Breakthrough to Learning is based on a linguistic description of the abstract language used by educated people trying to make sense of the world. This layer of abstract language is on top of the everyday language used by everybody, educated and uneducated alike, in setting up social relationships and the norms of their culture
This extra layer of language enables educated people to consider the world in terms of interacting and ever-changing variables. It is indispensable, for instance, in conceptualising the water cycle by giving words to such processes as evaporation, rising, condensation, precipitation. People without abstract language are trapped in the literal concrete descriptions of their everyday experience – it’s going to rain tomorrow.
The scholars and teachers who worked on Breakthrough to Learning were interested primarily in the application of this new knowledge about language to improving the educational achievement of young people. Some of us were also aware of the political importance of enabling the majority of the people in a democracy to make informed and considered choices. This demands abstract language – such as democracy, accountability, economic downturn etc. rather than paying more money to Europe or fake news.
Our vague unhappiness and bemusement about the use of computers exploded into an all too lucid fright on 26th February this year with the appearance of Carole Cadwalladr’s article in the Observer (26//02/2017):
WHO IS THE
TO TAKE DOWN THE MAINSTREAM
The answer is Robert Mercer, an extreme rightwing hedge fund billionaire, who funded the Trump and Brexit campaigns.
Cadwalladr shows how a group of interlinked extreme rightwing politicians, billionaires and thinktanks are using the unregulated power of Facebook and Twitter to influence elections, including the American Presidential election and the Brexit referendum. Most scary is their computer experts’ access to “big data”, enormous amounts of information about themselves which people unsuspectingly make available online. This enables the computer whizzes employed by the extreme rightwing to target their weak spots and appeal to the emotions of voters unprotected by the rational abstract language which educated people have access to.
The academics contributing to this new consortium are not only computer experts. You can bet that linguists have also been heavily involved. “Cognitive linguistics” has relevance not only to education, it seems, but also to politics.
Cadwalladr’s article exposes why the present political world feels so strange and frightening compared with even a few years ago. It was an educational tragedy that Breakthrough to Learning was not taken up by the educational establishment, when its claims to improve performance were validated in 1991. The failure to extend the power of abstract language to the whole population has resulted in the potential catastrophe of fascism using technology to usher in a new Dark Age.