Plastic Words

In his book Deschooling Society (1971), Ivan Illich briefly alluded to a class of words "so flexible that they cease to be useful."  "Like an amoeba," he said, "they fit into almost any interstice of the language."  Two years later, in Tools for Conviviality, Illich wrote that language had come to "reflect the monopoly of the industrial mode of production over perception and motivation."   He urged " rediscovery of language" as a personal and poetic medium.  But Illich made no detailed analysis of how language had been industrialized.  Then, in 1981, he became one of the first group of fellows at the new Wissenschaftkolleg, or Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin.  Among his colleagues was Uwe Pörksen, a professor of German literature from the University of Freiburg.  The two became friends, and one of the things they discussed was the empty word husks that Illich had first called amoebas.  Pörksen renamed them plastic words and undertook a detailed study of the phenomenon,  Seven years later in 1988, he published Plastikwörter: Die Sprache einer Internationalen Diktatur (The Language of an International Dictatorship.)

Pörksen argued that plastic words are not merely the clichés, slogans and hackneyed expressions against which commentators like George Orwell ("Politics and the English Language") or James Thurber ("The Psychosemanticist Will See You Now, Mr. Thurber") had railed.  They form a distinct class, numbering not many more than thirty or forty.  The list includes obviously puffed up words like communication, sexuality, and information, but also less obtrusive terms like problem, factor, and role.  Together, Pörksen says, they compose a Lego-like, modular lingo which bulldozes all the merely local and historical features of language and paves the way to the shining city of universal development.  

I learned of Pörksen's work from Illich, when I went to State College, Pennsylvania to record interviews with Illich in 1988.  At the time, it had briefly become the playful custom in his household to ostentatiously clear one's throat whenever one found it necessary to pronounce a plastic word.  I was intrigued and eager to present Pörksen's research to my Canadian radio audience, but there were several problems: his book wasn't translated, I didn't speak German, and Pörksen had only limited English.  My German-born wife, Jutta Mason, solved the first problem by making a rough translation of the German text, and, in time, as we got to know each other, Uwe agreed to attempt the interview.  It was recorded in Barbara Duden's house in Bremen in 1992.  Jutta joined us, to boost Uwe's confidence and help with translation as needed, but, in the event, the occasion seemed to inspire a rudimentary but powerful eloquence in Uwe, and no translation was needed.

The edited interview, which follows, was broadcast on Ideas early in 1993.  Jutta's translation also became the basis for an English edition, pictured above, of Plastic Words.  Uwe came and stayed with us for a week in Toronto, and he and Jutta and I together worked over the English text, until it was ready for publication by the Penn State Press in 1995.  Good reviews never led to much of a readership for a book that I think deserves to be better known, but it remains available.

Turning Points in Public Broadcasting: The CBC at 50

The immediate occasion for this series was the CBC's 50th anniversary in 1986.   Public broadcasting in Canada had actually begun four years before the date we were celebrating, with the creation of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) by the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett in 1932.  But this first attempt was criticized by the the Liberal opposition — for political bias— and by the Radio League, the popular organization that had lobbied for its creation — for poor programming.  When Mackenzie King's Liberals replaced the Conservatives in 1936, they reorganized the public broadcaster as a crown corporation with a supposedly "arms length" relationship to the government of the day.  They called their new creation the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — the "corpse," as it was sometimes later jokingly known — and it made its first broadcast, from a transmitter in Watrous, Saskatchewan, on Nov. 2, 1936.  The 50th anniversary gave me a welcome chance to review some of its history and to interview many of the pioneers who had built, first, the radio service, and then, after 1952, the country's first television network.   The series began with an exploration of the origins of public broadcasting in Canada.  Luckily, while living in Ottawa in 1978, I had recorded an interview with Graham Spry, one of the leaders of the campaign to establish a public broadcaster in the late 1920's and early 1930's.  Graham died in 1983, and, having this interview was invaluable to me in constructing this first episode.  The second show dealt with the so-called golden age of radio, when the CBC became Canada's first truly national cultural institution.  The third was about the beginnings of television , the epochal Radio Canada strike of 1959, and the battle over Preview Commentary, a radio commentary which was cancelled, in 1959, as a result of political pressure from by the Diefenbaker government, and then reinstated under strong counter-pressure from its producers and the public.   The fourth was entirely devoted to the story of This Hour Has Seven Days, the wildly popular current affairs programme that the CBC cancelled in 1966.   The final episode concerned the regulation of public broadcasting in Canada, initially the task of the CBC itself, but, after the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker reformed the CBC and allowed private television broadcasting in 1958, the job of the Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG), and then, from 1968 to the present, Canadian Television and Radio Commission (CRTC).  This last programme was twice partially reconstructed to create a more up-to-day conclusion when the series was re-broadcast in 1996, for the 60th anniversary, and again in 2006, for the 70th, but here I have included the original 1986 ending.

