Many good things

When I was in school there was a ready-made phrase that we all used every now and again, which went: “…in school, where we learn many good and useful things”. This was applied in statements like “I like going to school, where / because I learn many good and useful things”, or “In our motherland every child goes to school, so they can learn many good and useful things” and so on.

Maybe that’s why I’ve got a bit sensitive in my adulthood to such wordings. What things exactly are meant, and in what way are they good, and what are they useful for? “Many” – just how many?, numberless?, quite a few?, one or two?

Those words that come in handy are very often too vague and worn out to be really “useful”. If we are truly out to communicate a message, we’d better search for more precise resources.

Let’s get right back to the many good and useful things that we used to learn in school. One kid might have meant that they learn how to read, write and work with numbers. Another, that they learn how to behave. Yet another, that they discover how nature works, how animals live and how plants grow. A few others might have meant that they learn how to speak and write by playing with, and combining, words and phrases. And that they all found these things exciting, fun, important for when they grow up, useful for their future profession,  or just useful for later in school.

My guess, however, looking back on those memories, is that we meant none of this. By using such a worn out, ready-chewed phrase, we filled a void that actually meant “school is just boring stuff”, or even worse, “school is just what they want us to learn to say”.

And another story, from a different context, springs now to my mind in support of that. My boss years ago told me once that she was attending a presentation that nobody found particularly interesting, and at the end they were invited to give feedback. Since none of the audience said a word, she volunteered shyly and started “well, that was a very interesting presentation”… She found out later that “interesting” may be a taboo word, as it may actually mean “god, what a bore, what else can I say!” She concluded “never use it unless you do mean to drop the hint!”

So maybe next time when another ready-made phrase is on the tip of your tongue (this is another ready-made phrase, btw) just reflect for a moment: do you really mean what you say? – then it’s worth making it specific. If you go ahead and use the clichè, you might actually send the opposite message.