Monday, November 22, 2010

Our Words Do Matter

Recently I wrote about how I had given a speech and used the phrase “social justice” as a way of characterizing the first-year experience movement in US and international higher education; and my point was to share the surprise and please reported to me by an audience member at the use of that phrase, because in today’s politically charged highly polarized US culture, we have been encouraged not to use all kinds of words and concepts. Our words do matter.

It is a shame that we are reluctant to discuss certain concepts with our students for fear of being accused of “politicizing” the classroom. The very act of abstaining from referencing certain concepts is certainly a form of “politicizing” the classroom.

I think not only of “social justice” as a term we avoid, but also the word “liberal.” Many of my colleagues are so intimidated about using this word publicly that they have become apologetic if they ever slip and utter it.

The same can be said, in some but fewer contexts, of the word “conservative.” But certainly it is far more acceptable to describe oneself as “conservative” than “liberal.”

I remember how we completely changed the meaning of one word in 1970: “busing.” Busing school children to school was as American as apple pie and had been for decades, until court action “forced” the use of “busing” to racially integrate the formerly de jure segregated public school system in Charlotte/Mecklenburg, North Carolina. And now millions of US parents drive their school age children to school instead of the alternative: busing. In fact, many parents enroll students in private schools to avoid busing and everything else they think goes with it.

Another term which I encounter frequently in higher education is the phrase “developmental education.” This is now used often as a pejorative to mean some kind of “remediation” that we should not be doing because students should have developed the competencies when they were in high school. This abhorrence for developmental education ignores, of course, that the offering of compensatory education has been offered in US post secondary education ever since the adoption of the Land Grant Act of 1862. Instead, this phrase has become contaminated with hot button political components having to do with the poor, race and class. What a shame that we cannot talk openly, proudly, about the need to provide social justice for hundreds of thousands of Americans beyond secondary school traditional age who need to be further “developed” to do college work.

Personally, I am tired of feeling constrained about using such language I intend to overcome such constraints and let the spirit move me in the spirit of academic freedom. Our students need to be introduced to such concepts and let them decide for themselves.

-John Gardner