Some of the material was drawn from the archives, where Ken Puley, as always, was an invaluable help, but happily, in 1986, a lot of the people who built the CBC were still alive and will to reminisce with me.  Here is a list of those I was able to interview:

#1 - Harry Boyle, Graham Spry, Frank Peers, Michael Nolan, Orville Shugg, and James Finlay

#2 - Neil Morrison, Lister Sinclair, Harry Boyle, Davidson Dunton, Orville Shugg, Marjorie McEnaney, Helen Carscallen, Alan Thomas, Frank Peers, Bernard Trotter, and Robert Fulford

#3 - Fernand Quirion, Jean Louis Roux, Alphonse Ouimet, Robert Fulford, Lister Sinclair, Barbara Fairbairn, Frank Peers, and Gordon Cullingham

#4 - Hugh Gauntlett, Patrick Watson, Alphonse Ouimet, Laurier Lapierre, Douglas Leiterman, Reeves Haggan, Warner Troyer, Helen Carscallen, Eric Koch, Roy Faibish, and Peter Campbell

#5 Harry Boyle, Graham Spry, Frank Peers, Davidson Dunton, Alphonse Ouimet, Robert Fulford, Eugene Forsey, Herschel Hardin, Laurent Picard, Hugh Gauntlett, and Al Johnson


The Education Debates

Sometime in the 1990's I received a long letter from a teacher named Alex Lawson, asking me to consider doing an Ideas series on the state of education.  The letter impressed me by its sincerity, and by the sense of urgency its author clearly felt, but I found the idea somewhat daunting.  The subject inspires such endless controversy, and such passion, that I could immediately picture the brickbats flying by my ears.  I also worried that my views were too remote from the mainstream to allow me to treat the subject fairly.  My three younger children, to that point, had not attended school, and my reading and inclination had made me more interested in de-schooling than in the issues then vexing the school and university systems, which I tended to see as artefacts of obsolete structures. Nevertheless Alex and I kept in touch, and I gradually became able to pictures the pathways such a series might open up.  Thinking of it as a set of "debates" or discussions, without getting too stuck on a tediously pro and con dialectical structure, allowed me to reach out very widely and include the heretics with the believers.  The series was broadcast, in fifteen parts, 1998 and 1999.  I re-listened to it recently, and I think it holds me pretty well.   There are a few anachronisms, but my dominant impression was plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  Alex Lawson, whose ardour and persistence inspired the whole thing, appears in the third programme of the set.  De-schooling gets its day in programmes seven through nine.

This series Inspired a letter I have never forgotten, from a retired military man in rural New Brunswick, who wrote to me afterwards that I had "performed a noble service for our country." I was touched, not only that he saw nobility in what I had done, but that he could see that I had attempted to open up the question of education and provide a curiculum for its study rather than trying to foreclose or settle it.

The series had a large cast of characters whom I have listed below.

Part One, The Demand for Reform: Sarah Martin, Maureen Somers, Jack Granatstein, Andrew Nikiforuk, Heather Jane Robertson

Part Two, A New Curriculum: E.D. Hirsch, Neil Postman

Part Three, Don’t Shoot the Teacher: Alex Lawson, Daniel Ferri, Andy Hargreaves

Part Four, School Reform in the U.S.: Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer

Part Five, Reading in an Electronic Age, Carl Bereiter, Deborrah Howes, Frank Smith, David Solway

Part Six, Schooling and Technology: Bob Davis, Marita Moll, Carl Bereiter

Part Seven, Deschooling Society: Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, John Holt

Part Eight, Deschooling Today: John Holt, Susannah Sheffer, Chris Mercogliano

Part Nine, Dumbing Us Down: Frank Smith, John Taylor Gatto

Part Ten, Virtues or Values: Edward Andrew, Peter Emberley, Iain Benson

Part Eleven, Common Culture, Multi-Culture: Charles Taylor, Bernie Farber, Bob Davis

Part Twelve, The Case for School Choice: Mark Holmes, Adrian Guldemond, Joe Nathan, Andy Hargreaves, Heather Jane Robertson

Part Thirteen, Trials of the University: Jack Granatstein, Paul Axelrod, Michael Higgins, Peter Emberley

Part Fourteen, On Liberal Studies: Clifford Orwin, Leah Bradshaw, Peter Emberley

Part Fifteen, Teaching the Conflicts: Martha Nussbaum, Gerald Graff