Words: Pragmatic

Share
Related Topics
THIS YEAR'S A-level results had the traditionalists wagging their wise old heads again. Overall pass rates were up, so overall standards must be down, they said. Well, they have been saying that for some years now. But they could be right in a way, because it seems that more candidates this year went for the "easier" subjects where there might be less chance of their shortcomings (say, in spelling and grammar) being noticed.

Why shouldn't they?, asked David Hart on behalf of the National Association of Head Teachers: if schools wanted to do well in the league tables, encouraging their pupils to switch to easier subjects was "totally pragmatic".

At least, that is what he is reported to have said; and I'm not sure that it was much help to his cause. Pragmatic sends out a dubious message. It hints at short cuts, at the neglect of those principles and ideals and solid virtues that parents have traditionally expected to hear talked about from the platform at Speech Days.

It was Harold Wilson, I think, who did as much as anyone to give pragmatism a bad name. He often represented himself as a sort of left-wing Baldwin, complete with pipe, the practical man, reliable, no nonsense; and pragmatic was one of his words. He was a proper Socialist, but he realised that too much ideology did nothing for the prices index. Pragmatism ("and I say this sincerely") was the thing. The trouble was that he looked somehow shifty with it. Politics, as Bismarck had said, was the art of the possible, but Wilson sometimes made it sound like the art of the expedient.

I am not accusing Mr Hart of shiftiness, only of giving the wrong impression. In philosophical terms he was right on the button. My Everyman Encyclopaedia does, it's true, define pragmatism as "the philosophy of the expedient", but Thomas Mautner's 1996 Dictionary of Philosophy is kinder, calling it "the theory that a proposition is true if holding it to be so is practically successful or advantageous" - or, to put it another way, it's the results that matter.

However, when the word first came into the language it had little to do with philosophy or politics. The philosophical meaning dates from the 1870s, the political one from later still. Pragmatic came from the Greek verb prattein, to do (as in "don't just stand around, do something"), and pragma was its noun, meaning business. A pragmatikos was a man of action.

The English, being rather more laid-back than the excitable Greeks, viewed pragmatical people with suspicion. (Correct speakers use pragmatical of persons, pragmatic of things.) Early definitions offered by the OED include "meddlesome", "opinionated", "dictatorial" and "conceited". Harold Wilson may have been some of these things some of the time, but by then such meanings had faded. Another definition which crops up occasionally is "dogmatic", which, in modern politics at any rate, makes for a contradiction in terms, since the whole thrust of political pragmatism is towards getting things done, even though the manner of doing them might not be ideologically correct. The truth is that pragmatic is a thoroughly ambivalent word. Much better to avoid it altogether.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The app is due to be launched in San Francisco initially, with other 300 people currently on the waiting list  

Is it too much to ask that people turn up to meet you when they say they will?

Simon Kelner
Dylan Thomas drank himself to death in New York aged just 39  

All this Dylan Thomas fever is telling us only half the story

John Walsh
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?