site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of February 6, 2023

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Anyone work in education? Got experience teaching reading or the cognitive science on reading? Anyone have insight into the whole long political battle over phonics?

The podcast Sold a Story claims that “whole language” and “balanced literacy” became mainstream curricula for reading instruction in American schools despite the fact that they are almost certainly trash.

Whole language says it’s unnecessary, possibly even harmful, to teach children to sound out words. Balanced literacy seems to be a euphemism for whole language with some phonics thrown in to satisfy federal requirements. These methods encourage children to use all the information available - context, syntax - like little problem-solvers. Plonk them down in a text-rich environment, read to them often, teach them strategies like “three-cuing,” and they will begin recognizing words holistically.

The results, the podcast claims, are dismal. As evidence, it includes some agonizing statistics, like that 80+% of African American 8th graders do not test as proficient readers. It also includes wrenching anecdotes of middle-class moms realizing their first grader is illiterate, of teachers’ dawning horror that they’d been doing this wrong for years, and of one woman attending a prestigious grad program to learn balanced literacy in order to bring it home to underprivileged black kids and finally give them what the rich white kids were getting… only to realize that the rich white kids weren’t learning to read in school either. Their parents were hiring tutors.

The podcast explains how balanced literacy became popular, why it survived the Reading Panel Report of 1997, how it was championed by big name gurus and textbook publishing companies with big marketing budgets. Over and over, interviewees say some variation of, “I don’t blame teachers. They’re just doing as they were trained.”

You can hear one of them in action, three-cuing kids on a word. The three cues are: look at the picture, guess from context, look at a couple of letters for confirmation. One of the cues is literally, “Look at the picture.”

In another recorded lesson, a teacher covered up the target word with a post-it. She covered it. The children could not see the word. Definitionally, they could not read it, because they could not see it. She prompted them to guess it based on context, fed them the correct guess, uncovered it, and praised them.

If this is genuinely what teachers were trained to do, they should have known it was bullshit. This is obviously stupid. Blindingly obvious. Unconscionably stupid.

Is this podcast misrepresenting the methods taught in graduate schools of education? Is it unfairly presenting the research on literacy outcomes by different methods? Is it blaming American kids’ low rates of reading proficiency on the wrong thing, offering us false hope of fixing the problem?

I worked as a writing consultant in college, a position my college hired English-proficient students for. The job was to be there for appointments other students would schedule to have their essays looked at and the like. This required me to take a semester-long course as training, and the doctrines I was taught there were both extremely bizarre and line up neatly with the CW elements of phonics I've been reading here.

There was a guiding principle for the people who taught this class and who wrote our books that it was wrong to teach a student the "correct" way to speak English. By correct we could instead say hegemonic; the way that educated, well-off people tend to speak and write English in America. Who are you as a (white) educator to tell a (nonwhite) child that the way he learned to speak at home is wrong? It was extremely upsetting for me to learn this was a popular position in the field of English education. But...

It's obviously been a while, but my experience with phonics as a young lad were that they were essentially drills. You have sound-letter association drilled into your brain through constant repetition and reinforcement. It's perhaps not a very Western way to learn on the face of it, as we pride ourselves on being creative learners who don’t rely on rote repetition. But there's a time and place for more rote learning. Like in art, you can't really express yourself in English if don't have the fundamentals down first.

You have to understand that for the type of person who usually gets into English Education, sitting there and beating the sounds of letters into the malleable skull of an underprivileged minority child feels like a form of violence. Your way of speaking is wrong, here is the correct way to talk and write. It is reminiscent of British boarding schools forcing students to copy lines into their books over and over, or of colonial efforts to educate the savages. This may sound like a weakman, but that really is how they seemed to view it.

This conflicts with a more practical understanding of language and the job of an educator. Yes, there is a way that educated people tend to speak. Yes, people go to school so they can fit in with those people and make money. Yes, it is your job as an educator to teach them how to do that. No, it is not your place to decide that this hegemony is unjust and must be overthrown. And finally, how dare you use young students as your pawns in this game to do so.

