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Political Reform Must Precede Educational Reform--Words Matter

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"It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts," George Orwell warns in his "Politics and the English Language"

Few examples are better for proving Orwell right than political language addressing, ironically, the education of children throughout the U.S. But, as Orwell adds, "If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration."

In his Leading Minds, Howard Gardner examines highly effective leaders and the disturbing dynamics behind their success. The great irony of powerful leadership is that these leaders speak simplistic messages aimed to connect with the simplistic assumptions of the wider public.

If our leaders were somehow always benevolent and wise, this pattern could in a paradoxical way benefit society, but our leaders tend to be as misguided as the populace to whom they speak--and lead.

For example, in the U.S., we are often guided by our misconceptions and our mythologies, regardless of whether or not either is accurate.

Political leaders and the average citizen depend on, for example, a conflating of demonizing terms such as "socialism" and "Marxism" with the acts of totalitarianism. In other words, when we speak against "socialists," we are in fact challenging the oppressive fact of totalitarian government, but we take little time or care with words (as Orwell warns) and thus simply charge any effort to use government as an act of socialism, thus totalitarianism.

As Gardner shows, we allow no room for nuance, and leaders who remain black-and-white (consider George W. Bush's "for us or against us" language after 9/11) are politically successful--although political success is not necessarily what is best for our society.

It is somewhat fully "American" to be skeptical and even cynical of the government. Calls for no government (or at least better government) stretch back to Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." And this disdain for government is fully reinforced by our mythologies, specifically our trust in rugged individualism, and extends to our contradictory attitudes toward public schools.

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An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in (more...)
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