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.