Beware The Jargon Factory

An excerpt from Jonathan Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher

Illustration: Katherine Streeter

Dear Francesca,

I liked your story about the woman whom you called “The Meta-Lady” who arrived to do a workshop with the teachers at your school last month. I gather she’s been hired by the city to do workshops like this in a number of the elementary schools.

When the time reserved for “teacher input” came, you said you started telling her about a story that Shaniqua wrote about her grandma and the way the other children at her table had connected this to funny things that happened to their own grandmothers. You said the woman interrupted you at this point to inform you that you’d struck upon “a shrewd perception” that was more important than you seemed to understand.

She said you had unwittingly arrived at what she called a “meta-concept.” What the children at that table had been doing, as she put it, was to make “a text-to-self connection.”

I think you were justified in saying later that you thought that this was “gibberish.” She had taken an ordinary reflex of the children — someone writes a story and the other children liken it to stories of their own — and had given it a big-time label which enabled her to slot it in a package of cognition theory that she seemed to think was more sophisticated than the way you had described it.

You said, “This woman really pissed me off,” which isn’t quite the elegant vocabulary Captain Black would probably expect from somebody named Lady Marmalade. But if this woman had talked to me the way she did to you, it would have pissed me off as well. It was her insistence that you did not realize what you had perceived that seems so grandiose and ignorant.

You said she then went on for well over an hour tacking on this prefix (“meta”) to a bunch of other words, like “cognitive” and “strategy,” explaining to you and the other teachers that this was a part of what she called “the newest research” about literacy education. You said the teachers were exchanging looks with one another and that one of them, your friend who teaches fifth grade, slipped out of the room at one point when she wasn’t looking and did not come back.

These suddenly fashionable phrases seem to travel the rounds of education workshops with unusual rapidity. (It’s also possible, I guess, that once we hear a term like this, we simply start to notice its recurrent use in other situations.) Only two weeks after you told me this, I was in Sacramento and the same term popped up once again during a luncheon I attended with a group of people who were working as curriculum advisers for the state. In answer to a question I had asked concerning classroom dialogue, a woman with a commanding presence who was sitting across the table from me gave me this reply: “We’re speaking of a meta-moment taking place in interactional time.”

The other people at the table seemed to be as baffled by these words as I was. They tried to change the subject to some other issue of importance they were dealing with. But she was insistent in her wish to keep on telling me about the value of these “metamoments” and, try as they did, they could not shut her down.

This kind of jargon, which relies upon the pumping up of any simple notion by tacking on a fancy-sounding prefix or a needless extra syllable, infests the dialogue of public education nowadays like a strange syntactic illness that induces many educators to believe they have to imitate this language if they want to have a place in the discussion.

One of the most annoying consequences of this trend, as you’ve observed, is a peculiar tendency to use a polysyllabic synonym for almost any plain and ordinary word: “implement” for do, “initiate” for start, “utilize” for use, “identify” for name, “articulate” for state, “replicate” for copy, “evaluate” for judge, “quantify” for count, “strategize” for plan, “facilitate” for help, “restructure” or “reconstitute” for change. The toss-in use of adjectives like “positive” and “meaningful” (instead of, simply, “good” or “real”) in front of nouns like “outcome” or “collaboration” is another common way of trying to pump extra air into a wilted and deflated intellectual balloon.

Even a very good, time-honored word like “competence” is routinely decorated with a totally unnecessary extra syllable. “Competency” is the term one hears (“competency-based instructional techniques” has come to be a term of art) and frequently gets pluralized to “competencies,” yet another of those words I know that you dislike because it sets our teachers up for all those lists of mini-skills that boards of education now churn out with regularity. Still, education writers seem to find these phrasings irresistible. So there is a bandwagon phenomenon. “Successful principals,” we are advised, “replicate best practices,” “identify objectives,” “initiate collaborative processes,” “articulate clear goals,” and “evaluate results” that “impact student competencies and performance…. “

Once these words and phrases are disseminated widely, they begin to be employed without much thought by school officials and political appointees who apparently believe the word or phrase itself will lend significance to unexamined utterance. Not “big words” in themselves, but big words that say nothing more than little words could say, sometimes have the added benefit of making a circular statement sound like a real idea.

