In a discussion on the Delaware school system the other day, someone commented that we “definitely need comprehensive education reform”. I maintain that people that use such terminology are blowing smoke out of their ass. It is used with such frequency that it has become one of those cliches that everyone likes to use, but have conveniently forgotten exactly what it means.
It may be that people just relish the opportunity to show they can pronounce a four-syllable word, no matter how regurgitated it is.
The term is ubiquitously applied to everything: we have comprehensive immigration reform, patent reform, school reform, and that old standby healthcare reform. Pundits and plebians alike throw it out into the mix of conversation like so much confetti so that everyone else stops in awe of their awesome eruditeness. After all, how can you argue with “comprehensive reform” ? It is comprehensive, and it is reform. Surely both good things.
What exactly does “comprehensive” mean ?
1. So large in scope or content as to include much: a comprehensive history of the revolution.
2. Marked by or showing extensive understanding: comprehensive knowledge.
Let’s look at the first definition: so large in scope or content as to include much.
There are a number of things I can think of that fit that definition, including:
- The American Civil War, where some 620,000 people lost their lives.
- The U.S. Tax Code, which is over 71,000 pages long. They thought of everything.
- The 1931 China floods, which killed nearly 4 million people.
All very comprehensive things, indeed.
The point is that comprehensive may be big, but it is not always good. So saying that we need “comprehensive educ.ation reform” could mean to someone that we fire all the teachers and have everyone home-school. Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing, but it definitely would be comprehensive, would it not?
The second definition of comprehensive is: marked by or showing extensive understanding. There are a number of smart economists in the world, but none of them seem to agree on anything (nor be able to accurately predict anything). One man’s “knowledge” is another man’s heresy. One may publish a scholarly tome that will be instantly rebuked by an equally scholarly tome. So which “extensive understanding” is correct? No one knows for sure.
Equally insidious is the word reform. The first thing that pops into my mind with the word “reform” is “reform school”. You send bad boys to reform school to make them good boys.
One such bad boy was Howard Dully:
Lou Dully said she feared her stepson, whom she described as defiant and savage looking. “He doesn’t react either to love or to punishment,” the notes say of Howard Dully. “He objects to going to bed but then sleeps well. He does a good deal of daydreaming and when asked about it he says ‘I don’t know.’ He turns the room’s lights on when there is broad sunlight outside.”
In December of 1960, Howard was given a lobotomy.
Reform doesn’t necessarily mean to make something better, only to make it different. While a lobotomy may be an extreme example, let us look at something more mundane. There are those that think that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military was a reform. I believe that there are others who strongly disagree.
So, when someone spounts the “comprehensive <insert cause of the day here> reform“, ask them what the hell they really mean by that.
If it is truly comprehensive, it should take quite some time for them to explain it to you. If it is truly reform, they should be able to itemize each specific benefit.
Go ahead, ask them.