My twelfth-grade English teacher terrified me, as she did most of my classmates. She was a pleasant person outside of class and very approachable if you asked for help. On the other hand, not to have prepared for class was an infraction that would be punished severely. She had a knack for asking the precise question you were not ready to answer. When she did, it was not pleasant.
On the other hand, I believe I would not be sitting at this desk composing this article if it had not been for her. In that class, I learned how to compose a five-paragraph essay. It is a skill that has served me well in the almost half-century since I last saw her.
White Supremacist Grammar?
These recollections were inspired by an article about Marta Shaffer, an English teacher at Oroville High School in California. Oroville is a small town (2020 population—20,942) about 70 miles north of Sacramento.
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To say the least, the two women were dissimilar. According to the article, this teacher’s expectations are about as far from my English teacher’s as boiling is from freezing. In a Twitter posting, she spelled out her sentiments in their pseudo-intellectual postmodernist rhetoric.
“Well, public education is an institution that upholds lots of problematic systems in our society like white supremacy and misogyny and colonization, et cetera. In my role as an educator, I try to undermine that (expletive deleted) as much as I possibly can. I teach high school English, and HOO, the white supremacy runs deep!” (Punctuation added.)
She illustrates this by sneering through some of the rules for essay writing. She specifically decries the use of a thesis in the introduction, citing sources of information and the use of transition words (“however” and “therefore”).
“These are all made-up rules,” Miss Shaffer posits, “they’re arbitrary, they were created by Westerners and power.”
Miss Shaffer thinks the cure is found in a book called Linguistic Justice by April Baker-Bell. A sentence from the Amazon description will serve to illustrate the main point of this tome.
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“To move toward Black linguistic liberation, Baker-Bell introduces a new way forward through Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy, a pedagogical approach that intentionally and unapologetically centers the linguistic, cultural, racial, intellectual, and self-confidence needs of Black students.”
The author herself uses far less elegant language.
“If y’all actually believe that using ‘standard English’ will dismantle white supremacy, then you are not paying attention. If we, as teachers, truly believe that code-switching will dismantle white supremacy, we have a problem.”
Then, the author indulges in one of the great non-sequiturs in the history of the language.
“Eric Garner was choked to death while saying ‘I cannot breathe.’ Wouldn’t you consider ‘I cannot breathe’ ‘standard English’ syntax?”
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No, Dr. Baker-Bell, standard English did not save Mr. Garner’s life. However, it was not the cause of his death. Those answers lie elsewhere.
Language is Organic
One of the publishers of Linguistic Justice is the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). This professional group purports to be “a leading partner to and professional home for teachers of English and language arts at all levels.” They claim 25,000 members.
All languages differ in formulations, but all have basic structures conveying ideas. Take, for example, the simple sentence, “I am returning home.” In French one says “Je rentre chez moi.” Translated word for word into English that becomes “I return home my.” A German would say, “Ich gehe nach Hause zurück,” which would become “I go to house returning.”
The grammar rules arose organically over centuries from those who spoke the language. The Germans and French are not wrong because they combine their words differently. Our ancestors left us patterns by which educated people express themselves. To violate the rules is to run the risk of being unable to communicate your ideas because others will not take them seriously.
The Advantages of Correct Grammar
One of the functions of schools is—or used to be—to teach patterns of grammar to all students. When done well, every graduate will be highly adept in the art of communication. Until about 1960, the effort was incredibly successful. Among other benefits, the system helped many children and grandchildren of non-English-speaking immigrants to take their places in professions, business, politics and academia.
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Many years ago, I had the privilege of attending a presentation that Justice Clarence Thomas made to a small group of history teachers. He told us of his childhood in rural Georgia. He was raised by barely-literate grandparents whose primary language was a dialect called Geechee. Fortunately, the local schools taught him to speak English properly. That education, he explained, was a necessary ingredient of his success. He relates that story in his 2007 memoir, My Grandfather’s Son.
For Justice Thomas, and millions like him, the rules were his friends. They are trustworthy guides that can help anyone communicate with others.
Revolution, Even in Grammar
The Marta Shaffers of the world don’t like rules. Where some see the ladder to success, they claim to see rigidity and oppression. In their fevered brains, they conjure pictures of an ocean of people to whom the rules deny the right to self-expression. Such teachers are products of the modern university system, where radicals teach revolution even in grammar.
In a recent article in Frontpage Magazine, Jason D. Hill, Ph.D. of DePaul University, levels serious charges against Marta Shaffer and, by extension, those who agree with her.
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“Schaffer is the cognitive equivalent of a Chinese foot binder. The absence of grammar does not result in freedom. It results in abject stultification of the mind… that is what she wants to afflict on blacks… “black talk” [which] remains among blacks, and where blacks are rendered incomprehensible to a broader public. She knows with full malice aforethought, I believe, that this will result in a reduction in the perceived intelligence quotient of blacks in the minds of others.”
A Clear and Present Danger to America’s Children
So, the question remains—is Marta Shaffer a would-be Lenin, or merely one of his “useful idiots?”
Regardless of her intentions, Marta Shaffer is a dangerous woman. If she finishes a typical thirty-year high school teaching career, she will be able to share her overheated revolutionary message with around five thousand students. If even one-tenth of them believe her, she will have handicapped hundreds of students.
That is a thought that should give America’s parents many sleepless nights—because Marta Shaffer is not the only English teacher who thinks that way.
Photo Credit: © Feng Yu – stock.adobe.com