Free Press • 1999 • 307 pages • $26.00
Sandra Stotsky, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has for over 20 years studied the cognitive and political (she prefers “civic”) consequences of contemporary educational fads, as well as their historical predecessors. Losing Our Language argues that during the past 30 years the pedagogical theories and strategies used to teach children English have harmed their cognitive development by supplanting academic goals with social goals and increasingly anti-intellectual methods and materials.
Stotsky reports that contemporary English “language arts” readers misrepresent American history by refusing to tell children about great American leaders, inventors, and scientists because they tended to be white males. Thus children are given to believe that Amelia Earhart invented the airplane, and the only “George Washington” they hear of is George Washington Carver. When presented at all, white males are portrayed as despicable racists. The focus, instead, is on American Indians, blacks, and Hispanics, all of whom are presented as victims.
The editors of these readers, and the professors of education and state education commissars whose recommendations they follow, are concerned primarily with quotas for the number of politically correct readings by writers who are black, Hispanic, Indian, disabled, and so on. The quotas and ideology leave little room for exciting, new children’s literature, and since classic children’s literature largely comes from the politically suspect pre-1970 “dark ages,” it has practically been outlawed.
Stotsky cleverly intuits that the claim of prejudice in classic children’s literature (for example, by Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling) is a cover story for the source of multiculturalists’ real anger: that the stories are so bloody good! The fantasy, whimsy, and relatively rich vocabulary of the great literature children have traditionally wanted to read creates a special, private world of the imagination.
Stotsky indicts multiculturalists as seeking to imprison children in a regimented, mean little public world. The preachy pseudo-literature they force on children uses vocabulary that is a mix of leaden, abstract nouns; useless foreign terms that are often presented with no guide to pronunciation; confusing pidgin languages such as “Spanglish” and “ebonics”; and little or no vocabulary that children can build on in their future studies. Thus at ages when children’s learning should be accelerated, it is actively decelerated. And instructional guides demand that teachers lead small children in discussions of grown-up concerns such as the evils of capitalism and racism.
The impoverished vocabularies are part of a war on English, which the educationists and state education officials who run the textbook-adoption process insist oppresses black and Hispanic children. Instead of improving the teaching of English for these children, the “solution” is to destroy the English language: “Self-righteous educators have chosen to take out their professed anger at this country’s social problems on the English language itself. Unwilling to engage in the hard work of helping all children learn how to read and write, they have spitefully made the English language the object of their seeming frustration because it is so vulnerable, especially in its written form. What is not clear is how these educators can be held accountable for the damage their pedagogical notions are inflicting on a fundamental biological process in human development.”
Stotsky observes repeatedly that no scholarship supports the multiculturalists’ pedagogical claims. Influential education researchers such as Carl Grant of the University of Wisconsin and James Banks of the University of Washington constantly refer to other “research” that supposedly backs up their own outlandish claims. But no such research exists. Stotsky notes that in contrast to early twentieth-century progressive pedagogues, multiculturalists consider the mere request for factual support proof of racism.
Concluding that dodges by multicultural education professors and teachers are the result of their laziness, unconscious racism, and desire to enhance their own self-esteem at children’s expense, Stotsky gives parents advice on how to regain control of their children’s education.
This is an exhaustively researched, rigorously argued work. However, in her insistence on maintaining a civil tone, Stotsky has avoided telling the occasionally brutal social history from which this pedagogy derived. The Black Power and New Left movements grew into the apartheid movement of multiculturalism, which mixes notions from communism, national socialism, and caste thinking. Through affirmative action and violent “community control,” multiculturalists took over both university schools of education and slum-district public schools. They installed incompetent professors and often functionally illiterate school teachers based on the color of their skin and their degree of hatred, while running off competent educators of all colors. Only then did the pedagogy and teacher guides come along to rationalize the apartheid.
The truth can be a nasty business.
Nicholas Stix is a freelance writer in New York.