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How Useful Is 'Academia'?

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

I gave up, sort of, on universities when the young lefties of the 1960s went into them and started vying for who could be most obtuse and "academic"—rather than using their positions to speak to the public in our shared language. A lost opportunity!

But, of course, one never gives up. But I've a real peeve over what the word "academic" has come to mean (or did it always?). A meaning that we insist even 4-year-olds must be introduced to. It's not, alas, a compliment to say someone speaks or writes "academically," and in common parlance the phrase "it's academic" means irrelevant.

But it could be otherwise, and probably is in some places. My friend Jay Featherstone wrote a book about what schools of education might be like, for example, if they wanted to truly influence the schooling of American children. It was a truly inspiring concept and worth reading (Transforming Teacher Education, Harvard University Press). It proposed an approach that married theory and practiceacademics in the real worldthat could truly transform K-12 schools into places for intergenerational learning by doing.

My latest fascination is with community colleges, and I'm enjoying reading Mike Rose's blog (parts one and two) on what they could beand sometimes are. It fits with my pre-K-12 scenario. They should be the two places in each communityplus the librarywhere rigorous (but not rigid) discussionsometimes probably noisy and maybe even, on occasion, rudeconversation takes place across generations. Places where adults and young people listen to each other and, sometimes, take each other seriously. I've always hated it when visitors to kindergartens ooh and aah over what "cute" things the students say. They ignore, in this way, the children's genuine insights. In fact, these 5-year-olds are genuinely expressing interesting ideas, not trying to be cute at all. And if we listened with respect we'd realize that democracy is not a utopian ideathat virtually all 5-year-olds are capable of tackling important ideas and expressing them well until we discourage their intellectual curiosity with "academics."

Taking our neighbors and our families seriouslywith some humoris where it starts. Unfortunately, school is too often where it stops.

How to both end the segregation of future citizens by race, gender, native language, so-called academic ability, et al., is part of this task. We separate children not only into different schools, but even then within schools. There is no surer way to insure the limited ability to understand others at ever younger ages. How we can undo this in a society in which we reside physically in different spaces is a dilemma. Because it's also vital to maintain, nourish, and, if necessary, create a sense of community as a place of pride and political and social strength. I'm still struggling over how best, in an imperfect world, to accomplish both. I believe democracy's future depends on finding a way to build overlapping lives with those whose traditions and "habits" are different than ours.

Democracy assumes "politics"and that, in turn, assumes differences of opinion based on the different stories and experiences we were raised with. The earlier we can acknowledge these alternate stories and find ways to confront them with the best of those habits of heart and mind I described earlier, the better. 

Ted Sizer and I went to see the president of Harvard shortly after NCLB was passed to suggest he lead a college-wide discussion on the meaning of being well-educated. He said he agreed that it was a good idea but that it should start at the school of education. That was, alas, a killer idea, since the school of education had neither the prestige nor the power to convince other departments that this was a topic vital to all our attention, and that didn't belong to any single academic department.

I wonder how much agreement there is in schools, K-12 as well as beyond, about democracy as a vital concern to the well-being of the "academic" disciplines in general. How critical to democracy's future is a "liberal arts" education, one that is as critical for cosmologists as cosmeticians, to plumbers and to plutocrats?

Deb

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