The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children

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The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children

Language is an essential building block of society that enables people to express their needs. Language is more nuanced than pronunciation and grammar; it is embedded in meaning that is derived through socio-cultural coding and norms. More often than not the dominance of a particular language is dictated by power structures.  In The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children, author and educator Lisa Delpit explains  that Power structures insist on a dominant language that tends to disenfranchise many due to arbitrary guidelines, thus creating a “culture of power” with special coding and rules only a few can access. Those within the “culture of power” dictate how the rest of society is educated, irrespective that the language barrier is created by privilege and access.  The culture of power presented by Delpit contains its own rules, customs and norms; therefore the rules of this culture need to explicitly explained so people outside of this culture understand the rules of engagement

In defining  the “culture of power” Delpit  identifies the five aspects of power as follows 

  1. Issues of power enacted in the classroom : This defines the power of the teacher over the students; the power of the publishers of textbooks and of the developers of the curriculum to determine the view of the world presented;
  2. There are codes or rules for participating in power:  linguistic forms, communicative strategies, and presentation of self; that is, ways of talking, ways of writing, ways of dressing, and ways of interacting.
  3. The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power. This means that success in-institutions—schools, work places, and so on—is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those who are in power
  4. If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.
  5. Those with power are frequently least aware of—or least willing to acknowledge—its existence. Those with less power are often most aware of its existence

Delpits writing sheds light on a misconception of uninvolved parents in urban areas. She addresses the notion that the parents are not uninvolved but rather excluded through dismissive behaviors of the educators and the educational system. Delpit is not arguing best methodical or pedagogical approaches but rather the power dynamic that excludes the crucial and vital input of the parents and community members of children of color.  The silenced dialogue is the result of white middle class educators making decisions for demographics they are neither a part of nor fully engrossed in. The silenced dialogue stems from a privileged pedestal wherein white liberal middle class educators engaged in soliloquies rather than productive dialogue. The silenced dialogue is a result of repeatedly not being heard. The concerns and suggestions of black educators and parents fell on deaf ears. Those in the “culture of power”  translated  the exasperation and frustration that led up to silence as agreeance rather than a breakdown in communication. White middle class liberal educators have taken silence from the most impactful members of this demographic as a vote of confidence in their abilities to unanimously make decisions regarding the education of black and minority children. To hold power over vital decisions an entire group of people without considering their input as necessary is in fact  an assertion of the very  power they deny and complicity in their silencing .

 A Black female principal interviewed by Delpit stated “ it becomes futile because they think they know everything about everyone.what you have to say about your life, your children doesn’t mean anything.they don’t really want to hear what you have to say. They wear blinder and earplugs” (Delpit 281) This testimony speaks volumes about a system of education that denies agency to Black people at every level, no matter how well they may be. The culture of privilege endowed upon white middle class liberal educators by society has tainted their ability to reach true understanding of others.  They continue to silence the very people they claim to be trying to help.  This concept brought to mind Spivak’s article “ Can the Subaltern speak” in which she describes people from a superior or dominant group attempting to help subordinate or subaltern communities by speaking on their behalf. Although these individuals are well intentioned there will always be something lost in translation if we don’t allow people to communicate their own wants and needs. 

When black educators suggest instructional methods and approaches to research they are shut down . The white educator cites research as a means of proof that their instructional methods are “truth”, ignorant to the fact that citing research done by those in the culture of power further highlights the repeated scenario of being left out of a conversation that directly affects them. Delpit states “people of color in general are skeptical of research as a determiner of our fates. Academic research has, after all, found us genetically inferior, culturally deprived and verbally deficient” ( Delpit 286) Rather than stepping outside themselves ( which may lead to much needed cultural dissonance) in order to truly hear the concerns, they mindlessly nod.  This act of mindless nodding in and of itself is dismissive body language that sends the message that the Black educators viewpoints are being tolerated rather than take into serious consideration. 

Perhaps this closed off nature stems from white educators never having their approaches questioned. Nay, a discomfort from yielding power to individuals that have never been regarded by society as equals. While the white educator may not be doing this deliberately, their minds and attitudes have been shaped by a society that has ingrained those ideas into their psyche. Delpit stated “ Good liberal intentions are not enough.” Unless the issue of power is addressed progress can not be achieved. The attempt to ignore the culture of power only makes successful communication difficult; whereas specifying the code in which others should operate helps to bridge the gap. Suppressing or denying the power dynamic that exist serves only the comfort of those in the privilege positions- this does more harm than good.