To the credit of my instructors: they acknowledged that this is, on some level, why people want to get an education. For reasons of practicality, English teachers have to teach English. They made it clear that we should push back against this where we could, and that it was a long-term goal to overthrow this paradigm. To bring it back to the "whole language" model... based on my experience with educators, I know that of the two methods, they would very much like this one to be the one that works. I can see them convincing themselves that it does, especially since it lacks the blunt objectivity of phonics. It makes sense that it took this long before people start raising the alarm on this.

I have some more things to say about English education, but that might be better for another post. I also don't want to lump all teachers into this bucket. I know many of them who just want to educate children and keep their mouths shut about this stuff for the same reason you don't openly push back against your workplace's DEI policies. It is a shame, because mass literacy is a cornerstone of success for a culture, and it seems standards are constantly falling.

I'm not a blank slatist and don't believe that we can equalize outcomes through education. But if we're forcing children to go to school, we should get some form of literacy as a result, and not have the time and money sabotaged by what to me looks like institutionalized white guilt. We could do a lot better by people if we just stopped digging the hole deeper.

A funny aside. As consultants, we weren't supposed to fix the grammar in a student's essay, even if that's what they came in with the intention to do. Just help them with ideas and maybe teach them writing rules they didn't understand. This was... perhaps overselling the importance of the place. Maybe it was to comply with a looser definition of plagiarism the university had (I'm doubtful). However, this was what about half the American students in my appointments wanted me to do, and what almost all of the Chinese students wanted me to do.

This is understandable, especially for the Chinese kids. It seems logical that a writing center for students would be at least in part about an English native fixing your paper so it isn't riddled with basic grammatical and usage errors. English is a difficult language and has a lot of weird rules that make it trivial for a non-native speaker to out themselves as such. After a while I just started doing grammar checks in my consultations, and my consultees tended to be much happier for it.

I totally get this, actually.

I majored in American Sign Language to become an interpreter, and our curriculum drew heavily from Deaf Studies. Courses on cultural awareness emphasized the privileging of standard English as a major component of audism (oppression of Deaf people). For a couple of centuries, academia dismissed sign languages as primitive gesturing, and educators largely suppressed ASL in favor of lip reading and speech lessons. It was only in the twentieth century that linguists looked closely enough at ASL to recognize a full, complex, grammatical language in its own right.

It’s a genuine disadvantage to constantly weather the presumption that your natural way of talking is primitive, broken, and unfit for the lofty realm of education. It sucks when, instead of respecting your skill in two tongues and ability to code-switch between them, people assume that your language is a shitty version of theirs and you just forget to talk right sometimes.

In school, Deaf students have the advantage that no one condescendingly assumes they shouldn’t learn standard English. I interpreted so, so many writing center appointments and after-class extra help from teachers. Nobody ever suggested, “Their language is just as valid, it’s cruel to teach them to communicate in a way other educated people will understand and respect.”

John McWhorter has a whole chapter on this issue in Talking Back, Talking Black. He discusses how unusual Americans are in assuming there is one “correct” English and a bunch of incorrect, slang-riddled bastards. Possibly a global majority lives in more than one language - one for home and one for business/education/religion. Sometimes these are dialects of the same language. These are usually in hierarchy and function as strong class signifiers, but people often don’t think of one version as objectively wrong. They have different purposes.

And of course you’d want to teach your kid the “talking to elites” version.

He discusses how unusual Americans are in assuming there is one “correct” English and a bunch of incorrect, slang-riddled bastards.

As a Dutch person, I don't see this as American at all. Regional slang/languages are generally regarded as such by anyone outside those regions (and seemingly, plenty within).

I’m reminded of minor culture wars over the French language in Louisiana with that point about more than one language, but I’m also reminded strongly of how until very recently these kids going for essay advice would not have been writing their essays in English- there’s usually diglossia between the language of educated people, which all official post-primary education takes place in, and the language people actually speak at home. It wasn’t that long ago that educated people spoke Latin by default and IIRC that’s the origin of mandarin and Sanskrit- as educated dialects that weren’t in common use, so no one had a cultural advantage in being able to speak correctly from the get go.

