Friday, January 25, 2013


I've been rereading Harvey A. Daniels's Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered (Southern Illinois UP, 1983), which I've quoted before.  This time I want to pass along another depressing bit, where Daniels quotes an article by "a Chicago City College teacher" for the Chicago Tribune, "bracketing testimony about his own nobility with dozens of student errors" (232).  Here's one of the examples of student stupidity offered up:
I was born in the state of Mississippi, where I started school in the south the teacher didn't teach much about writing the little I know I learn in high school where I attented here which isn't very much, you see.
Daniels remarks:
One wonders what Mr. de Zutter's students thought when they saw their own writing held up as examples of stupidity (and hilarity, according to the Professor's accompanying commentary) for the amusement of the million or so readers of the Tribune.  What did these students say to Professor de Zutter the next time they came to class?  What did he say to them?  How, exactly, was the work of the class advanced by the public ridicule of the students' efforts?  What about the student who had already confessed that what he knew about writing "isn't much, you see"?  What was the purpose of humiliating someone already so humble?

Professor de Zutter, and all of his colleagues around the country who have written or abetted articles in this vein -- exposés that depend on reproducing the worst sentences from the clumsiest essays of the weakest student -- have demonstrated something worse than student illiteracy: they have confirmed their own incompetence.  Teaching anyone anything requires a modicum of trust -- teaching writing requires perhaps more than teaching any other subject.  The writing instructor who is filled with a perpetual sense of outrage over his students' inadequacies, who is obsessed with the shortcomings of their past training, who loathes their attitudes and tastes, who actively expects to despise both the form and content of everything they say or write, who feels that such work is beneath his dignity, who wants to get out of teaching writing, who is so contemptuous of his students' morale -- such a person will never teach anyone to write.  His students may learn to hate their teacher, which might be appropriate.  But they will probably also learn to detest writing, which is a sad and unnecessary waste [232-3].
Daniels goes on to point out that this contempt for students is, " so far as I can tell almost unheard of among elementary teachers" (233).  Not always, though: I've long been haunted by this anecdote from Colette Dowling's The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality (Random House, 2000).
The lack of encouragement girls perceive often come in the form of criticism and even verbal abuse from coaches and parents. In tee ball, a baseball-type game for five- and six-year-old boys and girls, coaches and parents make it clear that they’re not overly interested in the girls who play. And it isn't because they can’t throw. Girls who display strength, power, or physicality when interacting with boys run the risk of being marginalized. “I know the boys don't like it that I run faster than they do,” said Amanda, the fastest runner in seventh grade. “But I do.”

... Worse, the coaches didn’t take their young charges seriously, not even the female coaches. “None of the girls want to be there,” one coach told Landers.* “Not one. If I put a coloring station in the corner, every girl would be there. ... Dads take their sons out to throw with. Girls stay inside and play dolls.”

... In the Georgia tee ball scenario, the coaches reprimanded the girls more frequently and more harshly than they did the boys – and often for the same behavior that was accepted in boys. When they weren’t criticizing individual girls, they were projecting global images of girls as incompetent. When one of the male coaches dropped a ball he was trying to throw, he said, “Look, I throw like a girl.” Apparently he felt so embarrassed, he was compelled to turn the scene into farce: “He contorted his arms and awkwardly threw the ball toward Helen, [a child] who was standing in front of him.” This grown man deflected attention from his own gaffes by bringing one of the girls onto the scene as “a prop for depicting her own incompetence,” Landers wrote in her field notes.

This male coach might have done better to sharpen his own skills, but instead he used the girls to gloss over his clumsiness. After dropping the ball another time, he said to one of the girls, “I’m a little girl. I can’t catch the ball.” Such mockery obviously sends a powerful message to girls -- not only about their abilities, but about their very worth. This coach was telling his girls they were inferior, weak, and not to be confused with strong, powerful boys. The brainwashing worked. The coach's treatment of them and the unwelcoming attitude of the boys on the team contributed to the waning interest of girls during the season [90-2,emphasis added].
When I read this, I imagine a scenario in which the parents present surrounded the coach, and when they dispersed, he was gone but for a little greasy splotch on the grass.  But it seems that the parents didn't object: they wanted the girls out of the program as much as the coach did.

It also occurred to me that the teaching of sports to children provides evidence of how social construction works.  If a little boy can't throw or catch a ball, adults will expend quite a bit of energy to teach him how.  It will take no little determination on the boy's part to get the adults to leave him alone, if he isn't interested in learning this skill.  If a little girl can't throw or catch, adults will throw up their hands and say, "What can you expect?  Girls just naturally can't do this, and they don't want to."  If a girl persists anyway, more pressure will be applied to drive her away, and it will probably succeed if she doesn't have adult allies.  There will be general agreement that it is nature, not nurture, at work in this sorting process.

This may relate to what I wrote yesterday about moral absolutism and "grounds" for criticizing it: if a society doesn't want little girls learning to throw a ball, I may indeed have difficulty answering the claim that they shouldn't.  But absolutists often try to justify and rationalize their dogmas: not only shouldn't little girls throw a ball, they naturally don't want to and naturally can't.  This sort of claim can be rebutted and refuted.  (Remember too that the coaches who tried to drive girls out of tee-ball league didn't invoke religion; religion isn't the only vector for moral absolutism.  Whatever people want to believe will, however, sooner or later find its way into religion: It's not I who say this, it's God, and you cannot go against the word of God.  This move is only effective if you want to be fooled by it, but many people do.)

It then becomes evident that the desire to humiliate students who don't measure up to the instructor's standards is not just a personal neurotic quirk: it functions, often with social support, to weed out undesirables, students whose grew up in areas with inadequate schools and parents who were unable for whatever reason to take up the slack.  (The title of this post comes from an incident that is probably mostly forgotten now: in 1992, then Vice-President Dan Quayle attended an elementary-school spelling bee.  When one of the students spelled "potato" correctly, Quayle intervened to get him to add an "e."  If one comes from a well-to-do white Republican family, poor spelling and grammar skills need not interfere with one's ability to rise in society.)

In one respect, I'm all for people who flaunt their punctuation, spelling, and grammar intolerance openly: it makes it easy to identify and pick on them.

*Dowling is referring here to Melissa A. Landers and Gary Alan Fine, “Learning Life’s Lessons in Tee Ball: The Reinforcement of Gender and Status in Kindergarten Sport,” Sociology of Sport Journal 13 (1996): 87-93.