History (part 3/3) >> Language Standards as Status Markers

<< As the introduction to this collection describes and as I have elaborated, Trimbur’s Gramscian reading develops complex connections among literacy, schooling, and class hierarchies, while admonishing educators to intervene in hegemony by democratizing access to education. While I do not propose that the problems that Trimbur highlighted in the early nineties have been solved or that it is no longer imperative to bring material access to education to racial minorities and the working poor, I am interested in shifting the conversation for the moment to delve into the rift I suggested was rampant in current literacy crisis rhetoric: the separation between us (educators) and them (students). Trimbur gestures to this disconnection when discussing the ongoing professionalization of literacy experts needed to determine what kind of literacy should be “standard” or morally acceptable. In the contemporary historical moment, we are experiencing this separation not only as a difference in credentialing, but also as a perceived generational rift defined by how ubiquitous access to technologies has shaped younger individuals (see Prensky). My analysis in the remainder of this webtext focuses on what is at stake in continually reinforcing that separation by framing contemporary student bodies as other. To explore this further, I will first illustrate how contemporary representations of distracted student bodies differ from those at play during the historical moment that Trimbur explores.

How Were Student Bodies Represented in "Why Johnny Can't Write"?

Trimbur introduces his argument with an analysis of the now iconic 1975 Newsweek spread, “Why Johnny Can’t Write,” by Merrill Sheils. Trimbur points to the “alarmist tone,” the “appeal to parental anxieties,” and the “stock characters” developed in the article (278). As I discussed previously, Trimbur shows how the anxieties that live beneath the surface of the appeals in “Why Johnny Can’t Write” evidence the breakdown of literacy’s perceived ability to maintain meritocratic hierarchies that schooled literacy extended, giving voice to a rising fear that middle class (white) children no longer were bestowed with the competitive edge over minorities and working class students they once had as the result of higher education. He cites at length from Sheils’ call for language standardization:

The point is that there have to be some fixed rules, however tedious, if the codes of human communication are to remain decipherable. If the written language is placed at the mercy of every new colloquialism and if every fresh dialect demands and gets equal sway, then we will soon find ourselves back in Babel. In America . . . there are too many people intent on being masters of the language and too few willing to be its servants (Sheils qtd in Trimbur, 279).

As this passage exemplifies, the complaints within crisis discourse focus on the linguistic deficiencies of these students, and the failure of schools to intervene effectively in the process of language standardization. Within “Why Johnny Can’t Write,” the literacy crisis is connected explicitly to both schooled literacy and linguistic performances in academic writing tasks. While the contemporary focus on distraction contains echoes of this crisis legacy, there have been key changes in who is perceived to be “master” and “servant” of the language, as well as what is to blame for the “Babel” in which we find ourselves. >>