One of the most fascinating yet elusive aspects of cultural change is the way certain ideals and arguments acquire an almost self-evident power at particular periods, just as other arguments, which once possessed this power, come to seem irrelevant or antiquated and largely disappear from public debate. In the middle of the eighteenth century, to describe a measure as ‘displaying the respect that is due to rank’ was a commonplace commendation; in the middle of the nineteenth, affirming that a proposal contributed to ‘the building of character’ could be an almost unnoticed part of the mood music of public discourse; in the middle of the twentieth, ‘a decent standard of life’ was the goal of all parties and almost all policies. As with the wider processes of language change, readers and listeners become inured to what were once jarring neologisms or solecisms, while phrases that were once so common as to escape notice become in time unusable.
It will be a long time before historians can adequately chart, let alone explain, the changes in public discourse in Britain in the past half century, but when that task is attempted, official publications will have a special evidential value. They tend not to bear the marks of an individual sensibility, but rather to deploy idioms and arguments that are thought to command the widest acceptance, even when, perhaps especially when, the actual policy proposals they contain are novel and controversial.

stefan collini

Collini, S. (2017). Speaking of universities. Verso Books.