Man Up

“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.”
Franz Kafka

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17 Responses to Man Up

  1. nancy says:

    What comes out of your mouth springs from what is in your heart. An old fashioned view, but one I agree with. Good post, Sue.

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  2. Kelly L says:

    This is a brilliantly executed article Sue that does shine a light on the tone of rhetoric that is delivered as government policy. Aggressive and assertive I’d say, target driven rather than person centred as everything alluded to is measured by performance tables and data. Thank you for raising this and that we are in the business of people. Lovely quote to boot!

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  3. I couldn’t agree more Sue. Peter Moss writes “Language matters. We should pick our words carefully, being self-conscious about meaning. ….these are words that foreground relationships and responsibility, immanence and emergence, diversity and complexity, the ethical and political…an alternative vocabulary can help to free us from the hold that other stories have upon us.” (Transformative Change and Real Utopias in Early Childhood Education)

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  4. Peritract says:

    I’m unclear on how you are deciding which words are forceful and masculine – it seems inconsistent.

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  5. Alison Monday says:

    Great conmentary thanks.
    It seems almost like Chinese Chairman Mao style exhortations to me. Commands from on high which must be carried out ‘or else’. They seem to ignore the fact that pupils are living breathing humans, each unique, with different needs and wants.
    My daughter’s primary school was judged to be requiring improvement as they refused to follow instruction blindly but I know my daughter was allowed to develop as a child there, rather than a target and a number. I am very grateful to her (now departed sadly) inspirational head who wore his heart on his sleeve and cared for each child and their family.

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  6. I am still recovering from the Labour Party having been given a chance to vote for women for both its most senior positions managed to put old white men in power again, then I am told by people who a few months ago were saying it’s important to have women in positions of power that in the case of the Labour Party it was not the gender of the people that mattered but what they had to say and that therefore Corbyn was a more ‘feminist’ candidate than Cooper. Corbin then set about making his cabinet and the most senior jobs went to men and the ‘lesser’ jobs seemed to have more women in place, this was then dismissed by saying that senior roles are so ‘old politics’ and Corbyn has more women in shadow cabinet roles than men.

    So, I am confused about where the left is on such issues (I am assuming you’re on the left btw, sorry if I’m mistaken). With the issue about female voices being represented on panels etc, I now wonder if it matters about the gender of the person or whether the opinions that they hold is more important. So, one thing genuinely interests me about your blog, why are the quotes you have used to illustrate your point both ‘male voices’? Is this because, though you could have chosen any number of female voices to illustrate your point, that you believe that the gender of the utterer is not as important as what is uttered?

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    • suecowley says:

      I wouldn’t describe myself as being ‘political’ although I do have views on political subjects and it’s probably fair to say that my views would be considered to the left of centre. I’ve just finished Part 2 of this and you may be reassured to know that the opening and closing quotes this time are both from women. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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  9. WT says:

    I’m not sure that I agree that “rigour” and “mastery” have any male connotations whatsoever (certainly not compared to phrases like “man up” or “grow a pair,” which one might note are not attributed to anyone currently working in education). To the contrary, if one thinks that “rigour” and “mastery” are peculiarly male words, that implies a disappointingly unfavorable view of the intellectual capacity of girls.

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    • WT says:

      Nothing specifically “male” in that link, and even if the word had male connotations in the 13th century, I should certainly hope that people today would not suggest that “mastery” is a word that can’t apply to girls.

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    • WT says:

      In any event, I absolutely agree with your overall conclusion. We should encourage girls by all means, and should work to create a more equitable society. But I disagree wholeheartedly as to how we should use language. Contrary to the post, I think that the cause of female equality is directly harmed by suggesting that words such as “academic” or “knowledge” or “rigour” are inapplicable to girls.

      Instead, I think that equality is best promoted by telling girls that they are just as capable of “rigour” and “knowledge” and “mastery” as boys are, and that they should never listen to anyone who tries to tell them that those words do not apply to them.

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  10. How does ‘man up’ or ‘grow a pair’ equate to the ‘masculinity’ of ‘knowledge’ or ‘intellectualism’?

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