The Academy: Razing the Old to Raise the New

Since I feel skepticism on the verge of antagonism toward tradition, I have struggled with the responses to the fire consuming Notre-Dame.

I certainly find the lost unfortunate, but I wonder how the opulence of the structure and the tremendous social inequity that spawned it remain mostly unacknowledged as the vast majority of people see this as a tragedy and hundreds of millions of dollars have already been donated to rebuild the cathedral.

Grand tragedy moves us, I realize, while gradual and persistent suffering seems to numb us; those hundreds of millions could better serve the destitute and hungry, human beings and not mere material monuments.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, many humans remain too often disturbingly un-self-aware: “‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!'”

But there is more to consider since this grand fire has occurred in the context of three church fires in Louisiana, arson rooted in racist hatred. The attention and responses are of much different scales because the contexts of each are of much different scales driven by tremendous historical inequities that linger, especially in the U.S.

I am drawn to my conflicted feelings about Notre-Dame as I consider the online responses to Rebecca A. Reid and Todd A. Curry’s The White Man Template and Academic Bias. Reid and Curry build on some of my work:

Higher education’s white male template, as P. L. Thomas, professor of education at Furman University, calls it, insidiously produces barriers for scholars throughout their entire careers, disproportionately affecting women and people of color. This template dictates certain research agendas, epistemologies, and methods as legitimate while discarding or marginalizing those that do not fit neatly within this framework. In essence, Thomas says, it “frames a white male subjectivity as the norm (thus ‘objective’), rendering racialized (nonwhite) and genderized (nonmale) subjectivity as the ‘other,’ as lacking credibility.”

And their central argument concludes: “Scholars who focus on critical theory, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and identities, qualitative methods and the like are marginalized because their work is supposedly not ‘objective’ science. Rather, it is political advocacy masquerading as scholarship — attractive only to specialized audiences and self-serving.”

This is ultimately a challenge to the Old Academy [1] and a call for the New Academy, suggesting, I think, that the only way to raise the New Academy is in the ashes of razing the Old Academy—something metaphorical against the very real burning of Notre-Dame.

The comments, as well, are parallel reactions to the hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in the from the cultural elite to rebuild Notre-Dame; many of those responses are vigorous and shallow defenses of the Old Academy, masked as arguments for rigor and high scientific ideals.

One of my responses prompted more ire:

Many of the comments prove the points posed by Reid and Curry even as the anonymous posters believing they are disputing them. This is the exact dynamic this article addresses. A total lack of self-awareness by the white/male elites who want to pretend they are the ones being objective and they are the ones meeting high standards. From educated people, these responses are sadly embarrassing.

I do in fact find these comments embarrassing in the same way Ozymandias’s words echo inside the hollowness of his defunct glory:

“…Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Academics posting on Inside Higher Ed should know better, but one thing I have learned over the past 17 years is that the so-called Ivory Tower is just as petty and flawed as the general population; we are just people after all—although one would hope many years of learning could spark a soul in a few more people.

Some of the comments make errors in logic and argument that many of us who teach first-year writing wouldn’t allow: misrepresenting Reid and Curry in order to attack the misrepresentation among the worst.

So I have tried to offer a couple clarifying comments of my own:

…The article above calls for both a critical reconsideration of the imbalance of power and authority allowed for so-called objective research and a more equitable understanding and greater space for so-called subjective research BECAUSE the objective is in fact not any less subjective than the so-called subjective; the imbalances of power in the academy are gendered and racial and the current dynamic of what research counts is both a result of those imbalances and a cause of perpetuating them. The rebukes posted here are often myopic, self-serving, and petty, mostly very shallow defenses of the current power imbalance under a thin veneer of defending rigor and scientific standards.

And:

For example, claims of objectivity and being scientific created and perpetuates scientific racism; the introduction of critical race theory, then, provides the platform for unmasking scientific racism and thus racism. This is an argument for allowing a larger space of what counts so that all types of research have greater fidelity and validity. See The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of “Scientific Racism” in America.

I function in two contexts that represent the conflict exposed in Reid and Curry’s article. I am the embodiment of the “white male template” and a critical scholar/activist.

