03 July 2011


George Bernard Shaw knew both Ireland and England, and knew colonialism when he saw it. He also understood the concept of the "West Brit."

Pygmalion, 1938 film, Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller

Wendy Hiller is brilliant in the 1938 film of Shaw's Pygmalion when she realizes exactly how she has been played by Higgins and the British establishment.

"Am I free?" she asks.

When you have traded who you are for entrée into another culture, are you ever able to be free again?

So what is a "West Brit" and what's the connection? A "West Brit" - especially, say, 1880-1930 or so - was an Irish Catholic who worked really hard to sound, act, and appear "English," as a way of climbing the ladder of Dublin society or careers in Dublin tightly tied to the British Empire. It was (is) a derogatory term, essentially the same as when one African-American might accuse another of "acting white."

Shaw's Pygmalion is a close look at this phenomena. Is the culture of Henry Higgins really so superior to that in which Eliza Doolittle has been raised? Is it about the language, or, as Eliza points out, is it about dignity - that Colonel Pickering treats her as a human from start to finish, while Higgins only sees her as worthy when "his creation" - the Greek Myth underlying the story - has been fully formed?

Is it "OK" to speak and act, to think and be, Irish? Or, in order to succeed in the rough world of 19th and 20th Century capitalism, must we all learn to mimic those in London's "City."

Who's culture is OK?

When I was a kid, a pro basketball star named Rick Barry, who played for the San Francisco Warriors and shots fouls "like a girl" but with incredible accuracy, had signed a contract to 'jump' to the Oakland Oaks of the American Basketball Association. But before he could legally do so, the Oaks had moved to Washington DC, and then, were on their way to Virginia. Barry, who liked San Francisco Bay, and was willing to go the nation's capital, was however, drawing his line in the sand along the north bank of the Potomac. "My son Scooter is supposed to go to nursery school this year. I hate to think of the complications that'll cause in Virginia," Barry told Sports Illustrated. "I don't want him to go down there to school and learn to speak with a Southern accent. He'll come home from school saying, 'Hi yall, Daad.' I sure don't want that."

The end result of that statement was Barry being traded to "my team," beginning the short but wonderful history of the New York Nets,1 which is why I remember this so clearly. But the key question here is, "was Rick Barry right?"

See, I can use the United States Department of Education's NAEP results to "prove" that if a student has a southern accent, they are both more likely to be "below basic" on school skills, especially reading, and less likely to be "advanced." In fact, I can "prove" that the heavier the southern accent, the poorer the performance on standardized tests in general. These are "statistical facts."

So let us look at the Common Core argument, or that advanced by the "Acting White" theorists like Stuart Buck. According to them, the solution to this disparity - why would Alabama kids perform below Ohio kids? - can't be because of school spending or teacher unionization or economic success over the past decade, right? - would be to wipe out the Southern Accent in schools and to make sure that no one in the South criticized kids for "Acting Northern."

And if we could go one better, get those Alabama kids talking like Massachusetts kids, along with swapping grits for Maine oysters, we'd really leave no child behind. So our "Common Core" might be best be described as "Talk like a Kennedy."

See, "Black English" and "Spanglish" are really no further - linguistically - from "The Queen's English" than the American Southern Accent is, or the thick New England Accent is, our culture has simply decided that certain variations are OK because they embrace the power structure, and certain are not because they represent threats to the power structure. Just as, in the United Kingdom, it is fine if you have an Edinburgh Accent, not fine if you sound like you are from Liverpool. Fine if you are clearly from Devonshire, not fine if you are clearly from Glasgow. None of this is about competency or fluency or understandability, rather, it is completely, and only, about power.2

Ethnics emerge dressed as Americans after being "dunked" in The Melting Pot
at a graduation from The Ford Motor Company's "English School."

None of this is new. "Established in 1914, the Ford English School taught the company’s immigrant workers more than just how to speak English. It taught them about American culture and history and instilled the importance of such virtues as thriftiness, cleanliness, good manners, and timeliness." There has always been a tension in the United States between the expressed ideal of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society - you know, that brilliant combination of ethnicities in any World War II film - and the reality on the political ground, which is that "our leadership" would find things "much easier" if we were all "white, protestant, straight, northern Europeans."

Actually not.

