Sixty years ago the Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Until around 2005 or so, give or take a year, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system operated under a federal desegregation order, one of the longest running orders in the country. Today, Baton Rouge Community College continues to receive entering freshmen educated under that order. Due to the cult of self esteem, the best of these students have been told throughout their education that they can succeed, that they are smart, that they have a future. In college classrooms over time, these students demonstrate facility with logic, organization, and critical thinking. Even though they don’t come to college properly equipped (“college ready”), they demonstrate the capacity to learn. In class, I’m happy about what the students say, but then I read what they write. In their papers, many of them spell phonetically, they write atrociously, and their thoughts barely fill a page.
Strong readers and writers are raised by strong readers and writers. I could never master French in college; I couldn’t get my mind around the unfamiliar sounds. Good writing requires hearing the sounds of standard English in your mind. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are politics by other means, so Donna Haraway says. Rhetoric unites and divides, as Kenneth Burke tells us, and literacy separates “us” from “them.” So, here we are, inheritors of a desegregation battle, divided by the politics of college readiness in the classroom.
The battle over standard English has been long and epic; it’s comprised of minutia and mountainous annotations. When my colleagues and I compare notes about the vicissitudes of English, I envision us strolling our hallways sporting tonsures and echoing priestly arguments made by Latin grammarians. My students live in an oral culture. I chose to study rhetoric in speech, not in English, because of the living vibrancy of language. I do not want a monastic life of breviaries and punctuation.
This time of year is my favorite because teachers titter over student malapropisms as we grade. Yet, the things I throw around carelessly when I write often embarrass me when I read them later. Maybe I shouldn’t throw stones at my students’ glass houses. Instead, I should respect the fragility of their endeavors. Since my own commas stray and disappear randomly, I’d rather worry about my students’ capacity to make a valid argument. Obviously, I teach what I know – arguments and parenthetical meanderings, not commas – just like they write what they know. Language might be arbitrary, but it is also raced, and classed, and gendered, and all those other complicated and highly material things.
There’s no easy answer to the structural problem of college readiness. What happens to my students who are late with their work because a family member is in the hospitle? Who am I lying to when I join the cult of self esteem and tell them they have a fair shot at a good future?