McWhorter, John 1965–
John McWhorter 1965–
One of the most accessible American linguists, John McWhorter ranks among the most outspoken scholars in our nation today. A tenured professor specializing in creole languages at the University of California, Berkeley, McWhorter was described in the National Review as “an incisive critic of racial groupthink.” The professor and author has found himself at the center of many a controversy. Whether the issue is affirmative action, Ebonics, or the performance of African-American schoolchildren, McWhorter has resisted easy political definition. At a time when race relations is still a hot-button topic, McWhorter has offered insightful commentary on the subject.
John Hamilton McWhorter V was born in 1965 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The son of a professor of social work and a university administrator, McWhorter grew up in West Mount Airy, a racially-mixed neighborhood. One of his first clear memories of those childhood years dates back to 1968, when a group of black kids from the neighborhood surrounded him on the playground and asked him to spell concrete. When he managed to spell it correctly, his “reward” was a sound smacking at the hands of one of his interrogators, as well as frequent taunting thereafter. Unusually intelligent children often feel out of place, but these feelings were an even greater burden to bear for a young black kid being ridiculed by his peers.
When he was four years old, McWhorter experienced his first encounter with a language not his own. After meeting a young girl who spoke Hebrew, the budding language expert began to teach himself the foreign tongue by sounding it out. Furthermore, the self-proclaimed “nerd” described his early sense of intellectual prowess to Cathy Young and Michael Lynch in an interview published in Reason: “When I was five years old I thought I was smarter than my teachers—my white teachers—and I would tell them so.”
Undeterred by the neighborhood children and their mockery, McWhorter pursued his favored pastimes with a passion. In addition to his longtime love of foreign languages—he would later become proficient or fluent in nine of them—McWhorter was a born film buff. “I love old movies,” he told Black Issues in Higher Education. “The Black ones are nice, but what really hooked me was Fred and Ginger.” In addition,
Born John Hamilton McWhorter V in Philadelphia in 1965; son of a professor of social work and a university administrator. Education: Rutgers University, B.A., 1985; New York University, M.A., 1987; Stanford University, Ph.D., 1993; University of California, Berkeley, postdoctoral work, 1993-94.
Career: Cornell University, assistant professor, 1994-95; University of California at Berkeley, associate professor, 1995-; Language, associate editor, 1999-; author: Towards a Model of New Creole Genesis, 1997; The Word on the Street: Fact and Fiction About American English, 1998; The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Creole Languages, 2000; Spreading the Word: Languages and Dialects in America, 2000; Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, 2000 The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, 2002; editor: Language Change and Language Contact in Pidgins and Creoles, 2000.
Awards: Walker Scholarship, New York University, 1985-87; Patricia Roberts Harris Fellowship, Stanford University, 1988-92; Whiting Dissertation Fellowship in the Humanities, Stanford University, 1992-93; Hellman Family Faculty Fund, University of California, Berkeley, 1997; Presidential Fellowship, University of California, Berkeley, 1998.
McWhorter said, “I have loved dinosaurs since I was a child. There’s nothing Black about that.” Even as a youngster, John McWhorter was able to look beyond color lines, an ability that would eventually help shape his political and linguistic theories.
McWhorter began his climb to the top of the academic ladder at Simon’s Rock, a special early college program for teenage scholars of exceptional skill and resolve. After graduating from the Massachusetts school with distinction, McWhorter traveled down the coast to attend Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he majored in French and Romance Languages and graduated with high honors in 1985. At this point in his education, McWhorter’s interest in cultural history encompassed not only language but also music. His subsequent graduate work at New York University, where he studied American civilization, resulted in a highly ambitious 1987 thesis entitled: “Scott Joplin and the Operatic Form in Pre-World War I America.” Finding a way to merge his various scholarly interests in a coherent and compelling manner, McWhorter was enroute to a celebrated career as one of the newest Renaissance Men on the U.S. academic scene. He then moved from New York City to California, earning his doctoral degree in linguistics at Stanford University in 1993.
The next period of McWhorter’s blossoming career was a time of transition. Seeking an institution he could call his own, the Stanford graduate spent the 1993-94 academic year at Berkeley in a postdoctoral position. The following year, McWhorter became an assistant professor at Cornell University, but this final East Coast experience was brief and ultimately less than compelling. Soon enough, the promising young scholar decided to make a name for himself in the Golden State, and Berkeley welcomed him back in the fall of 1995.
His work at the University of California, which has made him one of the most dynamic linguistics professors in the nation, started out focusing primarily on pidgin and creole languages. According to the Linguistics Department homepage, in 1992 McWhorter did field work on “the Suriname creole Saramaccan.” McWhorter has developed a number of linguistic theories, including the Creole Prototype Hypothesis, which delves into the nature of modern creóles, and the Afrogenesis Theory, which deals with the West African origins of plantation creóles. McWhorter became a tenured professor at Berkeley in 1999.
