Renaming Versus Change

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I listened to a California state consultant in bilingual education explain recently that "they'' (she and her colleagues, I assumed) were trying to eliminate the term L.E.P. from the vocabulary of education, but that, unfortunately, L.E.P. is still the federal government's legal term and so must be used by grant writers in Title VII applications. Thus does the heavy hand of the federal government discourage the politically correct.

For any reader who may be unaware, L.E.P. is the abbreviation for "limited English proficient.'' It was described by the speaker as "a pejorative misnomer.'' My first thought was that there must be something afoot in the field that I need to learn more about. Bilingual education is not my primary area of work. I recognize that to call someone "limited'' may be pejorative in some context. However, if we were not all limited, there would be no need for teachers, so the obvious strength of the consultant's feelings on the issue left me puzzled. It had never occurred to me that to call someone limited English proficient who needs to learn English is pejorative. It has always seemed to be a straightforward description.

The consultant also said that the term is a misnomer. I wondered how that could be? The goal and purpose of Title VII funding is to bring students to proficiency in English, their adopted second language. If it is a misnomer to describe their English-language proficiency as limited, why are these millions of dollars being spent? It is entirely possible that there is much more to this story than I know. It may also be that this is an old story being retold.

Once upon a time, those who were mentally retarded were called "idiots.'' The word was defined as "feeblemindedness such that their abilities were less than those of a 3-year-old child.'' Having become enamored with the miracle of several 3-year-old minds, the definition seems to me to lack something. However, I do not believe my observation has much to do with why the word fell out of favor.

The term "idiot'' has long since become pejorative. When it was replaced by "retarded'' the new word was generally taken to describe difficulty in learning or a slowness to learn. But this term too became pejorative. Other terms were tried. "Minimal brain dysfunction,'' "specific learning disabilities,'' "educationally handicapped,'' "underachievers,'' "severely handicapped,'' "slow learner in the classroom,'' "disabled,'' and "differently abled'' have each had their advocates.

The researcher Jay Gottlieb noted, as an aside regarding his studies of the school adjustment of mentally retarded students, that when he began his work "mentally retarded'' students were numerous. During the course of his research, changes in definition and changes in the legal terminology resulted in the steady disappearance of these children from the schools. He turned to studying "learning handicapped'' students and discovered that he was working with the same population he had studied before.

The prejudice which exists against the "learning handicapped,'' "mentally retarded,'' "differently abled,'' or "idiots'' in our midst is clearly wrong. The very existence of such attitudes tells us more about those who are prejudiced, about their lack of experience and, perhaps, about their shaky hold on their own sense of well-being than it does about those who are different.

But there is also, it seems to me, a lesson here for educators. We seem to have a penchant for renaming. At least that was my experience during many years of working in special education. Unfortunately, hiding reality behind a new name has never protected the weak for very long, though the motives of the hiders perhaps require our sympathy. Instead, this ritual renaming relieves the prejudiced from confronting their own weaknesses and contributes, in the end, to the very perpetuation of the prejudice we wish to eradicate. If we hide the objects of prejudice away, do we not simply make it easier for bigots to remain comfortable? Why else were Negroes (when that was the approved term) made to sit at the back of the bus?

Now here is a name change which is instructive. The shift from Negro to black in our society was purchased at a very dear price. It was paid for at the end of cattle prods, by children burned in churches, by young men buried in mud banks in Mississippi, by the long history of lynchings and burning crosses. The name "black'' can claim dozens of potent symbols, not the least of which is that picture of raised fists on a victory stand in Mexico City during the 1968 summer Olympics. It is possible now to hear "African-American'' and imagine a shift in consciousness that echoes of other people's journeys from exclusion through hyphenation into inclusion. I cannot think of a name change in education which can claim this kind of substance.

While I may well be wrong about "limited English proficient,'' I suspect that it and terms like it become pejorative, if indeed L.E.P. is pejorative, precisely because they eventually become associated in the public mind with those whom they describe. Changing the label occasionally does not address the underlying problem. It is as if we discovered an evil person about to throw a rock at our child and, instead of confronting him, we contrived to throw some disguise over the pile of rocks. Label-changing does nothing to change those feelings of prejudice which need to be changed.

There is a similar phenomenon in our political life. In the early years of the republic, economic failures were described as "panics.'' This term being unfortunately descriptive, it was replaced by the more soothing and less reactive "depression.'' This term served quite well until the country was confronted with a panic of truly horrendous magnitude. From that time to this, the term depression has been associated with, as a modern political operative might say, such heavy negatives that it had to be replaced by the more technical and obscure "recession.'' Since our experience with recessions has yet to match the searing experience of the Great Depression, the word recession has continued to serve.

Not that all politicians have remained comfortable with "recession.'' The Nixon Administration tried out the term "rolling recovery'' but it never caught on. Still, the attempt at a positive spin certainly must have been commended among those who continue to believe that reality can and ought to be rewritten in such fashion.

I continue to believe that we are better off in the long run if we can screw up our courage and try to discover the truth. A little more truth about the free lunch Ronald Reagan sold to us could have literally saved us billions of dollars. Easier said than done, of course. Political truth-telling about the state of our economy has not led to political success in our generation. It is no wonder that a political gaffe can now be straightforwardly defined, in the delightful words of The New Republic's Michael Kinsley, as "an instance in which a politician inadvertently tells the truth.''

We educators may not be playing for such high stakes in the economic marketplace, but we are trying to better the lives of students. We should try, at least, to avoid educational gaffes. We, and our students, will be far better off, it seems to me, if we devote our limited resources to explaining why bilingual education is needed, rather than trying to obfuscate the description of those limited-English students we are trying to serve.

Vol. 13, Issue 34, Page 33

Published in Print: May 18, 1994, as Renaming Versus Change
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