Monday, April 16, 2012

My private Spanish and your public English: Authority, Education, and the Revolutionary in the Bilingual Education Debate

I want to investigate Hannah Arendt’s stance on the role of education and compare it to Richard Rodriguez’s view on bilingual education, as expressed in his memoir about growing up as a minority student. I will focus on the private/public distinction that prevails in both Arendt and Rodriguez’s thought and how such rigid distinction informs both the role of authority of the teacher in the classroom, and the bilingual education debate. Given the length of this paper, I only wish to present some of the problems that such views generate, without specifically posing a conclusion yet.

Discussing the role of education, Arendt’s thinking takes an unexpected turn in her emphasis on authority. The task of education according to Arendt is to mediate between the old and the new individuals or generations by introducing youth to a pre-existing world, and to prepare them for the life in the public world. The task of teachers is to help this “transition from the family to the world” as a “representative of all adults inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: this is our world” (p. 189) As long as the adults know more about what the world is, they must have the authority over children, and the relations between teachers and children must not be equal.

Here, Arendt’s thought could be read as conservative in the sense that authority rules over a dialogical relationship between student and teacher, and in fact, Arendt is critical about modern educational theories arguing that these conflate work with play, and theory with practice. Yet Arendt’s point seems to be that inequality is necessary if we are to assign responsibility to the older generations who are introducing the world to the new ones. Arendt writes: “The teacher’s qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on the assumption of responsibility for that world” (p. 189).

So in that sense, authority, education, and the responsibility for the world are linked together. Paradoxically, to preserve and save the revolutionary aspect of every child: the newness, and to introduce the new into an old world, Arendt argues that “education must be conservative” (p. 193) Her emphasis upon authority is a tool to promote the future freedom of the new generations, she writes: “education too is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel the from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands the chance of undertaking something new…but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” (p. 196).

It is this fundamental place of inequality that makes education different from other realms such as the social or political spheres, and yet education should strive to preserve the revolutionary in every child. So for the sake of preservation, Arendt’s view is that “we divorce the realm of education from the others…in order to apply to it alone a concept of authority.” (p. 189) so the current crisis in education, to Arendt, is one of loss of authority in the classroom. If Arendt’s thought in The Human Condition promotes humanity and freedom, then humanity follows after education; in the same way that education must end before political discourse can begin. Inequality in the realm of education becomes a means to facilitate teaching and learning, without forgetting what may be revolutionary of every child.

This produces a series of problematic consequences, for example: does one’s education end once one graduates and is introduced to the world? And what happens if adults end up replicating the authoritarian models of their childhood education in the political realm? Further, an old generation may take away the freedom of the new one. We see this with the scientific phenomena of cloning, where a being may be created with pre-existing qualities chosen by the scientist, and also in the propagation of racist and sexist teaching practices carried on by the older generations. It is here where the careful balance between teaching and learning is broken and the revolutionary in every child is lost before she may bring it into the public sphere.

Richard Rodriguez in his memoir Hunger of Memory writes about his educational journey from Spanish speaking boy to becoming an English speaking citizen. His controversial view on bilingualism is that the use of a native language, which Rodriguez considers to be a “private language” in the classroom would harm rather than aid the facilitation of the student into the public realm. Rodriguez writes:

“Bilingual education is a program that seeks to permit non-English speaking children, many from lower class homes, to use their family language as the language of school. I hear them and am forced to say no: It is not possible for any child ever to use his family’s language in school. Not to understand this is to misunderstand the public uses of schooling and to trivialize the nature of intimate life-a family’s ‘language’” (p. 5)

It is his rigid distinction between public and private realms that could be compared to Arendt’s thought on education. Both Rodriguez and Arendt see the realm of education as a preparation for the public sphere, and both argue that certain spheres should remain separate. In other terms, if Arendt’s focus on authority could be translated into an English-only policy in the classroom, then both Arendt and Rodriguez would be defending a more conservative theory of education with a similar goal: The task of preparing in advance the new generation for renewing a common world. That is, language-minority children growing up in homes where languages other than English are spoken would be encouraged to transition from the home language to English so as not to be disadvantaged inn the public sphere.

