Last weekend, the NY Times published an important story by Julie Bosman about the political importance of how we name our institutions: “Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court… Somewhere along the way, the term ‘government schools’ entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system.”
Bosman briefly quotes George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, an expert on the metaphoric thinking that characterizes our politics. In his book,Moral Politics, Lakoff describes the way savvy communicators frame political issues with language that connotes deep values and morals: “(M)ost of our thought is unconscious—not unconscious in the Freudian sense of being repressed, but unconscious simply in that we are not aware of it. We think and talk at too fast a rate and at too deep a level to have a conscious awareness and control over everything we think and say. We are even less conscious of the components of thoughts—concepts. When we think, we use an elaborate system of concepts, but we are not usually aware of just what those concepts are like and how they fit together into a system… (M)etaphorical thought need not be poetic or especially rhetorical. It is normal, everyday thought. Not every common concept is metaphorical, but a surprising number are.” Moral Politics, (pp. 4-5).
To define the connotation of “government schools,” Bosman quotes John Locke, a linguist at the City University of New York, who worries that the term “government schools” is austere: “It has an oppressive ring to it. It sounds rigid, the opposite of open or friendly or charming or congenial. The people who use that term are hoping those words will come to mind.”
Actually, I believe that in the context of today’s battle over school reform and privatization, the term “government schools” evokes far more than concerns about rigid and austere schools. The term “government schools” works as a metaphor for a very different political frame.
As a pejorative, “government schools” immediately evokes the ideal opposite to which it contrasts: privatized charter schools—free of regulation, and vouchers that privilege the private institution of the family over the calcified “government schools” that impose on the individual freedom and choice of parents. Those who disparage “government schools” are rejecting the twentieth century public school—paralyzed, as they see it, by bureaucracy, resistant to disruptive change and innovation. “Government schools” lack the efficiency of schools kept accountable through marketplace competition, where individuals are free to choose, free to thrive, free to race to the top. And, especially in Kansas where there is a long-running school funding battle, “government schools” are known to impose a very heavy tax burden.