This presentation is an attempt to highlight, criticise and refute the naïve view of verbal, especially written language as clear and unambiguous that is promoted by, among others, the Swedish minister of education and the Swedish national agency for education. In my view, a critique of this doctrine of verbal clarity (tydlighetsdoktrinen) is pertinent and timely, since the international trend towards new public management includes an increasing emphasis on auditing, risk management, marketisation and pupils/students as customers, all of which are premised on criteria and activities being unambiguously expressed in plain language. In schools as well as in higher education the doctrine underlies legitimate demands that goals and criteria in syllabi shall be transparent, that is, shall give the reader a clear understanding of what he or she is expected to learn and know. The doctrine is also at play when the quality of higher education institutions and schools is ranked; the legitimacy of these rankings lies in the supposition that the measurements and assessments underlying the rankings are clear, trustworthy, transparent windows that provide objective information about actual and relevant qualitative differences. Of course, optimal clarity must always be strived for in communication and education, which makes it difficult to question the doctrine of clarity, but the key problem with the doctrine is that it is grounded in a flawed, not to say incorrect understanding of verbal communication.
In the Swedish school system, clarity (tydlighet) has become a prestige word associated with theories about learning, good teaching, public control and objectiveness and fairness in marking. However remote the doctrine is from how language actually functions, it influences all education through the assessment regimes that are based on it and whose results are treated as clear summative evidence of the overall quality of the assessed activities and organisations, be they kindergartens or universities. The doctrine of verbal clarity is promoted as a means to raise quality and increase the nation’s international competitiveness as knowledge society. However, since the doctrine denounces all language that is not open and clear to the public and demands of teachers on all levels to make themselves unambiguously understood, the obvious risk is that complex qualities and qualities that are difficult to define verbally are likely to be excluded from teaching and marking. The Swedish school inspectorate has for example recently suggested that writing essays shall no more be included in national assessments since marking essays is a matter of judgement and thus not sufficiently unambiguous, objective and transparent.
I claim that, in order to be didactically fruitful, clarity must be redefined in a more realistic and productive way, that is, as the result of situated dialogical work within thinking communities (communities of practice). In music education, apart from music being a non-verbal form of expression, there often seems to be a reluctance to sully the immediate musical expressions and impressions with words. However, given the increasing pressure to adapt to the doctrine of verbal clarity, it is important that music teachers approach the problems of talking about music from a musical perspective. Otherwise they will probably not be able to resist the pressure to narrow their teaching to the easily describable and measurable. It might even be that this pressure is a strong enough threat to overcome some romantic ideas about music, including musical talent, that have hindered music teachers from developing a professional discourse that deals with the subject content in a musically meaningful way. In this process, collegiate cooperation is key, a cooperation in which it is essential to differentiate between exoteric and esoteric musical qualities and knowledge, the latter denoting such qualities and knowledge that are not directly accessible from without, but can be understood only from within the Denkstil of music. The recognition of clarity as context dependent refutes the simplistic and naïve view of language that is presently promoted by the Swedish government and is a way to counter tendencies that otherwise will impoverish education. As opposed to the monological idea that language can fully capture what it is denoting, I suggest that the metaphor of accompaniment can be enlightening when talking about musical qualities. In music, an accompaniment does not replace the song or melody, but contributes to its’ meanings by putting it in perspective. Accompanists, as well as the accompaniment as such, can be more or less tight or “true” or sensitive to the meanings and intentions of the soloist or the solo part. By talking about music when it happens, by letting dialogues accompany music in real time, productive metaphorical work can be done among music teachers, a work in which the musical senses may be sharpened and a musically meaningful language can develop.
To summarise: schools and universities worldwide are increasingly burdened by a naïve doctrine of verbal clarity, the offspring of which I suspect will be a narrowing and levelling of what is taught and learned. This doctrine might be successfully countered if verbal clarity is redefined as the result of situated, cooperative, dialogical work. Within music education I suggest that such work can benefit from using spoken language as accompaniment to music and music making. Given that this is a good idea, what part can music education research take in this pursuit?