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The tyranny of words.

The Tyranny of Words

"Violence begins where discussions ends. When people have no more ways of expressing themselves, they use violence."

These words by French writer and lecturer Marek Halter appeared recently in the Washington Post. He was speaking of the Persian Gulf War and the motives of Saddam Hussein but the words struck me as the most compelling call to eradicate illiteracy that I had yet come across. Young people with no other effective way of communicating turn to violence with tragic results for all of us.

Literacy, the basic ability to read and write, is neither a panacea for violence and the rest of society's ills nor a solution for every student. Rather it is a reference or starting point. As our democratic society becomes more accepting of its own plurality, methods of communication that are clear and acceptable to all must be found and once found nurtured. Such methods may well go beyond reading and writing but they will not outpace the basic component of human intercourse--that every individual needs and deserves a valid means of communication. Literacy still predominates in that category and therefore cannot be undervalued.

History supports such a view: Two hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson wrote frequently of the need for his new nation to "[e]ducate and inform the whole mass of people." Canada too demonstrates a belief in education and pluralism through the Provincial mandates for literacy. Wherever it exists, a stable society is built upon a citizenry that can address its problems and seek common solutions. Stability erodes when too many citizens cannot read and write and therefore not enter the mainstream of that society.

Effective communication takes many forms and begins early. The right to a "free, appropriate education" guaranteed by P.L. 94-142 certainly includes the right to communicate to the best of one's ability. For some that means an adapted keyboard or a headstick, to others a TDD or Braille decoder, and to many it means the ability to read and write. The special education student's need to be part of the literate majority is no less and perhaps even greater than that of his or her nondisabled peers.

In the 1950s, I spent several years with the then Charlotte City Schools of North Carolina teaching junior-high-level students who were educable mentally retarded. A favorite part of my day was show and tell where, simple rules and time-tested format notwithstanding, we, students and teacher, learned a lot about each other. The students discovered what it felt like, if only briefly, to be in charge: what was necessary to get and maintain the class's attention, what it felt like to address a group of peers, and what brought that most sought-after commodity--approval. Robert Fulghum describes show and tell from the child's point of view as "education that came out of my life experience. . . You could do your thing without getting red-penciled or gonged to your seat" (It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It).

To me it was also a teacher's learning time. Insights into the students, their environment, and the values they were developing came directly from their hands as they held aloft their chosen objects and from their words as they described those objects. In fact, show and tell can be summed up in one primary primal concept: child-centered communication.

As the special education profession grapples with the complex tasks that daily must come together to educate the exceptional learner, the child's need to communicate cannot be overlooked. Reading "see Jane run" merits at least as much attention as seeing Jane run or tie her shoe or color her numbers. Listening, writing, cognitive thinking, critical reasonbing--all these deserve prominence in the instructional programs for all children, especially those for the exceptional learner. Statistics (see box at the end of the commentary) attest to the sobering reality that bad as the facts are about illiteracy in the general population, they are even worse for those students in special education. All methods of communication must be explored for the exceptional learner but the value of literacy is somewhat akin to the value of the least restrictive environment. Educate the child to the maximum extent possible and let the child's capabilities guide the curriculum, not vice versa.

The unescapable reality is that repercussions from illiteracy permeate almost all levels of the individual's world. To focus on but one aspect, think of the difficulty of a successful transition from childhood to adulthood. Hazardous under the best of circumstances, for the student with a disability who is also illiterate such a success becomes all but unattainable. Violence can become a reasonable alternative in an existence with little reason inherent in it.

To give a child a chance for a reasonable existence, motivation and an adult who believes in the student seem essential ingredients. In an ideal world, a baby is born with at least two adults with implicit faith in his ability to move mountains with a single "coo" but reality points otherwise. For example, children born in poverty, especially those in single-parent families, frequently start school behind their peers and never catch up.

For those who do catch up, the reason is frequently an adult who believes in them, a caring teacher. Carl T. Rowan, syndicated columnist and television/radio panelist and host, recently wrote of his childhood in rural Tennessee (Breaking Barriers). He is thankful to Miss Bessie, that "one marvelous teacher [who] forced me to focus on other things" beside the hunger and other disadvantages of growing up poor during the Depression. He quotes her as saying "If you don't [emphasis added] read, you can't write and if you can't write, you can stop dreaming." Words have power and, because Miss Bessie used that powerful word "don't" rather than "can't," a leading journalist was created.

There are millions of Americans who do not read. Taking a page from Miss Bessie, it is defeatist to say they cannot. And it is defeatist to focus special education away from the essentials of education. Children need to be literate and the sooner society begins to open the magic door of communication, the safer and more beneficial for all it will be. Favorable language environments, home/school partnerships, the solid foundation built by a Miss Bessie, and the two-way communication of show and tell . . . these are the beginnings. They cannot be the end: It is a matter of life and death, literally.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Council for Exceptional Children
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:special education student's need to be part of the literate world
Author:Greer, Jeptha V.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Article Type:column
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Regular class or resource room for students with disabilities? A direct response to "Rich and Ross: A Mixed Message." (Point/Counterpoint)
Next Article:Paradigmatic distinctions between instructionally relevant measurement models.

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