As a result, I recognize that I both worked incredibly hard to achieve my academic success, my degrees and ultimately my tenured position as a full professor along with my publishing record, and benefitted from even greater privilege along all of those paths to accomplishment. As well, left mostly invisible, many of my accomplishments necessarily mean that I inhabited spaces denied to people being marginalized—women, people of color among many others.

I didn’t ask for anyone to be denied or erased, but I mostly failed to recognize those denials and erasures in my zeal for personal accomplishment. And I can attest that very few people have the moral fortitude to tumble the structures that benefit them—myself included.

Winners always think the rules of the game are fair and believe they earned their trophies by being better than the vanquished while never even considering those not allowed in the contest.

There is a great irony in the resistance to the New Academy, the clinging to the Old Academy like Emily sleeping each night with the corpse of a murdered lover who betrayed her: The New Academy will be far more demanding because of the influx of diversity and the expansion of what counts as credible research along with whose voice counts.

The Old Academy and lazy narrow conceptions of objective and scientific are ultimately simplistic and inadequate for the human experience and the pursuit of knowledge.

The Old Academy is primarily valuable to those already there; it is a security blanket of confirmation bias for the privileged who think they hit a triple when they were in fact born on third base.

Change is frightening for those made comfortable by the status quo. What Reid and Curry are calling for, the New Academy, deserves not the resistance of the white male template but the wonder and excitement of Miranda:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!


[1] The Old Academy, of course, is the current academy:

 

profs-gender

 

The Best Candidate: On Resisting Diversity and Equity

The 2019 version of March Madness has provided two powerful and different images of the passionate coach.

First came the brief controversy over Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, captured in this frame:

Next, despite the typically less well covered women’s game, Muffet McGraw, who coached Notre Dame to the National Championship game, falling a point short, offered an impassioned plea for coaching equity:

When I posted McGraw’s video on social media, the connection between these two moments was highlighted by one of the responses on Facebook: “Just hire the best candidate.”

That plea for something like meritocracy in the face of McGraw’s argument for equity has been repeated often during my time in higher education as I have worked on committees seeking ways to increase diversity and equity among our faculty.

“Just hire the best candidate” is a refrain, in fact, among white men in all sorts of professions. The implication is that what is past, is past, and if we value equity, then we must practice a sort of color- or gender-blind policy now in order, well, to just hire the best candidate.

“The best candidate” response, however, is a dodge because it is overly simplistic and it exposes the lack of self-awareness among white men.

White male privilege is not a thing of the past, as exemplified by Izzo and a large percentage of coaches who are allowed nearly any fault—as long as they win. Izzo is no outlier; the abusive coach, the coach who loses his temper while also admonishing his players to perform with control is the marker for the mediocre white man who glides along on his privilege while also believing he has earned everything he has attained, while believing that he is “the best candidate.”

Etan Thomas explains about the inequity of the coach/player dynamic, captured in stark relief by the tenure of Bobby Knight:

Luke [Recker] and Jason [Collier] had each played two seasons at Indiana University under the legendary but volatile coach Bobby Knight before transferring out to different schools. They spent for two straight hours telling stories about Knight. I was completely shocked by what I heard. The level of torment they both endured: the public and private humiliations, the degrading outbursts, the verbal abuse, the physical abuse, the cursing, the yelling, the screaming, the insults, the attempt to completely break them down and – most of all – the outpour of support their former coach received from all of the adults who worshipped at his throne. Basketball is a religion in Indiana and Knight, who coached the Hoosiers to three national championships, was the pope.

The comparison at the end shouldn’t be ignored since the long and ugly history of abuse of power in the Catholic church and its terrifying consequences for children remain a scar that almost no one seems motivated to heal.

So when McGraw asserts that she will no longer hire men as assistant coaches, that 99%-100% of women’s sports should have women coaches, she is confronting by saying aloud the unspoken reality of white male privilege: Men coaches of men’s sports do not consider women for assistant coaching positions, but never have to utter those words because there is a veneer of coaching hires being about “the best candidate” with the assumption that can only be men.

