a1 New York University
At the height of the Progressive Era, a small circle of scholars and educators launched a zealous but failed effort to reform American spelling. Bankrolled by Andrew Carnegie, the Simplified Spelling movement epitomized the era's much-chronicled passion for “efficiency”: By replacing words like through and although with thru and altho, the simplifiers said, citizens would save both time and money. Yet the rapid demise of the campaign also highlights the limits of America's efficiency craze, even during its supposed heyday. Although some critics invoked the efficiency idiom against Simplified Spelling, questioning its utility and practicality, others denounced efficiency itself. Even if simplification made spelling more efficient, they said, Americans should retain their older forms in the name of higher values: beauty, habit, and tradition. Their rejection of Simplified Spelling stood as a standing rebuke to the gospel of efficiency, which never quite gained the full-throated worship that its high priests imagined.
Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of education and history at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. He also holds a position in the Department of History in NYU's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. His most recent books are Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century (2006) and Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory (2009)