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Social justice
6 February 2013

How ‘progressive’ teaching methods destroy words and the life chances of the poor

At once accessible and complex, the writings of George Orwell are frequently misinterpreted. For instance, the concept of ‘Newspeak’ (the variant of the English language promoted by the fictional one-party state in1984) is often alluded to in condemnations of government jargon and official gobbledegook in the real world, which misses the point that the purpose of Newspeak was not to create words that no one could understand, but to radically simplify the language so that people would lack the ability to articulate thoughts that 'Big Brother' didn’t want them to have. As one loyal member of the Party says in the novel, “It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

Orwell’s dystopian fantasy is best read as a warning not a prediction. And, yet, in the decades following the publication of 1984, something not entirely unlike the Newspeak project did take place.

In fact, at different points, in different countries, it happened in the worst place imaginable – the classroom. In an important essay for City Journal, ED Hirsch (focusing on America) tells the far from fictional story of how the teaching of language in primary schools was impoverished as a result of a disastrous change in educational orthodoxy:

  • “From 1945 to 1967, 12th-graders’ verbal scores on the SAT and other tests had risen. But then those scores plummeted… The scores reached their nadir around 1980 and have remained low ever since.
  • “...the sociologist Donald Hayes, showed that the decline of the verbal SAT scores was indeed correlated with a dumbing-down of American schoolbooks… Hayes found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies. Hayes demonstrated that the dilution of knowledge and vocabulary, rather than poverty, explained most of the test-score drop.”

Size of vocabulary is of crucial importance because it is so closely “related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence.” As Hirsch explains, the space in our brains where we solve problems is relatively limited. Though we can keep a huge amount of knowledge in long-term storage, when it comes to using it to reach new understandings we can only juggle with a few concepts at a time. That’s why words are so useful – as each sums within itself so many different meanings and associations. Thus the larger and more subtle the vocabulary, the more powerful and agile the intellect.

In short, drugs aren’t mind-expanding, words are.

Anyone with the slightest interest in educational policy should read the whole of Hirsch’s essay to understand the full ramifications, but the most important of these is the impact that vocabulary has on the life chances of the poor. 

Children from low-income households start off at a disadvantage because compared to their more advantaged counterparts, they are likely to hear – and therefore learn – many fewer words at home (both in terms of quantity and variety). Schools, however, can give them a chance to catch up:

  • “...the vocabulary of the classroom and of books is far richer than that of everyday conversation even among highly educated groups. Hence, as schooling covers more and more subjects, it imparts an ever-broader vocabulary. Under those conditions, disadvantaged students do have to keep successfully guessing more words than their advantaged peers do. But eventually, the knowledge and vocabulary gap is virtually closed.”

Therefore, however well-intentioned, dumbing down the language of the classroom was, and is, a truly terrible way of helping disadvantaged children.


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