Education Opinion

Beyond Academics

By Deborah Meier — April 01, 1995 8 min read
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When we talk about reforming schools, the goal is not choice, school-site autonomy, more resources, or more authentic forms of assessment. The goal is educating, and that means knowing what we’re educating for. Purposes must be decided upon. As long as we avoid defining “why,’' our educational talk rings hollow. Even on the most practical level, until the kids know the destination, getting there will be hard. And there’s no way they can know if their parents and their teachers don’t know. Too often we don’t.

It’s not enough to keep saying our goal is “academic excellence,’' as though that means something sufficiently neutral and obvious to everyone. It doesn’t. At a time when we’re proposing major change, confusion over terminology is more distracting and troublesome than it is in ordinary times. We need to replace the word “academic’’ with new words for what we’re after--with language that carries a different set of connotations.

“Academic’’ is just a word, friends tell me. Why get so hung up on it? But “just a word’’ can cause a lot of damage. “Academic’’ has various specialized and very loaded meanings, also slippery ones. It is, first of all, ubiquitous, and it sends subliminal messages, often unintended. Art and music, for example, are not “academic’’ unless we sever their connection from performance--from doing. Then we can have what’s now called “academic art.’' But why is “doing’’ nonacademic? And why is art worthier of school time when it’s academic than when it’s not? And why is science at least four times more important than even academic art? I once figured out that there are more jobs in New York City for people with advanced musical or artistic skills than for those with advanced calculus. But, see! I’ve fallen into the trap of assuming school is vocational. OK, which do more citizens get pleasure from? Which leads them into improved habits of citizenship? I’d be hard put to claim calculus the winner over art or music on any such measure of real-life utility.

Everyone agrees history is an academic subject. Once it’s so defined, we take it for granted that it should be required. But why? Because if you don’t study history, you’ll be doomed to repeat it? Do we truly believe that historians are better able to avoid repeating mistakes or that nations with high rates of historical knowledge have done better than those with less? (I can quickly think of several glaring examples of quite the reverse.) Perhaps the study of our common history, as writer E.D. Hirsch suggests, offers a unifying “common language’’ to all citizens, a sense of oneness? I know an alternate common language that would be a lot easier and cheaper to teach--the language of advertising and TV.

Instead of teaching our students to depend on calculators, we spend years teaching paper-and-pencil arithmetic and make it a gatekeeper to more advanced math because, we’re told, “Suppose you don’t have access to a calculator?’' We act as though the long-division system we all learned was not itself an artificial crutch; what would we do without paper and pencil? The Chinese have survived for millennia using the abacus instead of our paper-and-pencil algorithms. Only mental arithmetic is truly independent of technology. Math educator Marilyn Burns is noted for reminding us that we don’t keep a horse and carriage in our garage just in case our car breaks down. In fact, we teach standard math because Americans think “it’s academic’’ to know your times tables.

I’m pushing this point, playing with all these examples even in such a sacrosanct area as math, because I suspect that until we accept the challenge to find better criteria for defining what’s worth knowing, we’re going to keep going around in circles. Don’t I want students to study subject matter? Yes! Am I arguing that algebra is too hard for ordinary kids? No! I’m not decrying a focus on facts, information, subject matter, or even memorization, much less rigor. As far as I know, statistics is as rigorous as algebra or calculus, even if the latter is more “academic.’'

And I believe in facts. If you look bewildered by the expression “three strikes and you’re out,’' have never heard of Lou Gehrig (or think that it’s only the name of a rare disease), think there have always been 28 major league baseball teams, then your theories about the game probably won’t be worth hearing out. “Wonderful ideas,’' Eleanor Duckworth reminds us, “do not spring out of nothing.’' Close observation, attention to detail, having information ready to use, and the know-how to use it are the heart of any well-performed trade--academic or nonacademic. Including the trade of citizen. That’s what schools must teach.

