“Students’ Right to Their Own Language”: A Counter-Argument

Jeff Zorn


I learned to teach English at a Historically Black College in Alabama under the guidance of no-nonsense African American women. Studying “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” a resolution affirming the legitimacy of dialect from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), when it first appeared in the early 1970s, my mentors saw beneficent intent but blatant shortcoming. Betty Gates, my most inspirational colleague, said, and I am quoting exactly, “With friends like these, black children hardly need enemies.”

“Students’ Right to Their Own Language” remains the official position statement of the guild of college compositionists on dialect difference, lionized to this day as a first principle of “liberatory” English teaching. My mentors would be sorely disappointed to learn this. It is in respectful memory of these excellent English teachers—Betty Gates and Emma Cleveland in particular—that I offer my counter-argument.

“Students’ Right to Their Own Language”: The Beginnings

The sound, kind impulse behind “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (SRTOL) was to support the aspirations of poor, nonwhite, and culturally marginalized students. The document itself, however, offered underachievement and provincialism to the students it purported to serve. Even its advocates concede that SRTOL reads as committee prose with the different hands not smoothly blended, but no one has said firmly enough, or demonstrated patiently enough, how little sense SRTOL makes.1

In 1973 the Conference on College Composition and Communication of the National Council of Teachers of English approved the SRTOL resolution. A special edition of College Composition and Communication then printed that resolution for general distribution, prefaced it with a rationale, and appended fifteen sections of commentary. Even a cursory glance at the resolution itself makes plain why a full booklet was needed to begin explaining it to fellow professionals:

We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect had any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.2

Recently two books and at least five major articles have lauded SRTOL as a classic guide for the current generation of English compositionists, a first principle of enlightened professional praxis.3 As one of its drafters and long-term defenders has stated, SRTOL “moved the intellectual production of knowledge in the field to a whole nother [sic] level.”4 The turn away from coaching all students in Formal Standard English toward “counter-hegemonic literacy training,” i.e., reshaping writing classes into political conversion seminars, “was the next logical step after the Students’ Right campaign.”5 The stakes are high, then, in toppling SRTOL off the pedestal it has held for decades.

My critique develops six points, all with wide-ranging importance for English education, and more generally for U.S. education, today. STROL (1) never begins to examine a “right” to one’s own language; (2) offers no consistent view on the importance of dialect; (3) wildly overrates its “sophisticated” knowledge in sociology and linguistics; (4) both draws on and feeds into a reactionary politics of ethnic-cultural chauvinism; (5) clumps people into homogeneous, internally undifferentiated groups, missing individuals (in particular, individual student-writers) entirely; and (6) tries to shame English teachers for professional work of which we should be proud.

All told, I will show that SRTOL is a shameful piece of work whose ongoing endorsement warps and stains language education in the United States.

SRTOL Never Examines a “Right” to One’s Own Language

From the beginning SRTOL should have considered, seriously, the meaning of a “right” to one’s own language. The absence of any such discussion suggests a general shortcoming of SRTOL advocacy to this day: conceptual carelessness.

Pursuant to the victories of the civil rights movement, “rights”-talk spread to desires and demands far beyond the prerogatives of citizenship. Some claims were justified under the heading of human rights, ethical treatment owed people as such. Others were justified as cultural rights afforded individuals by virtue of membership in a particular group. Still others, perhaps most, were rights justified only in the aggressive insistence with which they were claimed: my “right” to, apparently, whatever I want, irrespective of how I might be violating obligations with greater weight than what I just demanded out of the blue.

Note well, then, that the resolution’s first verb “affirm” and last verb “uphold” suggest falsely that students already had the right to their own language. The more accurate phrasing here is: “We are now granting students a right that we just invented for them.” For good reason, American students previously had been acceded no more “right” to use Farsi, German, Cantonese, Spanglish, Cajun, or Ebonics in their essays than to identify Bolivia as a river in Asia. SRTOL can point to no educational tradition, professional principle, or ethical rule prohibiting teachers from correcting student work. Teachers in every discipline at every grade level do that all the time.

