Ron Isaac is a retired teacher of English in New York City. He writes:
What a shame that language is such a pliable substance! It’s putty in the hands of folks who control public policy debates, especially about education. And it can be deadly to progress when it’s off the tongues of people who exercise authority unjustly, either enabled by their own title or position or else by their power to purchase the influence of others who are in such position to damage or enrich or simply make things happen.
These people do to phrases and sometimes to popular perceptions what whip-snapping “trainers” do to tigers in a circus. By making them heel, they in effect own these great creatures.
Language is also a great creature. And increasingly it too is being owned by the most formidable of predators: the bold and occasionally ignorant ( most of them know exactly what they are doing, which is why they realize the necessity of describing it differently) people and groups who master language. Not as orators but as slave-drivers. They fiddle with the DNA of word-meanings and do violence to the concepts behind them. They attach subliminal implications that don’t belong there and provide a cozy philosophical base for their biases. And then they deploy these adulterated definitions into the mainstream of parlance and the so-called marketplace of ideas.
As they see it, in a perfect world the marketplace itself would be their property. No trespassing.
They’ve created a new glossary made up of words whose meanings they’ve hijacked. There’s more of them than there are plankton sucked into the megamouth of feeding whale-shark. My favorite is “education reform.”
No thinking person will dispute the premise that education, like most things in life, can and should be improved. And that “reform: what needs to be improved” makes it better. And that it’s desirable to make our schools better so kids can prosper.
But most “reformers” who talk that way, whether reactionaries or faux progressives, are talking in code. Very cynical but unfortunately it often gets the dirty job done. The surface message may resonate with an audience what may be clueless to the underlying code.
These “reformers” are actually preaching privatization, trying to seduce educators with flirtatious notions of “professionalism” that erode autonomy in the classroom, expunge retention and tenure rights from the law, set up tricks and trip ropes in licensing, compensation and promotions, and overall peddling the surrender of civil service protections to the absolute and veto-proof prerogative of management.
There are many enlightened managers, no doubt. But that’s not the point. There are many enlightened reformers. But that’s not the point either.
The point is that a certain specie of “reformer” gives lip-service to the grandeur of the teaching vocation, but their fondness for the dignity of the workplace is like the affection of vipers for birds and rabbits.
They know that teachers uphold the value of standards. So using a morbid mutation of the word “standards,” they pursue “standardized testing.” They realize that teachers who feel secure in their dedication and ability as professionals will not only tolerate but will embrace being judged. So in many areas across the country they are conspiring to set up evaluation schemes that superficially appeal to that confidence, but actually offer management the tools of execution that King Henry the Eighth would have envied.
Nowhere is their guilt in the misappropriation of language more venal than when these “reformers” strain to split teachers from their unions by suggesting that the two have contradictory interests.
They spread the lie that teachers’ opportunities for individual growth, recognition and reward are somehow hogtied by their union loyalties. They sharply contrast teacher virtue with union vice. They quote some dumbass research from some curiously-funded “think tank” or foundation to proclaim that if only teachers would free their diligent hides from the ripping talons of the union bird-of-prey, then “right to work” ( note: euphemisms qualify as a form of language abuse) heaven would reign on earth in a loss- of -dues-checkoff heartbeat.
Softening the language they use does not mean that they are soft-selling the demagoguery that inspires it. Some “reformers” use grace and humor as a vessel for murderous animus. With a twinkle of an eye or the winking of artful prose with co-oped words, they may assure vulnerable teachers that they have nothing to fear from disembowelment.
One strategy to get teachers on board requires an incremental approach. “Reformers” may use the ruse of getting on teachers’ “good side” by tantalizing them with the promise of a ”seat at the table.” But the presence of their union, though acknowledged, is downplayed. That’s makes sense, since what these ‘reformers” lust for is the demise of rights won for teachers by their unions over the generations.
They won’t choke out institutional memory outright, but they’ll exhaust all tactics to discredit it and make it seem irrelevant going forward.They’ll extend the proverbial “olive branch” now and then or let some crumb of benefit nourish the hopes of teachers here and there. They’re banking on the false trust that teachers and their unions will be content to just “save face.”
But we’re not about “saving face.” We’re about saving language from predators. We’re about daring to call realities by their proper name.
We’re about not falling for false definitions but for standing up to them. We’re about education. We don’t shrink from the attraction of positive challenges.
Real reform, for instance.