Language and the GERM

By Richard McCance

Most teachers around the world now are probably well aware of the threats from what Pasi Sahlberg has labeled “the GERM” (Finnish Lessons, 2012). However, while some of these threats are blatantly designed to shock the system and impose a new paradigm onto existing structures, others are more subtle and covert. High stakes accountability measures and the privatisation of public education are two obvious examples of the former. One of the more nuanced and often overlooked threats comes in the form of the language used to redefine or reshape the educational system towards particular goals or outcomes.

Donald Gillies (2011) offers us an analysis of the changing use of language and associated discourse in terms of threats to individual autonomy and the dangers this may pose to public education. Key to this analysis is the shift when referring to individual learners from the use of the term ‘flexible’, which according to the author now carries the connotation of reactive and externally manipulated, to ‘agile’ which is now seen as more adaptive, responsive and able to “predict” change (p 210). This analysis stems from the notion that the ‘agile’ individual is “better placed to secure employment and to maintain their economic worth within globalised, rapidly changing markets.” (p 208). On the face of it, this shift may seem appropriate. However, the author goes on to address a number of issues which may cause concern. Gillies cites the research of Michel Foucault (2000, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008) and his study of the nature of self and the various modes by which individuals are made subjects. This analysis offers a cautionary tale through the correlation in the use of language with the rise in a market oriented, corporate agenda.

It’s interesting to see this critique coming not only from within a linguistic/semantic context but also from the more subtle and dangerous context of the threat of neoliberal ideology to the public sector, particularly education. While the article addresses this threat in the context of tertiary education, it is relevant to all of us in our conversations around why we do -and how we say- what we do. It also has huge implications for our discourse on intended educational outcomes and social structures.

The argument that this shift in language is all ‘well and good’ and that being ‘agile’ should be a deliberate and intentional outcome of education ignores the danger of blindly following a broader neoliberal corporate agenda. Education should not be about responding to market demands to produce ever more malleable ‘cogs’ to work the ‘machine.’ Indeed, it should not only be about serving an economic imperative. While economic advancement and development may in fact be one of many outcomes of an authentic and balanced education it can be argued that this outcome is better facilitated by an approach that pushes back at this attempt at creating subservient and malleable clientele ever suited to adapt to corporate demands.

While it is understandable that some teachers may find it a challenge to make the time to read widely on the latest research, it is essential that we are aware of concerns that this research presents us. Gillies critique of the use of language in shaping the ongoing discourse and outcomes of public education provides a framework by which we can reflect on the very nature of public education and the various, and at times competing, outcomes sought. Fundamentally, it is important to consider why we are using the language we choose within this discourse. Understanding how this language reflects different agendas is essential if we are to remain autonomous and free of abuse or control.

Donald Gillies (2011): Agile bodies: a new imperative in neoliberal governance,
Journal of Education Policy, 26:2, 207-223


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