As regular readers of this blog are aware, every once in a while I take time away from retelling stories I find entertaining and go on a little language rant. As a writer and editor, I hope my friends will view this as coming inevitably with the territory.
Today’s post – about the widespread overuse of the word educate – will be brief.
In the good old days, education was something mostly done in schools and colleges, where young people were taught about things that would be useful to them.
These days, however, the word has been running amok, appearing in some of the – to me – least likely places. For example:
- “As your real estate agent, I’ll need to educate you about title insurance.”
- “Please educate those new parents about the importance of proper nutrition for their children.”
- “It’s critical to educate millennials about why failing to vaccinate their children can lead to the spread of terrible illnesses.”
You’ve probably seen hundreds of sentences like these. “What’s wrong with them?” you ask. What’s wrong is that they all sound condescending … patronizing. From an early age, we all learn that education is for young, inexperienced people who are unfamiliar with a subject. Educating someone means, in essence, that a more experienced, knowledgeable person is sharing information with – usually – younger, less knowledgeable people.
To be blunt, the image of education in many people’s minds carries strong connotations of hierarchy, of superiors instructing those in a subordinate position. It usually means transmitting information from older, wiser, more senior people to younger, less experienced students.
So next time you’re tempted to say you want to educate someone about something, think again. Try using a term that doesn’t carry the burden of condescension, like inform, familiarize, explain, clarify.
Because nobody likes to be addressed in a way that makes them feel diminished, why unnecessarily let yourself be perceived as condescending? Try to avoid writing or saying educate. Use a kinder, gentler word. By not unintentionally making your readers or listeners feel reflexively defensive in response to the person delivering the message, it will convey your ideas more effectively.