Language, Dignity, and Educational Rights 

by Luis E. Poza, PhD

For all our efforts to describe and measure language in educational research and policy, I always come back to the words of a pair of Nobel laureates. In her Nobel lecture , novelist and essayist Toni Morrison exalted language as a conduit of human experience and potential, stating “The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers” (1993, para. 18). In this vein, Nobel Peace Prize winning Indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchú wrote on the occasion of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights  that “language is the vehicle that permits thought to be in accordance with the knowledge and the world vision of a given culture, of a given people . . . In language lies the main weapon of resistance of those cultures which for centuries have suffered the imposition of alien cultural values . . .” (1996, p. 17). Taken together, these quotes remind me that languaging—the holistic repertoire of practices and features used for verbal and nonverbal communication —is a feature of fundamental personhood and humanity. It is through our languaging that we express our ideas and emotions, and through languaging that we can both affirm and transcend our social groupings, rich with their histories, values, and knowledge. 
Nonetheless, for many students bureaucratically labeled as English Language Learners (ELL), their schooling experiences are anything but humanizing, and in fact sometimes very much the opposite, marked by racism and neglect . A majority of EL-classified students are concentrated in socioeconomically and racially segregated schools  and, even in more integrated spaces, many are stigmatized and tracked into less rigorous and engaging academic pathways  with lower teacher expectations  that foreclose more meaningful and expansive educational opportunities. Of course, numerous legislative and judicial victories  help safeguard some important educational civil rights for EL-classified students ,  but these remedies tend to focus very specifically on material and linguistic supports for students. I and others argue that the fundamental dignity inherent to students’ personhood also demands consideration of students’ qualitative experiences within schools and their broader humanistic development. 
To address this need in educational policy and practice, I drew from the framework of educational dignity advanced by Manuel Espinoza and Shirin Vossoughi in the Harvard Educational Review in 2014 . In their subsequent work  with the dearly missed Mike Rose (and with myself playing a very small role as well), educational dignity is defined as “the multifaceted sense of a person’s value generated via substantive intra- and interpersonal learning experiences that recognize and cultivate one’s mind, humanity, and potential” (p. 326). With this framework in mind, I scoured the secondary literature on dignity as a constitutional value, and then consulted a number of landmark civil rights opinions to better understand how dignity has been framed in US jurisprudence. I identified three central criteria, which when aligned to opinions and laws pertaining to EL-classified students lead to my central argument in the essay. I conclude that schooling for EL-classified students (and others whose languaging practices racialize or “Other” them from an imagined norm of whiteness and English monolingualism), should: 

  1. Attend to opportunities for their meaningful participation through engagement with curriculum that affirms their linguistic and cultural assets. 
  1. Foster a sense of social equality by rejecting the deficit framings of bilingual learners and their linguistic repertoires, while ensuring that the same educational opportunities are available to them. 
  1. Cultivate their autonomy and agency by providing them with curriculum featuring choice and valued input in terms of the content, direction, and evaluation of their learning. 

Critics of dignity frameworks in both philosophy and law suggest that these frames are too vague or lofty to provide substantive change. To that I counter, what can we gain when we prioritize learning as a humanizing, relational experience rather than simply about language acquisition? What if we actually listened to students themselves  and taught them as the complex, creative, and inquisitive beings that they are? 

About the Author

Luis E. Poza is an assistant professor in the teacher education department at the Connie L. Lurie College of Education, San Jose State University. Luis’s research focuses on language ideologies regarding bilingualism and Latinx bilingual learners, and how they operate within educational policy and practice. Luis’s interest in dignity frames for education emerges from his time learning from the Right 2 Learn research collaborative at the University of Colorado Denver and is now shaping his efforts building pathways for ethnic studies educators in the San Francisco Bay Area. 
Luis E. Poza is the author of “Adding Flesh to the Bones” in the Winter 2021 issue of Harvard Educational Review