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"Policy Speak" in the Crosshairs
Jargon-heads face friendly fire

By Todd Sallo

Benchmarking a recent proactive paradigm shift has revealed a curriculum model (of a model curriculum, modeled on a fully articulated student-oriented effort-based system) that represents the wave of the future, even as it remains mired in the past.

Data-based inquiries of demand-driven, civic-minded initiatives that are market-based, choice-based, technology-based and segmentally neutral, have incentivized education practitioners and pedagogical personnel to pursue selective flexibility in the utilization of evaluative instruments and assessment tools in learning-oriented, community-level functional analysis.

Knowledge-producing organizations can leverage developmental assets as knowledge products by championing a targeted, learner-centered, knowledge-intensive, cross-sectional centerpiece initiative that impacts and empowers the at-risk demographic without systematizing comprehensive role strain.

A blue ribbon panel has determined that this model bottom-lines as revenue neutral, with a dollar-cost-analysis that reveals both weak power and negative growth.

No doubt some of you are still trying to make sense out of the paragraphs above. You can stop now. Perhaps a "policy wonk" somewhere has actually deduced an unintended meaning in all that gibberish. If so, please notify the editor immediately.

For anyone who is well schooled in the language of policy organizations, foundations and "think tanks," this kind of writing has a familiar ring-some of it even sounds cliche. In fact, though taken out of context, all of the terms and expressions above were culled from actual reports, papers and articles in the field of higher education policy. And with a little tweaking, those paragraphs could even be mistaken for the genuine article, virtually indistinguishable from the barrage of buzzwords that comes out of many policy organizations.

Some linguists refer derisively to this type of jargon-laden language as "policy speak" or "foundation-ese." This is not unique to higher education, of course. Many fields have their own trademark lingo, and some terms take on a life of their own, finding use in unrelated fields, like viruses that jump from one species to another. Much of the jargon regularly employed in the field of higher education policy, for instance, is borrowed from finance and economics, or from the military.

A recent Doonesbury cartoon makes great sport of this. In a commencement address, the president of mythical Walden College is attempting to reassure the graduating class that the economy is not a "denied environment," and that their "high-value assets" prepare them well for the future. "Will there be challenges on the way? Blowback, mission creep, friendly fire? Roger that, graduates!" he says. "But never forget: Your education is a force multiplier, effects-based training that will allow you to stay on plan! You're ready, people, so lock and load!"

The military has long been a leading purveyor of this type of abstract language, and the recent war in Iraq provided a perfect opportunity for them to confect and disseminate a lot of jargon which was dutifully repeated, sometimes ad nauseum, by a pliant press.

One of the more common reasons for using jargon is to cushion the impact of the message-hence the invention of such euphemisms as "collateral damage" and "friendly fire." In the modern parlance, we do not "fight the enemy," but rather "engage combatants"-as if a tea party were about to break out. In policy speak, this often takes the form of substituting words like "funding," "investment" and "resources" for the harsher variations of "money." Urban black kids become "at-risk youths." Help becomes "assistance" or, better, "empowerment."

But some jargon serves no such purpose. It is not only unnecessary to the task of communication, but actually obscures the message. A good example is "boots on the ground," one of the more entertaining bits of military jargon that recently gained popularity (and attendant overuse). Does "200,000 more boots on the ground" represent another 200,000 soldiers, or must we divide by two, on the assumption that each soldier has two boots? Have the soldiers walked so many miles that their worn-out boots need to be replaced, thus requiring more boots on the ground?

A CNN report from last April began, "With U.S. boots on the ground at Saddam International Airport, sustained explosions rocked Baghdad on Friday morning." Was anyone wearing these U.S. boots? Did the boots have to sustain the explosions without human reinforcements? Donald Rumsfeld did not clarify.

Of course, the real reason for using this expression, and many others like it, has nothing to do with conveying useful, specific information-in this case, about troop deployments. Rather, its use says, "I am an expert in this field, an insider. I am someone who knows the lingo, so you should listen to me."

It is the equivalent of the secret handshakes used by benevolent societies and fraternities, in that it has no inherent meaning or value on its own (and could even seem bizarre to the uninitiated), but it gets you in the door. Its use seeks to invoke a shared legacy or point of view. It says, "I'm a member of the club; I'm on your side."

Higher education organizations have their equivalents of "boots on the ground." (In fact, some of them have probably already appropriated that term for their own use, perhaps as a way to dramatize renewed calls for more K-12 teachers.) Adjectives such as "proactive," "comprehensive" and "intensive" are commonly applied, even though their meaning is nebulous at best, because their use confers the appearance of expertise and proficiency. Expressions such as "high-stakes" and "new paradigm" lend a sense of drama and gravity to otherwise ordinary run-of-the-mill issues. "Benchmarking" implies a serious, scientific analysis. And why form a committee, when you can establish a "blue ribbon" panel?