Delpit suggests that denying the existence of  power hierarchy hinders the overall quality of education of black children outside “ the culture of power”, further perpetuating the statu quo.  To deny the existence of power is to deny the implications of that power on another’s reality. Delpit suggests that those in the culture of power should utilize their expertise, and knowledge of the codes and rules of their culture to equip black children the tools and skills they need to succeed within mainstream society. “If such explicitness is not provided to students, what it feels like to people who are old enough to judge is that there are secrets being kept, that time is being wasted, that the teacher is abdicating his or her duty to teach. ”The teacher is not doing those students any favors by denying or attempting to conceal his/her privilege. In fact, it sets the students up for failure as they enter a society dedicated to upholding those power structures.  

 When teachers attempt to conceal their privilege through creating an atmosphere of accentence in their classroom they are neglected to address very real life barriers those children will face. Also, many times those overly nice tactics are interpreted by black children as a lack of authority, and results in the teacher not having control over the classroom. This leads to a spiral of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The students interpret the lack of authoritative commands as suggestions and compliance optional; but nobody ever decoded that language for them. The language used to transmit to the student was not clearly defined or agreed upon; yet the punishment remained the same. Rather than creating a false sense of acceptance, the teacher should attempt to decentralize his/her power by incorporating learning strategies that appeal to all the children in the classroom. Delpit also discusses educators shifting the assumption that the role of the expert is only the teacher and rather acknowledges incorporating the creativity in the Verbal fluency and creativity associated with black students language. This asserts that the student’s voice is a key element in their learning process. Incorporating the creativity in the Verbal fluency and creativity associated with black students language. How black and minority children transmit and comprehend language needs to be learned from that culture, not spoken on behalf of. She asserts that students must learn to harness their own language codes while also being taught to understand the “power realites in this country”.  It is a balancing act that requires realist strategies that ensures students are aware of these power codes but also how arbitrary they are, so that they can contribute to real change.  Reaching this balance requires consultation with adults who share the students’ culture.  The voices, suggestions and approaches of black educators, parents and members of poor communities must be intricately woven into the decisions made about the educational approaches that best black and minority children.

In american society we avoid uncomfortable conversations rather than address them. We must be able to have an honest discourse that forces us to question what we know  to be normal and acceptable. We shroud our avoidance in a cloak of acceptance, when in fact they are two very different things. Shedding a culture of discrimation requires acknowledging its existence and the disatorius impact on communities.. While laws and education initiatives are a step in the right direction they don’t magically erase the damage that has been done. We passed laws and forgot to heal the wound.  As Malcolm X so accurately stated “ Progress is healing the wound that blow made. And they haven’t pulled the knife out, much less healed the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there’.  The knife in this case is the culture of power. Delpit urges that the only way to heal the wound is through honest and vulnerable discourse.  Where white middle class educators must  not only bring Black parents, educators and community members to the table; but also ensure the conversation does not evolve without them.  Healing the wound requires questioning our consciousness and the realities created for others by the culture of power. It is a conscious decision to acknowledge and rectify the disparity. 

Questions to Consider 

  1.  How can we address any problem or conflict if we don’t recognize its existence; the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. 
  2. How can educators address a problem they can’t “see”?
  3. How can teachers place  value and make use of language and culture that each child brings from home?

Works Cited :

Delpit, Lisa D. 1988. The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children. Harvard Educational Review 58:280–298. pp. 286, 296

Living in the Tension: Thoughts on Voice and Power

I found it interesting that both articles this week settle on an interesting middle path concerning their respective topics. This middle path doesn’t mean compromise, but instead living in the tension of two seemingly contradictory realities. In recent years, I have developed a fascination with this idea of “living in the tension” on many different levels. I continue to be amazed at the different places it shows up, and I am not surprised to find it waiting for me in the realm of teaching and writing.

To begin this exploration of living in the tension in writing, we have Elbow’s essay on voice. He offers an overview of the arguments that have gone on about what it means to write with voice and, as a result, creates a sense of dissonance in the reader when he has you consider the origins of the two opposing sides. On the one side, the proponents of voice feel that it is a direct outpouring of the self; on the other side, there are those that feel like voice is nothing more than a product of environment and says nothing about a person’s real self. Which is true? Elbow goes on to explain that it isn’t a matter of deciding which is true, instead it is a matter of learning to exist with both at the same time. I enjoyed Elbow’s walk through of the different strengths and weaknesses that both views bring to writing and reading, and I found myself having to think deeply about my own process and thoughts on voice.

