A Very Academic Problem

The Teachers vs The Greeks

Teachers: Please stop using the word ‘academic’. You don’t know what it means. When you say things like “this is an academic school”, or “we need to lift our academic standards”, or even “I am an academic”, it’s clear that you have no idea what you’re saying, because you’ve used an oxymoron, a tautology and a lie respectively.

What’s worse is that you perpetuate the problems in education every time you misuse the word.

No doubt, the more alert among you will point me towards the dictionary to defend yourselves. The modern conception involves abstract, theoretical study. It emphasises rote learning and the absence of any practical aspect. In its most negative form, it means having no real-world applicability at all (“it’s all just academic anyway”).

We need to go back to the Greek root of the word if we are going to get to the hidden heart of it:

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Akademos comes from the Greek for “healing the people” as is most famously associated with ‘The Academy’ in Athens and some of the greatest minds in Western philosophy. It was a site of peace and protection and a sacred site associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Interestingly, its olive groves also produced the olive oil which was awarded to the winners of the Panathenaic Games.

So already, we have associations with healing, peace, tranquility, thinking, holistic growth and wisdom. Granted, some of these links are rather tenuous, and still a little vague. But what begins to emerge is very different from the dry and detached modern meaning. It’s also interesting how socially focussed and how noble the original connotations were.

Let’s look to The Academy for more:

The Academy is most famously associated with Plato. And Plato is most famously associated with Socrates. Because what we know about the latter comes mainly through the former, what follows is a coalescence of some of the ‘academic lessons’ we can extract from both Plato and his predecessor. In so doing, I want to highlight how very different the learning that happened at The Academy was from what happens in modern ‘academic institutions’…

The Academics of The Academy

  • There was a strong tradition of skepticism and questioning.
  • There was often no easy distinction between teacher and student.
  • Knowledge was acquired primarily by means of the Socratic method. This involved authentic questioning in the form of a critical dialogue (dialectics).
  • Meetings centred around a series of problems to be solved.
  • There was a great emphasis on hypothesising, testing and arriving at the simplest, most elegant solution. (This is the foundation of the scientific empiricism.)
  • There was a great deal of emphasis on the exposition of ethics and wisdom.
  • Learning was thought of as remembering (anamnesis). And the process of the teacher revealing that innate knowledge in the student was analogous to intellectual midwifery.
  • There was a very specific focus on self-development over careerism.
  • There was a strong sense of community.
  • There was an even stronger emphasis on the practicality and relevance of knowledge.


And so on…

Conclusion: Twenty-First Century Academic Outcomes We Get From Ancient Greece.

When you talk about ‘academics’, be very careful what you mean. If you intend some kind of vague focus on students being able to internalise and regurgitate facts so that they can get good grades, you actually mean the opposite of what you’re saying. Worse, you are perpetuating the cancer of irrelevance and superficial learning which is eating away at our modern education system.

I would like to challenge you to consider changing what you mean by academics to include the fostering of essential twenty-first century skills. Interestingly, they are the virtually the same as they were in ancient Greece:

  • Having the ability to think deeply and critically.
  • Honing the tendency to think creatively in order to find innovative solutions.
  • Training the faculty of meaningful problem-solving skills.
  • Appreciating the value of life-long learning.
  • Having a social conscience and an ethical world view.
  • Adaptability in the face of change.
  • Possessing strong communication skills.
  • Sharpening the skill of working with groups.
  • Taking responsibility for one’s own learning and actions.
  • Developing the faculty of reflection.

All of which can be achieved through a methodology that is individually focused, which incorporates prior knowledge (is constructivist), which focuses on relevant skills and issues, is collaborative, and which is focused on the holistic development of the student. Just like it was in the Akademos.

Use the word academics to heal people of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and the scourge of superficial learning.

Only then do you get to talk about academics in any kind of meaningful way.


You can do a similar deconstruction with words like teaching, learning, education, assessment, mastery, thinking, excellence and so on. The point, I think, is to be mindful of the words we use and not to use them to defend outmoded pedagogies.

But that is the subject of another post.


On a whim, I came across these associated synonyms for ‘academic’ on http://thesaurus.com I’ve done quite a bit of cherry-picking, and I do think the links one finds in a thesaurus are by their very nature a little ‘academic’ themselves, but I do think the connotations are overwhelming negative – especially for education systems aiming themselves more relevant real world skills. Do we really want schools to proudly proclaim that they provide an education which is… ?



Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/SeanHCole



  1. I have a suspicion most teachers use the word ‘academic’ as a horrified opposition to ‘trade’. Remember the good old days of John Orr Tech, where only the most stupid kids were sent to rot and have their arms lopped off in woodwork class?

    The distinction is a class-based snootiness.

    ‘My child will go to UNIVERSITY, not TECHNIKON!!!’

    ‘Only stupid people become plumbers, fitters, turners, welders.’

    That sorta thing.

    So I think that mostly, when ‘academic’ is sprouted, it’s shorthand for, ‘This school produces candidates who will be accepted for university (‘The Academy’), and not tradesmen.’

    If only schools would go back to the Socratic and Platonic roots you’ve mentioned in your post. Cos their ‘Academy’ was about creating rounded beings, not automata.


Share your thoughts:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s