In the presidency of George H. W. Bush, for instance, Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos, who had many difficulties in conveying an idea in simple words, told an audience that he could “quantitate the educational deficit” among the students in our schools and that this was why we needed to “restructure elementary and secondary education in this nation.” What did the education secretary mean, exactly, by the word “restructure”? “By restructuring,” he explained, “I mean developing and implementing strategies that will improve the educational process…. ” At last, perhaps embarrassed to be using all these overloaded polysyllables in order to express a very small and commonplace idea, he said he was in favor of “curriculum reform that results in better education.”

“What is school restructuring?” Kentucky’s Board of Education asked in 1993.

“School restructuring,” it offered in reply, “proceeds from a vision, goals, and a plan,” is “systemic” but “at the same time a collaborative” and “intensely personal challenging process” and “creates new questions as a result of the process… ,” is “always in an evolving state,” and “is non-linear.” I remember wondering why educated people could not set down their ideas about “restructuring” in language that displayed transparency of meaning and lucidity of thinking — qualities, I should think, good educators hope to inculcate in children.

One of the most prestigious national commissions, which it isn’t in my interest to identify by name because I have friends who work there, tried its best to give a definition too. “School restructuring,” said the commission, means “new ways to group students and to assess their progress through school-based management… , accountability, and a variety of strategies…. ” Three specific stages of “restructuring” were then proposed. The first was “to reforge the sense of trust…. ” The second: “To ensure that all students experience success… ,” which requires that schools “need to be tracking the progress of each student.” The third was to be sure that children see that “working hard in school” may be connected with “some future goal.” Successfully restructured schools, the commission also noted, “identify strategies that lead to positive outcomes” and, at the secondary level, “focus on helping adolescents to use their minds…. “

These kinds of documents, devoid of grace or clarity or cleverness or beauty, are like wastelands of authoritative-sounding imprecision. The mechanistic clanking of those misappropriated verbs, the desperate reliance upon hyphenated phrases as the surrogates for actual connections between disparate ideas (“implementing outcome-based instruction in alignment with performance-based curricula”), the circularity of reasoning, the whole debilitating journey through an underbrush of tired words that have been used in documents like these a thousand times before, feels like the monologue of someone who has been depressed for decades.

You told me once how much you were affected by Paul Goodman’s books when you were first exposed to them as a teenager. In speaking of the vague, unhappy somnolence of disaffected adolescents in one of his works — of “lively children brought to a pause,” in his nicely chosen words — Goodman termed this dull sensation “Sunday-afternoon neurosis.” And he said of those who suffer this experience, “Their hearts are elsewhere,” but “they don’t remember where.” I think those words apply with equal force to many teachers who are asked to sit through workshops like the one that you reported with the “meta-lady” at your school.

Similar sessions take place at most regional and national conventions at which teachers, to be given credit for “professional development,” are encouraged or required to sit in on workshops that are seldom taught by teachers who have first-hand understanding of the challenges they face but are often led by one of those ubiquitous consultants who appear predictably at these events and later make the rounds of local schools and districts.

I’m thinking, for example, of the “Efficacy Man” you spoke about with irritation after he had made a visit to your school and lectured you and all the other teachers in your building on the need for you to be “more efficacious” in “the strategies” you use. You said that when you asked him to explain these words in terms you could apply with your first graders, he shot you down by telling you that, if you even had to ask this question, you should not be teaching in a school for African-Americans! You said you were astounded at his rudeness but that this appeared to be part of “his shtick,” his way of compensating for his inability to offer anything concrete or useful.

Teachers tell me that the same man, or another member of the “efficacy team” or of another “efficacy team” — I’m not sure how many groups like this there are — presents the same bombastic recipes at many regional conventions, where he tells them they must hold “high expectations” for their pupils, and “insist on competency-based instructional techniques” and, as a Chicago teacher added, “also strive for excellence.” The teacher said she was embarrassed for his sake but could not suppress her anger at his condescending statements.

