The Devil’s Dictionary

Feeling lost, angry, disenfranchised? Confused by the jargon overwhelming the academy? Philip Davies offers a handy print-out-and-keep guide to the evils of ‘edu-speak’

April 14, 2010

Every profession has its own language, which it uses as a status barrier to distinguish insiders from outsiders. But has education become so littered with arcane and incomprehensible jargon that even the insiders have a hard time understanding what it means?

Worse is the tendency to take familiar words and pour into them an “edu-speak” meaning. For those still wrestling with the meaning behind the edu-babble, here’s my personal interpretation of some of the new meanings given to old words that we all thought we understood.

academic, adj. of no practical use (all meanings).

  • degree, n. a level of educational attainment, formally attainable by 2 per cent of the population, but now within the capabilities of 50 per cent of the population, according to a government policy that has now been scrapped.
  • foundation degree, n. working-class degree.
  • honours degree, n. middle-class degree.
  • postgraduate degree, n. upper-class degree, one level higher than necessary as far as economic policy is concerned.

education, n. formerly the process by which knowledge was passed from one generation to another in order to provide the young with a heritage of culture and values. Now obsolete (see learning).

  • further education, n. the kind of education that is designed to equip you to get a job, but takes you no further.
  • higher education, n. used to be concerned with teaching people how to think. Now considered unimportant. No longer substantially different from further education. A kind of “further-more education”.
  • liberal education, n. a preparation for life rather than work, for learning how to live rather than to gain a living, for those who work to live rather than live to work. Considered an unaffordable luxury in today’s society (cf. vocational education).
  • primary education, n. according to the government, the proper place for sex education, drug advice and relationship counselling.
  • secondary education, n. method by which the government has chosen to solve most of the problems of society by social engineering. Determined by the latest political fad.
  • vocational education, n. education whose primary purpose is to contribute to the economic wellbeing of the country (cf. liberal education).

educational inclusivism, n. policy that has identified academic subjects as the main barrier to social progression, with the consequent aim of removing them from the curriculum. Based on the erroneous belief that poorer members of society cannot cope with hard subjects.

elite, n. a swear word.

emotional intelligence, n. the kind of intelligence that doesn’t help you to do any better in examinations, but may make you feel better when you fail.

learning, n. a natural ability to gain information, often unconsciously, as easily as a dog picks up a bone. Can take place anywhere and without the need for a teacher. Has superseded the need for education.

  • lifelong learning, n. based on the idea that schooling and formal education are not as important as was once thought, and that learning can be left to more convenient passages of time later in life.
  • personalised learning, n. learning that is founded on the assumption that what children have in common is less significant than their differences.
  • learning society, n. a term that lacks both precision and meaning.
  • learning to learn, v. a stand-alone generic skill now considered more important than learning an actual subject.

national curriculum, n. an all-purpose instrument of social engineering dictated by current political fashion.

skill, n. the ability to use the hands without having to use the brain. Educationally, used to be focused on the three “Rs”, now replaced by the three “Cs”: counting, communicating and computing.

  • basic skills, n. something you should have been taught at school but were too busy engaging with the national curriculum to learn.
  • functional skills, n. skills designed to fulfil a purpose. Not to be confused with “non-functional skills”, which presumably have no purpose. Indistinguishable from “key skills”, which they replaced.
  • generic skills, n. skills that were once common to all but have become surprisingly uncommon in recent years.
  • key skills, n. used to be those “essential skills that underpin success in education”. Indistinguishable from “functional skills”, which replaced them, and also from “basic skills”, which they replaced.
  • transferable skills, n. the sort of skills that are useful when you lose your job.

student, n. someone who had to apply themselves to study in order to learn. Now obsolete (see student customer).

  • student customer, n. one who, without doing anything else, can get what they want by paying an appropriate fee.
  • student voice, n. the ability of students to determine the success or failure of their teachers’ careers while lacking the skills and experience needed to make mature judgements.

teacher, n. a subject expert who has knowledge and experience to share with learners. Now replaced by the “facilitator”.

  • facilitator, n. someone who makes lessons easy and fun without actually teaching anything.
  • lecturer, n. one who prefers to teach by talking at students rather than to them.
  • researcher, n. one who prefers to avoid students altogether.

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