In the beginning of my experiment as a public intellectual, I was a lowly high school English teacher who on occasion had a letter to the editor in the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC).
These brief efforts at speaking to a general public as an informed voice taught me some valuable and enduring lessons — one of which included feedback from that general public.
My letters to the editor prompted long, rambling messages on my phone answering machine and incoherent typed letters mailed to my home and the high school where I taught.
Many of the phone messages were irate retired people who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had no real understanding of Social Security or the workings of government and the free market. The typed letters (some on manual typewriters) were often single-spaced with almost no margins and punctuated with slurs and threats.
One frequent letter writer opened his diatribe with “Dear African American Homosexual” — all meant as slurs, and none accurately identifying me.
These early experiences with being misunderstood and ineffective were mostly interactions with anonymous and angry readers.
Eventually, mostly because I moved to higher education after earning my doctorate (although only a lowly EdD), I have been afforded a larger stage — Op-Eds in local, state, and national publications as well as a well-read personal blog, invited public and university-based talks, and a substantial collection of published work.
Responses to my public claims, now, are typically not as often public, but those responses continue to teach me valuable lessons — mostly how often and how easily words and claims can be misunderstood and even work in ways that are the opposite of my intent.
Here I want to examine two experiences, one from 2014 and another recent, that help shape who I seek to be as a person, a writer, a teacher, and a scholar.
First, some context.
As a redneck from rural South Carolina who had working-class parents, attended state universities, and has embraced critical pedagogy as my scholarly self, I am regularly marginalized in scholarly and academic contexts because of those identities; my writing is brushed aside as “polemics,” and my Southern drawl is noted with passive-aggressive disdain.
In personal spaces with family and friends as well as in my public writing and speaking, I am there marginalized as “just a scholar” — another pointed-headed intellectual with no real-world experience.
Let me stress here that as a white man with an advanced degree and a prestigious position at a universities, I am acknowledging these experiences but in no way suggesting they are nearly as consequential as simply being a woman, a person of color, or gay (for example). This is not a whine-fest, but I am trying to discuss the challenges of navigating public spaces as a perceived scholar.
Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas by good friends who are professors there; I had written a book on poverty, and they were kind enough to ask me to speak at a week-long focus on poverty and education.
The University of Arkansas happens also to be home to a Walton-funded graduate department that is staffed by faculty who universally reject my scholarly perspective, and in some cases, me specifically.
Based on that talk, some of those antagonistic professors mentioned me in a piece for Education Next. In their defense of “no excuses” ideologies (specifically KIPP charter schools, both of which I reject), they openly mischaracterized me in order to discredit me:
Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart. Leaving aside whether the critics patronize the people of color KIPP schools serve, we propose that KIPP and similar schools are not nearly as militaristic as critics, who may have never been inside them, fear.
Even though I am skeptical of most charter and choice advocates, I learned an important lesson, and was confronted with a real dilemma: How do I challenge charter schools and “no excuses” ideologies in the context of black, brown, and poor families voluntarily choosing them?
Michelle Alexander offered me a solution in her confronting of The New Jim Crow:
This last point — that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools — presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.
For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)
New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters — and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools — the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters. (Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era)
As a result, I now try to frame my rejecting of charter schools and “no excuses” by clarifying that all parents regardless of social class or race deserve high-quality schools without need to choose or compete; I also confront directly how choice advocates tend to embrace a false choice (as exposed by Alexander).
I consider Dye a comrade, virtual colleague, and someone whose public voice informs my own; in those ways, this experience was not like the one above, but it forced me once again to confront how good intentions are not enough, especially when that intent is perceived as silencing or ignoring the exact people I seek to support.
Several of Dye’s comments are powerful checks on how I have examined the “word gap”:
This Twitter moment also serves to prove John Warner’s point about the value of social media.
Dye’s challenges asked me to reconsider how my work perpetuated the voice of a scholar that uses research to “invalidate” “lived reality” — especially since I in no way sought to have that impact.
Just as I have afforded a fuller context to my rejecting charter schools and “no excuses,” I must seek ways to examine the “word gap” with Dye’s powerful concerns in mind.
Rejecting the “word gap,” I must clarify, is not rejecting the lived reality of significant and consequential differences among the social classes in terms of literacy. Yes, people living in poverty are denied access to and marginalized by privileged language.
Too often formal education works to perpetuate that equity gap resulting in the so-called “word gap” that works as a term and in reality similar to the “achievement gap.”
This lived reality in which some people due to race and social class are excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through formal gatekeeping of who has access to privileged language and who does not, I think, is what Dye is speaking for and through.
So as I navigate still how to express more clearly why I reject the “word gap” as a term and how it works against marginalized and vulnerable populations, I offer two contexts for what I am rejecting.
First, Virginia Eubanks confronts in The Digital Poorhouse:
The most marginalized in our society face higher levels of data collection when they access public benefits, walk through heavily policed neighborhoods, enter the health care system, or cross national borders. That data reinforces their marginality when it is used to target them for extra scrutiny. Groups seen as undeserving of social support and political inclusion are singled out for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance, and the cycle begins again. It is a feedback loop of injustice.
The differences are striking….
Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.
Therefore, I argue that the “word gap” fails for the following reasons:
- Literacy is reduced and distorted to quantifying vocabulary (data collecting) as the sole proxy for literacy. Literacy is far more complex.
- That use of data serves to frame poor children and their parents as having incomplete or inadequate literacy and idealizes middle-class and affluent literacy without acknowledging that this imbalance is an issue of power.
- The “word gap” keeps the evaluative gaze on children and their parents (how to give the children more vocabulary and how to blame poor parents for literacy-deficient homes) and allows education and education reform to remain focused on “fixing” children and their parents and in-school reform only while ignoring the larger and more powerful social inequities reflected in schools and homes.
- Research confirming the “word gap,” notably by Hart and Risley, is compelling not because of the quality of the research but because it confirms race and class biases in both conservative and liberal narratives. Media/journalists, pundits, and the public rush to cite Hart and Risley for reasons that must be unpacked — even as we acknowledge the inequities of literacy correlated with social class.
Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), vulnerable populations of students have been mis-served through reductive vocabulary drill-and-kill, narrow high-stakes testing, and the lack of political will to address their access to rich literacy in their homes, communities, and schools (experiences afforded middle-class and affluent children that results in their identifiable vocabulary differences).
Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), poor children and families are characterized primarily through deficit lenses that ignore their literacy strengths that simply do not match privileged literacy.
Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), the barriers to literacy, academic, economic, and judicial equity remain mostly unexamined — out of sight, out of mind.
By confronting scholarly debates about the “word gap,” Dye has exposed the problematic relationship among scholarship, “lived reality,” and “the validity of a thing.”
I must do a better job with that dynamic if I want to be the sort of voice for social equity and justice that I seek to be.
For Further Reading
What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison
If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin