RELIGION, POLITICS, and the Fear of Whole Language Education

RELIGION, POLITICS, and the Fear of Whole Language Education

Gregory Shafer

Intellectual freedom and unbridled inquiry are dangerous, even subversive. When students are given license to speak in their family dialects, when their cultural canons are endowed with the same legitimacy as those of the past, educational revolution can’t be far behind. Perhaps this is the reason why dozens of bills sent to state legislatures in the past decade have been endorsed by conservative religious groups with the sole objective to legislate an end to “Whole Language.”

Indeed, if there is a single element of the Whole Language movement that is most disquieting to conservatives it is captured in the quotation above by W. Ross Winterowd. Where there is the desire to end monolithic views of truth, there is hope for a democracy that kindles change. When students are allowed to write in forms that deviate from a top-down approach to learning, authority suddenly becomes shared, an issue that is fluid and situational. Without question, then, what is most stark and defining about the Whole Language agenda, since its inception in the 1980s, is its ability to enliven classrooms, invigorate students, and empower those who have traditionally been disaffected from the educational context.

Whole Language, with its attention to the abilities students bring to the learning setting–and with its desire to liberate these students to use language to solve problems–threatens to establish a rebellious, uncompromising democracy, one that imperils the status quo and the traditional values it protects. “How can classroom teachers move decisively away from a model of teaching that merely reproduces and legitimizes inequality?” asks educator William Bigelow. The answer, for many, is a Whole Language approach to any language arts pedagogy.

Where, exactly, do we begin in our attempt to understand Whole Language and the acrimony it has elicited over the last few years? While much has been said and written to discredit this paradigm for learning, it is, in the end, a very logical and sound practice rooted in decades of academic research in the study of language. Indeed, much of the movement, as reading scholar Ken Goodman suggests, has emanated from informal educational research, pedagogical observations, and personal discoveries of educators at all levels. As he writes in his 1998 book In Defense of Good Teaching: “Whole Language has helped to redefine teaching and its relationship to learning. It has revealed that children, all of them, are powerful learners of written as well as oral language, that they are capable of using language to think, to learn, to solve problems.” Adds Bill Harp in Assessment and Evaluation in Whole Language Classrooms (1991): “Whole Language instruction is not text or test driven. Instead, it is driven by what teachers know about the developmental nature of literacy and the development of children.”

Indeed, if there is a single reason why so many are so threatened by this seemingly innocuous movement, it would lie in the dramatic paradigm change that it represents. If standardization is the ally of repressive teachers, student participation is their nemesis, and Whole Language promotes just such participation. Unlike many other educational theories, it builds upon what we have learned about language acquisition and development and supplants teacher-driven curriculum with student autonomy. In the process, it dispels myths about isolated skill learning and the need for a top-down education. “It is the visible success of Whole Language, not its weaknesses, that has made it the major target of a powerful coalition of forces, which for varying reasons fear its success,” adds Goodman.

Research Supporting Whole Language

Harvey Daniels begins his essay “Whole Language Works: Sixty Years of Research” with the declaration: “Whole Language works. The proof is massive and overwhelming. Sixty years of research–yes, real scientific research–conclusively showing it to be a superior way to help young people become skillful, lifelong readers and writers” (Educational Leadership, October 1999). Much of the research to which he refers involves the observations of teachers as they instructed students in reading and writing. Increasingly what they found was that students brought more linguistic ability to the learning context than what was traditionally believed.

Indeed, what bolstered the movement was the clear recognition that people learn language more proficiently and naturally when allowed to be active learners and when language is given to them in meaningful wholes rather than in bits and pieces. Reading is easier when done in the process of reading whole stories rather than through skills exercises. Writing makes more sense when there is a purpose rather than when it is reduced to a skill that needs to be learned. Thus, the Whole Language teacher transcends weeks of grammar instruction by allowing students to write whole pieces of prose, even if they are only in the form of journals or letters. Because language is used to communicate and have meaning, and because research shows that students bring much linguistic acumen to the learning classroom, it makes sense to learn holistically.

Much of the research done on students’ linguistic ability was completed by people like Noam Chomsky and Lev Vygotsky. Each in his own way buttressed Whole Language assertions that reading and writing were more effectively learned when they respected the innate skill students bring to the scholastic setting. Chomsky, in particular, suggests that language isn’t taught but learned–that children invent their language gradually, thoughtfully, as they observe their parents and other language users in their environment. In his 1975 book Reflections on Language–a refutation to B. F. Skinner’s attempt to define learning as conditioned by rewards and learned in discrete skills–Chomsky espouses a vision of language that is generative and holistic, something that emanates from the natural curiosity that children experience as they observe language around them. It is impossible, Chomsky suggests, to account for all of the words and sentences children produce which they have never heard before. Rather than a process of passively being taught words, students construct theories about speech and constantly test these theories as they listen and participate in language activities. To Chomsky, especially important is the fact that kids often formulate new phrases and words that are clearly a product of their own theoretical designs, such as when they utter sentences like, “I brung the bike to the shop.”

For Chomsky, a top-down approach to language learning is indefensible. It simply can’t account for the variation, for the myriad uses of language that are unique, that reflect an inventive mechanism inside the child. “People,” argues Chomsky, “come born with the ability to develop language. That is, babies learn to speak and listen through a natural process of imitation and maturation.”

Contributing to this new vision of language acquisition and growth was Lev Vygotsky, the Russian educator who also contends that language is natural, an outgrowth of a person’s social existence and a skill that requires nurturing rather than direct teaching. In Mind in Society (1978), he writes: “The best method for teaching reading and writing is one in which children do not learn to read and write but one in which both of these skills are found in play situations.”

Central to Vygotsky’s premise is the social aspect of language learning and the participatory role that children play in developing as language users. Vygotsky suggests that parents and teachers are most effective when they act as models and facilitators rather than disseminators of skills in a tightly controlled context. When children “play” with language and are exposed to it in social scenarios, learning becomes a natural act of expanding their ability to communicate. Again, for Vygotsky, the place of the teacher is as nurturer, using various “scaffolding” activities as a way to guide student growth. According to Lizbeth Dixon-Kraus, author of Vygotsky in the Classroom (1996): “The Vygotskyian idea is in direct opposition to the traditional basic skills view that a child must learn a word before she can use it. From the Vygotskyian perspective, the child would learn the word by using it.”

Whole Language and Reading

Of the many successes Whole Language has achieved, none is more edifying or revolutionary than the change that has occurred in reading and literature instruction. From the days of canonical, top-down approaches to high school and middle school English, Whole Language has championed an approach that is multicultural and student-centered. Part of this plan is based on the premise that reading is itself a personal process of making meaning as a reader “transacts with a text.”

Fundamental to this vision is the pioneering work of Louise Rosenblatt and her assertion that reading transpires when readers “shape” the text by bringing their background and values to any literary event. In her 1978 book The Reader, the Text, and the Poem, Rosenblatt articulates the essential tenets of the Whole Language approach to literature in her emphasis on the reader as an active participant in the creation of a book or story. As she suggests, “The text is merely an object of paper and ink until some reader responds to the marks on the page as verbal symbols.”

Prior to her publication, literary criticism had perceived the reader as invisible, only present as a passive recipient of the text’s embedded meaning. Contemporary critics–led by I. A. Richards, John Crowe Ransom, and others–saw reading as an act of uncovering a meaning that was objective and safely implanted in the work. Thus, the student of literature was reduced to a passive role of reverence–of receiving revealed truths that are static and impervious to personal interpretations. “Textual authority” tended to usurp the reader’s voice and replace it with a veneration for the message in the selected canonical work. “Textual authority,” writes Reade Dornan, Cheryl Rosen, and Marilyn Wilson in Multiple Voices, Multiple Texts (1997), is “deeply entrenched in our educational system” and has “roots in the religious and cultural traditions of Biblical authority and the sacredness of the text. To question the text, is heresy.” When textual authority is invoked, students become spectators rather than players. Their role in interpreting a book or poem is appropriated by the influence wielded by the text.

And so we begin to understand the powerful and often strident opposition of conservative Christian groups, which devote time and money to the defeat of Whole Language. Despite its efficacy in liberating students to express themselves and read with a participatory ardor, Whole Language constitutes a direct challenge to time-honored religious traditions, especially those which elevate certain books and ideas above people. Indeed, if Whole Language is allowed to flourish, truth loses its fixed, reified status and becomes as evanescent as the latest interpretation of a poem or novel. Clearly, for those who wish to maintain a religious authority, much is at stake.

Recent studies have exposed the rather virulent attack waged by such conservative religious groups as the Eagle Forum, Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family. Each group, either through political pressure or publications, has aspired to vilify Whole Language and replace it with a systematic phonics approach–one that stresses discipline, authority, and the more traditional top-down method of learning. Legislation proposed by various state congressional representatives has aspired to return reading to its traditional context–where power was imbued in the book and the authority figure rather than the student. For many, the goal seems obvious: if reading is to maintain a reverence for the notion of single, inerrant truths that are supposedly found in the Bible, if it is to perpetuate a legacy that militates against the notion of dynamic, diverse voices, it must reject Whole Language and its malleable approach to truth.

“Many fundamentalists,” writes Constance Weaver and Ellen Brinkley in their essay “Phonics, Whole Language, and the Religious and Political Right” (In Defense of Good Teaching), “believe that rules and standards get lost when skills are taught in context, as in Whole Language classrooms.” Thus, one isn’t surprised to see a vocal and often virulent opposition being mounted to the idea that literature should be unfettered from the traditional shackles of conventional literary criticism. “The idea of preserving standards is related to fundamentalists’ belief in absolutes and consequently in dualism,” continues Weaver and Brinkley, “a sharp division between the godly and ungodly, the saved and the lost.”

Thus, in their endeavor to protect the inerrancy of the Bible, many fundamentalists protect the linear approach to reading that assures them of a single, mandated interpretation of truth. “The only way to exclude readers from making meaning,” adds Cleo Cherryholmes in Power and Criticism (1988), “is to assume that a text has one `correct’ interpretation, that it is univocal–speaks with one voice.” And yet, for all of us who have read a poem or engaged in the reading of a novel, we know that truth is mercurial and rooted in our sociocultural heritage, in our values, in our unique visceral and intellectual being.

For literature teachers, then, the stakes are daunting, as they prepare for what seems to be an inevitable political contest. Do we empower our students to embrace literature in a personally meaningful way–do we foster a type of reading that liberates them to read from their own system of values and individual perspective–or do we reduce reading to a disciplined march into obedience and forced fealty? Clearly, Arthur Applebee is right when he suggests that “the teaching of literature is a political act” (Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English, 1980). If we are to respect our students’ right to read actively and construct a text from their own values and cultural heritage–and if we are courageous enough to allow literature to be owned equally by all readers–then it becomes an ethical responsibility to teach holistically, to make reading a democratic practice.

How for instance, can one teach classics like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and not permit the sort of pugnaciously independent reading that might come in a class of diverse and thoughtful students? Can we, in good conscience, limit or truncate the reading of the African American who envisions a Jim who is vastly different from the one found in the white student’s reading? What about the poor student’s response to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations or a woman’s interpretation to Chopin’s The Awakening?

In the same way, can we continue to insist that only certain privileged works deserve to be read, when many of our students would clearly benefit from works that more closely fit their background and personal values? “The author’s text, like the reader’s interpretation, is socially constructed, cultural-bound and represents `truth’ only as the writer sees it,” writes Dornan, Rosen, and Wilson. Whole Language, put simply, allows us to keep literature socially viable and open to all. It defines our classrooms as democratic and egalitarian climates where all can learn–a place where all values are respected and acknowledged. “All teachers are political, whether they are conscious of it or not,” writes Patrick Shannon. “Their acts contribute to or challenge the status quo in literacy education, in schools, and in society.”

Our challenge, then, is to step out of the safe and protected world of teaching by the book and teach to enlighten, empower, and enrich. While it is safe to teach the benign-sounding core curriculum espoused by E. D. Hirsch and others, it reduces education to a standardized, prepackaged set of objectives. It precludes the participation of students in the selection of literature, since a core curriculum implies there is a monolithic core to which we must all adhere. It ignores the voices of students who fail to write by the calcified standards that have been deemed appropriate by people who fear change and new dialects. In short, a “core curriculum” and the concept of “intellectual capital” (as posited by Hirsch) render the student passive and irrelevant, since learners are expected to adapt to meet the values of the curriculum being prescribed.

What about change? Alternatives? They begin when we first understand the truth about Whole Language and then dare to make it a part of our pedagogy despite the political acrimony it spawns. “Educators who begin to ask questions about pedagogy, about subjective and institutional barriers to teachers’ and students’ autonomy, and about the necessary conditions to promote the liberating sides of literacy, teaching, and schooling join a distinguished tradition within North American schools,” asserts Patrick Shannon in Becoming Political. This, in the end, is the challenge and efficacy of Whole Language. It elevates our pedagogy, making it both progressive and ethical, both democratic and egalitarian.

Gregory Shafer holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan and teaches at Mott College in Flint, Michigan.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group