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A Little Learning Is a Dang’rous Thing

From: American Annals of the Deaf
Volume 158, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 3-6 | 10.1353/aad.2013.0011

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

A Little Learning Is a Dang’rous Thing

The title of this editorial is a line taken from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism (Kronenberger, 1948, p. 38), and it is instructive to provide a few more lines from that passage:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.

Pope seems to convey the message that there is an intoxication that comes with attempts to understand complex topics at only an initial surface level. To become sober, one needs to clear the debris of the giddiness that accompanies this limited knowledge state and proceed to a deeper, analytical, balanced, comprehensive view. Re-reading, rethinking, re-dialoguing, reading widely, becoming cognizant of divergent positions, and so on can assist this process if individuals are relatively tolerant of ambiguous encounters and disagreeable standpoints.

Ironically, the intoxication of which Pope writes might also be due to strong biases, stigmas, or negative attitudes associated with controversial, emotional-laden topics such as—for example, in our field—the value of American Sign Language, the establishment of ASL-English programs, cochlear implants, and speech and hearing practices and services. This intoxication prevents us from delving deeper into the issues and recognizing—albeit, not necessarily endorsing—a panorama of paradigms. In a diverse world, the promotion of and adherence to one comprehensive value system is probably not productive or possible, especially in a pluralistic society such as that which exists in the United States. At best, what we can hope for is a politically liberated position—which might be distasteful but necessary. This point is discussed eloquently by John Rawls in his book Political Liberalism (1993), which was actually a qualification of some of his major ideas in Theory of Justice (1971). (Trust me—both books require a substantial amount of re-reading, re-dialoguing, Tums, etc.)

A Little One-Size-Fits-All Can Be a Dang’rous Thing, Too

I certainly agree with the comments of Don Moores in his invited essay for this issue that none of what we have attempted so far to improve literacy and meet other educational challenges is a panacea. There might not be or should not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Specifically, there is no single variable or condition that can account predominantly for either the success or failure of the academic or English-language or English-literacy development of all or even most d/Deaf and hard of hearing children and adolescents. In my view, this one-size-fits-all phenomenon is a consequence of not heeding the warning associated with a little learning.

Another direction I want to take with Pope’s dictum is to discuss the subsequent influence of the ideas of Helmer Myklebust, who died about 5 years ago (February 26, 2008) and who had been—and probably still is—one polarizing figure in the education of d/Deaf and hard of hearing children and adolescents (see, e.g., Moores, 2001; Paul & Jackson, 1993; Paul & Moores, 2010). Taking a short, superficial, reflective route, it is quite easy to fault Myklebust for his statements that (a) sign language is not a language and (b) there is a psychology of deafness. In addition, his compensatory hypothesis has caused considerable controversy due to its negative connotations (Myklebust, 1964).

As should be done with the works of all complex scholars, it is critical to delve deeper and to contextualize Mykle-bust’s hypotheses. In the tenor of his time, Myklebust and others were interested in the effects of disabilities (or conditions—for those of you who do not like the word dis -abilities) on cognitive development. During Myklebust’s era, most linguists and psychologists asserted that a sign language was not a bona fide language similar to a spoken [End Page 3] language (Moores, 2001; Paul & Jackson, 1993; Paul & Moores, 2010). So it must be remembered that Myklebust was using proficiency in a spoken language as a prerequisite for cognitive development. This assertion can now be contested, and needs to be qualified and discussed within, at the least, the framework of sociocultural factors and the...