“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
George Orwell, 1984
Language is an incredibly powerful tool. It can make us laugh, or cry, or rage with fury against injustice, but it can also pervade our lives, without us being aware of how it influences our thinking. In the last five or so years, the language that we use around education has undergone a sea change. If I didn’t know better, I would wonder if I had stumbled into a badly written erotic novel. Where once we said that “every child matters”, nowadays people talk about how our “pupils” must attain “mastery”. They discuss “knowledge domains” and “academic subjects”, and rail against “anti-intellectualism”. Government documents show us how to “administer the check” and insist that we must have sufficient “rigour” in our curriculum. Children who do not make the grade must be told that they are “Below National Standards” which is probably because they do not have sufficient “grit”. If we dare to hint that we might have a child centered view of education, we are told that we are “enemies of promise”, or that we are displaying the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. There are “no excuses” for this kind of stuff.
The underlying message behind many of these linguistic changes is an interesting one. On the surface the narrative seems to be about high standards, and a return to what we might term a ‘traditional’ view of education. But swimming underneath, like a Great White Shark with only its fin visible, is a different set of meanings altogether. What many of these words have in common is that they echo a peculiarly masculine and forceful take on life, with a dollop of ‘public school boy’ thrown in for good measure. This is a world in which we must “man up”, “grow a pair” and “stop acting like a girl”. The way that we use language is inextricably linked to the way that we think. And so, if we want to create a more equitable society, we need to think about more than just equal numbers of women on panels, in Parliament, or in leadership roles. We need to think about what we say as well.
“Every word first looks around in every direction
before letting itself be written down by me.”