David Brooks and the language of privilege

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We are ruining America, notes dour New York Times columnist David Brooks, suddenly and considerably alarmed by a standard feature of American life, if not human nature—the tendency of the privileged and powerful to guard jealously every advantage they have been handed or earned. Brooks takes up his pen to offer a stinging rebuke: Members of the college-educated class, he writes, “have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.”

Brooks focuses his concern on the parenting style of privileged Americans, coining a brilliant neologism in the process, “pediacracy,” by which he means the determination of affluent parents to give their kids a leg up. “As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids,” he writes. Next come zoning laws that keep the poor and poorly educated out of well-off neighborhoods and excellent schools. Finally there’s access to elite colleges that cement the grip of top quintile families on the brass ring of their advantage.

Brooks, I think, confuses effects for causes. Mating, motherhood, and Middlebury are not the arenas where battles for opportunity are fought. They are the spoils of war accrued by those who’ve already won. He hits closer to the mark when he draws attention to “informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.” His Timesman’s bubble thick as armor, he virtue signals, chiding himself for insensitivity when describing how he took “a friend with only a high school degree” (note to Times copy desk: it’s called a “diploma”) to a gourmet sandwich shop. “Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican,” Brooks writes.

Notwithstanding his prosciutto-handed tale of privilege made suddenly self-aware, Brooks is correct to be concerned about the social barriers to upward mobility. “Feeling at home in opportunity-rich areas means you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality,” Brooks notes. I think he overstates the case, but only in his focus on the accouterments of privilege. There is, without question, a language of privilege in America that excludes those who do not speak it fluently. And unlike assortative mating, blood-sport parenting, and legacy admissions to the Ivy League, it is within our power as educators and policymakers to influence children’s acquisition of that language. But doing so will require a degree of clarity and candor to which we are unaccustomed when we talk about education. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has long been making the social justice case for giving disadvantaged children access to the knowledge and language that have long been assumed by the privileged and powerful. It earned him contempt for years, and more recently begrudging acknowledgement that he might have a point.

To a degree that can be awkward to acknowledge, language is a cultural artifact, filled with assumed knowledge, allusions, and idioms that are a reflection of the culture that built, uses, and sustains it. Not for nothing did Hirsch title his 1987 bestseller on reading and language Cultural Literacy. That book and Hirsch’s subsequent work have tended to ignite firestorms of controversy, but critics have typically misunderstood Hirsch’s thrust. His object was never to establish a canon. Rather his is a curatorial effort aimed at cataloging the knowledge assumed by literate speakers and writers (those who read the New York Times op-ed page, for example) and who take for granted that their audiences command the same base of knowledge and references. Hirsch’s project has been to inventory, to the degree possible, the mental furniture of the elites that Brooks sees hoarding privilege and opportunity, and to advocate for seeding their knowledge and language in every American classroom. This has long made Hirsch our best and truest voice for social justice in K–12 education.

But the idea that American schools should explicitly familiarize children—especially those from other countries, cultures, or traditions—with a uniform body of knowledge in elementary and middle school falls upon contemporary ears as awkward, anachronistic, even inappropriate. We are far more likely to honor or even revere a child’s home language, culture, and dialect. But we must seriously consider the possibility that this well-meaning impulse is quite wrong for all the right reasons.

Lisa Delpit, an African American literacy researcher and 1990 MacArthur grantee, has written persuasively for many years about the “culture of power” in American schools and classrooms and the “schism between liberal educational movements and that of non-White, non-middle class teachers and communities.” In her seminal essay, “The Silenced Dialogue,” she explains the implications of the culture of power:

This means that success in institutions—schools, workplaces, and so on—is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those who are in power. Children from middle-class homes tend to do better in school than those from non-middle-class homes because the culture of the school is based on the culture of the upper and middle classes—of those in power. The upper and middle classes send their children to school with all the accouterments of the culture of power; children from other kinds of families operate within perfectly wonderful and viable cultures but not cultures that carry the codes or rules of power.