They don't want that. If everyone were "the same" the "leadership class" would not know at-a-glance who belonged and who did not. So, what they want is for everyone "else" to waste enormous effort trying to be like them, while they race comfortably ahead. Remember, if we run back through the past 400 years, the number of national leaders of the United States and United Kingdom (combined) who have been - simply - Catholic - totals one. One. And, to put it in history book terms, "He served as President of the United States for a thousand days before he was shot and replaced by a Protestant." The US Republican Party has never even nominated a Catholic (or an African-American, or any other non-white Protestant) for President. These things, just aren't done. Tony Blair could only convert to Catholicism after he stepped down as Prime Minister of the UK. And what, a quarter of Americans are so distraught by having an African-American as their leader that they spin fairy tales about his birth.

This is not about language, or behavior, or communication, or shared culture, it is about power and the preservation of power.

How to speak and how to drink tea

There are many odd parts to the "Common Core" idea, it isn't just content that is being standardized, but delivery. The Onion, as expected, has it right, '“Before these standards, there was too much pressure in doing my job. Having to figure out what I needed to teach and how to teach it all by myself; it’s way too much to expect. I’m much more relaxed now by just sticking to the standards.'

'“I just turned to the section on ‘Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas’ to see if there was something I hadn’t considered and there it was! Item #5 said to ‘Add audio recordings and visual displays to presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes.’ Eureka! I hadn’t thought of that one before, so I checked out a record player and film strip projector from our building audio-visual room and presented a film strip on Hairless Mammals of North America that very day!"'

Gentleman's Agreement, 1947, do we really have to let Jews into our country clubs?

Those advocating the "Common Core" are fascinated with standardizing large parts of instruction - the "Core Knowledge" folks carry this to extremes, listing acceptable poets and when they can be read. But this comes out of world view crafted in post-World War II America, with only white people on the television (saying stuff like "soda pop"), only white people in the schools attended by people like E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and the biggest social issue on the agenda being, in the wake of the Nazi slaughter, would we really have to let Jewish people into our country clubs?

But the basic idea is that we must teach all of our children to be exactly like "us." This would (a) make people like E.D. Hirsch, Jr. more comfortable - he would not be faced with having to learn other cultures or behaviors, and (b) as a bonus, the children of the rich and powerful can trod softly ahead of the pack while poor kids sit in KIPP Academies and Common Core schools spending years learning how to behave, speak, and learn, correctly. A win-win, as they might say.

Odd cultures

We all need to learn to look the same and drink tea correctly.
Years ago, I attended a wedding in Yarmouthport, Massachusetts. It was a very old friend of mine - an Irish-Quebecois Catholic - marrying a man of New England nobility. His entire family came dressed essentially identically. It was summer, and every male had a blue blazer and white pants, most with - I'm not making this up - straw boaters for hats. The women all looked like Daisy from The Great Gatsby - clothes-wise at least. They drank tea from cups with their pinkies extended, they held their wine glasses "just so," they used words we did not understand and gave us funny looks when we didn't understand...

Honestly, they looked ridiculous. It couldn't have been more bizarre to us New Yorkers (who I'm sure looked like the barbarian hordes to the hosts) if we had stumbled into a full hip-hop wedding with everybody sagging. I mean, is there a difference? Or is it simply that one group owns 50% of the money in the US and the other doesn't?

You know, there's a reason great universities crave diversity in their student bodies (and I will exclude Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania from that group because those three Ivy League schools are homogeneous social class finishing schools3): It is because, education, like societies, work best - makes the greatest strides - when there is neither "Common Core Knowledge" nor "Common Culture."

It is exactly the clash of cultures, of language, of knowledge - the synthesis of thesis and antithesis - which produces breakthroughs in learning, invention, culture, and understanding. Michigan State University - as an example - seeks out students from just about every nation on earth.4 Not because they are the same - because they have the same Core Knowledge and the same understanding of the classroom culture - but specifically because they do not. As at every great university it is that "coming together" which builds an atmosphere of creation.

That is what makes London and New York, Paris and Berlin, Chicago and Los Angeles great cities - not homogeneity, not any "Core Knowledge," not any standard behavior - but the richness of the often uncomfortable clash of cultures.

We don't need E.D. Hirsch, Jr, Bill Gates, and Arne Duncan making Eliza Doolittle's out of us. We don't need to be sculpted by Pygmalions from any era. We need to be who we are and we need the equal opportunity to turn ourselves into the best that we can be.

And there's my rant for the Fourth of July... the freedom to be who we are.

