Critics of education use the term educationese to describe what they consider to be the pretentious jargon educators use when, in the critics’ opinions, everyday English would be more appropriate. Conservatives are the most vocal critics of educationese, as part of their general challenge to the legitimacy of public education and educators. However, educators’ use of specialized language also concerns liberals and progressives because it may impede efforts to communicate with families and community members.
Educationese is a pejorative term, and educators usually would not use it to describe their language. The -ese suffix can be added to the name of any field to create a term for the language used by practitioners in that field (e.g., legalese and medicalese). Such terms denote specialized vocabularies, not entirely distinctive languages. They are pejorative because they parody the use of obscure terms or euphemisms when common, everyday words might do. Academics play a major role in creating these specialized vocabularies. Practitioners in a field acquire them through professional education, and keep up to date on new terminology through continuing education.
Other terms relevant to educationese are bureaucratese, which disparages the technical, impersonal language that accompanied the rise of bureaucracy as an institutional type, and doublespeak. Bureaucratese is a barrier for people who need to communicate with staff in an organization in order to receive services. Bureaucratic jargons are also replete with euphemisms that make undesirable or mundane things sound more tasteful or important. Although George Orwell did not coin the term doublespeak, it is probably an adaptation of his term Newspeak, a political language meant to deceive the citizenry in the novel 1984. Detractors of doublespeak believe that euphemisms (such as downsizing for “firing” or collateral damage for “dead civilians”) are deliberate attempts to hide the harms of corporate or governmental actions from the public.
Specialized vocabularies need not be viewed so negatively, however. They indicate the professionalization of an occupation. For members of a profession, specialized terms facilitate communication with colleagues, because they allow more precision in description. For example, spinal stenosis is more precise than “aching back,” and autistic is more informative than “acting strange and not talking.” In addition, professionals today often work in bureaucratic organizations in which they must adopt technical terms and acronyms associated with government programs, the insurance industry, and/or other entities that impinge on their work.
Sociologist Max Weber is most associated with analysis of the rise of both professions and bureaucracies as institutional changes in modern societies. Neo-Weberian institutional theorists interpret the specialized vocabularies of the professions and bureaucracies as markers of intentional institutional advancement. For example, Murray Edelman interprets language change as a strategy in the advancement of the helping professions. As actors claim the exclusive right to certain practices and give those practices special labels, they are able to exert more power over those outside the institution. They label or frame problems in ways that give them a greater prerogative over the solutions.
Some sociologists argue that physicians, for example, medicalize more and more areas of life, so that nonphysicians become more dependent on their services. Spoofing or denouncing medicalese can be a way to question the legitimacy of such power. Ethical problems also arise when professionals communicate with those outside the profession. Lay people, especially clients, often cannot understand professional jargon, and this may impede professional-client communication or even the client’s ability to receive or benefit from services.
Applications To Education
Education both fits and does not fit this general analysis. Public education in the United States and other nations did become increasingly bureaucratized during the twentieth century, and there have been calls for greater teacher and administrator professionalization. In 1975 when sociologist Dan Lortie published the book Schoolteacher, he reported that teachers did not use terms unfamiliar to the general public. Since that time, if critics are to be believed, educators have traded their everyday way of talking for a pedantic style loaded with jargon.
Conservative critics of educationese, such as Diane Ravitch, have been especially scathing, perhaps because of an assumption that educators neither receive the extended, rigorous education nor possess the advanced skills of other professionals, such as physicians. Thus, their adoption of specialized jargon is a mere pretense. Educators’ “politically correct” euphemisms, such as “performing below grade level” and “underachieving,” are attempts to prettify the harsh truth of academic failure. Education professors also regularly borrow contemporary jargon from other fields, such as business and science, and add it to their discourse. While such practices seem open to question, educators must use certain terms and acronyms to communicate with government bureaucracies, and classroom teachers must be acquainted to at least some extent with the technical vocabularies of colleagues in special education and other programs.
At the same time that educators have been striving for more professional status, education reformers have called for more parent and community involvement in schooling, which would require educators to understand and speak the language of homes and neighborhoods. This is more complex than it may seem, because educators and noneducators in some communities may operate according to different cultural models. Special educators, in particular, have adopted more scientific models for children’s behaviors that parents or community members might label “bad” and deserving of punishment. There is some evidence that homeschoolers and parent advocacy groups are advising their members to learn educationese, so that they can balance the power in conflicts with public school educators. Understanding such language differences must be part of any attempt to bridge the gaps between homes and schools.
- Edelman, M. J. (1974). The political language of the helping professions. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Lutz, W. (1996). The new doublespeak: Why no one knows what anyone’s saying anymore. New York: HarperCollins.
- Ravitch, D. (2003). The language police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
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