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Teach Your Children Well

On a recent Saturday night I was trawling gigantic databases online (like you do) to look for patterns in the usage of various common phrases. This is easy and fun to do in Sketch Engine, where you can easily explore stock phrases that have a variable substitution slot. My target search was "hold __________ accountable" (where the blank is filled by a noun) and the somewhat surprising result I got, digested in a sample of 5,000 hits, was this:

To my mind the two outliers here are "schools" and "students". Aside from the nonspecific items that populate this phrase (people, anyone, others), the other items are either viewed as entities with power or authority (government, corporations, lawmakers, politicians, etc.) or agents deemed to be guilty (perpetrators, offenders). So why schools and why students? Schools certainly have some authority, but not the kind of power that other authorities have. And are students more like offenders, or more like authorities? Questions of accountability arise when something goes wrong, or when it's important to ensure that something goes right, so it struck me as a bit odd that students were in this group.

Intrigued by this result, I poked around a bit more to see whether vocabulary related to education showed up with unusual frequency in other patterns of language. First stop was Google Ngrams to see if there was a diachronic aspect to the "hold __________ accountable" pattern. Sure enough, there is this interesting Ngram graph, which shows the same marked trend for who should be held accountable:

Starting around 1940, schools, students, and teachers all start to show up on the radar of those in the Anglosphere who should most frequently be held accountable. Held accountable for what? The individual citations show a number of patterns. Schools are to be held accountable for the results of their students. Students are to be held accountable for their work, behavior, and learning. Teachers are to be held accountable for just about everything, including all of the foregoing.

While I was in the Google books database I looked at a couple of other patterns of historical change in the most frequent uses of a phrase. The next graph shows the upward trend (1900  ﹘  2000) in printed literature for the phrase "crisis in _________" where the blank is populated by a noun.

It's a little hard to see the pattern of the light blue line among the others, but when people talked about a crisis in the 20th century, it was mostly about a crisis in a particular place. The odd outlier in the graph is "crisis in education", isolated in the graph below:

Essentially, the phrase goes from being virtually nonexistent in English until the 20th century, when it starts an upward trend. So all of this got me thinking: what is responsible for the emergence of education among the things that people fret about? What happened (and is apparently still happening) in English-speaking societies that results in so much discourse about the problems in education? Since the Visual Thesaurus is frequented by educators, I can't think of a better place to ask the question. Here is a little more fodder for the discussion.

Like all social systems in modern societies, education is constantly changing, ideally in sync with the needs and demands of the people it serves. "Home schooling," for example, a phrase that is virtually nonexistent before the mid-20th century, has been on a steady upward trend since, and this perhaps reflects the desire of parents to get more control of the education of their children ﹘ or to wrest control of it from the state. Likewise "charter school," a term virtually unknown in the 20th century till about 1990, begins a hyperbolic rise (increasing, on average, 25% per year in frequency) since then. Homework, which didn't acquire its most frequent meaning ("preparatory school work done outside school") until early in the 20th century, has been on a steady upward trajectory since that time.

What's curious is that with all the other measurable changes reflected in language use in the vocabulary of education, the crisis (whatever it is) persists, and the many measures taken by governments do not seem to loosen the grip that crisis has on education. As I've been working on this piece, the teachers' strike in the Los Angeles Unified School District has been playing out in the news, with headlines so familiar that they seem like clichés: teachers demand more money and resources, government claims these things are unaffordable. And soon after that, a group of students from a Catholic high school in Covington, Kentucky, came to national attention for their behavior in Washington DC while wearing MAGA hats.

Here are a few more factoids that emerge from looking at historical trends in language usage involving education vocabulary, using a combination of Google Ngrams and the Corpus of Historical American English:

  • The term training school reached its peak of popularity just before 1930 and has been on a downward trend since. Is this because it's now an old-fashioned term that has been supplanted, or have schools specifically for training gone out of fashion?
  • Normal school and teachers college have both fallen sharply from their peaks of usage in the early to mid-20th century. Is this because such institutions are no longer independent and have merged with general university education?
  • The most sharply rising pattern for "__________ university" where the blank is filled by a verb is attend university. It increased nearly 50-fold from the beginning of the 20th century till today.
  • The phrase department of education is infrequent in English till around 1910, when it begins a general upward trend.
  • The only two patterns I spotted with steadily decreasing usage since the 19th century were "popular education" and "religious education".

And as a parting shot, here's a graph from Google Trends showing frequency of the word "education" in the media since they started tracking these things in 2004:

There's no mistaking the general downtrend here, and taken together with all of the foregoing observations, you might conclude that if you talk about education at all these days, you don't have many complimentary things to say about it. Is there a way to talk about education that will make the whole subject less fraught? Please use the comments section below for your own observations about education and its discontents.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.