In all fields where there is gender or race inequity, the solution of “just hire the best candidate” is inadequate because it doesn’t seek ways to investigate that “best.”

Years of experience and success in a field or the education/credentialing needed to enter a field are often aspects of “best,” and those have been gained through, in part or whole, the privilege of white men at the expense of women and people of color.

Coaching, for example, is a real-world example of the “good ol’ boys club,” those coaching trees widely hailed and acknowledged in fact.

How can anyone find fault (and keep a straight face) with McGraw’s argument for women creating their own version of the “good ol’ girls club”?

Ultimately, calls for hiring “the best candidate” is a diversion and a lie perpetuated by those who have for most of history benefitted from unfair advantages while being allowed to pretend that they have succeeded on merit.

Coaching is one of the most glaring examples of how white male privilege elevates the mediocre white man—the hard-nosed point guard who becomes a Division I head coach and then is allowed on a daily basis to yell at and berate young and mostly black men who themselves have no recourse for that abuse.

Those same coaches all go on and on about building character in their players, about the whole athletics scheme being mostly about preparing young people for life after sports.

Part of McGraw’s message confronted the need for role models:

“How are these young women looking up and seeing someone that looks like them, preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power.”

If we really value merit, and character, I want to ask that for anyone regardless of gender or race, who should we emulate, Izzo or McGraw? Whose message and passion resonate in ways that should guide young people, or any one of us?

The best candidate? McGraw because she offers the voice of real merit and a genuine understanding of inequity.

Conservative’s White Nationalism Dog Whistle: The Political Lie of School Choice

Image result for dog whistle

A dog whistle is designed so that to unintended audiences (humans), the whistle is silent, but to the intended audience (dogs), the whistle is a sharp alert.

Now here comes the metaphorical portion of this post.

Over only a couple years of the Donald Trump era of Republican politics, we have become gradually accustomed—like a live lobster dropped in a pot of water soon boiled—to the gross and bluntly self-unaware language of his leadership of the Republican party—he of “grab them by the pussy,” no less.

But Trump’s race-baiting and race-appeasing of white nationalism/racism is no less ham-fisted.

In the U.S., we are pretty solid examples of Meursault’s dictum that people can get used to anything, but we also represent how short human memory is. I fear we have forgotten something most of us never even recognized: The good ol’ traditional political lie, often wrapped conveniently in dog whistle language.

Do not fret, though, because here’s a little nudge from former South Carolina Representative and Senator Jim DeMint, who did what many good ol’ Republicans have done, parlay the “damned-government” mantra into, ironically, a political career that leads to a cushy position in the so-called private sector, in DeMint’s case that was becoming president of the [White] Heritage Foundation forming his own conservative think tank.

It’s good work—if you are a white man with the sort of wealth and clout that you can negotiate into being among the rich-boys’ club we call the U.S. Senate.

DeMint’s political lie du jour is, hold your breath, an endorsement of school choice, the perennial go-to of conservatives:

Former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint is urging state lawmakers to create education scholarship accounts to foster an expansion of school choice in South Carolina.

The proposal that DeMint outlined during a speech Monday night to the Greenville County Republican Party would allow parents of special needs and impoverished students to spend state-allocated education money to attend private schools. Foster children and military families also would be eligible to take part in the program.

“The only way we are going to save our culture and our society is if we can create an education system that the parents can customize,” DeMint said.

Wow, it really takes your breath away, doesn’t it, when someone of DeMint’s stature speaks for special needs children and children trapped in poverty?

And, he wants them to go to private school. Private. School.

As the dog whistle goes, however, if you aren’t a white nationalist/racist (and chances that you are and reading my blog are really pretty low), your eyes may have become all blurry with empathy tears by the time you got to “our culture and our society.”

If you did miss that, maybe track down a friend or family member who voted for Trump, or is a card-carrying Republican, and ask them who the “our” is all about, or maybe to define the whole “culture” thing.

I have a few ideas, as well, because I am really close to having lived 60 years in the very state DeMint represented—a state that clutches the Confederate flag and believes the Civil War wasn’t waged over slavery. You see, SC is a “Heritage Not Hate” state.

