Talkin' That Talk

Ginia Bellafante's article in Sunday's New York Times is wrong in so many ways it takes an educator some time to even begin to address it. Her thesis, one that is old and worn out, is that poor children are behind in the education race because they are not exposed to rich and complex language compared to her friends on the Upper West Side. Her logic seems so impeccable, her insights so common sense. After all, aren't we and all the good people we know just fine? Aren't those teeming masses just so problematic?

She builds her argument around one anecdotal bit of evidence. She sees a nearly-three-year-old child (presumably of a friend of hers) comment upon the return of some furniture to his family's apartment with the enthusiastic declaration, "Ottoman is back!" This leads her to ecstasies about the linguistic sophistication of such children. And soon into a meditation on the "word deficit" of poor children -- generally, of course, black and brown children. She cites some questionable studies from the 80s. One pictures the momma in Precious emitting angry grunts and throwing a frying pan at her child. It is all rehashed "culture of poverty" mythology.

This same Eurocentric, classist lens was expressed in early research which argued that middle class speakers have more linguistically rich language. William Labov for one debunked this, demonstrating elaborated codes in the poorest inner city speaker. And often the "word counters" were administering tests in which they checked off words in their own discourse but not in the language of the communities they were studying. Other myths, such as that white children read better because their parents read more bedtime stories to them, die hard but are not supported by research.

Bellafante was impressed that this kid said "Ottoman." Apparently she has never hung out in Harlem or the Bronx where equally cute and precocious utterances are being made every day by two-year-olds. She could also take a look at a study such as Ana Celia Zentella's Growing up Bilingual. Zentella demonstrates that Puerto Rican children in Harlem are masters of three languages, at least, and they also code switch smoothly between different registers and mixtures of the languages depending on the context. She should check out the book SAT Bronx, which demonstrates universes of knowledge which these youths know in a constructed test that she, and I, would surely fail.

The common sense pronouncements on education, the stuff of cocktail party know-it-alls, assumes a naïve and racist universalism in language and a vulgar evolutionism in anthropology and history. Bellafante's citing of E.D. Hirsch, another cultural elitist, further betrays the narrow lens with which she views the issue.

The problem with all these pronouncements is that they presuppose that the content of the educational canon, the discourse with which it is explained, and the assessment of student knowledge are all neutral and simply truthful. But in fact they are calibrated precisely to fit in with the culture of upper middle class white kids. That's how the game is set up and, surprise, those are the kids who succeed in it.

Time and again it has been demonstrated that if students' own discourse and knowledge, their assets and strengths, are acknowledged and allowed inside the school door, they do wonderful and important learning. And, yes, they can also code switch to satisfy those who are, currently, in power. But ultimately we must get away from a hierarchy of cultures and the language that embeds these cultures.

Many teachers across the country, those who practice culturally relational teaching, know how to do this. The most powerful learning experiences, in community poetry slams, hip hop clubs, media centers, and community-based schools have demonstrated the eagerness to learn, to apply critical thinking and creative innovation, are vital and growing in our cities. The education gap is a construction made by those who have set up the game. The education debt is the amount that should be paid to communities that have been deprived of resources while being scorned and slandered.

Someone should write about the resilience, the critical survival thinking, the creative improvisation that our youth practice every day. Someone should notice these youth for their humanity, not their alleged deficits. Then perhaps we can all learn something from the wonderful and brilliant kids in Harlem that Zentella introduces us to.