Thoughts on the Thought Police: The Real Problem with Banning Slang in School

Banned words at Upper Norwood

The blogosphere has been dividing itself over the recent news that the Harris Academy in Upper Norwood has taken the decision to ban its students from using certain slang words. The measures include preventing school children from using the words ‘coz’ and ‘aint’, as well as beginning sentences with ‘basically’.

Responses range from enthused parents maintaining the cultural validity of slang, but heralding the Academy’s actions as ‘simply an acknowledgment of life’s realities’, to outraged commentators comparing the school to white supremacists and imperialist dictators. Personally, I think that it’s a bad idea, but according to this poll I’m in the minority, with 73% of the selected sample stating that the Academy was right to impose its ban.*

Those who are for the ban make that point that speaking slang will hurt young people’s job prospects – a point encapsulated by Labour MP David Lammy in the Daily Mail when he says, “Too often I see young people going into job interviews or writing cover letters without being able to use correct English. Any attempts to change that should be encouraged”. The thing is, I don’t disagree. Like it or not, the world is the shape that it is. Some people will judge your level of intelligence and competencies based on the words that you use. Whilst this I don’t think this is fair, I acknowledge that this is the case, and I’d rather young adults were not denied opportunities because of the words that they use. What is more, I do actually think it is reasonable to refrain from using words that your audience might not understand (I’d put this exact same point to any academic who uses overly complicated language when trying to explain their work to the general population). What I am not advocating is the systemic practice of cultural discrimination then, but rather, effective communication and a wider appreciation of linguistic customs. The problem is that an outright ban on slang in school won’t necessarily achieve this.

First and foremost, students are likely to act with hostility to having their vocabulary controlled by a school, as this rather witty tweet demonstrates:

It’s not that it’s wrong to inform students that in certain situations slang might hold you back, but rather that this probably won’t be the message that they glean from the Harris Academy’s sledgehammer approach. But what’s worse is that this draconian method actually perpetuates a series of falsehoods about language; namely, that it is static, unchanging, and that there is a correct way to use it. In reality, language is a multifaceted and fluid entity, constantly changing. It’s more like a cloud than a solid block. There is no ‘correct’ way to speak English, only different uses that will serve different purposes and generate different understandings based on who you are speaking to. The Harris Academy’s approach is in complete contradiction to this fact. They are not just saying that sometimes slang is inappropriate, what they are saying is that is invalid; that it’s not how we’re meant to speak – as if there ever was a way we were designed to use words. Not only is this false, but it could also potentially alienate the very students the school is trying to help – something explored by The Guardian‘s Will Coldwell here.

In the Daily Mail, Lammy goes on to say that, “Those saying this is an attack on culture are completely missing that point: no one is saying slang is bad, but simply that it shouldn’t be the only way that one is capable of communicating”. I’m afraid it’s Lammy who has missed the point though, because this is exactly what the Harris Academy is saying: There’s only one way of communicating – and it’s their way. They are not requesting that students refrain from using slang so that they understand how to communicate within a professional environment, they are demanding that they don’t use it because it’s ‘wrong’. Far from teaching their students anything about language and its application, the Harris Academy is teaching them to swallow a false dogma unquestioningly. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another”. What he meant was, as an adult you have a responsibility to think for yourself. If this is correct, then teaching students to submit themselves unthinkingly and without question won’t prepare them for adult life – it will hinder them. What’s wrong with banning slang in school? Presenting a false picture of language and expecting children to give up their capacity for rational inquiry in the process – that’s what’s wrong with banning slang in school.

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*Statistic correct at the time of writing. This number is not presented as indicative of the general population.

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