Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
A Few Choice Words
We welcome back linguist Neal Whitman, who has noticed that many educators are fond of "choice" language, as in "He made good choices." Neal plumbs the history of this usage and talks to teachers and administrators about how the words "choose" and "choice" have shifted in recent years.
When my son Doug was in kindergarten, one day his teacher noticed that he wasn't feeling well. When I picked him up, she told me he hadn't been himself that day. "He chose not to watch Letter People, and that's not like him," she said.
It sounded perfectly like him to me. Doug had often complained about how much he hated watching Letter People, a series of phonics videos that he considered a waste of time. One thing puzzled me, though: The last I'd heard, the Letter People videos were not an option offered during the Free Choice part of the day. My understanding was that the class watched a Letter People episode every Friday.
Then I thought of something.
"You mean it was one of his choices and he just didn't choose it," I asked, "or he was supposed to watch it and he didn't?"
I was right. This wasn't free-choice choose; it was the take-responsibility-for-your-own-behavior choose that I'd been hearing the teachers use. Schoolchildren are told not to behave, but to make good choices, take responsibility for the choices they make, and accept the consequences that come with them. It's not that I didn't hear similar messages when I was in school: My senior English teacher had a poster that read, "There are neither rewards nor punishments; only consequences." But the way I hear that message in schools now, it's usually phrased with choose or choice. On a high school teacher's desk recently, I saw a sign reading, "Let the choices you make today be the choices you can live with tomorrow." It's not just in schools in Ohio, where I live. For example, the student handbook for a junior high school in Arlington, Texas, begins with this passage:
The two years spent in junior high school will be as meaningful as you choose to make them. ... You will begin to make other very important choices as you begin testing your independence. You will choose your friends. Make sure that you choose carefully. ... You will choose habits. Make sure that you choose good habits. If you choose well, these habits will carry you through high school and college and into adulthood successfully.
"Choice" language shows up in popular culture, too. The 2003 remake of Freaky Friday has Jamie Lee Curtis's character, a psychiatrist, calling after her daughter when she drops her off at school, "Make good choices!" In the last chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore tells Harry, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
How did the message of personal responsibility come to be so often couched in "choice" language?
The popularity of "choice" language really does seem to be a recent development. Using the phrase "make good choices" as a test case, I searched Google News Archive and found scattered uses as far back as 1953, in a column entitled "Choices" by two doctors from the Gesell Institute of Child Development. Educational and self-help usage came to prevail in the mid-1980s. The Simpsons noticed and mocked the growing trend in its first season in 1990, in an episode where Sideshow Bob briefly takes over Krusty the Klown's TV show, and inserts a counseling-for-preteens segment called "Choices."
Teachers and other education professionals I spoke with agreed that the current emphasis on choice really started to take hold in the 1990s or 2000s. My mother-in-law taught first grade in rural central Ohio for 30 years, and to the best of her recollection, "choice" language was just starting to catch on in her school when she retired in 2003. My sister-in-law, who currently teaches fourth grade near Columbus, began noticing it a bit earlier, in the 1990s.
The principal where Doug went to kindergarten confirmed that choose and choice hadn't been in student handbooks and teacher's discipline plans very much until around that time. The younger teachers pretty much all use it now, she told me, whereas only the more flexible and open-minded older teachers have adopted it. Meanwhile, the principal of my younger son Adam's school remembers shifting to this kind of "choice" way thinking near 2000.
Matt McConn has been teaching English for seven years, currently at Spring Woods High School (my alma mater) in Houston, Texas. He consciously puts the focus on students' choices in his own classroom, and reports that everything teachers learn now about classroom management, at least for language-arts classrooms, is about choice. But like me, he didn't encounter a lot of "choice" language in school when he was a student.
