More about the grammar and vocabulary

Our words, our vocabulary and the grammar that we use, affect how we perceive our world and who we can be.


By Geert Bors/Hartger Wassink

Many thinkers have noted that it is virtually impossible to avert neoliberalism (to use this umbrella term) as part of our current-day identity. Even when we overtly claim to dislike or even oppose its economic efficiency thinking, our lives are still suffused with this ideology that has come to dominance over the last thirty years.

Our common vernacular is littered with economic jargon: in the Netherlands, we kiss our partners goodbye in the morning and wish them ‘success’ for the working day ahead. After the holidays or the weekend, we do not say that we have been relaxing, but instead that we have ‘recharged’, as if we are merely batteries to keep the machine going. And recently, the young Dutch philosopher Robin van den Akker claimed that, after us having had to be ‘entrepreneurs of our own lives’ in the 1990s, our society has seen a further shift towards efficiency thinking: Van den Akker sees a ‘sportification’ of our society, which has lead all of us to become ‘athletes of the self’ – always fit, always healthy, always prepared for peak performances.

In our schools, we hear a very similar jargon to gauge the state of affairs: schools are mainly assessed by quantifiable results: from the load of legalist administrative tasks that teachers see themselves confronted with to the yearly cycle of test results – highly stressful for everyone involved, children, parents, teachers and schools alike.

‘The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.’   * Ludwig Wittgenstein

To paraphrase the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.’ Words are more than mere words. Our vocabulary guides our thinking. Not only does it set limits to what we can think, but it also frames our identity. Our words, our vocabulary and the grammar that we use, affect how we perceive our world and who we can be.

If we want to our education to answer to the needs of a more humane, sustainable and peaceful world, we must be aware of our vocabulary and our grammar – starting with ourselves and in our schools. It may not be so much that we need a whole new vocabulary to speak of ‘new concepts’, but rather that we find ways of reappraising and embracing those ancient terms that have always coloured our language with qualities of the inter-relational: words such as trust, responsibility, presence, care and creativity, or aspects such as patience, imperfection, vulnerability and acceptance.

What is crucial is that we are aware that these timeworn words and concepts can gain new contemporary meaning, in the light of our own time and of the questions our children ask us and their schools. If we are able to have a meaningful, thoughtful dialogue about these concepts, we will be able to understand each other better, and create a shared language. Not only will we be able to have a conversation about good education, but also can we have a good conversation about education.

Just as humans are much more than rechargeable batteries, our schools are much more than talent factories.

What we mean by a new grammar then, consists of the underlying current to with this shared vocabulary refers. Just as humans are much more than rechargeable batteries, our schools are much more than talent factories. The common economic vernacular in schools – however inadvertently it is being used by many of us – yields a certain underlying worldview. By consciously adapting different new words – or rather: old concepts in a new field of meaning – we may strive to modify, revise and even change the grammar of educational thinking.

Of course, we are very well-aware, that these central concepts may have many different interpretations, depending on our local context, our personal background and experience, even our mother tongue. Therefore, what we also need to discuss is which words we use, when we are talking about these central concepts, and what these words mean to us. In short: the vocabulary of our common language. Only when we learn to understand each other while using these words, and appreciate what different kinds of meaning exist in our different contexts, will we be able to let new shared meanings and values emerge.