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Bendable learnings

Don Watson, writer, 20 March 2010

DON WATSON: This suit, which I know isn’t suited to a Saturday morning in Canberra, is not some unconscious deference to Manning, it’s because I have to go to a wedding in ‘Yarra-side,’ as Manning would say.

I’ve spent the last two weeks in western Queensland eh. They talk different, them bastards, eh? You’d think you were in Wellington if it weren’t for the spinifex and grasshoppers, eh. I was with a man who’s a Vietnam veteran, Kalkadoon, Afghan, Irish and Welsh, a ringer, a tailor, a poddy dodger, a miner, a prospector, a geologist (self taught) and now a very successful mineral surveyor. His language would be blue in this context. One unutterable word in nearly all contexts is like birdsong in that bush, and it does for sheep, cattle, various grasses and trees, rocks, friends, children, everything - and it has no more connection to the female reproductive organ than ‘bloody’ does to Jesus Christ any more. It’s like a sort of song and it goes with a familiar adjective.

It forms two thirds of their entire language, as far as I could tell. By virtually all measures this is impoverished language, I suppose, yet it does very well for the people who speak it. They can tell a story in it and they can amuse themselves - and they certainly amused me. He’s at Mount Isa, spinifex country.

Now down the road is Mitchell grass country or what’s left of the Mitchell grass and the Hughenden Museum, which announces itself as ‘Celebrating 500 million years of history and culture.’ Now think about that: I don’t know which part’s history and which part’s culture, but 500 million years are represented there, most of it in a visual display that tells the story of Porcupine Gorge, a gorge - ‘a miniature Grand Canyon,’ they say, ‘our own Grand Canyon’. It tells how the rocks were formed - it starts with the Big Bang, really, and then the dinosaurs take up several million years. And finally it tells the story - I think this is where we get to the culture - of the sheep industry, the pastoral industry. Nowhere, you’ll notice, in that 500 million years of history and culture are the 50,000 or 60,000 years of Aboriginal occupation.

One section concerns one Captain Robert Gray, a cousin of the great explorer of this area - that is, the great exploiter of the area, Ernest what’s-his-name [Henry]. Like him, Robert Gray came from India and set up the first station at Hughenden, and he brought his two sisters with him. The founders of this museum, assuming that this man spoke very fine, formal, Victorian English, have done an audio presentation for everyone. And in it they’ve found some dulcet-toned local actor to read a faux letter from Gray to his genteel friends in England in which he describes how splendid it is there on the frontier and all his aspirations and what opportunities it presents for any man of enterprise - and just to add to the effect they’ve put some Bach cello behind it. It’s all lovely. It looks across at the shearing machines, the Wolseley shearing heads and those sorts of things, and pictures of hairy shearers.

It just happened that a few months ago in the Queensland Library I read the letters of Robert Gray’s sisters, who were also at Hughenden, that they wrote, and all the way through them they referred to ‘Robert being out hunting blacks’. She says, ‘It’s a sad thing but it has to be done. They just give us endless trouble.’ So they’re out hunting blacks, and then at one stage he brings home two children that he’s captured, that he’s going to dress in livery and raise as servants - slaves, basically - to help the Kanakas who he’s also got working there. He feeds them out of a trough every night - milk.

It also turns out from these letters - it becomes very clear that Robert is not really running his sheep and making his fortune and clearing the Aboriginals for the glory of Empire and the advancement of civilisation, but to make a quick financial kill so he can return to England and buy his way into the gentry, which is what a great many of the settlers in western Queensland and elsewhere in Australia were doing.

The point I’m trying to make here is not really a political one, but rather that language concerns power, even dressed up with Bach. The language of Gray is the language of a man of vast superiority, real and assumed.

The language of my friend, the former poddy dodger, is a language in which it seems to me he has wrapped himself. His great-grandmother, by the way, was one of the very few survivors as a child of the massacre on Battle Hill, where he took us. It’s quite possible that Robert Gray was present there; maybe he didn’t get that far west. But in a way his language is also a language related to power; that is, he lives inside it, he expresses his rebellion and in some ways his lower status in this language. And to learn anything from him, one has to enter into the general profanity. To speak the language that one speaks in middle-class white society won’t do at all, you’ll get nowhere. To earn respect, you have to live with the language of the time, just as you would have to drop the profanity to live with Robert Gray’s circle or to marry one of his sisters.

I’m sorry I don’t have PowerPoint, speaking of power, but I’m glad to see that Manning Clark seems to have it on call. Three weeks ago I spoke to a Victorian government department which was holding an all-day in-house seminar; that is, for its internal customers. I don’t know whether the Manning Clark House has seminars for their internal customers, but they probably should. It was at nine in the morning and I arrived at five to and picked up a brochure and read it. They’d invited me to come and speak to them because they wanted to do something about their in-house language - their internal customers were getting sick of it. Anyway, there was this very glossy brochure, and in it it was a message from the head of the department which said:

For the past three months we’ve been focusing heavily on strategic planning for 2010-2014. I’m excited by our new vision ‘to be a catalyst for continuous improvement in the accountability and performance of the public sector, supported by our values.’