There’s some world-class Orwellian language for you, by the way, because, if you have the time and patience, I suspect it would be illustrative to ask anyone in SC who says “Heritage Not Hate” to explain what that heritage entails. Mind you, the explanation will defy reality, and history, but it will be an experience, and unlike a dog whistle, you will hear every word, but may doubt you are hearing the words you hear.

DeMint has provided for those who see and hear past the veneers the ugly relationship between school choice advocacy and the Republican party’s investment in white nationalism/racism.

First, the political lie of school choice:

In his speech Monday night, DeMint said education scholarship accounts can result in a “win-win” scenario for parents and public schools. He said parents can choose the best educational opportunities for their children while public schools can benefit from a reduction in class sizes.

“It creates a dynamic in every situation that we’ve studied where public schools get better,” DeMint said.

School choice, in fact, and including charter schools, has not improved anything, but has been strongly associated with re-segregating education and proving public funds for more affluent families to flee public schools.

Parents, you see, do not chose schools for academic reason mostly, but for ideological ones, such as making sure their children attend school with people who look like them and sit in classes that provide the sorts of indoctrination the parents desire.

School choice schemes never provide the sort of full support low-income parents need, such as transportation or time that is taken for granted by the affluent.

And what DeMint will not discuss is that the free market, the sacred Invisible Hand, has no incentive toward equity or quality. Market forces are guided by the lever of the customers and their capital.

Private schools are no better than public or charter schools—all of which are mostly reflections of the populations they serve.

And private schools represent a broad range of schooling, from narrow religious-based instruction to almost anything a group of parents may be willing to fund.

So we are left with a really jumbled message to the white nationalists/racists who are anti-government: School choice will provide you public funds to isolate your white children with other white children to receive the indoctrination you want to preserve the sacred white race.

That is the dog whistle that is “‘our culture and our society.'”

This sounds harsh, I know, but that is what a dog whistle is designed to do, mute the ugly for “the best” in order to rouse “the worst…full of passionate intensity.”

The Handmaid’s Graphic Tale

The enduring power of reading and teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale lies in both her gifts for storytelling and her love for language revealed in her playing with words.

Regardless of the genre or form, Atwood loves to make us flinch with the turn of a phrase:

“You Fit into Me”

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

When I was teaching Advanced Placement Literature for high school students in the rural South, I found one of the best lessons revolved around Atwood’s investigation of graphic language during The Ceremony in Chapter 16:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (p. 94)

My students and I also found the wordplay throughout the novel as engaging as the characters and narratives, notably the scene when the Commander ushers Offred to his room for a rendezvous that turns out to be a surprising form of infidelity, Scrabble:

“I’d like you to play a game of Scrabble with me,” he says.

I hold myself absolutely rigid. I keep my face unmoving. So that’s what’s in the forbidden room! Scrabble! I want to laugh, shriek with laughter, fall off my chair….

Now of course it’s something different. Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous. Now it’s indecent. Now it’s something he can’t do with his Wife. Now it’s desirable. Now he’s compromised himself. It’s as if he’s offered me drugs….

What does [Nick] get for it, his role as page boy? How does he feel, pimping in this ambiguous way for the Commander? Does it fill him with disgust, or make him want more of me, want me more? Because he has no idea what really goes on in there, among the books. Acts of perversion, for all he knows. The Commander and me, covering each other with ink, licking it off, or making love on stacks of forbidden newsprint. Well, he wouldn’t be far off at that….

Caught in the act, sinfully Scrabbling. Quick, eat those words. (pp. 138-139, 181)

This language-rich element of Atwood’s fiction as well as her wordplay poses a challenge for adapting this novel to film and more recently a series. Adaptation, however, allows a seminal work to grow, expand, and even change, as the series now moves beyond the original narrative in ways similar to The Walking Dead.