McWhorter has successfully navigated the boundaries between intellectualism and mainstream commentary. As he wrote in a Wall Street Journal article: “Though I relish my vocation, I’m troubled by its hermetic nature. Most academic work is consulted only by the occasional student or professor. So I’ve tossed my hat into the public fray—writing books and newspaper articles for lay readers.”
But while McWhorter has sought to balance “hermetic” scholarship with popular critiques, he clearly understands his responsibility as an academic. The scholar has appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, Dateline NBC, and BBC World News, in addition to making a remarkable number of radio appearances. While some might find the temptation to sacrifice intellectual ambition in exchange for celebrity status too great, McWhorter, as the author or editor of seven books and dozens of articles on linguistics, remained aware that fame is no substitute for the pure pleasure of intellectual exploration for its own sake. He noted in the Wall Street Journal, “I don’t write as many linguistics articles as I used to. My academic career impinges on my public one: I turn down requests to write and speak in favor of maintaining my scholarly outlook.”
McWhorter published Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America in 2000. Here McWhorter presents a controversial argument: black college students, regardless of income level or social class, trail behind white students because there is a mindset in African American culture which discourages learning. Mc-Whorter developed this thesis while observing the black students in his own classes. For example, one student who proposed writing a fictional story based on her own family tree as her senior honors thesis finally handed in a family tree written in pencil and another rarely attended lectures and did not turn in a final paper. “Sad as it is to say,” McWhorter told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I have gradually had to admit that this sort of thing has been the norm for black students I have taught.”
McWhorter argues in Losing the Race that the poor performance of black students from kindergarten to graduate school is due to an anti-intellectualism attitude among African Americans. This attitude teaches black students, McWhorter explained in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “not to embrace schoolwork too wholeheartedly” because this is considered “acting white.” McWhorter argues that affirmative action has encouraged this attitude, as well as two other thought patterns: victimology and separatism. Victimology is the tendency of African Americans to blame white racism for their problems, while separatism encourages blacks to divorce themselves from anything considered white.
In Reason magazine, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page is quoted as saying that, in this book, McWhorter “hits the mark so often that I think we African-Americans can ignore him only at our peril—especially we African-American parents.” Others, however, did not respond so positively. Samuel R. Lucas, a black assistant professor of sociology at Berkely noted in in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the United States is “not a country that’s known for its embrace of intellectual pursuits. We shouldn’t be surprised that students think more about the party they’re going to than their studies.” Time writer Jack E. White was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying, “the idea that there’s a ‘pan-racial’ black bias against braininess strikes me as absurdly simplistic.”
McWhorter described himself as a political “centrist” in Black Issues in Higher Education, and his refusal to adhere to a single political party line supports this self-description. For example, McWhorter voted for liberal icon Ralph Nader in the 2000 election but still managed to maintain associations with such conservative figures as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In 2002 McWhorter published The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. In this book he explores a Darwinian model of linguistic decay. According to The New Statesman, this theory entails “the falling away of minority languages” as part of a competitive system mirroring established theories of social and natural Darwinism.
Unafraid of controversy and possessed of an enviable sense of perspective, McWhorter has made it his business to speak out concerning everything from cultural tokenism in the popular “Peanuts” comic strip to the politics of Ebonics. While he would never deny the ongoing existence of racism in the United States, he has encouraged contemporary African Americans—especially students—to look beyond their history of slavery and segregation and propel themselves into the new century with a sense of freedom from, according to the Chronicle of Higher Learning, the “defeatist thought patterns” of the past. An eloquent scholar with a coherent worldview and a mesmerizing intellectual confidence, McWhorter has proven that supreme academic accomplishment is well within reach for the millions of young, black thinkers.
Towards a Model of New Creole Genesis, Peter Lang, 1997.
The Word on the Street: Fact and Fiction About American English, Pie, 1998.
(editor) Language Change and Language Contact in Pidgins and Creoles, Amste John Benjamins, 2000.
The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Creole Languages, Heineman, 2000.
Spreading the Word: Languages and Dialects in America, 2000.
Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, Free Press, 2000.
The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Heinemann, 2002.
Black Issues in Higher Education, May 10, 2001, pp. 28-31.
Chronicle of Higher Education, August 11, 2000, pp. A51-A52.
Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2002.
National Review, April 22, 2002, p. 10.
New Statesman, April 15, 2002, p. 54.
Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2002.
—Neal Schindler and Jennifer M. York
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