School curriculum is a pervasively benign case of “one social group exerting its dominance over another,” i.e., learned adults initiating the young into intellectual traditions, scholarly procedures, and forms of disciplinary knowledge. It may overstate its claim, but generally the school is correct to issue the same demands and offer the same rewards to students of every “identity and style.” If a student comes from a culture that knows nothing and cares nothing about algebra, the school will set out to teach it to him. If a student comes from a culture that treats women as inferiors, the school will not allow him to act disrespectfully toward female students, instructors, and administrators.

SRTOL never acknowledges that the language of “rights” fits comfortably in no instructional setting. I have every right to play the piano as badly as I do. If I do go to a piano teacher, I have every right to dismiss everything he tells me, every right not to practice, every right to stagnate or get worse at the keyboard. But then why bother taking lessons? School is mandatory up to a certain age, but the principle is the same: In any class, I can claim the right not to learn what is being taught (“You can’t make me!”). In doing so, however, I relinquish the role of student and will incur penalties unmitigated by my claiming the right not to learn.

Rights—actual, bona fide rights—invoke complementary obligations on the part of others. If I have the right to enter a building during its posted hours of operation, the person at the door must let me in. Anyone can claim the “right” to speak or write any way he pleases, but nothing in that assertion inhibits anyone else from judging the language unfit for the occasion. More than just blowing smoke, SRTOL plants the seeds of Pyrrhic victory in students; it tells them they win when they continue to speak and write their vernacular despite all appearances (low grades, low test scores, bad interviews, bad job performance ratings, etc.) to the contrary. This was my mentors’ exact insight: the disadvantaged cannot afford Pyrrhic victories.

Throughout, SRTOL romanticizes failure as a heroic affirmation of personal identity and community culture. One key strategy here is to pooh-pooh differences like the following as merely “surface level”:

  • Hermione saw Herbert yesterday.

  • Hermione seen Herbert yesterday.

The first version appears in every textbook, handbook, and style manual extant, while the second bespeaks great distance from books and the company of educated people.6 Resisting segregation and marginalization may well be heroic, but treating the markers of segregation and marginalization as badges of honor is not. It is, rather, to put a politically correct spin on deficits imposed by the powerful on the unwilling.

Claims to a “right” to one’s own language are trumped by the obligation to write well. If the assignment calls for writing in a language other than English or for capturing nonstandard dialect, fine. Otherwise, Formal Standard English remains the academic norm, and a student has no “right” not to employ it with excellence.

SRTOL Offers No Consistent View on the Importance of Dialect

SRTOL never settles on the importance of dialect. In the space of five pages, dialect goes from being a central feature of identity and intellection to something trivial.

Urging English teachers to keep our dirty hands off, SRTOL argues early on that dialects convey a unique worldview and guide speakers to unique registers of insight, perception, and feeling. To master a dialect, then, is to claim a culture and personal identity. On the cognitive level, dialect dictates how easily students can read Standard English materials. Cultural dissonance and the complexities of psycholinguistic processing make transfers between dialect codes very difficult, so even the slightest differences between a student’s vernacular and a textbook’s language will cause slow-down, confusion, and inability to comprehend.

Soon after, a very different picture emerges. Now SRTOL depicts the mastery of Edited American English as a piece of cake because dialects differ only in a few, easily identified surface-level features; this is precisely why students will be allowed to take Edited American English as an elective course late in their academic careers.

The contradiction here goes straight back to the definition of dialect as “a variety of language used by some definable group” and to the inclusion of “whatever dialects in which [students] find their identity and style” under the SRTOL purview. For no good reason and to no good effect, SRTOL subsumes and treats as co-equals the “dialect” challenges facing Ebonics-speaking schoolchildren, upper-class white Southerners, non-Anglophone immigrants, skinheads, surfers, and computer geeks spouting jargon.

