This ethnographic case study examines a privileged family's expression of the discursive phenomena of learning disabilities (LD) as described by Christine Sleeter in her seminal article "Why is There Learning Disabilities?" The author explores enactments of ideological perspectives on the significance of effort, intelligence, LD, and privilege with regards to one child's academic success in the context of his elite private school. The central data within this paper is a portion of conversation among the research participants, the privileged parents of a child purported to have LD, and the researcher. The main speaker is the wife and mother, who weaves a narrative based on her perception of events that occurred during her son's first grade experience at school. The purpose of her narrative is to refute the teachers' expressed assumptions that her son's academic difficulties are due to a lack of effort and/or commitment to his education. Her narrative is an object of analysis, used with phenomenological data sources that provide opportunities to examine the interactions and transactions embedded within the conversation. The theories of Pierre Bourdieu provide an important theoretical lens through which enactments of the reproduction of class privilege are framed. Sleeter's exposition of the class-inscribed roots of LD discourse provides socio-historic context to the analysis presented here.

It was only a few years ago that I was first introduced to Christine Sleeter's 1987 article "Why is There Learning Disabilities?" and learned of the class-inscribed origins of learning disabilities (LD). Despite years of practice as a special educator, I had only recently become aware of the political and ideological forces expressed through special education theory and practice and I was excited to pull back another curtain and gain a critical insight into the reproductive nature of LD discourse.

Sleeter's work is deeply relevant to the research discussed in this paper. The participants, Lawrence and Elizabeth, are privileged parents of a child with learning disabilities. They are in many ways similar to the parents discussed by Sleeter in that their advantaged position in society affords them the forms of capital necessary to advocate for their dyslexic son, Simon. Like Sleeter's parent-advocates, they express a discursive affiliation with LD discourse.

This ethnographic study examines ideological perspectives on the significance of effort, intelligence, LD, and class privilege with regards to academic success—many of the issues addressed by Sleeter — within the context of an elite private school. While the larger ethnography on which this paper is based draws on many data sources1, the central data source reported on in this paper is a portion of a conversation among Elizabeth, Lawrence, and myself as researcher. Of course, my two and a half year relationship with them as Simon's teacher in Griffin, a private school for children with LD, and my membership in the school community play an important role in the structure, intention, and content of our conversation, as well as in the analysis of the data. A videotape of the conversation was viewed repeatedly in order to arrive at a rigorous and accurate rendering of Elizabeth's verbal, gestural, and bodily expressions, allowing a hermeneutic analysis.

A Personal Note

It was my tenure at Griffin that inspired me to take up this research. My relationships with and observations of parents at the school presented a fascinating contradiction. Many of them exuded entitlement commensurate with their positions of relative social privilege, yet simultaneously expressed a sense of victimhood as an extension of the discrimination they felt their children had experienced due to their learning difficulties and subsequent academic failure. Lawrence and Elizabeth embodied this contradiction perfectly and were willing to participate in the study.

At this point, I feel compelled to note that while Elizabeth's expressions of a disposition of entitlement may contribute (at a micro level) to the reproduction of class stratification and therefore inequity and oppression, she and her husband are only attempting to do what good, loving parents do, that is, advocating for and protecting their child. As a seeker of social justice, I abhor the structures that perpetuate injustice and relegate some individuals to the bottom level while others bask in the advantages a being at the top. However, as a father I have a deep understanding of the parental instinct and have grown to respect Lawrence and Elizabeth as dedicated parents.

Theoretical Frameworks

The analyses used in this paper are largely based on frameworks derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, particularly his theories concerning the oppressive nature of the mechanisms social-class structuring and the contributions to that process of forms of cultural capital, and privileged habitus (dispositions to act within society) (Bourdieu, 1990, 1998; Swartz, 1997).

Preliminary Notes on the Interpretation of the Narrative

The narrative represented here is actually a melding of the three narratives. The first is the story that Elizabeth is telling, the order of events as she recounts them. The second narrative, which runs throughout our conversations, of which a small part is represented here, is a narrative of the incremental exclusion of Simon and, in their capacity as his parents, Lawrence and Elizabeth from the mainstream educational community. The third narrative embedded here is the narrative of our larger conversation. This narrative is at the center of the ethnography. It is represented by the transactional intentions of Elizabeth's words and my phenomenological observations, interpreting her emotional state as represented by her facial expressions, the quality of her verbal expressions, her gestures, and body positions.

