Say What?

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I am perhaps more sensitive than most people to jargon. I have spent a large part of my working life, first as a journalist and now as a journalism professor and author, trying to avoid speaking or writing it. My models have been George Orwell, Red Smith (who quit Sports Illustrated because copy editors kept inserting the word "moreover" into his stories), and the King James version of the Bible.

Of course, journalism, like any other trade or profession today, has its own jargon. But as jargon goes, journalism's is refreshingly blunt: You slug a story and kill a graf. Nowhere does it approach the capacity of educational jargon to obscure the obvious. And I should know. I serve on the board of education in the Highland (N.Y.) Central School District.

When I was still just a regular taxpayer, I would sit in the audience at school board meetings and try to follow the discussion, but would soon catch myself contemplating the mole on the board president's face. I would feel guilty about having allowed my attention to wander. Now I realize that the meetings were conducted in a language designed precisely to make you focus on something else, anything else, even a hairy mole.

It is a language with all the melodiousness of the dry heaves. One of its chief characteristics is the use of unfamiliar, scientific-sounding abbreviations. School administrators can hardly speak without referring to IEP, ERB, DLT, ISS, SCE, or RCT. After sufficient exposure to this kind of speech, the average person may feel a need for CPR.

Educational jargon also consists of what I call "noun-droids"--three or more nouns that have been wired together to form big, imposing, but ultimately inhuman phrases. I can open my vinyl binder labeled "School Board Workbook" to almost any page and find blood-curdling examples, from "Tri-State Assessment Model Reference Card" to "teacher alternative compensation pilot." All those nouns in a row seem to suggest solidity and order, but they rarely denote or describe anything tangible. They mostly serve as camouflage for a lack of real activity. With just nouns, no verbs, the mind can't leap or grope or dream.

And then there are the buzzwords. "Evaluation" is one. "Model" is another. "Indicators" is a third. Put them all together, as in "value-added evaluation model key indicators," and you have the local patois, as well as the winner in an ugly language contest.

I hold the schools of education at colleges and universities across the country responsible for most of this verbal sludge. It seems you can't graduate from one of them as a certified teacher unless you can add the suffix "based" to at least 500 words. Thus we have site-based councils and performance-based assessments and computer-based learning. What's next? Desk-based students?

If there is an air of menace about educational jargon, is it because it is intended to designate all people without the proper vocabulary as intruders?

But I rave. Listening to or reading educational jargon will do that to you. The other day I got a particularly heavy dose when, as part of my board responsibilities, I went through a batch of job applications from prospective teachers. Applicants had been asked to write a brief statement about their experience and abilities. Once they ran out of jargon--ready-made phrases like "full potential," "least restrictive environment," "self-esteem"--they were lost. None was more lost than the young woman who applied for a job as a gym teacher. "It is very important for society," she wrote with a dictionary far from her elbow, "to emphasize lifelong physical activity instead of a sedimentary lifestyle."

Speaking of sediment, Orwell had an absolute abhorrence of muddy language. In his classic 1948 essay, "Politics and the English Language," he argued that muddy language produces muddy thinking as often as the other way around. If we clarify our language, he said, we can clarify our thinking, and thinking clearly about the state of the world is a prerequisite for change. Orwell proposed that we improve the world by beginning, as he put it, "at the verbal end."

American public schools are under huge pressure today to improve. Politicians, parents, and taxpayer groups are calling for our students to perform better, both straight up and in comparison with students from Western Europe and Japan. But improving academic performance isn't simply a matter of raising standards. It costs money. It takes stamina. It antagonizes all the secret allies of the status quo.

There are more of these--and they are more powerful--than you may realize. I don't want to sound like someone who believes in conspiracies involving UFOs and Elvis, but the fact is that it is appallingly difficult to get people to change their work patterns even a little. School boards, schools of education, teachers' unions, and teachers themselves are all accustomed to and invested in things as they are. The current system, whatever its failures, provides school board candidates with fat issues, schools of education with fat enrollments, and public school teachers with fat salaries.

Anyway, reform is hard work. It is easier to elaborate language, to add layers of jargon, to paint over problems with bureaucratese. So-called "stakeholders" on so-called "building-level teams," utilizing so-called "shared decisionmaking" as outlined in the so-called "Plan to Plan," implement so-called "heterogeneous groupings." By which point, a mere parent hasn't the slightest clue what the so-called "hell" is going on.

If there is an air of menace about educational jargon, it is because, like all jargon, it is intended to scare off intruders--or, more precisely, to designate all people without the proper vocabulary as intruders. The result has been a steady decrease in public understanding and a steady increase in public hostility. How else can the public feel but hostile to something ominously labeled "criterion-referenced assessments" or "the performance-based process"? We should turn these long, vague phrases back into simple action verbs. We should train teachers and school administrators to speak so that they can be understood. We should communicate with each other as if with the stars.

But until that happens, perhaps everyone should just shut up.

Vol. 17, Issue 10, Page 52

Published in Print: November 5, 1997, as Say What?
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