And so, while SRTOL may sound high-minded and progressive in claiming, “A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects,” this makes no sense whatsoever. Linguistic localism in the United States lost ground to progress, significant advances like the rise in educational attainment, the greater ease of transportation, developments in communication technology, and the reduction of social discrimination.7 It was not bad when the South got less isolated, less Dixie. It is not bad when children can communicate perfectly with classmates and teachers with forebears from every corner of the planet. It will not be bad when dialects like Faux-Contrite Steroid Abuser disappear from our midst.

No individual, community, state, or nation is better off “preserving” the local color embodied in foot binding, dog fighting, child labor, elder abuse, bad hygiene, gay bashing, and language forms rooted in illiteracy and isolation. In “The Case Against Romantic Ethnicity,” Gunnar Myrdal concluded, “What is obviously needed in America is a much higher identification with the nation as a whole.”8 SRTOL lurched woozily in the other direction, toward “preserving” under-education, provincialism, ethnic chauvinism, and political fragmentation.

SRTOL Wildly Overrates Its “Sophisticated” Knowledge in Sociology and Linguistics

The rhetoric of SRTOL is that of forestalling disagreement through the tactics of shaming and bullying. Readers are led by the nose to select the obvious choice in a “dilemma” faced by English teachers: Should we continue to align our work with the American public’s uninformed prejudices, or should we move forward with fresh knowledge? No one wants to be thought backward and bigoted, so the latter choice seems obvious—until the reader realizes that no substance accompanies the razzmatazz.

Claiming to center its argument on “sophisticated research in linguistics and sociology,” SRTOL proceeds to make nothing but unsophisticated, unconvincing sociolinguistic claims, especially in its answers to the question “Who uses the dialect Standard English?” The authors successively identify as that dialect’s speakers (1) the educated, (2) “those in power in the community,” and (3) the middle class.

Clearly, no “identifiable group” of dialect speakers is marked off here. Educated people appear in all social classes and typically lack power in any community. Middle-class Americans may or may not have a higher education and may or may not use Standard English regularly. In many communities, the power-holders are not educated, middle-class, or speakers of Standard English. And aren’t members of the hereditary upper class, not the middle class, those who typically have the most power, the most education, and the speaking style that most closely approximates the way books are written?

Denied its callow sociolinguistics, SRTOL is left to manipulate readers by equating support for Standard English with bigotry. People who reject classroom use of Ebonics, Hawaiian Pidgin, Spanglish, South Bostonese, etc., are depicted as having disdain if not hatred for the speakers of these dialects. They ascribe “inherent superiority” to the dialect of rich white people because they inordinately admire wealth, power, and whiteness.

SRTOL’s plea to attend to “the distinction between speaking and writing” points the way to rebuffing this reckless attack on personal character. With perfect consistency, individuals can have respect if not outright love for speakers of nonstandard dialects and still press to require Formal Standard English in schools. Speakers from those dialect groups (like my Alabama mentors) have advocated ardently for Standard English, as have political activists against the hegemony of rich white people.9

In the quadrant of English devoted to on-the-record discourse, there is a single, non-mythical Formal Standard, a level, not a dialect of the English language as no “identifiable group” uses it except, by circular definition, the literate. No dialect competition exists for this “grapholect”: no Spanglish economics textbooks, Surfer lab reports, Pidgin insurance contracts, or Cajun legal briefs. Insofar as the purpose of discourse is the careful, patient explication of ideas, Formal Written Standard does have “inherent superiority” over all vernaculars. The word choices available to educated writers, the phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and clusters of paragraphs they can configure, and the argumentative structures they can erect have but distant, weak echoes in vernacular—for all the lyricism, emotional resonance, and promising insights the vernacular might contain.

