Plastic Language in Education

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While the schools burn, the regulatory and supervisory committees fiddle in sublime indifference to the calamity in which they are embroiled and which, it should be noted, they are effectively abetting. As any impartial observer is aware, the curriculum has been cripplingly diluted as well as politicized. No less damaging, the system is going bankrupt. Plant maintenance, support personnel, equipment supplies, books and journals, library and print budgets are all being remorselessly cut back. At the same time, the cost of education continues to rise and student loans balloon unaffordably.

Yet sufficient resources are made available to fund an endless round of conferences, workshops, dinners, research teams, guest facilitators, visiting assessors, teachers’ union perks and “productivity” raises for chief administrators. No matter. The committees continue to proliferate, in order to promote yet another in a series of unnecessary reforms or syllabus revisions, negotiated in a bland and vacuous eduspeak that sounds authoritative but says next to nothing. And this is the real nub of the issue. It is a language that has critically devitalized us, cutting us off from knowledge of the past and insulating us from the reality of the present, let alone the future. As Uwe Poerksen tells us in Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language, (and as the administrative documents should make clear), “we are dealing with a new type of language usage—one might call it modular—and a new word type—plastic.”

The standard recipe on which the planners and functionaries rely in contriving their peculiar medium of cored and pulped pseudo-expression, shorn of nuance and showing no trace of their origins, is characterized by Poerksen as follows: (1) “take a handful of basic plastic building blocks” (‘development,’ ‘factor,’ ‘consolidation,’ etc.); (2) “combine them with the typical technical and pseudotechnical vocabulary of the planning section” (‘unit,’ ‘zone,’ ‘region,’ etc.); (3) “add sparingly colorless verbs” (‘to document,’ ‘to secure and strengthen,’ etc.); (4) “and season to taste with a few meaningless adjectives and adverbs for emphasis” (‘important,’ ‘highly,’ etc.). And presto! the lexico-syntactical gloop we know as the management style of discourse, which may be adapted and applied indiscriminately to any of the professional and sociotechnical areas of bureaucratic control, including, to our growing discomfiture, the domain of educational reform and administration. As Poerksen notes, the language of education “can often no longer be distinguished from the language of administration.” And this is one of the major reasons that nothing is ever done except further harm.

Poerksen’s most interesting suggestion is perhaps that the plastic language now universally exploited by our experts had already been foreseen and parodied as Orwell’s Newspeak, a language typified by a reduced vocabulary, recombinant terms (doubleplusuncold=very warm), binary values (old=bad, new=good), arbitrary meanings (war is peace), logical transparency (he thinked), abstraction and abbreviation—in other words, “the language of a totalitarian state completely divorced from history.” Poerksen lists some thirty-odd features of Plasticspeak which move in the same Orwellian orbit, of which I give a dozen of the most significant below. Plastic words:

  • are devoid of content
  • are modular and recombinant
  • squeeze out synonyms
  • lack a historical dimension
  • dispense with questions of good and evil
  • awaken needs that had not previously existed
  • cannot be made clearer by tone and gesture
  • are more like an instrument of subjugation than of freedom
  • arrange for function to overwhelm and obliterate content
  • are authoritative
  • are polymorphous, elastic and abstract and so bring about unreflected consensus
  • justify the existence of experts

What we are dealing with, then, is an operational or single-ply language, whose chief characteristics are the identification of the person or thing with the function and, perhaps even more damaging, the suppression of the historical dimension. In this way we become the victims of rampant bureaucratese, the language of administrative control, which remains one of the most effective techniques of totalitarian domination in any ideological camp. “With a word such as ‘development’,” Poerksen remarks, “one can ruin an entire region.”

Even if we take a less alarmist view of the issue, we see the outcome of this linguistic takeover all around us in the denaturing of serious thought and the destruction of healthy discourse. This bureaucratese is a dialect that spreads like tent caterpillars on a cherry tree, feeding in the sheltering embrace of folios before it finally devours its host. It is a species of mental infestation that applies across the entire cultural spectrum, but is most devastating when it afflicts the formative institution of education.