It’s only recently that we’ve been supported by our values. [laughter]

Our values: integrity, personal accountability, teamwork, learning, and being outcome focused.’

It’s even more recently that our value is described as being outcome focused, or being outcome focused has become a value. If you’re not outcome focused, perhaps you should leave the room now. [laughter]

I look forward to working together over the next five years toward achieving our vision through the implementation of our key priorities.

Now you can imagine the staff, the internal customers, reading this and trying to share in the general excitement that he’s feeling. [laughter] He goes on to say:

It will be challenging and that he’s confident that a rewarding year –

And really, I don’t believe it. Anyway, I’d no sooner finished reading this than he arrived –there was a picture of him here [on the glossy] and he took me into the in-house seminar and then I met all the internal customers sitting there in the dark with a large PowerPoint presentation up there all in dot points. Now you know all PowerPoint presentations are in dot points because we don’t want verbs anywhere at all, if possible, and we know that a bullet point adds a lot of – well - truth to it. It’s much truer than a sentence, a bullet point. Sentences are just woolly sorts of things, whereas a bullet point gets to the nub of things. It actually does the opposite, but we won’t worry about that for now.

It’s a funny thing when people said words are bullets, and somebody famously said that ‘a period is like a bullet’ – I can’t remember who it was. But anyway they’ve taken it and made a bullet like a piece of fairy-floss. What was curious was that he did some housekeeping first and he had a description of what they were going to do during the day. It was all written up there in bullet points, yet he took everyone through it. He read each bullet point out to them as if they were all visually impaired. I felt like I was back in grade one when the teacher would write it on the board and then read it to you so that you learned to read. Anyway, they were doing it there with these internal customers to outline the day.

And then he had another slide come up, and it outlined me in bullet points. [laughter] It was a bullet-pointed biography of me and it seemed to me at least 50 per cent wrong, but we always feel that way about our biographies, I suppose - some people do anyway.

Bullet points seem to me to drop most of the meaning of things. Edward Tufte of Harvard, a guru of management, says that the use of PowerPoint is actually reducing steadily the cognitive ability of American businesspeople. He points out, for instance, that if bullet points had been used by those who recorded the progress of the Black Death, we would know only a very small proportion of what we know about the Black Death because it was recorded in sentences, that bullet points lose meaning and PowerPoint in general, he says, won’t do well for anything except making it possible to look like you’re listening while you’re actually thinking of something else.

Management language in general does this. This is my complaint and I’d go further than Jon Stanhope in this - it’s not bureaucratic language that concerns me, I think bureaucrats have a perfect right to say anything they like. I had a letter from one recently which said, ‘We have placed your application on hold within our systems while the works are performed. The estimated completion date is TBA. However, this date may be moved forward or back’ [laughter] depending on demand and availability of equipment.’ I think any language which amuses the people who write it is fine by me.

Legal language amuses lawyers, and John Mortimer showed that you could amuse a lot more than lawyers if you used it well. Legal language and even bureaucratic language, for the most part until the so-called ‘management revolution’ did have its roots, as far as I can tell, in English itself. It had a common provenance with the colloquial language that other people speak. It was not so far divorced from the vernacular; it was a vernacular of its own in a way. Whereas the language of managerialism, it seems to me, has no roots in English at all; it’s entirely new-fangled. It’s so thoroughly depleted in the centre that it contains, quite deliberately, no meaning. It’s a series of semaphores. You could easily swap most of the phrases of management language and substitute a sheep’s head or a piece of old rag or something and just exchange it. It doesn’t really do anything, and it has no provenance.

You can’t write a poem in this language - some people could. You can’t set it to music. As Tufte pointed out, if you try to do the Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint, it just won’t work. Whereas it seems to me that the language of some of our politicians now would be better in PowerPoint. [laughter] I would rather they did it in dot points.

Soon we will see people appearing on Kerry O’Brien [7:30 Report] with a PowerPoint slide behind them, and Kerry will probably get his own slides because he doesn’t like anyone one-upping him. But if you take a sentence like this, ‘Customer experience’ - and one of the important things about managerial language is it begins with this idea that everyone is a customer, including internal customers. Everyone is a customer because all you’re doing in this world is selling and buying.

Customer experience: a focus on planned, consistent customer experiences that embody –

I won’t tell you the brand at this moment –

…the brand and lead to optimum outcomes in terms of customer contentment and improvements in customer circumstances reflecting desired policy outcomes - (that’s in brackets, that last bit). This has been an engine room for innovation across our network. Through our focus on corporate performance, the service quality to cost index will provide us with an indicator of the implementation and effectiveness of better practice with a direct impact on value for money.

