Education Commentary

Learning the Language of Profit

By Alison Kirk — November 30, 1994 6 min read

If education is going to “mean’’ business, as more and more politicians, citizens, corporate leaders, and privatization advocates say it should, those of us who teach are going to have to shape up and change the way we talk.

For example, in schools and colleges, “academic” is a term of distinction, meaning serious, intellectual, pure, disciplined, focused, intense. In business, if the word comes up at all (and that is unlikely), it means moot, not worth considering, frivolous, not applicable. “It’s academic” in the corporate world means, “It’s a useless fine point. Who cares?” And while “abstract” thinking is a highly desirable skill for students--the very key to all transferable learning--the corporate mind interprets “in the abstract” as meaning “theoretical,” “hypothetical,” “unreal.”

The words “affect” and “affective” for educators pertain to feelings or the emotions. Most are concerned with developing the “affective” as well as the “cognitive” domain. In business, “affective” and “affect” are misspellings for “effective” and “effect.” Business considers “aggressive” a laudable word for seizing initiative and refusing ever to yield. Educators derive the word from “aggression” and consider it socially aberrant.

“Hands on” learning is learning by doing. Whether in school instruction or worker training, a “very hands on” approach purports to be exciting, immediate, and authentic. In management, though, “hands on” is bad. A “hands on” manager fails to delegate as he or she should and is both personally inefficient and demotivating to others. “Micromanagement” is a pejorative synonym. Teachers with this style are called “enablers.” In environments that approve of such a style, they are called “supportive.”

To the corporate ear, “committee” is an old-fashioned term for a group of people working together rather ineffectually. They’ve been supplanted largely by teams, task forces, and, for a time, “quality circles.” While teams and task forces exist to accomplish a purpose, committees and circles suggest an enjoyment of group process for its own sake. Teams have leaders; committees merely have chairs--the image suggests they sit around going nowhere. Among academics, however, the committee is still considered worthy. Chairs are honorable. Often they are even endowed.

Though leading-edge business leaders advocate cooperation among workers for group problem-solving, they steer clear of the word “cooperative,” perhaps because of its connotations of socialism and classroom compliance. They prefer to stand by their metaphor of sports teams. In the world of schooling, however, the effectiveness of “cooperative learning” was recognized long before business discovered “self-managed teams.”

“Flat” in education or the arts usually means dull, uninteresting. In business, it refers to organizations that have shed unnecessary layers (often middle managers). The idea is to create an organization that is more participative, egalitarian, fast, responsive--and, oh yes, less costly. “Flat,” then, may here also retain some of its colloquial sense of bankrupt or “broke.”

Academics often use philosophical words in their original, more restricted senses. This makes them misunderstood and thought to speak nonsense. Businesspeople speak more like everybody else. Technically, for example, an “idealist” is one who believes in the ultimate reality of ideas and mental activity. The mind makes the world. To most people, though, “idealism” suggests a faith in goodness that hasn’t yet run aground on the rocks of experience. “Idealistic” thus means “unrealistic,” “naïve.” Our culture doesn’t believe in ideas; we believe in “sense,” or information that comes through our senses.

The corporate world compares getting rid of employees (“downsizing,” getting “lean and mean”) to dieting, getting into “fighting trim.” It would not be obvious to most educators why “mean” is considered positive. Schools try to eliminate fighting. The corporate mind, in contrast, posits a world in which the have-nots are continually plotting to assault and rob the haves. If life is a fight, meanness is an asset. According to this view, the poor have nothing to give or offer; they only conspire to take (until such time as they inherit the earth). Humble teachers, scholars, and teachers’ aides may find this view at odds with their personal experience. They may also question the compatibility of the premise that people are expendable with any system of education.

Business, of course, is the “for profit” sector. As the primary point of interest in business, the “bottom line” has become our common slang for the summary or very essence. The opposite of “for profit” is “nonprofit” or “not for profit,” designations that, until quite recently, applied to virtually all institutions of learning. Increasingly, the public has muddled these terms with “unprofitable” or “useless.”

Scholars, on the other hand, are in the habit of thinking that “disinterest” is a desirable quality that can only be corrupted by pursuit of gain. A “profit motive” in research might cast doubt on the reported outcomes. In general speech, though, the “profit motive” is considered good: the most reliable inducement to achievement. So commonly is it linked to motivation that a host of economic terms--"interest,” “stake,” “investment,” “ownership"--have become synonymous with “commitment.” Educators may yet await enlightenment as to the necessary connection of the “profit motive” with wisdom, intelligence, skill, or even competence.

Teachers who want to “mean” business will have to change not only their vocabularies but their whole system of metaphors. The predominant metaphors of education are agricultural, geographic, reproductive, sexual. One plants, propagates, fertilizes (and cross-fertilizes) ideas. One nurtures the student. Students are shored up in a supportive environment. If they are removed from their natural place they’ve been uprooted. They are mainstreamed and tended. The undesirables are weeded out. Teachers watch for growth and maturation. Every year there is a new crop of students. Bad students or classes are rotten, boring subjects are arid or dry, and some days are harrowing. Kindergarten is the children’s garden. One studies in fields with stems, branches, and roots.

The metaphors of business, as many observe, are drawn from sport (ballpark, playing field, hardball) and war (strategic, tactical, chief, executive officer, campaign, hostile takeover, blitz, nuke, big/hired/top gun, etc.). Sport itself is a kind of metaphor for war; one could even consider it a form of war with extremely tight rules. Business is somewhere in between: Rules clearly exist, but one of the objects of the business “game” is to work around the rules.

All of these activities are intensely adversarial (win/lose). War, like hunting, which it also resembles, has the excitement of real death. The “death” of sport and business is usually just symbolic (“sudden death,” “making a killing”). Educators, especially administrators, who want to make a good impression on the public may, like politicians, employ the sport-war metaphor. That, after all, is our national image of success.

All in all, then, we teachers have a lot to learn if we’re to get “up to speed.” Of course, there are those who say that the language we use both reflects and influences how we think and what we value.

Come to think of it, maybe we don’t want to change our talk after all.

A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 1994 edition of Education Week as Learning the Language of Profit