Friday, 8 August 2014

It is time to reclaim the word "reform."

Now that Michael Gove has left the DfE his name seems more than ever inextricably linked with the word "reform(s)." I suspect astute news management here: by constant repetition of the phrase "Gove reforms" when referring to the unprecedentedly disruptive and reactive changes brought about in his time as Secretary of State, Gove and his henchmen have inveigled into the public consciousness a link between what he did and the largely positive connotations of the word "reform."

I have written hereherehere and here (for example) of some of the casually destructive things Michael Gove did to education whilst in office and this is not another post bemoaning the changes he brought about. Rather I would like to focus on the word "reform" itself, to pose the question as to why so many commentators see fit to talk and write about Gove's education reforms.

The etymology of the word reform is simple- from the Latin reformare, the prefix re- meaning back and the verb formare meaning to form or shape. So in purely etymological terms the word reform would seem to imply a process of putting things back to the way they were. Not so inappropriate then, for Michael Gove's attempts to reestablish a half-remembered version of 50s schooling.

Except that words acquire most of their meaning through a combination of usage and connotation (a concept I have explored here for instance). To take usage first, consider some of the other contemporary uses of the word reform: we have Obama's healthcare reforms; repeated calls from Cameron and others for EU reform; and vague talk of political reform, usually in countries sufficiently far away that reform becomes a less threatening concept. Because actually the connotations the word reform has acquired in current usage are all to do with change, and moving forward not backwards.

The other key feature of the usage of the word reform is that it has long been defined in opposition to two other words: reaction and revolution. From the Protestant Reformation to the Reformist Movement reformers have long been defined as being the opposite of reactionaries. Reform is emphatically not about turning the clock back any more, whatever its etymology might be. These sorts of usages are also notable in their virtually socialist connotations: the process of reform has always been about defeating the reactionary forces of an oppressive higher power. Maybe not so appropriate for what Gove sought to achieve then.

Similarly, reform is now clearly established as the opposite of revolution. Revolutionaries seek to overturn (etymologically as well as by usage) whilst reformers work from the ground up, bringing in more organic, gentler changes. Indeed revolutionaries have often seen reform as inimical to their aims. Dario Fo put it well when he said, "They want a revolution, and we'll give them reforms- lots of reforms; we'll drown them in reforms."

This sort oppositional definition of words is actually how we come to refine their meanings. What is reform? Well, it isn't reaction and it isn't revolution, so it's something in between. And as a result, since reform is by definition (or by usage anyway) not an extremist position, the connotations it has come to acquire are almost universally positive. Reform has connotations of gentleness, of looking to the future, of responding to the needs of the weak and oppressed, of high-minded idealism.

And yet we allow the word to be linked to what Michael Gove did to the English education system in his time as Secretary of State!

I propose a different word. For a start, the prefix has to be de- (from the Latin for "down from," "away from," or "out of" and implying reversal or negation.) So deform maybe? Hence Gove's deformations of England's education system. Not quite, I don't think. Deformation is far too slow and organic a process. We need something more dramatic to describe what he did.

Disruption is another good word. Etymologically it seems to mean "breaking apart," which seems appropriate. However again, connotations are key, and the problem is that disruption has strong connotations of temporariness. After a disruption normal service is resumed. Pretty quickly, so long as Network Rail isn't involved. So no, disruption simply isn't the word, because the damage Gove did will take decades to undo, even suppose anyone tries.

We need another word. I know, not reform, or disrupt, but destroy. Yes, that's it. That seems a much better description of what happened. So not Gove's reforms, but Gove's destruction.

Yup. Happy with that. Carry on.

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