Tuesday, September 03, 2002

A Loss For Words

This afternoon on Fresh Air, I heard this editorial about the vocabulary of "welfare mothers." Apparently, several sources have been misinterpreting a study about the vocabularies of three year old children of welfare families versus the children of affluent families. The misquote was "A 3-year-old child in an affluent family has a larger working vocabulary than the mother of a 3-year-old from a welfare family." And Nunberg (the author of the editorial) discusses how this misrepresentation of the facts could come about. Although I found the editorial to be at times a little high and mighty, the closing portion that I'm quoting here really summed it up nicely:

Now I don't think that the Administration education honchos who have been repeating the claim about welfare mothers' vocabularies set out to deliberately distort Hart and Risley's research. My guess is that none of them actually read the study -- this has the sound of one of those third-hand factoids that are always making their way around the scientific grapevines. But even so, it's telling that they found this a credible sound-bite. Whether you're disparaging the vocabularies of welfare mothers or the Cherokee, the claim always carries an unfortunate tone of condescension. It's easier to ignore people's voices when you've decided they couldn't possibly have one.

I think this goes along with what an ongoing discussion I've been participating in about racism and sexism in the media. It's very easy to assume these ridiculous assertions are true when there are few representatives present to refute them, or few who have the energy to do any refuting.

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