March 28, 2006

Delpit, Silenced Dialogue

Delpit argues for teaching traditional content in a progressive way with radical intent. Instructors who are reluctant to acknowledge their own power, or to teach the conventions of those in power, do poor students and students of color no favors (and are on some level motivated, Delpit suggests, by a desire to maintain the status quo). Instructors like the idea of giving students the freedom to express themselves, and it seems stiflingly autocratic to impose one set of rules for language use on everyone. Students and parents, on the other hand, expect teachers to communicate their expertise and equip students with the skills they need in order to complete their education and pursue careers. Conflict arises surrounding the issue of facilitating entry into the "culture of power," as well as over different perceptions of how to acquire and exercise authority.

Delpit agrees that it’s important to respect students’ home cultures and the styles of speech that are currently comfortable for students. Peer workshops, literacy autobiographies and other trappings of progressive classrooms are valuable, as they affirm students’ own expertise, but insufficient. Instructors must explicitly teach the codes of the culture of power, such as the conventions of standard English, so that students may ultimately gain some measure of power as participants in that culture. Standard English and other conventions should be presented in their political and historical contexts, not as superior but as the rules of the power players’ game. They should be taught through relevant communication situations rather than depersonalized memorization. But students must demonstrate their proficiency with the rules in the papers and other materials they produce: “Teachers do students no service to suggest, even implicitly, that ‘product’ is not important? (447).

Meanwhile, educators who see injustice in requiring people to conform to arbitrary codes should work toward institutional change—serving on curriculum and admissions committees, for instance.