What's in a Name? If it's "No Child Left Behind," You Might be Surprised

As the Congress reconsiders Bush's signature education law, No Child Left Behind, it should also reconsider its strange name. What is unusual about the name is that it is put in both the negative and the passive -- perhaps the only such name in congressional history.

Normally, major pieces of legislation designed to attract votes and favorable press coverage are put in the positive, with sweeping, politically potent words that no one could oppose. Typical is the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 otherwise known as the PATRIOT Act.

The words used in legislation today often have less to do with the contents of the law and more to do with the outcome of polls and focus groups. GOP message guru Frank Luntz determines that that Americans are looking for the word "healthier" in an environmental policy [PDF], and so we have Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, even if many people, myself included, think the name is Orwellian ("War is Peace" goes the slogan in 1984), that it actually makes forests less healthy.

And indeed, although the law was enacted to "reduce the threat of destructive wildfires," 2006 was the nation's record-smashing wildfire season -- and the record it demolished was only set in 2005.

For people who are so word savvy, who relabel the "estate tax" as the "death tax" because focus groups and polls tell them to, who string banners behind key political figures at every occasion that repeat again and again the key phrase they are trying to drum into the public's brains, it seems unlikely they would choose such an unusual name as "No Child Left Behind" randomly. When crafty rhetoricians put things in the negative, it is usually to emphasize words that could not be emphasized if the phrase were in the positive, such as, in this case, "Moving every child forward."

There is even a rhetorical figure of speech called apophasis (from the Greek word for "to deny"), in which the speaker stresses an idea by denying or negating it. As Shakespeare has Marc Antony say to the Roman citizens in the "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech after Caesar's assassination, "Sweet friends, let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny." He wants -- and gets -- a mutiny.

Moreover, the modern-day name choosers, normally an Orwellian bunch as we have seen, have twisted the motto of the progressive Children's Defense Fund, "Leave No Child Behind," into "No Child Left Behind" thus violating one of Orwell's rules in his famous essay "Politics and the English Language": "Never use the passive where you can use the active."

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out the reason for all this word-order torturing. Now the strong words are "Left Behind" -- a phrase dear to the heart of one of the president's core constituencies, Christian conservatives, for it is the name of the best-selling series of books by LaHaye and Jenkins on the turbulent End of Days, a fate which parents would not want to let their children face. This is apocalyptic apophasis.

You might think that a law that emphasizes testing and accountability, a law that requires schools to put in place "scientifically based research" teaching methods -- and uses the phrase "scientifically based research" 111 times -- would not have much direct connection with the Christian conservative movement. Yet as the Washington Post reported in 2005: Some evolution opponents tried to use the law to undermine the teaching of evolution. Senator Rick Santorum "drafted language accompanying the law that said students should be exposed to 'the full range of scientific views that exist.' " That is enough irony to make Shakespeare wince.

Creationism, or "intelligent design" (its identical twin with the Orwellian name) is the very opposite of science, because it is neither tentative nor testable, the two key features of science. It would not be possible in the eyes of those who believe in that "theory" for any evidence to disprove His existence. Creationism, no matter how it relabeled, simply isn't science.

It is only fitting that No Child Left Behind became part of the administration's fake news agenda. The U.S. Department of Education hired a PR firm to make one of those now infamous videos designed to look like a news story. The Government Accountability Office later called a similar video for the Medicare law "covert propaganda" and against federal law. In another case, the apparently independent political commentator Armstrong Williams received department funds to promote the law, and it was reported that his contract stipulated that he "regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts."

In The Art of Love, the Roman poet Ovid recommended that if you were trying to seduce a woman you should first corrupt her maid, so that she would "speak of you, and add persuasive words." Nothing much changes in two millennia except the job titles involved.

The name No Child Left Behind was chosen for purposes of rhetorical seduction, which has no place in education. It should be changed. And perhaps we should start teaching rhetoric again.

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress where he runs the blog ClimateProgress.org. He is working on a book about political rhetoric.