We quality assure our culture to build the trust and understanding of our staff. We monitor adherence to the Australian Public Service Values Framework and the Centrelink expectation statement in our shared behaviours.

It’s not a private company at all; it’s Centrelink. Their external customers are the unemployed – but they are not called the unemployed, they are job seekers. You’ll never see the word ‘unemployed’ in any Centrelink document; They’re job seekers. ‘Look, I’m sorry, love, but I’ve become a job seeker. I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. Still, I see Centrelink is offering optimum outcomes in terms of customer contentment; I’ll get myself down there. An engine room down there. Everything’ll be alright. I’ve just suffered a category management initiative. I’ve just been downsized a little - rightsized.’

Also from Centrelink, ‘the Centrelink contact point for statistics, previously known as the Centrelink Knowledge Desk, is now known as the Business Intelligent Front Door.’ [laughter] You know about the power of language: you can just turn the desk into a door just like that, just write a little memo, and away it goes. You come in in the morning, an internal customer, and think, ‘Where’s the door gone?’

In the end, all this language begins to sound the same. And it’s not just in the Public Service venue but also in local government. Let’s try the Department of Treasury and Finance: ‘It is important here in the department that we all demonstrate behaviours reflective of both the organisational aspirations of the department and the specific work accountabilities, deliverables and outputs of which we are individually responsible.’ [laughter]

‘The Department of Treasury in Victoria now describes itself as an agile department.’ I don’t know if any of you are finance officers, or have met them from the Department of Finance, but ‘agile’ was never the first word that came to mind when I had to deal with them.

The Police Force: ‘We are committed to the ongoing professionalisation of our profession.’

‘The purpose of the state’s sustainability strategy is to illustrate how the state government will respond to the sustainability agenda by adopting the sustainability framework and highlighting actions across government that give meaning to the framework.’ Round and round we go: ‘By focusing the strategy on agency activity the state government is demonstrating its important leadership role in supporting the transition to a sustainable future.’ Well it’s not. And if it is, it’s not in there.

What this language does is it turns everything into abstract nouns and composite, portmanteau sorts of nouns hung together with a few, weak or non-existent verbs, and some awful clichéd adjectives - and often very strange adjectives like ‘delightful’ or ‘contented’ for a customer. I suppose it’s all right to be a contented customer but it sounds a little passive.

Politicians begin to sound the same way. Here’s a couple we’re familiar with: ‘These pilots will trial or expand initiatives that exemplify strategies to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes for those students most in need of support.’ Now the problem with that sentence in part maybe that no one cares any more. But if you read it five times, you still don’t know what it is they’re trying to say. It creates a sort of anaesthetic effect at once, yet the word ‘initiative’ is in there which suggests something a little more dynamic, but initiative doesn’t have anything dynamic about it any more. And of course it has the necessary outcomes. Everything is now an outcome. We are all in our way outcomes; We’re the product of a successful birth event and a non-adverse outcome in that regard. Well, that’s not the whole existential answer, but it is part of it. That was Kevin [Rudd] and Julia [Gillard] together offering that explanation of how they’re going to help people read and write which, when you look at it the seventeenth time, you realise that’s what they’re saying.

‘We will teach kids to read and write,’ but it wouldn’t sound good enough, would it really? Imagine saying that. Or you have somebody talking about… there’s a couple of CEOs probably on $3 million or $4 million a year from Ernst and Young: ‘The priority we place on our people is what drives our quality performance and profitable growth.’ This is nonsense. It’s not that at all. It’s got nothing to do with placing priorities on people; absolutely nothing to do with it. ‘And in 2004 we made considerable investments in our people initiatives.’ There it is again. ‘Central to this was an accelerated collaborative event, which enabled a broad cross section of our people to have input into our people approach.’

Now someone has sat down and written this. This isn’t just off the cuff. They’ve actually prepared this, and it’s been checked by several people all the way up to the top, and the CEO has put his name at the bottom of it. ‘This has resulted in six project teams working to embed the key initiatives across our firm,’ and so on. They mention Harvard here with a ‘valuable leadership program for our key leaders,’ and on and on it goes.

You know all this stuff. Here’s another: ‘Titan is very proud of its reputation for excellence and commitment to upholding the highest ethical standards. As always, Titan’s ultimate success in both of these areas begins and ends with our greatest resource: our team of highly qualified… They share core values…’

Titan is one of the rottenest companies in the world. It’s always in court, all over the world. It has made huge profits out of the Iraq war - it and Blackwater and CACI… They’re involved in the business at Abu Graib. You can’t find a more rotten company unless it’s Halliburton or Enron. Blackwater is so rotten they’ve had to change their name. They’re now called X-E Xe; they just changed it overnight. They even took their mission statement down - they’re going to write a new one - because it’s become laughable, even by their standards. And they talk about customers all the time.

