In “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” William Labov seeks to discredit the idea of “verbal deprivation,” the theory that attributes the educational “deficits” of black children in urban areas and their low literacy scores on standard assessments to the verbal deprivation of their upbringing. He explains how the theory endorses this idea that black children in urban areas are raised in homes with infrequent verbal interaction and stimulation, and that this accounts for the low literacy rates and overall stunted academic achievement of students in urban areas.
Labov essentially argues that we must view the achievement gap as a direct result of the problematic relationship between the school system and the child, not as a result of other commonly held beliefs to explain the low academic achievement of black urban children, such as genetics or environmental factors. Throughout the reading, Labov systematically undermines bodies of research conducted by educational psychologists that point to environmental factors, such as “verbal deprivation” or other “cultural deficits” that seek to explain exactly why black children in impoverished areas struggle in school. In one such example, he focuses on the research of Carl Bereiter, and his work with a pre-school program that operates under the claim that lower-class black children have “no language at all,” and thus must be taught in a manner that addresses the deficiency.
Labov does not discount Bereiter’s claim that his interactions with the young black children, which he relied heavily on for his research, revealed a limited use of language, but instead offers up an alternate explanation for these observations: that the “mono-syllabic” language observed by Bereiter was a result of the context of the adult-child interaction, not of the language capacity of the child. Labov came to this conclusion after conducting research, along with several colleagues, through a series of interactions and interviews with a group of boys in Harlem. The result of the interviews clearly demonstrated that the boys had incredible control of language, could speak freely and verbosely in a context that defused the power dynamic between adult and child, and that the “social situation is the most powerful determinant of verbal behavior” (140). Sadly, these verbal skills will never be recognized within the context of standardize tests or any other measure of linguistic ability that we currently use to assess literacy.
Labov’s arguments—especially when he goes on to explore the differences between the speech of Larry, an incredibly skilled speaker of the Black English Vernacular, and Charles, whose language represents the more “verbose,” often meandering language associated with the educated, middle class—are very compelling and have innumerable implications for the classroom. It definitely challenges us to think that maybe, in a certain context, many of our students are not struggling with language nearly as much as we believe, and, that many students who speak the Black English vernacular have a much more sophisticated control over language than we are currently, as educators in a system that holds such high esteem for formal English, are able to acknowledge.
Moreover, I think Labov’s research forces us to think about our own assumptions and judgments about how our students use language. Though of course we are genuine in our desire to help students succeed, it seems that we can easily be guilty of what Labov describes as the “self-fulfilling prophecy” that black urban students often experience as result of their interactions with teachers that don’t value their use of language, and, through subtle or overt means, make them feel as if they have “no language at all.” I know for a fact that even if I am working to honor and validate the black vernacular or other non-standard English through projects or alternate assignments in my own class, I still require standard English on the majority of my assignments, which I know sends a clear message that standard English is the language of intelligence and power. Adopting Labov’s research to the classroom and education policy would clearly radicalize the way that we teach and assess students in urban areas.
As teachers, I think we have to consider:
1) How can we look critically at our literacy assessments to make sure that they are inclusive and revealing of the true literacy skill level of our students?
2) How can we continue to design lessons and assessments that validate the use of non-traditional English without it feeling superficial or forced?
3) How do we make sense of Labov’s compelling research while at the same help our students be prepared for a professional world that will judge them on their ability to use standard English, and to adopt this “verbose” rhetoric that serves as signal for intelligence, accomplishment and entrance into the middle class?
4) How can we challenge ourselves to reconsider that this standard, middle class language that we have always deemed superior, may just be a “style of language” ?