I recently discovered the etymologies of 'pupil' and 'student'. The former comes from words meaning 'child' and 'disciple' whereas the latter simply means 'one who is studying'. As someone else put it: "a pupil is taught, whereas a student learns independently."

Tradtionally, in the UK, schoolchildren are referred to as pupils. It is only when they decide to undertake post-compulsory education (at the age of 16) that they earn the term 'student'. Not surprisingly, some people would like this to change. They want to get rid of the word 'pupil' altogether, partly because they see no difference between 'pupil' and 'student', partly because in the USA all schoolchildren are students (and if the Americans are doing it, then everyone else should too) and partly because they believe change is a virtue in itself.

I see this as yet another example of the pernicious effects of hyper-individualism. The word pupil implies inferiority, a need for external guidance, an insufficient level of development. These needn't necessarily be bad things, but they've become highly unfashionable in Western culture. We currently seem to be very suspicious of labelling people in any way which might make them seem less than autonomous. But of course the reality is that children are 'inferior' in some senses of the word, they do require external guidance and they are relatively under-developed.

The meanings of words resonate in our minds in ways which are often more powerful than we realise. Getting rid of the word 'pupil' may well end up altering our 'cultural understanding' of even more potent concepts like 'child'. Today the word doesn't carry nearly as many connotations of helplessness and insuffiency as it used to, say, 30 years ago. Through all manner of social adaptations, we have granted more rights and privileges to children than some people consider appropriate. But perhaps we are in danger of forgetting that they are children? Most attempts - be they linguistic or otherwise - to diminish a child's 'childishness' earlier than necessary are actually a grave disservice to the individual concerned, because they negate the important lessons one learns through a clearly defined, progressive childhood.

I realise this entry sounds as though it was composed on a soap-box, but I do feel very strongly about this and in my view society in general may have forgotten that children need explicit and consistent boundaries. To put it another way, children need to understand that until we allow them to become students, they are all, each and every one of them, our pupils. Or are we trying to make them less childlike because we're actually afraid of the responsibility that comes with being a 'social adult'?

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