Halliburton: ‘Additionally, our success also depends on our business execution, practicing personal accountability and discipline while delivering projects to our customers. And, most importantly, do not forget our focus on ethical standards, exemplifying honesty and integrity in all that we do.’ Exactly.

CACI: ‘Placing integrity and honesty above all else; putting clients first.’ You can substitute - that’s the first one and then there’s a second. You can have ‘putting clients’ first and then ‘placing integrity and honest above all else,’ and then if you give it a moment’s thought you think, ‘Hang on, if you’re putting clients first and you’re putting integrity and honesty above all else, haven’t you got a little bit of a problem here, because if you’re really committed to your clients, can you always be committed to your ethics?’ Well all you do is you change them around. You get your values lined up with your goals, and then your goals with your outcomes, and if your outcomes are crook then you move your values. What’s curious is we never had to do this before. We never had to line our values up with our goals. We would never have got out the door; we’d still be at Circular Quay - wouldn’t be a bad thing, quite probably. ‘Committed to high ethical…’ well, CACI is also in court all the time.

This is my point about the spread of it. Mission statements would have to be the silliest thing we’ve done in the last 100 years. They now they use them in schools. Kids learn them in grade two. They write a class mission statement in Victoria. I don’t know if they do it in the ACT. But, in Victoria, they write the class mission statement. I’ve got one here. If I can find it, I’ll read it out to you. Then you laminate it and put it on your desk or up on the wall. You talk about the kids all having to have the same common purpose all sharing the same values. Why do you want that? It’s a very strange thing.

Universities want mission statements and everyone sharing the same goals and the common purpose. In other words, the universities and colleges, education departments and public service bodies everywhere have taken on the idea that really the perfect model for managing their business is the private sector model that got up in the 1980s - a model for a profit-making organisation. This is all the stranger because there are so many models of successful educational organisations and research organisations which work to an entirely different model.

The Rockefeller Institute does not run, and never has run, to a private sector organisational model. It didn’t tell every scientist who they brought in there that they all had to sign up to the mission statement and share certain core values at all. They said, ‘Get on with your work. Do what you like. Go for it. Don’t worry about our mission to…, we haven’t got one.’ Well, they got 26 Nobel prizes out of this sort of operation, and their contribution to human life is considerably more, I would think, than CACI, Titan or any of the others.

But the organisational model we choose to imitate, it seems to me, is just the wrong one and the same goes for public service departments and for politicians. Here is the Victorian Minister for Planning [Justin Madden], who was caught out because one of his advisors - a genius, no doubt - sent out an email which said quite explicitly, ‘We’ll run the public consultation first and then we will do what we like.’ [laughter] .

And Madden came out and said, ‘In order to address any perception issues created by this poorly worded sentence…’ by which he means: ‘It was a silly thing to do.’ It doesn’t mean it was grammatically poor. I mean, it let the cat out of the bag. ‘In order to address any perception issues created by these poorly worded sentences, I have instructed my department to appoint an independent probity audit[or] to oversee the application process’ by which time you are dropping off again.

If the private sector wants to talk like this and run themselves like this, that’s their business. I feel sorry for their internal customers and their external customers. But the more worrying thing is that the language escaped. Like a virus it has spread everywhere. And it’s easy enough to see how, because in the 1980s and 1990s, as we all know, we privatised a lot of the public sector, and what remained of the public sector took on the habits of the private sector with all the zeal of the new convert. So the public sector, it seems to me, became mad about this stuff and the worst examples of it are now in the public sector.

Although if you read the Financial Review and just work through all the stuff in quotations from chief executives, they all say exactly the same thing, from page one to the end. And the point to be made here is that there is no need to say anything else. The bottom line is fine. The businesses still run. Language has nothing do with it, just as their mission statements have nothing to do with the way they behave – or all their emphasis on ‘our people’ has nothing to do with our people.

It comes to the most extreme thing where you have to actually teach people the new language. In the Tasmanian Public Service they have to explain the language - they can manage with their own language but they have to learn this stuff, so they say things like:

Target outcomes are expressed as a sentence in the past tense and usually start with a word ending in ‘ed’ -

[laughter] These are grown ups. Many of them have two degrees and one or two will have MBAs. This was no doubt written by someone with one of those MBAs.

… such as ‘improved’, ‘increased’ or ‘enhanced’. Framing target outcomes in this way makes it easy to determine their success measure.

Well, we work on that - determining their success measure.

Outputs are the products, services, business or management practices that will be required or produced to meet the identified outcomes or benefits.

Now you see, you can’t follow that; you just cannot get inside that at all; it remains outside all the time.

Outcomes are the benefits or other long-term changes that are sought from undertaking the project. They are achieved from the utilisation of the project’s outputs. Outcomes are linked with objectives in that, if the outcomes are achieved, then the project’s objectives have been met.