Setting and Actors

The conversation among Lawrence, Elizabeth, and myself, upon which this paper is based, takes place during one of the videotaping sessions at the family's apartment. Elizabeth is the principal speaker at this moment in the conversation, although at other points in the evening Lawrence dominates. For the most part, Lawrence watches her quietly as she speaks, showing little emotion. His prominent features and stoic expression could be etched on a Roman coin. In contrast, Elizabeth speaks with animation and her emotions swing from one pole to the other quickly and frequently. She is thin with a somewhat pointed nose, bird-like. For the most part Lawrence nods as she speaks, in apparent synchrony.

Elizabeth is telling stories from Simon's first grade experience to illustrate what she sees as his mistreatment at the hands of his mainstream private Jewish school, Chesed. The first grade was his second year at Chesed, following a troubling kindergarten experience, during which Simon's teachers had repeatedly questioned his learning abilities and competencies. Simon would go on to spend only one more year at the school.

The Narrative

The narrative below is a section of a conversation among Lawrence, Elizabeth, and myself, which took place during our second video taping session. I chose to excerpt this particular part because it represents a narrative — counter-narrative in Elizabeth's discourse. The initial narrative is the perceived insult of Simon's teachers' questioning of his industry. The counter-narrative, or rebuttal, is Elizabeth's recollection of a moment at school when Simon demonstrated what she saw as great intelligence.

Elizabeth and Lawrence are cleaning up after our dinner, loading the dishwasher, preparing leftovers for the refrigerator. We have been discussing the resistance of some fathers to acknowledging their children's learning issues. Lawrence brings up the toll of their denial, the suffering of the children and the general mayhem that results in the home. Elizabeth likens it to child abuse. The conversation turns toward the personal. With strong emotion, Laurence describes the years when Simon was struggling at Chesed as "the worst three years of my life."

From the far side of the kitchen, Elizabeth says, "Simon was in so much pain. He was in so much pain. And they didn't know how to deal with him." By "they," of course, she means the teachers and administrators at Chesed. This is my second videotaping session at their house but it is the first time that we've discussed Simon's tenure at Chesed. Up until now the school has only been mentioned in relation to Elliott, Simon's brother, who still attends there. She continues with a grin. "I have some gripes about [Chesed] also," she says and laughs nervously. She continues laughing as she says, "Save that for another time." But then her grin begins to fade and she becomes agitated as she starts to talk about the ways in which Chesed failed Simon. She recounts how the school did not know how to teach, help, or cope with him. "And as a result, they got him in such a state," she says hunching her shoulders and curling her hands toward the center of her chest, an image of pent-up emotion. "He was so raveled that we've been spending all these years trying to unravel." When Simon left Chesed, "he felt so bad about himself because they were totally ill-equipped." She pauses, her palms raised in disbelief.

By way of illustration, Elizabeth recounts an incident. "I remember when he was in first grade. They said to me, 'He's so smart. We don't understand why he's not trying.'" She says "so smart," emphatically as if amazed. Then shaking her head, she continues, repeating, "We don't know why he's not trying" and then asks angrily, "How can an educator, in this day and age, say that about a kid?" The question leaves her eyes full of anger. "We don't have education in our background," she protests, her hands outstretched, head shaking, an innocent victim. "I mean, jeez!" she exclaims, astonished. "How is that possible?...It was excruciating!"

After a brief pause, Elizabeth tells a story that she must have heard from one of Simon's teachers. She plays the parts of the teacher and her students as she tells it. "They would, like, have circle time," she begins, drawing a circle with her finger, "and they were teaching the kids about reading and they said, 'Okay everybody. What are some of the things we read?" She switches from a teacher-like manner to play the students. "And someone said, 'We read a magazine. We read a book.'" She raises her hand, arm straight, at a different angle for each student. Her entire affect changes at this point, raising her hand in a more casual manner, head cocked at an angle, looking up through the corner of her eye impishly, appearing thoughtful, self-assured, and a little smug. "Simon raises his hand. He goes, 'We read people's faces."' She pauses for effect, eyes fixing me, eyebrows raised, making sure I'm duly impressed. "In first grade!" she exclaims. Then, she shakes her head in amazement, eyes shifting upward, and adds, "I'm like, this kid's incredible!" As if having made her point, she chides the teachers for their ignorance. "So," she begins and then takes on a manner of oblivious authority. "'We don't understand why he's not trying.'" She drives home her final point, emphatically. "And it wasn't until we had him evaluated that they actually came around to doing that!" She pauses for effect, making extended eye contact.