To say this is an uncomfortable topic among educators is to vastly understate things, especially among those who are earnestly committed to both progressive ideals and progressive pedagogy. “The Silenced Dialogue” and the book it spawned, Other People’s Children, are staples on the syllabus of teacher-education programs and spark heated debate and wounded egos. “Those with power are frequently least aware of—or least willing to acknowledge—its existence,” Delpit insists. She argues:

To provide schooling for everyone’s children that reflects liberal, middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it. Some children come to school with more accouterments of the culture of power already in place—“cultural capital,” as some critical theorists refer to it (for example, Apple, 1979)—some with less. Many liberal educators hold that the primary goal for education is for children to become autonomous, to develop fully who they are in the classroom setting without having arbitrary, outside standards forced upon them. This is a very reasonable goal for people whose children are already participants in the culture of power and who have already internalized its codes.

“But parents who don’t function within that culture often want something else. It’s not that they disagree with the former aim, it’s just that they want something more. They want to ensure that the school provides their children with discourse patterns, interactional styles, and spoken and written language codes that will allow them success in the larger society.

To be highly proficient in Brooksian English—the language of privilege—requires mastery over not just an alphabet and rules of grammar, but also an enormous range of assumed knowledge, historical references, and cultural allusions that are commonly held by members of a speech community. “My kids know how to be Black,” one parent tells Delpit. “You all teach them how to be successful in the white man’s world.”

American education remains deeply reluctant to do this, since it requires overthrowing any number of traditions and practices—from child-centered pedagogies, assumptions about student engagement, and other progressive education ideals, to local control of curriculum, the privileging of skills over content, and the movement toward mass customization of education. Each of these in ways great or small work against the cause of language proficiency; in doing so, they make the task of educating for upward mobility more difficult.

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In 1994, Ron Suskind published A Hope in the Unseen, the story of a bright, ambitious young man from one of the worst high schools in Washington, D.C., who defies the odds to win acceptance at Brown University. The book became one of the touchstones of the education-reform movement because it appeared to demonstrate that demographics need not be destiny. You can grow up as dirt poor as its protagonist, Cedric Jennings, and still achieve at the highest levels academically—all the way to the Ivy League.

There is a brief but telling moment in the book when a Brown professor asks his class how many of them have ever been to Ellis Island. Jennings has never heard of it. “Ellis Island is not a core concept in Southeast Washington,” Suskind wrote. Rather it is “the sort of white people’s history passed over in favor of Afrocentric studies.”

Because of his lack of background knowledge, Jennings is at a decided disadvantage. He struggles through a lecture in which some students barely take notes and others literally sleep. “So many class discussions are full of references he doesn’t understand,” Suskind reports. “Maura knows what to write on her pad and the sleepers will be able to skim the required readings, all of them guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge of history, economics, and education, of culture and social events, that they picked up in school or at home or God knows where.”

The author does not dwell on the anecdote, but it is a critical insight. Jennings is a smart, driven young man who wants badly to succeed. He may be the grittiest in class and have first-rate work habits, but he has to work much harder, and his simple lack of background knowledge nearly derails his chance of succeeding in college. In the end, he succeeds not because of the formative years of his education, but in spite of them. His journey from poor urban schools, through the Ivy League, and onward to a life of economic mobility is made far more difficult than it needed to be. This remains the case in too many schools that serve almost exclusively low-income children. Those schools, in reality, are making upward mobility harder.

It cuts against the received wisdom of pedagogical and political fashion, but regardless of where one attends school, if we are serious about breaking down the social barriers to upward mobility, there should be far more similarities than differences in education in the United States, at least at the K–8 level. The promise of preparing children for academic achievement and upward mobility depends upon a base level of language proficiency. Foundational knowledge across the curriculum not only sets the stage for further independent exploration, it provides the basis for language proficiency—for communication, collaboration, and cooperation between and among disparate people.

Make no mistake. Language cares little about education’s enduring fascination with child-centered schools and culturally relevant pedagogy. Language cares even less about local control of curriculum. There is a language of upward mobility in America. It has an expansive and nuanced vocabulary that it employs to nimbly navigate the world of organizations, institutions, and opportunities.

There is a language of power. It is the language of privileged parents, affluent communities, and elite universities. It’s the language of David Brooks. But he’d do well to recognize that you don’t learn that language in those places. They don’t let you in until or unless you demonstrate command of it.

This essay was adapted from Education for Upward Mobility where portions of it originally appeared. 

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.