Feel the irony, then, in the level of English employed by SRTOL’s most committed defenders:

Counter-hegemonic literacy training would focus both on how the literacy training of some groups is not recognized and on how to withhold recognition, or question the recognition—and concomitant valuation—of the cultural capital of the literacy of dominant groups.10

To [insist upon Standard English] would be to again hypostasize linguistic forms, as opposed to continuously weighing and challenging the material social conditions under which specific language forms are reified, elevated, and demoted. Our claim is that exclusive emphasis on acquiring competence in writing as a means to equality, freedom, and justice privatizes competence and so fails to maintain discursive conditions through which being a competent writer comes to mean equality, freedom, and justice.11

Defending street talk, the authors write the English farthest distant from street talk, because street talk never suffices for intellectual complexity and careful policy argumentation.

SRTOL Draws on and Feeds into a Reactionary Politics of Ethnic-Cultural Chauvinism

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville praised the forging of a new, uniquely American person, novus homo, out of the various stocks and strains of Europeans immigrating to our shores. The key for de Tocqueville was that the original settlers all spoke English: “The tie of language is, perhaps, the strongest and the most durable that can unite mankind. All the emigrants spoke the same tongue.”12 Later arrivals, non-Anglophones, regularly kept their original language alive, but Standard American English remained the “strongest and most durable tie” within an increasingly diverse polity.

Once linguistic multiplicity overwhelms the Standard, the center cannot hold, and the biggest losers will be those hustling in from the periphery. Sensing imminent loss, champions of Standard American English have sounded forth from within the African American community both before and after SRTOL’s appearance.

A particularly powerful statement came in 1971 from the editorial board of Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP):

What our children need, and other disadvantaged American children as well—Indian, Spanish-speaking, Asian, Appalachian, and immigrant Caucasians—is training in basic English which today is as near an international language as any in the world. To attempt to lock them in a provincial patois is to limit their opportunities in the world at large....Let our children have the opportunity, and be encouraged, to learn the language which will best enable them to comprehend modern science and technology, equip them to communicate intelligently with other English-speaking peoples of all races, and to share in the exercise of national power.13

Similar reactions were recorded to the Oakland Ebonics Resolution of 1997. Cynthia Tucker, syndicated columnist of the Atlanta Constitution, decried the board’s making “sub-standard scholarship, including poor grammar and diction” into “a Black thing.”14 Like Tucker, film director Spike Lee was ridiculed as a child for “speaking white,” and he has stated, “I’m not a fan of Ebonics. I understand that African Americans have this duality to operate in both worlds, but Ebonics shouldn’t be taught in school.”15 In another context, Lee noted, “There’s something very sick where if you speak well and you speak articulately, it’s looked at as being negative….That’s crazy when intelligence is thought of as being white and all the other stuff is being black and being down.”16

In “‘Students’ Right to Their Own Language’: A Retrospective,” Geneva Smitherman contrasts all the “Unhip,” who continued to press for Standard English, with the “Enlightened,” who fought instead “to bring mainstream recognition and legitimacy to the culture, history, and language of those on the margins.”17 The unhip seek an equitable sharing of the bounties of contemporary life, but Smitherman detects a malicious “game plan” behind all such overtures: “cultural and linguistic absorption of the Other into the dominant culture, and indoctrination of the outsiders into the existing value system (e.g., Sledd 1972), to remake those on the margins in the image of the patriarch.”18

Where Smitherman sees evil “absorption” and “indoctrination,” others will applaud the long-overdue triumph of inclusion and worry more about the ethnic enclaves that the Smitherman/SRTOL “game plan” always brings to mind. The fantasy is idyllic, a tapestry of peace, love, and understanding in adjoining Meadows of Difference. The regular reality is ugly: distrusting, avoiding, and even despising the Others, who are not “our kind.” Ethnic solidarity is about blood ties, not character virtues or moral principles. Given its long, sordid history, how can the championing of blood ties be enlightened or progressive?

