A PC way to keep watchdogs at bay

UK scholars placate bureaucrats with the right phrases, book claims. Melanie Newman reports

March 19, 2009

UK academics have adopted "politically correct" language to hide their insincerity when dealing with quangos and regulatory bodies, according to a new book.

Political Correctness and Higher Education by John Lea, lecturer in the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit at Canterbury Christ Church University, analysed the use of politically correct language in US and UK universities.

In the US, such phrases were used in relation to codes of speech, the promotion of multicultural curriculums and in defence of affirmative action, he found.

But in the UK, politically correct language was more widely employed in the "lip service" academics pay to bureaucrats.

"The US preoccupation is about speech codes, whether you use the word 'chairman' or 'chairperson'," Mr Lea told Times Higher Education. "In the UK, it is about coded speech - academics are learning to ... communicate using certain terms during a Quality Assurance Agency visit, for example.

"You don't believe what you are saying, but you toe the party line so that you are left alone."

He added: "Some of my colleagues think that learning outcomes are a waste of time, but (this is) very rarely discussed or challenged formally. It has become politically incorrect to question them."

The book suggests that forms of political correctness in the UK are more in keeping with the traditional roots of the term than US usage.

"In concrete terms, one might see the contemporary plethora of educational quangos as the means by which the state's educational orthodoxies are ... policed," Mr Lea said.

Quangos establish such orthodoxies by consulting academics then ignoring their comments, he added.

Mr Lea chairs the Post-16 Committee of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers. "At the end of a consultation, you often do not feel your view has been taken seriously, but you are told: 'We consulted with you.'"

In his foreword to the book, Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of educational history at New York University, said: "In the UK, (political correctness) is disseminated by an intimidating array of quasi-state agencies with bland bureaucratic names, (such as) the Learning and Skills Council ... compared with their British brethren, American universities enjoy an extraordinary degree of independence."

Some UK universities do provide guidance on "preferred language" similar to speech codes in the US. A University of Sheffield guide recommends that staff avoid phrases such as "manpower", "workmanlike", "taxman", "headmaster or headmistress" or "epileptic".

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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