Among other things, who cares? [laughter]

How this happened, I think, is roughly like this: Management has always been looking for ways to run things better - Henry Ford, Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, all those sorts of ideas - and out of it in the 1980s came people like Tom Peters and Peter Drucker who said, ‘This is the way to run a company in the future.’ But at the same time it wasn’t just about running a company more efficiently, they recognised that what you were doing was that you were handling something altogether new, and that was information. You had to have something to move this information around – it had to be language. How else can you do it? You have to use language up to a point. But the language is the worst possible thing for moving information around the way you want it moved, because language also has room for imagination and you do not want that in what is essentially an assembly line. You do not want people running off into sentences. Language actually encourages thought. Once you get a hold of it, you start thinking of things you had not thought before you started using it. This is dangerous.

In a way you can understand - there are good reasons for why people want to keep it abstract, pseudo-scientific, and to make it as dull as possible. Language is unreliable. It makes people actually see complexity where you do not want them to see complexity, or to see simplicity when you actually want them to think it is impossibly complex and you will not think any more about it because it is too hard. My argument is really not to say these people are ‘horrors’ and should be in ‘stocks’, although that is not such a bad idea; it is really to say there is this systemic assault on language, that the problems we now have with this appallingly dull management speak, which has spread everywhere, come from a economic necessity, which is the transmission of masses of information, and having people writing who have never had to write before - and an education system which does not provide them with that facility anyway. In fact, an education system which has rolled over completely in the front of the assault of management and has now become totally managerialised itself.

Try and read the curriculums: 70 per cent of Tasmanian school teachers in an internal poll say they cannot understand the curriculum at all and do not know what they are teaching from one day to the next. [laughter] And the great majority of them cannot write literally a school report on a child. They cannot write the sentences: Johnny has been good but he needs to do better.’ They cannot write this any more and they are not allowed to write it. The classroom reports are written by a computer knowledge bank or whatever you call it. Of course the parents cannot understand it, the teachers cannot understand it and the kid cannot understand it - so it is perfect. [laughter]

So something is going wrong. I do not know whether they are doing it in Tasmania yet, but I am sure in some places they are writing ‘going forwards’ at the end of it. Cardinal Pell ended his Advent letter in 2008: ‘May the lord be with you going forwards.’ [laughter] I read that bit first. It does not matter where you read it. You can cite any document these days at the back or the front or the middle, it does not matter. It was plain from the language of the Advent letter that it had been done by a consultant, at least in part. In the whole history of the Catholic Church it has never been necessary to say ‘going forwards’ before. [laughter]

In fact it was never necessary for anyone to say it, it was just assumed that we are going forwards. Now it is just everywhere - ‘going forwards’. We are like lemmings and like trout going upstream to spawn. It is amazing you are here really when you could be ‘going forwards’. [laughter] Until about 1994 human beings just milled about. They were lost - just milled around in circles.

There is that word ‘learnings’ too. We used to learn; we were taught; but now we have ‘learnings’. That is why this book is called Bendable Learnings. Do kids now go home and their parents say, ‘What were your learnings today, sonny?’ Any key learnings lad?’

I will just keep going for a minute or two more. The only thing to do is to mock and deride this stuff in many ways, but it does have quite dramatic effects. I certainly think it has dramatic effects in education - it makes us duller. I know every generation thinks the next generation coming through is lost, and language is the first sign of their lostness. But this language is now everywhere. The kids coming home and saying ‘like’ all the time is one thing, but when the family is reading articles about ‘branding’ the family, developing a family brand. When the language of the workplace, which used to be for the most part a place where the vernacular flourished, this is the first attack on language which actually annihilates the vernacular as well as the public language, the formal language. You can become obsessed, I know.

To listen to the way people speak, it’s not the ‘likes’ and the ‘text’ language and all that sort of stuff that I find really concerning, it’s the general dullness of the language on talkback radio everywhere. It is coming out of all workplaces - even plumbers use it.

To give you two examples of where there seems to be disastrous practical effect. If you take the idea of an outcomes-based education, I don’t know but in general it seems to me that most of you here did not have an outcomes-based education - you’re too old, I’m sorry. And that’s why you’re morons. [laughing] That’s why you have trouble thinking about anything or reading books or doing anything at all, because your education was not outcomes based. Good riddance. [laughter]

Now everyone gets an outcomes based education, which is why they’re so much cleverer than everyone else and it all works so much better. They don’t read any Shakespeare - what sort of an outcome are you going to get from Shakespeare? A disastrous outcome, a non-outcome if not an adverse one.

If you go to the Northern Territory Education Department’s website and read their mission statement, it’s hard to see where the mission statement ends and the general gumph begins, you will see that it sound like every other education department’s mission statement and general promotional rubbish but with this difference that it’s even worse:

The corporate plan is a living document that reinforces our commitment to ongoing improvement, to improve employment, education and training outcomes and to provide a system of accountability for the whole department, including schools.

