Never before have so many people been so well educated. Two of my grandparents left school without qualifications. Neither of my parents attended university. My siblings and I all had the benefit of a tertiary education. This is a common and familiar pattern especially in western democracies. But what are we learning?
One of the strong arguments for the value of education and in particular higher education, has always been to encourage questioning and critical thinking. Yet, as higher education responds to the imperatives of the global marketplace – increasing student enrolments, retention and progression, and demand for research outputs – loftily lumped together as research and teaching ‘excellence’, are we thinking anymore critically than our forebears? I suspect not.
Grandma Mac was my father’s mother. She left school around the age of 12 and went into service. She lost her own mother as a young girl and was brought up by a German baker and his wife in London. For this reason, despite her limited schooling, she could understand and speak a little German. I have no idea how her adoptive family were treated during the war. She was an accomplished cook and baker and was of the English wartime generation that knew how to make do. I still remember the giblet pie and her homemade lemonade. Grandma Willcox was my mother’s mother. She completed school, trained as a stenographer and went to work for the Indian railways. She drove an ambulance and helped the men coming off the Burma Railroad at the end of the war. Born and raised half a world apart, both my grandmothers would have known and understood suffering, intolerance and refugees fleeing horror and war. How could they not? However, the rampant individualism and consumerism of today would shock them both.
But alongside globalisation, growth, consumerism and the increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth and power, something else is happening. An old word is starting to reappear: naysayer. Now, of course language and language use changes, and it must, but this old word has been bothering me. Naysayer, as far as I can tell, means today much the same thing that it meant in the 1700s when it first appeared: a person who expresses doubt or denies or opposes something. But its use, estimated from Google’s ngram viewer, is increasing. And its plural use even more so. Naysayers it seems are everywhere. And if there is one thing you don’t want to be called today, it is a naysayer.
The plural use of naysayer casts those who naysay or question anything into an amorphous group of negative, disaffected, malcontents and misanthropes. And, we are everywhere, except perhaps in positions of authority, power or wealth. A simple question or call for explanation, whether in a public setting, in government, business, voluntary or even, paradoxically, in a university environment is quickly scotched with a charge of naysaying or being too negative. Simply taking care to question thoughtfully is insufficient. One must always be positive…
How did this happen? Has all our education equipped us only to take our place in a brave new world of noddies and simpering acolytes? For an example, look no further than the people surrounding Trump and worse, those highly educated world leaders who find themselves tongue-tied at the worst of his excesses.
At the risk of being labelled an archetypal naysayer, I’d recommend keeping a weather-eye out for this thin-lipped little word and be prepared to give it a good slap whenever you come across it.
Postscript: For a foundational reading on education, ideology and power see Michael Apple’s Ideology and Curriculum. To experience a native naysayer look no further than the Goat.