Language matters

Many people think that our so-called post-truth society only emerged in the last decade or so.  This is, of course, untrue.  As long ago as the late 1940s when he wrote “1984”, George Orwell was aware of the power of language to shape people’s thoughts.  Change the meaning of words, and you change not only the patterns of thinking, but you impose limits around the ideas that be conceived or conceptualised.

I had a direct personal experience of this, ironically in the year 1984.  At the time I was a member of the Geography Syllabus Committee of what was then the New South Wales Board of Senior Secondary School Studies (a great-great-grandparent of what is now NESA).

Syllabus Committee members were (rightly) becoming increasingly sensitive to language that might be sexist.  A proposal came to the Committee that the person in charge of the Committee should no longer be referred to as “Chairman”.  The rationale for this proposed change was that the word “Chairman” identified an elite position of power while also implying that the position would be filled by a man.  It was seen to forge a grammatical link between power and gender bias towards males.  Rather than introducing an additional sexist term – Chairwoman – the proposal was that the position be re-named “Chairperson”.

This led to a vigorous debate (as often happens when changes are proposed in committees, and even in School Board meetings!).  A counter-argument was put to the meeting claiming that the “man” component of the word “Chairman” did not designate masculinity, but it derived from the Latin word “manus” meaning “hand”, from which we also get the English words “manual” and “manage”, as in managing the meeting.

Many members of the Committee conceded that the verb “to manage” was indeed the source of the word “Chairman”.  Nonetheless, several vocal members argued that even though the word “Chairman” may not have arisen from an assumption of male power, the general public thought “Chairman” implied an exclusively male role, and therefore it should be replaced with a gender-neutral alternative.

However, the situation became genuinely absurdist when one Pythonesque member of the Committee argued that the word “Chairperson” was also sexist, because “son” still implied masculinity, resulting in a debate over whether we should use “Chairperchild”, but this was in turn seen by some members as an ageist term implying youth.  I sincerely hope your school board meetings never descend to the abysmal level of that Syllabus Committee meeting.

In the end, it was agreed that the role would henceforth be known simply as “Chair”, despite some objections that “Chair” implied inactivity because a chair is an inanimate object.  So yes, the photo below shows me standing beside the Chair :-)

Stephen Codrington at The Awty International School, Houston, Texas, USA

Language matters because it is the medium through which we form concepts and understandings.  School boards must be sensitive to society’s changing use of language.  At the same time, school boards must never surrender truth to semantics.

Some current real-world examples illustrate the point.

Whether gender is defined as a binary dichotomy or a point along a spectrum matters when school boards and leaders develop policies relating to issues such as admissions, provision of washrooms, organisation of sports teams, and so on.

When teachers are guiding class discussions, it matters whether they refer to the European colonisation of Australia or the Americas or most of Africa as “settlement” or “invasion”, or indeed whether an open debate on this question is permissible or not.

It matters whether we believe the documented evidence that smoking is hazardous to students’ health.

It matters whether we believe or reject the arguments that arming staff in a school with guns enhances the safety of the students.

It matters when students don’t know the difference between inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.  It also matters when students avoid reasoning altogether and simply draw conclusions on the basis of their intuition (gut feelings).  It matters even more when school boards do the same thing.

School boards and leaders inevitably rely on clarity in language because, as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf independently demonstrated, language provides our scaffolding for thinking, understanding and discerning the relative merits of alternative propositions.

Language matters.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We can conduct an informative and entertaining 2 or 4-hour workshop on “Language” for your Board, Leadership team, staff or students that will enable attendees to understand that language is not the same as communication, why clarity of language is important, how to recognise and avoid ambiguity and garden-path sentences, the power of metaphors, the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, using language to influence and persuade, and gain many more significant, practical insights.  To initiate a conversation about arranging a workshop on “Language” for your school, send an e-mail to Stephen Codrington at [email protected].

In addition, we offer a range of workshops that address many matters relating to enhancing the quality of school leadership and board governance, including 11 NESA-approved workshops specifically tailored for schools in New South Wales.

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