Recent town-hall meetings on health care were contentious and none too civil. Yet there was a bright spot beneath the rancor. Some participants managed to communicate effectively in grammatical sentences, using standard pronunciation, vocabulary, and common allusions like "the bully pulpit." They showed themselves proficient in the language conventions of the American public sphere, and so were able to participate actively in political life.
But what of the mute, unseen people off-screen who cannot wield the conventions of knowledge and language needed to participate in the American public sphere? Brecht described them memorably: "But you see only those in the light/Those in the darkness you don't see."
Too many Americans are in the linguistic shadows nowpossibly close to a majority. Despite intense efforts driven by the No Child Left Behind Act, the language abilities of our 17-year-olds have remained stuck at the steeply declined levels of the 1970s, while the language gap between white students on one side and black and Hispanic students on the other remains distressingly and immovably large.
This language gap represents more than a civic disability that prevents full participation in a democracy. It also represents a bar to general prosperity and social justice. According to studies by the University of Virginia economist William R. Johnson and others, the large wage gaps among demographic groups narrow significantly when scores on a language-comprehension test are factored in. I use the word "language gap" because the usual term, "reading gap," is far too narrow. Our schools have made progress in imparting technical decoding skills in the early grades, but that improvement in early technical facility has not been followed by improvement in language comprehension in the later grades.
A principal cause of this catastrophic educational failure has been the dominance within the school world of a faulty how-to theory of language mastery. Full membership in any speech community and in any democracy involves mastery not just of grammar and pronunciation, but also of commonly shared knowledgeoften unspoken and unwrittenthat is equally essential to communication. All effective writers and speakers have learned the convention of tacit knowledge. They know that a baseball metaphor like "he struck out" can be confidently used, but a cricket metaphor like "he was leg before" cannot. Their audience will know the name Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not necessarily Harold L. Ickes.