Elizabeth's mood softens, as she begins to describe a positive turn of events. "So, getting him into Griffin was such… a good thing because we really wanted him to be in a place where he could feel smart and helped and supported." Her mood shifts again, returning to agitation. "I remember sitting at one of the early meetings [at Griffin], before you were at Griffin, saying to Marta and Stephen [one of the founders and the head of the school], 'We have this incredibly brilliant, wonderful child and he's locked up! He's locked up in a cage and we have to find the key to this cage! That's what I need from you guys. You don't understand. You don't know him yet. You don't know the incredible pain this brilliant child is in! And we have to find the key to unlock him!"' She is imploring them, her hand, palm up in front of her, clutching her point in desperation. Her mood softens again and she says, a look of relief on her face, "And he's getting there." We go on to discuss how much progress Simon has made in his years at Griffin.

Analysis and Discussion

From this point on, I analyze Elizabeth's words, expressions, and gestures, while engaging in a discussion of their relevance in terms societal and institutional forces. Each section of the analysis/discussion is in response to a specific moment in Elizabeth's narrative and our conversation.

'He's so smart. We don't understand why he's not trying.'

Simon's teachers' contention that Simon was "not trying" is clearly offensive to Elizabeth and, to her, proof positive that they did not understand him. Her question about how an educator could possibly say such a thing about a child is rhetorical. She finds this morally reprehensible. Her complaint that she and Lawrence lacked an educational knowledgebase is an expression of feelings of powerlessness at the time.

The Ideology of Education

The teachers' characterization of Simon could be construed as both positive and negative, as very intelligent yet failing to apply himself. While the first part of their representation could be seen as an appreciation of Simon's intelligence, Elizabeth clearly does not see it that way. The way she emphasizes "so smart" in a caricature of amazement, shows that she is skeptical to the point of derision. On the other hand, it seems, by her subsequent expression of outrage, that she takes the second half of their characterization (that he is "not trying") as a serious accusation of moral failing. And by the logic of educational ideology, she is correct to do so. The assumption that "he's not trying" implies that he is unmotivated, lazy, avoidant, or resistant. Each of these inferred attributions carries with it an implication of questionable character. In fact, what may appear two separate representations of Simon, one negative and one positive, is actually one very negative enactment of mainstream educational ideology. Dudley-Marling and Dippo (1995), in their exploration of the ideological function of LD discourse, describe taken-for-granted assumptions that underlie the ideology of schooling. One of these assumptions is that intellectual capacity, operationalized as an intelligence quotient (IQ), and individual effort are highly predictive of academic success. Intellectual capacity is seen as distributing normally, a few individuals considered gifted, having a lot of it, a similar number with less, with the majority of people somewhere in the middle. With this understanding, school success should distribute similarly: the gifted at the top, the average in the middle, and the slow or "retarded" at the bottom. Yet, the second part of this ideological equation complicates things. Effort is also believed to be required for school success. With great effort a person of middling intelligence can do very well in school, even exceptionally well, and a very bright or an intellectually gifted student can fail if he or she does not try. Following this ideologically-based formula (intelligence + effort = success), the teachers' construction of Simon as "so smart" weighed against his apparent academic failure left them with only one conclusion and one with moral implications: "[H]e's not trying." In other words, he is lazy or disinterested or resistant for some misguided reason.