As I thought about Elbow’s reasons for considering voice in reading and writing, I agreed with him that it lends itself well to creating meaning that is more easily understood and that is more engaging to read (Reconsiderations p.175). That is one reason why Elbow’s work is so engaging, as he finds a way to infuse his writing with a voice that creates an atmosphere the reader wants to enter into. But, as Elbow points out, listening too close to a skilled writer’s voice can deter from being able to really hear the message that is being said and determining if it is a solid argument (p.180). This is where his thoughts on the power of focusing on text were most helpful to me, as I will admit to a weakness in being drawn in by voice. As I have said in past posts, I am drawn to things that sound pretty, that make me feel certain ways, which can make me give less attention to what is actually being said at times. This has always been a source of secret shame, as it doesn’t serve me well in academic realms. After reading Elbow’s middle path approach, I am comforted at the thought that I can do both – appreciate the beauty of something, but also critique the message and formation of the argument.

 Another interesting argument for focusing on the text instead of voice is that it allows a person to interpret a text in multiple different ways (p.181). I found this to be somewhat surprising as it seems that an author of a text would want you to see their text in a very specific way. If we are allowed to enter into their piece with the ability to interpret it in many different ways, doesn’t this take away from the true message of the piece? Even as I asked myself that, I saw that I was falling into exactly what Elbow is saying about trying to chose one side or the other as the ‘right’ way to engage a text. I can see how paying attention to the text’s voice to determine the author’s intention would be helpful, but how opening your mind to trying to see how else the text could be interpreted would be an excellent practice in critical thinking.

All said, I found Elbow’s article to be an eye-opening exploration of voice in writing, but one comment he makes made me feel a little uneasy. When discussing why we would want to consider holding both views at once, Elbow says, “If a stalemate is strong and ingrained, the competing positions themselves are probably valuable and necessary” (p.174). Now, I don’t imagine that Elbow would consider this statement some kind of categorical imperative for all situations where there is a conflict of ideas. But, I do want to consider the harm in idea like this. In order to explore the potential harmfulness of this idea, I don’t need to look any further than the second reading this week.

In Lisa Delpit’s “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People Children,” she reveals a culture of power that resides in education. This culture of power is made available to those who are usually white and/or middle class and it often leads to the silencing of Black and/or lower income voices who do not naturally have access to this culture. Delpit highlights how in the pursuit of trying to be accepting of all students and backgrounds, “liberals” are further embedding a culture of power that doesn’t allow those outside of it to ever enter in (p.285). She lays out five “aspects of power”, but focuses in on two of the five that she feels go unaddressed – 1) If you are told the rules of the culture of power, you can actually become part of it, and 2) those in the culture of power aren’t able or willing to see they are participants and those that aren’t participants see it very clearly (p.282). 

By looking at different ways that students are taught, namely through skills-oriented learning or process-oriented learning, Delpit peels back the structures of power and oppression that are kept in place by something as seemingly innocent as teaching style. Deplit makes a similar point to Elbow in that she isn’t trying to say that either teaching style is better or more correct. What she is trying to say is that as long as there is a culture of power in place, students have to be given the chance to learn the language and rules of this culture so they have a chance to participate in it, and this has to be incorporated into teaching (p.296).

It is at this point that I began thinking a lot about the quote above from Elbow. Delpit is discussing two sides – one the one hand are the liberal educators that say we have research and good intentions on our side and we know what is best for your children; on the other are Black educators that are saying we have lived experience and understanding of the culture of power and your good intentions are further harming our children. If we consider these “stalemate” views in light of this idea that they are both “valuable and necessary,” we have a real issue. Deplit is arguing that the ways of hiding power and not teaching directly so students can learn the rules of the culture of power are not valuable or necessary – it is imperative that this change. The problem is that this liberal outlook is so ingrained, and there is so much work to do to change people’s minds, that it also happens to be a fact of unfortunate circumstance that populations outside of the culture of power have to make do and be taught the rules of power. They have to live in the tension, not because both sides have the truth, but because it is the reality created by people being unwilling to change and listen to those who know what needs to be done to change.

