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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.

A version of this piece originally appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog. Portions of it originally appeared in Education for Upward Mobility.

7 comments on “Cultural Literacy and the Language of Upward Mobility”

  1. 1
    Denneisha Griffin-Pinnock on July 19, 2017

    The idea of equity in the education system truly falls short when it comes to English as Second Language (ESL) speakers and those from lower socioeconomic conditions. Having learned the focus of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy, one is left to consider if education reformers and policy makers have taken into consideration the aforementioned students during the curriculum development process and the importance of ensuring that it is inclusive. The whole focus of the policy was that of closing achievement gaps and providing all children with fair, equal, and significant opportunities to obtain a high-quality education. According to Klein (2015) “NCLB was the product of a collaboration between civil rights and business groups, as well as both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Bush administration, which sought to advance American competitiveness and close the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their more advantaged peers”. Based on results from standardized tests and students’ performance across content areas, we should really ask ourselves as educators are we as committed to our diverse student population as we think or are we overlooking those who are in need of a little more of our time and will inevitably impact our country’s future (negatively or positively). While we are trying to teach them ‘the language of choice’ we should ensure that our students are not only proficient speakers of the language but rather are celebrated for their individual abilities, cultural diversity embraced and social and cognitive skills developed that would be for the greater good of us all. After all, in this 21st century there are so many avenues for upward mobility.


    Klein, A. (2015). No Child Left Behind: An Overview. Retrieved from:

  2. 2
    Gretchen Cognigni on November 14, 2017

    I work as an instructional specialist for English Language Development (ELD) in a school district in Southern California. Before moving into this role, I taught for five years at a Title I middle school, working with reading intervention classes. These classes were disproportionately made up of English Learners (ELs). I have seen firsthand the struggle of these students, but I have to disagree with this article when it states that “[providing] 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”. My goal as an educator of ELs and supporting ELD programs is to give these students access to education and to open up opportunities in life and careers. My goal is the opposite of this quote; I strive to give these kids access to power. I think it is only obvious that a country’s educational system will reflect its culture and values. What we can do as educators is acknowledge and incorporate our students’ diverse cultures into our instruction. Southern California is very diverse, and the educators I know work very hard to make students feel included and appreciated. By doing this, we hope to support language acquisition, enhance student learning, and open the door to new opportunities.

  3. 3
    Aja Gardner on November 19, 2017

    This topic is one that I am very passionate about. It is disheartening to witness the educational disparities that further divide our country. Young people are not programmed to either be a successful learner or an unsuccessful one. We, as educators, contribute to this. We allow struggles and challenges to label students and then we teach them what they can and can not do. Children are not labels. I often tell my students and teachers that a child’s zip code should never determine his or her future.

  4. 4
    Chanel Gregory on November 19, 2017

    Everything stated in this article highlights one of the most implicit components of institutionalized racism. When children who are not from the spaces of privilege, or a certain socioeconomic class the playing field towards success becomes more adverse. Educators who are conscious enough to infuse code-switching, and the language of privilege into the classroom lessons provide students, who are excluded from those spaces, with an opportunity to successfully navigate into those areas. The quote that really drove this article home was the one that spoke to how proficiency in the dominant language is more than mastery of the alphabet and grammatical conventions, but the assumed knowledge, historical and cultural references, and life experiences held by those a part of those exclusionary spaces. Teachers who argue that privilege is not real should understand that how they experience the world may not be how their students experience the world.

  5. 5
    Michel Cole-Bailey on July 27, 2019

    I find the acquisition of language for children is one of the easier things they have come to master, once it is within their home experiences. However, when children are not familiar with similar experiences of a required language, and they are not from the spaces of the privilege or a certain socioeconomic class, then the playing field is indeed more adverse as stated by Chanel above. Teachers therefore need to be creative in teaching a language that is not the native tongue of students. Special care should be taken to provide experiences that will help to foster ease in learning. The focus should not be only on mastery of the language, but enhancing and building of experiences for students that they travel on the pathway of learning to read.

  6. 6
    Carmen A Burnette on March 27, 2020

    Educator must influence the ability of students to acquire literacy and to learn the English language. provision must be made for the students to feel apart of the system. Cultural differences must not become a hinderance between whether or not students are from a different race or background.
    The childrennfrom poor and illeterate homes tend to remain poor and illeterateis an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occured not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theoories.
    Parents who do not function within the culture need the schools to provide tiei children with the resources , interaction and methods to allow them to succeed in the larger community.

    E.D. Hirsch. Jr. Joseph Keff, James, Trefil. (1987). Cultural Literacy.Houghton. Muffin Company

  7. 7
    Jenniffer Wordsworth-Freso on November 16, 2021

    I am in total agreement with your statement, “There is, without question, a language of privilege in America that excludes those who do not speak it fluently.” Cultural literacy is a trend in our education system which must be included in curricula if we are to provide equity of access in educational opportunities for every student. Maine et al. (2021) posited that becoming ‘culturally literate’ means disposed to be, and competent in being, sensitive to one’s own and others’ identities, heritages, and cultures. It is important for educators to understand the traditional values, beliefs, and history of the student population(s) of their educational climates if their cultures are to be preserved. According to Shapiro & Stefkovich (2011) in the 21st century, as society becomes more demographically diverse, educators will more than ever need to develop, foster, and lead tolerant and democratic schools. It is the responsibility of educators to promote and include cultural literacy in their practice. Cultural literacy is of vital importance to both individuals and society because according to Stritikus (2015) two in every five students in the United States are from an ethnically or racially diverse group. Some benefits of cultural literacy are; the reduction of prejudices an inequality based on each student’s culture, an increase in awareness, support and appreciation for diversity, and maximum participation in the social practices of societies. Thus, promoting cultural literacy and the language of upward mobility because many students come to school speaking a language other than English.
    Laureate Education (Producer). (2015). Introduction to multicultural education [Video file].
    Baltimore, MD: Author.
    Maine, et al. (2021). Reconceptualizing cultural literacy as a dialogic practice. Journal on
    Cultural Literacy. Vol. (17). Iss. 3, p383-392.
    Shapiro, J. P., & Stefkovich, J. A. (2011). Ethical leadership and decision making in
    education: Applying theoretical perspectives to complex dilemmas (3rd ed.). New York,
    NY: Routledge.

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