Plastic Language in Education

Plastic words make plastic minds.

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.

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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Tags: Education, Left