When definition fails

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
– George Orwell, 1984

I thoroughly enjoy the English language. It’s willingness to adopt virtually anything as a word as long as it finds its way into common usage, regardless of origin, is part of its charm. I know some would disagree but, as an especial admirer of poetry, I’m intrigued by the subtle differences that can exist among words with very similar definitions. More often than not, variations on a theme seek precision: do you love, adore, worship, idolize, or cherish a certain someone? Certainly all five possible choices suggest affection of some sort, but a great many factors might influence which one is most appropriate at a given time. I commonly told students that the value of an expanding vocabulary was its ability to allow you to formulate ideas and ultimately express them more clearly. For all that intuition might account for understanding in certain instances, communicating ideas and concepts requires language, the more precise the better.

What happens, though, when we move in the opposite direction? The ultimate nightmare of the reduction of language to its most utilitarian was explored famously in George Orwell’s 1984, a novel I have felt compelled to reread on a number of occasions in order to remind myself of just how profoundly it outlines trends that continue to come to pass. Granted, Orwell’s vision is “wrong” in many of its specifics, but the core ideas are worth examining. His description of “Newspeak” and its ultimate goal of reducing language so that the only things that can be talked about are those concepts acceptable to “the Party” might sound bizarre, but I’m convinced, personally, that a kind of Orwellian misuse of language is happening, minus the malicious intent (the idealist in me speaking).

language and thought
In an earlier blog I argued that a perceived simplicity has become so predominant in the world that it has become almost a matter of faith that virtually anything can be reduced to recognizable and definable component parts. If I haven’t made it clear, I do not believe such is the case. In fact, I would argue that the tendency of language to constantly expand over time in order to include both new concepts and further refinements of old ones suggests just the opposite. The language landscape becomes even more challenging when a group deliberately chooses familiar language and uses it in ways not commonly understood (as, I believe, is the sad case in education).

I think most of us would agree that some part of each of us, whether it’s a large or a small part, commonly longs for simplicity. We think of lazy days at the cottage or on the beach, a life free of worries over all the things we commonly worry about, all outstanding issues, whatever they might be, settled once and for all. This desire, when paired with the often overwhelming variety of complications to be found when we open our eyes to see them, cannot help but lead most people to want to tend to their own affairs and leave the bigger issues to those with time to spend on them. Further, when we have been largely convinced that research in every field of human endeavor is ongoing and continuing to provide answers to whatever questions might be out there, why wouldn’t we tend to cocoon ourselves and “leave it to the experts”?

While such an approach might be understandable and acceptable when it comes to technological advances, the same cannot be said for education. More than any other undertaking, perhaps, education should be a reflection of the community’s highest aspirations. Sadly, based upon the direction currently evident in the educational system, with all of its attendant fanfare, the community is largely being shut out. Bewildered parents, by and large, have a felt sense of what it is they want for their children as a result of twelve and more years in school: “success”.

However, that very word – “success” – and the many different ways we try to incorporate everyone within the bounds of its definition, suggests why improving schools has been so difficult through time. While governments, educational researchers, and others who are the determiners of curriculum and of the focus of programs trumpet the ongoing advances being made within the system, parents can’t help feeling that something just isn’t right. What is success? While that might seem like an innocuous question, an answer might not be as easily determined as you would think. Success is more a concept than it is an observable phenomenon. In the past, the aims of a formal education were reasonably well understood: learn to read and write passably, be able to perform essential mathematical tasks and maybe have a general sense of the history of the province or country. Anything beyond the “three r’s” was interesting, perhaps, but the attainment of those basics was paramount.

Welcome to the year 2015. The average parent, when asking about a child’s progress will be buried, in all likelihood, in an avalanche of educational jargon: outcomes, formative versus summative evaluation, anecdotal reporting, learning styles, multiple intelligences, accommodations, learning strategies, peer evaluation, etc., etc., etc. In case you were wondering why I spent so much time at the beginning of this blog talking about language, here’s why.

If you take a look at the list I’ve just assembled, virtually every word I’ve included has a meaning outside a theoretical educational context. As education has become, increasingly, the domain of educational psychologists and an assortment of “experts” in the “field” of education, the distance from which the general public is forced to observe public education grows greater with every passing year. Education, as a system administered by a government bureaucracy governed by policies devised largely by people with little or no real experience in classrooms, is driven by the belief (the one I’ve been discussing for a number of blogs now) that whatever the “problem” might be in education, analysis and experimentation will provide the way forward. As the language becomes increasingly vague and inscrutable – both to those using it and to those hearing it – the distance between the theory that dominates conversations about education and the day-to-day reality grows ever greater.

For at least 50 years, educational theorists – and the industry that promotes both the theory and the products that inevitably accompany it – have been telling us that things are getting better and better all the time. When teachers (and society at large) look around and see fewer good readers and writers, young people who cannot do the most basic math, students whose grasp of the world is limited to what their friends and social media tell them, those same teachers and parents have their doubts. But the aura of expertise and the convolution of the language we employ when speaking of education have become so powerful, most are afraid to speak up. In an Orwellian world, reality as we experience it is always trumped by the reality that the powers-that-be pronounce. Welcome to 1984, the 2015 version.


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