What do E.D. Hirsch’s books on Cultural Literacy, the commercials about nine-month-olds who can read, Harry Reid’s comments about President Obama and Pat Robertson’s admonishing of Haitians and Haiti have in common? They’re all about us, ignorant Americans, arrogant and all-assuming in our cultural norms. They all contain seeds of Whiteness, maybe even Whiteness as an assumed sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, of better intelligence, benevolence and wisdom. There may even be a touch of eugenics involved in all four, as if the White American way (which unfortunately is still one and the same) is the only right to speak and think in this world.
It’s amazing that we’re still dealing with the idea that there is only one path to intellectual development and growth in our society. This despite all of Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences, and the work of so many others like Gardner. We still think that we should buy Mozart, Beethoven and Bach mp3’s, put them on our iPods, and put the headphones on the bellies of pregnant American citizens so that their children can be proficient third-grade readers before the age of five. We still believe that behaviors that promote individuality and unthinking critiques of everything are the best behaviors for our often lonely and uncritical thinking children to grow up with.
Hirsch was the main guru of a new movement of American intellectual development with his books on Cultural Literacy back in the ’80s. Now we have a series of commercials exploiting the worries of suburban and White parents with YourBabyCanRead.com. Nine-month-olds, two- year-olds and five-year-olds of the world unite in the unyielding quest to become voracious and critical readers, writers and thinkers. An all-consuming task in front of all other goals, like potty training, learning how to use a fork and a spoon, and learning how to listen to parents without whining or throwing a tantrum.
These commercials hearken back to the thinking of the first half of the twentieth century, to the wonderful world of the eugenics movement, in which scientists and pseudo-scientists sought to improve the intellectual and athletic skills of the human race — at least the “pure” and White part of it — by experimenting with those most pure. Or, more often, by experimenting (and ultimately, exterminating) those who were deemed much less pure or even dangerous to keep in the human gene pool. Blacks, Jews, gays, developmental disabled and mentally retarded all found themselves in the latter category. Most of the derogatory terms we use today as youth and adults — retard, moron, dull-minded, imbecile, even nerd — were spawned by leaders of eugenics and its off-shoots between roughly 1900 and the ’50s.
Now, I’m not arguing that a kid under the age of five can’t become a proficient reader. My older brother Darren — who learned to read without any assistance by the time he was three — is a case in point. But he didn’t do it through coaching, flash cards or Mozart. Heck, my mother — when she played music back then — would play Al Green, Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations. So why the emphasis on classical music, coaching, flash cards and the pseudo-science of the baby brain here? Because it has been ingrained in the minds of most Americans — especially White Americans — that intelligence is a White thing. And in a world of increasing educational competition, that intelligence no longer has time to develop. What will Jill or Johnny do if they won’t be ready for a gifted and accelerated learning program in school by the time they’re seven years old? How will they ever get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton? How will they ever be ready to be a neuro-surgeon or a corporate lawyer?
Of course, the commercial shows one example of a kid whose interests included basketball and other sports, and not just literacy and mid-elementary level books, a nod to the need for physical stimulation (and indirectly, a nod to eugenics as well). But isn’t it interesting that not a single person in the YourBabyCanRead.com commercial was of color? Not one, not even a token one? As the late Art Rust, Jr. would say, that’s a bunch of poppycock and balderdash.
So too are the witticisms of Sen. Reid (D-NV) and televangelist Pat Robertson. Between “light-skinned Black,” “Negro dialect,” and two-century-long deals “with the devil,” we could just write the comments off as the bleating of stupid White guys. That’s far too easy. Because they were and are communicating and connecting mostly with other people like them — folks in powerful positions to influence our culture. Even though Sen. Reid didn’t mean his statement to be one for public consumption, it was meant for a private group of powerful people. And Robertson knew full well that his argument about a wrathful Old Testament God seeking vengeance on darker-skinned people who didn’t obey their masters (not to mention the Voodoo stereotype) would resonate well with his “White is Right” audience.
How does this make us ignorant? We assume that we’re the richest and most powerful country on Earth for two reasons. One, because we’re smart and hard-working individuals from mostly immigrant (and White) backgrounds, taking advantage of this nation’s resources. Or two, because we’re God-fearing Christians, faithful to the core, and because God blessed us with the bounty of this nation’s resources. That is to say, we’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, God loves us. But apparently, not all of us, and certainly not folks who aren’t White and outside of the US. Our quest for a singular culture, for super-intelligence, for a world that only makes sense to a select and powerful few has left tens of millions of Americans as ignorant about the world as Americans would believe those in Port-au-Prince are these days. Except that with the ignorant and powerful people to their north, Haitians never were as ignorant as us.