Teachers as Agents of the Universal

Simon's teachers' enactment of this particular educational ideology, with its implicit moralizing, was an expression of symbolic power, a symbolic power often wielded by educators and other agents of the State in our society (Skrtic, 1991, Bourdieu, 1998). It is this power that entitled education professionals to judge the characters of other people's children (Delpit, 1995) and to represent their judgment as fact, not simply perception or opinion. Bourdieu (1998), in his analysis of the place of the State in the establishment and propagation of the mechanisms of domination within our society, describes it as a bank of symbolic capital, which has the power to guarantee all acts of authority. It is the State's power of nomination that authorizes its agents to perform official acts that are symbolically effective (e.g., the grade of a teacher or the ability of schools to certify graduation through a diploma). Institutions, such as schools, function as sites of ritual consecration where enduring differences are instituted between the included and the excluded in society. As agents of the state and representatives of Chesed, Simon's teachers were authorized to exclude him from the ranks of industrious and therefore successful students and segregate him through characterization as both an academic failure and a morally suspect individual (i.e., one who does not try or provide effort in school).

The Bad Side of the Binary

In his insightful interpretation of Bourdieu, Swartz (1997) explains that the symbolic power wielded by Simon's teachers is grounded in the logic of symbolic systems. Symbolic systems (e.g., art, religion, language etc.) serve three purposes: (1) as cognitive structures, (2) as codes for communication, and (3) as ways of ordering society hierarchically by legitimating the oppression that accompanies inequitable social structures. These systems draw their meaning, and by extension their power to order society, by establishing conceptual binaries such as good/bad, refined/crude, and intelligent/unintelligent. This binary logic is at the base of all our mental activities, and can be considered a deep social structure. When Simon's teachers called him smart and insinuated that he was lazy, they were invoking two binaries, intelligent/unintelligent and lazy/industrious. According to Bourdieu, the binary logic of a symbolic system works to categorize individuals hierarchically and determine who is to be included and who is to be excluded.

Simon's teachers' statement, as an enactment of educational ideology (defined above), puts Simon in what may appear initially as a contradictory situation. As "so smart," he lands on the positive side of the intelligent/unintelligent binary, which would normally afford him membership in an elite group, valued and well respected in school settings and society in general. In this case, the sorting function of symbolic binaries has apparently ruled in his favor. On the other hand, as someone who "doesn't try," he is placed in a troubling category, peopled by loafers, lacking moral compasses. While one could conclude that his smart credentials would ameliorate the stigma associated with his supposed sloth, this is not so. By the logic of mainstream educational ideology, Simon's smartness and any capital he might accrue as part of the smart group are negated by his apparent failure to try. In fact, that he does not appear to try is aggravated by his intelligence. As smart as he is, he should succeed and he would, if not for his flawed character.

LD Ideology and the Avoidance of Stigma: Resolving the Contradiction

As her words and demeanor show, Elizabeth is outraged that the teachers accused Simon of failing to try. The emotional character of her response is expressed as she says, "I mean jeez," her hands splay before her, voice rising, eyes rolling, and head shaking. She seeks to justify her response as she says, "How can an educator, in this day and age, say that about a kid?" She clearly feels the sting of the potential stigma associated with Simon's moral failure and seeks to avoid it by implying that the teachers' attitudes are outdated, much in the way racist or sexist comments are less tolerated today than in earlier times. Elizabeth's expectation of tolerance is grounded in the discourse of LD.

LD theory attempts to explain an apparent contradiction to the discourse of education. The taken-for-granted belief that effort and capacity are all that's needed to succeed in school is contradicted by the anomaly presented by a group of students who fail to succeed, despite assumed intellectual potential and apparent effort. The theory of LD resolves this contradiction by introducing a third variable — disability. It holds that a discrepancy between ability (IQ) and achievement can also be explained by a neurological malfunction, an intrinsic disorder, within the individual (Dudley-Marling & Dippo, 1995; Reid and Valle, 2004; Sleeter, 1987; Stanovich, 1999; Titsworth, 1999). For Elizabeth, this theory is invaluable. She does not question Simon's intelligence, and if we take them at their word, neither do his teachers. But their apparent alignment ends there. His teachers appear to be perfectly willing to see Simon as lazy or disaffected, but Elizabeth disagrees. Fortunately for her peace of mind, the discourse of LD provides an alternative causal factor — disability.

