Slogans in Education

©1999 Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki

There are many examples ... of situations in which disparate groups of politicians and the constituents they represent have joined together in common cause but consensus has represented nothing more than a superficial commitment to a simple slogan.
            --- Susskind & Cruikshank, Breaking the Impasse, 1987, p.63-64

edited 10/2/17
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The United States is remarkably pluralistic. Its people are a unique amalgam of many cultures and traditions. So it is that the citizens of the United States, when faced with social choices, commonly disagree among themselves as to both how and what should be done. How, for example, do we establish and maintain consensus about the means or ends of schooling? One way is negotiation and compromise. But this consumes both time and patience and the outcome often leaves everyone unsatisfied. What, then, is to be done?

Slogans and Shallow Consensus

A common solution is to resort to sloganeering. This is done with statements having ambiguous key terms that suppress the recognition of options. Komisar and McClellan, in their seminal analysis of slogans in education**, label this sort of methodical vagueness "systematic ambiguity." Systematic ambiguity promotes shallow agreement and superficial consent because it obscures options that might lead to disagreement. That is why slogans are the common language of consensus.

Slogans are not so vague as to mean nothing at all. "Excellence in education," for example, clearly rules out "mediocrity in education". But one person's "excellence" is not necessarily another's. In fact, what one person regards as "excellent" another regards as "mediocre." So although slogans mean something, what that something is may differ significantly from one person to another.

Consider the ambiguity of the slogans used in ceremonies such as christenings, bar mitzvahs, academic convocations, inaugurations, ship launchings, cornerstone laying and weddings. It is doubtful that before or after the marriage rite, for instance, the bride and groom could agree completely on what "love, honor and obey" means in concrete cases. And we certainly could never get consensus if we polled all in attendance at the wedding. Nevertheless, because the sloganeering tends to have positive intial personal meaning for participants in the ceremony, it encourages a superficial unity of feeling and spirit . Additionally, the slogan's vagueness makes disagreement unlikely; and that is fortunate for the ceremony because the expression of dissension on such occasions would be inappropriate.

Slogans can be equally useful on non-ceremonial occasions. They are, for instance, helpful in getting school reform or other political initiatives on their feet. The masking of disagreement is not an immediate problem if all we are trying to do is initiate action. Detailed early agreement is not necessary.

However, the fragile covenants pasted together by sloganeering commonly dissolve when submerged in the often turbulent political processes of implementation. It is during these proceedings that we face the tough choices required to bring aspiration to reality. It is here that the actual costs of social action are first examined.

School reform provides a near perfect example. Time and again reform movements are launched with the help of one or another slogan such as: "excellence in education;" "school-based management," "teach children, not subjects," and so forth. Their lack of specificity generates a broad consensus measured by the large number of people the slogan appeals to. Often this is all that is needed to initiate action, e.g. begin discussion and planning committees. Inevitably, however, the slogan has to give way to specific actions if the change it promises can ever be made a reality. Here the shallowness of the enthusiasm for the slogan makes itself apparent. Now is when people begin to say, "Oh, I didn't know that was what you were talking about. Had I known, I would never have supported this!" So the very vagueness that makes a slogan initially useful and broadens its appeal, hampers - through its shallowness - its implementation.

Slogans also can be snares for the unwary. Policies, standards, or contractual terms stated as slogans may be interpreted arbitrarily by those in power. Totalitarian use of slogans provides chilling example. When, for instance, the slogan "enemy of the people" is applied by a dictator to some unfortunate, there may be fatal consequences. Let's look more closely at this particular feature of slogans.

The Humpty Dumpty Principle

"When I use a word, " said Humpty Dumpty, "it means just what I choose it to mean." -- L. Carroll
Humpty Dumpty's observation points to a chief danger of sloganeering. When used in policy statements, contracts, legal judgments and other official language, those in authority get to decide what the slogans mean in specific cases. For example, suppose there is a statement in the teacher contracts of a Catholic school which says, "Teachers must at all times conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to a Christian lady or gentlemen." This requirement is a slogan because in the modern Roman church there is no longer much consensus as to how, specifically, "Christian ladies and gentlemen" should act. Now let's further suppose that a teacher in this school is arrested for criminal trespass at a Federal defense facility. Protesting the hellish power of nuclear missile warheads, she is apprehended while attempting to splash blood on them. (Such an incident happened in the Philadelphia area.) The teacher regards her deed as highly Christian. Indeed, it was her Christian beliefs which motivated her action. But when the matter comes before the Mother Superior who is Principal of the school, it is her interpretation of "Christian" that counts. Is otherwise improper behavior, e.g. trespass and defacement of givernmental property, proper when it dramatizes a moral concern? Only if the Mother Superior thinks so. Is the public arena the proper sphere of Christian action? Christians, as a group, share little consensus on the answers to this question; but the Mother Superior gets to decide in this particular instance.

