by Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and formerly vice-president of the Core Knowledge Foundation.
There is, without question, a language of privilege in America that excludes those who do not speak it fluently. And it is within our power as educators and policymakers to influence children’s acquisition of that language. But doing so will require a degree of clarity and candor to which we are unaccustomed when we talk about education. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has long been making the social justice case for giving disadvantaged children access to the knowledge and language that have long been assumed by the privileged and powerful.
To a degree that can be awkward to acknowledge, language is a cultural artifact, filled with assumed knowledge, allusions, and idioms that are a reflection of the culture that built, uses, and sustains it. Not for nothing did Hirsch title his 1987 bestseller on reading and language Cultural Literacy. That book and Hirsch’s subsequent work have tended to ignite firestorms of controversy, but critics have typically misunderstood Hirsch’s thrust. His object was never to establish a canon. Rather his is a curatorial effort aimed at cataloging the knowledge assumed by literate speakers and writers who take for granted that their audiences command the same base of knowledge and references. Hirsch’s project has been to inventory, to the degree possible, the mental furniture of the elites that enjoy privilege and opportunity, and to advocate for seeding their knowledge and language in every American classroom. This has long made Hirsch our best and truest voice for social justice in K–12 education.
But the idea that American schools should explicitly familiarize children—especially those from other countries, cultures, or traditions—with a uniform body of knowledge in elementary and middle school falls upon contemporary ears as awkward, anachronistic, even inappropriate. We are far more likely to honor or even revere a child’s home language, culture, and dialect. But we must seriously consider the possibility that this well-meaning impulse is quite wrong for all the right reasons.
Lisa Delpit, an African American literacy researcher and 1990 MacArthur grantee, has written persuasively for many years about the “culture of power” in American schools and classrooms and the “schism between liberal educational movements and that of non-White, non-middle class teachers and communities.” In her seminal essay, “The Silenced Dialogue,” she explains the implications of the culture of power:
This means that success in institutions—schools, workplaces, and so on—is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those who are in power. Children from middle-class homes tend to do better in school than those from non-middle-class homes because the culture of the school is based on the culture of the upper and middle classes—of those in power. The upper and middle classes send their children to school with all the accouterments of the culture of power; children from other kinds of families operate within perfectly wonderful and viable cultures but not cultures that carry the codes or rules of power.
To say this is an uncomfortable topic among educators is to vastly understate things, especially among those who are earnestly committed to both progressive ideals and progressive pedagogy. “The Silenced Dialogue” and the book it spawned, Other People’s Children, are staples on the syllabus of teacher-education programs and spark heated debate and wounded egos. “Those with power are frequently least aware of—or least willing to acknowledge—its existence,” Delpit insists. She argues:
To provide schooling for everyone’s children that reflects liberal, middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it. Some children come to school with more accouterments of the culture of power already in place—“cultural capital,” as some critical theorists refer to it (for example, Apple, 1979)—some with less. Many liberal educators hold that the primary goal for education is for children to become autonomous, to develop fully who they are in the classroom setting without having arbitrary, outside standards forced upon them. This is a very reasonable goal for people whose children are already participants in the culture of power and who have already internalized its codes.
But parents who don’t function within that culture often want something else. It’s not that they disagree with the former aim, it’s just that they want something more. They want to ensure that the school provides their children with discourse patterns, interactional styles, and spoken and written language codes that will allow them success in the larger society.
To be highly proficient in the language of privilege requires mastery over not just an alphabet and rules of grammar, but also an enormous range of assumed knowledge, historical references, and cultural allusions that are commonly held by members of a speech community. “My kids know how to be Black,” one parent tells Delpit. “You all teach them how to be successful in the white man’s world.”
American education remains deeply reluctant to do this, since it requires overthrowing any number of traditions and practices—from child-centered pedagogies, assumptions about student engagement, and other progressive education ideals, to local control of curriculum, the privileging of skills over content, and the movement toward mass customization of education. Each of these in ways great or small work against the cause of language proficiency; in doing so, they make the task of educating for upward mobility more difficult.
It cuts against the received wisdom of pedagogical and political fashion, but if we are serious about breaking down the social barriers to upward mobility, there should be far more similarities than differences in education in the United States, at least at the K–8 level. The promise of preparing children for academic achievement and upward mobility depends upon a base level of language proficiency. Foundational knowledge across the curriculum not only sets the stage for further independent exploration, it provides the basis for language proficiency—for communication, collaboration, and cooperation between and among disparate people.