As a participant in the culture of power, I know I am responsible for seeing all the ways in which my privilege impacts what I do and how I teach those outside of the culture of power. Unfortunately, I recognized immediately what Delpit is talking about when she says that those in power are unwilling or unable to see their position of power because I have seen it firsthand. I have no doubt I have perpetrated it in my own life, but I have also seen it in both everyday life and the education system. After reading this section, I see how much work I truly have to do and how important it will be to really “hear” those who have been silenced instead of just “listening”. I think Delpit’s call for those in the culture of power to open themselves up to, “put[ting] [their] beliefs on hold…to cease to exist as [themselves] for a moment” and be willing to face themselves “in the unflattering light of another’s angry gaze” (p.297) is one of the most important goals I can take away from of this ‘quest for empathy’ that I have been exploring this semester. This is something I want to be considering as I move forward in this program, and that I would like to have a plan of action for soon. I feel that I am still in the research phase of this process, but I feel that by the end of my MA, I will have more of an idea of ways I can be proactive.

Works Cited

Delpit, Lisa D. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People Children.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 58, no. 3, 1988, pp. 280-298.

Elbow, Peter. “Reconsiderations: Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries.” College English, vol 70, no. 2, 2007, pp. 168-188.

The Importance (or Non-Importance) of Voice

This week’s readings were difficult for me because they seemed so opposite but I found myself agreeing with statements from both of them.

Peter Elbow’s “Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries” discussed the use of voice in many different scenarios (politics, Internet, etc.) but mainly the classroom. He talked about how teachers/professors and students use the term “voice” almost automatically when discussing writing. He argues that there is no right or wrong when it comes to text vs. voice. In order to prove his point, he supplies arguments for both sides.

Elbow discusses how if people used voice as their drive for writing they might like it more, as they can come up with different ways to say something or get your point across rather than just treating your writing as a “process” that needs to be bland or boring. He states, “When style comments imply objective verdicts from an impersonal judge (or a high-stakes testing agency), they sometimes lead students to forget that writing is a transaction between humans” (Elbow 11). In other words, people should think of writing as having a conversation with their readers. On the other hand, he argues that students will pay more attention to the content if they eliminate the idea of there being a voice – they won’t have to think about who is speaking, just what is being said. In this case, the same goes for writing; they must learn to avoid the idea of voice so they can make their writing unbiased and the readers can focus on the ideas being laid out.

So, clearly it can be determined that there are solid points coming from both ends, furthering Elbow’s statement that right or wrong does not exist in this context.

For me, voice was always a big thing in my writing courses in college. Whether it was poetry or something else, I always was told that “If the author does not come out and say it, you have to assume they are not the intended narrator. We don’t know who the narrator is.” This never made much sense to me because I was always thinking “Well they didn’t introduce anyone else, so obviously they are the narrator.” I feel like this goes hand in hand with the discussion about being genuine because we really never know then, if this is really the case. How will we know if the author is “genuine” if we are not supposed to assume it is their voice in their writing?

I do not know if I agree that voice in writing does not reflect the character of the author, like some scholars do. I feel that any writing, even fiction, will always show something about the author. It is their words, so there has to be SOMETHING in their writing that reflects them, even if it is something miniscule.

Moving on to Lisa Delpit’s “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children”, I really enjoyed reading this. It opened my eyes to a lot of issues within the education system.

Although I am not a teacher or working towards becoming one, I still have a certain appreciation for it. Delpit discusses in her piece the debate between “process-oriented” vs. “skills-oriented” instruction and how they affect the “culture of power” structure in schools/society. She talks about five aspects of power that are based off of there being a dominant culture in the world and classrooms and how this dominance is either not acknowledged or not noticed by the people who hold it.

I agree with Delpit that there is definitely a cultural hierarchy and some students may need a little more help than others, but I do not necessarily think that students should have to be taught differently than others. I don’t think this is truly what she meant by this but that is how it came out (at least at some points) in my opinion. The main thing I took from her piece, though, was that there is an issue in the education system that needs to be fixed. She mentioned at one point that students should be able to have their own voices, which I agree with. Not everyone is going to talk or write the same way. I feel that as long as students are given the same type of/approach to education, then that is enough. Peter Elbow made it clear that voice vs. text didn’t really matter as much as everyone thinks it does, so why should it matter if one student writes with a different voice than another? Overall, Delpit’s points make a lot of sense to me and I think if the system used these ideas we would have a much fairer education for all students.