Introducing “Education and the English Language,” a periodic series.

More than any other space in American public thought and comment, I find “education” beset with corrupt, unhelpful, or dishonest uses of language.

Start with the word itself.

We can come much closer as a society to defining with clarity the concept of “war,” for all its euphemisms, than we can the concept of “education.” War essentially means killing people and applying coercive violence at scale to achieve national/ethnic political or economic goals that are contrary to an enemy’s. I don’t think anyone would fundamentally disagree with that.

What’s the equivalent one-sentence definition of education? “School” may come close to a common meaning. But education? The thing produced by school? What is that thing?

As a country, we disjointedly dedicate hundreds of billions of dollars annually to a concept that has no commonly understood meaning. Millions and millions of people depend on that money for their economic lives. Millions and millions more depend on it for personal development. Within the intersection of differing abstract conceptions and clear concrete interests lies political mischief. Where there is political mischief, linguistic mischief will thrive — and vice versa.

The most “Orwellian” of vocabularies

George Orwell understood that better, perhaps, than any public intellectual ever has.

Were he alive today, I think Orwell would find that the language of “education” has become more “Orwellian” than any other used under any other broad heading in 21st century America.

Some of Orwell’s most famous works of imagination from Animal Farm and 1984 involve malevolent absurdities of language: consider Newspeak and “All animals are equal — but some are more equal than others.” These are the timeless devices of art. And they stick in the common social consciousness of people who have not read them.

Indeed, “Orwellian” itself has become the type of tired, lazy, weaponized cliche that Orwell himself warned about in his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” It’s become a word that people who have never read Orwell use to dub language they don’t like as shifty.

Contemporary, but timeless

“Politics and the English Language” was contemporary to a specific moment, just after World War II, within an era long past. So you might expect it to feel dated by comparison to the art that still lingers in today’s popular culture.

Instead, it feels just as alive and relevant to human experience in 2018 as either of Orwell’s great works of fiction. In fact, I find it more immediate and timeless than his art. I do not know if the Common Core standards that suck the life out of Florida’s education model require kids to read “Politics and the English Language.” But they should.

You will read no better critique of and remedies for bad writing than those contained in that tight 10 pages.

The Orwellian language it describes is Orwellian aesthetically and morally. Indeed, he argues the two cannot be separated. I think I agree. My only real critique is Orwell’s own lack of perception of its timelessness. There is a “language-these-days” quality to the essay that suggests a unique era of decay circa 1946 that human history generally proves wrong.

When language fails, consequences follow

Consider the following passages. In the first, Orwell examines the common failures of five written passages from 1946 that he collected for analysis:

The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

In Florida education circles, one sees painfully the consequences of imprecision in the Tampa Bay Times‘ editorial inability to accurately summarize what reporter Cara Fitzpatrick actually meant in her stories about segregated schools in Pinellas County back in 2015.

The famous “Failure Factories” package should have been named “Segregation Factories.” Segregation, and its challenges, lay at the core of Fitzpatrick’s reporting. But no one remembers that, despite the Pulitzer Prize.

Indeed, no policy maker I’ve seen, except maybe me, seems to care much about her reporting at all. Instead, her editors opted for easy alliteration. And they lobbed up a ball that Richard Corcoran, Jeb’s foundation, and the useless Florida Legislature could dunk on every child, teacher, administrator, and parent who has chosen a traditional neighborhood school in Florida.

Multiple times, the creators of 7069 cited the tagline on Fitzpatrick’s reporting — not the reporting itself — to justify an all out assault on zoned schools that serve poor neighborhoods. None of them paid any attention to the deeply reported follow-up story about life in those schools after “Failure Factories.” It was one of the best pieces of education reporting I’ve ever read. And it was irrelevant — because of one cheap, imprecise word that proved useful to power and won her Pulitzer.

Insincerity is the enemy

Had it been accurately named, Fitzpatrick’s reporting it might have sparked a useful debate. Instead, its packaging armed the powerful and the insincere. And let’s check out Orwell’s take on insincerity in language:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer…

…In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

“Failure,” in education, names a thing loosely enough to insert whatever images you want to represent failure. In the case of the Florida Legislature, “Failure Factories” let them insert the teachers, students, and parents of segregated schools. Not the machinery of multi-faceted segregation itself. Not the operational and legal model that produced it.

I’m going to get around to “failure” and “segregation” as part of the new “Education and the English Language” series I’m introducing today. Both will be with us for a long time. So will words like “choice,” “skills,” “STEM,” and so many other interchangeable pieces in the bloodless vocabulary that malevolent people stitch together atop the prefabricated henhouse of education commentary and thought.

Today, the words “union” and “bully” have most immediacy for me — both for goings on in Tallahassee and here in Polk County. I’m working on both. So keep an eye out in the next few days.

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