Language of this type can sometimes be used to announce a political point of view, party affiliation or other bias. In education policy speak, words like "underrepresented" and "diversity" tend to reveal a left-leaning attitude, while expressions like "family values" and "back to basics" usually show the opposite. If the purpose is pure communication, then this is not all bad. When understood by the intended audience, it can be useful in conveying a great deal of information succinctly-like technical language among experts.

But much of the time, language of this type is not used for such high-minded reasons, but rather merely to impress people. While it pretends to communicate grand ideas broadly, its primary purpose is simple puffery.

In his book, "Plain Style," Christopher Lasch argues that "esoteric terminology" appeals especially "to those who wish to impress others with a display of special learning." Lasch recognized the fact that each craft or profession tends to evolve a special terminology of its own, but, "since outsiders can make no sense of it," he wrote, "jargon kills a general conversation, serving merely to identify the speaker as the possessor of secrets inaccessible to the multitude."

Lasch decried "the clotted jargon we see in print" as being largely "pompous and pretentious," and advised the use of ordinary language whenever possible. "Abstractions are often indispensable, of course," he allowed. "Sipped in small amounts, they may have a slightly intoxicating effect, not inconsistent with verbal clarity. Over-indulgence, however, leads to slurred speech and eventually destroys brain cells."

It is a diplomatic way of saying what we all know: A lot of what passes for serious writing is just plain bull. And literature from the field of education policy is full of examples:

"To stay the course is to embrace change when change holds promise for bringing us closer to our vision. Much of TERC's innovative, inquiry-based curricula requires changes in teacher practice, including acquisition of content knowledge, ability to lead project-based learning, skill in creating 'team engaged' rather than 'teacher instructed' learning experiences, and ability to support and assess student progress using several assessment tools."
- Hands On!, a publication of TERC, Spring 2001

"Jeffrey A. Fromm, the president of KnowledgeQuest Education Group, a New York-based firm that provides consulting and financial services to education-related businesses...describes these entrepreneurs generally as 'mission driven' and motivated by a 'dual bottom line'-concerned about making a difference as well as making money."
- Education Week on the Web, December 1, 1999

"Participants will use the High Schools That Work (HSTW) key practices and indicators to assess the state of current practices in their high schools...and brainstorm a set of actions that the school can take to shift from an ability model design to an effort-based system."
-Description of a workshop, 11th international conference of "Connecting Classrooms, Communities and Careers"

"Written for those working with young people on building their 'developmental assets'-factors that can impact success in life. Provides hands-on, experiential activities and worksheets aimed at helping young people discover their abilities and understand their responsibility in nurturing their own assets."
-Description of "Building Assets Together: 135 Group Activities for Helping Youth Succeed"

"In a piece called 'The Soul of a New University,' Arthur Levine calls on higher education to recognize the convergence of knowledge-producing organizations joining television and publishing in creating an array of technology-based knowledge products that would make the contemporary place-bound campus obsolete."
-Edward Zlotkowski, American Association for Higher Education Forum on Faculty Roles and Rewards, January 2002

"This series overview introduces Dr. Judith Langer's theory of literary envisionment and envisionment-building classrooms and invites us into real classrooms of real teachers to see how this theory plays out in practice with real students.

Like all good pedagogical theories, Dr. Langer's theory of envisionment-building classrooms is philosophically concrete, yet allows for a widely diverse range of classroom practices. Grounded in key understandings about human beings as learners and as makers of meaning, the basic tenets of envisionment theory could productively underpin literature instruction in any classroom, at any grade level."
-Description of a video series offered by Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting

"These forces have produced a highly competitive, turbo-charged, equity-driven performance culture, with several implications for government, non-profits, and communities."
-"Working Better Together: How government, business and nonprofit organizations can achieve public purposes through cross-sector collaboration, alliances and partnerships," by R. Scott Fosler

To be fair, these samples were taken out of context. The writers would surely insist, with some justification, that this is not merely babble dressed in peacock feathers-that, given a chance, they could explain what they meant and why they needed to use all that verbal plumage.

They might point out that these words were not intended for a general audience-that a group of experts in the field would certainly be aware of their deeper meanings. Perhaps. But it can be a tricky thing to presume too much about one's target audience. There is a tendency to overestimate the extent to which a given group of people shares a common understanding of an esoteric language. And "experts" cannot be relied upon to admit that they have failed to understand something. Who wants to risk looking foolish?

So, how do we know when we've crossed the line? At what point does the appropriate use of technical language degenerate into buzzwords and jargon? This is not a simple "black and white" matter; it's a judgement call. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart summed up this type of dilemma best in his famously opaque effort to define hard core pornography in a 1964 case: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."

It can be very tempting to substitute a highfalutin term for something more mundane. But most of the time, it's no accident-we know it when we're doing it. If a simpler word would suffice, though, isn't that preferable?

Appropriately, Christopher Lasch's advice in this matter is plain as it is true. "If you intend to communicate with readers, instead of merely making a formidable first impression," he wrote, "use ordinary language."

Todd Sallo is an editor for National CrossTalk.

The New Yorker Collection, Edward Koren, From CARTOONBANK.COM.
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