It is very significant, very revealing, then, that the first person mentioned in Smitherman’s “Retrospective,” bathed in the most flattering light, is Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), who in Smitherman’s words “issued his clarion call for ‘Black Power’ and thus charted a new course for the Civil Rights Movement in America.”19 The testimonial sparks an immediate realization: channeled by Smitherman, James Sledd, et al., Ture’s “clarion call” pervades SRTOL. And then a second realization: this is to SRTOL’s great discredit, and to the great harm done in its name ever since.

How tragic it was that Kwame Ture charted African Americans’ course away from gaining the same successes enjoyed by other Americans! Ture depicted integration as not worth trying; it was “a subterfuge, an insidious subterfuge, for the maintenance of white supremacy.”20 Promulgating “anti-racist racism,” Ture concluded that “this country cannot justify any longer its existence” and “I do not want to be part of the American pie.” Left for black Americans were separation within the United States—“We must cut ourselves off from white people. We must form our own institutions, credit unions, co-ops, political parties, write our own histories”—and third-world solidarity, “to hook up with black people around the world.”21

In making Black Power militancy its political template, SRTOL marginalized other “definable groups,” including integrationist African Americans, no less than Eurocentrism ever had. Everywhere else in America “anti-racist racism,” like regular-old racism, continued to lose decisively to a principled veering toward color-blindness in both public and private life.22

SRTOL Clumps People into Relentlessly Homogeneous Groups

Difference is anything but slighted if we reject Romantic Ethnicity as an organizing principle in schools and society-at-large. As Richard Rodriguez observes in “Disunited We Stand,” losses in group identification pave the way for gains in individuals’ originality, creativity, and independent initiative. America organizes “around the first person, singular pronoun,” Rodriguez writes, and the play of Difference among free-thinking, creative individuals is exponentially more productive than the play of Difference among clans, squadrons, and mobs of the like-minded.23

Anticipating and no doubt informing the dominant “Composition Theory” of today,24 SRTOL sees no individuals and will permit teachers to see no individuals in front of them. It trades throughout in races, social classes, and crude ideological camps—the ruling, closed-minded, selfish, and bigoted versus the victimized, warm, altruistic, and open-minded.

Privy to the insights, casts of mind, and language capabilities of each student, writing instructors more than anyone on campus should appreciate the huge differences, person-to-person, within SRTOL’s rigid, inviolable categories. To all English compositionists with eyes wide open, constructs on the order of “Black Language,” “the oppressed,” “Asian Americans,” and “working-class culture” will seem overstated, reductive, and likely to lead to terrible curriculum planning and terrible classroom teaching.

I cringe, for instance, when I read Monique Brinson’s description of Shel Silverstein as simply “a white male author,” preparatory to “re-inventing” his poem “Boa Constrictor” in Ebonics for her students.25 Reducing a creative artist to those categories is the most distorting and mis-educative of short-hands, as though it’s all the same whether we read Silverstein or Richard Rorty, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry James, Dave Barry, Allen Ginsberg, Stephen King, Woody Allen, Walt Whitman, Zane Grey, William Faulkner, Robinson Jeffers, Elmore Leonard, Pat Buchanan, Hunter S. Thompson, John Cheever, John Updike, or Charles Bukowski—all pale-male Americans who therefore think and write so similarly.

Silverstein’s art draws on many other categories of sociological description but mostly on his unique vision and creative talent. Brinson sees nothing like a person in Silverstein, just a representative of two groups to which he belongs. She sees her students exactly the same way, assuming in advance that as African Americans they all need to run Silverstein’s simple, amusing poem through racially coded filters before they can get anything out of it. Brinson isolates her students even as Silverstein promises to include them, and her provincial small-mindedness comes straight from SRTOL’s pages. Like hers, its spirit is insular, hostile to young people’s wandering away from the crowd, hostile then to education itself.

