by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 22
January 2020
Seen Elsewhere
08:52

When sensitive language stops helping

There’s good news and bad news from California. The good news is that the Golden State no longer has any at-risk young people. None at all.

The bad news is that this is because the system isn’t allowed to call them that any more. Christina A. Samuels explains why in a piece for Education Week: “As of Jan. 1, all uses of the term at-risk in the state’s educational and penal codes have been changed to ‘at-promise,’ a term that supporters argue is less stigmatizing.”

In the UK, I’m glad we dispensed with ESN or “educationally subnormal” — a term introduced through the 1944 Education Act. Credit: UK Parliament

But how does ‘at-risk’ stigmatise people?

“Criticism of the term at-risk has floated around for years, from researchers and educators who say that the ill-defined description punishes children and youth for factors in their lives often outside their control. California is the first state to officially eliminate the term in state code.”
- Christina A. Samuels, Education Week

It’s certainly true that many young people face threats to their wellbeing which are beyond their control. But that’s literally what ‘at-risk’ means! The use of the ‘at’ places the student in the vicinity of the adverse circumstances that they live with, but does not internalise this negativity within the student.

As for “at-promise”, that’s just bad English. Young people have promise. Or we might describe them as students with promise. The use of the “at”, however, suggests that their promise, even if within reach, is external to them. The change of language, therefore, achieves the opposite of what was intended.

Of course, getting rid of obviously offensive jargon is a good thing. For instance, in the UK, I’m glad we dispensed with ESN or “educationally subnormal” — a term introduced through the 1944 Education Act.

However, there comes a point at which arguments over words become a substitute for deeds — not to mention a performance of power. The ability to control what people can say suggests an ability to control events.

In reality, though, the former is much easier than the latter. Language can change while reality remains unaltered. That’s why it’s so important for officialdom to speak both sensitively and plainly.

All the more so when the state’s purpose is to unblock opportunity for those facing the steepest obstacles.

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