We see, then, that to the extent that policies and contracts are sloganized, to that extent those in authority get to be Humpty Dumpty and say, "... it means just what I choose it to mean." It is potentially dangerous to entrust such arbitrary power to anyone.

Slogans as Mottoes

The most obvious slogans are those stated as mottoes. (Indeed, the word slogan, comes from the Gaelic meaning "battle cry.") Here is an example, during the late 1980's and early '90's public school officials in Philadelphia used the rallying cry: "Every school a good school!" This is a possibly inspiring motto, but it obscures important questions. Must every school be equally good in the same way? And whose ideas of "good" are to count? These are centrally important options, but discussion of them is stifled by the slogan's systematic ambiguity. Vagueness blocks discussion and disagreement. The slogan achieves initial breadth of consensus by temporarily postponing quarrels about both means and ends. But the cost of this initially broad consensus is great. The shallow depth of consensus on means and ends is obscured and upon attempts at implementation the consensus is likely to break down.

Generating Frustration and Resentment

W. Edwards Deming, the famed organization theorist whose managerial methods revitalized Japanese industry but were ignored by American managers until recently, denounces mottoistic slogans. Although they have a lofty ring, says Deming, slogans "generate frustration and resentment." Implicit in such sloganeering, Deming observes, is the supposition that employees could, if they tried, do better. Yet the same managers who generate the slogans, commonly require employees to work with inadequate resources.

Deming's observation fits the School District of Philadelphia (and many other districts as well). Recall that Philadelphia school officials would have had everyone aspire to making "Every School a Good School," Yet many Philadelphia educators are still expected to teach in dilapidated schools destabilized by violence. Classrooms are often overcrowded, students are troubled and beset by major problems, often ancient textbooks are inadequate in number, often malfunctioning equipment is insufficient, and not infrequently incompetent supervisors are just overwhelmed with their responsibilities. Put simply, the school board and top administrators fail to provide the resources necessary to accomplish the end they proclaim.

Deming (Out of the Crises, 1986, p.3) points out that in such a context slogans and exhortations are perceived as clear signals that top administrators not only don't understand what is going on, they don't care enough to find out. He then observes,

[Sloganistic] goals are like hay somebody ties in front of the horse's snout. The horse is smart enough to discover no matter whether he canters or gallops, trots or walks or stands still, he can't catch up with the hay. Might as well stand still. Why argue about it? It will not happen except by change of the system. That's management's job, not the people's."

Non-Motto Slogans

Slogans would be easy to spot if they all had the familiar structure of mottoes. However, sloganeering can be done with different forms of the language and the identification of these "slogans" requires a more practiced eye.

Here is an example of the subtle, non-motto type of slogan. Some Americans have begun to demand that U. S. schooling be made more "multicultural." The term "multicultural" being both vague and ambiguous, lends itself readily to sloganeering.

Given a commitment to constitutional democracy and belief in the inherent worth of the individual, educators certainly do have to struggle to understand and value the growing heterogeneity of the United States. But the need for such comprehension and valuing should not obscure the fact that "multi-culturalism" functions as a slogan. How do we know that? Because of the difficulty of debating centrally important options when "multiculturalism" is brought up for discussion. Such discussions - as those who have attended them will attest -- tend to have a heavily ceremonial atmosphere which stultifies dissensus and presses individuals to give lip service to unclear objectives. Sloganeering is well served by the vagueness of the term "multiculturalism."

Dissolving Ambiguity

Exploring some of the options lurking in "multiculturalism" makes clear how important a slogan's "systematic ambiguity" is. "Multiculturalism" is agreeable if we stick to trivial things like the Frugal Gourmet's good natured celebration of ethnic foods or everyone's wearing green on St. Patrick's day. Superficiality limits conflict. Go beyond such systematic ambiguity, however, and the slogan slams against issues that quickly break up consensus.

