Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction Is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason
by Sandra Stotsky
Free Press. 316 pp. $26.00
In a poignant passage of her 1942 autobiography, the black writer Zora Neale Hurston describes how as a teenager living in a segregated Southern town she came upon a battered copy of the collected works of John Milton while rummaging through a pile of rubbish. Without knowing anything about the author, this daughter of an Alabama sharecropper sat down and devoured Paradise Lost. “I luxuriated in Milton’s syllables and rhythms without ever having heard that Milton was one of the greatest poets of the world,” Hurston recounts. It was the beginning of a self-education that eventually led to Barnard College and to Hurston’s emergence in the 1930’s as a celebrated novelist and one of the leading lights of the Harlem literary renaissance.
Were she alive today, Hurston would no doubt be surprised to learn that the English classics so vital to her own personal and artistic liberation are now widely considered inappropriate for instructing African-American students, if not a racist affront to them. Not only do the leading theorists at our schools of education insist that black and white children differ greatly in their learning styles and intellectual needs, but black students in particular, they assert, need a “culturally sensitive” curriculum that will boost their “self-esteem.”
In her important new book, Sandra Stotsky, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shows just how deeply this multiculturalist creed has penetrated into the American educational system. Focusing on the nation’s elementary and secondary schools, Stotsky takes us into the classrooms where, thanks to the new mode of teaching, students of every background are increasingly failing to acquire the ability, as she puts it, “to read, write, and reason.”
A major part of Stotsky’s research consists of a volume-by-volume analysis of the most popular instructional readers used in elementary-school classrooms. Over the past half-century, she demonstrates, the content of these “basal” readers has changed radically. Complex and challenging literature for children has given way to selections of low literary quality, “dumbed down” to accommodate the least able and chosen primarily for their “correct” social and political messages. Whereas grade-school children once read classics like Black Beauty and Robinson Crusoe, now their assignments are likely to be tales like “Tonweya and the Eagles,” a simple-minded piece of Indian lore full of exotic non-English words that Stotsky excerpts from a widely-used Houghton Mifflin reader:
Tahcawin had packed the parfleche cases with clothing and food and strapped them to a travois made of two trailing poles with a skin net stretched between them. Another travois lay on the ground ready for the new tipi.
Chano was very happy when Tasinagi suggested the three of them ride up to their favorite hills for the last time.
As the three of them rode along, Tasinagi called Chano’s attention to the two large birds circling overhead. They were Wanjbli, the eagle. Chano knew they were sacred to his people and that they must never be killed.
Worse than the multicultural readers themselves, Stotsky shows, are the teachers’ guides that accompany them. Rather than focus on the skills that all students should possess, these professional manuals dwell on the differences that supposedly render common standards unworkable, if not unjust. “Both students and teachers have participated in relations of domination, submission, oppression, and privilege which have helped to shape who they are and how they interpret the world,” opines the guide for one best-selling elementary-school reader. If educators are to succeed, they must recognize that both they and their students are “historically situated subjects with conflicting gender, race, and class interests.”
As a practical matter, this emphasis on “difference” has meant a growing tolerance for non-standard English, as exemplified by the controversial decision of the Oakland, California, school board two years ago to allow students to use “Ebonics,” or black street slang, in the classroom. At the same time, Stotsky documents, many schools have simply decided that mastery of standard English, from vocabulary and grammar to composition and reading comprehension, is no longer an important goal. Fewer than half of the state curriculum standards examined by her demand “competence in using standard English orally and in writing.”
Many theorists of multicultural pedagogy, according to Stotsky, wish to go still further, having made it their mission to expel standard English from the classroom altogether. In their view, overturning traditional academic rules and expectations is a moral and political imperative. As a recent article in a respected journal for English teachers put it, students “should be encouraged to make intentional errors in standard form and usage” because that is the only way to end “the oppression of linguistic minorities.”
As Stotsky shows, the driving force behind the transformation in reading instruction is a small network of education professors and consultants. These cultural commissars carry great weight, not only with elementary-school teachers eager to know what the “experts” want of them but also with commercial publishers. Indeed, on matters of race and gender, no publisher interested in having its offerings accepted by school districts and state curriculum committees would dare ignore the advice of the consultants.
The multicultural gurus have been far less successful, however, at persuading parents that the new approach is a change for the better. As Stotsky writes, the worst excesses have been foisted on unsuspecting families through a “stealth curriculum.” Unlike progressive educators of the past, who openly proclaimed their goals, today’s multiculturalists are generally unwilling to engage the wider public in open debate about their methods, preferring to promote their agenda sub rosa. When challenged, Stotsky reports, they invariably treat their critics as benighted reactionaries, calling them racists, allies of the Christian Right, or “selfish Volvo vigilantes”—all the while refusing to produce any empirical research to support their own claims.
That the advocates of early multicultural education are reluctant to study the effects of their experiment is understandable enough. American reading scores continue to decline, and the gap between black and white achievement remains scandalously wide. In Stotsky’s view, it could hardly be otherwise. When progressive teachers decline to trouble with niceties like proper sentence structure, they undoubtedly do a certain amount of harm to their white, middle-class students—but at least these children return to homes where standard English is the norm and where newspapers, magazines, and books can be found. For black children from economically disadvantaged homes, by contrast, a teacher’s abandonment of basic English-language skills is a crippling blow, depriving them of any hope for advancement in the real world.
The path to reform, Stotsky rightly believes, leads back to the past. If today’s education establishment often views low-achieving minority students as “morally and culturally superior to the mainstream and thus justified in rejecting its intellectual and civic values,” not so long ago such children were almost universally thought to need “access to the intellectual and civic culture of the mainstream.” For Stotsky, as for many parents and a growing number of dissenting educators, restoring this norm requires nothing more complicated than having uniformly high expectations for all students, black or white, rich or poor.
Under a regime of high expectations, self-esteem would flow not from mindless ethnic cheerleading but from genuine accomplishment. Before long, it might even become possible to replicate the inspiring example of Zora Neale Hurston, retrieving Milton once again from the rubbish pile. But first the damage done by the multiculturalists must be undone. Toward that end, this fine book makes a powerful intellectual contribution.