I was an ideological teacher – apparently

Just as I was getting off the fl listservs, a member wrote in saying she was glad I was no longer in the classroom, referring to my retired status, with my left-leaning ways. That stuck with me. Left-leaning.
That is certainly true, but I guess all the teachers in my school, most of them, or were right-leaning or had fallen off the right edge of the political spectrum, were O.K. So what was left leaning about my teaching?
I’m about to start a blog series on linguistic principles for fl teachers. My start will list misconceptions many fl teachers have about language, sort a version of the Russian approach of first telling you what I’m not going to tell you. I will do this b/c I’ve found a lot of information bounces off people b/c they already have categorical thinking and anything that doesn’t fit into it bounces off.
The hierchical thinking about language manifests itself first in class and dialect prejudices, so I would tell my students about my grandmother’s Appalachian dialect, esp. terms like “redd up the house” meaning to straighten it up. One year I had a boy from West Virginia, where my mom’s family was from, and when he heard that he exclaimed, “Oh yeah, that means to straighten it up,” amazing the other students. It really made my point that year in that class. (Just tonight I read in the Norwegian version of Harry Potter where they thought Voldemort just wanted to “clean up” his enemies, that he “roedde opp” [umlaut o], reflecting the strong Scandinavian influence over Northern English)
I also showed the video The Guid Scots Tongue from the series The Story of English. It traces the language of Lowlands Scots and Northern English through Northern Ireland (Scots-Irish) to the U.S., through the Cumberland Gap and on throughout the modern Sun Belt. As it treats the dialect with respect, the students hear many pronunciations and grammatical forms and vocabulary marked as ignorant, backwards, low-class, country, etc.
My curriculum goal was to be able to discuss the concept of language change with respect to Latin, Spanish, and Russian in a context of our own language change so the students wouldn’t get the idea that language variety and language change were somehow peculiar to those languages while English remained pure and unchanging. To give you an idea of just how confused educated people can be about language: in a class on the history of Russian, one person exclaimed in genuine dismay, when she found out that the morphology had been different in earlier times, that she felt she was being upended b/c she had worked so hard to learn the endings i.e. the morphology of the contemporary language. How dare they “change” it! And this was a teacher of Spanish and Russian at the high school level.

So my purpose was to shake up my students’ notions about language so they would better accept the facts about whatever language they were studying. How was this left-leaning? It was b/c it did shake up preconceived notions of what is correct and what is inadmissible. Underlying that animosity towards shaking things up was a desire to control thinking through set dogma and doctrine and the schools are supposed to reinforce that. When people agitate for the Ten Commandments in the classrooms, their dogma is clear: they want all students to be indoctrinated with Christian thought. But when American history is presented as one long saga of heroic exploration and settlement, we get a skewed version of what happened, making it harder to discern patterns and precursors in our current situation.

May 9. As we watch the GOP disintegrate, we can only wonder what will be left. I just read a piece by John McWhorter, my favorite linguist, that he wrote for The New Republic. McWhorter writes the best books ever on topics near and dear to a Liberal’s heart: languages vary, snooty grammar scolds have it all wrong, rap has a stellar place in American music, Black language is not Ebonics and has coherence, rules, and style. Yet reading his list of people he wishes hadn’t been so famous makes me realize, oh yeah, he is a conservative. Some of the people he wishes had not gained prominence are Malcolm X, Paulo Freire, Jonathan Kozol, the psychologist, Price Cobbs, Ron Karenga,and others. Some are well rid of, like OJ. But like most conservatives, McWhorter misses the point of putting these names in the firmament of Liberal thought (and Progressive thought, although I don’t count myself a Progressive). Like Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, the tilted at an all-powerful academy and political system ready to submerge any thought that did not bolster the powers that be. Malcolm X is a perfect example: McWhorter acknowledges the man’s journey to openness toward people he had earlier condemned, but still believes his “by any means necessary” type statements did Black people no favors. Yet he does not acknowledge how he is asking that everyone’s journey take place without stumbles. I recall very well the early 60s and the 70s; I was White and living in a Black environment, having married a Black woman in a city just coming out of segregation. I ran into all types of people raising their fists and shouting slogans. Some were sincere and some total hucksters but most were in between. And where was I? That’s for another post. One of McWhorter’s irritants has long been one of mine: the embracing of Swahili as the ancestral language of African-Americans. Given his linguistic expertise, citing Mende as more appropriate was easy for him, but given his age, 52, he may have missed the ‘blank page’ aspect of African-American life when it came to Africa. When I explained to my wife how her ancestors had got here from Africa and she went home and told her mom, “We’re Africans!”, M’Dear replied, “you may be but I’m not.”

I don’t want to nit-pick about issues like school funding – though I could – but my overall point is that just as many of us made lots of mistakes and took lots of missteps in raising our kids, so birthing new ideas and new approaches is filled with pitfalls.

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