- Ira Socol

1 - My junior high era basketball buddies did want me to grow much taller and get a hook shot so I could be more like "my namesake," the Virginia Squires Ira Harge, though I'm not sure now why we we liked the guy.
2 - Fabulous archive of accents http://web.ku.edu/~idea/dialectmap.htm  
3 - If you need to go an Ivy League school, do yourself a favor and stick with those in New York and Rhode Island. 
4 - "While 89% of students come from all 83 counties in the State of Michigan, also represented are all 50 states in the U.S. and about 130 other countries"


Raymond Johnson said...

Great post, Ira, but I'm left with a difficulty. As much as I agree with your thesis -- and believe in what I think are the same ideals -- I still find myself on the pro-standards side of the issue. Perhaps it's because I generally only concern myself with the mathematics standards, which seem to couple themselves most loosely to culture -- at least compared to other standards, especially English, history, and even science. (Yet, math is not culture free, and arguably nothing is.) Can I find any firm footing where I stand? Maybe not. But until I can, this is a good thing for me to think about and be aware of, and perhaps I can learn to better recognize which standards are more culturally sensitive than others and why.

Miss Shuganah said...

I am a second generation American. Three out of four grandparents came here via Ellis Island. A fourth came via Canada. All four from Eastern Europe.

My mom tells a story of a cousin she met while she was in Paris. He told her that he'd go town to town on sales trips and ask the locals, "Bring me a Jew." He could speak Yiddish. The Jewish person would translate and business conducted.

All of my grandparents knew English. My paternal grandma, however, preferred to speak Yiddish. I wanted to know what she was saying. When asked, all my mother would say was, "You don't want to know." Turns out she was cursing out my dad.

Despite that I found her Yiddishe accent appealing and I endeavored to speak like that. For years my mother tried to disabuse me of that as well as using my hands. My Chicago accent has a Yiddishe overlay. As for my hands, well, I had classmates once bet me that I couldn't speak without my hands for even a minute. I sat on my hands and, much to my chagrin and their amusement, my entire body took over. My legs were flailing about and my head was bobbing wildly.

I grew up acutely aware that I didn't fit into Christian culture. Back in the 60s, religious songs were still included in Christmas assemblies. Even in the 70s, when I was in high school, I felt out of place.

I grew up with antisemitism. It is not an abstract concept for me. I was accused of being a Christ Killer, and that is something that one never entirely shakes. And I've experienced it even in the 21st Century. It's the reason why, in this still predominantly Polish neighborhood, that we do not have a mezuzah on our doorpost.

I've not seen this version of Pygmalion, but I've read the play. I have seen My Fair Lady, and it makes me wince. Why would Eliza return to Henry Higgins? I suppose because we require a happy ending instead of an ambivalent one. Eliza returns and Henry Higgins, presumably having learned nothing says, "Where the devil are my slippers?" And the sentimentalists in the audience eat it up. If some man were to say to me "where the devil are my slippers," I'd aim them at his head.

My aunt by marriage is distantly related to people in England. She has glommed onto them for some legitimacy that she cannot really claim. Like my mother and father, she, too, is the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe. My first cousin has a greater connection with these distant relatives than she does with me.

I am a peasant. I do not fit in with high society. Even if I were not Jewish, I'd still be different. I do not march to a different drummer by choice. Neither a source of shame nor a source of pride. It just is who I am.

jsb16 said...

Interestingly enough, two of the great universities in New York and Chicago have very strong Core Course requirements. But, at least at Columbia when, the focus was as much on using the core materials to discuss individual values and to dissect the values that have informed the power structure of "Western Civilization" (I'm with Gandhi on this one) as to convince students to adopt the values as their own.

Dani Alexis said...

For me, it's serendipitous to see you mention the Common Core Standards, since I'm currently drafting a study guide for the 9th and 10th grade speaking and listening standards for a client. I've done guides for grades 11-12 and the general "core standards" as well.

The final Speaking/Listening standard at all grade levels requires students to "adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate." I struggle with this, not because it's all that hard to find examples or questions, but because this standard, more than any other, seems to be aimed at indoctrinating kids to speak, listen, and interact in a certain uniform way, rather than to really pay attention and think critically regardless of how others communicate. Which I can't help but see as a huge loss for students and for society as a whole.

Or, what you said.

jsb16 said...

That standard seems to imply that there are times when formal English is not indicated or appropriate (which I'd agree with), so maybe you could phrase it as asking students to demonstrate command of a variety of dialects as the situation demands (and to justify their choice)?

Jake said...

Am I selling out my rural, blue-collar midwestern upbringing going to Penn?

irasocol said...