Consider only those issues raised by "multiculturalism" that relate to the status of women. How, for example, should "multicultural" schooling deal with the rights of women as they relate to the Hispanic cultural concept of "machismo?" In some Latin American nations, for instance, given certain provocations wife beating is tacitly accepted as necessary to preserve the husband's "manhood." Does that mean a "multicultural" education must either celebrate spouse thrashing or at least present it as a viable alternative to other forms of marital conflict resolution? In India it is common for pregnant women to have ultra-sound testing in order to determine the sex of the unborn. Females are then aborted because they are unwanted. Should a "multicultural" curriculum present this custom as of similar worth to a commitment to the equal value of each and every individual regardless of gender?

To demonstrate how extreme gender related conflicts over "multiculturalism" can become, consider cultures that practice clitorectomy as an initiation into womanhood? (The clitoris is excised, it is said, in order to blunt a female sex drive normally so strong as to tempt women into immorality.) Does "multiculturalism" require educators to present this practice as an agreeable option? Discussion of such issues would immediately erode support for "multiculturalism" in our schools. Yet as we turn "multiculturalism" into a reality, each and every one of these issues may have to be resolved.

Beyond gender, "multiculturalism" presents other difficult issues. In some cultures, for instance, promptness is not an important virtue. Given that this is a cultural trait, should a "multicultural" school allow, or at least tolerate, tardiness? Then there are cultures where liking school, succeeding in one's studies, or enjoying reading can make children the subject of merciless bullying. Does "multiculturalism" require educators to accommodate this value system? In other cultures bribery is a way of life. Does "multiculturalism" require us to celebrate, or at least wink at, such behavior? And, puzzle of puzzles, how should we deal with culturally imbedded intolerance? Such narrowness is a common feature of many, perhaps most, of the world's cultures; and it is a particular feature of such truly "multicultural" places as Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. Yet this "us versus them" intolerance which many cultures use to define themselves, is antithetical to the tolerance that makes "multiculturalism" even conceivable, much less possible. All of these tensions, and many more, are inherent in "multiculturalism." Yet the systematic ambiguity of the slogan discourages their consideration.

There is no need for a more detailed listing of the options obscured when "multiculturalism" functions as a slogan. The point has been amply made that there are very problematic issues and that sloganizing bypasses their discussion. Such avoidance certainly broadens agreement that "multiculturalism" is a good idea -- the chief function of slogans. But the actual implementation of a "multicultural" curriculum is still highly problematic.

Comfortably far from the "front lines" erstwhile educational "leaders" generate slogans for educational goals. Significantly, however, it is educators on the "line of battle" who have to translate such sloganistic public goals into actual goals that can be put into practice in the classroom. It is they, the principals and the classroom teachers, who get stuck with the difficulties and conflicts involved .

Reifications as Sloganistic Terms

Reifications are a particularly important weapon in the arsenal of the sloganizer. Reification occurs when complex abstractions are treated as concrete, sometimes living, things. If, for instance, a backer of one or another school reform claims that "America" needs certain changes in schooling, they are reifying America.. What makes this so? Because they are speaking of this highly diverse political union of nearly 250 million people as if it were some sort of superperson with the needs of an individual.

Reifications abound in the language of education. Here is just one example. In "Should Character Education be Taught in Schools?" James Leming observes:

"If a first-time visitor to Earth were to be given a tour, he or she would notice that nearly all nations make a concerted effort to ensure that youth are taught certain values. The visitor would correctly conclude that almost all societies on planet Earth recognize that social cohesion, stability, and continuity depend upon common values being passed from generation to generation. If the visitor were to encounter a country where the family, schools, and community failed to agree on a shared set of values or lacked the will and ability to transmit those values successfully to youth, the visitor would properly wonder how any such society could long survive.
Unfortunately, such a country exists. It is the United States, and its attitude toward character education -- today's term for teaching values -- sets it apart from almost every other nation."
Notice how Leming speaks of the U.S. in terms of "...its attitude toward character education" . Similarly, he claims "...nearly all nations make a concerted effort to ensure that youth are taught certain values." These are both reified slogans. It is individual citizens of the U.S. who have attitudes toward character education; and because our citizenry is so diverse there is seldom broad consensus on whose values should be promulgated. Likewise, it is not other "nations" that make an effort to ensure anything; it is specific people within those societies who do; and their efforts are aided by a relative lack of diversity, a lack of emphasis on the importance of the individual, and, oft times, a lack of democracy.

