Monday, December 17, 2007

Three Fifths of a Person

“But aren’t we being hypocritical?” one of my undergraduate students asked as I was enthusiastically explaining that as educators we should not shy away from issues of nonstandard dialects but that instead we should welcome home languages in our classrooms, open up discussions on power and language, and work toward the development of code-switching competence between home dialects and standard American English. “I mean, no matter what we say, we are ultimately promoting the standard, aren’t we?”


My student’s question brought sharply into focus the same quandary as the one I had experienced a few weeks previously as I listened to David Bloome’s address at the recent NCTE convention, where he listed all of my typical recommendations to prospective teachers and argued that they only serve to ease our conscience rather than to truly promote equity. David went on to problematize the a-political manner in which we often approach home dialect issues and proclaimed that the “three fifths of a person” concept has never been and will never be good enough.


My student’s question brought my self-assured rumble to a halt and for the second time in a couple of short weeks I had to admit first to myself and then to an audience that there is no easy solution to the conflict between students’ right to their own language and their right to be effective users of the language of power. I have no final answer other than to acknowledge this tension, speak honestly of it and to hold to the tenet that being fluent in more than one linguistic codes is not only possible but it also is what humans naturally do as they pursue communication objectives within various linguistic communities.