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Echoes and Mirrors» Blog Archive » How language affects public discourse

How language affects public discourse

How Schools Fail Democracy

A principal cause of this catastrophic educational failure has been the dominance within the school world of a faulty how-to theory of language mastery. Full membership in any speech community and in any democracy involves mastery not just of grammar and pronunciation, but also of commonly shared knowledge—often unspoken and unwritten—that is equally essential to communication. All effective writers and speakers have learned the convention of tacit knowledge. They know that a baseball metaphor like “he struck out” can be confidently used, but a cricket metaphor like “he was leg before” cannot. Their audience will know the name Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not necessarily Harold L. Ickes.

We cannot assume that such needed knowledge will come to everyone through the pores. Demonstrably, it has not done so. Yet the chief effort in the teaching of “reading” in the schools has been to drill students in how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” and “questioning the author” while neglecting systematic instruction in the background knowledge required for participation in the American public sphere.

Didn’t this guy get the memo? New Historicism is out, New Criticism is in. There is a problem with how we teach critical reading in high school. And the problem spills over into all language skills, resulting in this ‘language gap’ that we are now suffering from.

There are also a lot of people with strong political and economic opinions who have never read even a little bit of political philosophy or studied economics at all. And they can make a lot of noise.

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