Yet the rigid separation between public and private realms in the bilingual education debate assumes a naturalized connection between the English language and the public sphere. The native language, thus, bears the mark of inclusion or exclusion depending on what sphere it is performed in. For example, Rodriguez narrates how speaking in Spanish outside of the intimacy of his home gave him both a sense of public separateness in relationship to los gringos, but also provided him with a reminder of such intimacy or home. One could even argue that this precise feeling of estrangement is what preserved the revolutionary, and that his native language offered a space for the development of such identity.

The rigid separation between Spanish as an intimate language and English as a public language, where Spanish then becomes the other, non-white language functions within the separation between public and private spheres. Critic Jeyum Lim in his article “The Performance of Bilingualism in Richard Rodriguez” has argued that Rodriguez develops a “politics of intimacy” where “loss, then, becomes constitutive of the citizen in the public sphere.” (p. 520) such concept of loss could be understood though estrangement or the ongoing disconnect between one’s self in the intimate realm, and one’s self in the public sphere. And although such disconnect is not the healthiest politically or psychologically, Rodriguez seems to find no other option than to choose one over the other.

So on one hand, the public sphere is the area where the human condition may strive freely as long as the citizen speaks the public language at the cost of estrangement from the intimacy of a native language. On the other side, the native language is spoken only in secluded spaces guarding one’s intimacy at the cost of its own diminishment.

Rodriguez also writes about the authority of teachers, and his thought sides with Arendt’s in that those teachers have the responsibility to lead the new generations from the private sphere into the public one. Focusing on the responsibility of the school as a sphere which teaches students about their public identity, he writes:

“It would have pleased me to hear my teachers address me in Spanish when I entered my classroom. I would have felt less afraid. I would have trusted them and responded with ease. But I would have delayed-for how long postponed?-having to learn the language of public society.”

We have to wonder at what cost the child assimilates to her new public identity. If a student is not to use its own family language in the school, she will probably feel afraid and unable to respond for a period of time. Further, what type of violence would an English-only policy be committing to the cultural and racial realities of the future citizen who is to occupy an old world? The idea of banning native languages from the classroom could be compared with the recent book banning in Arizona.

On Jan. 1, 2012 Arizona’s ban on the Mexican American Studies curriculum used in Tucson high schools went into effect. The MAS program has, by all educational standards, been successful for more than a decade. The Arizona legislature confiscated textbooks from MAS classrooms. The list includes “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” “Rethinking Columbus,” “Critical Race Theory,” Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “Chicano!: the History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement.” The main reason offered by the legislature is that they are opposed to complicating students’ understanding of what race is or how race works. This is also an argument used in defense of English-only policies: An opposing stance to complicating students understanding of languages and culture. So as long as they pick one over the other and as long as the choice is the language spoken by white America, then there should be no complications for the young generations. Their real concern in Arizona, as stated in the bill, was about “solidarity” and “resentment,” so by normalizing, we also are at risk of extinguishing that which is revolutionary in every child.

My point is that policies against bilingualism and, currently, against a program that supports studies on race are in effect because legislature is scared of a curriculum that might foment an anti-white sentiment among impoverished populations of Mexican, Central American, and other immigrant students. This is a good example of an older generation taking away the freedom of a new one, and it may offer some insight about the consequences of political authority at work in the educational sphere (realms which, according to Arendt, should remain separate).

In this sense, the rigid separation between public and private spheres is only preventing those minority students to both embrace their native language and culture, and question their status of representability as citizens in the public sphere. It was my point in this paper to show how Rodriguez’s stance in the bilingual education debate is informed by a rigid separation between public and private realms which leaves him with no other option than to choose one language over the other. I also hope to have shown how the responsibility of the teacher and the relationship between authority and the revolutionary are fragile concepts which need to be carefully balanced in the sphere of education.


Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, Eight Exercises in Political Thought. NY. New York. Penguin Books. 1968

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. NY. New York. Penguin Books. 1965

Alcoff, Linda. In Arizona, Censoring Questions about Race. The New York Times. 2012

Rodriguez, Richard Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Bantam Books. NY. New York. 1982


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