Ditch 'diets'. Now there's a healthy thought

November 19, 2004

Bob Brecher refuses to be fobbed off by marketing speak.

It's tempting to deal with the huge amount of management and marketing speak that plague our screens, pigeonholes and meetings by ignoring as much as we can and translating the rest into something resembling English. A copy of Alistair Beaton's Little Book of New Labour Bollocks (Pocket Books, 2000) generally comes in handy here. But it's a temptation we should, at least sometimes, resist.

For even if it's just about impossible to take any specific example seriously, the phenomenon itself is something we can't afford to ignore.

The power of naming, after all, extends into universities no less than into other arenas of social life. Those who name are those in power. Humpty Dumpty has moved from Wonderland to academe: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all." At least that's frank.

In our universities - as elsewhere - both the ideologues of consumerism and their unwitting underlings enlist language in the service of obfuscation and evasion rather than clarity. It comes in three basic varieties. First, the slogan: its function is to assert what is not the case to help make it so. Consider this advert for the local college that adorns local bus shelters: "Good education is the ticket, not the destination." Second, the terms that unjustifiably assume the positive value of what they describe: "competences", "employability", "learning outcomes", "student satisfaction" and all the others in the University of Poppleton's official glossary. Third, those terms that don't mean anything definite at all. Under cover of oxymoron or innocuous tautology, these help entrench the favoured conception of education as all performance and no content: "growing" a "business" plan; "taking forward" the university's "mission"; or addressing some "community of registered practitioners".

But if it won't do to just laugh at this nonsense, how should we set about "meeting the challenge"? Let me offer two suggestions. One is to proceed on the assumption that what is said or written is meant. Thus, a request to write a report on the "academic health" of a course might be met by making distinctions between "academic illnesses" and "academic diseases"; discussing "healthy" and "unhealthy" thoughts; and querying how "fitness for purpose" is to be understood in relation to the "diet" on offer. Depending on the context, another "way forwards" - or perhaps sideways - might be to simply ask the writer or speaker exactly what they mean, or to justify what they're assuming; and in either case to refuse to be fobbed off. Imagine, for example, asking the author of yet another paeon to student choice to justify the assumption that choice is a good thing; or asking where else a proposal might be taken other than "forwards"; or what exactly a writer had in mind when advocating that some scheme or other be "progressed".

Those on the receiving end of such responses are unlikely to be amused; the new managerialism is rarely strong on irony. Nor are they likely to mend their ways, for that would be to abandon the project of undermining the very possibility of a critical university education for everyone who can benefit from it.

But if you take on their insidious language, then at least your integrity will remain intact. And not just that. If enough of us responded along these lines often enough, the linguistic assault on higher education might eventually be repelled. Were that to happen, the ideologues' subtlest weapon would have been rendered useless - and that would be no small victory.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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