Atwood’s interest in blending and breaking genre and her work in graphic media suggest that the latest adaptation fits perfectly into the expanding body of work drawn from The Handmaid’s Tale:

The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel): A Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault

As part of the adaptation process from novel to graphic novel, Renée Nault notes that she did not watch the Hulu series, but the process entailed:

Nault worked first-hand with Atwood to pare down the story — about a dystopian future where America has become a brutal theocracy and fertile women are the property of powerful men — then bring it to life on the page.

The resulting tome…is 240 pages of arresting watercolor illustrations, depicting the novel’s grim world in muted grays and browns with shocks of red from the handmaids’ distinctive red cloaks.

“Some books would be very hard to adapt in this way, but ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is awash in visual symbolism — partly because women in it are not allowed to read,” the 79-year-old author said.

They were also able to convey some things that text — and even a TV show — never could.

My love for Atwood’s work and comic books/graphic novels informed my reading of this adaptation. Yet, I was initially concerned about how I would feel since much of the adaptation involves the loss of Atwood’s rich language, although the artwork is stunning in its place:

Language does not suffer, however, since Nault’s use of language includes a judicious series of decisions about when to be sparse and when to swim in Atwood’s language. As well, the graphic adaptation allows a diversity of fonts and word placement, notably in the Scrabble scene, that amplifies the power of language.

This graphic adaptation adds diversity of narrative pace and framing through Nault’s choices about page layouts, even, at time, conforming to fairly standard comic book panels:

Since Atwood uses iconography and color throughout the novel, the adaptation is rich with both:

One of the earliest versions of a first-year writing seminar I taught was grounded in works that are in multiple forms of adaptation, such as a novel to a film (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Blade Runner, for example). Often we examined the fidelity of the adaptation—the novel and film of World War Z come to mind—but we also tried to work toward evaluating adaptations on their own merits, not just “Is this a good adaptation in terms of remaining true to the original?”

My strongest quibble of the graphic adaption is that the Historical Notes section feels far too clipped, but in many ways, in the novel, it serves to reinforce much of the language and academic elements of the story. Noting this small weakness also highlights that the graphic novel tends to lose the humor, albeit very dark, weaved throughout by Atwood.

Ultimately, as a reader and a teacher, I think this graphic adaptation soars as a work on its own and as an introduction or companion to Atwood’s original work. Reading or teaching these works separately or together still leads to the final and haunting line: “Are there any questions?”

Thirty-plus years since Atwood raised this ominous question, we are finding ever-new and disturbing ways to shake our heads and wrestle with hard questions and maybe some answers that help us overcome our current nightmares depicted off kilter by speculative fiction, text-only or graphic, and avoid some Other World that feels just over the horizon.

On Poetry, Grief, and Depression

I won’t need any help to be lonely when you leave me
It’ll be easy to cover, gather my skeletons far inside

“Slipped,” The National

The week leading up to April 1 and the start of National Poetry Month afforded me one of my most cherished elements of my Being: My Poet-Self was invited to speak to two local high school classes and a poem of mine, “the philosophy of gerunds (my mother is dying),” was published in the March 2019 issue of English Journal.

My drive into work is almost an hour, so today I began thinking about this blog post, and as part of my driving/prewriting, I listened to a few songs by The National—crying during both “Pink Rabbits” and “You Had Your Soul With You.”

There are song lyrics that break my heart no matter how often I hear them, and then, there are simply moments when my heart overfills and the results slip from my eyes.

As I was talking with high school students about how I came to realize I am a poet and how I write poetry, I once again heard myself tell a story I have told often, an explanation I have teased out for other people many, many time.

One day in the spring of my first year of college, I wrote a poem, mostly inspired by a speech class where the professor introduced us to e.e. cummings’s poetry. This act of mine was a sudden compulsion, not so much a choice.

And it was then I knew I was a poet, and despite working hard to be a writer throughout my 20s, completing one full novel draft and dozens of short stories and poems, I published very little—never finding any publisher interested in the novel—and eventually resigned myself to never being that kind of writer.

Moving to higher education in my early 40s, however, opened a different door to being a writer. I have had a very rich and full life publishing since then, mostly academic writing along with becoming a dedicated blogger. For this, I am very thankful.

Throughout this journey as a writer, the one constant has been writing poetry—regardless of the possibility for publishing.

