School Watch: We Ain’t Be Joshing

The nation let out a long primal shriek after the school board in Oakland, California, declared ebonics, or black English, a foreign language of African origin and voted unanimously to require that ebonics be taught to African-American students in Oakland schools. That the board, in addition, would seek federal bilingual funding to teach inner-city patois (such as “I be,” “dude,” “dis” and “dat,” “you ax,” and “chill out”) only added to the commotion.

For many weeks the Oakland resolution generated almost entirely negative opinion, which ranged from light-hearted parody to scathing ridicule. Bill Cosby jokingly called for English subtitles on movies in ebonics, while another critic denounced the “ebonic plague.”

At one level, the great, fin-de-siecle ebonics frenzy triggered a healthy national catharsis, a frank, countrywide airing of views on a matter tied to sensitive racial issues. Ebonics, in other words, gave hope for more honest public discourse about race and racial tensions—discourse too often made to seem unacceptable by the forces of political correctness.

But the most valuable legacy of ebonics is to have focused the public’s mind on the abysmal education of black inner-city youth. As never before, ebonics also exposed the extent to which the prevailing kind of education—what actually takes place in many inner-city classrooms—accounts for this failure.

These classroom practices are based on ruinous, long-entrenched educational doctrines. Until these doctrines are rooted out, black students will continue to be wrongly taught—and continue to struggle academically.

Ebonics is an extension of the pedagogy of self-esteem. To this way of thinking, self-esteem not only facilitates learning—it is its very precondition. As many education leaders, such as those in Oakland, see it, boosting the self-esteem of minority students is more important than the successful mastery of basic skills. As a result, students co-mingling even the worst street slang with various patterns of black English should not be corrected. To do so would be to injure them, causing them to feel, as the Oakland board phrases it, “devalued.” Not surprisingly, students’ self-esteem is to be further fortified by enhancing their sense of group identity. To this end the curriculum itself must continually stress students’ ethnic, sexual, and especially racial, identity.

The Oakland board enjoins its teachers to prize ebonics because of its presumed strong links to the African race. According to linguist Frank Heynick, however, the vocabulary of ebonics derives almost entirely from English sources, and its grammatical structures are traceable to a seventeenth-century maritime pidgin English, even if limited aspects of the latter may indeed be traceable to the great Niger-Congo family of languages.

Author Shelby Steele maintains that self-esteem education veers schools away from the pressing problem—the poor performance of black children. In schools where this emphasis dominates, weak self-esteem and racial identity become the only causes of poor performance that really count.

Moreover, as Steele asserts, “In the world of education, it is assumed that the self-esteem difficulties of black children stem from racial victimization. So, by making poor academic performance a problem of self-esteem and identity, ebonics evokes America’s history of racism as [its] true root cause.”

In addition to the pedagogy of self-esteem, ebonics owes a good deal to constructivism, or the notion that learners intuitively construct their own learning. In the case of language, a student builds his own linguistic patterns and then advances to grasp the formal conventions of a proper language. But, as former public school teacher Tom Loveless points out, this “reasonable insight” has led to “unreasonable practices”; that is, given the subjective orientation of their teaching, many teachers no longer require their students to give objectively correct answers.

Degenerate constructivism is a perfect match for self-esteem education. Both relativistically disdain a “best” answer, and neither puts much stock in objective truth.

Constructivism also dovetails neatly with group-identity education. As Loveless states, educational constructivists believe that “ignorance is no longer a recognizable condition—distinguishable from competence and treatable through a teacher’s guidance and a student’s hard work.” Similarly, educators obsessed with group identity excuse ignorance exclusively as the result of racial discrimination.

As for ebonics, it shares supremely in the constructivist impulse that simply shrinks from telling students when they are wrong.


  • Candace de Russy

    Candace de Russy is a nationally recognized scholar on education and cultural issues and an Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute.

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