LD and the Historical Roots of Stigma Avoidance

Elizabeth's deployment of LD discourse as a foil against perceived character assassination of her son is historically rooted. In fact, this is one of the main purposes for which the LD category was created. For the most part, its creation resulted from the attempts of relatively privileged parents to avoid the sorts of assumptions, and the associated stigma, represented by Simon's teachers (Carrier 1986; Ong-Dean, 2006, 2009; Sleeter 1987; Titsworth, 1999). Sleeter (1987) focuses on the socio-historical context of the beginnings of the LD category and therefore LD theory and discourse. In the 50s and 60s, increased academic standards associated with economic and military expansionism and Cold War competition with the Soviet Union threatened some middle class students with school failure. Their parents wanted to get them special services yet wished to avoid the stigma associated with mental retardation2 and other existing special education categories. Social and historical forces (e.g., desegregation) had populated special education, and its service categories at the time, almost exclusively with low income and minority children.

Four syndromes (mentally retarded, slow learner, emotionally disturbed, and culturally deprived) had been developed to explain the poor academic achievement of these children. Because of their association with culturally othered groups, all four categories were fraught with a great deal of social stigma. For example, the mental retardation of 90% of the children in that category was seen as the result of from cultural deficits that were believed to be caused by a lack of environmental stimuli and chaotic home lives. These children were called "cultural-familial retardates." Of course, children associated with both the mentally retarded and the slow learner categories also suffered the stigma associated with an indelible reduction in their general intellectual capacity and enjoyed little hope of a positive academic future. Those children labeled emotionally disturbed and culturally deprived were also drawn from marginal social categories (e.g., blacks, Latino groups and poor white immigrants), and the roots of their problematic behaviors and/or poor cognitive development were seen through deficit laden ethnocentric lenses. Therefore, in order to avoid association with these sources of social stigma, white middle-class parents rejected these special education categories and sought to create a new category, LD.

As an explanation for their children's learning difficulties, LD theory had several appeals to these parents. One advantage was that the limited nature of this presumed organic cause might make it curable in contrast to more generalized organic deficits, such as mental retardation. The second appeal was this explanation raised no questions about the integrity of middle class homes or their abilities to transmit mainstream cultures to their children. Third, in justifying the differentiation between learning disabled and mentally retarded children, it reinforced stratifying social structures, leaving the middle-class parents on top and poor minorities on the bottom. In doing so, it reinforced the concept that differentiated achievement levels were a product of biological inheritances (Carrier, 1986; Ong-Dean, 2006, 2009; Sleeter 1987; Titsworth, 1999). Finally, Sleeter (1987) adds that explaining their children's learning deficits with minimal brain damage or neurological dysfunction elicited sympathy, rather than scrutiny from others, and further helped to differentiate their children from those considered mentally retarded.

Strangers in a Strange Land:

"We don't have education at our background. He was our first kid"

Elizabeth is highly agitated at this point ("I mean jeez!"). She is railing at the perceived injustice of the situation she, Lawrence, and Simon, were in ("How is that possible?"). It was not a fair fight. They were outgunned. They did not have a chance because they did not have the educational expertise or enough parenting experience they needed to defend themselves properly. It was a very difficult moment for them all ("It was excruciating."), one that she still experiences vividly.

A Hostile Market

Why did Elizabeth and Lawrence feel the need for educational expertise or more parenting knowledge? Other parents at Chesed did not need a background in education. Other parents were first-time parents. What was different for Lawrence and Elizabeth? Unlike most of the other parents at Chesed , their son was facing almost constant critical scrutiny. Not only was Simon struggling academically, he was being accused of "not trying." He was being devalued in many ways. If we see children as a form of stock, invested in a market called school, then we can say that Simon's value was bottoming out. The vocation of every family is to reproduce its social advantage. This is done through education. Bourdieu (1998) explains that families deploy educational strategies to perpetuate their social positions. It is the intersection of familial strategies and the structure of schooling where the means of production of cultural capital are reproduced. School is a marketplace in which parents invest. It is through cultural and social capital born of habitus that privileged families are able to invest wisely in their children's education. Their social milieu — friends, relatives, business associates — becomes fertile ground where they can apply their social skills and use their social networks to inform themselves about the best schools to which to send their children. In this way they can anticipate "fluctuations on the stock exchange of scholarship value" (p. 25) and be sure of accessing educational resources that improve their potential to earn maximum returns on their cultural and social capital.

