Battle joined over classroom conflict talk

4th April 2008 at 01:00
Teachers are 'under fire' from an academic for unthinkingly promoting war, reports Adi Bloom

Teacher union activists hit the headlines last week by accusing the armed forces of glamorising war during school visits.

But new research suggests that teachers themselves could be helping to promote international warfare by unthinkingly adopting the language of war in the classroom.

Rebecca Oxford, of Maryland University, believes that teachers help perpetuate the notion that war is an acceptable solution to international problems by unthinkingly adopting the vocabulary of conflict. For example, they talk about "battles" against illiteracy and "pre-emptive strikes" against bullying. Pupils then accept and adopt these terms without questioning their literal meanings. Ultimately, the terms become part of pupils' lexicon, lending credibility to war.

Professor Oxford said: "Language is never neutral. It conveys meanings far beyond the words themselves. In the global age, language is a two-edged sword. It can promote linguistic imperialism, or it can be a means of international co-operation and communication."

She suggests it is up to teachers to ensure that future generations give peace a chance by becoming more aware of their use of language and passing this awareness on to their pupils. English teachers could examine the impact of popular oxymoronic terms - "friendly fire" and "smart missiles" - which are so ubiquitous that they tend to go unquestioned. Professor Oxford views such terms as "Orwellian doublethink".

They can also examine how emotive terms are used to manipulate public support for war. For example, phrases such as "axis of evil" and "clash of civilisations" suggest a black-and-white version of reality.

History and citizenship teachers could highlight use of language for propaganda. Hitler's use of terms such as "rats" or "bacilli" to describe Jews could be contrasted with today's anti-immigrant language, such as "illegal aliens". Pupils could then examine the language of violence and hatred used by the media in recent years. For example, teachers could highlight the racist and sexist language used to attack Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 elections.

Above all, Professor Oxford recommends that teachers must become more conscious of their own use of language. They should notice when they use phrases such as "pre-emptive strike" or "target" in reference to victims of attack, or "collateral damage" to refer to people affected by certain actions. Instead, they should be explicit in their use of language - bullies, for example, attack people, not "targets".

And teachers should promote the language of diplomacy, forgiveness and reconciliation in place of metaphors of war, encouraging pupils to see one another as individuals and with equal rights.

"To change language, change imagination," said Professor Oxford. "Let's teach others the language of peace, or multiple languages of peace."

ro38@umail.umd.edu.

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