In some contexts it makes sense to speak of the United States as a single entity. It is, after all, a well-established member of the family of nations with borders, a government, and so on. So "the United States" does declare war, enter into solemn treaties and have formal relations with other nations. But the United States does NOT have feelings, needs or wants in the same sense that individual human beings do. In fact, given our diversity, what some individual Americans feel, need or want, others are indifferent to and some surely despise. Reifications which ignore this fact are slogans because, like all other slogans, they obscure dissensus and preempt the discussion of options.

Here is one other example. In the landmark 1985 report, A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform. the National Commission on Excellence in Education asserted that "Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined efforts needed to attain them." Who in American society has lost sight of this? And whose purposes are we talking about anyway? The sloganeering of the Commissioners glosses over these questions. Also, are we to understand that every educator is culpable? If not, who are the guilty parties? These uncommonly important questions remain unresolved in A Nation At Risk.

So how do such critical omissions largely escape attention in such an important document? Because sloganeering with reifications obscures them.

False Presumptions of Common Authority and Shared Criteria

Slogans support false presumptions of common authority and shared criteria. Let's go back to "Every school a good school" to see how this works. What authority should we reference to determine what "good" means? Shall we use the Bible, science, some sort of state or federal standards, the Commission on Excellence in Education, the U.S. Constitution, E. D. Hirsch's notion of "cultural literacy," standardized test scores, parental opinion, or what? And in the unlikely prospect that we can decide on a common authority to determine the good, the bad and the ugly, what particular criterion of measurement shall we use? If, for instance, we were to follow the recommendations of Christian fundamentalists and choose the Bible as our final authority to settle what "the good" is, we still must decide which Biblical rules or principles to use as specific criteria of measurement. Only then can we gauge how "good" a particular school is.

Every Vague Statement is NOT a Slogan

We have to be careful not to identify every vague statement as a slogan. Sloganeering is what people do to emphasize and promote what they perceive as consensus. While there may be characteristic forms for slogans, e.g. mottoes and reifications, it is their typical use that makes them slogans. (Consider our discussion of "multiculturalism" in this article. It is not an example of sloganeering because options are explored rather than obscured.) It is possible for many other forms of language to be slogans in a particular context, just as it is possible to ask a question without employing an interrogative sentence form.

Some imprecise statements are simply generalizations or summaries that do not preempt important options. Imagine someone saying, "New cars are expensive!" This is certainly vague. "Expensive," the key term in the statement, is undefined. And are we talking about all new cars including Hyundais, all new cars worth owning, or what? This too is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the statement does not obscure dissensus or preempt important options in the same important way a slogan like "Every school a good school!" typically does. Also, the statement about cars is not serving as a rallying cry as motto type slogans do. Nor is the statement a reification.


Actual goals are discovered only when the public goal ... is factored into operational goals ... .
Once this is done, it turns out that there are several goals involved, and maximizing one
will usually be at the expense of another.
-- Charles Perrow Complex Organizations 1979. p.58

Slogans function in both positive and negative ways. They may invoke subjective meaning and warm feeling to support ceremony, and they often help initiate action. But, they may also generate resentment, set up conditions that lead to failure of implementation, and facilitate abuses of power.

Slogans are used in ceremonial and non-ceremonial contexts. They occur in motto and non-motto form. Motto style slogans also function as a rallying cry. Some are reifications. Regardless of context or form, however, all slogans use systematic ambiguity to mask dissensus and preclude the discussion of options.

Public goals for schooling are commonly sloganistic, generating a broad but often shallow consensus. To actually do anything with slogans, however, educators still must translate them into actual schooling practices. This process is highly problematic and not helped by sloganeering.


** (Note re-amended 4/6/17) In their article, "The Logic of Slogans" published 1961 in Smith & Ennis Language and Concepts in Education pp. 195 -214, Komisar and McClellan propose that slogans, especially in educational contexts, are ambiguous in that they appear to be empirical generalizations susceptible to disconfirmation. But, in many cases, they actually function as contestable proposals for value commitments, the validity of which cannot be strictly disestablished by fact. Slogans muddle the is-ought distinction.

Similarlty, Komisar argues that one must expect public language, particularly in educational contexts, to be no clearer than is necessary to support coalition. See B. Paul Komisar, ''The Language of Education," in The Encyclopedia of Education, vol. 5, ed. L. C. Leighton (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 327-34. -- EGR

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