Plastic Language in Education


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As Poerksen suggests, the language of bureaucratic control joins seamlessly with the specialized diction of military and business policy. I have on my desk as I write a newspaper article on Internet monitoring in which a professor of Industrial Psychology at Concordia University in Montreal opines that “it’s a lot easier to terminate an employee where there’s a clear guideline.” Learning itself is “quantifiable,” a matter of something called “academic skills,” and is measurable in terms of “student output.” When not advocating “integrated organizational-structure,” “permanent innovation-flexibility,” and “functional communications-conception,” educators go about devising “pedagogical strategies,” fitting their wards with “tools for thinking,” and tossing “parameters” about like Frisbees.

Plastic words and phrases also encompass those terms with smooth surfaces and no interiors, a kind of bafflegab that ramifies endlessly. To cull a few from university bulletins: “personal growth,” “high-impact academic experience,” “capstone projects,” “interdisciplinarity as a catalyst for innovation,” “prioritizing our mission to meet our targets,”  “instilling a culture of engagement that enhances global citizenship,” “exploring learning dimensions,” “diversity,” “integrated meta-networks,” etc. This is a language that expresses not knowledge as such but the mere administration of the auxiliary structures in which academic transactions are packaged. It is a language formed not from living thought but from synthetic resins. It is a language evacuated of meaning.

Such verbal deadweight is evident even in the use of sentences. “In everyday life,” Poerksen observes, “people think less and less in sentences and more and more in words,” that is, in slogans, catchphrases, and grammatical fragments. This is true of language use on the whole today, which in both its colloquial and formal instances has grown increasingly palsied, formatted to fit the contemporary mind. Bureaucratese, of course, strings together these linguistic fractals into ugly and often unintelligible sequences. It is precisely the desire to hide our humanity from ourselves, to pretend that subjectivity may be rigorously controlled by “objective” techniques, that generates the impersonal and abstract phraseology so beloved of the current bunch of so-called cognitive scientists, researchers and administrators in the social, psychological and educational domains.

But what is also alarming, apart from the kind of “language creep” we have been highlighting, is that even soi-disant educated people seem unaware of the artifice huckstered by our professional mountebanks and are often completely indifferent to the implications and effects of what the latter say and write. Plastic words make plastic minds. And plastic minds are being graduated en masse from the industrial molds of the education industry. It is as if we have ceased to be real people any longer. “How graceful is a human being,” the Greek playwright Menander remarked, “if indeed he is human.”

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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.