Let’s take ‘provides a system of accountability for the whole department.’ I know one school in the Northern Territory very well. It was built with government money after the first school was built with Melbourne Rotary money built by Vietnam veterans. The kids all there want to go to school and their parents want them to go to school – it’s in north-east Arnhem Land. The only trouble is that the teacher comes only two days a week, on average. Then there are other days when she’s away on in-house internal customer training exercises. The kids as a result, aged 14 or 15, are illiterate and innumerate, despite having gone to the school for several years. They just play in the dust; they’re lost.

With kids in a school down here, if their teacher misses a few days, parents begin to panic. If they miss a few stages in their education there is general panic and it just won’t happen not for long - up there it’s just a matter of course. Yet, only a month or so ago, the college which is in charge of the administration of this school which provides the teacher, who turns up when it suits her, declared that these children aged 16 had reached year 11 standard. I’ve sat with these kids with Vietnam vets - some of them had only reached year 9 standard when they left school - and these people cannot spell or read or write, or add up, or can’t take seven from nine using blocks.

They’ve never learned anything because they haven’t been taught properly, yet the same business goes on. The outcome in these cases - as everywhere where they talk about outcomes based, it seems to me - is not for the so-called client or customer, the outcome is for the department, the organisation. It has set itself up so it can actually tick the box which says the outcome has been achieved. The values have been lived by; we have aligned them with our goals and our outcomes and everything works well. It’s the most cynical operation you could imagine; it’s Stalinist in conception and execution, it seems to me.

What you actually have as the outcome is a bunch of kids - 40 at one stage, but they’re drifting away now, they’re going into town because there’s no one there to teach them - whose life opportunities have been lost entirely. That’s the outcome. But the outcome for the department and the school and everybody in between has been achieved. That’s the first thing, and I think that happens very generally in modern organisations.

The other one I’ll just mention as quickly as I can concerns the Black Saturday bushfires last year in Victoria. If you lived in the bush in Victoria, roughly speaking where I live, you were constantly warned about the approach of fire events - weather events, fire events, combinations of weather events and fire events, wind events, heat events. Everything’s an event now, as you know. As I said, we come out in a birth event and we go out in a death event. [laughter] All this stuff went on for ages. Most people had gone and got their fire plans from the CFA and come away and installed their Honda pumps and their sprinkler systems and believed that they could really handle any fire.

However, it emerged from the Royal Commission - the Country Fire Authority and the Department of Sustainability and Environment had been to management school and as a result they were unable to express either before the fires or during the fires the facts of the fires. In fact, they told the commission that it was not possible for them to warn people about the fire in ways that might make them leave their houses because there had never been a fire like this before; it was unprecedented.

Once you believe that your language is entirely new-fangled, you believe that everything’s new-fangled. You would think there’s never been a fire before in the whole of history. So Jack Rush, the QC who was assisting the Commission, said, ‘Surely if you had described the kind of fire that these weather conditions would produce instead of talking about fire events, then surely more people would have left.’ And they said, ‘But we couldn’t describe it because there’d never been a fire like this before.’

So Jack Rush went that night and found a description of the 1939 Black Friday bushfires and read it out to these people, and they said, ‘Well, that might be but, you know,’ and around they went. So what I mean to say is that, having been trained in management language, they were unable to do the simplest thing that language does, which is to warn people. ‘Fire, look out, hot, ‘burn’ - those things you do with kids, they couldn’t do that. This is not hyperbole believe it or not, you can read the Commission transcripts and there it is.

When asked what they were doing on the day, one said he was populating the template. I don’t know whether he was doing that in a private room [laughter] it’s bizarre. Another said he was value adding. If you read Robert Mann’s article in The Monthly before last, Robert and his family were up there, he describes how no one actually wrote a warning between three o’clock in the afternoon until after seven - the warning was written and then was not delivered. The warning was not the best warning I have ever seen, but at least it might have told people that the fire was coming. But the management system was such that they could not bring themselves to issue the warning; in other words, you cannot really separate management language from management processes - it seems to me they often do not work the way they are meant to work.

Once you start talking about ‘outcomes based’ and achieving outcomes aligned with your values and your goals, and all the rest of it, you really are in huge trouble. You have given up really your ability to act spontaneously and in many ways morally. Robert’s article ends by saying to a policeman, ‘There is a body lying on the sports field,’ and he asks the policeman, ‘Could we cover that body?’ and he says, ‘It is not my job,’ which really sums up in the vernacular what management does. But at least he said ‘it is not my job’ and did not go into something else.

Anyway, I will leave it there and if you have any questions and if there is any time, fire away. [applause]

DI JOHNSON: One of my pet hates is the word ‘vibrant’. When politicians and planners and others want to persuade you that something is a good thing they seem to use it consistently. What is your view of the word ‘vibrant’?

