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Friday, February 13, 2015

Academics...what does it mean?

Hashtags: #education #edchat #academics #logic


Let’s put aside for a moment whether or not members understood the definition of academics.  And I certainly don’t fault them for referring to a dictionary when they need to clarify a word in English – I tell my English language learners this all of the time.  Taking a linguistic analysis approach, what follows is my interpretation of the bigger problem(s). 

Hudson begins...
Several years ago when my school district was working to create a new, more actionable mission statement, we hit an unforeseen bump in the road. We were proudly reviewing our sixth draft of the statement (which was 95 percent finished) when we received the feedback from an anonymous community member that our mission made no reference to “academics.”
If anyone has every openly constructed a mission statement, the process is usually quite daunting if those involved are truly able to speak freely.  If they were proud of reviewing their sixth draft of their mission statement, I presume that there was little pushback or dissension in how the mission statement came together at that point. If there had been dissension, then what came next would probably be less unforeseeable.  

The second issue here is that of the anonymous community member sharing opinions.  If management is gathering opinions around such an important piece of text, should input be considered via anonymous sources?  Wouldn't the person's identity play a part in validating an opinion?  Wouldn't the opinion itself also reflect back on the person's identity?  Sure, there are pros and cons here, but I'm leaning more towards making opinions openly and transparent...transparent in the sense that a person's identity and opinions can be linked back to each other.  Regardless, this does not diminish the value of bringing up a suggestion about whether the word academics should be included in the mission statement, asking,

"How can a school district's mission not include any mention of academics?"

Hudson goes on...

It’s fair to say that none of the 40 members of the committee knew the extent of the true definition, because the descriptions we found were surprising:
  • “theoretical or hypothetical; not practical, realistic, or directly useful”
  • “learned or scholarly but lacking in worldliness, common sense, or practicality”
I'll admit, after reading Sadler's followup, I went straight to the dictionary, the same dictionary incidentally referenced by Hudson (dictionary.com).  Hudson illustrates how he perceives none of the 40 members of the committee knowing what the "true" definition of the word is.  I'm less concerned that the writer infers that members do not understand a word in English and more concerned that he feels compelled to share a true definition where four variations of the noun form exist.  I'm also concerned that he feels surprised that there exist a perceived gap between theory and practice, researcher and practitioner, academic and teacher, etc., age-old dichotomies that have been the basis of arguments for many a stakeholder.  

Hudson continues explaining how they reached a decision to leave out the term "academic" (which is different than the word in question, academics) in the mission statement by presenting a final rationale...

As adults looking back, we know that some of our classes and courses were of little or no use, and we may have felt at times that we were simply jumping through hoops. It becomes critical that our mission and district practices avoid these pitfalls of traditional “academics” because, by definition, such practices will be the cause of boredom for all but a few students who are interested in those areas.

So, a mission statement should avoid the "pitfalls of traditional academics because, by definition, such practices will be the cause of boredom for all but a few students who are interested in those areas".

I'll delineate the absurdity of this line of thinking as follows:

  1. The quality of classes adults took in the past is irrelevant. The mission statement (and respective vision statement, values, objectives, etc.) is more about the present and future of a school, organization, etc.
  2. Let's say that academics means the scholarly activities of a school or university, as classroom studies or research projects, which originates from Hudson's "true" definition.  Hudson says the ...pitfalls of traditional academics...by definition... as if the term academics is being defined as what their committee members defined the term as, which was not based on the "true or dictionary definition: not practical, lacking common sense, etc.   Bottom line: Hudson demonstrates that the committee does not understand the definition of academics yet feels it's necessary to use this definition as a basis for excluding the term from the mission statement, comparing it to the term traditional academics.  Absurd...not because they don't use the term in the mission statement; not because committee members don't know the meaning of a word; but because the rationale for excluding the word was based on a perceived (based on the argument here, mis-) understanding of a word and not on the ("true") dictionary definition or simply mistakenly comparing the term academics with the term traditional academics.  Absurd, because the point was made that committee members didn't understand the meaning of the word, yet used that meaning - which was "wrong" - to make an important decision (like creating a mission statement).
  3. Placing the adjective traditional before the word academics just adds to the confusion, to expand on what I already mentioned above.  Are they referring to a definition of academics or traditional academics?  It's as if decision makers can't help but force their own meaning onto a word for their own purposes. The argument is not whether or not to use the term traditional academics in the mission statement, but rather the term academics. 
The issue here is how one's background with a word (i.e., academics) can lead to such an illogical argument (claiming that a definition is wrong then making decisions based on that wrong definition).  I have to believe that an appropriate mission statement can include the word academics in such a way that is forward thinking, progressive, etc.  But even if this turns out to be an impossible endeavor, the rationale not to include the word is not because the word refers to the theoretical, hypothetical, not practical, lacking in worldliness, common sense, or practicality.  One may associate the word academics with these negatives, but it's not the same as it's definition. Finally, this post was originally published at Dreambox Learning on January 29, 2015, then again on Getting Smart on February 11, 2015. I have to question the logic in doing this as well.