Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Class, Vocabulary, and Cultural Literacy

Bernard Schweizer wrote a very interesting article (pdf) in the Fall 2009 NEA magazine.

After a brief introduction he dives into the topic with:
When I tossed out questions about what these words and phrases might mean, I got the following results: one student out of 15 could identify Mahatma Gandhi; none had ever heard of Ernest Hemingway; none had a clue who Thoreau was; two could identify Job as a biblical character; one had a vague recollection of George Orwell; and as for “in the offing” or “excretions of our economy,” only one or two could do anything at all with these expressions.
His thesis statement appears a few pages later:
The more we argue the unimportance of cultural literacy among the general populace, the more we relegate the possession of this knowledge to the province of a socio-economic elite, thereby contributing to a hardening of social stratification and a lessening of social mobility.
As a teacher of low-level math at a community college, none of this surprises me at all. Basic math concepts are also a set of terms and skills that create economic stratification: a whole bunch of jobs suddenly become available to someone who learns proficiency with ratios, percents, and measurement unit conversions.

My students are quite aware that their mobility is hindered until they acquire what society sees as an "expected" math vocabulary. It is sad that some college instructors are so isolated in ivory towers that only during a recession do they become aware of the importance of cultural literacy.

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