“The man is obviously brilliant!” said the teacher. “Until I heard him speak, these things would never have occurred to me. ‘Excellence’ — what a truly radical and mind-blowing idea! Here I am, a simple soul who had thought my purpose all these years had been to strive for mediocrity…. “

I have never heard this man, or anybody from “the efficacy team,” so I can’t vouch for what the teacher said. If you thought that there was any substance in the least in what you heard, I’d like to know. But I’ve sat through dozens of exhausting presentations made by similarly voluble performers in a period that stretches back some ten or fifteen years.

Sitting through some of those sessions in which overly assertive people were dispensing their prescriptive wisdom about “student-centered, multifaceted approaches” to “facilitate delivery” of this or to “restructure” that or to “impact” or “utilize” or “implement” whatever else, I used to feel a growing sense of desperation, like a thirsty person who is longing for a cool drink but is being handed glasses of dry sand.

Since the jargon has an interlocking quality, however, those who use it seem to find it utterly coherent and convincing. To say that “school restructuring” means “implementing changes” for low-income children “in relation to their cohorts” by “insistence upon higher standards” comes to sound as if it tells us something we have never thought about before.

Many of the experts, corporate executives, and state or local school officials who participate in panels during these conventions know each other well by now and tend to throw these phrases back and forth to one another. An incestuous conviviality evolves between them — sorry, Francesca! I can see you smiling, but I don’t know any other way to say this — based upon a common use of unassailable banalities. If one of them were suddenly impelled to stand up in impatience and say, “This is a whole lot of hogwash. None of us is saying anything that’s new,” it would have a ruinous effect by shattering the universe of language with more syllables than meaning.

You once jokingly suggested that we try to write a poem together using only words and phrases that are heard at education conferences or found in those official documents in which state standards are compiled. (I don’t think it would be possible.) Perhaps another exercise that we might try would be to guess the probable reaction of a good clear-sighted poet such as William Carlos Williams or a plainspoken poet such as Robert Frost or, for that matter, W. H. Auden, who was so insightful when it came to matters of banality established as official language of the state, if they were alive today and could reflect upon the language being used, and propagated to our teachers, by so many of the experts who are being paid to raise the literacy levels of the nation.

All the “aint’s” and “don’t nobody tell mes” and the pile-ups of “ands” and “buts” that Dobie used to use when he first came to you, and still uses when he’s so inclined, do less damage to the English language than the kind of high-flown terminology your “meta-lady” tried to throw at you and which you had the good sense to reject.

Most teachers never talk to me this way once they escape these workshops and convention sessions and get back into their classrooms. If I’m visiting a school and ask a question to the teachers, for example, about textbooks or a reading method, most would feel embarrassed to reply, “I’m utilizing this 
. . .” or “implementing that…. ” They use a normal word like “use” or “do” or “try.” There are, it seems, two languages of public education. One of them is what I would call “expert talk” or “conference talk,” and one is normal English. Some teachers learn to be adept at “conference talk” in order to protect themselves in public situations where they do not seem to think that their real voices will be heard and treated with respect. It always seems a diminution of themselves.

I’m not surprised that you have never let yourself be caught up in these ways of talking about education. You’re fortunate, in more than one sense, that you came to public education from a literary background and had been immersed in the humanities and in a love of language in your high school years and, after that, in college. Not many teachers have been reading authors like Paul Goodman or the poetry of Yeats and Rilke since they were teenagers. I think this may have helped to immunize you against putting up with inauthentic words.

But even teachers who do not have literary backgrounds like your own, but who are thoughtful and well-educated people, with a normal sense of critical intelligence, instinctively reject these hyper-terminologies even if they use them when they must in order to defend their status as “professionals.” And, of course, the seasoned veterans like Mr. Bedrock and Ms. Dukes have been teaching long enough to know how frequently the jargon and the “meta-phrases” of one decade disappear before the next round of official verbiage appears.

If we want to teach our children to take pride in their own voices, I think that teachers need to fight hard to take pride in their own voices too. The jargon factory in education is a very busy place and it will doubtless keep on churning out new words and phrases that are no less cumbersome, or lacking in substantial meaning, than the ones in use today. To use one of those lovely words your former student liked, we need to encourage future teachers not to be bamboozled. Reject the clankety vocabularies. Defend the freshness of your voice. Defend its authenticity.

Reprinted from Letters to a Young Teacher. Copyright © 2007 by Jonathan Kozol. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.