Front Phrases

It isn’t what we say; it’s how we say it. Because language is symbolic, it lends itself to labels and sound bites, bits that represent so much more. Because language is metaphoric, it lends itself to misleading eloquence, phrasing that conjures appealing imagery. Appearance trumps significance almost every time. Most important about what we say is that it sounds good. We must therefore question everything we see and hear. We have iconized words to represent complex and widely varied philosophies or policies. We ride these banner words for reasons only loosely related to those words. We parade verbal icons before movements whose function and purpose are cynically disconnected from the originating reality, and sometimes fairly antithetical to the operation and even existence of institutions to which the words were initially connected, words subsequently employed to leverage change for obscure and sometimes Machiavellian ends.

What do these iconic phrases mean? Here begins the examination of one such verbal icon, Education Reform. A search of book titles related to “education reform” at Barnes and Noble online reveals 32,640 titles. We can only guess what range of thought this encompasses. Even if the ideas enfolded in the pages of these books are repeated on average a thousand times, it chokes thought to accept that the phrase, which drives billions of dollars and millions of votes, can probably be safely construed only to mean ‘changing something that will affect school age children.’ Of course, it can be pretty certain that it will fuel a great deal of media-fanned political heat. In the end, what is likely to get changed is the flow of money, which generally moves away from schools and often into profit margins and dividends.

Look at the words according to Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary (electronic).


noun :

1 a : the action or process of educating or of being educated; also : a stage of such a process b : the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process <a person of little education>
2 : the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools


noun :

1 : amendment of what is defective, vicious, corrupt, or depraved
2 : a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors

Let us assume that “the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools,” and “a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors,” are pretty good indicators of what is suggested by the Education Reform advocates. At least something about what happens to school aged children is impacted by “methods of teaching.” It is certainly impacted by methods of learning too, but the field of educational psychology seldom enters the Education Reform discourse. The simplified findings of brain research are sometimes forced into that discourse. Unfortunately, modern brain research is more about what happens in the brain when one learns, but not so much about how one learns.

Memorizing Cassius’ appeal to Brutus probably looks the same as memorizing the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence in terms of brain activity. So how do we memorize better? Should we even be memorizing? Is that “learning,” and if not, what is? And what do we memorize? Our definition of education doesn’t touch on the processes or content we teach and learn. We can fault Merriam-Webster for the shortcoming in its definition of education, but how can we change the rules mid-game? That’s the definition we had going on. And that’s the danger of defining; defining attempts to fix the temporal into the perpetual. The practical reality of teaching and learning is something more and different from “the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools.”

If teaching and learning has to do with building society, and it probably does, then social policy probably should specify some of what we are taught. If part of our society, however, wishes to have its members learn, say, music, should society at large have the right, because it has the power, to deprive it of that area of learning? Well, we can’t manage the issue of rights and power here. In practice, our working definition of education deals with methods of learning, how we learn, and public policy doesn’t actually try to legislate that. At the same time, our definition doesn’t deal with what we learn or why, while public policy does put considerable energy into what we learn and in an off-handed way, why we learn it. The latter is not often stated, as it happens, but since the testing that matters is a measure of economic potential, we may extrapolate an economic motive in the prescribed content of education. Not a necessarily bad thing, though a bit flat given the depths of which societies and cultures are capable.

How we learn, returning to our line of argument, likely is affected by “methods of teaching.” At first glance, this seems like the place to effect change to reform this broken world; it looks “manageable,” and in need of repair. If the advocates of Education Reform are to be believed, they may provide the best evidence that past practices in teaching were indeed flawed.  These advocates were either well educated and are deceiving us, or they were poorly educated and shouldn’t be making education policy decisions. One questions whether the policy makers themselves know the answer to that one.

