Definitions which wash over your brain

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Fortunately, I have a university training in linguistic philosophy, and understand the Government's education policies. My philosophy professor, the great logical positivist Anthony Flew, was strong on definitions. He once told us that "cricket" was a game played according to certain rules laid down by the MCC. A group of boys on a village green, chucking tennis balls at a tree trunk which did duty for a wicket, were not playing cricket, but playing "at cricket".

He taught me the concept of a prescriptive definition. A word can mean anything at all, so long as you prescribe the meaning you wish it to have.

Thus, said Flew, "were I to say: when I use the word 'good' I shall mean 'banana-shaped', then each time I say 'good' you will have a clear picture in your mind of what it was I meant." Humpty Dumpty put it like this: "When I use a word it means exactly what I wish it to mean."

Armed with this information, you too can understand education policy. There is a recent, and previously unreported example in a briefing about specialist schools, sent to Labour MPs by Charles Clarke and David Miliband. They want to show that selecting by aptitude (which specialist schools are allowed to do) is completely different from selecting by ability (which specialist schools are not allowed to do.) And here is what they write: "Aptitude is about a pupil's potential in a subject, whereas ability is about a pupil's existing achievement in the subject."

Ability, according to the Oxford dictionary, means "cleverness, talent, mental power". Aptitude means "natural propensity or talent". But these definitions are for those who are not linguistic philosophers. For Flew, Clarke, Miliband or me, "aptitude" can mean a pupil's potential in a subject. Or it can mean half a dozen fried eggs and a few slices of unsmoked back bacon. Or hot, steamy sex. Or anything you like.

Over the years, successive New Labour education secretaries have grown adept at prescriptive definitions. One of the favourites is "parental choice". Conventional folk think this means parents can choose. But New Labour ministers (and many newspapers too) use it to describe the system whereby certain secondary schools, often called grammar schools, choose the pupils they wish to teach, and force neighbouring schools to teach the rest. Parents have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

Here are a few more. "Pump priming" means "if you think there is going to be any money for this next year, you need your head examined". "The real world" (where schools are frequently invited to live) means big companies.

"Partnership" means a school taking its begging bowl round local business moguls. It can also mean schools handing decisions about priorities to a large company, usually a construction company, in return for being allowed to pay for much-needed improvements over 20 or so years.

"High school", of course, means "secondary modern school". And "secondary modern school" started out in the 1940s meaning: "Schools for those whom we do not consider brainy enough to get a proper education". Over the years, the definition became so well-established that most people think that is what the phrase meant in the first place.

So we now have a prescriptive definition for a phrase which is itself already a prescriptive definition of another phrase. This has also happened with "brainstorm". It used to mean "exceptionally boring meeting". But - so I am told by a senior Department for Education and Skills official - it is now considered insensitive (since it may be thought to mean "epileptic fit".) The new prescriptive definition for a boring meeting is "mind shower".

You can do that sort of thing with linguistics. You can also prescribe that, when you use a word, it will mean the exact opposite of what most people understand by the word, for instance "public school".

In Tony Blair's Britain, prescriptive definitions have been taken to a level which Professor Flew never dreamed of. Words like new, and modern, and community, and innovative, and empowerment, are used simply to provide a feel-good factor. There is no harm in it, so long as we don't take anything we are told at face value.

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