Howard Jacobson: Rage, rage against educational defeatism!

We don't use the phrase "dumbing down" in this column.

We believe it exemplifies – maybe even connives in and encourages – the very sin it offers to decry. Say "dumbing down" and you're dumbing down. There are other words beginning with D to describe the will to destroy a culture. Denigrating, disparaging, dishonouring. And then there's defeatism – the faint-heartedness of intellectuals in that battle for language and meaning in which they have a sacred trust, if not to lead the charge then at least to man the battlements.

I am sitting on a pretty hotel terrace (speaking of battlements) looking out over Windermere (where I have come to unwind), still fuming about a Radio 4 programme I listened to about 10 days go. Word of Mouth it was called, and its subject was, in that fair-minded Radio 4 way, "dumbing down", for and against.

Since there is no "for" I am not sure why I went on listening. Fair-mindedness on my own part perhaps. Or maybe I was unconsciously calculating that I'd be winding down in Windermere shortly and would need something to fume about. I don't recall whether someone on the programme mounted the usual complacent defence of complacency: namely that people have been complaining about falling standards since the beginning of time (as though the longevity of a complaint proves its fallaciousness, or the fact that someone said we were getting sillier 3,000 years ago must mean that we aren't), but I heard it in the voices of the guests hauled in to dumb up dumbing down – Angela Leonard and Ziggy Liaquat, a pair against whom, like Dudley Moore's would-be acrobat's one leg, I otherwise have absolutely nothing.

Both Ms Leonard and Mr Liaquat are employees of Edexcel – the former being chair of examiners for history, the latter managing director. Of what again? I believe you heard me the first time. Edexcel – a privately owned examination board, the concept of which I find hard to grasp though I guess I'm going to have to get used to it now that we have a government that believes in the virtue of privatising everything. But it isn't just the "private" I'm having trouble with, it's the mnemonic. Edexcel. Oughtn't that to hurt the ear of anyone for whom educational excellence (I assume that's what they're getting at) is a priority, and to whom linguistic euphony therefore matters? Edexcel. It sounds like a cross between a laxative and a substance for sticking stuff to stuff; all right, a substance for sticking stuff to stuff in a specifically educational context, say for sticking presentation accessories to white boards, or pupils to their desks.

That something that goes by the name of Edexcel can assess and mark, offer qualifications and award certificates, make judgements and set standards bothers me to the degree that the word "Edexcel" is itself a barbarism to anyone for whom language has dignity. I can't imagine Angela Leonard or Ziggy Liaquat, however, having time for such verbal squeamishness, their first concern being clarity in the setting of examination questions, or what they call "keeping the threshold low". The great obstacle to keeping the threshold low, in their view, is unnecessary difficulty or "inaccessibility" of language in the examination question. One example of this was the word "salient", which reputedly floored an examinee with its obscurity, thereby preventing him from showing what he knew, though I would have said it made a very good job of showing what he didn't. Another was "expediency". And a third was "perfect". Come again? Perfect. Is that the verb or the adjective? Well there, reader, you have the nub of the problem, if nub isn't too great a bar to comprehension.

Let me set the scene as Angela Leonard set it. The subject is history and there is a question relating to the trial of the Rosenbergs in the 1950s. The question cites the ruling of Judge Irving Kaufman who told the Rosenbergs: "You put into the hands of the Russians the A bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb." Clear enough if you read it out, Angela Leonard conceded, but picture the consternation of the candidate who "probably" – her word – would read the verb perfect as the adjective perfect. In order to avoid which confusion the examiners changed "would perfect" to "would be able to perfect".

If it says little for the candidate that he'd be unable to work out how that word "perfect" was operating in the context, it says even less that the chair of the examiners for history positively expected him to flounder. But that might be the consequence of years of sitting Edexcel exams if you're the candidate, and years of working for Edexcel if you're the examiner. Low threshold expectations all round.

How a person ignorant of the different ways of reading the word "perfect" can pass an exam on any subject requiring a working knowledge of the English language – as history assuredly is – I do not know. But more bizarre still is the idea that he will have grasped the political and ideological subtleties of the Rosenbergs' defection. Presumably he will have been spoon-fed the requisite information and the accompanying received opinions. Spoon-fed by Edexcel itself, I don't doubt, which won't want its efforts stymied by some pesky little word that is both adjective and verb. It was at this point in the conversation that Ziggy Liaquat reminded us there had been a great deal of investment in education, "so you would expect a return of some kind". Chilling words, the only meaning of which that I could deduce was that examinees have to pass as a matter of economic necessity, which amounts to saying that the only thing that is actually being tested is Edexcel's ability to create the conditions for passing, and whatever stands in the way of as many examinees as possible getting through – such as ignorance of the most basic English vocabulary and word usage – has to be Edexecelled out of existence. Thus does dumbing down, though we don't use the phrase, brazenly declare itself to be the handmaiden of commerce.

The last I heard was Angela Leonard citing another difficulty-in-waiting – "wicked". A word we must be careful of using because it no longer means to children what it used to mean. So that's the end of "Richard III was a wicked bastard – discuss".

Looking out over Windermere, I think of Wordsworth writing about "the multitude of causes" combining to reduce the human mind to "a state of almost savage torpor". Now why would I be thinking of that?