What is the meaning of 'academic'?

Some opinions on education.

by Donald E. Simanek. 1992, 1996.

Universities and Colleges are called 'academic' institutions. There was a time when 'academic' meant "pertaining to the development of the mind." Nowadays it seems to mean "anything that occurs in a school."

This is just one of many examples of a broader, more permissive, view of the proper function of educational institutions. The goal of education used to be the development of mental powers, to the exclusion of everything else. The goal was seldom achieved. The teaching of values, ethics, and the general socialization of the individual was left to the home and community. Schools didn't institutionalize these goals (except through disciplinary policy). Schools did subtly try to 'civilize' students, that is, to suppress their innate savage natures and encourage them to behave as if civilized.

Now schools assume responsibility for the "development of the whole individual," for instilling social skills, teaching about good health practices, drug education, and even teaching youngsters how to drive.

In short, the schools try to teach anything society wants or needs, or which is not being addressed elsewhere. In the process a lot of things are going on in schools that have nothing to do with academics. This has blurred or erased the distinction between academic and non-academic activities.

Educational philosophies change like a swinging pendulum; a pendulum that swings too far to the extremes in either direction and spends the least time at the position of potential stability. I think it would be refreshing if the pendulum swung back to the position where universities concentrated only on academic matters and left everything else to other institutions.

To bring this about we must drastically clean the academic house. Sports, of course, would be purged from public schools and universities, since they have nothing to do with academics. But so would music, art, theater, etc. have to go.

That proposal will surely offend of my friends in the arts. It will do no good to remind them that I have high respect for the talents of artists, and had I possessed sufficient talent and higher motivation, I might have chosen to be a concert pianist, a composer, or a performer on some musical instrument. But let's not confuse skill and artistic talent with the development of the mind. I put such performance skills in the same category as athletic skills.

The analogy between arts and athletics can be explored further. The defenders of the music curriculum point out that their students take courses in music theory, music history, aesthetics, etc., which certainly have academic content. Likewise the physical education curriculum might include courses in theory of exercise, history of sport, etc. But are such courses anything more than window dressing, to give 'academic' trapping to a field that doesn't really require such forced 'intellectualizing'? [Anyone who has read a textbook about art aesthetics knows about forced and artificial intellectualizing!]

But isn't a course in art history as worthy of academic credit as a course in the history of wars and revolutions (the usual kind of freshman history course)? Maybe. Then how about a course in the history and principles of stamp collecting? Or bottle-cap collecting? Where does one draw the line?

I know a university that offers a course in kitsch, the schlock art that art historians have traditionally ignored as beneath their contempt. But now such 'art' is displayed in public and university art museums, and 'learned' books are written about it. Are we unwilling to make any academic distinctions any more?

I think this neatly reveals the underlying problem. To try to distinguish 'good' from 'bad' art is empty intellectualizing. It can't be done. It is a matter of prejudice, taste and fashion. This suggests to me that the entire field of art cannot be judged intellectually, and is not really appropriate as an academic field, since the analytic powers of the mind are incapable of setting up unassailable criteria of quality.

This is not to say the arts are unworthy of attention. Some argue that development of one's artistic sensibilities is important to the development of the whole individual. I don't dispute that, any more than I dispute the view of those who say that development of one's physical body is important. I just don't see why either of them has to be a part of the academic setting.

If one wants to become a concert pianist, one doesn't need a college education for that purpose. College education may be valuable to the individual in other ways. If you want to be a professional athlete, you don't need a college education to achieve that goal. Nor do you need a college education to teach others to be pianists or athletes.

To say this is not to say that either field is unworthy as a professional activity. I am well aware that many readers will jump on this last paragraph, misread my intent, and suggest that I am saying that pianists and athletes do not need to read, write, or calculate. Of course they need these things, as do we all, but what do reading, writing or calculating have to do with academics? These are just basic skills, also unworthy of academic credit.

In certain quarters people seem to assume that anything that can be taught and anything that must be consciously learned is 'academic'. That is an example of the confusion that clouds the entire educational scene.

When I write a physics exam, and then score the student responses, I don't award credit for skills. I don't award credit for the student's ability to correctly read the text of a problem. I don't award credit for the student's ability to add and multiply correctly. If the problem requires the solution of a quadratic equation, the student must know how to do this properly, but it isn't worthy of credit points. Credit is awarded for higher mental abilities than mere mental skills. And the mere memorization of facts and procedures is unworthy of academic credit.

To use a crude analogy, a craftsman who makes furniture must know which end of the hammer to hold and have the skill to be able to hit the nail, not a thumb. But the quality of the craftsman's work is judged by what is done with that hammer and other tools. All analogies break down if examined, and this one is deficient because the quality of a craftsman's work is also judged by the same non- objective criteria as are used in the arts. The student's answer to a physics problem is judged on more objective criteria. Perhaps the analogy works better if we were to judge the craftsman's work only on the sturdiness and functionality of the resulting furniture for its intended purpose, not on how pleasing it is to the eye.

I judge physics students on their ability to reason, synthesize, and analyze mentally difficult problems. Verbal and mathematical skills are necessary to do this—these skills being analogous to picking up the hammer by the correct end. I do not give credit for remembering and writing down the correct equation that the problem solution might require. That's analogous to a carpenter knowing whether to choose the hammer rather than the screwdriver.

Academic credit should not be awarded for skills, even though skills are a necessary requirement for developing and using the powers of the mind. If educational institutions were to adopt this principle, the reforms I advocate would be complete.

And what disciplines would be left in these academic institutions? Only mathematics, natural sciences, and some parts of philosophy. Those, along with a good library, would be the essentials of a higher education.

The standard 'four year' curriculum ought to be rethought also. Some students do not need or want this much. Those who intend to be doctors or lawyers might want only a couple of years of it before going on to a different type of institution to specialize in their own field.

Below the university level, schools would not claim (or pretend) to be academic institutions, but would be places where one learns the skills necessary in life, and in later education. [Schools are well named. They are places where 'schooling' occurs—not to be confused with 'education'.]

Under this plan, far fewer people would attend universities than do now, and many of our present universities could be converted to other worthy purposes.

Vocational training could occur elsewhere, in other institutions. If one wanted to be a musician, a music academy would be appropriate. Those who want to be athletes could attend an athletic training facility. Some of the present universities might become sports facilities, since they are little more than that now.


Return to Donald Simanek's page.