As Elizabeth retells the story, it is easy to see how devastating this was for them. They felt vulnerable. They were at the whim of the market. Their stock (Simon) was in freefall and market forces (perceptions of his academic performance and character) were buffeting them. They could not trust the brokers (his teachers), viewing them as unreliable because they were not recognizing his value, not making a fair judgment about Simon's true worth. Elizabeth is still outraged by the value they were assigning to him. She and Lawrence cast about for ways to reverse this trend. When someone is losing money in the stock market and they cannot trust the professionals they are dealing with, they need to inform themselves in order to protect their investment. If they have access to adequate cultural and social capital they will do research on the Web, read books, and/or ask around. Eventually Lawrence and Elizabeth did learn about the education market, about schooling, and eventually about LD. But at that moment, they were business professionals. They did not "have education in [their] background." They "didn't have a benchmark" because Simon "was [their] first kid." They did not have educational expertise, and they did not have a metric to assign their own value to their son. To this day, Elizabeth believes that if they had had this knowledge, they would have had more control over the situation. They would have had the expertise to dispute the teachers' damaging appraisal, help Simon, and save their investment within Chesed.

"We read people's faces"

As Elizabeth recounts the circle time story, she is drawing a sharp contrast between the other children's responses to the teacher's question and Simon's. She portrays the other children's answers as adequate but unimaginative whereas his is insightful and metaphoric. She depicts the others' gestures and vocal expressions as generic whereas everything about her rendering of Simon speaks of mastery. Her depiction of Simon as he answers the question is complex. There is a sense of casual arrogance with a provocative spin. Her depiction of impish smugness is directed at Simon's detractors.

"We have this incredibly brilliant, wonderful child"

Elizabeth's emotional intensity is high as she implores the administrators at Griffin to help Simon. She is passionate as she describes Simon's brilliance. Her emotions appear to be a combination of pride and desperation. It is clear that she came to Griffin with enormous expectations. At the end when she says, "And he's getting there," her expression of relief is tinged with sadness at all that has passed.

The Social Construction of Smartness

In both her depiction of Simon's performance in circle time and in her reenactment of her appeals for recognition of his gifts at their first meeting at Griffin, Elizabeth fixates on Simon's intelligence. She relives the revelation of his complex and creative thought processes, miming shock and awe and says, "This kid's incredible." She showers the administration at Griffin with celebratory adjectives ("this incredibly brilliant, wonderful child"). For Elizabeth, Simon's brilliance is a fact she employs to counterbalance the teachers' aspersions on his character and as a way to illustrate the tragedy of his situation to the administrators at his new school. Simon's brilliance is the part of him she can use to fend off the judgments of others and/or her own disappointments. His intelligence is his, much in the way that he is hers. This brings up an important question about the nature of intelligence. The same question can be asked about the nature of laziness, as alluded to by Simon's teachers. Who is Simon? Is he brilliant? Is he lazy or disaffected? Is he both? Who is intelligent? What is intelligence? are important questions that must be addressed when speaking about LD, since the construction of intelligence, as act or essence, is an integral part of LD discourse. Dudley-Marling and Dippo (2004) apply a social constructivist lens to understanding what it means to be considered smart. Social constructivists criticize the commonsense understanding of identity as an assortment of intrinsic characteristics residing in individuals' bodies. Identity can only be understood as an ever-evolving construct embedded in a matrix of social interaction and shared activity. This is true when considering the smart (or brilliant) person's identity. In order for someone to act or appear smart, there must be a set of cultural standards (e.g., academic success) against which smartness is defined. Smartness is associated with the performance of certain activities in certain contexts (e.g., performing well on a standardized test in school or speaking well in a public debate). People who perform "smart" tasks less well, people who are not considered smart, must be present (at least statistically) as a comparison group. Also people who have been granted by society the authority to judge smartness (e.g., teachers, psychologists, peers) must be present to certify the presence of smartness. In sum, all of these elements coalesce in the social construction of smartness.