In sharpest contrast, Kenneth Clark, the distinguished psychologist whose research informed Brown v. Board of Education, fondly recalled his own teachers in Harlem “who did not consider themselves social workers….They were asked to teach reading, arithmetic, grammar, and they did.” An eighth grade teacher, Miss McGuire, “taught me to understand the beauty of an English sentence. And she didn’t do it by worrying about my background.” Another, Mr. Mitchell, “a blue-eyed blond WASP, taught us Shakespeare. Those plays came alive, right in the center of Harlem….It had nothing to do with color—the teacher’s or ours.”26

An integrationist to the end, Clark opposed Romantic Ethnicity and cultural nationalism as strains of “parochialism.” In 1968 he wrote against opening an all-black dormitory at the University of Chicago and later resigned from the board of trustees of Antioch College protesting the plan for a racially exclusive Afro-American Institute there. In his own teaching, Clark tried to help students understand that “genuine pride in oneself can[not] be based on anything as external as color.”27 In line with these views, Clark favored teaching Standard English to all American students, regardless of social background. Debating the classroom use of Ebonics with a black Harvard graduate, Clark stated: “I would like these youngsters to speak the way you do, so that people will pay attention to them—even when they are speaking nonsense, as you are now.”28

In his deep, mature, commanding voice—a golden trumpet to Ture’s thin, wheezy kazoo—Clark issues a clarion call for setting high learning standards for all students, the same standards whatever the individual’s race and cultural style. The clearest right of students—soon to chart courses for their own lives and the democracy’s future—is to a well-delivered liberal education. Training no one to mindless orthodoxy, liberal education puts into doubt everything students think they know. If in the end students keep what they came with, it will be only after entertaining the live option of wholly different beliefs. This marks the “liberating” part of liberal education, the freeing of a mind to decide truth for itself, rationally. Rallying around dialect and immersing children in local group-thought are qualitatively less far-sighted.

SRTOL Tries to Shame English Teachers for First-Rate Professional Work

In the decades following SRTOL, English teachers have been censured as repressive and racist—often by our own “theorists”—just for doing our job competently. Instead of continuing to play the role of punching-bag we must again assert due pride in our vocation.

The worth of our professional contribution can be measured in the ease with which foundational civic documents and long-dead authors are still read today. Slang and population demographics change daily. In balancing the linguistic demands of the right-now, English teachers have allowed for yesterday’s voices (the voices of oppositionality equally with those of assent) to speak with immediate comprehension. We have had a hand as well in great national gains in communication, knowledge, integration, social mobility, and economic productivity.

A student’s “right” to semi-literacy is as hollow as his or her “right” to master no mathematics beyond adding and subtracting. To follow SRTOL in “preserving” nonstandard dialects is to welcome miscommunication, cultural isolation, political fragmentation, and strict limits on students’ achievements in school and beyond. To follow SRTOL in overrating students’ language proficiency, however heart felt the desire to see the disadvantaged succeed, is to delay the inevitable for students and expose our entire guild to correct charges of dereliction of duty.

When English teachers provide purposeful instruction in Formal Written Standard, we are the opposite of racist, elitist, and classist, not keeping the gate closed but opening it wide. In his monumental study, The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Daniel Boorstin noted:

As the schoolroom was expected to perform a remedial function, the temptations were increased for insecure, upward-mobile teachers to impose “Rules of Good English” on their insecure, upward-mobile students. But there was also the Democratic Temptation—to flatter the people by assuring them that whatever they were already doing was right and best.29

Boorstin’s “Democratic Temptation” is surely one to avoid. As my Alabama mentors perfectly intuited, if flim-flam flattery serves no one well, it serves disadvantaged students especially poorly.

The one positive use today for SRTOL is as a negative heuristic, a road-map to the wrong-headedness of “liberating” students by adding to their underachievement and grievance. As a profession and as a nation, we would maximize this positive potential by repudiating SRTOL and the entire body of mis-educative “counter-hegemonic literacy training” that has followed in its wake.

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