Leave the word "student" alone - Macleans.ca

Leave the word “student” alone

Pettigrew examines the movement to call students “learners” instead


One sad fact about language is that, from time to time, perfectly good words go out of fashion and are replaced with inferior terms. I’m not talking about racist or sexist words that have been justly pushed out of polite conversation; I mean perfectly good words that everyone knew and understood, replaced by bland vocabulary that really doesn’t do the trick. In education, for instance, there is a move to replace “student” with “learner.” The former term, it is suggested, conveys an old-fashioned approach to education where young people may work at school work but for the wrong reasons and without really engaging the material. The latter term is meant to suggest an active, humane participant in the educational process, fully deserving of respect, if not veneration. But is “student” really such a bad word?

The distinction between the two terms is spelled out in a remarkable chart devised by David Warlick. Warlick doesn’t pull punches: “students,” for instance, suggests that the people in question are “employees” who do their school work because they are “compelled” to do it. “Learners,” on the other hand, are “citizens” and “collaborators” motivated by their curiosity, not by a callous desire for reward.

But charts like these are disingenuous.  Anybody can say “this word I don’t like implies this” while “this word I do like means that.” I could just as easily make a reverse chart and say that “students” are serious and ambitious while “learners” are directionless and shallow. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “learner” has been in use for over a thousand years, but mainly as “one who receives instruction” or “a disciple.” I wonder what the Warlicks of the world would do if I started calling my students disciples?

Still, real meaning is defined by usage, not by fiat or even by dictionary, and  I don’t see how the word “student” does or has ever implied the things that people who hate the word think it does. Indeed, the word is used in so many contexts that it’s hard to see how it implies anything specifically at all, apart from one who is somehow involved in studies. A five year old kindergartener is a student, and so is his cousin who is finishing her doctoral dissertation. An art lover may be a “student” of impressionism while the baseball nut may be a student of hitting.  I can’t recall a single actual student objecting to the term “student” nor calling a fellow student a “learner,” nor do the vast majority of professors ever call their students “learners” in ordinary conversation. The word is limited almost exclusively to administrators and education pundits.

So why the push for “learner”? Because it’s a less common word and it’s always easier to make your ideas sound new when your words sound new. But that’s really what bothers me about “learner.” It promises something new — a new way of thinking about those involved in studies — without really delivering anything new. Contrary to the Warlick chart, good students have always been curious, and good teachers (sorry, learning-havers) have never seen them as employees.

Not all students are good students of course, nor are all teachers good teachers. Calling people learners won’t change any of that, as any student of language can tell you.

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Leave the word “student” alone

  1. It is interesting to see a public discussion around altering the label with which we refer to those engaged in studies. During my first degree, I had no objections to its usage or being referred to as a “student”. It was not until I entered my professional degrees (BSW and MSW) that the word took on a different meaning and the implications behind it altered.

    Suddenly, a “student” was an individual who was not capable, knew less information or had fewer skills then others in the workforce. “Students” were not people who should have their opinions valued and any “new” research or treatment approaches or hell even new ideas automatically needed to be shut down. Students were people who “didn’t get it and needed to wait to be in the “real world”. We were, after all, “just students”.

    Of course, in those implications existed a hierarchy of “students”. Those who had entered their MSW straight from BSW received less respect than those who did not. Older students were respected more than younger students because they were seen as “more serious”. The label and hierarchy of “student” unfortunately ceased to consider the grey areas. For instance, the student going straight into their MSW who worked through both of their previous degrees, or the younger student who looked forward to lectures for the purposes of learning.
    The label in fact became so derogatory and negative in its implications that it began posing a significant barrier to our learning. As a result, the university actually ceased use of the word when seeking placement opportunities for their “students”. We were referred to as “interns” because the word implied a more “professional” (re: useful) image. The university was strict around the policy and informed all placement supervisors that we were to be referred to as interns.

    Did the changing of the word used to label us fix the problem? Of course not. Did it help some? Yes, absolutely. However, the problem with changing labels to different words is that eventually the new words take on the same meaning. It is not the “words” that are the issue but the stigma behind the labels we place on people. Some labels have more than others.

    Still, even one year post grad, I still resent hearing “oh are you a student?”.Though my colleagues and I enjoyed our time as “students”, the label was something we shed with urgency and without regret.