Special Report
Education Opinion

Psittacism and Dead Language

By Edwin J. Delattre — January 22, 1997 12 min read

Some of you may be unfamiliar with the word “psittacism"--and the related words, “psittacine,” “psittaceous,” and “psittacosis.” I confess that I did not know them until I encountered one in my reading last summer. The word “psittacism” refers to conduct or behavior resembling that of a parrot; specifically, using language--talking (and I would include writing)--without paying the slightest attention to what you are saying; talking without any understanding, appreciation, or thoughtfulness about meaning; and making no effort to find words that do justice to reality and the truth.

Every month, I read hundreds upon hundreds of pages of literature, materials, and documents in and about education. A great deal of it is psittaceous. The same words appear over and over again in textbook after textbook, book after book, article after article, reform document after reform document, curriculum framework after curriculum framework, consultant report after consultant report--and it is clear that very little thought is being applied to their use.

These outpourings are largely useless, because the language in which they are written is dead. By “dead language,” I do not mean ancient languages such as Latin and Attic Greek that, like all other foreign languages, are dead most of all in the minds of people who have never studied them. I mean modern, contemporary language--idioms, jargon, pseudojargon, cliches--words and phrases used repeatedly and without reasoned consideration that are inert; powerless to capture reality; doomed to obscure truth, complexity, and subtlety; and therefore destined to mislead those who take them as substitutes for thinking. Dead language is dangerous because it uses up time that needs desperately to be filled with language that is alive--that conveys and requires thinking, that is laced with meaning that bears genuinely on teaching and learning and on the power to affect them for the better.

Dead language seduces people into believing that they are thinking when they are not; that they understand when they do not; that they have come to grips with ideas, with problems, with crises, with opportunities, with challenges, when they have not. In 1935, Kenneth Burke wrote in Permanence and Change, his book on symbolic communication, “One does not hypnotize a man by raising a problem ... [but] by ringing the bells of his response.” By such mutual hypnotism in what we say and write to each other in education, we become psittaceous.

I do not mean only barbarisms that are taken for granted in education and that ring the bells of our response--though they are symptomatic of a much deeper thoughtlessness that infects our profession and many others. For example, in the education literature, everything, it is now said, “impacts” something else. Not “has impact on,” but “impacts.” Offensive in both sound and appearance, the word thus used also conceals all differences in the degree and extent of cause and effect and correlation.

Stop to consider: My words today may have impact on you, but then again, they might do much less than that without being entirely impotent--they might influence you a bit; they might give you a moment’s thought; they might make you feel somewhat offended; a few might stick in your minds, or they might be quickly forgotten. They will have impact--major and consequential effect--on some. But in the literature of education today, it’s all “impact"--as if the world of education were made up entirely and exclusively of locomotives colliding head-on at high speed. To say that something “impacts” something else reveals nothing about reality in any of its complex subtlety; it obscures reality. But now in education, this tired word “rings the bells of our response.”

You know the sort of thing I mean: Take, for another example, fashionable uses of the word “style,” as in “learning style” or “teaching style.” If ever phrases were dead, they are these. They convey nothing of the ways in which people learn or teach--and fail to learn and teach. They say nothing of the differences between learning, say, by experience, from experience, and through experience (as though prepositions did not differ in meaning). Whether people observe well or badly, experiment well or badly, reflect well or badly, interpret and draw analogies well or badly is no matter of style. “Style” says nothing of the substance of the myriad ways in which intelligence can be effectively cultivated and applied (or not) within the rich domains of systematic study and experimental discovery. But, dead to accomplish anything else, the phrase “learning style” “rings the bells of our response” as if it explained something. It doesn’t. It manages only to breed psittacism. It generates nothing except mimicry of itself. The authors of theories of multiple intelligence, along with everyone else who pays attention to what words mean, rightly bemoan and dissociate themselves from the deadliness and distortion of the language of “styles.” And they should, because how we learn and teach runs to the very core of who we are and how we think of other people--it is nothing so shallow as mere “style.”

The death of ideas is not embodied only in single words or phrases whose fashionability gives us excuses not to think, not to seek to learn, not to recognize challenge. Consider the deadliness of the following description of the purposes of education reform from a report by an influential coalition of Massachusetts business leaders:

  • “To help students develop the critical thinking, problem-solving, reasoning, collaborative, and inquiry skills called for in the Frameworks, teachers also need professional development on instructional strategies, interdisciplinary teaching, school-to-work, making connections between disciplines, using technology, parental involvement, peer coaching, and alternative forms of assessment.
  • “School administrators need training in ... managing change ... and working with the external environment as well as curriculum leadership ... and alternative ways to provide structured learning time.”

The business group did not invent this language. They borrowed it from the education literature in the state. Listen again to the first words: “To help students develop the critical thinking, problem-solving, reasoning, collaborative, and inquiry skills called for in the Frameworks.” Would anyone who knows what logic is, who understands reasoned inquiry, believe that what we have here is a list of genuine intellectual achievements? Why would anyone begin a list with critical thinking and then later drop in reasoning, as if they were somehow separate intellectual powers? Would anyone who understands the intimate web of subject-matter knowledge and artistry in teaching write a sentence which speaks of “professional development on interdisciplinary teaching” and later in the list refer to “making connections between disciplines” as if these were divisible? Whoever wrote this paid no attention to substance; it is mere psittacism, in language so dead it will tolerate any thoughtless list of buzzwords. Most of the words obscure what teachers need to know if they are to acquire the depth and the artistry needed to fulfill their responsibilities to students and to each other.