My scholarly writing and blogging have very distinct differences from that poetry, however.

Poetry, you see, simply comes to me; I cannot beckon it, and I cannot write poetry on demand. Often poems come when there are new music albums to listen to or novels to read. My word lives cross-pollinate.

Whether I am drawn to a popular band, such as The National or R.E.M., or a novelist, such as Haruki Murakami or Han Kang, and when those poems come to me, I am deeply aware of another powerful presence—grief and depression.

As a writer, I suffer what I have found to be a common feeling among writers; once a piece is finished, I fear I will never write another, that the well has gone suddenly dry.

As a music lover and reader, I often feel deeply depressed after a new album finally is released and when I come to the end of a novel; what if this beautiful experience never comes my way again?

The poem published recently by English Journal linked above was originally scheduled for the January issue, but when that journal was released, my heart sank when my poem was not included. The editors were quick to note that the poem had been moved, and I had just not been notified.

It seems fitting, then, for the poem to come to me at the beginning of National Poetry Month because poetry remains something of my heart and my intellect. When I shared the poem with my department, several of my colleagues replied kindly, a couple even moved to tears.

When I reread this piece, I too feel the urge of my tears returning.

It was the summer of 2017 when my mother was discovered in the floor unconscious, having suffered, we learned later that day, a stroke. Just two weeks later, my father died having been moved to share a room with my mother in a high-care facility.

After his death, I spent some of most every day visiting my mother, who moved to another facility and suffered a series of problems with her health. The worst being diagnosed with stage 4 kung cancer, which took her life by early December of that year.

Over those six months and after, I have written poems and blogs trying to understand the grief and depression of watching my parents die, in many ways quite badly. I may as well be seeking as the British Romantic poets argued a way to render my parents immutable through art.

As I contemplate poetry, and try always to explain to others or understand myself the sources of my urge to create poetry, I wonder about the place of grief and depression in art more broadly.

My life is often rich with joy and happiness, but I am not sure that compels me to art as the moments of grief and depression. I am certain that sadness in other people’s art, like the darkness that runs through songs by The National, do not make me sad but offer comfort, even as I drive down the highway sobbing.

Moments of grief, I think, are small celebrations and recognitions of the joy that is life, an awareness that life and its joys are fleeting so we better pay attention.

We can reach out and touch it, even hold on, but we cannot stop it from moving toward the inevitable.

Watching my mother die, sitting beside her while knowing I could do nothing really to change the trajectory of her dying, was just as much about me or anyone living—I realized.

And was driven to words.

To me, living and dying are the very human of being human, but so are words. We have less control of our living and dying than we would like, I think, but some times we have such great control of our words, of language.

Few things are more marvelous than a human creating words in a way that drives other people’s heart to full. And it wells up inside of us pushing free through our eyes.

I reread my poem in print and see through the blurring of tears that I am a truly inadequate son. I am fully human.

“A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong — and a proposed solution” Is 50% Wrong

In her The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss offers yet another post about the current Reading War/Crisis: A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong — and a proposed solution.

Strauss explains before offering the long post:

This is an unusual post about the “reading wars,” that seemingly never-ending battle about how to best teach reading to students — systematic phonics or whole language. This argues that both sides have it wrong, and the authors, two brothers who are literacy experts, suggest a new way.

While this is a provocative, often nuanced, and compelling, it makes a fatal flaw common in the seemingly never-ending false war between phonics and whole language by misdefining whole language and then failing to take care when citing research that seems to show neither systematic phonics nor whole language are more effective than the other.

First, let me offer an example of this type of failure in a slightly different context, the powerful and complicated work of Lisa Delpit.

Delpit has made for many years a strong case about the inequity of educational opportunities that cheat black students (as well as many other vulnerable populations). At times, Delpit’s work has been co-opted by traditional advocates for education—notably those calling for intensive phonics and isolated grammar instruction.

Here, Delpit make a very direct refuting of that sort of co-opting:

I do not advocate a simplistic ‘basic skills’ approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background, but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

However, the sources of why Delpit came to confront how formal education often cheats black students is an important window into why many continue to misrepresent the Reading War/Crisis by defining incorrectly whole language (or balanced literacy).

