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Verbal Energy

Pupils who have yet to unfold their wings

We get it that pre-K is the hot new thing in education – but are 4-year-olds really 'students'?

By Ruth Walker / April 17, 2013

President Obama uses a spy glass to play with a young girl during a visit to College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., in February. The president visited the school to highlight their pre-kindergarten program.

Johnny Crawford/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

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Early childhood education, or pre-K (pre-kindergarten) has been the new big thing in educational circles for a few years now.

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So when President Obama mentioned preschool earlier this year, Harvard's Graduate School of Education took note. As a news release from the school put it, "President Obama in his State of the Union address became the first president to propose universal early childhood education in our nation's history. This potential signature initiative of his second administration raises important questions at the nexus of policy, practice and research."

The document asked: "How should a major expansion of early childhood education be funded? What should universal early childhood education look like? How can the promise of small-scale demonstration programs be fulfilled at scale?"

This being Harvard, the school already has experts lined up with some answers.

My question is more basic: When the little ones are enrolled into these pre-K programs, what are we going to call them? Dare I suggest they should be called pupils?

The tide's against me. A Google News check for "pre-K students" versus "pre-K pupils" has just tallied 175 to 1 in favor of "students."

Other languages distinguish between university students and younger learners. In German, it's Student or Studentin (for women) versus Schüler or Schülerin (for girls). A baffled-sounding German expressed surprise on an English-language usage website a few months ago that when he sees references to "students" in the English-language press, "most of the time the articles seem to refer to school kids, not university students."

An American schoolteacher responded, "I have met non-native speakers who find it disconcerting that we use the same word for first-graders as college students, but it is the standard word to use, at least in the US."

Ah, but preschoolers? The Monitor's dictionary – Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition – distinguishes between pupil and student but draws the line at the start of secondary school.

Macmillan, on the other hand, says that in American English, a "student" is "anyone studying at an elementary school, secondary school, or college"; in British English, a "student" is someone at a college or university.

The synonyms dictionaries suggest for student (from Latin roots meaning "to be diligent, to push forward") are scholar and pupil, which sound very different from each other. Scholar is the term I use to refer to a learned expert. But scholar, cognate with the German Schüler, also retains its meaning in English of "pupil," or "schoolboy."

Pupil originally meant "orphan child," or "ward," although it has meant "student" since the 16th century, the Online Etymology Dictionary says. Sticklers note that pupil connotes a learner under direct supervision of a teacher. Student, on the other hand, implies some self-direction. But pupil is rooted in a Latin word that means simply "boy" or "girl." And if you think you see a connection with pupa, the word Linnaeus adapted from Latin, in which it meant "girl" but also "doll" or "puppet" (feminists, take note), to refer to "the post-larval stage of an insect," you're right.

What's going on here may be a form of maturity inflation – as when "young adult" refers to books for 12-year-olds, or a high school football coach bellows at the 14- and 15-year-olds of the JV, "Let's go, men!"

But when 4-year-olds start preschool, can't we just call them children?

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