“These pilots will trial or expand initiatives that exemplify strategies to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes for those students most in need of support…”

This quote, taken from a joint media release from the PM and Boadicea Gillard in her capacity as Minister for Education, has so upset author Don Watson that he has featured it in his latest book about the decay of language, Bendable Learnings.

Why couldn’t they have said, “we will teach children how to read and do arithmetic?” he said at Gleebooks last night.

Why is it that nowhere in any Education Department document is there any mention of the verb, “to teach” or “to learn” other than in the new word; “learnings”?

Watson is particularly cross about mission statements and vision statements, quoting a fine example from BAE Systems, the world’s fourth-largest weapons manufacturer. One of its five “guiding values” is “minimising the potential impact of our products on the environment … Lead used in ammunition can harm the environment and pose a risk to people … Lead free ammunition … will be available in 2005.”

Management language has spread to the most unlikely places and has “seeded itself” mainly through consultants, he said. Historians of the future will look back, if they are allowed to look back (if they are not “going forward”) as a “significant language event.”

The public accepts it when politicians speak in this “unbelievably dreary and monotonous way” but it has now spread to the education and health departments, the fire brigades and even to the church, “which does have a very good language of its own to go on,” he said.

In the book, Watson quotes the Sacred Heart College, Geelong’s assertion that it has a “strong Catholic identity and witness to Christian values, ensuring that our Mission, shared beliefs and our core values align with the person of Jesus Christ”. That particular statement “seems unnecessary,” he muttered.

The problem with this kind of language becomes obvious, he said, at times when clarity is needed. During the Royal Commission into the Victorian bushfires, held earlier this year, the heads of the Country Fire Authority were asked about the warnings they had issued on Black Saturday when 173 people died.

On that day, many of them had been looking at Google Maps and “value-adding”, he said.

“The CFA had sent management to management school and as a result, they were unable to issue warnings in a language that people could understand,” he said. Instead they talked about “extreme weather events” and “safe neighbourhood places” instead of “refuges”.

“There was no-one there who could say,’‘this fire can burn you’,” which is “pathetic,” he said.”“That is a very graphic example, that in the end, if you lose the ability to say things in terms which we understand, even the ability to shout ‘look out’ then we have lost something fairly basic.”

The former historian was Paul Keating’s speechwriter for four years, and published one of the finest political books ever written, the prize-winning Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM in 2002.

Watson also wrote one of Keating’s best speeches, 1993’s Funeral Service of the Unknown Australian Soldier. Reading these words makes you long for the dim distant past, when you could be moved by the words and the delivery of a political speech.

“The Unknown Australian Soldier we inter today was one of those who by his deeds proved that real nobility and grandeur belongs not to empires and nations but to the people on whom they, in the last resort, always depend.

“That is surely at the heart of the Anzac story, the Australian legend which emerged from the war. It is a legend not of sweeping military victories so much as triumphs against the odds, of courage and ingenuity in adversity. It is a legend of free and independent spirits whose discipline derived less from military formalities and customs than from the bonds of mateship and the demands of necessity.

“It is a democratic tradition, the tradition in which Australians have gone to war ever since.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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