February 18, 2021
In May of 2016, Dr. Michel DeGraff, responded to Danielle Allen’s, Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Professor of Government and Education, essay on What is Education For? He focused on linguistic equality as a precondition for political and economical equity. His response was originally posted on the Boston Review.
Danielle Allen’s essay provides added inspiration for my efforts to help solve an education-and-equality challenge in Haiti, a country with one of the highest rates of inequality. As director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative and a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy, my work in Haiti has led me to more deeply understand linguistic equality as a precondition for the economic and political equity that Allen seeks.
The creation and dissemination of knowledge, especially STEM knowledge, in local vernaculars can advance both economic and political equality. Indeed, home vernaculars are necessary for universal access to high-quality education. Unless they are utilized in education, there are many children who will never grow to participate in the political system, ensuring the perpetuation of a cycle in which the poorest are blocked from shaping the distribution of social, economic, and political capital. The humanities, together with STEM disciplines, can help break down this barrier, as we are doing in Haiti through the MIT-Haiti Initiative.
For centuries now, the Haitian state has failed the vast majority of Haitians on both the economic and political fronts. Language is at the heart of the problem. In spite of the Haitian Constitution’s recognition of both Kreyòl and French as official languages—and its stated view that Kreyòl is “the one language that binds all Haitians together”—the primary language for instruction and examination in Haiti remains French. Yet at least 95 percent of Haitians speak only Kreyòl. How does this work? The answer is, it doesn’t.
The use of French in schools systematically privileges children of French-speaking families, and it penalizes those who come from communities in which only Kreyòl is spoken. The system thus offers no possibility for equal economic opportunity. Nor does it deliver what Allen calls participatory readiness: the state, the schools, and many segments of civil society convey to children the unambiguous message that they can become fully active “citizens” only if they can speak fluent French—an alienating and impossible task for most Haitian children, especially given their lack of opportunity for immersion in French-speaking contexts and the dearth of competent teachers.
Haitian leaders and intellectuals, including well-meaning educators, often cite two sorts of pseudoscientific arguments for maintaining French as the sole or primary medium of instruction. First, they say that children’s interests are best served through French instruction because Kreyòl, as a “young” and “still emerging” language, cannot express complex concepts in science, mathematics, philosophy, etc. Second, they claim that children who speak Kreyòl only will be isolated in a linguistic ghetto.
Among many rebuttals to these claims, my own work argues for the status of Kreyòl as a full-fledged language that has the capacity to express complex concepts, on a par with any other language. Moreover, warnings about the creation of a linguistic ghetto ignore the possibility that Kreyòl-speaking children who can build solid foundations for literacy, numeracy, and logic in their native language are on a stronger footing to learn second languages like French, English, and Spanish, alongside acquiring important knowledge in the humanities and STEM.
Finland’s superior school system, in which Finnish is used as the primary language of instruction, provides a robust refutation to the myth that local languages necessarily enclose their speakers in linguistic ghettos. Finnish, which has only 5.5 million speakers, is about twice as “local” as Kreyòl, which has more than 10 million speakers, many of them spread around the world. As anthropologist Suze Mathieu points out, there are more Kreyòl speakers in the Americas than there are French speakers—in effect making Kreyòl more of an “international” language than French, so far as the Americas are concerned.
The persistence of French as the primary language of instruction and of formal discourse in Haiti must then be viewed as an instrument of linguistic apartheid, to be analyzed from a Fanonian perspective: French is enlisted as both a marker of social and political domination and a tool for the perpetuation of this domination.
The MIT-Haiti Initiative produces digital learning tools and other educational resources in Kreyòl for active learning at advanced levels of STEM. We are already finding that teachers teach better and students learn better when the medium of instruction is Kreyòl. Our data also suggest that children become more proficient readers and writers and better learners when they learn to read in their native language.
While Allen’s argument prioritizes liberal arts over STEM as a path toward distributive justice via participative citizenship, we have seen how the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge in Kreyòl can help usher in both economic and political equality in Haiti. In one post-workshop survey for the MIT-Haiti Initiative, a physics teacher recounted how the use of active-learning tools in Kreyòl would ease students into class participation with great excitement, provoking them to ask questions and enter into debates in ways they characteristically would not when the instruction was conducted in French. In fact, the teacher admitted that when the discussions became too lively, he would silence the students by switching back to French.
Similar oppression affects speakers of vernacular dialects in the United States as well, such as speakers of African American Vernacular English. It goes so far as to affect court rulings, as in the Trayvon Martin case against George Zimmerman: the prosecution’s star witness, Rachel Jeantel, was perceived to be an unreliable witness because she spoke African American Vernacular English, rendering her effectively voiceless. Linguistic inequality thus has graver consequences than merely hobbling the interpersonal skills that enhance civic participation. Even Justice Clarence Thomas has attributed his silence on the Supreme Court to having grown up as a speaker of the Gullah variety of English.
Local languages are indispensable for participatory readiness on a global scale. But the activism needed to promote them often requires academic training that is inaccessible to the communities of their speakers. In the MIT-Haiti Initiative, we see how Kreyòl-based classroom tools and methods have the potential to shift educational outcomes toward both distributive and political equity. The initiative may well suggest that a tight collaboration between humanists, educators, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers is a winning option for all concerned. Such analysis doubles as a plea for a retooling of linguistics. This retooling would be part of the general “revision of the liberal arts curriculum” that Allen advocates. Alongside its contributions to both science and social justice, linguistics, like education and other disciplines in the humanities, has too often been used as a tool for intellectual and political domination. Yet linguistics is critical, alongside education and STEM, for tackling global challenges, especially in promoting participatory readiness and distributive justice in disenfranchised communities that speak local languages—in Haiti and beyond. As Marx said, “the task is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”