Ed School Writing: Reflections on Lisa Delpit’s “Silenced Dialogue”

One of the things I hope to do in this blog is write about ed school. Many people want to change it, but they’re usually wrong in both goal and method. I’m also interested to see if my views have changed much. Since I kept a lot of my early writings on my blog–the one that had to be shut down–I still have electronic copies of them. Some of them are pretty good, I think. So this piece was written for Literacies class, July or August of 2008. Five years. Gleep. They are copied verbatim; if you spot any typos let me know.

Lisa Delpit’s “Silenced Dialogue”, a seminal article in education literature, offers a number of piercing insights into a perceived flaw of progressive education. However, Delpit chooses to frame her arguments through a dichotomy of race and culture that ultimately distorts her message in a way that probably ensures it won’t be heard by the audience that most needs to hear it.

Delpit aims at a fundamental tenet of progressive education: the “guide on the side” position of teacher as “co-learner” and adviser, questioner and consultant, as opposed to the “sage on stage” model (teacher as dispenser of knowledge). To Delpit and other non-white educators, the hippy dippy froufrou passive-aggressive control of progressives is so ineffective for children of color, so “coded” in white power structures, that in their admittedly paranoid moments they wonder if white, liberal educators have devised this method purely to ensure that the power circles stay intact, with their children protected and the outsiders kept out.

I am deeply skeptical of the “guide on the side” approach , and I applauded wildly when Delpit pointed out the degree to which teachers using the “guide on the side” method are relying on passive, unstated authority. I have, on more than one occasion, pointed out that certain “norms” in progressive classrooms are little more than lies. For example, many teachers will review a student’s work and say “I have a question about…..” But this is simply untrue. The teacher has found an error. She doesn’t have to point out the error and she can make the student aware of the error with a question. But she should not imply that she is questioning the student’s work. (Worse, many teachers require students to point out what they believe are mistakes with the “I have a question” construct.). Delpit herself points out another pet peeve of mine–the verbal directive framed as a question. “Would you like to get your books out?” leaves the literal student a chance to say “no”. The teachers believe that they are modeling polite behavior, but the iron fist is right there behind the velvet glove.

However, Delpit apparently sees the progressive tradition as stemming from racial culture–specifically, the white race has established these norms and are now insisting that all other races follow along. Her stance completely ignores the enormous debate about progressive methods that exists within the overall educational community, independent of race. By framing it as a racial and cultural debate, Delpit lumps all white educators and parents into a belief system that many white parents, at least, profoundly oppose. (I wouldn’t be surprised if 50% or more of white parents would rather an expert teacher than a “co-learner”) Asian American opposition to progressive education tops that of whites. Likewise, many African American and Hispanic teachers strongly support progressive methods.
In class, I noticed that our discussion centered on the “silenced dialogue” and the “culture of power” metaphors in Delpit’s work, thus validating her framework of race and culture. This plays nicely into the “liberal” (Delpit’s word) world view and thus we spend another lesson on how we can “norm” our classroom to accept all cultures and try not to enforce our white values on other people. I have read other responses to Delpit’s work that also focus on the racial and cultural aspects. I have yet to see a discussion on whether or not the progressive tenet of “student-centered learning” might need adjustment or even abandonment.

Had Delpit aimed her barrage directly at progressive education, educators would have been forced to defend their methodology. Had she made more of her point that no data exists to support the notion that progressive methods are superior learning tools, she could have started a dialogue on whether or not progressive education itself meets the needs of all students. By framing it instead as a racial and cultural debate, she placed the war in comfortable terrain for the progressives themselves, who are able to ignore the implications of her argument. Delpit is correct that dialogue is silenced, but she’s got the players wrong. It’s not whites who are silencing dialogue, but progressive educators.

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