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The problem with education jargon

Randall F. Clemens

This blog was originally published on October 19, 2010.

Language is a contradiction. It both liberates and constrains. Consider a toddler learning English. Her understanding of and command over the world expands as she learns words like food, mom, and dog. Similarly, an art student’s perception of space changes as he learns about concepts such as line and plane. But, language also restricts. As much as a toddler’s notions of the world expand as she learns new words, she also limits herself. When she observes a dog, she tries to categorize it. Is it an Australian shepherd or a collie or, maybe, a mutt? Likewise, when she grows up and tells their partner “I love you,” is she adequately conveying the emotion she feels? Just as important, does the parter understand love the same way she does?

In education, reformers face a similar conundrum. In our attempts to identify social groups and create conditions for equity and diversity, we often wrongfully categorize students and perpetuate our own biases. The use of ostensibly aseptic terms to describe historically marginalized students is at an all-time high, and a greater awareness of and skepticism towards the words we use is necessary by all.

Words like “at-risk” and “underprivileged” are seemingly innocuous; yet, they carry with them the imprint of hegemony, a term defined by Antonio Gramsci as meaning the process during which subordinated classes consent to their own domination from the ruling class. At-risk, for instance, victimizes students, whereas a term like underprivileged may ignore the cultural assets of a students family, favoring instead the lack of resources they ought to have in comparison to students from a dominant class. Think about a ninth-grade student who recently arrived from El Salvador with her mother, who makes $15,000. It is easy to see how such conditions may contribute to labeling the student as at-risk. Yet, such a stance ascribes poor educational outcomes to the student and her family and ignores the strengths of her family and culture.

As I said earlier, language is a contradiction. Words like underprivileged acknowledge inequities and argue for the redistribution of resources; but they also serve to reproduce institutional prejudices. These terms are the result of the political correctness movement. We successfully removed race and ethnicity from our vocabularies, and I am afraid we have created an even more malicious, insidious system for domination and oppression.