How often, as teachers, do you come across written words that just don’t make sense, or in which the meaning is obscure or almost impossible to work out?
You’d think that this is simply part of the job: marking and correcting students’ writing so that they, in turn, can become more proficient communicators. After all, isn’t it a teacher’s role to help students express themselves clearly and meaningfully?
But I’m not discussing students’ work here; rather, I’m talking about all the mind-boggling jargon that seems to be part-and-parcel of modern education – the official written words that teachers are somehow meant to make sense of.
Take the following as an example:
Our aim is to:
- cultivate technology-enhanced education within the core curriculum;
- enhance strategic school-to-work programmes throughout multiple modalities;
- disintermediate synergistic processes via self-reflection; and,
- repurpose interactive mastery learning within professional learning communities
Most people working within the education system would probably barely bat an eyelid at these sort of statements; they’re a dime a dozen in official documents and publications, in policy declarations, mission statements and curriculum descriptions.
The ironic thing here, however, is that these realistic seeming statements are all simply the random output of an automated jargon writer (just Google ‘education jargon generator’).
Here’s a few more, just to keep you amused: harness objective interfaces to close the achievement gap; enable compelling strategies through high impact practices; discern intersegmental need-to-knows in data-driven schools.
But should we be amused that such gobbledygook can so easily be mistaken for the ‘real’ thing? That this sort of techno-babble is exactly what we’ve become used to in official ‘communication’ about all things educational?
Let’s seek clarification about … sorry, I mean let’s ask what exactly is going on.
One explanation, discussed by renown psycholinguist Steven Pinker in his writing guide A Sense of Style, is the “bamboozlement theory” – the idea that “opaque prose is a deliberate choice” in which bureaucrats and academics “spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say” or where they “dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook”.
Pinker illustrates this argument with a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon in which a school-age character explains his sudden insight into learning to write: “I realised that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can become an intimidating and impenetrable fog!”
Clearly, this is all slightly tongue-in-cheek – but what’s that old saying about many a true thing being said in jest?
Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we’re often sucked in to using unnecessarily complex language simply because it’s expected: once it’s become the norm to over-complicate things, anyone who uses clear and simple language stands out, but not necessarily in a good way. ‘Clear and simple’ can come across as unsophisticated or less serious – for example, just think about when you yourself have to pen an official letter (or write a job application); do you really opt for clarity of expression? Or do you simply play the game, and write in the jargonated style that your audience expects?
Certainly, with a new government eager to make its mark on the education system, we can anticipate a deluge of ‘highfalutin gobbledygook’ from on high. But then again, the ‘obscure verbiage’ from politicians is what we’re come to expect: they’re always keen sound as if they have important things to say (while still leaving enough wriggle room to dodge criticism if priorities later change).
There’s probably little we can do beyond shrug our shoulders (and die a little, inside) when we have to wade our way through jargon and gibberish. If nothing else, we should try not to be bamboozled and intimidated.
But being aware of the problem is one defence. As Pinker points out, the late Denis Dutton, a philosopher at the University of Canterbury, ran an annual ‘Bad Writing Competition’ to raise awareness of how pervasive this sort of language has become – most especially in academia.
As an example, just skim-read this headache-inducing single-sentence ‘Bad Writing’ winning entry, written by an actual human being not a mindless jargon generator. (Warning: Do Not try to make sense of it – life is too short!)
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Hopefully, that will provide teachers with some shred of comfort: however dire the drivel we generally deal with, it could be so much worse!