Alas, our current elites would fuck up implementing it, probably by arguing about whether the language of educated speech should by Lojban or Esperanto, then not bothering to actually implement it, and finally by declaring the whole thing racist when it didn’t work out.

I majored in American Sign Language to become an interpreter, and our curriculum drew heavily from Deaf Studies. Courses on cultural awareness emphasized the privileging of standard English as a major component of audism (oppression of Deaf people).

It can be astonishing just how deeply critical theory has penetrated into every nook and cranny of the educational establishment and academia.

It may sound eyeroll-worthy. Isn't it deafness itself that makes life hard? That's not "oppression," that's just what disability means, right? If it weren't a costly difference from the human norm that interfered with your daily functioning, it wouldn't be a disability!

But a big part of the suckage around deafness (like any disability) is the fact that hearing people don't understand it. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, this meant that most attempts to educate deaf kids treated them as defective hearing kids, often including corporal punishment for signing. To this day, the majority of deaf kids are born to hearing parents who never learn to sign and therefore can't truly talk to their own kid. The resulting educational and emotional deprivation can rise to the level of abuse or neglect. Even well-meaning people subconsciously assume that anyone who doesn't speak is kind of stupid; note the dual meanings of "dumb." A lot of important decisions about deafness, especially in education, have historically been made by well-meaning hearing people who didn't know shit.

That's most of what is meant by "Deaf oppression."

But there is a fascinating contradiction through the heart of Deaf activism. There has been, on the one hand, a long and important legal campaign premised on deafness as disability. With the passage of the ADA, deaf people won the legal right to interpreters, captioning, special telecommunications, and educational accommodations that massively improved their opportunities and quality of life. These are now considered bedrock rights, crucial to their participation in society.

On the other hand, there is an academic and social movement that regards deafness as not a disability at all. It is simply a form of human variation, which brings advantages as well as disadvantages. This movement celebrates ASL as the bedrock of capital-D Deaf culture (which I can attest is truly a culture of its own, with different norms and etiquette). It promotes Deaf pride and achievement, and it is deeply suspicious of attempts to "medicalize" and cure deafness.

I don't know that this circle will ever be squared, nor that it needs to be. It's just a fascinating world that I enjoyed moving through for a while.

I don't know that this circle will ever be squared, nor that it needs to be. It's just a fascinating world that I enjoyed moving through for a while.

Ozy and Alicorn's discussions on The Social Model of Disability may be illustrative for how the progressive movement believes it has solved this problem. I think their solution is a little prone to the typical argument-by-definition, but it's worth being aware of and to my knowledge is moderately popular.

Yes, this is the critical theory take on deafness, you don't have to explain it.

It's just amazing and a little depressing how the communists have penetrated right on down to ASL training.

Most people familiar with critical theory can probably anticipate some of its talking points on deafness, but given what a niche subject this is, I thought the particulars might be of interest.

What do these people imagine English teachers will do when they aren’t, well, teaching English?

There was a guiding principle for the people who taught this class and who wrote our books that it was wrong to teach a student the "correct" way to speak English. By correct we could instead say hegemonic; the way that educated, well-off people tend to speak and write English in America. Who are you as a (white) educator to tell a (nonwhite) child that the way he learned to speak at home is wrong?

That is (unfortunately) not surprising, but is still vexing. Because the obvious answer to the question they asked in your class is: "I'm the person trying to teach this person how to speak correctly so they can do well in life". The people teaching that class seem to have let their compassion run ahead of their sense.

It does seem like a case of pathological compassion. Fortunately, there was some debate on the issue in the class. Maybe half to a third of the students, including myself, argued as you did, and this was in a very orthodox left environment. That said, this was a few years ago and things have only heated up in the culture war since then, and it was clear which side the instructor favored.