paraphernalia—the complex, variegated, overwhelming, and fast-changing world of what the Belgian pacifist and universal bibliographer Paul Otlet christened documentation. The common denominator was that all those things had to be read. And increasingly Americans and their governors were anxious about the consequences, which meant that what could be read, how, and by whom were all matters to be managed. Hence mass education; but hence, also, the Comstock Act and other initiatives designed to uphold public morals amid a slew of unfettered information.Good reading could be identified scientifically; bad could be diagnosed, treated, and remedied.
The machines, theories, and practices of the science of reading therefore affected the lives of virtually every American in profound and inescapable ways. Citizens encountered them everywhere they went, in settings ranging from the nursery to the aircraft carrier, and from the bomber cockpit to the domestic kitchen. They learned to read from an early age by virtue of techniques that the science of reading underpinned and validated, and they sought to improve their reading practices in adulthood by employing that science all over again.
Good reading could be identified scientifically; bad could be diagnosed, treated, and remedied. Writ large, this meant that the science of reading was also of critical salience for those, like Dewey and Lippmann, who worried about the culture of politics for the nation as a whole, because countless acts of reading collectively defined that culture. The science of reading therefore helped define the parameters in terms of which the great midcentury debate about democracy and publicity could take place.
By the 1940s the science of reading had taken several forms, extending from a highly technical laboratory discipline to a sophisticated—and sometimes risky—field science. It was a major contributor to contemporary discussions on matters ranging from the segregation of southern schools and libraries to the management of the modern corporation and the politics of new media. Starting in the late 1950s, however, the science of reading underwent a radical shift. Having enjoyed broad respect for half a century, it found itself subjected to two sharp but distinct attacks.
On the one hand, its experimental and instrumental traditions came in for severely increased criticism in light of the declining reputation of behaviorist views of human nature. A new discipline of cognitive science was in the offing, and it set itself against the allegedly authoritarian character of the older approaches, insisting that human learning processes were much more protean, exploratory, and constructive than any merely behavioral approach could grasp. One had instead to appreciate the complexity, autonomy, and freedom of the mind itself, and work to nurture those qualities in school settings.
But at the same time, Rudolf Flesch’s shocking Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955), while likewise accusing the science of reading of being authoritarian and behaviorist, also assailed it for being insufficiently rigorous. Flesch claimed that it had spawned a nationwide education system that did not in fact teach children to read at all. His sensational book asserted that the science of reading was ill-conceived, out of touch, self-serving, and corrupt, and that only an approach that revived the earlier practice of “phonics” would actually teach reading as such.
Setting parents against teachers and politicians against scientists, Flesch’s diatribe launched a series of bitter “reading wars” that would continue for decades. They still flare up every so often to this day. Arising at much the same time, these two challenges created a severe crisis for the science of reading and its pedagogic applications.
The result was not only permanently damaging to the science of reading. It also fostered a deep, anxious uncertainty about the true nature, not only of reading, but of learning in general. To make things worse, in the years around 1960, champions of so-called programmed learning allied with inventors of a welter of automated teaching machines to proclaim a neobehaviorist revolution in the formation of American readers. Most of these machines stood athwart the emphasis on creativity, imagination, and exploration urged by advocates of a cognitive approach.
But at the same time, a smaller array of automatic gizmos became available that attempted to encapsulate that more flexible and, in a term of the time, autotelic approach. Out of such efforts would come not only a revived science of reading, but also the first efforts to make machines that could themselves read. The fundamental conceptions that structured an emerging world of mechanized learning—or, as it soon became known, artificial intelligence—resulted from those efforts.
The story of the science of reading does not end there. In three major areas it has continued to the present. First, the traditional techniques of the science of reading found a new home, becoming central to the “science,” not of reading per se, but of marketing. Second, in the new millennium, researchers aligned themselves with neuroscience and the technology of brain imaging. And, third, as information itself became digitized and networked, so the techniques of the science of reading were put to use to define key elements of “human-computer interaction.”
Every time we use a mouse to move a cursor between icons in a graphical user interface, we are operating with tools that originated in this transition of the science of reading to the new domain of digital information. And the ways in which we do so are routinely tracked—and even predicted in advance—by other tools derived from the same enterprise. In these ways and more, the science of reading continues to affect the everyday lives of us all.
Reprinted with permission from The Science of Reading: Information, Media, and Mind in Modern America by Adrian Johns, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.