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The Language of School Distorts Our Thinking

53. The language of school distorts our thinking

Every language, including its structure and its words, represents a unique way of perceiving reality.1 It shapes how and what we see and what we believe about our lives, our world and our future. School has its own language, words, divisions and euphemisms. Its message of social control is encapsulated in the words imposed.

The generalisations, abstractions, distortions and omissions in the language of school pervade our thought, limit our thinking, guide our behaviour and shape our relationships.

Ngugi wa Thion’o cites language as subjugating when an oppressors language is used.2 By immersing ourselves in disconnected language out of real context, our perceptions become distorted and clouded. Much school language is about separation: division; period; set; section; unit; grade; assignment; chapter; topic; term; lesson; class.3 Divisions are created by the language we use.

In his novel 1984, George Orwell discusses the purpose of ‘Newspeak’: to inculcate ways of thinking considered ‘proper’ and to make it impossible to think differently. Though its main function was to destroy meaning.4 Schools propagate their own brands of Newspeak, doublespeak and euphemism, to give words new meaning and to remove meaning from words. Discipline means punishment, achievement means passing tests, and detention means loss of freedom, usually without trial, sets mean separating children according to how they do in tests.

‘Consequence’ can be a code word for punishment and co- operation is used when obedience is meant.5 Other distortions frequently occur: “You don’t act responsibly” usually means “you don’t do as you are told”, which in many ways, is the opposite of acting responsibly by taking responsibility for your own behaviour. Twisting ‘co-operate’ to mean ‘obey’ hampers the possibility of true co-operation between pupils, and between pupils and teachers towards common goals. When ‘respect’ means ‘fear and obey’ true respect cannot be learned. These words are used to disguise the fact that total obedience is required. Even “he/she doesn’t conform” really means they don’t obey.

The call for ‘standards’ implies that quality in education can be coerced and tested for, that it can be accurately quantified, and clearly defined with measurable outcomes. That better exam results equal improving standards is an insidious and unhelpful belief. Given the levels of dishonesty,6 exclusions for SEN, selection by schools and teaching to the test, the real meaning of ‘standards’ is obscured. This makes it harder to discern true quality: in life, arts, or goods, and leads to valuing appearance over true worth. When people can’t tell the difference they are easily swayed.

When teachers mark their students work, the evaluating, labelling and reward/punishment element is occasionally obscured. Judgements about children’s worth is encapsulated in the language school bestows upon them. Grades, like those for eggs and cabbages, reduce human beings to commodities. When politicians talk of investing in education they promote only those skills that will pay.7

‘Accountability’, we are made to believe is to do with responsibility for actions taken, but in fact, it’s to do with accounting or counting; what we can measure. Teachers, schools and heads are seldom accountable to their pupils.

A narrow definition of success in purely academic terms is alienating and damaging for children.8 The language of schools sets up artificial divisions in reality. Subject separations are linguistic. History didn’t occur separated from geography, science, religion, domestic science, law, sociology, art, music, English, maths or economics. Reality is segmented in this way.9 It is the language of labelling different subjects that separates them in our minds.

The word ‘class’ refers to a group or a place in the hierarchy in society or in a school. In school, you cannot choose your class. This helps children grow into adults who know their place and do not question it.

School propagates a language of opposites with no in- betweens. This programs children to think in dichotomous ways: black is the opposite of white; love is the opposite of hate. But there is no opposite to love. Dichotomous thinking: good/bad; right/wrong; work/play; friend/enemy; pass/fail stops us seeing the shades of grey in between, and ensures we will pigeonhole people, acts and things without critical thought. Setting up opposing value-laden categories such as academic/ non-academic, worthy of study/unworthy of study, success/ failure – shapes our view of the world. Kohn points out the dichotomy of controlling versus permissive stop us looking for more humane ways to interact with and educate our children.10

Within this structure, how schools define ‘good’ is perhaps the most damaging of all. ‘Good’ students sit quietly, follow instructions, and obey orders. ‘Good’ parents have total control over their children’s behaviour at all times even when they are not there. They enforce the rules and value systems of school in their own homes. A ‘good’ teacher has total control over 30 or so children. We need to question this co-opting of the term good. We need to allow children to be who they really are and all they can be. Good should mean that children are happy, contented, curious, active, resilient, playful, resourceful, confident, and compassionate. We need a world that encourages them to be all of those things, not limited and restricted by narrow definitions of good to suit the needs of school.

Schools propagate ‘label-libel’, a belief that a label sums up the entirety of something and that knowing the name means you have grasped its essence.11 Academic language, devoid of emotion, gives children a head full of terms to regurgitate without the language to expand their understanding.

Limiting our language and distorting it, limits our ability to correctly perceive the world, its oppressions, dangers, and enforced limitations. The language distortions acquired in school help us accept other distortions in the outside world: progress, development, free market, healthy competition.

The language of school promotes and echoes the ideas behind the capitalist, industrial machine.12 It is also a biased and sanitised language evading key issues.13 It obscures power relations and denies oppression and exploitation.14

By encouraging dissociated argument, pretending that oppositions don’t occur, school language acts to deny oppression.15 By using the third person (he, she, it, they) rather than the first person (I, we) the language form used in school acts to separate us from our convictions, and deny our ethical responsibility.16 By limiting our ability to think beyond the terminology, school robs us of a chance to see the world as it truly is.


  1. Postman N and Weingartner C (1969) Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Delta
  2. wa thiongʼo Ngugi (1986) Decolonizing the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature (Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann; London: James Currey) see also 29.Separation from Indigenous Culture for more details of how colonial language imposed through schooling attempts to annihilate mother tongues and cultural history.
  3. Kozol Jonathan(1975) The Night is Dark and I am Far from Home (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company Books)
  4. Orwell George (1984) 1984 (London: Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd) page 235 and page 238
  5. Kohn Alfie (1992) No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company)
  6. see 33. School Promotes Dishonesty
  7. Kohn Alfie (1999) Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, IncentivePlans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes (New York: Houghton Mifflin)
  8. Russell Jenni 21 April 2003 Tested to destruction The Guardian
  9. see 31.School separates subject from subject

10. Kohn Alfie (1999)op cit
11.The idea of label-libel was first put forward by McLuhan in McLuhan M. (2005 ed) Understanding Media (London: Routledge Kegan Paul)
12. OʼSullivan E. (1999) Transformative Learning: Educational Visions for the 21st Century (London, New York: Zed Books) page 104

  1. Kozol Jonathan(1975) op cit
  2. ibid p121
  3. ibid
  4. ibid


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