Sometimes we fail to say precisely what we mean. I suppose that this is sometimes due to the fact that whatever language we speak or write is constantly changing. Usually, I fear, it’s because we use language poorly, saying things we don’t really mean. More than half a century ago, George Orwell wrote:
But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take a drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. (1954, p. 163)
I often wonder whether people really mean or have thought much about what they say about educational achievement. What I see too often are ugly, inaccurate, slovenly statements that may reflect foolish thoughts (ugly in their irrationality; inaccurate in the message they are meant to convey; slovenly in ways we associate with linguistic incompetence).
Today, I read something in The Washington Post that prompted me to write this little essay. In an article about Washington, DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee, writer Bill Turque wrote (let’s consider this Exhibit A), “Rhee wants more teachers who share her central belief about education reform: All children can become high academic achievers, regardless of the disadvantages they face outside the classroom” (p. B1).
Now, regardless of who says such nonsensical things (whether Rhee or Turque or anyone else), I think such language is inexcusable. We’d be better off as educators, advocates for kids, and rational citizens interested in improving public education if instead the statement (or belief) were something along the lines of Exhibit B or Exhibit C. (I’m assuming that what I present as Exhibits B and C are close to what Rhee or Turque or others who say such things as Turque wrote might mean to say.) Exhibit B: “My central belief is that children can become high achievers regardless of the disadvantages they face outside the classroom.” Exhibit C: “Regardless of a child’s color or gender, religion, national origin, parentage, or socioeconomic level, he or she can become a high achiever.”
What’s the difference? Well, Exhibit A is statistically impossible (presumably, most people who say similarly irrational things know that but say them anyway because they don’t want to be perceived as biased against various groups and think the accuracy of their language isn’t really important). Are we expecting too much of ourselves and others if we demand rational statements? We recognize that someone who says, “My central belief is that we can all be rich” is a huckster. If we really care about education, then we’ll care enough to watch our mouths and our fingers, to avoid whenever possible saying or writing things that just don’t quite correspond to what most of us accept as reality, things that upon reflection make us the educational huckster.
Let’s all help each other use language more precisely. Let’s raise the bar for each other.
Orwell, G. (1954, original essay 1946). Politics and the English language. In A collection of essays by George Orwell (pp. 162-177). New York: Doubleday Anchor.
Turque, B. (2009, January 5). Rhee plans shake-up of teaching staff, training: Career development would change for those who remain. The Washington Post, B1, B6.