Gift of knowledge

King’s College, Cambridge.

King’s College, Cambridge.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Pankaja Srinivasan


Cambridge University’s world-changing contributions over the years stand in stark contrast to how knowledge today is used to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

Yesterday evening my wife and I joined hundreds of people outside Great St. Mary’s Church in Cambridge — the University church — looking across at two major University buildings. We were there to see the first showing of a dramatic, specially commissioned, piece of “light art”, incorporating images, with accompanying words, from the University’s distinguished history as it begins to celebrate its 800th anniversary. As the projection of the images began, the bells of Great St. Mary’s, and three other Cambridge churches (and churches in many other parts of the world) began to ring a new work for bells composed by a Cambridge graduate, Phil Earis.

It was a memorable occasion, clearly enjoyed by the huge variety of people who had come to see, and hear, it. It was also an occasion whose message was clear. The display, showing the dates 1209 and 2009, provided a graphic reminder of why we were there. The presentation was produced by a renowned artist, Ross Ashton, and included illustrations by Quentin Blake. Their skill, in the planning and execution of the display, was manifest, and one important measure of their success was the clarity and simplicity with which, in images and words, it told its story. No one watching could be in doubt about it: eight centuries of internationally recognised ground-breaking research and scholarship. As Ross Ashton put it, speaking of his role in the production: “The ideas, concepts and inventions that have flowed from Cambridge have changed the world”.

A different scene

The pleasurable experience of attending the event caused me to reflect, rather less pleasurably, about the great number of instances where words are used in ways which create confusion rather than clarity, obfuscation rather than enlightenment.

The current international financial crisis has provided many examples, as bankers and other “experts” have concealed their flawed policies with the use of such terms as “credit default swaps” “securitisation” and “quantitative easing”. An, admittedly more minor, example is the almost universal habit of banks, and other organisations, trying to sell “products”. As they do not actually produce anything, what they should offer is services, and as recent events have shown, all too often they do not.

Using jargon is, of course, a temptation for all of us. It is true that every occupation and profession has its own specialist words and expressions, which practitioners will necessarily use. That, I suggest, is not the same as — deliberately, or inadvertently — confusing jargon. It is not the same as the use of words whose effect is to dilute meaning.

There has been a recent notable U.K. example of that, with the decision of a new primary school in Sheffield to ban the word “school” from its title because it has “negative connotations”. The chosen title is “place for learning”. The decision provoked much scorn and ribald mirth, which was surely justified. People know what a school is, and if a school senses negative connotations, the solution, surely, should be to find out what the causes are, and tackle them.

That naming decision, many people feel, was fatuous, but on the unacceptability scale it is well below other examples which have sinister implications. Two such examples, from armed conflict, come to mind. One of these, “friendly fire”, is used when a soldier is killed — obviously accidentally — by his own side. Surely, whatever the cause, the use of the word friendly is inappropriate. Another example is “collateral damage”, which is a sanitised euphemism for the killing of innocent civilians. The use of the term has the effect of insulating people from the stark reality of what has happened.


It therefore serves to de-humanise people, and that, surely, should not be acceptable. Perhaps we should all try to stand back for a moment from the financial turmoil which faces us all, and the armed conflicts which are so tragically widespread, and resolve to avoid terms which have that kind of de-humanising effect. I am happy to start the process by questioning the (now almost universal) use of “human resources”. Do any of us think of ourselves as human resources, rather than individual people? I appreciate that this particular campaign is a lost cause, but that does not remove my objection.

I shall end by returning to my starting point, the Cambridge celebration and the simple clarity of the message. The celebration is certainly of a “place for learning”, but I do not think anyone at last night’s event would suggest that the title “university” carries negative connotations.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: >

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