DON WATSON: It is not one of my core values. [laughter] It came out at around the time multiculturalism became fashionable. ‘We had a vibrant multicultural society’ and you could not have a multicultural society that was not vibrant. And then it just kept going. I remember you could shorten it to VMS, vibrant multicultural society. It [‘vibrant’] has died away a bit. I have not seen as much of it recently. But I do not know what it has been replaced by, probably ‘robust’. [laughter]

Amanda Vanstone in a very short interview on the ABC a couple of years ago used the word ‘robust’ 13 times. She was describing a psychological report into Ms [Cornelia] Rau, who was deported for no reason, and said that what they needed was a ‘robust psychological report’. Robust, robust, robust… I have the same view as you have in ‘vibrant.’

MAX RICHARDSON: Thank you for your last book for talking about the use of verbs. I used it the other day to an ‘educational outcome recipient’.

DON WATSON: Good!

MAX RICHARDSON: However, the word I hate from politicians is ‘resile’ because they use it as a negative thing ‘I will not resile from that’ where ‘resile’ gives you ‘resilient’. It is a good thing to resile, and they use it the wrong way. I get annoyed at people using cliches without understanding what those cliches mean, and I know you have mentioned this in your books.

DON WATSON: Yes. I think you have to sort of stop listening. You will go mad if you worry about ‘resile,’ ‘fulsome,’ ‘literally’ and ‘refute’ when you mean ‘deny’, it is like possessive apostrophes and all those in the wrong places. I went to vote once in the Aireys Inlet school down in Victoria where all the words were written on the blackboard and the plurals all had apostrophes. [laughter] They had one cat and two cats - and they had ‘cat’s’. I got the duster and took them all out, [applause] but I am sure they went back in on Monday morning.

ALBERT WHITE: You mentioned Shakespeare and the poetry of Shakespeare, do you concede that some time in the future we may be able to use the current telephone texting language and convert it into poetry?

DON WATSON: I don’t know. It’s a physical miracle the way some people can text - I don’t know how they do it so quickly with their thumbs. But if you still write ‘kind regards’ on your texts you know you are not doing well at the texting business. But it may be possible to put the Book of Common Prayer or something into a telephone and then you will text in the English of Cranmer or something. I don’t know, anything is possible. That’s a good idea actually: we can text in Elizabethan English.

ZACH NUERLINGER. I suspect I am probably the youngest person in this room. What would you suggest that my generation actually do to try to fix this abominable mess?

DON WATSON: You’re outcomes based obviously. [laughter] I don’t know. I was on a panel in Perth the other day with AC [Anthony] Grayling, the English philosopher who said, in answer to that question, ‘Just correct people all the time, just pull them up.’ That’s the worst thing you can do. Grammarians can drive you balmy. I did not get much grammar myself, as no doubt is apparent to those who did. Country high schools didn’t teach much grammar - I wish they had - or much Latin. Pulling up people is a very unpleasant way of going about it. I think grammarians are among those people who couldn’t live without bad grammar, who wouldn’t know what to do themselves if grammar was perfect. What would you do for a living? So don’t do that.

In a way I think it’s good to satirise this as much as you can. I have always thought it would be a great idea to have a national verb retrieval day where everyone has to think of a verb and write it on the wall, and equally have both in-house and out-of-house moratoriums on certain words like ‘vibrant’: ‘We will not use vibrant all this week.’ Productivity would decline for the first couple of weeks as they sat there and thought of some other word for ‘vibrant’ and then realised that you don’t need an adjective at all – you are much better without it - but I think it would pick up soon after that.

You could write to your local member on this score. I think taking the trouble to write to people who send you silly things like that letter I quoted at the beginning is worth doing.

Teaching your children words. My argument with the education system would be that confronted with… it’s not like any other assault on the English language. Lots of people have worried - from Sam Johnson on, George Orwell and others - about the inadequacies, destruction or depletion of English. Plenty have said in totalitarian systems how the language is the first thing to go.

It’s well worth reading for this reason alone - there are many others - the diaries of Victor Klemperer, who was a linguist working at Dresden University at the time of Hitler’s rise to power. The first thing he noticed about the repression of Nazism was the way that words had changed their meaning and how his language was being taken away from him, long before his rights were taken away - that followed, not that much time but that was the first thing to go. I’m not suggesting that this language is totalitarian, but it strangely imitates it. It really does. Stalin said, ‘We will decide what words mean and what they don’t.’ That’s really what organizations, like this rather benign department I talked to a few weeks ago, decide by Power Point - they are deciding what words mean and what they don’t; and these are the words you are going to use the next time you go to your six sigma conference or any other new management. If some consultant comes through you’ll start using this word over and over again.

