New York Sun
Date:Oct 4, 2007
Section:Editorial & Opinion
What was I doing badly shaven and red-eyed on the “Today” Show back in 1996?
I was in a segment on the then raging controversy over “Ebonics.” The press had contacted me simply because I was the black linguist working closest to Oakland. The segment aired live at 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time, and so for me it was 4:30 a.m., and I had stayed up all night to do the show on a feed.
The question was whether black students’ reading scores lag behind white ones’ because the difference between Black English and standard English confuses them. That is, does a boy who says dem get thrown by the written word them? Does isn’t look foreign to someone raised on ain’t? I doubt many readers will be surprised that I said no. I knew there were some people who had argued otherwise, but I thought that the simple facts were such that my opinion was, at the very least, one that would be considered valid by linguists and educators specializing in Black English.
Whoops. This was, in fact, the beginning of a new phase in my life as a controversial apostate. I was the sole black linguist in America who just said no. Every single other one asserted that Black English was an African language, or at least so different from standard English that black students were being denied “their rights” to have their speech “acknowledged in the classroom.”
This was my first experience with the problem the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University addressed at a conference yesterday, the ingrained sense on university campuses that enlightening people to leftist points of view is the soul of higher education.
Unbeknownst to me, I had broken ranks. It had been assumed that the new black professor was with the program, devoted not to learning and thinking in itself, but to refining and promoting the basic tenet that life isn’t fair. As such, when the “Ebonics” issue came up I was supposed to paint black students as bilinguals — even if it meant bending facts or outright lying.
The “Ebonics in the Classroom” idea has been taught and discussed on campuses for decades. There is a school of thought in education schools decrying standard English as a “gatekeeper” unfairly established as the variety everyone must know how to use. Black English is, under this analysis, spoken by victims, subject to, as one august figure of this sort is fond of putting it, “linguistic profiling.”
Of course, it isn’t that there is nothing at all to the left’s take on Black English. For example, there is indeed such a thing as linguistic profiling. It is hardly unknown for a person with what I call a black-cent to be told there are no apartments available when there are some.
However, most will agree that when we get to the point of pretending that black students are done in by the difference between west and wes’ when bad teachers, disconnected administrators, discipline problems, and homes with few books are so plainly more worthy of address, we have tilted from empiricism into ideology.
Of course, to leftists, only conservatives have “ideology,” while liberals are bearers of truth. In this, it is missing the point to paint people like this as a cadre of sinister totalitarians. The leftist orthodoxy on college campuses is peopled mostly by pleasant, rational people who have not had the opportunity to consider that what they have been taught is truth could possibly, often, not be.
Humans seek patterns. There is nothing surprising about a point of view in which all events are interpreted through a wariness of power, especially when this perspective is hardly devoid of merit, and lends a sense of moral self-affirmation in the bargain.
However, an education that gives the left pride of place in this fashion is not an education at all. An education teaches one to assess both sides of an issue and come to one’s own conclusions. Many think they are imparting this by dissing Republicans and showing how some people are born more fortunate than others. They mean well. However, they discourage reflection. They are advocates. Universities should have teachers.
The Center for the American University is not devoted to making campuses havens for the right. What it will advocate is that students be exposed to intelligent conservative arguments as well as intelligent liberal ones.
It should not be considered big news for a conservative to get a job in a Political Science department. Education students should be taught that drill-based reading instruction was shown to work for poor black kids by Siegfried Engelmann 40 years ago. It’s okay for students to read Ehrenreich and Achebe — but a truly educated student will have read Von Hayek and Eliot as well.
Von Hayek and Eliot are dead and they were indeed pale. Those worried about that might consider that in the history of what has made poor people’s lives better, people who know how to engage the world as it is have a lot more victories to point to than utopianists.
Mr. McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.