While Elizabeth is highly invested in placing Simon's intelligence between his ears, an analysis of her rendering of the circle time story reaffirms the social constructivist perspective. The elements were all there: Simon's utterance met the cultural standard that establishes smart talk; Simon's smart talk occurred in the right place (school) and at the right time (circle time); appropriate counter examples were present (i.e., the other children's generic responses); and an authorized individual (the teacher who related this story to Elizabeth) was present to certify Simon's brilliance.

The Social Construction of Laziness

Seeing Simon's intelligence as a social construct may be useful for understanding the construction of his apparent academic failure. Clearly Simon's teachers and Elizabeth were engaged in the construction of his brilliance. They all expected him to say and do smart things. From Elizabeth's point of view, her expectations were fulfilled on a daily basis, but not so for his teachers. He said smart things regularly or they would not have thought of him as "so smart." But clearly many of his behaviors did not meet the cultural standards used in school to judge smartness. Many times he failed to do smart things in the right place at the right time (e.g., reading aloud or following directions in class). Therefore, he was not always smarter than everyone else. In fact, his poor performance made him part of that group of lower performing students against which the highfliers are compared. The contradiction between expectation and application is likely the source of Simon's other identity, as someone who does not try. Dudley-Marling and Dippo's (2004) observations of student-teacher interactions are instructive as to the contribution of expectation to the forming of student identities in the minds of teachers. They describe an interaction between a student labeled with LD and his teacher. Due to his association with LD, the teacher came to the lesson with deficit-laden preconceptions of the student's learning abilities. These preconceptions dominated the lesson, leading her to interpret his behaviors in ways that reinforced her LD construction of him. When his responses were open to interpretation, she consistently saw them as symptoms of his LD. The teacher's assumptions lead her to expect a certain range of behaviors. What is applicable here to Simon's case is when Dudley-Marling and Dippo proposed that if the student had been labeled gifted, the teacher would have interpreted his behaviors in a completely different way. Simon's teachers saw his academic behaviors through the lens of their smart construction of him. As smart, they expected him to perform well but when he did not and their expectations were frustrated repeatedly, they were left with only one conclusion. He was not trying and is probably lazy. In order to reconcile the contradiction between his smartness and his un-smart performance, they constructed him an alternative identity.

The Logic of Intent

As far as Elizabeth is concerned, her story trumps the teachers' narrative. In her rendering, Simon is masterful and brilliant; in theirs, he is a problem they cannot solve and a child with questionable values. Brilliance beats laziness in her view. Her mocking rolling of eyes at what she sees as their cluelessness makes this clear. Yet according to the logic of educational ideology, Elizabeth misses the mark. The teachers acknowledged Simon's intelligence; they were not questioning that. In fact, according to common sense understandings of the role of intelligence in schooling, Simon's brilliance works against him. In fact, it was the collective belief in his great intelligence that made him vulnerable to character questioning in the first place. Having understood this, Elizabeth's argument seems illogical. That said, the question remains. What is the subjective logic that leads her to tell this story?

The answer becomes clear when Elizabeth says, after rolling her eyes at what she sees as the teachers' stupidity, "And it wasn't until we insisted that we have him evaluated that they actually came around to doing that." She means, of course, having Simon evaluated for LD. If I combine the teachers' comment about him not trying, Elizabeth's story, and that the school had not been proactive in having him evaluated, I can reconstruct the meaning of her entire statement and reduce it to one sentence. She is saying that Simon's teachers were wrong to call him lazy because he is intelligent and would succeed academically if it were not for his LD. Consistent with the ideology of LD and the arguments of the parents and professionals who organized and pushed for the LD classification, Elizabeth is adding another variable, disability, to the ideological formula that comprises mainstream educational discourse. In fact, she and other adherents to LD discourse are replacing effort with disability in the formula. By eliminating lack of effort as a potential explanation for Simon's academic failure and replacing it with disability, Elizabeth is negating the teacher's criticism and retrieving his virtue. Her logic can be described in this way: Simon's disability is a fact, beyond questioning, and laziness is out of the question. Therefore, his intelligence is the only variable left to be proven. If the school had only had the common sense to have him evaluated, they would have seen this.

