Monday, August 29, 2022

John McWhorter on Language, Race, and Class

John McWhorter in the NY Times, from an article about why Blacks and Hispanics do much worse on New York state's standardized test for social workers: 

One source I’ve always valued is a book published in 1983, “Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms,” by the linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, who compared how language was used with children in a middle-class white community, a working-class white one and a working-class Black one. She found that in conversation, questions were wielded differently depending on the community. A key difference was that in middle-class white ones, children were often asked disembodied, information-seeking questions as a kind of exercise amid general social interaction. Heath wrote:

“Mothers continue their question-answer routines when the children begin to talk and add to them running narratives on items and events in the environment. Children are trained to act as conversation partners and information-givers.”

In the middle-class subculture Heath describes, children unconsciously incorporate into their mental tool kit a comfort with retaining and discussing facts for their own sake, as opposed to processing facts mainly as they relate to the practicalities of daily existence. The same kind of skill development that’s fostered by reading for pleasure or personal interest — as opposed to reading for school lessons — a ritual which preserves and displays information beyond the everyday.

Heath found that while the printed page is hardly alien to the working-class Black community (which she gives the pseudonym “Trackton”; her pseudonymous white working-class community is “Roadville” and her pseudonymous white middle-class community is “Maintown”), and questions themselves are certainly part of how language is used within it, particular kinds of questions about matters unconnected to daily living were relatively rare. A paper published in 1995 by the National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia cited Heath and notes that “the Trackton world is warm, buzzing with emotion and adult communication, an environment to which the child gradually adapts by a process of imitation and repetition.” However, it adds, “the language socialization of the Trackton child is,” in contrast to Maintown, “almost book-free.” One Trackton grandmother described part of the dynamic to Heath in this way: “We don’t talk to our chil’rn like you folks do. We don’t ask ’em ’bout colors, names ’n things.”

Yes, Heath’s book was written some time ago. Certainly, Black kids don’t grow up not knowing their colors or that things have names. But that quote does get at something in a general sense. Importantly, Heath’s study was objective and respectful. She isn’t a culture-wars partisan. Her point wasn’t that Black culture, or working-class culture, is unenlightened or that Black people or working-class white people are in any sense inarticulate. Neither she then, nor I now, say there is some flaw in Black or working-class white culture.

The issue is, rather, how we square what worked for the past with what will work for today. No culture can be faulted for lagging a bit on that. Working-class Black culture was born amid hard-working people in segregated America for whom higher education was, in many, if not most cases, a distant prospect, and language was used to operate in the here and now. 

This makes sense to me from my own personal experience. My sons have had, um, checkered educational careers. But I don't think you would know that from talking to them, and their test scores were always much better than their grades. They grew up with me constantly engaging them on intellectual topics, and trying to turn discussions of stuff they are into toward more general considerations. For example, one of my sons used to be very good at an online team battling game called League of Legends. At that time everybody distributed their teams in the same formation, with the same five roles played in very similar ways. I pressed him about why everybody plays that way, and steered this into a discussion of domain-specific expertise and why it is sometimes overturned by outsiders. (Or by AI, as with AlphaGo.) That kind of training makes a huge difference in how people end up testing.

I think it is important to remember, when you are talking about any specific educational situation, that class is usually more important than race. Within Maryland, 90% of the test score difference between school districts can be explained solely by the average family income, which means that money must be about nine times more important than race. And while the median income for black families is gradually converging with that of whites– for Hispanic families this is happening rapidly–the differences in family dynamic that I am talking about are changing more slowly. It seems to take generations for changes in how people work, and how much schooling they get, to influence how they talk to each other.

That being said, there might still be a problem with standardized tests as a way of evaluating workers. For lawyers, I would say, pass the test or walk; we have plenty of would-be lawyers, and if you can't think abstractly, and understand the kind of language lawyers use in talking to each other, you're not going very far anyway. But for other professions this might not make sense. In Maryland you have to pass state-run standardized tests to become a licensed cosmetologist, massage therapist, or plumber. I think we can all imagine people who would be very good at those jobs without any sort of abstract thinking skills. There ought, I think, to be some alternative way for people in such professions to get certified, perhaps via practical exams. 

About social workers, I am not sure. Certainly a lot of what they do is operate government bureaucracies, and being able to communicate abstractly might help there. I suppose I would need to know more about the test to form an opinion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Remembering back to nursing school i remember realizing that much of what they were trying to do, particularly through the testing process, was to teach us how to think like nurses. I wonder if the testing for social workers has a similar goal?