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Published in Print: July 26, 2006, as Believe and Deceive


Believe and Deceive

The 'Strategic Ambiguity' of School Slogans

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The first time I saw it, I could almost feel my eyes recoil. I had driven into the high school parking lot early one morning to drop my daughter off, and there it was, painted in blue and yellow, the district colors, on the side of the building. I stared at it as if I couldn’t quite comprehend its meaning, though the individual words were simple enough. “BELIEVE AND ACHIEVE,” the giant block letters commanded.

The beauty of “Believe and Achieve” from the perspective of the people in charge is that it greatly simplifies school reform.

Soon the slogan seemed to be everywhere I looked. I saw it on bumper stickers as I drove around town and on the backs of kids’ T-shirts. When a new sign went up at the entrance to the middle school, it was artfully etched into the glass. Announcements sent home from school about parent-teacher conferences or unused snow days also carried the snappy slogan.

My reaction whenever I saw it was always the same: a spark of irritation. I couldn’t help but notice the vagueness of the key terms. What exactly is it that everyone’s supposed to believe or want to achieve? The slogan never said.

But that’s how slogans work. They rely for their effect on what the advertising guru Tony Schwartz called “strategic ambiguity.” “Coke is it!” one famous slogan ambiguously declared, leaving consumers to define “it” any way they wished. By being purposely vague, the slogan encouraged consumers to invest the soft drink with powerful personal associations.

Slogans follow the Humpty Dumpty principle. “When I use a word,” the accident-prone egg told Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking- Glass, “it means just what I choose it to mean.” This can make for great advertising. I’m just not sure it makes for great education.

Nonetheless, slogans are common in educational parlance. Among the more popular in recent years have been “It takes a village,” “Every school a good school,” and, of course, “Leave no child behind.” The advantage of such slogans is that they appeal to many different kinds of people; after all, who in his or her right mind would oppose every school’s being a good school? The disadvantage is that the slogans don’t necessarily reflect a shared understanding of what, for example, “good” entails, and so attempts to get down to specifics are often avoided, or else short out in an overload of conflict, frustration, disappointment, and bitterness.

“Believe and Achieve,” the slogan of my local school district, comes from the title of a self-help book by W. Clement Stone, a Midwestern insurance man who rose from rags to riches in the enviable style of a Horatio Alger hero. But not even Stone relied entirely on the power of positive thinking to achieve success. It was revealed during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s that he gave $2 million to Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 presidential-election campaigns, contributions that were cited by Congress in passing campaign-spending limits.

The superintendent of my local schools never mentioned this when I asked him about the source of the slogan. Maybe he isn’t up on the details of American political scandals. But some teachers in the district are more attuned, and quietly despise the slogan as a piece of Orwellian doublespeak. In fact, they’ve created their own cynical version of it: “Believe and Deceive.”

What may be most deceptive about the slogan is its suggestion that if teachers only believed more in students, or if students only believed more in themselves, academic achievement would follow. This ignores the social and economic factors that study after educational study have shown affect how well kids do in school. According to the slogan, achieving is simply a matter of having the necessary confidence, and not of having, say, adequate classroom space or up-to-date textbooks. It’s an appealing notion, but unrealistic, like trying to launch a rocket while denying the existence of gravity.

What may be most deceptive about the slogan is its suggestion that if teachers only believed more in students, academic achievement would follow.

There’s something very American about “Believe and Achieve.” It expresses a bright, jazzy, can-do spirit, the characteristic cultural faith in the efficacy of individual effort. But there’s also something horribly cruel about it. The slogan shifts primary responsibility for academic success or failure away from policymakers and administrators and onto the slender shoulders of students, the least-powerful figures in the educational mix. In this regard, the slogan serves as a smoke screen, obscuring the actual reasons why students struggle academically, from bad teachers and underfunded schools to dysfunctional standards.

The beauty of “Believe and Achieve” from the perspective of the people in charge is that it greatly simplifies school reform. The slogan preaches that schools don’t have to change, only attitudes do. In the district my daughter attends, where a mere 47 percent of high school graduates go on to college, the solution for low academic achievement isn’t to fix up the facilities, or attract better teachers, or offer more Advanced Placement courses. No, it’s to get the other 53 percent to think positive thoughts.

And yet I can see how, under certain circumstances, slogans might be educationally beneficial. For example, if “Believe and Achieve” were used to start a general discussion about the ends and means of schooling, the slogan would have some obvious value. Unfortunately, the district isn’t interested in holding this kind of discussion with parents, teachers, and students; it might prove divisive and too difficult to control. The main purpose of a slogan like “Believe and Achieve” isn’t to start a discussion, but to avoid one—to establish the appearance of consensus where no consensus actually exists.

I was recently reminded of the ambiguousness of educational slogans in the most unexpected way. My wife and I were relaxing at night with one of our favorite movies, “Grosse Pointe Blank.” The offbeat comedy stars John Cusack as a freelance hit man named Martin Blank, who, against his better judgment, goes to his 10th high school reunion. While there, he’s attacked by a rival hit man, a short, stocky, simian-faced Russian whom he manages to stab to death with a pen. Didn’t I tell you this was a comedy?

As Blank crawls out from under the dead body and shakily gets to his feet, the camera pulls back to reveal a gold banner with purple lettering hanging behind him. It’s strange that I’d never noticed the banner before, particularly since it seems to comment ironically on the action. But I noticed it this time, emblazoned with the now-familiar words “Believe and Achieve.” I laughed when I read them. Though, to be honest, I might just as easily have cried.

Vol. 25, Issue 43, Page 35

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