In reality, teaching and learning are complex interpersonal activities, much as parenting and (he improvises) childing. They are reciprocal processes, highly individualized and adaptive, deeply steeped in personal, sometimes sectarian morality, and served with a degree of social propriety and responsibility. Where do we draw the lines around these domains? The beliefs of which institution, family, religion, heritage, state, define those lines? How do we make the right things happen and keep the wrong things from happening when we can’t always agree on what those things are? Still, without having any clear idea what we are referring to, we will leave “methods of teaching” in our Education Reform policy, and move on to the “removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors,” because the reform part of our policy may resolve this methods conundrum.

Assuredly, if there is something abusive, wrong or in error about the methods of teaching they should be corrected or simply removed. To say there may be something abusive, wrong or in error about the methods of learning challenges reason, and further justifies leaving the learning aspect out of this discussion. We can agree that we want to avoid anything that is “abusive, wrong or in error.” Fair enough, as long as we can agree on that which is constructive, right and correct. Ah. That points to the soft-spoken or unspoken but hard sought goals of the Education Reform movement. Does constructive mean building a sound, secure society or a productive, profitable work force? Does right mean, among other things of course, all for one or everyone for himself.[*] And does correct mean there is only one right answer? We would have good cause to distrust anyone who even attempted to answer these questions. If they are still being asked after millennia of contemplation, one ought to consider the possibility that their irresolvability is their answer. The conundrum not only persists, it seems to loom over this Education Reform policy.

A year ago, I visited the Cathedral in Ely, East Cambridgeshire, England. I was of course impressed by the age, the history, the grandeur, but I was most impressed by what the Reformation had accomplished at Ely, and across England. Under the reign of the deeply religious, nine year old King Edward VI and his Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset,

The 1547 Injunctions against images were a more tightly drawn version of those of 1538 but they were more fiercely enforced, at first informally, and then by instruction. All images in churches were to be dismantled; stained glass, shrines, and statues were defaced or destroyed; roods and often their lofts and screens were cut down; bells were taken down; vestments were prohibited and either burned or sold; church plate was to be melted down or sold.

(taken from, 06 Aug 12)

Standing, as I did, among the destruction of nearly an acre of Norman stained glass, scores of friezes of angels’ faces, dozens of religious statues and more, some over 500 years old at the time, and the destruction of the original Saxon remains including the seventh century tomb of the founding nun, Etheldreda, was a profoundly numbing experience. This was a compounded crime against heritage. Local lords and their knights paid the Crown for the privilege of wreaking this destruction.

I became acutely sensitive to the potential for loss of roots, the loss of heritage and the consequential loss of identity inherent in reform. Were the Tudor Protestants about reforming what was an abuse, a wrong, or errors in the Roman Catholic Church in England? No. We know it was about diverting the wealth and power of the Church to the Crown. I make no defense of the Church, but ask who paid the price over time. It turns out that all across England, Victorian wealth replaced much of the lost glass and statuary and even rebuilt many churches, and I’m glad they did. But where did that wealth come from? That which made Great Britain great, the factory workers of the great industrial revolution and the exploited lands and people of the British Empire paid for the sins of fathers not their own. Reform appears to be the great change that never changes.

So, where does that leave us, and how is it that we hear this term and others similarly devised so often? They are front phrases of modern policy. Front phrases are façades raised to make actions and even words appear “pretty.” They are spins on the truth, euphemisms of reality, dust thrown into credulous eyes. Not only do front phrases mean whatever the speakers or writers want them to mean, they give vice the visage of virtue, and pledge solidarity with disparate purveyors of fraud. You see, it isn’t what we say; it’s how we say it.

Assume nothing. Question everything. Look for evidence. All arguments are logical, but not all logics are reasonable. Humans are capable of reasoning. They are also capable of obfuscating, and lying with the appearance of reasonableness. Education Reform sounds like a good thing, but what does it mean? And above what army does it rise as a standard?

Now should we try “Restore American Values?”

[*] I am aware of the gender exclusion here. It is intentional.

About Jay C Ritterson
If I say nothing, it might be that I have nothing to say.

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