This is part II of some thoughts about language and power in the English classroom I posted a few days ago.
So, good English teachers try to teach their students to support their ideas with evidence. Indeed, the new Common Core standards state this objective specifically:
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.1b Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases. (Common Core Standards)
And this is a very important skill to learn. You can’t just claim anything you want. You need to be able to back it up. That’s just part of good thinking.
However, Mallory* and her peers realized providing strong textual evidence was the way to earn full credit on my assessments, and I realized that this incentive was somewhat misleading. Many of my students were no longer concerned with finding out what the poet was really trying to say to them—instead, they were concerned with trying to use the poet’s words in such a way as to justify whatever ideas they could come up with. This is not to say they were intentionally lying—but they were no longer primarily concerned with being truthful, as I tried to demonstrate in my own expert mishandling of evidence.
However, in his “Discourse in the Novel,” Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin suggests that such manipulation of language is a challenge inherent to communication itself:
Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated — overpopulated with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process. (294, as quoted by Lee Honeycutt)
It is also, above all, a moral process that inevitably reaches beyond the borders of the English classroom. In his essay on the often-concealed relationship between power and language, Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper succinctly describes the unique challenge language teachers face in helping their students learn to engage and even “expropriate” language, since their subject can never remain safely behind the confines of a class:
Word and language, in essence, do not constitute a specific or specialized area; they are not a particular discipline or field. No, word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted. (Pieper, “Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power” 15)
I think Pieper has revealed the precious—and precarious—nature of language in a way that should give English teachers pause. Are we aware of our own capacity to nourish or to “corrupt” our student’s relationship with language? Demolishing one of my shyest student’s arguments with our class’s agreed-upon standard for legitimacy—textual evidence—had indeed “corrupted” the word in my classroom and momentarily tainted the delicate relationship of trust I had formerly established with my students. I did this purposefully, but rather recklessly.
Why is it that my action seemed so violent?
Because I had abused Emily Dickinson’s language and Abbey’s interpretation of it with my own misuse of skillful argumentation—I had been untruthful. In doing so, I presented the problem of what ‘rightness’ really means (or, at least, what it does not mean) to my students, with rather powerful results.
However, I had also inadvertently touched upon the twofold reason why sensitivity and care is required in experiments like these. Pieper expresses it this way:
Human words and language accomplish a twofold purpose […] First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course—and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech. (Ibid, emphasis added 15)
Inevitably human beings are given the responsibility of trying to “name reality” in an “interpersonal” context—and perhaps this is the real reason why teaching English is so challenging. Finding authentic ways to help students name reality involves approaching the question of truthfulness in a developmentally-appropriate manner for adolescents.
Accosting Abbey’s argument about Emily Dickinson’s tone worked to an extent—it roused her peers to come to her defense, for they could see the issue was, at heart, an important moral one—but unfortunately I did not know how to follow up my experiment. I certainly made an impression, but probably a fleeting one. In the rush of that first year, I did not pause to tie up any loose ends I had unstrung in that conversation, nor did I really give my students the opportunity to do so because in many ways I was fumbling around in the dark as much as they were.
I had, indeed, observed my student’s cognitive construction of a certain skill—that of learning to use textual evidence to back up claims—and I responded spontaneously to the moral dilemma that arose as a consequence. However, I failed to follow through on my experiment by giving my students a way to process this experience. For instance, I could have given them the opportunity to write about it—and to provide evidence demonstrating why my response to Abbey was unjust. This would have been a metacognitive task indeed—and one that would have reinforced the moral possibilities in writing and providing evidence for one’s claims.
Although I had successfully shown that the academic task of providing evidence for one’s claims is morally complex and problematic, I hesitated to pursue the issue further. I fear that, if we get this far at all, many English teachers are also hesitant about going further. We are not philosophy or religion teachers. Besides preaching against the evils of plagiarism, how else can we justify an exploration of truthfulness in language?
I would respond to this question with another: how can we justify not exploring the issue of truthfulness in language in our classrooms, when it remains the implicit moral dilemma students face on every test, every quiz, every essay—indeed, every conversation?