View all Articles
Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Bringing Back the Campus

Education, Culture Pre K-12, Race

Recently, I listened to a talk by a political science professor at Brown, John Tomasi, who has dedicated himself to carving a place in the curriculum for views beyond the left. His Political Theory project brings to campus postdoctoral fellows whose work is founded upon centrist or rightist positions. He doesn't want to turn Brown students into Republicans, or conservatives for that matter. He just wants them to hear both sides.

The talk got me thinking about my experiences as a linguistics professor at CC Berkeley. The notion that the typical campus is crawling with Marxist firebrands is a cartoon. Yet, while at Berkeley, I realized that other people doing work like mine were in the business for different reasons than I was.

My interest in languages comes from the joy of learning them since I was a child. Much of my work has been about filling in what I call "The Natural History of Language" - how new languages are born, how they are related to each other, and so on.

My focus for a long time was creole languages, like Haitian or Jamaican's patois. Race, however, was not what hooked me on these languages. They would fascinate me if they were spoken by Vikings—their histories and structures are what is so intriguing. My creole work has allowed me to combine history, grammatical analysis, and working with speakers. All in all, "an intellectual feast," as legal scholar and author Robert Bork said it long ago.

I'll never forget though when another creole specialist casually mentioned that the main objective of our work was "telling them that their language is OK." "Them" meant those who speak creole and also black people in general.

Was all of the archival work and close argumentation I was devoting my career to just garnish? I was stunned by the idea that the main purpose of my work was supposed to be advocacy.

But after a while it stopped surprising me. One day a UC Berkeley professor in another department wanted me to participate in a hip-hop conference. This was long before I had acquired a certain reputation for criticism of the music, and his idea was that I would speak on "metaphors in hip-hop."

It was tacitly clear that he was expecting me to illuminate how rappers' usages of words were: 1) an articulate gesture of political opposition and 2) a plangent expression of degraded socioeconomic circumstances. Okay, but the crucial thing was that the professor clearly had not even imagined that I might have any position other than this one—on a subject that is controversial beyond the campus. In his mind, as a university professor, my script was written for me.

That wasn't because he was a "tenured radical," but because he likely never met any professors studying language as a social phenomenon who did not harbor typical leftist views.

By the time I left Berkeley, I was fully aware that I had joined my subfield on false pretenses. While technically there is a wide range of work within what is called sociolinguistics, the real tire in the belly and what dazzles the most at a conference is variations on Speaking Truth to Power, as the liberal slogan goes. I was in it, however, simply because I think language is neat.

Certainly there is great value in Speaking Truth to Power, to a point. But the sense of it as a linguist;s primary duty has a way of discouraging certain lines of in-quiry that are equally interesting.

Before World War II, it was ordinary for upper-class people and announcers in America such as Bette Davis to speak with almost British accents. By 1950, that way of talking had vanished. How and why? There has been no study done on this matter though partly because the issue is not bound up in issues of inequality and justice.

There are many children who speak colloquial English and linguists have been correct in arguing that this is not bad grammar. There has been, however, testy resistance to work suggesting that some immigrant children end up with linguistic deficits. The resistance comes from a blanket commitment to defending the speech of all minority children.

I've further thought about hip-hop since my days at Berkeley, and soon will be writing a book on it. It will be one of the only books on the subject and possibly the only one written by a PhD that is not a paean to the music.

That isn't right, and I salute the efforts of Professor Tomasi at Brown as well as a political science professor at Princeton, Robert George, who is involved in similar efforts, to bring the academy back in line with what genuine education is supposed to be.