By Herbert Kohl

By Raymond Williams
(Oxford University Press, 1985)

Keywords for Children’s Literature
Edited by Phillip Nel and Lissa Paul
(NYU Press, 2011)

The writing and content of Rethinking Schools is 25 years young, fresh, and honest—no small challenge at a time when language has become increasingly debased by sophisticated linguistic manipulation in the service of controlling children’s behavior, dismantling public education, and demeaning the high calling of teaching in public schools.

Words matter, and the manipulation of thought through language is one of the dangers we have to confront in the current media world. However, you have to fight words with the same words. To make multiculturalism an evil (for example, in the Norwegian context), or to demonize the words “liberal” or “socialist” in popular discourse, or to elevate words like “standards,” “evaluation,” and “accountability” to sacred status is to use language in the service of particular ideologies. This, of course, is nothing new, but the stealing and twisting of meaning by the right has never been so clever and cynical.

As an asthmatic, I know what it is like to have your breath taken away and how powerless it can sometimes make you feel. The strategy of stealing the language of progressives has had a major effect on educational conversation. The frustrations faced by people like Diane Ravitch and Debbie Meier, by the editors of Rethinking Schools, and by all of us who are committed to protect and nurture public education, is manifested in our loss of a persuasive language to change the conversation. We argue about choice, vouchers, tenure, unions, evaluation, charters, etc. from defensive positions. Instead of having a refreshing and inspiring new language of creative education, we have ended up just fighting back.

I don’t have a program for changing all of this, but as usual find myself going back to the sources of the use, politics, and pedagogy of language.

Recently I have found myself returning to Raymond Williams’ classic Keywords. Keywords are familiar, often-used words that are charged with ideas and associations. When examined critically and historically, they can reveal prejudices, ideology, social and cultural assumptions, and the use of language to manipulate how people think and act.

In a recent edition, Williams examines 175 words and concepts, including: country, culture, private, sex, generation, equality, empirical, democracy, determine, consensus, realism, revolution, management, socialist, ecology, development, science, organic, ordinary, elite, and dialectic. His analyses reveal the history of the words and their current political and social use. I think every educator should have a copy of this book on his or her reference shelf.

Keywords for Children’s Literature is explicitly designed to relate Williams’ structures to current children’s literature. It examines, in essays written by distinguished educators, such keywords as: African American, character, childhood, class, classic, education, crossover literature, fantasy, gender, graphic novel, ideology, intention, Latino, multicultural, marketing, queer, science fiction, tomboy, voice, race, and picture book. The essays are fascinating and insightful, though for my tastes sometimes a bit overly academic. I think it is definitely worth putting on the shelf next to Williams’ book.

A final thought and suggestion for an exercise: If you have a collection of Rethinking Schools (or check the archive), examine how the uses of these keywords have morphed over 25 years. Use the exercise as a way of refreshing our memories and our language.

Herbert Kohl’s most recent book is The Herb Kohl Reader.