Great conversation, which I won't interrupt with my next thoughts yet, except to say to Jake, "yes." If you want to learn to change the world in which your community exists, I'd pick another school.

It isn't that there are "bad people" at Penn... its about cultural isolation. If you want to spend a lot for a school in Philly, try Temple.

- Ira Socol

Jordan G said...

I don't have much to add here, though I have strongly recommended your blog to my mother, an English professor. But I can give you a small, trivial note about North/South relations! There is, actually, already a term for being from the South but acting like a Northerner. It's called 'sounding like a Yankee.' My extended family expressed great concern that I might do this when I went to school in NYC. The word 'Yankee' is somewhat derogatory, at least from a Southerner, roughly equivalent to 'hick' or 'redneck.'

Ouida McDaniel said...

Hello Mr. Sokol

I am a student at the University of South Alabama in EDM310. I have been assigned your blog to read for a couple of weeks to comment on and to then post a summery on <a href="www.mcdanielouidaedm310.blogspot.com>my class blog</a>.
I enjoyed reading this post about how how people tend to change to fit a "norm" that shouldn't even exist. Being a southerner I have a pretty good country accent. If I go to a class or do a presentation without trying to curb my accent I can see people just tuning me out because I am just a hick. Yet when I make a conscious decision to try to annunciate "properly" and try to drop some of my country I can see that my audience pays more attention to me. I think that it says that something is wrong when you cannot be seen as smart because a your dialect. I hope there may be a way to change this but I don't see it yet.

Thanks for an interesting read
Ouida McDaniel

Jennifer Geiger said...

This post just hits home for me! As a literature teacher, I am conscious that my choices of topic and text have the capability to shape these young minds and either challenge them in their beliefs or confirm them. As a writing teacher, I hold tremendous power to encourage or squelch the creative process with my comments, grading and general attitude toward the students' efforts. Part of my job is to teach grammar and mechanics of language, and over the years, I have questioned WHY? So they van be understood, but by WHOM? Basically, let me educate the diverse masses so they can be decent employees who can communicate with (WASP) bosses? Ugh. I am repulsed. But if I ignore the grammar, spelling and mechanics am I doing a disservice by ensuring the kids are less employable?

I hope I am communicating my angst here. To allow for spoken and written diversity would surely make them a fool in the interview or on the job, but to kowtow to standard written English is also distasteful, especially since my comments and "taking points off" for "mistakes" really ends up shutting kids down. Is there an ethical way to convey, "I love you as a person and your effort, but if you speak like this you will not get a good job..."

Miss Shuganah said...

I was a part-time Freshman Comp instructor in a previous life. It would never have occurred to me to "teach to the job," as it were.

One of the community colleges I taught at served a working class community. One of my students told me he didn't see the point in taking the class. He already was the assistant manager of the sporting goods department at Sears, so, in his mind, he had it made. His assertion was that only English majors and those who were going on to teach English should study English.

Another community college I taught at served a more affluent community. These kids had flunked out of Northern Illinois University, and they were at this community college to get their grades back up.

The third college I taught at was one of the Chicago City Colleges. I taught two sections of Remedial English. The first section were kids who maybe hadn't tested well, but, overall, were pretty bright. The class was largely a waste of my time and theirs, but we all got on OK.

The second section was more of a challenge for me. I never felt I did right by them. I didn't feel sufficiently equipped to help them out, despite the fact that I have two degrees in English. We all got through the semester, but I am not sure what good it did them.

I never took off points for things like spelling. I did try to encourage dictionary use. I discovered that very bright people weren't necesssarily the best spellers, but that was forgivable largely in part because their inventive minds more than make up for it.

The students I had who wrote grammatically perfect papers, largely young women, were also largely the least interesting and the least inquisitive. Sure, they got As, but only because they knew how to "write to the test" as it were. They knew what to give their teachers and their professors. They knew how to be pleasant and how to comply, but I doubt they ever expressed an original thought.

Teaching the young men was always more of a challenge, but one I enjoyed, as I knew they had brains in their heads. I would take incorrect spelling and some grammatical errors any day to those perfectly executed papers.

I don't think you teach to the job. I think you teach to the student. Some will figure it out, and some will not. I suppose you can give them some gentle and good natured corrections, but the rest they have to do for themselves. Kind of like being a parent. You can only take a kid so far.

lio said...

Harvard, Princeton, Penn...isn't that selection a bit arbitrary? What about the other ivies? What about schools that are just as costly and socioeconomically far more homogenous?