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Can You Define That: Duncan’s Remarks at UNESCO

November 11, 2010

Did you know Merriam-Webster online has top ten lists of words?  Lists like “Words For Things You Didn’t Know Have Names.  Volume II“.  It’s my favorite kind of brain candy.   But while knowing obscure words has its pleasures (eyeshine!), a real rhetorical joy comes from seeing how definitions change.  In “Defining Reality” Edward Schiappa, professor of Communication Studies, makes this point and underlines it. Definitions, he argues, are always political.

That is, how we define terms, even seemingly simple ones, inherently shapes an argument’s structure and persuasiveness.  And definitions aren’t  something concrete you trip over in politics, or even everyday arguments—dictionaries notwithstanding.  What I define as a “need” (a complete set of vintage Le Creuset cookware, say) my mother calls a “want”.  No dictionary is going to clarify.  And we quite get along.  Try taking out the dictionary on healthcare.  Or settlement.

So a short segment of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent remarks to UNESCO caught my eye, for its work (or is it play?) with definitions:

But the special window that America has had to drive reform is not because of the dollars, it’s because of the courageous state and local leaders who have taken the lead in collaborating on problems that the experts said were too divisive to resolve. At the end of the day, I believe it is that courage, and not our resources, that will transform educational opportunity in our country.

Let’s skip past the problem of When Metaphors Collide; I don’t want you distracted by the image of education reform’s car crashing through a window.  Look, instead, at how Duncan describes what gets education reform done in America.

Or rather, who.  It’s “courageous state and local leaders,”  Duncan says.  That’s all well and status quo; Americans like to define their education as a local issue.  The definitional premise that raised my eyebrow was what follows; how the local leaders did something “the experts” said was too hard.

Duncan splits state and local leaders from experts.  One is either a local leader, or one is an expert.  Some might argue it is possible to be both an expert and leader.  A smaller, possibly crazy, group could say it is preferable to have experts as leaders and leaders with expertise.  Although I’m not sure anyone in that last group made it through midterm elections.

It’s actually a long-standing debate in education, whether local “leaders” or professional “experts” should be in charge.  Depending on how you define them, local leaders can be concerned government officials, families and citizens, or naïve, self-interested, or small-minded problem-causers.  “Experts” can be dedicated professionals, bringing know-how and can-do to schools, or they are grasping, condescending outsiders who confuse theories of education with realities of teaching.

It’s not that there’s a right definition here, for always or even in a given instance.  It’s rather that subtle definitional moves shape the idea of the problem—reforming troubled schools, and thus shape our answer—clearing the way for local leaders to act while restricting, even dismissing, the role for experts in the debate.

Duncan does the same thing with the definitions of “courage” and “resources”.  Having taught in a “failing school” I can attest to the need for courage, if we define it as sustained energy and hope in the face of many obstacles and much despair.  But, I assure you, resources are nothing to shake a stick at.  It helps have at least as many chairs as students, for example.  Enough desks—icing on the cake.

Maybe Duncan is arguing that the resources are there, but it takes courage to use them well.  Maybe he’s arguing that local leaders, as experts in education and in the communities they serve, bring two necessary sets of knowledge to the thorny issue of improving schools.  That’s the problem with definitions.  They’re usually unclear, when we get into anything more complicated than a dictionary entry.

But that’s also their promise.  Because definitions are flexible, even always in flux, we can constantly revise them.  In revising them, we change how we define the world, and in changing, maybe improve it.

If you want to know more:

  • If the claim “all definitions are political” raised your brow, I submit as evidence Schiappa’s 2003 “Defining Reality: definitions and the politics of meaning,” from which I pulled the line.  Schiappa provides detailed evidence to support his claim.   For a political science approach to the role of definition in public policy, Deborah Stone’s “Policy Paradox” is a great read.  And if you can figure out the algorithm to perfectly balance concerns of liberty and security, then I will buy your book.
  • A transcript of Duncan’s address to UNESCO, the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (what bedfellows, those) can be found here.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ellen O'Donnell permalink
    November 11, 2010 4:43 pm

    Alexis – could to know you are putting your words to good use. Thanks for introducing me to the Miriam Webster top ten lists – I got lost there for about an hour!

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