Conceptual Extinction: The Highjacking of our Children’s Minds
We live in the world of knowledge and technological advances. The growth of information technologies generates rigorous exploration of our Universe. Yet, despite intensive exploration of both our planet as well as the “last great frontier,” there remain surprising gaps in our knowledge and preservation of the plant and animal world. While new birds, mammals, reptiles, fishes, and amphibians are discovered and described every year, others are lost to the world, extinct. And though normal extinction, driven by competition or climatic change, is an eternal part of life on this planet, for humans to drive an otherwise healthy species into extinction, either deliberately or by neglect, is ecologically and morally unacceptable. Most would agree that actions that contribute to the endangerment of a species should be prevented. Yet, what about the threat of extinction of the concept and consciousness of living things? Should we be concerned not only about nature’s physical deficits, but also about the widening gap in our actual knowledge of the natural world?
As our lives become more and more virtual, as we clutch our Blackberries yet never pick a blackberry off a bush, or spend more time playing Facebook Farmville rather than watching horses graze in a field of clover, our experiences with and memories of the natural world are fading. This is evidenced by the omission of over one hundred and fifty words in the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. To put it into perspective, three categories of words have been removed — nature words, Christian-focused religious words, and words of fantasy —to be replaced with words associated with computers, technology, and politics. Words such as “blackberry,” “otter,” “acorn,” and “beaver,” have been replaced with technical words such as “Blackberry,” “MP3 player,” and “blog.”
This dictionary is aimed at readers between the ages of seven to nine, and has 10,000 words contained in 288 pages. It is advertised as “meeting all the needs of your 7-9 year olds.” And yet, how is such a book meeting all of their needs when it is omitting words reflective of the natural world around them, fantasy words found in children’s books, and religious terms reflective of Christian beliefs?
The ultimate purpose of children’s dictionaries is to encourage and find joy in their usage. The two uses of a children’s dictionary are to spell check words that children frequently come across on a regular basis and to define unfamiliar words. Encouraging the pleasure of words, by including words that tickle their tongues and their fancies, as well as those that reflect a reality beyond the computer screen, should be the ideal goal of a dictionary for children. Yet, with the removal of words like “chestnut,” “violet,” and “apricot,” words that tickle the tongue, or “dwarf,” “elf,” and “goblin” that tickle the imagination, what are we teaching children? Are we professing that words are utilitarian, not aesthetically or imaginatively significant?
Along with words associated with animals, flora and fauna, and fairy-tales, words associated with the Christian faith, as well as words relating to Christmas were removed. And yet the Oxford Junior Dictionary includes words of other religious faiths. In fact, along with words such as “additive,” “biodegradable,” and “bungee jumping,” the Oxford Junior Dictionary publishers, pride themselves on including “Baisakh,” which is a widely celebrated tradition of the Sikhs and Punjabis. Its addition to the 2007 edition is additionally significant in comparison with the omission of “bishop,” “ chapel,” “ nun,” “disciple,” “minister,” “ sin,” and “devil.”
Is this a narration of our culture? The words included in the book, as well as those that have been omitted, set the tone for our youth. It tells them how to behave and what to think. Besides being descriptive, a dictionary should be prescriptive too. It should not merely contain words that are used in our popular culture, but should reflect words and the ideas that they define, which should not be forgotten. Besides the fact that it seems strange to remove words like “elf” and “dwarf,” given recent widespread interest in fantasy novels such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, it sends a message, a common thread, that the activities related to these areas are passé, old, or, more accurately, antiquated. This, in fact, is defining culture as much as it is defining the words contained in the dictionary.
Vineeta Gupta, who heads the children’s dictionaries at Oxford University Press stresses that changes in the world are responsible for the word omissions in the 2007 edition, words that were contained in the previous edition printed in 2003. She notes that the omitted words were just not used by young children anymore. “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers, for instance,” she said. “That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”
Pamela Michael, co-founder and executive director of River of Words, a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting kids to their watersheds through poetry and art, regrets that our present day society has increasingly disconnected with nature. She notes, “The ill-considered elimination of words like ‘sycamore,’ ‘cygnet,’ ‘canary,’ and ‘beaver’ from the Oxford Junior Dictionary is a sad reminder of the degree to which children are living indoor, often virtual, lives these days. Not knowing the names of the wild things around you prevent you from being able to fully engage with them, talk or write about them, and ultimately, even think about them.” Through River of Words, Michael, along with Poet Laureate Richard Hass, has put into action a plan to conserve the new endangered species — the natural world — in the minds and hearts of today’s youth by co-founding River of Words and pioneering the place-based education movement, which encourages the exploration and creative expression of one’s natural world. The Oxford Junior Dictionary, on the other hand, inhibits both the exploration and the creative expression of one’s natural world, encouraging focus on the virtual, computer world.
In the end, we must ask, is it morally acceptable for the publishers of this dictionary to contribute to the endangerment of the concept of nature by omitting words like “dandelion,” “blackberry,” “beaver,” and “clover?” As a seven-to-nine year old, wouldn’t you use the dictionary to look up the spellings and meanings of entities that you would come in contact with throughout your everyday life, as well as words that you have heard referenced or that tickle your sense of wonder? Your consciousness of the world around you and what should be valued as important is formed through language. Words are the adventure that children use to develop and awaken their experiences; it becomes their self-sufficiency and precedes their moral, intellectual, and emotional growth, contributing to their ability to sense, perceive, feel, think, and wish. Words help develop the intensity of their feelings and beliefs, of the rightness or their convictions about any experience. Their identity and conscious individuality is tied to language. If children’s identities are defined by what they do with their attention, isn’t the decision by the publishers of Oxford Junior Dictionary to omit these words sending a message that nature just really isn’t important at a time in their growth and development that is extremely significant? Canadian wildlife artist and conversationalist Robert Bateman said, “This is another nail in the coffin of human beings being acquainted with nature. If you can’t name things, how can you love them?”
Just as the endangerment and extinction of habitat lead to the extinction of a species, the endangerment and extinction of words in children’s dictionaries may also lead to the endangerment and extinction of important aspects in the minds of children. What is at risk is the highjacking of children’s minds, of the development of children’s imaginations, and their love of nature and identification with an important aspect of their heritage. This is a risk that the publishers of the Oxford Junior Dictionary need to take seriously in order to prevent highjacking our precious future.