Just pause for a moment over the empty and dead neologisms here--"problem solving” and “inquiry skills.” Solving problems takes countless forms, and all of them depend on knowledge and imagination in recognizing and identifying problems as problems--factual knowledge, contextual knowledge, and understanding. The locution “problem solving” manages in practice to obscure all that. So, too, with “inquiry skills.” Learning how to conduct inquiries appropriate to subject matter is not some skill or other. Being competent in inquiry--whether in Socratic dialogue, Copernican astronomy, Newtonian physics and calculus, Bernard Bailyn’s historiography, or any other disciplined form of learning and discovery--is not a set of “skills,” but rather depends on the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of content by systematic study. Psittacism and dead language conceal all that.

What about the description of the “training” school administrators need, to live up to the trust of responsible office? I’ve been an education administrator for 16 years, half of my academic and professional life. I serve on the boards of a multinational chemical corporation and several colleges and independent schools. I’ve chaired federal boards and serve as an adviser to the U.S. departments of Justice and Education. In all these venues, I’ve never in my life, to speak in the dead language offered, “managed change"--and most of what I know that is worth knowing about administration and leadership has to be learned by academic study, imitation, mentorship, and the wise counsel of friends. It can’t be learned by training.

You show me an administrator who is “trained in ... working with curriculum leadership,” rather than educated in the design of intellectually sound curriculum by grade level and subject-matter content, and I’ll show you an administrator who is both incompetent and dangerous. Show me an administrator trained in “alternative ways to provide structured learning time,” but not educated in the fundamental necessity for, and means of, focusing the daily work of teachers and students on study in the academic and scientific disciplines, and I’ll show you an administrator who will contribute to the dismal state of schooling. Language that is dead obscures fact, obscures history, obscures problems, obscures what needs to be learned and to be done; dead language succeeds only in “ringing the bells of response” among its devotees.

One more illustration of the uses of dead language in education and education reform. Try the word “develop,” as it appears in the pages of “The Massachusetts Common Core of Learning.” This document, prepared by the state department of education, is supposed to be the heart of education reform here. In its first 12 pages alone, the text tells us we should “develop solutions,” “develop conclusions,” “understand the development of English,” “understand the process by which individuals and groups develop,” “develop skills,” “develop informed opinions,” “develop ... curriculum frameworks,” “develop student performance standards ... and state assessments.” References are made to “curriculum development,” “professional development,” “inspiring ... development,” “developing a sense of belonging and commitment,” “developing new interests,” “developing an action plan,” “developing classroom assessments,” “developing portfolios,” “developing interdisciplinary instruction,” “developing a three-year plan,” “conversations that develop,” “practices [that] develop desire,” “developing wisdom, compassion, and intellectual breadth,” and “developing habits of mind.”

There’s enough “development” here to open a photographer’s studio. But for educational purposes, the language is utterly dead. The word “development” has become an impoverished substitute for clear expression that precisely and accurately describes and refers to real activities, achievements, and procedures; its constant use has driven out awareness of the need for language that is alive with descriptive and explanatory power. The language of “development” resembles a “dead-heading” tractor trailer: a truck that is empty, carrying no freight, doing nothing except consuming fuel and money to get from point A to point B--the bane of cost-effectiveness for any freight hauler.

Just stop and ask yourself what it would take to replace “development” in its endless appearances with words that would accurately say what it is that we or our students are to do or to understand in each case. In the Common Core, the word “development” obscures the need for thinking about what we mean, what we need to know, what it is incumbent on us to do. A perfectly good word--"develop"--has been used to death by failure to think, and is now as deadly to thought as a vacuum is to breath.

Overuse of a word like “development"--whether from laziness, intellectual indolence, psittaceous mimicry, or not caring enough about the truth to seek words that capture it--exacts a dreadful cost in education. A phrase such as “professional development” invites the proliferation by school systems of episodic, one-day, quick-fix, faddish, release-time inservice days for teachers. Because the phrase illuminates nothing, it permits everything. If administrators and teachers resisted such dead language in favor of a phrase such as “sustained faculty study programs,” they would be reminded of the purpose--and therefore the nature--of inservice work that is worthy of its name. Dead language kills educational opportunity in a profession.

Dead language gives comfort to intellectual passivity, and it therefore destroys instructive challenge--but instructive challenge is what education is supposed to offer.

What are the capacities that we must bring to life in ourselves if that yearning is to find fulfillment in our studies, in our daily work? One of my colleagues has kindly brought to my attention a reply to that question written by Richard Ohman in his 1976 book, English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. The capacities we need in order to achieve serious learning in challenging matters, Mr. Ohman writes, include:

"[T]hose for noticing, responding, seeing consequences, making associations, imagining, being fair, seeing objections, trying models and hypotheses, interpreting, getting at assumptions, testing against moral principle, structuring, remembering, analyzing, seeing X as Y, etc. A ripening of these capacities is much of what we mean by education, for a student in whom they are well developed has great mobility in any intellectual situation. We value his theme in part because we like a skilled performance, but mainly because we see behind the performance his powers of invention, his mobility, his control over experience, his ability to extend and qualify his initial observations. Out of whatever he is given he makes more. He stands in an active relationship to circumstances and events.

“The student whose invention is weak, by contrast, cannot write a good theme no matter how orderly his methods of composition. The external world is inert before him and, consequently, so is whatever discourse he reads. He has a small repertory of moves to make when confronted by an obstacle to understanding--indeed, he is unlikely to notice that there is a difficulty, or to be able to isolate it if he does smell trouble.”

You will have a benchmark of your own progress in the study of education if you think about these capacities as you talk, listen, read, and write. They are the capacities that prohibit our being hypnotized by psittaceous and dead language.

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 1997 edition of Education Week