What are we to think of a proposal that a school’s mission should be to produce “motivated global contributors”? The proposer said in support of the phrase that “I like the word ‘global.’” Now, I like the word “nectarine” but would not want it in a school’s mission. Nor, even if I particularly liked the word “global,” would I want it in the phrase “motivated global contributors.”
The reason for suspecting this phrase has to do with the ideal of aptness in language—not an easy ideal to work with. That is why most civilized countries insist on years of instruction in language, why people who are keen on words push beyond their lessons to explore what words can do, and why Shelley would not defend poetry by saying that it helps one pass multiple choice tests. It is why learning a language is more about understanding than about knowledge, though it is very much about knowledge.
Given the need for years of instruction mixed with and followed by more years of exploration and acquaintance, it is shocking how little the teaching profession thinks of good language, to judge by what it permits and even encourages in professional speech and writing.
Consider again the proposed mission statement: we don’t know what a “global contributor” is. The phrase carries a vague suggestion, maybe of making a great impact in the world, or maybe of thinking of the consequences of what one does for the world as a whole, or maybe of philanthropy on a worldwide scale, or maybe of returning to the Earth what one takes from it, whatever that may be.
Another problem is the insistence on motivation, as if having motives would be supererogatory normally, but not at our school. And never mind what the motives may be, so long as we have them.
It is hard, when confronted with an expression like this one, to avoid concluding that the proposer doesn’t particularly care what it means so long as it “sounds good.” A “good sound” doesn’t even have to be euphonious; it merely needs to be vaguely suggestive of a moral or social good—the more vaguely, the better.
The field of education is full of this kind of talk and writing, of which the mission statement is not a particularly egregious example. It does not have to be so. Read excellent writers on teaching—Plato, Rabelais, William James, Mortimer Adler—and you move into another climate of discourse, one free of the usual dreary showers.
I think there are two explanations for the predominance of bad language in education. One is that we are nearly the world’s oldest profession, many of whose excellent practitioners have been leaving their thoughts behind for thousands of years. Someone who whose ambition embraces more than teaching—who may be a Global Education Contributor—may feel daunted by or resentful of this repository of well-written wisdom and advice. Such a person will try for new language if he or she can’t come up with new thoughts; and if the previous language was apt, the new language is liable to a falling-off.
The other is educationists’ predilection for baloney, a kind of talk that Professor Barzun calls “flatulent Newspeak.” This taste has many explanations, none of them to the credit of the profession. Professor Frankfurt wrote a famous philosophy paper about one variety of baloney, “bullshit,” which arises from a lack of concern with accuracy and the truth as compared with, say, the wish to sound good or to say what people want to hear.
No signs exist anywhere of a general move away from baloney. What are ordinary teachers to do when presented, as they inevitably will be, with language that offends their intellect and their aesthetic and moral sense? I am grateful to a colleague for a suggestion: the game of Baloney Bingo.
To play, produce a series of bingo cards, but instead of having the numbers 1 – 75, these cards should have a word or phrase taken from current baloney in the field. Each letter (B-I-N-G-O) has fifteen possible words or phrases. Here are fifteen suggestions:
Put five of these phrases under the letter “B” instead of the five usual numbers. Do so with all five letters except the free space. Distribute cards to your colleagues, who then take them to faculty meetings, teachers’ conferences, and professional development courses. Each time you hear one of the words or phrases, mark it. The first person to get BINGO wins.
It probably won’t do to interrupt meetings and conferences with cries of BINGO, so you should just note the time when you hear a phrase. After the meeting, compare cards so that the teacher with the earliest time of completion wins. Beware of offering prizes for bingo games at conferences, lest they produce a perverse side-effect: Imagine a really dreadful BINGO-maker giving a talk that would normally be shunned. Suddenly this BMer will become the most popular speaker at the conference. One way to judge a conference is to see how quickly it produces BINGOs.
Baloney Bingo may not solve the problem of awful language, but it will allow you to have fun with it, and teachers must often take their rewards where they can find them.