Monday, May 9, 2011

Wu-Tang is for the Children

Alex Edelstein

In attempting to understand the potential ways in which children display linguistic otherness, we must consider the contexts wherein difference is ascribed. Focusing specifically on early education, we can begin to investigate how children voice an acute awareness of linguistic socialization and ideological formation. Despite the mainstream discourse surrounding children’s ability to effectively engage in critical dialogue, Norma Gonzalez’s article “Children in the Eye of the Storm: Language Socialization and Language Ideologies in a Dual-Language School” positions children as enacting a sense of agency with respect to the formation of their own linguistic identities. Traditionally, we talk about children as being outside of the realm of influencing discursive subjects and practices. Gonzalez, however, goes to great length so explicate why this is a misrepresentation of the child’s ability to formulate linguistic ideology and social identity. While she acknowledges Louis Althusser’s state apparatus-based understanding of the foundation of ideologies, Gonazlez also finds space in the realm of linguistic socialization for agency to exist. Children in particular display a keen awareness of the ways that linguistic differences get mapped onto individual identities, as exemplified throughout her chapter. I am interested in looking at the consequences of dismissing the possibility for children to contribute to developmental linguistic processes. With national discourse surrounding English-only and bilingual education positioning children as passive actors in their own language development, much is lost in the way of potential ideological formations and linguistic identities.

If we accept Gonzalez’s understandings of linguistic identity formation as a combination of hegemonic practices and individual agency, then there is room for critiquing the way that we talk about children’s roles in formulating their own identities. Gonzalez emphasizes instances in which children provide a counter discourse to the prevailing stereotypes surrounding language and socialization. For example, Gonzalez calls attention to the child how compares monolingualism to idiocy, as she recalls: “When the teacher says "Bilingue" (bilingual), there's a moment's hesitation and thought before the student blurts out "Tonto" (stupid, foolish), clearly refusing interpellations that construct bilinguals as in need of remedial or compensatory programs” (Gonzalez 169). In this example, we see how the child flips the narrative surrounding bilingual education, transforming the connotation of bilingualism into a positive, rather than a remedial practice. Because of this particular child’s experiences with bilingual education, he/she is able to rearticulate a commonly stigmatized linguistic practice as a beneficial skill.

If we consider children as being able to express these kinds of formative linguistic ideologies, then there opens up a whole new methodology for understanding how metalinguistic discourses get mapped onto individual identities. However, in the realm of educational policies and legislation, generally speaking, we have adopted the notion that children should remain passive in developing academic regimens that best suit their needs. One such example of this type of dominant practice is the “English for the Children” legislation passed by several states, including California and Arizona. Using strong marketing campaigns aimed at latin@ immigrant parents, the legislation’s supporters positioned the bill in a way that made children’s educational (and future economic) success dependent on their ability to learn English and erase their non-English pasts. In doing so, the bill’s proponents effectively remove any agency that children have in developing their own attitudes and ideologies surrounding bilingual education, and further indoctrinate their parents to support English-only policies.

This type of propaganda makes me question what targeted marketing can actually achieve-- is there a limit to what we can make certain groups of people think and do? When considering this unanswerable question, I was immediately reminded of a similar campaign that was ‘for the children’. At the 1998 Grammy awards, Wu-Tang Clan’s most infamous welfare proponent, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, interrupted the ‘song of the year’ award reception to make an announcement: “Wu-Tang is for the children!” Upset because his group didn’t win rap album of the year, ODB appealed to the audience by claiming that “Puffy is good, but when it comes to the children, Wu-Tang is for the children”. While it may appear difficult to envision a context in which there was a national (or state-led) campaign to push ‘Wu-Tang Clan for the Children’, it serves the purposes of this discussion well. It seems unfathomable that there would be a national discourse pushing what music children should listen to or benefit most from (even though there have been attempts at this); similarly, it should follow that it is illogical to definitively say what language ideologies children want to or should inhabit. 

When we make these types of decisions on behalf of children, we are not only doing a disservice to an ‘othered’ population, as Gonzalez claims, but we prevent the potential for sociocultural growth that benefits all peoples. Historically, the dominant groups have used national policies and discourses to keep marginalized populations stagnant and without social mobility. Rather than strip children of their autonomy, with respect to language socialization and ideology, we should provide them with the tools and resources necessary to explore their own identities and develop as academics and individuals. Perhaps a shift in priority in the ways we approach child education can promote a different approach that encourages ideological and identity formation; maybe a “Wu-Tang for the Children” campaign wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. 

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