Dueling Narratives

The conversation on which this paper is based begins with Elizabeth attributing Simon's pain to the indifference and incompetence of the teachers at Chesed. She says that they were "ill-equipped" to teach him or to help him. How were they ill-equipped? What could they not do for him? According to her stories, they could not know him. They could not see the "incredibly brilliant, wonderful child" locked inside that cage. All they saw was the cage that they called laziness or indifference. The teachers with whom she had entrusted her wonderful child had not cared enough about Simon to look below the surface, below the "not trying." They were caught up in their own Simon narrative, where they were good teachers who tried their best and he just never stepped up. The stories Elizabeth recounts here comprise a counter narrative, meant to negate that of the teachers. Simon's teachers told a laziness story about him, which Elizabeth counters with her son as brilliant-but-misunderstood story.

This dynamic, this narrative/counter narrative exchange, is similar to the dynamic that birthed the LD category. The early LD advocates described by Sleeter (1987) were responding to oppressive narratives that they felt would have devalued their children — narratives that would have stripped them of their intelligence, their emotional stability, and/or their affiliation with dominant culture, narratives that would have associated their privileged white offspring with the children of the poor and the ethnically othered.

Elizabeth, like so many other parents over the decades who have found themselves in similar situations, stands on the shoulders of these LD pioneers. They set the stage and established the basic narrative elements of the LD story she tells. The setting is always the classroom, without which the construct of LD would not exist (McDermott, 1993). The protagonist is always the social standing of a child and his parents. The antagonists are the ideological assumptions that underlie schooling and the perceptions and biases of those in the school community. The conflict is the struggle between competing views of the child, the antagonistic view being that the child is lazy or stupid and the parents' being an affirmation of their child's positive essence. The plot, driven by the central conflict, moves from incident to incident of difference, exposition, and shame until finally the parents, drawing on resources only available to the relatively privileged, enlist experts who wield the symbolic power of science to inoculate their child from criticisms and aspersions, while locating the cause of his difficulties within him. The dénouement involves a change of identity, from "normal" to disabled, from accused to excused. The whole process establishes a rationale to which the parents can cling in moments of doubt and conflict.

While this paper focuses on a single family's story, I can attest to its resonance with the stories of many of the middle to upper class families I have known and worked with at Griffin. In my experience, it is a common story, one that demonstrates the continuing relevance of Sleeter's work. Despite the fact that it has been more than two decades since it was written, the theoretical lens established by her seminal article helps to elucidate the reproductive nature of Lawrence and Elizabeth's struggle to discredit the ideological forces that question their son's essential qualities and to justify their faith in his ability to carry forward their family's privileged position in society. Their struggle represents many other parents at Griffin and other private schools for children with LD.

Works Cited

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  • Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Carrier, J. G. (1986). Learning disability: Social class and the construction of inequality in American education. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
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  • Dudley-Marling, C. & Dippo, D. (1995). What learning disability does: Sustaining the ideology of schooling. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 28, 408-414.
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  • McDermott, R. (1993). The acquisition of a child by a learning disability. In S. Chaiklin & J. Lave (Eds.) Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context (pp. 269 — 305). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  • Reid, K. & Valle, J. (2004) The discursive practice of learning disability: Implications for instruction and parent-school relations. Journal of Learning Disabilities.
  • Skrtic, T. (1991). Behind special education: A critical analysis of professional culture and school organization. Denver: Love Publishing Company.
  • Sleeter, C. (1987). Why is there learning disabilities? A critical analysis of the birth of the field with its social context. In Popkewitz, T. (Ed.) The formation of school subjects: The struggle for creating an American institution. (pp. 210-237) London: Falmer.
  • Stanovich, K. (1999). The Sociopsychometrics of learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 32, 350-361.
  • Swartz, D. (1997). Culture & power: The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Titsworth, B. (1999) An ideological basis for definition in public argument: A case study of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. Argumentation and Advocacy.


  1. Other data sources employed in the larger ethnographic study were several videotaped sessions in Lawrence and Elizabeth's home, which involved ethnographic observation of typical family activities and conversations/interviews with Lawrence and Elizabeth; interviews with relevant professionals; Simon's school records; and my own experiences as a teacher at Griffin, where he attended at the time of data collection.

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  2. Note that the use of "mental retardation" reflects the language of the 1960s through 1980s.

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Copyright (c) 2010 Chris Hale

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