Jargon & Ecosystems

Lately, Mark and I have been very interested in the language people use when they talk about school. It’s an obvious, but important point: how we talk about schools affects how we understand them. The same is true for ecosystems.

The NY Times ran an interesting piece earlier this month about a Queens ecosystem in transition. The article describes plans to transform an abandoned railway into a massive park that would run from Rego Park to Ozone Park. As the article notes, the proposed park “would be accessible to 322,000 city residents”, providing these people with a new space to explore, play, or simply relax among trees and green grass.

The plan sounds like a no-brainer in a city that’s devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to constructing park lands, bike lanes, and other outdoor public spaces in wealthier sections of Manhattan and Brooklyn over the last decade. Strangely, however, Mayor De Blasio’s office responded to the plans with something other than enthusiasm. In fact, the response from the Mayor’s office was almost incomprehensible. As the Times reported:

The plan has been shown to officials from the city’s parks and transportation departments, as well as City Hall. But the response so far is noncommittal. “We look forward to continuing conversations with stakeholders about the future of this asset,” Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio’s office, said on Monday.

Just to reiterate, the plan in question is to transform an abandoned railway into a park so that hundreds of thousands of people can have green, outdoor space in which to frolic. That point seems worth reiterating because Norvell’s robotic statement uses the kind of business jargon– complete with reference to “stakeholders” and “assets”– designed specifically to obscure the physical realities that we’re discussing.

To those of us in education, this type of jargon is both familiar and destructive. When we talk about schools and ecosystems, we’re talking about physical spaces inhabited by living beings. We are talking about complex, specific realities. When we talk about “assets,” we reduce these ecosystems to pieces of property whose fate will be decided by “stakeholders”, a term taken from the worlds of gambling and finance to reduce human beings in need of green space to contestants in a game controlled by whoever’s got the money to run the table.

I hope that the city supports this– and any– plan to give city residents access to more green space where such space is readily available. More than that, though, I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.

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