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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Teach the language of power, privilege

A “language of privilege” excludes those not born to the educated classes, writes Robert Pondiscio,in response to New York Times columnist David Brooks’ “prosciutto-handed tale” of social barriers to upward mobility.

“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,” writes Pondiscio. It can be taught.

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.

Success in school, workplaces and so on requires acquiring “the culture of those who are in power,” writes Lisa Delpit, an African-American literacy researcher whose work is controversial.

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. . . . 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. . . . “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.”

Progressive educators are reluctant to do this, writes Pondiscio. They validate the home culture and language, refusing to teach students the “codes” that allow success in the larger society.

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