Furthermore, I want all kids to know that the heritage of academia--including calculus--belongs to them as much as to anyone else. And they won’t learn this by shying away from such fields, especially in a culture that has traditionally put off-limits signs on academic subjects for the least advantaged of our fellow citizens--"Sorry, but this is not meant for you.’' That’s why it’s necessary to get our language straight. Until we do, we reinforce the belief that “academics’’ are intended at one and the same time to be irrelevant to the concerns of most people and far too important and rigorous for them. We demand that everyone study traditional academics if he or she wants to succeed but expect few to really “get it’’ because it’s too dry and abstract. We spend endless hours training students to write “academic prose,’' and those who get to be good at it then spend endless hours in “real life’’ unlearning what most consider an ineffective writing style. It’s rarely praise to have one’s writing called academic. We’ve defined the word so that its antonyms are “useful’’ and “popular.’'

But academia is not meant, I hear a voice whispering in me, to be relevant, useful, practical. Trying to make it so will corrupt it. Beyond a certain point, the whisper persists, it’s not meant for all ordinary people, it doesn’t have to be popular. It’s a very special vocation that few are called to serve; not everything worth doing need meet such a standard of utility and universality as you’re demanding. I hear the whisper, and I concur--up to a point.

We have unwittingly allowed “academic’’ to become a synonym for the right stuff when we’re talking about schooling. (And only when we’re talking schooling.) Academic equals tough, valued. To be nonacademic is to admit to low standards or to mushy ones. A course that claims to be practical is by definition of lower value, a “soft’’ course. The more intriguing and inherently interesting the course title, the less likely it is to be considered “serious.’'

New York City is about to launch a requirement that all students take three years of academic math and academic science, more than were required for even the most elite students in either field when I was a youngster. Ironically, at a time when mathematicians are urging an infusion of practical applications into course work, school people are trying to “raise standards’’ by further estranging theory from practice. The latest rage for schools who fear they won’t be taken seriously is to call themselves “academies.’' And on and on. Such manipulations through language are sloppy and damaging. They take our minds away from what’s really happening in our schools and classes while we play with labels and titles.

Is there other language that will do better by us? The advantage of the word “intellectual,’' for example, is that it is not particular to the campus, to universities, or even to people who were trained there; it hasn’t yet been filled with school-based jargon. Using one’s mind well, Ted Sizer reminds us, is a practical essential, like good health, and is exhibited as much in the conduct of a good craftsman’s life as in a mathematician’s. Shifting our language only helps, of course, if it stimulates some fresh thought. It could help if it made us reconsider why we believe adding to one’s knowledge and mastering certain classroom skills are legitimate school objectives but producing a play, tutoring younger children, editing the school newspaper, or writing for the poetry magazine are extracurricular. Do such activities lose their inherent need for rigor, skill, or knowledge because they are authentic? If so, how will we reconcile the recent interest in “authentic assessment’’ with our increased demands for “academic rigor’’? We’re ruled by an archaic set of categories that have a history and purpose that confounds our students, and us. We slip from one to another mindlessly. When one is caught between two worlds, it’s generally necessary to reframe the issues.

If our definition of an educated person is made broader than the one we’re now accustomed to, if we see traditional academics as but one example of important intellectual activity, not a synonym for such activity, then possibilities open up for us. If habits of mind are the goal, then things other than the academic disciplines themselves can serve as subject matter. For example, in our elementary school some students study bridges for several months as an exploration of physical structures, geometric patterns, the relationship between form and function, the history of communities, and the relationship between technology and social history. They create, invent, examine, observe, read, interview, design, and measure. Students spend months, sometimes years, with variants of the question of whether what’s good for the planet earth and what’s good for the human species are synonymous. Is this science? Social studies? Philosophy? Morality?

Human beings, for all our terrible flaws, are by nature theorists, thinkers. Our theory-making capacity is connected to the fact that we are a species that gets pleasure out of sense-making. We’re also capable, although this takes cultivation, of sustaining uncertainty, of postponing immediate gratification--the quick answer. That odd combination of hubris and humility essential to intellectual work is tenuous, a fragile balancing act, but it’s within the grasp of all of us. These traits are the hard-won habits of mind, work, and heart that are both natural and in some ways unnatural, requiring cultivation--in other words, schooling.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Beyond Academics


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