As Delpit explains:

A doctoral student of my acquaintance was assigned to a writing class to hone his writing skills. The student was placed in the section led by a white professor who utilized a process approach, consisting primarily of having the students write essays and then assemble into groups to edit each other’s papers. That procedure infuriated this particular student. He had many angry encounters with the teacher about what she was doing. …

When I told this gentleman that what the teacher was doing was called a process method of teaching writing, his response was, ‘Well, at least now I know that she thought she was doing something. I thought she was just a fool who couldn’t teach and didn’t want to try.’ This sense of being cheated can be so strong that the student may be completely turned off to the educational system.

Yes, this teacher and experience had clearly failed that doctoral student, but if we are careful to note the details of that failure, what we discover is that the teacher had also failed process (or workshop) writing instruction.

Process or workshop writing instruction is far more that peer conferencing; it entails drafting and student choice of topics and text form, conferences with peers and the instructor, explicit instruction of all aspects of composing (including grammar, mechanics, and usage) based on the needs of the students revealed in their original essay drafts (typically called mini-lessons), careful and varied reading-like-a-writer experiences with rich texts, and producing final authentic artifacts or writing.

To be brief here, Delpit is correct that “other people’s children” are disproportionately cheated by reduced curriculum and inadequate instruction, but it is misleading to lay that blame at the feet of process/workshop methods since the student example shows this is not what was implemented.

Now, let’s circle back to the “both sides are wrong” claim by Jeffrey S. Bowers and Peter N. Bowers.

Bowers and Bowers discredit systematic phonics fairly carefully and fairly,  I think. But when they turn to the research on whole language, they make no effort to verify if the research cited in fact confirmed that whole language was being implemented with any level of fidelity.

As I have noted often in the 1980s/1990s, the media announced a Reading Crisis in California blamed on whole language. Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, debunked that claim [1], noting although whole language was the official reading approach of the state, teachers almost never implemented whole language.

As well, Bowers and Bowers make an odd choice about defining what whole language is by citing and defining as follows:

According to foundational theory for whole language, learning to read is just like learning to speak (Goodman, 1967). Given that virtually everyone from every culture learns to speak without any formal instruction in a context of being exposed to meaningful speech, it is concluded that children should learn to read in the same way, naturally, by reading meaningful text. The fact that not all verbal children learn to read with whole language should be a first clue that something is wrong with this theory.

This dramatically over-simplifies Goodman’s work, but also ignores decades of refinement of what whole language became, and then how many have embraced balanced literacy.

When we are referring to whole language, however, the fundamental problem with discounting whole language often rests with not understanding what it is: “Whole language is not a program, package, set of materials, method, practice, or technique; rather, it is a perspective on language and learning that leads to the acceptance of certain strategies, methods, materials, and techniques.—Dorothy Watson, 1989.”

And a failure to acknowledge that “… [w]hole language…builds on the view that readers and writers integrate all available information in authentic literacy events as they make sense of print. Whole language teachers don’t reject phonics; they put it in its proper place [emphasis added]” (K. Goodman, Phonics Phacts, p. 108).

Let me put this directly: Whole language does reject the need for systematic phonics for all children, but the language philosophy endorses entirely that some phonics is needed, that each child should receive the amount and type of phonics instruction needed to read independently—not to comply with a reading program, to cover a set of universal standards, or to raise test scores.

The argument posed by Bowers and Bowers is correct only if we misdefine whole language and fail to critically examine research that claims to be measuring whole language effectiveness or if whole language was even implemented with any sort of fidelity.

As it sits now, the Bowers and Bowers’s argument is 50% wrong.


[1] Note that the reading test score decreases (the reason for the claim of a reading crisis) were caused mostly by a large influx of non-native English speaking students and drastic budget cuts for education. The ways in which students were being taught to read are correlations at best with those scores.

For Further Reading

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen, Reading Improvement 39 (1): 32-42, 2002.

Facts: On the nature of whole language education (Heinemann)

To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, Andrew Davis