What it creates is the same kind of complicity that operates in an authoritarian organisation, because everyone has to use the word otherwise you stand out. Your language gives you away every time. ‘Speak that I may see thee.’ It’s inverted in an authoritarian system. If you speak the wrong word, if you use the wrong phrase in filling out your form, you not only fail in your duty to the values and the mission statement, you reveal yourself as a rebel, a person not to be trusted. That doesn’t answer your question at all. [laughter]

I will just keep trying. I think education systems should have said in the face of this: what we will do is teach above all a love of words. We will teach people how wonderful words are. We’ll give them that defence, at least, rather than rolling over and saying, ‘Well, what do you want us to do next? What would you like us to turn this little kid into?’ We’ll take all this away from him, it’s not important. They can go through school and never read a Shakespeare sonnet, even if they don’t understand it. But somehow it sticks with them. They’ll never know about the rhythms of language or had cadences echoing in their heads when they are on their deathbed.

LYN BEASLEY: When you are talking about phrases and things being introduced, it seems to me also that we go through phases where certain words become unpopular. And ones that you have been using recently have been unpopular in a lot of museums for a number of years, and those are the words ‘teaching’ and ‘education’. I’ve talked a lot about this over a long time because the ‘word’ education to me has always meant something very positive. Yet it got dropped from a lot of the museum language because it had negative connotations. So we had to start using ‘learning’ and ‘interpretation’. We were no longer teachers; we were interpreters or learning facilitators. [laughter]

We here at the National Museum do call ourselves the education section but I know there are lots of other museums where they are the learning section, and I keep wondering what they’re learning. [laughter]

DON WATSON: They’re not learning anything. They’re taking home learnings.

LYN BEASLEY: I noticed you’ve talked about education and teaching a lot, but have you found this is also permeating into the education departments themselves in a way?

DON WATSON: Very much. You can search education department documents and you’ll struggle to find the word ‘teach’ or ‘learn’. You’ll find virtually everything but and you can listen to Kevin and Julia all day long and all night and you won’t hear them talk about ‘teachers’. It seems to me the strangest thing and so separated from the reality of everybody’s education. I think if you asked anyone in this room what was most important to them in their education, I doubt very much they’d say it was a Bunsen burner or a gymnasium or a building of any kind or even a sports ground, they would say it was two or three good teachers that they managed to get during their lives. That’s what did it. And they won’t always be the same teachers. Some teachers are good for some people and some aren’t - all you can hope to do is to put as many good teachers into the system as possible. You never hear anyone ever say that.

Instead you have universities adopting quality assurance straight from the private sector, which leads them to ask students to judge their teachers as if that’s going to tell you who the good ones and who are the bad ones. If someone had asked me as an undergraduate to measure the good teachers from the bad I would have got it upside down. The best teacher I ever had seemed to me at the time to be the worst teacher I had ever run into in my life. It was only later I realised that he had taught me ten times as much and forced me to think in ways that no other teacher had ever done. The idea of universities having quality assurance of teachers just seems to me about the 100th thing that might be important, you would never get to it really, but they picked it up because they see themselves as a customer focused organisation.

JANE FREEBURY: I was just wondering what you thought of the work of the plain English societies that have sprung up in England and I believe that one has begun here in Australia.

DON WATSON: Well, I’m not opposed to them. [laughter] They’re a bit close to the grammarians, which I think are fine in their way. Who was it - someone in the room will know - who complained about the grammar schools? It might have even been Shakespeare. Somewhere in one of Shakespeare’s plays he talks about these grammar schools. It’s a good thing if people know how you compose a sentence - that’s great. I’m all for it. That’s my answer, except that I think those sometimes think that they can cure everything with a few in-house seminars.

When in fact treating grammar when you are dealing with management language is like treating dandruff when you’ve got gangrene. [laughter] You are well gone, and grammar is not going to help. This is beyond the reach of grammar. It really is. It’s an anaesthetic. They all use that term. The best essay of the twentieth century in my view is Politics and the English Language [by George Orwell] or maybe that’s going too far - it’s certainly a marvellous thing. You can read it 100 times and it still is a marvellous thing. He talked about this anaesthetic quality and he has this image of the cliches marching in, the well-worn phrases coming in and taking over the whole of any document.

In one of his diaries he talks about how no one of the educated classes understands that the uneducated classes don’t ever listen to an abstract noun. They don’t hear them. If it’s abstract, they don’t hear it. What’s happened in a way is that everyone now deals in the abstract, and that seems to me disastrous for the language. It not only means that the public language, formal or official language, is dull and very conducive to lying and obscuring the truth, including the truth from yourself, but also wipes out the vernacular as well. So it removes the creative force of the language as it was spoken by my friend up in Mount Isa. Plain English – good - but it’s not the answer.

JOHN HARMS: Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll leave it there. Don Watson, thank you very much. [applause]

Date published: 16 August 2010