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  • http://www.magneticleaders.com Dave Johnson

    Nothing new under the sun. Clement spoke of making false opinions seem true by means of words, and Plato talks of the training and skill by which one can make unimporntant things seem important

  • Nate Whilk

    I wish this really was new. See "Education Jargon Generator" http://www.sciencegeek.net/lingo.html and phrase generators in other fields.

  • Eric G

    Lawyers and universities routinely use plastic language to silence critics, employing plastic terms like "offensive', "harassment" and ____-phobia without applying any objective standard or legal definition of these terms..

    • ajaxoftherockies

      I like to refer to one who speaks in plastic as an "Enema Insertion Aperture"

  • http://Baersart.com Jane Larson Baer

    I would add the overuse (and underuse) of the word "racist". When people cannot argue a natural "side" evil can fill the vacuum. For example, in my town, illegal immigrants from Mexico are supported by many leftists, who coincidentally include wealthy poeple who hire them for slave wages. Less wealthy Americans cannot argue that their wages,jobs and neighborhoods are becoming contorled by illegal immigrants without being labeled 'racists" and endandered.

  • clarespark

    The same dilution of meaning and nuance is evident in management consulting; I wrote about its sadomasochistic aspects here: http://clarespark.com/2012/05/20/kick-me-again/. But I blame even more the entire movement I call The Great Dumbing Down, and wrote about it in two parts, the second here: http://clarespark.com/2012/03/22/3760/, with a link to part one. But I would add to the blame in this interesting essay the trajectory of mass culture and its disregard for truth and precision, along with its lamentable primitivism. No real "primitive" tribe could survive with the paucity and abstraction of language in our current "civilized" state of degeneration.

  • mrbean

    Language is a conceptual tool—a code of visual-auditory symbols that denote concepts. To a person who understands the function of language, it makes no difference what sounds are chosen to name things, provided these sounds refer to clearly defined aspects of reality. But to a tribalist, language is a mystic heritage, a string of sounds handed down from his ancestors and memorized, not understood. To him, the importance lies in the perceptual concrete, the sound of a word, not its meaning. The perversion of language is the tool of tribalists who seek to obscure what they really stand for.

  • http://rau.3littlefoxes.com Lfox328

    The Leftists use language in that manner all the time – I was once in an education class where the instructor used the word "hegemony" – few in the class felt they understood the word, so finally, I asked her what it meant.

    She jargonized disjointedly for some time, leading to a class filled with graduate students who were NOT enlightened – you might say that they "lost the light" they had possessed previously.

    That's when I understood that use of the term was a code word, whose use signified that the speaker (and any hearers that didn't show confusion) were "one of us".

  • Rifleman

    This is the same kind of language obama uses, vague, quantifying little to nothing, and giving the impression of a lot of thought and constructive action, without anything of the sort really happening. Instead of using language to clarify, they use it to obscure, which is something a person does when trying to run a con job.

  • Maxie

    This is nothing new. The vacuous jargon of "Postmodernism" has been exposed and parodied by 'text generators' which can crank-out impressive sounding gibberish using a 'vocabulary' of PoMo 'buzzwords'. For examples go here: http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/ and/or here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism_Genera

    The "beauty" of this babble is that Professors of English can simultaneously 'snow' each other using such jargon. Neither side of the conversation understands what's being said but both are forced to pretend they do or be exposed as the fools they are.

  • Patrick Henry

    The use of language as a means of manipulating thought and ultimately action goes back to the ancient art of rhetoric. Ayn Rand once wrote a brilliant essay on the use of context-dropping designed to confuse and decieve one's readers, explaining that this technique can only benefit a liar. For example branding an opponent with the term "extremist" is often used to good effect. But is being honest in the extreme good or bad? The word extreme cannot be defined without being placed in context and therefore context-dropping can only be used to deceive the nature of the argument. Likewise for all the vacuous words and phrases that appear authoritative to the laymen but conceal any number of stupid ideas bureaucrats or educrats wish to pursue but don't wish to have scrutinized.