Carefully taught

south_pacific“You’ve got to be carefully taught” is both a song title, from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, and an entry in the Race Card Project. Having grown up partly in Hawaii, I have a special feeling for the musical, but had not thought much about the message of tolerance it contains until a story this morning on NPR on the song, suggested by multiple entries for the song title in the Race Card Project, which happens to have the same number of 6 words called for by the project. The song lyrics are surprising for the year in which they were composed:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

The message is clear: prejudice is not something you are born with, but is culturally conditioned. It’s so sad to see children spouting racist or homophobic slogans, as those early learned views are so hard to lose.

Check your privilege

Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 9.13.12 PM

Tal Fortgang on Fox News

There has been a lot in the news recently about white privilege, following the case of Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang. He reacted to the comment by a classmate that he should “check his privilege” by writing a piece published in Time Magazine. He rejects the idea that there is any kind of white privilege in American society and that he is any way someone who has enjoyed advantages from growing up white and male in a well-to-do upper middle class family. He points to the difficulties in his family history, including his grandparents fleeing the Nazis and immigrating penniless to the U.S.:

Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color. My appearance certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting. While I haven’t done everything for myself up to this point in my life, someone sacrificed themselves so that I can lead a better life. But that is a legacy I am proud of.

Fortgang certainly has a point, that who you are is not determined by your gender or your racial identity. We all create our persona from multiple sources and influences, including, as Fortgang emphasizes in the story of his hard-working father, through industry and personal fortitude. But he implies that we all have the same starting point for being successful in US society, which I and many others would argue is not the case. The case for that was made by Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley College, in a widely read essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” in which she provides an extensive list of examples, starting out with these:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

Interestingly, McIntosh was interviewed a few days ago for a piece in the New Yorker on “The Origins of ‘Privilege’” and commented on the Fortgang controversy:

When Tal Fortgang was told, “Check your privilege”—which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement—it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systematically. But what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.

McIntosh accepts Fortgang’s that the whole story “isn’t always told by sex or skin color”, but that there are many more factors at play. I was at a conference presentation recently in which the main topic was how to include diversity as a topic in online courses. The first question after the presentation was by the only African-American in the audience. I expected, as did probably the rest of the folks there, for her to comment on diversity from the perspective of growing up black in the US. Instead, she went on at considerable length about what it was like to grow up skinny and suggested that body size be included in discussing diversity and discrimination.

On the lighter side, Buzzfeed has an interactive checklist for seeing how privileged you are. For an alternative view on white privilege, here is Louis CK’s take on being white:

Best way to learn a language?

rosetta_stone_tcg._V360836561_I’m just returning from the annual CALICO Conference (Computer-aided language instructional consortium) where I gave a presentation on the creation and use of e-books in language learning. The most interesting presentation I attended was a study on the use of Rosetta Stone in learning Spanish at the elementary level. The session, “Online and Massive, but NOT the Future of Language Learning: Further Evidence in the Case Against Rosetta Stone” by Gillian Lord of the University of Florida, presented the findings from a study in which the results of three different groups of beginning Spanish were compared. One group used Rosetta Stone exclusively, the second used the software but also had some class meetings, and the third was a traditional face-to-face class. Lord has not yet completed the analysis of data from the study, and the sample size in the study was small, but the preliminary findings are revealing. In some areas, student outcomes were comparable, particularly in the area of vocabulary acquisition. Where the outcomes differed significantly is in the area most touted in Rosetta Stone’s massive marketing, namely the ability to conduct a conversation in the target language. Lord showed transcripts of the conversations in Spanish she had with students from each of the groups several times during the semester. They showed that the students in the Rosetta Stone groups had acquired a good amount of vocabulary, and had gained some proficiency in listening comprehension, but had great difficulty in coming up with anything to say in Spanish, often using English in place of Spanish. They were particularly weak in the area of strategic competence in Spanish, that is, the ability to express a lack of understanding, to ask for assistance, or to find work-arounds for missing vocabulary or structures. Using language requires the ability to go beyond learned words and phrases, to be able to negotiate meaning with your conversation partner, through asking for help or re-stating in another way what you meant to say. Rosetta Stone’s software does not provide practice in that area.

Lord’s study did not address what I find to be an additional shortcoming in Rosetta Stone – the lack of cultural context. I experienced this myself several years ago when I was taking courses in both intermediate Russian and intermediate Chinese. As part of the Russian course, we were assigned to use Rosetta Stone in our language lab. I was curious how the program differed from language to language, so I also used the Chinese version, at the same proficiency level. I was surprised to find that the images, situations, sentences, and even vocabulary were exactly the same in the two languages. Language in Rosetta Stone is decontextualized, disembodied from the culture it represents. This not only provides little insight into the target culture, it also suggests that language can be divorced from culture and that learning a language is a simple process of substituting words and phrases in the target language for those in your mother tongue. No need to adjust culturally. This may, in fact, be the key to Rosetta Stone’s popularity: it takes away the messy complexity of language learning. The linear approach, along with the feel-good positive feedback the program provides, as you progress from level to level, gives users the impression that they are indeed becoming proficient in the language. In fact, in this way the Rosetta Stone ad I just read in my in-flight magazine is right on target: “The success you feel when you learn the Rosetta Stone way can change the way you feel about yourself”. That’s a much more accurate statement about the program than the company’s tag line: “Language learning that works”. Anyone having struggled to become proficient in a second language has experienced personally that language learning is not the simple, linear process suggested by Rosetta Stone’s approach and marketing, but rather more of a lurching experience, with lots of frustration, punctuated by occasional triumphs.  The image that calls to mind is not a straight line, but at best a spiral, in which we go round and round, re-learning and perfecting material already encountered.