Education and the English language

Maurie Mulheron

When teaching George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, I often found that students were quite sceptical of the idea that ‘Newspeak’, which had as its central purpose the limiting of thought by limiting the vocabulary, could actually be effective. They needed convincing. With one class, I tried to prove the concept by asking the students to describe a visit to the zoo without using the names of any animals.

I am aware of another teacher who, when teaching the novel, gave her class a writing task where they had to send an anti-war protest letter to a newspaper. She collected the letters, then immediately ‘banned’ the use of most of the powerful words the students had used, and then asked the class to write another version.

Needless to say, the second set of letters lacked any clarity or power. She collected the new letters and prohibited the use of even more words. The questions asked were: Imagine if all these words had been banned for a century, would the concepts also disappear? Does language not allow us to communicate the abstract and to describe the concrete?

But my favourite story about Nineteen Eighty-Four was of the young English teacher some years ago who proved the connection between thought and language by inverting the task. The class would use language, not to remove a concept but to create something that did not exist.

In this case the teacher and the class ‘created’ a student, gave him a name, an identity and a past. The student was ‘enrolled’ in the school, information about the student was posted on noticeboards and announcements concerning the new student were read out on assemblies. After many weeks of this subterfuge, there were students in the school, and teachers, who would claim that they had met the student.

George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, is still worth reading today. This essay contains his six rules of writing that every senior English student should be asked to memorise. But perhaps we need someone to write an essay titled “Education and the English Language”.

You may recall an earlier President Writes where I mentioned that principals had been shown a slide at a Department of Education and Communities (DEC) meeting with the heading: “Schools Process Delivery Framework — Post Replanning Including New Tribal Functionality Advice — 229 Schools”.

Months on, the language is still being tortured.

Only this week I received an email from a principal who had been at a recent presentation on Learning Management and Business Reform. Now stop right there! Is that not the ugliest name of a software package that anyone has ever created? Where is Orwell when we need him? He may well have asked, what learning is being managed here? Why ‘business’?

But allow me to share some of the phrases that were used throughout the presentation:

  • 'Loss moderation strategy’
  • ‘Undiscovered solution’
  • ‘Authority NOT autonomy’
  • ‘It is not 1000 flowers blooming’
  • ‘Is the principal an agent or a client?’
  • ‘Separate the inputs from the outputs’
  • ‘Data cleansing’
  • ‘Cost centre’

and one phrase that might bring a smile (or a frown) to George Orwell’s face

  • 'One source of truth’.

Of course, it may be too much to expect in the world of Local Schools, Local Decisions for a DEC officer to use old-fashioned words like curriculum, students, teaching, syllabuses, pedagogy, assessment and so on.

As George Orwell argued in his 1946 essay, and as many students of his famous novel learned, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

So next time you find yourself at a Department meeting, make sure you take along your copy of Buzzword Bingo, a game where you cross off the buzzwords as they are uttered and which can be found on the Weasel Words website.

The site is inspired by Don Watson’s book of the same name and is dedicated to collecting examples of the managerial claptrap that obscures the real intentions of managers. By the way, for anyone in one of the 229 Empowering Local Schools schools, the second word on the Buzzword Bingo list is ‘empower’.

Buzzword Bingo can be found at