One likely candidate for originator and popularizer of "choice" language is William Glasser, a psychiatrist who works differently from many others in his profession. Rather than seek clinical causes for psychiatric disorders, which can then be treated with the right medication, he focuses on personal choices and responsibility. He calls his approach Choice Theory, and often lectures professionals such as teachers and education administrators. Glasser's timeline is consistent with the rise of "choice"language: He has been propounding Choice Theory since the early 1980s. Two other promoters of "choice" language are Jim Fay and Foster Cline, who emphasize choices in their "Love and Logic" approach to discipline, and who, like Glasser, often deliver lectures to education professionals.
Though popular nationwide, "choice" language isn't used in every school. One source who has worked with school administrators across the country finds that public schools in more affluent areas tend to use more "choice" language than those in low-income urban areas; charter schools and nontraditional schools more than traditional public schools. Howe Whitman Jr., head of the religiously based Wilberforce School in Princeton, New Jersey (he's also my cousin), told me that his school doesn't use "choice" language to a great extent.
One set of nontraditional schools that embrace "choice" language is the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), whose schools typically target underserved, lower-achieving student populations. Ian Guidera is the director of the KIPP Academy of Opportunity in Los Angeles, and spoke with me about the reasons for taking such an approach. Many education theorists, he says, are moving away from so-called "directive" approaches to discipline (such as behavior modification), and toward "inquisitive engagement," wherein students are asked to think about their own behavior and its consequences. In this way, students learn to attribute their successes or failures less to luck, genetics, or circumstances, and more to the choices they make.
This sentiment is echoed by the principals I spoke to in Doug's and Adam's schools. Tell a certain kind of student not to do something, Doug's former principal told me, and they'll want to do it to prove you can't control them. But tell that same student that they have a choice, and that one choice will result in their losing recess and the other won't, compliance is much greater. Only a few students are so cynical as to suggest that a choice between one alternative with a punishment attached and another without one is not really a choice.
In short, then, the reason for the popularity of "choice" language seems to be that it works. My cousin, however, offered a different perspective: Putting students' behavior in terms of choices strikes him as what schools have to resort to when they are expected to teach values, but are constrained to do so in a value-neutral setting. In fact, it could be that both reasons are true, the view that McConn takes.
Linguistically, though, there are a few possibilities regarding "choice" language that intrigue me. First are the implications of neutralizing the difference between explicit choices (like whether to buy or pack your lunch) and implicit ones (like whether to join the class in exiting the room for a fire drill). If everything you do is something you "choose" to do, then choose could lose its meaning, the same way that standing ovations do when audiences give them at every performance. It might, for example, develop into just some kind of tense marker, the way that going to has come to signify future tense (a phenomenon linguists call grammaticalization). I don't really see this happening, though, because it's actually difficult to consistently refer to all actions as choices.
Which brings me to the second possibility. Teachers may start out trying to use "choice" language consistently in all situations, but after a while, when the classroom is running smoothly, it's easy to forget to highlight how the kids are making good choices. As my sister-in-law noted, it's usually only when someone misbehaves that that the "choice" language comes out: "You chose to hit your neighbor"; "She chose not to complete her assignment"; "He chose not to watch Letter People." A possible outcome would be for "choose" to lose its meaning of deciding, and simply serve to introduce a verb that denotes something undesirable. After all, when a preschooler starts writing on the wall, and the teacher tells them, "That's not a good choice. Make good choices!" until they stop, the message of personal responsibility seems to have been left behind. A similar situation can be seen with "It's promising to rain" and "It's threatening to rain." Both statements be true of a single situation, but promise and threaten indicate different speaker attitudes toward the proposition.
The third possibility is happening now: the semantic bleaching of choice. Not the complete loss of meaning I imagined above, but a partial loss in the set expression "Make good choices." For comparison, take the phrase "No, thank you," a shortened version of something along the lines of "No, but thank you for offering." It has been further reduced by the elimination of the pause between "No" and "thank you," so that it hardly even seems to be an offering of thanks anymore. As a result, some speakers feel obliged to add another "thank you" to the message for politeness. My wife once told Doug to decline an offer by saying, "No thank you, but thank you for offering." What but a similar need to boost the "choice" message would account for signs on my sons' school walls saying, "Choose to make good choices"?