Truth is important.  As I have written in another article, truth is not the same as consensus.

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 a position of power while also implying that the position would be filled by a man.  It was seen to link power grammatically with a gender bias towards males.  Rather than introducing another 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 Boards!).  The counter-argument was 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.

Most members of the Committee conceded that the verb “to manage” was indeed the source of the word “Chairman”.  Nonetheless, a few vocal members continued to argue the alternative case, claiming that even though the word “Chairman” may not have arisen from an assumption of male power, the common perception of the general public would see “Chairman” as implying an exclusively male role, and therefore it must be replaced with a gender-neutral alternative.  In other words, even though the facts did not support the rationale, there was an alleged general consensus “out there in society” that “Chairman” implied only men could be in positions of power, and therefore the word needed to be replaced.

However, the situation became genuinely absurd when one 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”, which was then seen by some members as an ageist term implying youth.  In the end, it was agreed that the role would henceforth be known simply as “Chair”, even though some argued that this implied inactivity because a chair is an inanimate object.

So yes, the photo below shows me standing beside the Chair when I was Principal of my international school in Houston ;-)



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

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

To take one example – whether gender is defined as a binary dichotomy or on a spectrum matters when school boards and leaders develop policies relating to issues such as admission, provision of washrooms, organisation of sports teams, and so on.

When teachers are guiding class discussions (as another example), it matters whether they refer to the European colonisation of Australia as “settlement” or “invasion”, or indeed whether a debate on this question is permitted or not.

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

It matters whether we believe or reject the arguments and evidence 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 any process of reasoning whatsoever and simply draw conclusions on the basis of their intuition (gut feelings).  It matters even more when school boards do the same thing.

Truth is not only an intellectual construct, but also a matter of ethical discernment.  When a school board considers the question “would we be prepared to sacrifice government funding or reject a large donation if it meant abandoning or diluting a core principle?”, the answer that follows will be a reflection of the board members’ collective understanding of the identity and enduring purpose of the school – in other words, the school’s “truth”.

Truth replies on clarity of language, understanding the facts and using reasoning to discern the relative merits of alternative propositions.

Truth matters.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

To initiate a conversation about arranging a workshop on “Truth” for your board or school leadership team, send an e-mail to Stephen Codrington at stephen@optimalschool.com.


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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