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JENKINS: If it's worth saying, it's worth saying so nobody can understand

Photo by Ginny Sampson

Photo by Ginny Sampson

In his famous 1954 essay "Gobbledygook," Stuart Chase lampooned the self-consciously inflated, jargon-riddled prose of American professionals. More than half a century later, I'm not sure anyone has read Chase's essay. If they did, they must have thought it was a how-to manual.

The legal profession is the worst. As Chase pointed out, no self-respecting lawyer would ever simply offer you an orange. Instead, he would feel obliged to say, "I hereby give and convey to you, all and singular, my estate and interests, right, title, claim and advantages of and in said orange," etc., etc.

I suppose lawyers can be excused, because the whole point of their existence is to create and zealously protect a language only they can speak. Otherwise, we wouldn't need lawyers. An entire profession would be wiped out, not to mention most of the Georgia Assembly and large sections of Sugarloaf County Club.

Unfortunately, the education profession isn't too far behind. Teacher-ed textbooks are chock full of mush like this: "Realization has grown that the curriculum or the experiences of learners change and improve only as those who are most directly involved examine their goals, improve their understandings and increase their skills. . . " blah, blah, blah.

Few of us "laypeople" can understand that sort of tortured prose, and fewer still care to try. This presents a real problem because, while the legal profession touches our lives only peripherally most of the time (we hope), those of us with children must deal with educators every day.

That the language they speak -- let's call it "educationese" -- leaves us scratching our heads bodes ill, I think, for parental involvement in the schools. Could that, he asked innocently, be the goal?

The question was brought home to me several years ago as I sat on a committee of parents and educators charged with reviewing Gwinnett County's K-12 curriculum, known as the "AKS" (Academic Knowledge and Skills). Early on, we came across AKS No. 11 of the kindergarten music curriculum: "Demonstrate a developmentally appropriate vocal tone quality."

When I asked what this meant, the "facilitator" (now there's a bit of educationese for you) replied that any music teacher would understand it.

Yes, I persisted, but would any parent?

Well, perhaps not, the facilitator allowed, and finally consented to educate me. Turns out "a developmentally appropriate vocal tone quality" means that children understand the difference between singing and yelling.

So I proposed that we revise the standard to read: "Understand the difference between singing and yelling." This was met with nods of approval from the other parents and polite silence from the facilitator. End result: No change.

OK, so it was naive of me to suggest such plain language. I just wanted to make a point, which I fear was lost on the people who most needed to hear it. Apparently my vocal tone quality wasn't developmentally appropriate.

Maybe I should have tried yelling.

Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and college professor. Email him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.