RELIGION, POLITICS, and the Fear of Whole Language Education.

Author:Shafer, Gregory

Intellectual freedom and unbridled inquiry are dangerous, even subversive. When students are given license to speak in their family dialects, when their cultural canons are endowed with the same legitimacy as those of the past, educational revolution can't be far behind. Perhaps this is the reason why dozens of bills sent to state legislatures in the past decade have been endorsed by conservative religious groups with the sole objective to legislate an end to "Whole Language."

Indeed, if there is a single element of the Whole Language movement that is most disquieting to conservatives it is captured in the quotation above by W. Ross Winterowd. Where there is the desire to end monolithic views of truth, there is hope for a democracy that kindles change. When students are allowed to write in forms that deviate from a top-down approach to learning, authority suddenly becomes shared, an issue that is fluid and situational. Without question, then, what is most stark and defining about the Whole Language agenda, since its inception in the 1980s, is its ability to enliven classrooms, invigorate students, and empower those who have traditionally been disaffected from the educational context.

Whole Language, with its attention to the abilities students bring to the learning setting--and with its desire to liberate these students to use language to solve problems--threatens to establish a rebellious, uncompromising democracy, one that imperils the status quo and the traditional values it protects. "How can classroom teachers move decisively away from a model of teaching that merely reproduces and legitimizes inequality?" asks educator William Bigelow. The answer, for many, is a Whole Language approach to any language arts pedagogy.

Where, exactly, do we begin in our attempt to understand Whole Language and the acrimony it has elicited over the last few years? While much has been said and written to discredit this paradigm for learning, it is, in the end, a very logical and sound practice rooted in decades of academic research in the study of language. Indeed, much of the movement, as reading scholar Ken Goodman suggests, has emanated from informal educational research, pedagogical observations, and personal discoveries of educators at all levels. As he writes in his 1998 book In Defense of Good Teaching: "Whole Language has helped to redefine teaching and its relationship to learning. It has revealed that children, all of them, are powerful learners of written as well as oral language, that they are capable of using language to think, to learn, to solve problems." Adds Bill Harp in Assessment and Evaluation in Whole Language Classrooms (1991): "Whole Language instruction is not text or test driven. Instead, it is driven by what teachers know about the developmental nature of literacy and the development of children."

Indeed, if there is a single reason why so many are so threatened by this seemingly innocuous movement, it would lie in the dramatic paradigm change that it represents. If standardization is the ally of repressive teachers, student participation is their nemesis, and Whole Language promotes just such participation. Unlike many other educational theories, it builds upon what we have learned about language acquisition and development and supplants teacher-driven curriculum with student autonomy. In the process, it dispels myths about isolated skill learning and the need for a top-down education. "It is the visible success of Whole Language, not its weaknesses, that has made it the major target of a powerful coalition of forces, which...

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